Summer-vacay in Portugal

After my mind-blowing trip to Lisbon in 2016 I decided to get back to Portugal for this year's summer holidays. I had no clue about the southern part of Portugal called "Algarve" therefor I randomly picked the two cities "Faro" and "Albufeira". Faro because of its international airport and Albufeira for its "busy nightlife" (forget about that part!).

As closer as I got to the my departure date, I felt like canceling my whole trip. A lack of energy for traveling solo and maybe the fact that I was visiting beach-cities all by myself, were the main reasons why I thought about canceling. One week prior my departure my friend Cristine decided she would join me to Portugal. I also had mixed feelings about that, because I was used to travel alone for the last couple of years... would we get along? At least I couldn't cancel the trip anymore.

FARO.

My first destination was FARO. Upon my arrival I still didn't know if Faro was a busy city, and what it had to offer. Summer temperatures outside of the airport, the scent of summer in the air, that's all I needed for a peaceful welcome. I took an "UBER" at the airport to get to the hostel, which only cost me about 6-7 Euros (9 US$).  

The hostel "HOSTEL 1878" is located in an old traditional building with a very unique touch, lots of charming details and a welcoming staff. After my check-in, the guy at the lobby informed me about a folk concert on the rooftop. It just seemed like the perfect first night. About 25 people were watching the concert. The bar on the rooftop, offered red wine for 1.50 Euro a glass, or 3 Euro a Gin&Tonic. The neighborhood looked very traditional and I definitely felt like being on the best spot for my summer holidays.

Sadly Faro didn't have much to offer. I checked out the city center considered as the "Old Town", which was packed with tourists, lots of shops, restaurants, and only a few bars. On the first night I discovered the little gem called "BISTRO 31". A local restaurant with very limited tables. Fabio the owner of the place, his girlfriend and his lovely daughter were the soul of the small business! Every dish I tried at their place was a unique experience for my palate! That's why I decided to get back to "BISTRO 31" every night during my stay in Faro. My lovely friend Cristine, who joined me in Faro on my 3rd day, joined me on our last night in Faro for an amazing dinner. I'm glad she liked the dinner as much as I did. 

On my second day in Faro I walked through the city center, the harbor area, and went to the fanciest shopping mall in the city. There's really nothing to do in Faro except having great food, and getting drunk on delicious cocktails, wines, or port wines.

It's a quiet city, even at night, the busiest bars didn't feel like a club or a dancing place. This doesn't mean that I didn't appreciate Faro. I'd recommend it to families who don't have any bigger expectations about their summer holidays. 

Faro definitely is more lively at night. During my short 3-day-stay a couple of events took place: as the "seafood festival", an electronic festival called "Etcetera" or the "Baixa Street Fest" in the old town. 

For the hostel part, most guests only stayed for 1 night. People checked-in and left the place the following day, so it wasn't really easy to socialize with the travelers and make new friends. 

Another bar I'd recommend was the cocktail-bar "COLUMBUS", their staff puts a lot of effort to make great-looking cocktails. 

 

ALBUFEIRA.

Cristine and I left on a sunday morning towards Albufeira by train. The train-ride took about 1 hour and the single-fare cost around 2-3 Euro. A bargain!

The train-station of Albufeira is located a little bit further outside of the center, so we had to take another UBER ride. After a 12 minute ride we made it to our "Topazio Hotel". The whole neighborhood just looked like any other beach town. I can't say that I enjoyed Albufeira at first sight, but at least it seemed a little busier than Faro. 

We left the hotel as soon as possible and walked towards the rocky beaches of the Algarve. I can't pretend that I'm a beach-bum and I've hardly ever been to an astonishing beach. So all I can tell is, that Albufeira is probably the prettiest sandy-beach-area that I ever visited in Europe. The shores weren't too busy for the high-summer-season, the water looked very blue-ish, and the beach restaurants offered satisfying seafood dishes (and delicious sangrias!). 

However as I mentioned in the introduction of this blog-post, the nightlife, that everybody was bragging about, was definitely the worst I've experienced in a long time. There are just too many bars in the city center. Too many empty bars, lots of 80s music, lots of families, lots of bored people spreading their boredom all over the place. 

The cocktails are watered-down, the bars & restaurant's indoor designs looked pretty odd and all alike, just too many Brits in a portuguese city. I was glad that we discovered two good restaurants during our nights. I can't complain about the food; we had some great cataplanas at the "O-manjar" restaurant in Albufeira, some delicious tapas at a shisha-restaurant outside of the city center. (I can't stand shishas, but the food was alright, and so were the cocktails).

We decided to move on towards Lisbon instead of extending our stay in Albufeira for one more night. 

My highlights of Albufeira were the organized tours. We took part on a boat-trip to witness dolphins in the sea, and to get to the Benagil Cave. The Benagil Cave is only reachable through the water, by boat or by swimming. It was a very eye-opening place, however the cave was packed with too many visitors upon our arrival. Sadly the tour-organizer didn't let us leave the boat, so we only had the chance to get some shots on board.

The next day we decided to do a kayaking tour across the rocky edges of the shore. Kayaking along the cliffs, through the caves, in the blue water, was pretty enjoyable. The fun tour lasted about 2 hours. This was definitely my highlight of the Algarve. 

Each tour was about 30-35 Euro a person. I'm not a huge fan about organized activities, however I have to agree that the organizer did a flawless job.

 

LISBON.

I would be lying if i'd tell you that Lisbon had the same wow-effect as it did last year. All the neighborhoods looked pretty much familiar to me. I remembered some restaurants that left some culinary marks in my stomach and in my heart from past year. I jumped into a couple of shops which I promised myself I'd turn back next time in Lisbon.

Last year I got my phone stolen, because of that I wasn't able to write a review about the "YES HOSTEL"in the capital of Portugal. It was pretty obvious that I would stay at any costs at "YES HOSTEL" again. 

Because we didn't plan to extend one more night in Albufeira I had to make 2 different bookings. One booking for 1 night, and the second booking which I did at home prior our departure for 4 nights. While we were checking in I noticed that I only booked one bed. Sadly "YES HOSTEL" was fully booked on the very first day and we had to change plans. We stayed one night at the "Cheese & Wine Apartments" close to Alfama. Instead of paying 50 euro a night, we had to pay 200 euro a night. But! Considering that the apartment had space for 6 people (3 beds) I can't imagine about a better apartment for a group of people, and spending only about 30 euro a person. Upon our arrival at the apartment we were offered a complimentary bottle of red wine, and portuguese cheese. 

The next day we checked-in at the hostel. From the outside I noticed Fabio behind the check-in desk. Fabio and I pretty much became friends during my first stay in the city. I was curious if he would still recognize me 12 months later. While he was busy doing the check-ins, we walked in and waited for our turn. Just seconds later Fabio noticed me and Cristine in the corner and we got the warmest welcome ! Fabio started talking about my recent trip to India, about another luxembourgish customer... while the other guests were impatiently waiting with open-eyes at the counter.

There were two things that made my stay in Lisbon unforgettable. As you can expect, the first one was meeting Fabio for the second time, and the 2nd one was the Cabo da Roca, which is the very western point of Europe. I will come back to the Cabo da Roca later. Well I gotta admit, it was lovely to travel with a girl after all those years of solo-traveling as well. 

If you're a vivid Instagram-User as I am, you will find endless spots to visit in Lisbon. There are so many great looking bars and coffee-bars, but I only had to chance to visit one or two. Beside my Instagram-Check-Out list, I still needed to get to the creative-hub "LX Factory" which is located just below the big red bridge. Lx Factory is packed with lovely souvenir stores, a diversity of restaurants, designer shops, and a great shop for "cafe-racer" fans. 

The "Time Out Market" was on our check-list as well, however visiting it right after having had breakfast, wasn't the smartest move. The food at the different shops looked very mouth-watering. However I didn't feel like waiting another hour, that's why we went on to Alfama.

On our last day we opted for Cascais and Cabo da Roca. Fabio told me that ages ago "Cabo da Roca" was supposed to be the "end" of the world. It was the spot where the earth would end, and the ocean would begin. Once we made it to the edgy cliffs of "Cabo da Roca" I totally got the vibe my friend was telling me about. I've never been to Scotland or Ireland, so I can't tell about their nature spectacles. This was my first time, where I could witness this natural beauty. 

“Aqui ...
onde a terra se acaba
e o mar comeca”

We took a couple of photos on the edges of the cliffs. Sitting down for a couple of minutes, you could only hear the ocean breath, the waves hitting the rocks, and the neverending gaze in front of you. I would love to get back to that place on my next trip, but in the very early morning, or very late at night. 

And it felt great having someone next to me at "Cabo da Roca"... it wouldn't have been the same without Cristine. 

There's definitely so much left to discover inside and outside of Lisbon. A short train-ride (2.5 Euro) will bring to the nearest cities within a heartbeat. If the train-ride's too slow, grab an UBER. The cities of Cascais and Belem are definitely worth a visit. Belem is know for their delicious pasteries "Pastel de Belem" and its Belem-Tower. Cascais is the "Cote d'Azur" of Lisbon, everything just looks fancier over there (but doesn't have to better). 

On our way back home from the Cabo da Roca, my friend Daniel showed as another great beach spot that looked totally fabulous. It was just mind-blowing driving by the beach of "Praia do Guincho" which was crammed with kite-surfers. Next time it's gonna be on my list!

Osaka never disappoints

In May 2017 I visited Osaka for a third time, and it definitely wasn't the last time. After visiting Tokyo twice, and Osaka twice as well (prior the recent trip), it was obvious that I was rather the Osaka-kind-of-person. This time I wasn't walking around all day with a camera in my hand. I enjoyed my little moments in the city, observing people, having coffee, eating street-food, and meeting up with old and new friends at night.

My recent trip to Osaka wasn't meant to bring back home the best photos or videos, to convince my friends and blog followers how awesome the city is. People who have been following my posts on this blog or on Instagram, should know by now that I'm a big fan of Japan. 

After being around most corners of Osaka, there wasn't much left to discover, however I never felt bored while walking through the streets of Namba. Let's start with the coffee places.

This was the first time, where I was hunting for good and hip coffee places.

The best coffee bars I visited were located in Amerika-mura (american-village). As you can figure out by the name, the neighborhood is heavily influenced by the western world. It's packed with western clothing brands, american bars, but the hippest coffee spots as well. My favorite bar was "LiLo Coffee Roasters" because of it's interior design; the staff was very fluent in english, and they had too many coffee-accessories for sale. Right next to Lilo's place, was another awesome coffee bar called "Streamer Coffee Company". At first sight from the outside I thought it would be a skateshop pimped up with a coffee-corner. I gotta admit that Streamer actually had the best coffee I tried in Osaka. It's not as cozy as Lilo's corner, but it's definitely worth a try.

Arashiyama

What would a trip to Osaka be without witnessing the beauty of Arashiyama? Arashiyama is well known for its spectacular bamboo forest. The bamboo forest actually doesn't take that much time to visit, think about 15-25 minutes. It's always hard to get a descent photoshot of the path leading through the forest, because there are just way too many visitors, any time of the day. However Arashiyama is always on my list, when visiting the Kansei region. I just love the whole vibe of the village: mountains, rivers, cute little shops, food stalls, japanese people dressed up in kimonos.

For the first time, I decided to visit the monkey forest. You gotta walk up a very steep hill for about 25 minutes, til you reach the top of the monkey place. You'll get a beautiful view all over Arashiyama and Kyoto. You'll get the chance to feed the monkeys, who'll be eating out of your hands. The coolest thing was that the visitors will walk into a cabin, that feels more like a cage, and you'll be feeding the monkey from the inside through the fences of the cabin. So it doesn't feel like a zoo, where animals are captivated for the visitor's pleasure. The monkeys are jumping and climbing freely around the cabin. Those monkey hands felt like baby hands grabbing for food, it definitely was worth the way up to the mountain.

If you're looking for the "kawaii" (which means cute in japanese) side of Japan, you should stop by at the Katsuoji Temple. I heard stories about it many times, but never made it to the very north of Osaka, because it takes about 90 minutes to get there. You gotta use two different trains which will lead you to the Senri-Chuo station. Outside of Senri-Chuo station you will have to catch a 40 minute bus-ride that will drop you at the entrance of Katsuoji-Temple. However the last bus will leave the train station around 3pm or 4pm. As lucky as I usually am, I had to use a taxi (single fare was 35 euro / us$). I left the temple about 5pm, and bad luck stroke again. No buses after 5pm, no taxis around the temple. Me and a 14 year-old chinese boy walked down all the way to the city. The walk took us almost an hour. I couldn't speak chinese or japanese, and the chinese teenager couldn't communicate in english or japanese. But at the end we somehow managed to jump on a bus, that brought us back to a train station after almost 2 hours. 

After visiting a couple of japanese cities, you easily get fed up with temples. Katsuoji however was different, in a funny way. The whole place is packed with daruma dolls, which creates a unique atmosphere. 

The daruma dolls at Katsuo-ji Temple are called "Kachi-daruma" (winning daruma). The darumas are eye-less goodluck charms. People are supposed to draw an eye on the doll's face when they make a wish, and draw in the other when their wish comes true. When one's daruma-doll gets both eyes drawn in, it should be brought back to the temple. 

Last but not least, the Taiko Bridge of the "Sumiyoshi Taisha" shrine. Again, after having witnessed numerous temples in Japan, it gets harder with each trip to be impressed about wooden temples. I have just seen to many temples in Japan. However I haven't ever seen a round bridge like the Taiko Bridge in Osaka. The first one I have ever discovered was outside of Asia, at the Japanese Garden in San Francisco. That's why I decided to jump on a train towards the Sumiyoshi shrine. In my opinion, the shrine didn't blow me away. However the bridge sourrounded by trees and a pond was worth the shot.

 

Nightlife in Osaka.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, that one fact that I really enjoy about Osaka is its nightlife. I mean it's not always that easy, to get in touch with japanese people. Some of them are too busy for a conversation, some are too shy or insecure to communicate in english and some don't understand any english at all. Most of the japanese people, that I had the chance to get to know, were having a drink in a bar or they worked as bartenders. It's just the perfect place to get into a chitchat. In Osaka it's even possible to bump into the same person on the same trip, which hardly ever happen in any other big city.

I wouldn't brag about Namba for being the best place to go out, because there are just too many streets or bars left to discover. Some bars or clubs will always remain undiscovered for many tourists, because they aren't barely visible from the outside. I remember a club called "Bambi", where a french expat took me to. We took an elevator to the 7th floor, and as soon as the doors of the elevator opened, we stepped out right into a club. It's very common in Japan to get on top floors for having dinner or a drink. That's why locals know the best places to check out.

As far as my experience goes, I'd recommend these places while going out in Osaka. They're all reachable by foot and only a couple of minutes separated from each other.

Bar Zerro {Namba}

The Zerro Bar is a bar packed with locals, tourists, and expats. It's usually very busy. Most of the bar tenders are pretty fluent in english. Every time I went for a drink I met people from all over the world. It's not the coolest place, but if every other bar is empty, you'll definitely find some people at Zerro.

Cinque-Cento (500) {Namba}

Cinque-Cento means 500 in italian. That's where the bar got its name from, because every drink or meal on their menu costs 500 yen  (4 € $). The drinks are served in average size glasses, and they don't look as fancy as in a cocktail bar. But you can get a Moscow Mule or a Maitai for a very fair price. All of the bar tenders were very friendly and easy to talk to. While drinking and talking to them, they could tell you some fascinating facts about Japan. "500" easily became my favorite bar in Osaka on my last trip. And yes, you also get some finger- & fast-food for 500 yen.

 Mustang-Bar {Amerika-Mura}

On my recent trip I didn't make it to Mustang, because I couldn't leave "500" and because Mustang is located in Amerika-Mura, the neighbor-area of Namba. But on my two first trips I had a blast at Mustang. The main reason was most definitely because of the bar-owner Neil (or Neal), an expat from Israel. Neal is high probably the craziest dude in Osaka. He used to be very entertaining and made every customer laugh with this harsh jokes. "Mustang" is a very small bar, recognizable by its ceiling, which is covered by hundreds of hanging bras. Apparently drunk women started to undo their bras, and hang them on the ceiling. I guess it's just another prove how crazy it can get at Neil's bar. 

Kamasutra Karaoke Bar

The last episode of my nightly adventures took place at Richard's Karaoke Bar called "Kamasutra". Richard is an expat as well. And it was damn funny coincidence that I made it to Kamazutra. Six or seven years ago work colleagues told me about their crazy night at a karaoke bar where they were introduced to the bar owner called "Richard". After a drunken night at 500, some japanese people took me to a karaoke bar. It was my first time ever at a Karaoke bar. After ordering another round or trinks and starting a chit-chat with the man behind the bar, I figured out his name was "Richard". I took out my phone, to check out if the photo of my friends at "that" Richard's place was the same one where I was sitting. Richard burst out laughing, because he was still remembering the night where my colleagues were visiting him. "Those crazy guys from Luxembourg... that was a hell of a  night!". Sometimes the world just seems so small, when coincidences like this one happen. I went back to Kamasutra one more time before leaving Japan. I had a blast every night!

- GANPATI GUESTHOUSE - {Varanasi}

As you might have read in my blog-posts about my India trip, I sounded pretty fascinated about this little gem of a guesthouse. I tried 'em all during my journey in India, cheap hotels, one fancy hotel, a hostel and this guest house. Maybe it was the perfect match with the city, the calm laidback athmosphere at this guesthouse & the spiritual vibe all across Varanasi. All I can tell is that, Ganpati fulfilled my expectations, and that this guesthouse made me feel, like I initially expected it to be.

I remember when my friend José showed me his photos of Varanasi and a couple of images of this guesthouse. Both just matched perfectly together. When I was trying to book a room at the website "booking.com", I was told that the guesthouse was sold-out during my stay in the city.  But luckily a week later, I got to manage to book the last room available. 

GANPATI was the second "hotel" I checked-in at in India, and without any doubt it was the place where I instantly felt at home. I got a warm welcome by the guesthouse-staff and you could really feel, that the clerk at the front-desk, made some efforts to explain me how the boat-trips work, how to get to the roof-top restaurants, how much I should pay for the different services along the ganges river. I didn't feel like a living dollar-sign at this hotel. 

I read some unpleasant reviews about the guesthouse, so I really didn't know what to expect. Once I figured out that I would get room number 7, right in the middle of the courtyard, I felt really happy. There are lots rooms which are facing towards the river, however the ones in the center of the building, seem more peaceful and colorful. 

All room-doors were locked with a golden-shiva-lock. Everything was very charming about this guesthouse, the colors, the vintage locks, the scent of the rooms... The rooms weren't fancy at all, but you aren't asking for any kind of luxury when checking-in at a guesthouse. The rooms were very clean, the bathroom as well. The bathroom lacked some space, but it didn't bother me at all. 

I loved staying on my bed during the day, with the yellow room-door wide open. You could hear the calming noise of the water-fountain.

On the roof-top there was a restaurant, that was serving food til midnight. Their menu consisted of only vegetarian dishes. The dishes were very simple, but I couldn't complain. The waiters were extremely friendly, and the food was very cheap. During my 4 days in Varanasi, I only had food at their restaurant, because everything just seemed perfect. The food tasted fresh, and of course I didn't get sick of it.

 

There's a main-exit that leads straight down to the ghats, right to the river's edge. On the rooftop you can enjoy your breakfast or lunch with a beautiful view all over Varanasi. What can I say? There's nothing to complain about.

 

When I was checking out, I told the staff, that I took the room's hand printed laundry tote bag, because I wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I offered them to pay for it, but the lovely man at the desk told me I could keep it for free.

As soon as I left the guesthouse, I got one last "namaste" from the door-man. Everytime I left or entered the guesthouse, a "guard" opened the door, put his both hands together close to his chest and greeted me with a "namaste". I loved GANPATI GUESTHOUSE, it was one of the few lovely experiences I brought back home from India. 

Varanasi: Oldest city of India

Varanasi is supposed to be the oldest city of India. Not only the oldest, but also the holiest. Among the 5 cities I initially planned on visiting, Varanasi was the one I was really looking forward to discover. 

On the airplane to India, I started reading a book about the Sadhus of India. "Sadhus" are holy men, considered as renunciants who have chosen to live their life apart from society to focus on their own spiritual practices. Some sadhus used to be wealthy and successful people, but they chose a path in their life where they would cut all familial, societal and earthly attachments. This way they could achieve their purest and highest spiritual level. Sadhus don't lead a normal life like others, they choose to live poorly and only find richness in spirit and humanity. I was told by a local in Varanasi, that they use the ashes of cremated bodies to cover their skin, because the ashes of the deceased is the last remaining of a human body on earth just before it reaches heaven & god. 

I found the lifestyle of the Sadhus very fascinating. Sadly while discovering my first Sadhus in Varanasi, I was told that the holy men I'd meet along the ganges river, would be fake sadhus. Those were the beggars, who'd ask you for money if you'd take a photo of them. Which was actually true, some were even begging for a photo, because all they were looking for was getting a tip. Some of the boatmen considered those "fake sadhus" as lazy people, who were getting high all day, and they were making it through life just because of their fascinating look. I even noticed myself, that those sadhus were accepting money from the very poor people. The poor people were still convinced that the beggar sadhus, could bless them, for having a better life. That's how my interest in finishing the book about the Sadhus stopped! Nevertheless I was told, that there were real sadhus out there in Varanasi, but the real holy men, wouldn't hang out along the river. They would stay away from the crowds, and they would never dare to ask for a tip, if you would shoot any photos. The topic of the Sadhus still remains fascinating. 

Varanasi, wasn't only about the Sadhus. On my first day, upon my arrival at the beautiful guesthouse "Ganpati", I was told that there were 3 main ghats "burning ghat", "assi ghat", and guess the next one, "main ghat". The stairs that lead down to a river are called "ghat", which are usually very big stairs, big enough to do any kind of activity like meditation, yoga, washing clothes, ...

The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. The locals still allow tourists to take photos from a boat, considering that you won't notice an morbid or personal details on a photo shot from a further distance. There are 2 cremation spots along the ganges river. At the "burning ghat" only hindus are allowed to get cremated. The cremations take place 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week. There's no time off. At the entrance to the ghat, people can weigh the wood, which is required to cremate the body. The cremation takes about 3 hours for one single body. The family gives the dead body a last massage at home, with natural oils, to make the deceased "feel good" for one last time, before they reach heaven. At the burning ghat, they wash the body right in the ganges river. Following the cleaning, they put the wrapped up body on the cremation spot. The relatives cover the body with the woods, and spread pieces of sandalwood over the body to accelerate the ignition of the deceased. The family members aren't supposed to cry in front of the body, the mourning takes place at home. After the cremation-process, the remaining ashes are shed into the river. The relatives aren't supposed to keep the ashes, otherwise the soul of the burnt body, would find its way back home. Pregnant women, children, holy men aren't allowed to get cremated, they get all wrapped up, and the whole body is thrown into the river. So there's a chance that you could witness a dead body floating on the water. Right next to the burning ghat there were lost buildings, where people used to spend their last days or weeks. Older people would come to Varanasi, just to die in Varanasi. They believe if they get cremated in the holy city, that they will make it to heaven, and won't get reborn in another life. 

Burning Ghat

Another interesting fact was the "eternal flame of Shiva". Right next to the cremation ceremony you could notice a fire, which they used to ignite the bodies. That's the spot where one of Shiva's girlfriends set herself on fire. For more than a couple of hundreds years, people are responsible to keep that fire burning all day. All the dead bodies are lit up by the "eternal flame". It's not allowed to use any matches or lighters. The second cremation spot down the river, would allow non-hindu people to be cremated.

There were daily ceremonies, to praise the gods, at the main ghat (twice a day, at 06:30 in the morning and in the evening), and another early one at 06:00 in the morning at the assi ghat. The main ceremony at the main ghat, was interesting to watch for the first time. There were thousands of visitors every evening. I personally preferred the one in the early morning. Every morning I left my guest-house at 5:30, and walked towards the assi ghat. The walk took about 20-25 minutes. Sadly it wasn't a peaceful walk, because some boatmen were awake by then, and kept asking the early birds for boat rides. 

The ceremony at 06:00 am at the assi ghat, started with a fire ceremony, were they burnt cow dung, to worship god. While they were doing their thing, you could observe the most beautiful sunrise arise. It was such a serene moment. And with a little luck, if you would find a spot close enough to the ceremony, the boatmen didn't dare to bother you. After the fire ceremony, followed a concert with indian meditation music, and a free yoga session. It was interesting to see the older generation sitting down on the floor and participating at the yoga class, which mainly consisted of pranayamas (breathing exercices). I wish I had participated as well, but all the instructions were in hindi, so i didn't feel comfortable sitting down among the locals, and too many tourists around me. It was also fascinating, to see how yoga is "normal thing" for the indians. People were dressed up in their daily clothes. Some used a towel, others just a plastic bag. There weren't any yoga mats, no fancy yoga clothes, ... it didn't look like trendy thing, as we know it from the western world. Some tourist girls tried to be even more indian than the locals, and they tried really hard to be the most convincing yogi among the locals. It looked so pathetic. 

After the whole ceremony which lasted around 90 minutes, you could watch how the locals of Varanasi, made it the shore, to take a bath, wash their clothes. Another thing I hadn't seen before. Some of the locals were meditating towards the sunrise, others completed their yoga postures. Kids started running around. It felt very uncommon for me to see so much life in the streets at seven o'clock in the morning. Varanasi totally fulfilled my expectations, how I had imagined India. 

However I gotta admit, after 3 nights in Varanasi, the endless "GOD" topics and stories, got a little to much. The locals would mention Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, in every second sentence, it was all about the holy river of ganges, shiva power (weed), shiva-city (Varanasi), holy cows, pujas (prayer ritual)... The indians would even drink the water of the ganges river, the dirtiest of the dirtiest rivers. 

The walks along the river and the different ghats never got boring. I totally appreciated the mix of street art, hand-painted letterings, and the very old architecture of the city. There wasn't much going on in the busy main streets of Varanasi. It just looked like any other indian city. The narrow alleys, that felt like a walk through a maze, were another charming part of the city. However the streets were most likely very dirty. Cow shit and urine all the way. Too many police officers on every corner, due to a recent threat by the pakistanis, who mentioned they would blow up the "golden temple" of Varanasi. That's why there were  too many heavily armed police men, as well the military, securing the streets. 

Even though the boatmen could get very annoying, the boat rides were the only quiet moment you would find along the river. I took about 3 boat rides during my stay in Varanasi. I got to know a lovely man, called "Diamond" (which is the translation of his hindi name). Even though, I was just another customer, Diamond seemed to be very legit, and I had the most interesting discussion with that man on his boat. The boatman explained me that there were too many boatmen on the river, more boats than tourists, which would make it pretty hard to earn any money. Diamond allowed me to switch places, and I had a chance to get a grip on the paddles. I gotta admit that it was a pretty hard job rowing for 30-60 minutes. Diamond was half my size, and he would keep on rowing for an hour. I could feel my shoulders getting tired after 5 minutes. Despite the amounts of physical power they had to put into the rowing, the boatmen only made 5 to 10 euros/dollars an hour. 

Diamond proudly showed me his shiva tattoo, which he got in Goa (south of India). It was the last time Diamond had ever traveled. Because I was curious about his life, and his stories, I promised Diamond one last boat ride before I'd leave Varanasi. The next day, I took a last ride on his boat. As a gift, Diamond offered me one of his shiva-beeds necklaces. That was a lovely gift! Since the old man told me, that he couldn't afford any new clothes, I gave him two of my shirts I was carrying in my backpack. Diamond gladly accepted the shirts and thanked me with his shining eyes. 

Varanasi was quite an experience. Now being back home for almost a week, and writing about the city on this post, I actually realize how unique the city was. While being in a city, we're so busy soaking up all the informations around us, the noises, the smells, the views, the people... and once we get back home, our mind gets the time to process all the informations we collected, especially when we start writing about it. That's what I like about my travel blog, it doesn't just keep me busy, sharing photos, videos, and stories with people all around the world, but it helps me processing the memories I collected on my trips, and bring them to "digital paper". 

 

 

Update (02.04.2017).

Like I mentioned above, it really does take a while til you realize what you've been through on your journey across the world. I wish I could thank the "yogi" in my video on the top of this page, for being such an inspirational person. While I was observing the early morning yoga session, this gentleman just caught my eyes, and I kept observing him for a while. It just seemed very authentic to my eyes, and I was just blown away to see how much devotion this man put in his daily practice. I guess that's why I also chose to take a couple of shots & film-footage of him. High probably I just looked like any other tourist, taking photos of the locals. I really didn't want to offend anyone, and sometimes I just wish, I could show them what the end-product looks like. Of course it's not a professional documentary and it never will, but it's going to be a souvenir for the rest of my life. My memories in motion, which I will be able to share with my family & friends, and other travelers across the world. 

Last friday during my first yoga class, following my trip to India, I was happy to witness that I hadn't lost any of my flexibility after a one-month-break. But the most beautiful part, was that everytime I closed my eyes during the asanas practice, Varanasi popped up in my mind. I had all these colors, the sunset, the children's choir chants, the morning yoga rituals, right in front of me. After the class I came to the conclusion that Varanasi had a bigger impact on myself, despite the numerous negative moments I went through on my India trip. 

Sometimes we just aren't aware of what we experienced on our holidays, til the right moment kicks in, in the near future. I'm so glad that I had the chance to visit Varanasi, and that I was able to absorb and capture the sounds, the colors, the scents of the city. 

India: Love & Hate.

India's been on my travel-list since I started with yoga practice half a year ago. To be honest, I never imagined visiting India someday, til a work-colleague amazed me with photos of his trip to India and Nepal. The city of Varanasi looked so surreal on his pictures. That's exactly how I got really curious about the huge country of India: the origins of Yoga & the holi city of Varanasi.

Now after I made it back home "safely", I really can't choose if I should start with my "love" or "hate" part of my journey abroad. This is going to be quite a long blog post, because there's so much to write about. I will get into more detailed stories with upcoming blog-posts about Varanasi and the "Ganpati Guesthouse" in Varanasi. For now, I'm going to summarize my good- and not so pleasant experiences.

It all started with my trip to Delhi, the capital of India. My expectations of the capital were pretty low, after I've read too many travel reviews about it, and most travelers were advising to just skip Delhi at all cost. Just for your information, ... Delhi isn't the worst.

I had a typical indian welcome as soon, as I left the airplane on indian soil. The E-Visa appliers were split up into different queues. I had to wait almost 50 minutes to make it to the counter, where my fingerprints were taken, a snapshot, and I was good to leave the airport. I went to the "official" taxi booth and asked for a cab. The ride from Delhi international airport to the city center takes about 40-60 minutes. I didn't bargain on my first cab-ride, and was kindly asked to pay 800 IR (10 euros/dollars). On the way to the hotel the driver told me in a veeeerry broken english, that he didn't know where my hotel was located. So he tried to call the lobby at the hotel, but no one was taking the call (it was already 2:00 am). After several attempts of contacting the hotel, I asked the taxi driver about his plan, and he replied "you choose different hotel!". Well man, I had it all booked in advance, and I wanted to get dropped in front of THAT hotel. So after a couple of seconds of total silence, I asked him for his GPS and I entered the address. So I'm pretty sure that the good man was an illiterate. The hotel was only 3 minutes away. After I got dropped, I had to notice that, the lobby was busy with 2 hotel employees but still no one dared to pick-up the phone. 

"Lodi Garden in Delhi"

I told the receptionist that I booked a room for 3 nights at their hotel "GRAND GODWIN". They seemed to be very welcoming at first and offered me a chai (tea) or a coffee, which I gently refused. They picked up my luggage, and told me to follow them to the building next-door. I could feel the taste of "rip-off" in the air. I told them that I certainly booked a hotel at the "GRAND GODWIN"  and not at the "GODWIN DELUXE". But they were insisting that I was wrong, and that my room would be ready inside the neighbor building. I was just too tired to argue about it... But I wanted to check the room first. The whole staff, were debating in indian and I could feel that there was something wrong. After they brought me up on the 2nd floor, showed me the room, I agreed to accept it. Of course I tipped the bellboy who carried my backpack. Pretty soon I wanted to get online, but noticed that the wifi password wasn't working. I took the room-key ... Damn! They didn't gave me room key, but a paper business-card. Of course being pretty naive, I still tried it, but obviously it wouldn't open my room. I went downstairs and asked them for a proper room-key, and was told "paper card works, but we can give you plastic card instead (broken english)". By the way, later for my check-out at the hotel "Godwin Deluxe", they tried to rip me off again. On the check-out bill, they added every single payable tax twice, and charged me for a airport pick-up which I never asked for. They charged me double the price, than the one which was set during my booking at the website booking(dot)com. 

I hadn't visited anything in Delhi yet, but still I had to manage several issues of incompetence of the indian world. 

Delhi.

I got up pretty early, because I couldn't wait anymore to discover India. I left the hotel around 8:00am, and walked towards the main road, which lead to a bridge. I bumped into a local, who recommended to take a rickshaw (tuc-tuc) because walking to the different tourist spots would be way to exausting. "Don't pay more than 20 IR (30 cents)", and of course the first tuc-tuc driver accepted to bring me to a tourist office for only 20 IR. I went to the first tourist office, just to get a free map of Delhi. As soon as I sat down, they were trying to sell me a bus-tour to other indian cities. I told them that I already pre-booked my trip, and that I just needed a map. I left their office as quickly as I could. On the next corner I bumped into another local, and we got into a little chit-chat. After walking a hundred meters, he told me "Hey, it's your first day in the city, I can bring you to my friend's office. If you have any questions about Delhi, they will help you."

I really don't know why I even followed the stranger. It was just another tourist trap. One office, 4 guys sitting on a couch, and 1 dude sitting behind the desk. They tried to rip me off for sure... but in the end I bought a city tour by taxi for 4 hours, for only 10 euros/dollars. It actually was a bargain, because I saw most sights within those 4 hours. A cab picked me up in front of the office. While I was waiting I got introduced to every single "clerk" who was sitting on the couch. Of course they all looked like the "world's most stupid criminals". I just could tell, that this wasn't a proper tourist office. 

"Humayun-Mausoleum in Delhi"

However I was glad that I met Prem, my taxi driver, through that office. Prem seemed to be a genuine guy, and like after half an hour, he told me that he would be working for that office, but recommended me not to trust those guys. They were just after the money, and of course with his broken english, he tried to explaine that they had no good "karma" :). 

After the 4 hours, I was supposed to get back to the office. Prem explained me that this was the condition of this sightseeing trip. I told Prem, that I was definitely not going back to their office, and if he wouldn't accept that, I would jump out of the car on the next crossing. Prem called the office, and explained them that I wasn't coming back. They asked for me on the phone. I told them that I wanted to get back at my hotel... but, almost like a threat, they forced me to come back with Prem. I told them to f*** o**, and hung up the call. Prem unterstood my decision and drove me to Connaught Place, a huge shopping lane, in the center of Delhi. I paid Prem another 1000 IR, because I wasn't sure if he would get this share of the "deal", since he didn't drop me at the tourist office. I was glad to be out the cab, and asked Prem for his phone number. He seemed to be a trustworthy driver, so I told him I'd be glad if he could drive me back to the airport for my trip to Varanasi. 

After that day, I tried to avoid any contact with locals, because I knew that a short introduction, or just any small-talk would lead me into trouble.

On my second day in Delhi, I just got ripped off by some tuc-tuc drivers. Nothing too bad though, instead of paying 2 euros/dollars, I had to pay 5. 

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

I had a memorable experience on my second day though. Somehow I never accepted a rickshaw ride, if the divers were hunting for customers. I always picked the drivers I had a certain sympathy for. I opted for Jagdish, a punjabi tuc-tuc driver with a well groomed moustache, who was wearing a yellow turban (see the photo above). On my way back to the hotel, I asked him if he was a hindu or a muslim. He explained me that most religious people wearing that specific turban would be worshiping the religion of Sikhism (sikh). To be honest, I've never heard of the sikh relgion prior that tuc-tuc ride. Jagdish suggest, he could bring me to the biggest Sikh temple in Delhi. I gladly accepted the invitation. The visit was for free, and I was shown all of it. I had to wear a head-cover as well, as all the men did inside the temple. Drinking "holy water", tasting a sweet almond dough, and a private tour through the kitchen where they were preparing the free food for the poor people, were the more entertaining moments of this visit. I have to admit that it was a lovely temple, all white and golden. And all the "sikh" people seemed to be very welcoming, they didn't care to see me in short pants, all covered up with tattoos.  After the visit Jagdish insisted for a selfie in his rickshaw, and asked me forward the photo to his son's mobile phone, that would make him happy. Well ... that's what I did! :)

Varanasi.

Just before taking off for Varanasi, i had to suffer another major panic attack. The ATM at the airport didn't allow me to withdraw any cash, with the reason "CARD BLOCKED". Being stuck in India for 11 more days without any money wouldn't be fun. I tried calling my bank, but their hotline wasn't reachable because of the timezone difference. After my dad helped me out, the bank told him that they blocked my card, because their security service noticed money movements inside of India, and they decided to block my card. SO! Just prior your India trip, contact your bank, and tell them that you're traveling abroad, to avoid this sort of unpleasant surprises.

Varanasi struck me like a lightning. The oldest and holiest city of India was my indian destination with a "wow" effect. Once again I had a typical indian welcome. After my suicidal airport ride stopped at a big crossing (1 hour driving, for 800 IR - 10 euros/dollars), there was already a young local guy who opened the side-door, and helped me getting to the guesthouse. For once, I gotta admit, that I would have never found the guesthouse on my own. The streets were crazy busy with thousands of pedestrians and rickshaws. I followed the guide through very narrow lanes among the old colurful buildings, and after 10 minutes we finally reached my guest house, ... well after I had to tip the young man. 

The Ganpati Guesthouse was the loveliest place I stayed at in India. The staff was amazingly welcoming, and the whole place just felt very cosy. I was lucky to get a room without a balcony, but instead my room-door lead straight to a colorful courtyard. There was a noticeable scent of flowers, inside my  room and outside, around a mandala-shaped fountain. It was my first moment of pure happiness in India. I couldn't wait to get out and have a look at the ganges river. 

I left the guest house, and asked the first locals I met for the right direction to reach the river. And again, the chitchat started, they advise me to visit the "Burning Ghat". The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. My teenage-guide showed me the three main ghats along the river. It was about time to pay a tip, and to spend even more money at his uncle's shop, where I got ripped off. I paid more like the triple for a silk scarf... but yeah, you only live once. I remember how I couldn't stop repeating "this is unbelievable. I saw all those photos of Varanasi, and now i'm standing right in the middle of it". I was so blown away by the very old temple-shaped buildings, all worn off. Many walls were covered with hand-painted letterings and signs. The whole place just looked so photogenic. 

Sadly after my first hours in Varanasi, with disappointment I had to notice, that all the boatmen, the locals, the fake sadhus (wanna-be-saints), wouldn't stop asking for a boatride, for prayers, for a massage... You were invited to spend money on bracelets, on floating flower pots, on colored powder. Tourists just couldn't be on their own, and enjoy the scenic views for 10 minutes. Even in the very morning, when tourists were leaving their hotels at 5:30 am to walk towards the "Assi Ghat", for an early morning ceremony, the boatmen started following you, and kept asking for a boatride. The boatrides were pretty cheap, they charged you 4 euro/dollars for a 30-40 minute boat-ride.  But it was a real pain in the ass, explaining them that you weren't interested. 

It went on like this, for the 4 days I spent in Varanasi. I will write another more detailed blog post about Varanasi, so stay tuned for more informations. 

Agra.

I will keep my summary very short about Agra. It's not even worth mentioning. Well ... once again... I reached Agra, leaving from Delhi, in a very typical indian way. I booked a bus-ticket the evening just prior my departure to Agra. It was a crazy cheap ticket, and the tourist-office guy told me to show up at their office around 06:00 am. That's what I did. While I was trying to wake him up after I reached his place, he instantly stood up, and pretended like he hadn't even slept. He took out his mobile and made a phone-call.  When the bus-driver showed up 10 minutes later, he was kinda in a hurry, and told me to follow him. On the way to his bus he asked me in a pissed-off way "Why did you book your tickets 5 minutes ago?". I told him, that I did the booking the previous evening, and that I paid my bus-ticket in advance. "Really? Your tourist-guide contacted me 5 minutes ago, and you gotta be very lucky today, because there was only 1 seat left on the bus"!!

From 06:00 to 08:00 am, the bus was picking up people all across Delhi, fueled up the bus at a gas station, and finally took off after 8 o'clock. It took us 4 hours to reach Agra (my worst bus-ride ever). After the bus had dropped us at the "Old Fort" in Agra, I had to explain them, that I wasn't interested in a tour, and that I just needed a ride to Agra. I got my back-pack and took a rickshaw to get to my hotel "Grand Imperial Hotel". This one surely was my fanciest stay for one night. The hotel had a colonial architecture flair, and it was pretty posh for India. Sadly the neighborhood outside of the hotel, was a pile of dirt. Extreme poverty, and too much filth covering the streets of Agra.  After I checked in, and already had paid in advance, the receptionist brought me to my awesome room and started asking me "Excuse me sir. Due to the heavy rain yesterday, a couple of hotel rooms were flooded, and we can't host all the guests who booked a room at this hotel." I got pretty mad, because they put another colorful dot on my forehead upon my arrival, they garnished me with a flower-necklace, I got a free orange juice, I paid the room... and after all that, I was kindly asked if I would agree to spend my night at another 5-star-hotel, which wouldn't cost me a dime. I disagreed, because I was so looking forward to spend one night at their beautiful hotel. 

Agra... the Taj Mahal... that's it. That's all I did. There was absolutely nothing else to do, except for the Old Fort. The streets of Agra were extremly dirty, hundreds of tuctuc-drivers handing out their phone numbers. It wasn't a peaceful place, and I was happy to leave. 

Vrindavan.

In Agra, I left in the early morning to get to the train station. I went to their ticket office, and got a train ticket to Mathura, the city just next to Vrindavan. The train ticket was 80 IR, not even 1 euro/dollar. The train station was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost, and had to asked several indians which train would leave towards Mathura. Once I stepped inside the train, I could notice the scent of poo and urine. A passenger invited me to sit right next to him. Jimmy, a university student, was one of the few indians  I met, who wasn't after my money. The friendly young man, had to spend 28 hours on that train, to get back home. Honestly, I was glad, I could get out of it, after 2 hours. 

Outside of the train stations, the tuc-tuc drivers were flying around me like vultures. I was asked by ten men, if I needed a ride. I gently denied and picked out a driver who seemed cool. The one I chose wasn't cool though. He couldn't speak english, and didn't know the location of my hotel. On the way to Vrindavan, I gave him my phone so he could contact the hotel for precise directions. 

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Vrindavan was just crazy. It was supposed to be the most traditional, but also the craziest, city for the "Holi Fest" in India. I gotta admit, it was just too much for my taste. On my way to the hotel, I got covered with too many colors. My black backpack was all messed up, my new shirt was all covered up with colorful sand/dust.  It went on like this for the next 2 days. Myself, I barely could stay outside of the hotel for 2-3 hours. Every local felt so lucky to color my face, kids were amazed to pour endless buckets of colored water over me. They used big water guns as well, with artifical colors. Those colors wouldn't even vanish after 4 showers. After my first 3 hours among the crowds, my hotel room looked like a mess. I was glad that the room service didn't clean up my room on the next morning, because on the 13th of march, the official holi-day, got just insane. The Hindus were rushing towards the several temples in the cities, throwing all kinds of colors in the air, pushing women, and kids aside. It was a real battle making it inside the temple. I got heavily pushed back by a police officer, because I wasn't barefoot, so I decided not to follow the crowd inside the holy building. Every body aperture was filled up with colors, I had to throw away my clothes, it took an hour to clean my camera, and my go-pro. This was a next-level holi experience. The locals really didn't care, they smashed the colored powder right into the your eyes. I'd definitely recommend wearing goggles!

The hotel I stayed at was total crap. They had no mini-bar, and no shop, where I could buy water or food. Outside of the hotel weren't any shops or restaurants. It almost felt like a survival training, getting plastic bottles of clean water, and killing my hunger with street food. After my lucky catch with the street-food samosas, I suffered a severe diarrhea for the next 3 days. I couldn't wait to leave Vrindavan again.

Because of my bad experience in Agra, and Vrindavan, I decided to not move on towards Jaipur, the last indian city I was supposed to visit on my trip. But instead I turned back to Delhi, and booked a room for my last 4 nights at a hostel. I was looking forward to some chit-chat with travelers. I really haven't had a real discussion with people during those first 9 nights in India. I really missed the contact with people around me. So I thought that a hostel-stay would feel great. 

 

Max Brown Midtown Hotel // Düsseldorf

February highlights the end of carnival season in Germany, mostly in the central part of the cities. Cologne is well known for being "THE" place to celebrate "Rosenmontag" (rose monday), the last day of the carnival celebrations. Compared to the U.S. where the craziest day happens to be on a tuesday (mardi gras), for the germans it takes place on a monday, just before "mardi gras".

We decided to spend 2 nights in  Düsseldorf, the city neighbouring Cologne. In 2016 we celebrated in Cologne, which ended up as a kind of disappointing trip, due to the horrible weather and the lack of visitors because of the recent attacks on women during the night of new years eve. 

We were told to check out Düsseldorf. Without any doubt we had a blast in Düsseldorf!

Not only because of the partying, the lovely people we met in Düsseldorf, but also because of the Max Brown Hotel. Our stay at this hotel definitely contributed to our excellent time in the city.

The vintage design of the lobby is the first eye-catch you'll notice while checking in. The staff is welcoming you, dressed up with denim-aprons, behind a desk that reminds you of a vintage shop from the 50s. Vintage "toys" are up for sale, like retro-ish designed boomerangs, playing cards and notebooks. 

Our first two nights were spent in a beautifully designed smaller room, big enough for 2 people. The room was equipped with a portable vinyl player, a couple of vinyls (mostly soul&indie music), colorful hangers, vintage looking water boiler & cups. 

After two nights, we decided to extend our stay for another night. The hotel staff offered us a great rate, even cheaper then booking(dot)com. We spent our last night in a bigger room, which had the size of a small studio. It looked even nicer with a vintage couch in the middle of the room. 

The breakfast was alright, the usual continental one. Nothing fancy, but the decoration in the dining room made the breakfast so much cosier. 

All the people we met in Düsseldorf were super friendly. There are so many opportunities to satisfy your shopping wishes, just way to many unique shops. Düsseldorf isn't the prettiest city you'll discover in Germany, but the city as a whole, will give you a decent experience. We loved it, without any doubt! I'd choose Düsseldorf, over Cologne, in a heartbeat.

I'm pretty sure that i'm returning to Düsseldorf very soon. And I'll most definitely stay at Max Brown Hotel.

 

 
 
 

CONTACT

Adress: 

Kreuzstraße 19A, 40210 Düsseldorf, Deutschland

Website:

www.maxbrownhotels.com/midtown

Phone: 

+492113611980

White Chapel Gin Bar {San Francisco}

White Chapel is a damn fine Gin-Bar nearby Union Square and Market Street in San Francisco. I hardly ever write blog-posts about bars, however if i'm writing a review about it, it's pretty obvious that i had a splendid time and a great night at the café.

The walk from Union Square towards White Chapel will lead you through sketchy corners at night, but it definitely was worth the adventure. Passing by the bar, you hardly recognize it as a gin bar from the outside. After getting the head nod from the bouncer I walked in, as soon as i passed the door I exhaled an inner-wow. The interior design was astonishing! It reminded me of the shapes and forms of a cathedral, so did the low dimmed ambient light.

I took a seat on at the bar and waited for ordering my first drink. While traveling solo, the first order often gives me a weird insecure feeling, because most of the customers are in groups or couples. The bartender Keli, who considered herself as a "ginoisseur", took care of my first gin&tonic made out of "Brooklyn Gin".  To make me even more insecure she asked if i ordered a "brooklyn" or "brockley"gin. Because of the ambient noise I didn't understand what she was talking about. So she showed me both bottles and I picked the right one.  Instantly I was amazed by Keli's knowledge about gin.

After having downed my first drink, another unknown bartender, asked me for another gin&tonic. I agreed, and he filled up a glass with a homemade g&t from the tap. Gin&Tonic from a tap? That was weird and that's how it tasted, weird. I couldn't drink it. So I called Keli and asked her for another drink. She noticed that I didn't like the tap g&t. I opted for an icelandic gin. Kelli told me it's on the house. Considering that most gin&tonics were around 10-14$ , i found it pretty nice to get a free drink.

After that drink Keli taught me lots about gin, and we talked about her travels, her experiences with foreign gins, etc. It was crazy to see how the gin scene had evolved since my last visit in San Francisco.

Later in the evening I got in touch with Andrew and Enoch, two damn talented bartenders, who impressed me quite a lot with their mixing skills. When Andrew added me on instagram, we found out that we had lots of common interests, coffee, music and photography. I was invited to have a coffee at Andrew's place the next day. The roller coaster ride went on and I got served more gin&tonics, port wines, and cocktails. It actually was mind blowing to see how much effort and details Andrew and Enoch put into each cocktail they were pouring out. It looked and felt very artistic.

I had quite a few tastings of several gins. 

I left the bar pretty wasted, but i was really happy that i ran into these people. Actually it was the first time where I had fun at a bar, only because of the staff working at the bar. I wish I had met more locals like Keli and Andrew in San Francisco. Genuine people!

The cherry on top, was the music that night, all soul music!

White Chapel thank you for having me! 


White Chapel

600 Polk St, San Francisco,
CA 94102, USA

website: www.whitechapelsf.com

San Francisco - Trails & Beaches

I just came back home from my 6th trip to San Francisco, and thought I'd get bored of publishing another blog-post about one of my very favorite U.S. cities, but that ain't the case. Once again I soaked up many new impressions and travel memories in San Francisco.

Just before my trip, I put a list together with all the interesting parts & sights I hadn't discovered yet. I pretty well filled up the schedule of my 6 days and planned ahead which parts I'd visit on the specific weekdays.

As my trip came to an end, I sadly realized that I still missed so many things, and that I barely completed my check-list. There's still so much to discover in San Francisco, even after 6 trips to the city. 

This time I really put my focus on its beaches. I was browsing through a couple of photos of the golden gate bridge, which were taken from the Baker Beach angle. I kind of felt ashamed that I never made it to Baker Beach, because you definitely get the best photos from that viewpoint. The typical tourist photos you see from right in front of one of both ends of the bridge, are the least impressive in my opinion. So I was looking forward to get to Baker Beach.

Baker Beach.

As I don't like taking bus-rides in big cities, I decided to start my "baker beach hike" early in the morning at 6am, just before the sunrise, to get a couple of descent photos of the city, just before sun rise. I walked from the union square neighbourhood toward the ferry building very next to the bay bridge, that leads to Oakland. I haven't even been close to the ferry building, on my previous trips, and I felt like i missed a beautiful spot of the city. You can watch the sun rise on the pretty wooden pier, walking through the middle of the lamp-post lane. The cupid-arch is withing walking distance as well. Inside the ferry building you'll find lovely shops selling different kinds of crafts, "french" pastries, delicious coffee at "Blue Bottle". 

I tried to avoid the popular pier 39, which only has tasteless tourist-shop to offer, and almost only restaurants which serve bad and greasy food. From the ferry building, I walked up too many stairs til I reach the beautiful Coit-Tower. It became one of my favorite parts of the city, even though it attracts a lot of tourists. The altitude of the hill gives beautiful views all over the different areas of the city. 

I moved forward through the colorful North Beach, towards the "Ghirardelli Square" at North Point Street, where I stopped for my second coffee in the city. I was impressed how good their chocolate was. Who ever thought Americans were great at making chocolate ? ;) Outside of the Ghirardelli square, you already can witness the beauty of the famous red bridge, and it feels like it's already pretty close, but it's not! It takes another 40-50 minutes to reach it.

After I made it to the bridge, I decided to move on to Baker Beach. Starting from the Golden Gate Bridge, you can choose different trails that will lead you to Baker beach. To get to the trails, you gotta follow the path below the bridge, as I can remember it's the only way to get to the other side without a car. 

You walk past several view points and it felt like forever to reach Baker Beach. I took my first photo shots down at Marshall Beach. There are a couple of paths that lead you down to the shore, but don't forget, that you gotta walk those paths uphill again to move on towards Baker Beach. 

On my way a couple of tourists asked me if I had seen restaurants nearby, but I didn't. I guess those folks, underestimated the distance of the trails, like I did. And of course, it felt like summer! The weather was just great for a november, real t-shirt and shorts weather. I caught a light sunburn, walking all day in the sun.

What I learned after I had reached Baker Beach:

- it's further and more exhausting than I thought it would be.
- it's only a small part of the San Francisco shores.
- once you've made it to the beach, you gotta get back to the city. If you don't have the exact change for the bus ride, can't get a cab in the area, "uber" doesn't work, because you don't have internet-access on your mobile phone because of roaming issues, it's gonna be a hell  of walk to walk back in the city center.

 

Ocean Beach & Sutro Beach.

On my second day, I decided to get back to the beach area. Walking down Powell Street towards Market Street, I took the "#5R-Fulton Rapid" busline, which was only 2.25$ . It takes approximately 35-45 minutes to reach the last bus stop of the route. From the bus stop it only takes a short walk to reach the beach, or to get to the wind mill that is located at the "Golden Gate Park".

Nearby there's a beach house, where I stopped by for coffee & breakfast. It was kind of pricey, but you could enjoy an ocean view while having breakfast. North of the beach there's the popular camera obscura and the famous "Cliffhouse Restaurant". Behind the restaurant, there were several pathes which lead to Sutro Beach, where only ruins of the once public swimming pool are left.

Following the different paths will lead you northbound towards Baker Beach, but it's still quite a few miles away. Nearby Sutro Beach, there's another vista point, which will give you a lovely view onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides the view, there's another big circle made out of stone to discover. It's really not a must-see, but while being in the area, why not check it out. 

Before heading back to the busstop, to get back to the hostel, I enjoyed some time on the beach, watching the waves collapse in front of me. The weather was just outstanding for a november. There aren't many cities that would come to mind, if i had to recommend a travel destination for the last two months of the year, except for asian countries or southern american countries.

San Francisco would be one of the cities I'd consider turning back to in november or december months.

Ocean Beach.

Hayes Street (Patricia's Green).

Afer visiting an art gallery which hosted a couple of artworks of Shepard Fairey (OBEY), I was told that Fairey recently painted two new murals in San Francisco. The one I really wanted to see, was a mural of Cesar Chavez, which was located at Hayes Street, nearby the Patricia's Green square. 

I can't remember if i'd ever been to Hayes Street, but I was so impressed by the charm of that lovely and colorful neighborhood. The hood was packed with different coffee bars, art galleries, craft-shops... Once I'll get back to San Francisco, this is definitely gonna be the place where I'd love to hangout or even book a room at a hostel or hotel in that part of the city. 

 

White Chapel (Gin Bar).

More to come about this fabulous place. I will write a separate review about my favorite bar in town. The link to the review will be added soon.

 

Clement Street (and 5th Avenue).

I had my best night at Clement Street (with 5th avenue). I met up with my friend Jessica on a Saturday at Haight Street for a coffee. She decided to take me out the same evening to a show at the venue called "Neck of the Woods". The whole alley on Clement Street was packed with different restaurants, bars, bakeries, flower shops. Somehow it felt totally different than the other areas I've been to in San Francisco. It had the vibe of a little american village. There weren't barely any tourists, and it definitely felt like a local spot. People were a lot more outgoing and easy to talk to. I realized again, that the city has so much more to offer than just the popular spots. Even after my 6th visit in the "City By The Bay" there's still so much left to discover.

San Francisco remains one my favorite U.S. cities, it could even be my favorite. I felt proud again that I had the initials -SF- tattooed on my right arm.

 

 

Lisbon

Despite the fact, that I grew up in Luxembourg around a numerous amount of portuguese people, while hearing their language on a daily basis and getting partly in touch with their culture, it still took me 34 years to discover the beauty of Portugal's capital Lisbon.

For too many years, relatives and friends, were talking about traveling to Barcelona, the catalonian capital. Rarely my friends used "Lisbon" to pinpoint their next destination. So after my recent trip to Portugal, all I can tell is that "Lisbon is going to be the next Barcelona".

Talking about a hip city? Lisbon is hip! Partying with a mediterranean flair? You get it in Lisbon. Delicious mediterranean cuisine and its matching wines? Lisbon, check! Traveling on budget? You won't find cheaper than Portugal.

Maybe I was just lucky, for having met amazing fellow travelers in Lisbon. The weather definitely was on my side, during my 5 days in the capital of Portugal. I had the best stay, i could have ever expected, at the "YES HOSTEL" very nearby the Praca do Comercio.

I don't really know what made my journey in Lisbon so special, it just must have been the whole package.

Getting out of the hostel, and walking two blocks south, I met up with my best friend at the Praca do Comercio. It's a large public place, with an old historic arch leading to the main shopping street of the Baixa district. But passing the Praca do Comercio will lead you to the shore, where you can have a summerish cocktail, and enjoy the stroll towards the docks {docas}, or the famous "Ponte 25 de Abril" bridge. Almost any tiny alley that will lead you north to Bairro Alto, is packed with unique gems: bars, bakeries, tiny traditional restaurants, clubs. Just explore the whole area, and learn how to enjoy the diversity of the colorful capital.

On my first days, I visited the Alfama district twice. Just after passing the busy main shopping street of Baixa, the first alleys will get very steep after a couple of hundred meters. The different paths will lead you to the top of the "Sao Jorge" castle. Sadly the entrance fee to the castle isn't cheap, so don't plan on visiting it twice. I would recommend it, for taking scenic photos of the city. If you've visited a castle before, this one won't be a lot different. But you get a bunch of impressive overlooks.

The prettiest part of Alfama for me, were the different street art spots or urban art installations. Whole Alfama is packed with uban art. While looking at the colorful murals, you will hear the different trams passing by. The old tram lines definitely bring a unique charm to the capital. In my opinion it's an important part of the city's landmark, like the cabs of London. Expect at least half a day to explore the prettiest corners of Alfama. Have one or two port wines on one of the few scenic terraces or patios, have a mediterranean lunch, and listen to some Fado. You will love that district of Lisbon.

From the city center of Lisbon, you can easily catch a short train ride, and visit Belem or Cascais, two beautiful gems which are definitely worth a visit. Sadly I jumped on an express train, which didn't stop at Belem, and I was just too exhausted to switch the train for a 3rd time. 

The same train line, takes approximately 15 minutes to Belem, and 45 minutes to Cascais. The one-way ticket to Cascais only costs 2.20 Euro (3 us$). However if you plan on visiting around mid-day expect long waiting queues in summer. A lot of tourists and locals plan on visiting the beaches around Lisbon. I waited at least 40 minutes to get a ticket, since the metro-card won't work for the train lines. 

After having jumped off the train in Cascais, I felt like i made it to the "Santa Barbara" of Portugal. The streets of Cascais looked fancy, lots of beautiful people on the beaches, infinite lines of white buildings and hundreds of shops. How can you not like Cascais? It surely attracts too many tourists in summer, but the views, the sun, the beaches are all worth it. A 30-40 minutes walk from the train station will lead you uphill to the "boca do inferno", an impressive shore of seaside cliffs, a total different nature-spectacle compared to the fancy beaches downtown. 

I can't tell anything about Belem, but all the locals told me to check out the Belem tower, and enjoy the famous "pasteis de belem", a culinary highlight.

So much different parts of the city to check out during hot summer days. But what about nightlife? Except the nightlife of "Bairro Alto" I haven't seen much of the busy spots, which wasn't bad at all actually. I had an amazing time at the "YES HOSTEL". Every evening I could enjoy wine, port wine or delicious sangria for 1 Euro a cup... yep, you got it right, 1 Euro only! Around dinner time, 8pm or 9pm all the guests of the hostel came downstairs to the bar, to start the evening. Just standing at the counter and ordering a drink, made you bump into travelers and start a conversation right away. I met a lot of lovely travelers from Sweden, Canada and Germany. After having met the first time on my first night in Lisbon, we met up every other evening for a couple of drinks, and went out to different parts of the city. Some were quiet, some were busy. 

The Bairro Alto block, was definitely very very busy on the weekend, too many bars and too many people. Actually it was a good place to go out, but as a tourist it was hard to tell which bar to choose. The drinks weren't the best ones, but cheap. So in Bairro Alto is was quantity over quality, the perfect spot to get wasted. I would say it's the place where people go "hunting", you could smell the flirting on every corner.

I did like the "House of Gin" [or the "vintage gourmet" which is the name of restaurant]. Nuno, the barman, had an impressive knowledge about gin, and easily owns over 150 different gins from all over the world. I had the chance to try a couple of gins, which I couldn't find nearby the place where i live: Brooklyn Gin (USA), Nao Gin (P), Adamus Gin (P). Of course the drinks weren't cheap, expect to pay 10-13 euro for a drink. I guess those are the prices you'll have to pay all over Europe for a fancy gin & tonic.

Sadly I got my mobile phone stolen on my following trip to Barcelona, and didn't manage to back-up my photos from Portugal. I was glad I put some shots on Instagram and Facebook, which I could save at a later time, to add on this blog-post.

The whole city of Lisbon is packed with architectural pearls and colorful murals. It takes you more than 5 days to discover the beauties of the capital. That's why I've decided to do a road trip across Portugal in 2017. This trip amazed me with only positive impressions, obrigado Lisboa!

Useful informations

  • You can get a cheap bus ride right outside of the airport. Check the different bus stops (with numbers on it), and look which one leads to your destination. I paid 3.50 Euro for a ticket, and the ride from the airport to the Praca Do Comercio took about 40 minutes. A taxi ride could cost you between 25 and 30 euro, and doesn't need to be faster during rush hour.
  • After my couple of days in Lisbon, I took a train ride to Porto. The train took almost 3 hours to reach Porto. The one day ticket costs 30 Euros. During the very busy summer season, I still managed to get a train ticket on the day I left Lisbon. Trains to Porto leave every 30 to 60 minutes.
     
  • I can't tell you any negative parts of my trip, or which tourist traps you should avoid. I felt safe all the time, at any hour of the day. Even the most touristic places, offer you fair prices for food and drinks. Expect to pay 6-10 Euro for lunch or dinner, and 1-2 Euro for the common drinks like soft drinks, wines or beers.
     
  • Most people do speak english, french or german, even the older people. It wasn't hard to get around. Even though we met some younger folks who weren't fluent in english, somehow we managed to communicate, and it was a lot of fun, discovering the different cultural sides of the city. A lot of tourists as well, but it was so easy to make new friends in Lisbon. I will definitely add a small review of the "YES" hostel, which gave me the warmest welcome in Portugal. Sadly like previously mentioned, I got my phone stolen in Barcelona, and I forgot to back up my photos from my Iphone. I wish I could have fed you with a lot more of beautiful shots of Lisbon.

HA LONG BAY - 2 days 1 night

After having taken place in a shuttle-bus, that brings you from the center of Hanoi to Halong-Bay, you will be explained the different schedules of the guests who booked "2 days 1 night" or "3 days 2 nights". 

Prior my departure to Vietnam, I opted for the package "2 days 1 night", which means you will spend 1 night on a cruiser boat, and the crew will do their best to keep you entertained for the the 2 half days on the boat, the "Halong Silversea Cruise".

The  journey starts right in the center of the old town of Hanoi. Most companies offer a free shuttle from any hotel in the center of Hanoi, to the docks where you get on the boat. The ride usually takes about 3 to 4 hours. 

After 90 minutes, all the shuttles have a break at the same tourist-trap, where you can buy local products, food, snacks, drinks for the rest of your trip, and of course there are a couple of toilets, which looked pretty clean for vietnmese restrooms.

As soon as you leave the bus, the Ha Long Bay experience starts. We jumped on a smaller boat, had to put on swimming-vests, and 45seconds later, we docked on the main cruiser. Totally worth it, to put on the safety vests.

On the boat, we got introduced to the boat-crew. The manager, main contact during the cruise, was the only person who was fluent in english. But it really didn't bother, most of the crew would understand all the basic words in english. After a short introduction it was time for the check-in, where all the guests got their room keys. I never expected such a nice room on a boat! Beautifully furnitured bedroom, with an even nicer looking bathroom. 

We barely had time for a shower, and lunch was already served. 4 to 5 differents meals were served, and all of them were crazy delicious. I really never expected that sort of quality food on a cruising ship. Can't complain about the lunch part of the first day. But after having had breakfast, a coffee break at the rest-area, most of the guests weren't really hungry around 1 pm. 

No time for boredom! From lunch, into the bathing suits, into the kayak. The kayaking part was my favorite part of the whole Ha Long Bay experience. I never kayaked before. So having the chance to get introduced to kayaking in the middle of nowhere, among the huge rocks, the blue-greenish water, that was absolutely surreal. And I had the chance to have met a great lady on the boat, who was my partner. So I shared the kayak together with Kieu. 

After 45 minutes of kayaking, some people could swim around the boat, or go on the rooftop, to enjoy the views and a couple of cocktails. 

One hour later, we visited a "pearl farm". Apparently, according to the guide, there are only two pearl farms in all of Vietnam, and the one we visited, was a colaboration amongs the viets and the japanese. Of course, after the tour on the pearl farm, you get invited to buy pearl earrings, collars, bracelets. But for a really affordable price, so that I felt obliged to buy earrings for my mom.

After the farm, it was time for dinner. I gotta admit, there was barely no time left to enjoy your
air-conditioned room on the boat, or enjoy the roof top for a couple more hours. The dinner was by far not as classy as lunch. It was all kind of different vietnamese dishes, that you had to share with the table. During and after dinner, the manager, was trying to get the guests into the mood for karaoke. Nobody was drunk on the boat, because they didn't gave us the time to enjoy a couple of glasses. So it was disappointing, that there wasn't any partying on the cruise.

The three girls on our table, and I, we spent some time on the roof top, where it was so dark, that you hardly couldn't recognize the rocks around the boat. After an hour of chatting, we all went to bed.

The next morning, we all had breakfast, went to visit a cave, and after the cave, some guests were brought to a different cruiser, because they opted for the "3 days 2 nights" package. Later my kayak partner, Kieu from Austin, told me that she spent her 2nd day on a little island, where they could play beach-ball, do kayaking, or go swimming. The cabins with their bedrooms, weren't air conditioned during these very hot weeks, and of course didn't look as fancy as the rooms on our boat.

So if you're asking me, which package would be the best to book. I really can't tell. I would have loved to spend more time on the boat, chilling or kayaking. But if you gotta pay double the price for another night, for sitting in the sand, and sleeping in wooden cabins with no A.C., i'm really not sure if it's worth the money. My package "2d1n" cost 150 € (170 us$). 

I gotta admit that the river is pretty dirty, there's a massive load of dirt floating around the rocks and the different boats. I'm glad I did the tour, but I wouldn't do it again.

Maybe someday as a couple I would turn back to Ha Long Bay. In my opinion it just got that touristic vibe, with a lot of entertainment around you, but I guess that's sadly the only way to discover the bay area, on the easiest way.

 

 

 

 

Sapa - When it rains ...

When I arrived in Sapa, after having spent the whole night on a sleeper train, I had to take out my mobile phone. I was shocked and disappointed, and couldn't get my phone out fast enough. I opened the google website and entered „What to do in Sapa during rainfall?“.

 

 

What to do in Sapa when it rains ? 

I took an 8-hour-train-ride from Hanoi to the Lao Cai train station, which is the station where you get out, and hop on a mini-bus for a ride to Sapa. I had beautiful weather in Hanoi, it felt so much like summer in may. On my busride to Sapa, I could barely recognize the rice fields in the valleys, because there was so much fog.

I really didn't know what to think about at that point. I was so looking forward to take amazing photos of the scenic nature, the hmong tribes, the greenish rice fields. Suddenly I asked myself how i'd spend my next 2-3 days at the hotel!

So ... what to do in Sapa, when it rains ?

Well, if you traveled all the way to Sapa, don't be disappointed about the weather situation ! Believe me! I had one of my most memorable traveling moments in Sapa, despite the heavy rainfall and the fog.

Some people I talked to in Sapa on my first day, told me that the weather can change within minutes, within hours, which I first didn't really believe. But I witnessed it myself, the very first moment, when I was about to take my first photoshot. I saw a very pretty ricefield scene, surrounded by a mysterious mist. The time it took, to open my bag, take out my camera, put the right lens on it, the ricefield had vanished among the fog. I couldn't see it anymore! It was a matter of seconds and minutes.

I can't say it often enough, don't get disappointed or scared by the weather! It can change so rapidly. As you can witness, I was able to take some lovely shots, despite the horrible weather I got in Sapa.

Hiking in Sapa

You have endless hiking possibilities, if you're only staying a couple of days in the city. I spent 2 nights in Sapa. Sapa at first sight seems really touristic. It's packed with restaurants (very touristic ones, there are a couple of italian restaurants downtown), hiking shops which sell tons of North Face bargains, hotels, and a couple of bars. On the streets you'll mostly bump into tourists, or the hmong tourist hunters, who are trying so hard to sell you a hiking-tour or handmade objects.

On my first day in Sapa I visited the „Catcat Village“. It only takes about 20 minutes walking to reach the entrance of the village, where you have to buy a ticket (50.000 dongs). It's all downhill to reach the village. As soon as you get out of the main roads of Sapa, you already can have a glance at the first rice field valleys. „Catcat Village“ is very easy to reach, you could even wear flipflops to do the whole walking tour. If the ticket-officer hands you out a map of the village, take it, and follow its directions. I really missed the prettiest corners of Catcat on my first day, so I went back on my last day, after I saw some beautiful shots of Catcat on google. „Catcat Village“ is considered as being very touristic, and not really worth visiting. I can't agree with that. It might not be the dreamroute for a born hiker, but it's definitely a beautiful place to start you first exploring in Sapa, after a long train ride. Because I didn't follow the local-map on my first day it took me around two to three hours to get back to the hotel. It would only take 90 minutes to 2 hours to do the whole tour.

On my second day, I got out pretty early of the hotel, around 08:30 or 09:00 in the morning, and started a longer hike. I walked from Sapa, towards the Lao chai village (not Lao Cai!), and headed towards Ta Van village, because I wanted to take a photo of the hanging rope bridge, also know as the cloud bridge. The one-way hike is about 7-9 kilometers long, and isn't that tiring, because it goes downhill for most parts of the hike. Now guess what! Walking back to Sapa, will be more exhausting, all the way up to the mountain! My trip started with rainfall, as soon as I left the hotel, lots of fog as well, and then it got better and better til 13:00h (1:00pm). After lunch time, I had to take of my jacket, because the sun came out, it got really hot. Two hours later it started raining again. By the way, don't forget the cash, you also need to buy an entrance ticket before making it to the first village. 

On my way back home, to the hotel, around 2 or 3pm I noticed that most of the tourists who arrived by a mini-bus, to walk through the villages, were the unlucky ones. Sleeping all morning, and taking the easy way to visit the villages, won't give you the weather conditions you deserve ;). So I was glad that I walked all morning, and got my moments of luck with the weather conditions. It allowed me to take some descent photoshots, and meet a lot of hmong people on the streets, especially the adorable hmong kids.

What really touched me on this trip to Sapa, was the mix of nature's beauty and the lifestyle of the hmong tribes. Those poor people living in cabins, houses without windows. Wearing multiple colorful layers to protect themself from the rainy weather and protecting their skin from the sunrays. While walking through the several villages, I realized that the locals don't have any material possessions, except for their lands, animals, and their four-walls with a roof. Still those villagers looked happier, than a lot of people in my country, or maybe even happier than myself. This day, hiking from Sapa to Ta Van, belongs to one of the most memorables moments of all my travels. I felt instants of pure happiness.

After I returned at the hotel, I was checking out tripadvisor, what else I could do on my last day in Sapa. I read about the highest peak in Indochina, called Fansipan Mountain. The route to the peak of the mountain started right outside of my hotel. However it takes about 6 to 7 hours, only uphill, to reach the top of Fansipan. One of the main reasons I didn't do the hike, was that I was only wearing running shoes and summer clothes. Another issue was the fog. Wouldn't it be disappointing to reach the peak of Fansipan, and all i would/could see, was the fog; no valleys, no mountains, only fog. Because of the heavy rainfall, lots of roads were slippery wet and very muddy. So I decided to do some shopping instead, visit the Sapa Lake in the city center, and go back to „Catcat Village“ to check out the places that I missed on my first day. Once again... there was so much fog on my last day, that I couldn't see the village from the top of the hill. I walked down to the village, through the fog, and on the lowest point of the village, the fog had vanished, which allowed me to take out my camera.

Since the beginning of the year 2016, you can catch a cable car to reach the Fansipan peak. Apparently the two-way ticket costs around 40 US$.

Dry season takes place during the summer months in Sapa. I really can't tell if it would be better to climb the Fansipan Mountain during the warmest months or in spring during rainfall. However you could enjoy the ricefields and its green colors. I'm pretty sure that someday I will turn back to Sapa, and do more hiking, as a couple.

Useful informations

  • The mini-bus or shuttle ride from Lao Cai station to Sapa costs 65.000 100.000 (2-5 euro or US$). The ride takes between 40-50 minutes. I was told by the hotel manager that a taxi would cost around 500.000 dongs (20-24$). You can't miss the shuttles, they're right in front of you, once you get out of the Lao Cai station.
     
  • Because of the rain in Sapa, ask your hotel manager if they could dry your clothes or shoes. Most of the hotels only have a/c in their rooms. So it's kind of impossible to dry your clothes within 24 hours, if you don't have a balcony, and if the sun isn't out. I had to use a hair-dryer, which wasn't the easiest way to dry your clothes.
     
  • During my 2 first days in Hanoi, I booked my train ticket to Sapa, through the hotel manager. I paid 1.500.000 dongs (60 euro, 65-69 US$) for a two-way ticket. Each train-cabin on the sleeper train, has 4 beds, 2 lower beds, and the 2 upper beds. The lower beds are a little bit more expensive, but it's definitely worth booking these! There's no ladder to get on the upper bed, only a foot rest. I still can't imagine how older people would get on top. On the lower ones, you get an electric outlet to charge your phone, a reading lamp, and a shared table. On my two train rides, I only shared the cabin with one person. There was no small-talk at all. People get in, fall asleep instantly, and get out of the train again. The train rides takes about 8 hours, and it's a very confortable ride! It feels safe, and isn't too noisy. Bring a jacket, the a/c can get pretty cold. 

 

 

 

HANOI - Capital of Vietnam.

The few things I learned within the first couple of hours in Hanoi, were that the center of the capital of Vietnam literally is a jungle of traffic, especially motor bikes and scooters. And so much more blooms out of that issue. Crossing the street, seems at first sight impossible or suicidal, because absolutely no one stops his vehicule to let you cross the street.

 

Walking on the side walk ? The scooter-drivers park their bikes on the sidewalk, so there's barely, or absolutely, no space for pedestrians. During my first hours in Hanoi, i checked out the neighbourhood by walking on the street lane with the locals, and paying so much attention to avoid getting hit by a vehicle.

As my plane landed in the early morning at Hanoi's international airport, most of the passangers had to kill time, before checking-in. Luckily the hotel managers, figured out that a lot of planes hit Vietnam on early hours, so most of the hotels I stayed at, allowed early check-ins, around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

Nevertheless, me and other passengers, were walking around the most popular and central lake called „Hoan Kiem“. It attracts a lot of locals in the early morning, who are down for yoga, dancing classes or just jogging around Hoan Kiem.

At the lake, I quickly got in touch with different vietnamese people, in a good and a bad way. I will come back to that later. I was told a couple of facts about the city, obviously about its traffic, and why there were so many motor bikes all across of Vietnam. There are around 90 millions of people living in Vietnam. Most of them can't afford cars and opt for a scooter instead. There are lots of narrow alleys in Hanoi, which aren't accessible by car, therefor the scooter wins again. And of course the gas. Scooters consume less gas, and is budget-wise more attractive for the vietnamese folks. Car-parking in Hanoi... forget about it. It's pretty obvious, that you ride a scooter when you're living in Hanoi.

I didn't feel like being in a country's capital, after I checked out the area nearby my hotel. Most of the touristic sights are within walking distances. As soon as you get out of the city's limits, it feels like being on the country side. However in Hanoi you will be introduced to the vietnamese culture without any doubt; food, clothes, pride, politics, Ho Chi Minh, work, history. You will turn back home wiser and with a total different approach towards Vietnam. I figured out, that I absolutely knew nothing about the country, prior my arrival. 

In the very center of Hanoi, nothing looks luxurious. The streets are packed with streetfood-stalls, the sidewalks are blocked by thousands of motorbikes, and a lot of locals are just waiting to hunt some tourists to offer them a service. I got really annoyed a couple of days, when just everybody seemed to get into small-talk with me and later it tourned out, that they were trying to get to the money. 

Once you get the vibe of the city, it feels so satisfying, being able to walk everywhere in the city. No need for public transportation. The locals on the scooters give you a ride for 1 to 3 us$ (30.000 – 60.000 viet. dongs). Most of them are good drivers, so no need to worry.

Actually I got asked by a traveler „Hey don't you think that the vietnamese are really good drivers“. At first, I totally disagreed, and then I realized that she was so right. Ok, they don't stop and let you cross the street. They honk ALL the time. Some ride their bikes without a helmet, some ride them bare-foot. But considering the fact that there are so many bikers on the street, thousands of them, surrounded by still a lot of cars and cabs, no one ever stops, and still there are barely no accidents. During my 2 weeks in Vietnam I witnessed only 1 single accident. Two bikes, 5 people, were involved in the crash. The police, and the military, witnessed the accident, but no one helped, and the involved drivers, just drove off, with bloody scratches on their faces. Crazy!

 

How to cross the street in Hanoi

Well enough said about the traffic, but I gotta add a couple of lines, about „how to“ cross the street, if it's your first time in Vietnam. Be respectful towards cars and taxis, let them go first. When crossing the street, always keep eye-contact with the closest biker or driver, and they'll do the same. They will try to pass around you, and you can tell that by having eye contact. Constantly walk, until you feel that it's wiser to stop in the middle of the street. Actually it's so easy, once you get used to it. Do as the locals, just walk!

 

The endless streetfood stalls

The first few days, I really didn't know what to think of the local street food. I have had vietnamese food before, but mostly at restaurants. The scent of cooking, the smell of seafood, invading the street corners, initially made me avoid those places. It's obvious that the locals aren't used to the hygiene standards of the western world. Maybe they don't have to, because their food seems to be a lot fresher than ours. You get the food straight from the plantations or from the locals farmers. The differents foods are chopped on the sidewalk, and cooked on the sidewalk. The locals enjoy their dishes on tiny, yes TINY, plastic stools. Nothing fancy at all. After a while you start enjoying those little tables that look like kiddie's toys.

Everything in Hanoi, seemed to be totally different, from what I've experienced on my previous asian tavels in Japan or Hong Kong. Everything is simpler, and no one really gives a shit what it looks or smells like. The locals just want to enjoy delicious food, and the exquisite coffee. Quickly I figured out that „pho“ soup isn't pronounced „fo“ but „fa“, and that pho soup is rather a breakfast dish, than lunch food. The vietnamese spring-rolls wrapped in rice-paper are healthier than the chinese spring rolls, and got a lot more of flavour. „Bun Cha“ and „Banh Mi“ are very popular among the locals. „Bun Cha“ are pork meat-balls served in a broth, with rice-noodels aside. The „Banh Mi“ is the local sandwich, stuffed with different kind of meats and pickled veggies. 4 vietnamese spring rolls cost around 1$, the banh-mi was around 1$ as well, and the dinner I had for two people, 2 dishes for each of us, plus a bottle of water, cost around 5$ (for the whole kiddie table). Food is cheap in Vietnam, for as long as you don't go to the fancy places.

Oh yes, their coffee is so good. I couldn't stop mentioning that to my friends, that the vietnamese have such great coffee. On my bus ride to Halong Bay I was told that 90% of Vietnam's coffee are mostly „robusta“ beans, and not the popular arabica coffee, that is sold all over Europe. Robusta coffee is know for being stronger, containing more caffeine, but lacking the wide-range flavours of arabica coffee. As for myself, I love the strong taste of their coffee, and I don't agree that it lacks of flavours. I brought back home so many bags of different vietnamese coffee, and I am already trying to figure out, how I can import coffee from Vietnam. Another fact, that was unknown to me, that Vietnam is the second biggest coffee producer in the world.

 

Must-sees in Hanoi

What are my recommendations of Hanoi? I wouldn't say that Hanoi is THE city for touristic attractions. Surely there are lots of different spots and corners to check out in the capital, however it didn't feel like a capital trip to me. My favorite place to hang out for sunset, was the Hoan Kiem lake, close to most hotels, and right in the heart of the city.

During my stay in Hanoi I walked twice to the Long Bien bridge, known for its eye-catching architecture. From the middle of the bridge you get a beautiful view over a river, plantations, green fields, and you get a peep of what the country side of vietnamese suburbs look like. Only motorbikes, bicycles and pedestriants are allowed on the side-lanes of the bridge. No cars or trucks! The main middle lane of the bridge is used for train traffic. Walking from the lake towards the Long Bien bridge, you'll witness the traffic chaos on the main roads, and you'll walk across small typical Hanoi alleys where you will bump into the locals.

Below the Long Bien bridge is a daily food market, that mainly attracts vietnamese people, and barely no tourists. It's a lovely place for taking photographs, such a colorful place.

From that food market, walk westbound, and you'll get onto the West Lake, which is the biggest lake in the capital of Vietnam. Is it a pretty lake? Not really ... South of the West Lake lies the Ba Đình Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared the independance of Vietnam. Just next to the HCM Mausoleum, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.

You get plenties of museums in Hanoi: the War-Museum, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi Police Museum, Women's Museum, B52 Victory Museum, Hanoi Citadel Gate. I'm really not attracted by museums, however when i'm really in a tourist-mood, I try to check out one or two in the city. I was positively surprised by the police museum; reading the history of Hanoi's police force, they rather reminded me of a militia fighting the different secret services of France and the United States.

On the westside of the city, you can visit the Huu Tiep lake (B52 lake), which is a small pond, in which a B25 bomber crashed, after being shot down by vietnamese soldiers. It's actually not that impressive either.

Not far away from the popular Old Quarter, is the only remaining city gate. All others were destroyed during the war times.

You can do all the main city attractions withins 2 full days. Tons of tourist offices offer you day trips outside of the city, by motorbike or shuttle. 

What I liked most about Hanoi, was its atmosphere. Like i already mentioned above, it's not about the tourist-attractions or historic buildings. To me it was more about the vibe, moving with the locals, going through the traffic, savouring a delicious cup of coffee, sitting on a plastic chair and enjoying my spring-rolls or pho soup. Hearing stories of the bad times and good times of the country, getting in touch with the vietnamese culture ... being part of the vietnamese daily life. The locals showed me how to brew coffee in the vietnamese way, and how to prepare the dips for my spring rolls. That's what I loved about the city, and what i brought back home with me. It was a wonderful experience!

 

How to get a Visa

Prior your departure for Vietnam, check if your citizenship requires a travel visa. A couple of european countries, don't need to apply for a visa. As for myself, I needed to fill out a couple of documents, before starting my journey. So I used the website „Vietnam-Evisa.org“. Before landing in Hanoi, I had to get a „letter of approval“ before applying for VOA (Visa On Arrival).

Through the mentioned website, you'll get a letter of approval, through e-mail. It costs 19 US$, and it took about 2 to 3 days to get the email. The online company will send you a handwritten letter, with your name on it (including the names of other travelers). Print that letter out. At the airport, you'll have to hand out that letter of approval, 2 passport-photographs, and 25 US$ per person.

On the Vietnam-Evisa.org website, you can choose full package option, which apparently gives you the priority, and you won't have to wait in line. Of course you gotta pay extra for that! My plane landed around 6:30 a.m. and I only had to wait for about 10 minutes on a bench, til the officer handed me out my travel visa, which allowed me to travel through Vietnam for a whole month. In my case, I'm glad I didn't pay for the express option. As soon as you're passport is ready, they'll show your photograph on a screen. So pay attention to that screen, the officers won't call out your name.  

 

Useful informations

  • At the airport most of the ATMs only allow you to withdraw 2.000.000 dongs (80 euro, about 70-80 US$). They'll refuse your credit card, if you're trying to get more cash out of the ATM.
  • The taxi-ride costs 350.000 – 400.000 dongs, and it will take about 40 minutes to get to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, all depending on the traffic. I advise you, like in any other country, to avoid the cab drivers, who get in touch with you inside the airport building. It's been the first time, for a long time, that I fell right into the tourist trap again, and followed an unofficial cab-driver. He told me it would only cost 15 US$ to get to Hanoi. A couple of minutes later, the Hanoi police showed up, and they locked his car. Already in trouble after being half an hour in Hanoi. On my last day, my hotel called a private driver to bring me back to the airport, and it only cost around 250.000, cheaper than a taxi. Trust the hotels, but don't trust the fake cab drivers at the airport. 
  • While in Vietnam, the company „WAY2GO“, offers you a vietnamese sim-card for your mobile phone, which allows you to use a 3G connection, for unlimited mobile internet, during 15 days, all across the country. The sim-card costs 350.000 dongs (15 euro, 12-14 US$). Definitely worth it! The connection works pretty well in most areas, so that you get fluent skype calls and facetime chats. No need to look for a free-wifi spot anymore!
  • If you plan on booking train tickets, for the night-sleeper train, do that through your hotel. You'll get better rates and you surely won't get any surprises. Most of the vietnamese people aren't that fluent in english, and therefor it's always better, if a local can help you out, to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • In most parts of Vietnam, you can pay in U.S. Dollars or Vietnamese Dongs. If you're asking for the price, the vietnamese will mostly tell you the price in US$.

Praha {1}.

Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, has been on my check list for quite a while. It should have become the 4th city, i'd visit in eastern europe. 

Expectations were high, because I have had some truely amazing experiences in Moscow, Budapest, and Krakow. Sadly Prague didn't blow me away as the previous mentioned cities. I guess travel-blogging should allow posts, that wouldn't compliment the travel experience too much. Sadly Prague was one of the cities, I didn't or couldn't enjoy that much. But why?

First of all, the weather wasn't the best. If you travel by plane, to reach your destination, and the weather doesn't allow you take decent photos, or let you enjoy the sights in and around the city, the only fun you could get would be with indoor activities, like restaurants & bars.

On our first day, the weather wasn't on our side. We stayed in Praha 1, so it was obvious that we would visit the Old Town of Prague. Without any doubt the Old Town is beautiful. But after having experienced Budapest and Krakow, it just seemed like another "old town" to me. Nothing that impressed me much.

The scenery and view all over the city, reminded me a lot of Budapest, but with a bigger amount of tourists around me, fighting for the best spot to take a snapshot of Prague.

It takes you about 1 day to check out the Old Town. The highlight in my eyes was the walk over the world famous Charles Bridge. I was told that it would be even prettier at night, with the street lamps turned on, and the cast shadows on the old paved road.

At the main square I really enjoyed the "Church of Our Lady before Týn", and its pretty black towers. I didn't get the tourist's joy for the astronomical clock though. 

During our stay, there were easter markets all over the cities. The good thing was that we could get "Trdelník", a traditional czech cake, around every corner. The Trdelnik kinda was the highlight of my Prague trip. So delicious!

What I really missed in Prague, were the fancy or trendy pubs, coffee bars, restaurants, which I really enjoyed in Budapest or Krakow. The bars or restaurants in the Praha 1 area, looked very traditional and dull. Except the few absinthe bars! We did really enjoyed those. 

No interesting shopping avenue. No delightful restaurants. Too many irish pubs. Too many fierce bouncers.

Another downside was, that nothing was really cheap in Prague. The prices were alike to those in central Europe. Expect to pay triple the price, that you would get in the capital of Hungary or Poland. 

I only heard good echoes about Prague. Prague has made a name among the top travel cities in Europe. So in my opinion, the casual traveler, would go for Prague. If you've never visited eastern europe before, you will love Prague. If you haven't traveled much, you will love Prague as well ! In my case, I would send you straight to Budapest, and guarantee you a better time!

During the evening hours the center of Prague was packed with guys, mostly africans or local czechs, asking you for a strip show, pushing you towards the bars they were working for. Too many invitations for strip clubs. At some point we really had to tell them to "fxxx off". This was another downside, traveling as a group of 5 guys. 

We had good times in a 50s diner restaurant, called James Dean. The stairs to the basement of the restaurant, lead to a club, which was really packed after midnight ! We had our best times in that basement. Good music, good people, and fair prices on the drinks.

I wish I had read some books of the author Franz Kafka, before visiting Prague. You will find lots of "Kafka" in the city; statues, museums, mugs & books with Kafka's face on it. A Kafka Cafe. Well, a lot of Kafka!

After getting back home, I ordered my first novel of Franz Kafka. :) 

Best Kōhī

The japanese expression for "Coffee" is Kōhī ( コーヒー). Coffee is almost becoming as popular as the green tea. I guess you'll find more coffee bars in and around Tokyo, than tea-shops. Which actually comes in handy for myself. 

Before traveling back to Japan, more precisely to Tokyo, I informed myself in advance, which coffee places i'd would check out on my daily walks through the city. 

There was the place called "Mighty Step's Coffee Stop".  I first found out about it, through a video on the video-platform Vimeo. Click on the following link, to watch the beautifully produced video "DRIP FOR U". I was really looking forward to visit this store in Tokyo. It took us around 40 minutes to get from our hotel front porch to the the mighty step's bar. On my first visit, the shop was closed. What a bummer! Two days later, I tried to convince my friend to get back, because I really wanted to bring back home a cup with the shop's branding on it. I still didn't own a coffee cup from Japan in my mug collection.

After we walked in, we were warmly welcomed by the two baristas working at the shop. I was astonished how beautiful the tiny store was set up. The owner had put so much love and soul into that coffee bar, that was located in the entrance of a barber shop. 

"Mighty Step's Coffee Stop" offers different type of coffees, depending on its origins, and different flavours of ice-cream. The whole  package is beautifully served on a wooden tray as you can witness on my photo above. 

I walked by a lot of different bars, but this one got my whole attention within a heartbeat. The coffee-bar is located in Nihonbashi and only walking distance away from the Mitsukoshi-Mae metro station. 

On our daytrip to Kamakura, which is only an hour-train-ride away from the busy city of Tokyo, I randomly discovered a coffee spot called "Farm for you". The organic place was divided into a restaurant, coffee roastery, and a bakery. We just grabbed a cup of coffee from the outside, to enjoy the summer weather from the porch of the shop.

Once again, I could witness with how much love the barista, surrounded by different chemexes, a coffee roaster, and all sort of accessories, made the coffee for the customers. A cup of coffee was about 500 yen, and it was worth every single copper coin. Of course the coffee tasted best, with a piece of carrot cake! What a lovely place! Delicious columbian coffee!


MIGHTY STEP'S COFFEE STOP

4-3-14 Nihonbashi-Honcho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo


FARM TO YOU

由比ガ浜2-4-43
KAMAKURA, 神奈川県 〒248-0014

TOKYO 東京都

Ohhh Japan I can't get enough of you. Yesterday I turned back home from my third trip to Japan. Finally I feel confident enough to write a new post about this gigantic city of Tokyo. This was the second time I had visited Tokyo within a year.

I can't tell that it is one of my favorite cities, but I appreciated Tokyo everytime, because it has so much to offer. Nevertheless it never comes easy! The capital of Japan, formerly known as Edo, is sooo H.UG.E. The public transportation system is almost flawless, the japanese train network is the best one i've ever experienced. However it can easily take up to 45 minutes, to reach your destination.

So in my case, I really wanted to have a pit-stop at different coffee-shops or jazz-bars, while wandering through the city. However sometimes it took me 40 minutes of a subway ride to get my special treat, and if you keep fullfilling your little wishes on a daily basis, it's gonna cost you a lot of time and energy.

On my first trip, I stayed 6 nights in Tokyo, and this time I stayed another 6 nights. I guess I've visited the most famous spots in the city, and still I haven't witnessed all the magic of that vivid metropolis.

I could list the most interesting parts of Tokyo on this post, but other bloggers, and travel-websites have already done this before me. Check google, and you will get endless lists of the "must-sees" of Tokyo.

I will write you, what made Tokyo special in my opinion.

After my first experiences in Tokyo, and after having read several books of the famous japanese writer Haruki Murakami, I got my own vision of the capital. I put my main focus on music, food, bars, coffee, and the "traditional" sights.

After New York City, comes Tokyo, which shows a lot of interest for Jazz, Soul, and Blues Music. There are endless jazz venues, soul bars, and the tiny cosy pubs which only host a handful of customers. Those places will give you the nostalgic feel of these old, but never fading, music genres. There are some famous places like "The Blue Note", "New York" (remember the bar from Lost in Translation?), "The Cotton Club". In almost every part of Tokyo you will find a cosy jazz bar, with dimmed lights, and the smell of whiskey and cigarettes crawling out underneath those wooden doors. In Shinjuku, at the popular nightlife district called "Golden Gai", you get the choice of a 100 to 200 bars. Even Quentin Tarantino loves to spend some time at the bar "La jetée" in Golden Gai, while he's in town. Most of them can only host 4 to 10 people. It's all about the intimate athmosphere, where strangers meet the locals. I was told that foreigners wouldn't be welcomed at "Golden Gai", but i can't agree with that. In almost every bar I've been to, I got in touch with japanese locals, and I felt very welcome. Ok, it might have been because of the booze! :) Besides the bars & clubs, you can spend hours at record stores. Vinyls still seem to be very popular in Japan. There are plenties of record stores! And last but not least, expect to find a good concert every evening. Check out the website "Songkick", enter the actual city, and you get a list of what's going on, concert wise, at night.

Food, Food, Food... everywhere. But where should we start? I really can't recommend you any restaurants. I never had a bad lunch in Japan. And there are millions of different food places in Tokyo. Ramen-Shops, udon & soba restaurants, izakayas, streetfood- stalls, food-courts... You get the idea! After breakfast, I was already thinking about what I could or should get for lunch. Japanese food is so delicious, and they have a lot of different dishes to check out. Feel free to check out my previous blog-post about the diversity in japanese cuisine: Itadakimasu. Before I forget, don't think that the sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market is the best you're going to find in Tokyo. There are a couple of sushi shops at Tsukiji. For some restaurants you will need to wait in line for half an hour, until they let you squeeze yourself along the customers to get a seat. And all that early in the morning at 7:00am, when you're looking forward to get the freshest sushi for breakfast. We opted for a different one. Hey it's just sushi! And you're not getting a reservation at Jiro's restaurant! It's still a fish market. The sushi we got, was certainly fresh, it gets delivered directly from the market. But it was the only place, where the waiter was rather unpolite, and it was a lot more expensive than at different places in the center of Tokyo. During this trip I got my best sushi at a small local not-fancy place. So don't expect too much from Tsukiji Market. If you're traveling with kids, avoid the market as well, it doesn't take much to get hit by those tiny delivery trucks racing all over the place.

Green tea, matcha, we've all tasted it in Japan, and we all loved it. We tried matcha-motchis, matcha-kitkat, matcha-cake, matcha-baumkuchen.... Everything is matcha in Japan!  But don't forget about the coffee! There is no lack of coffee culture in Tokyo. Expect to find the same fancy places where hipsters hang out, the snobby neo-modern coffee corners, or the classic coffee bars, which have been in Tokyo for ages. There's a coffee-bar for everyone's taste! I checked out a couple of coffee spots in Tokyo, and will write a blog-post about it later.  

Ok, breakfast, coffee, lunch, tea or coffee, dinner. How are we supposed to put anything else between those free spots in our travel-schedule?

My three favorite spots to hang out in Tokyo, til today, would be Asakusa, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Asakusa is surrounded by the Senso-Ji temple, the Kaminarimon gate, lots of tourist stores which sell kimonos, wooden sandals, tenugui towels, and endless izakayas and restaurants. If you get over the tourists in that area, you can enjoy the "tradional" vibe in that area. It's one of the few places that reminded me of Kyoto or Osaka, two japanese cities, who have of lot more of japanese culture to offer. Especially at night it can be very charming. Call it a tourist trap, but I enjoyed Asakusa everytime I spent some time over there.

Shinjuku and Shibuya are almost alike. Shinjuku is on the adult side, and Shibuya attracts more of the younger crowds. Both parts offer the right mix of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. If i'd have to spend the nigth in Tokyo, I would go to one of either places. But again, there are too many bars and food places. Just walk through the streets, and hop in. Lots of famous places are located on a higher floors, or just in the basement of a bigger building.

Another concern would be the night trains, there are none! So if you plan on going out in Tokyo, you gotta jump on the last train home, around midnight or 00:30am, or you go through the night, and catch the first train in the morning around 05:30. Taxis get VERY expensive in Tokyo, we did it once, and learned from it. On weekends a lot of people stay out til the early morning. It's always safe to get home later, you won't be alone, and with a little luck, you'll have a last goodnight party on the train.

If you're traveling alone, and dont' feel confortable going out alone, i'd recommend you to join the official pubcrawl : Tokyo Pub Crawl. It costs 2500 - 3000 yen. You get a free welcome shot, free shots while hopping from bar to bar, and after 2 or 3 bars, you get free entrance at a club, and of course you get a special discount with every drink order. So it's worth the money. The night we joined the crawl, there were easily around 50 people at the party, and it was a lot of fun. The crawl made it really easy to get in touch with people. Most of them were travelers, some were expats living in Tokyo, or japanese people who wanted to improve their language skills.

Let's get back to Shinjuku! Another important part of Shinjuku is its beautiful and colorful park. It's the nicest I visited in Tokyo. You have to pay a tiny entrance fee of 200 or 300 yen. But it's super clean, no weirdos hanging around, no bums. Enjoy the park ! You will love it! It's a must-see while you're in Shinjuku.

I visited Tokyo in march this year, and last year it was rather the end of spring. So after I experienced the colder temperatures in Japan, I definitely recommend you to visit Japan in spring! It makes such a big difference. The flowers and trees will be blooming, more colors everywhere. Hardly any rain in spring or summer. Especially the parks will be busier and offer a nicer color-palette than during the colder months.

Usefull Informations:

  •  If you plan on entering Tokyo, or leaving for the airport by train, take the Skyliner-Express train! It costs around 2300 yen for a oneway-ticket, which is still cheaper than the regular JR LINE EXPRESS. But the Skyliner takes only 45 minutes, JR train around 80 minutes. When you get back to Narita Airport, you can catch the Skyliner-Express at the UENO station, to avoid the human traffic on bigger train stations. Look for the blue KEISEI-Line, and follow the signs. 
     
  • At the airport, or a the main train stations, you can rent a mobile wifi. This time I had the chance to rent a mobile device at our ryokan for 500 yen a day. It was so worth it! Reading street signs, and comparing them on a street map, can be so confusing, while "Google Maps" makes it way much easier to walk around the city. The mobile wifi device offers you a wifi spot, all over the city. Just put it on your bag or pocket, and you can get online anywhere, even on the subway. It saves you a lot of time and patience.
  • While having free wifi in your pocket, make your journey even more easier with the smartphone app "Tokyo Subway Navigation". Check out the place  you're aiming to visit on google-maps, and look for the nearest subway station. Enter the name of the station into the mobile application "Tokyo Subway Navigation", and it will tell you, which train line you need to take, how long it's gonna take, and it reveals you the exact price of the ride. You don't need to follow the colored subway line with your index finger anymore, to find out which is the fastest and easiest transfer line. The app does it all for you! 
 



City of Angels

I apologize for a lack of recent updates, however I had to cancel my 2 recently planned trips, out of personal issues, and lack of finances. 2016 will be another fulfilled year with lots of travels, new stories to tell, and new friendships.

While waiting for my upcoming trip, I decided to write a post about the gigantic city of Los Angeles, California. As I was writing in my previous blog-posts that I used to be a legit fan of California, I've visited Los Angeles too many times. On each trip, there was always something new I could discover.

By the way, my very first trip to the U.S., was in Los Angeles. I instantly fell in love with it. Sadly people don't ever tell anything cheerful about L.A. It's very often considered as a dangerous & filthy city, with too many superficial californians living in a superficial bubble.

Well, in my opinion, there's a lot more to discover, besides the superficial people trying to stay in the perfect shape, or spending money on Melrose.

Here are my favorite spots in L.A., which I'd suggest to anyone who's curious about discovering the diversity of the city.

  • Santa Monica

You got it! It's the very touristic part of Los Angeles, where tourists crawl through "3rd street Promenade", and where too many shots of the Santa Monica Pier are taken. However everbody loves Santa Monica, it gives you the feeling of a summer vacation, and you can reach the beach within a couple of minutes. It's the perfect location for a hotel. And so many delicious restaurants and fancy cocktail bars are just right there in the neighbourhood.

I love the flair, of the old Santa Monica pier, and its amusement park, that everybody knows from the cheesy lovestory-movies. It's a safe area, and a very vivid location for night-walks.

  • El Pueblo

As you could have figured out by its name, El Pueblo, is a hispanic neighbourhood in the historic district of the city-center of Los Angeles. It was one of the last spots that I discovred in L.A. Actually it was very entertaining, still a little bit too touristic, but I totally enjoyed it. While spending a few days in the LA area, it's easy to notice that the hispanic culture has a big impact on the whole city. The buildings, the colors, and latino population all over the city. Lots of spanish words in the streets.

  • Venice

Who doesn't know Venice Beach? Ever heard about Arni's muscle beach? The tv show Californication? The legendary Dogtown, from the 80s legendary skateboard era... There's so much to discover in Venice Beach, too much street art, different music artists along the beachwalk of Venice. The diversity of people: rappers, dancers, hippies, bodybuilders, stoners, ... a whole melting-pot of different nations. 

Venice Beach is the perfect spot for nightlife. A lot better than Santa Monica, if you're staying in that area. People are a lot more laid back than in Santa Monica, where the locals mostly consist of waiters & vallets.

I love observing the people walking by... watching the hispanics play squash with their hands, streetballers doing alley-oops, the skaters grinding all over the skate-pools, the bodybuilders pumping iron. It's a fest for photographers. There are just too many subjects to take photos of.

 

  • Hollywood

Too many times, I spoke out my repulsive thoughts about Hollywood. Once you walked along the Hollywood's walk of fame, you gotta admit, that the streets aren't as glamarous as they're often considered in the medias. Drug addicts, bums, lo-fi comedians, ... annoying the tourists, asking for change. There streets are very filthy, there's trash on every corner. BUT... everytime I visit Hollywood, I bump into new streetart murals, I discovery new lovely shops, and I love passing a couple of hours at L.A.'s biggest record store called "Amoeba". As a music aficionado, you can have a drink at legendary venues, where your dad's favorite band used to play gigs in the 70s. Last but not least, there's the Hollywood letters left in the background. As soon as I discover the Hollywood sign from far out on the highway, I feel like i made it to Los Angeles. :)

  • Beaches

There are far too many beaches you can visit all along the shore of Los Angeles. Malibu, Venice, Santa Monica, Marina Del Rey, Hermosa, Huttington, ... Each of them has its own charm. Sometimes I just expected too much, but actually there's nothing fancy about Californian beaches, except the vivid alleys of Venice Beach.

One year I stayed at Hermosa Beach, because I was on a budget. It takes you approximately 30-40 minutes to get from Santa Monica to Hermosa by car. Hotels are way cheaper in Hermosa. Less crowded streets, and the beachpubs close the the famous surfer-statue leave a much more local impression, than the other touristic spots.

 

Well it's LOS ANGELES! How about watching the Lakers play, the Dodgers hitting a couple of homeruns. Check out a concert in Hollywood, Anaheim, or Venice Beach. Fancy a shopping tour on Melrose Avenue or in Beverlyhills.

I love visiting movie locations in Los Angeles. The old diner of Pulp Fiction's opening scene, the house of "Six Feet Under", the locations of "Californication", LA's China Town where Jacky Chan's "Rush Hour" was shot, Malibu's pier from Liam Neeson's "Taken 3". The search-engine google will help you finding out the exact adress of the different locations.

Rent a car, drive all along the beaches, on Mulholland drive through the Santa Monica Mountains, towards Hollywood. Enjoy the views, the cityscapes, the colours, the people. You will love it!



Itadakimasu ! {ただきます}

Itadakimasu, is what japanese people say before having a meal.

Actually this article won't be a review, or a post about a random city. It will be a little tip, about what to eat in Japan. I remember when I got back from my first Japan trip, I noticed way too late, that I didn't focus enough on the local dishes.

The Japanese people put so much effort and passion in their cooking, even on the streetfoods that you get around every corner. At first sight, and as japan-newbie, you hardly don't see the soul behind their cooking. Most dishes are very simple to prepare, if you got the right ingredients, and that's maybe the main raison, that you can only achieve a high quality cooking through experience, and precise details on how to prepare the food.

On my second trip, I wanted to taste as much japanese food, and as many different dishes, as possible. There were moments, where I had 3 ramen soups a day. I went from cheap sushi to the top-notch chef's "Omakase". The term "Omakase" {お任せ} means that you get a sushi-menu based on a selection from the chef. The food you will be served, will have the chef's signature, which means you get the best sushi of the restaurant. And usually you will be able to watch the chef preparing the sushi, piece by piece. You will eat 1 sushi at a time.

While being in Japan, I also noticed that, it's hard for a traveler to discover japanese dishes. Great local dishes, actually don't look that fancy on the menu that they will hand you out, when having a seat at a restaurant. The names of the dishes will be in japanese, so you usually choose something that you know, or recognize on the photos.

But I was glad, that I made some friends in Japan, and they introduced me to the most famous and traditional food experiences you can discover in Japan. 

 

Ramen {ラーメン}

Ramen is a very popular noodle soup in Japan. There are millions of Ramen restaurants all across Japan, from fancy restaurants to street carts. Some are even open til late at night. After long partying nights, I always had a recovering ramen just before going to bed! People don’t mind lining up for hours to get in, as long as it’s good.  I can't imagine one single person who wouldn't like Ramen. There are many different kinds of soups, but there's three basic types of Ramen: Shyoyu (soy sauce), Miso, and Shio (salt).  Usually pork, chicken or seafood broth is used for the base of the soup, and that is then seasoned with soy sauce, miso, or salt. It's a fest! Try it, and love it! And another good point, it's a budget meal! The usual price you have to pay for a quality ramen is around 600 ¥ {4 euro, 5 US$).

 

Takoyaki {たこ焼き}

Takoyaki is a popular Japanese street food, made from grilled balls of seasoned batter with small pieces of octopus inside. On top of that you usually get some Katsuobushi, or Bonito flakes, spices and a twist of the local japanese mayonnaise. 
Originating from Osaka, Takoyaki is one of the most common foods you will see there, as well as at festivals and special events all over the Japan. In Osaka you will notice much more Takoyaki food shops than in Tokyo. In my opinion, it's not my first choice when it comes to the local dishes, however once in a while I will have some Takoyaki, just because all the Osakans or the japanese tourists are fighting to get a sample of those octopus balls. And again, another budget snack !

 

Okonomiyaki
{お好み焼き}

Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese food that is sometimes called "The Japanese Pancake". It's a savory dish that reminds you of an omelette and it's made with okonomiyaki flour, eggs, cabbage, pork, shrimp or other seafood, and topped with a variety of condiments. On top of that you get the sweet Okonomi sauce (which reminded me of our barbecue sauce), mayonnaise, dried seaweed and dried fish flakes. I know it doesn't sound THAT appetizing, but you can trust me, it's a just a food bomb with hundreds of different flavors. 
Florence, a girl I met in Hiroshima, introduced me to the Okonomiyaki, apparently you get the best one in Hiroshima. So she took me to a foggy, and rundown fastfood restaurant. It was hidden on the 3rd floor of an old building, impossible to find! The first thing I noticed was the huge cooking hotplate. The owner of the shop prepared the amazing Okonomiyaki in front of us, and we got it served on that same hotplate. No plates. All we got was a spatula to cut the pancake in even pieces, and some chopsticks. To me it first looked like another fast-food snack, but I was so wrong. Okonomiyaki was one of the eye-opening dishes I discovered in Japan. As an amateur cook, I love trying out japanese dishes at home. Okonomiyaki was one of the only dishes I totally failed at preparing. Don't get blinded by its simplicity!

 

Soba Noodles {そば }

Soba Noodles, might look like plain spaghettis without sauce. On my first trip I never ordered Soba at a restaurant, I just didn't see the point of ordering noodles without a sauce. And on my second trip, Maya took me out for lunch in Osaka. I ordered some Tempura, fried vegetables, and the Soba as a side dish. While waiting for our lunch, I noticed that all the people around me, were having Soba noodles as well. After reading an article about the Soba culture in Japan, I learned that Soba noodles, made out of buckwheat flour,  are healthier than the western spaghettis. They contain more essential amino acids, and antioxidants. Soba noodle can be served hot or cold. The cold ones are very refreshing on hot summer days. They're topped with scallions, wasabi, and a Tsuyu dipping sauce {made out of soy sauce, mirin, dashi}. The mixed flavours of the noodles, sauce and scallions, makes it all worth it. Soba is a traditional Tokyo dish from the Edo era. Budget again!

OREGON COAST.

I've seen lots of beaches, shores, coasts all across the different states of the USA. However if I had to pick a favorite one it would definitely be the Oregon coast. Sadly I won't be able to oversaturate you with helpful informations about the state of Oregon. All I could discover within a couple of days was the lovely city Portland and the shore area Cannon Beach. 

I exactly remember the first second I noticed the Haystack Rock in front of us, while sitting in our rental car, and the music of "The Album Leaf" was playing on the radio. It was an instant of pure beauty, watching upon the rock, and hearing the melodies in the background. It's been told that Haystack Rock would be the 3rd biggest intertidal (reachable from the land) sea stack in the world! 

We were on our way from Seattle, south-bound towards California. So when leaving Portland after two days, we decided to drive west, and follow the highway all along the Oregon coast. I'd recommend Oregon to every single one, who loves nature and the sea. I wish I could have spent more time in the area, however we only had 3 weeks to do the whole west coast, and most of our hotels were already pre-booked back then.

Don't expect any palmtrees, and crowds of tourists sunbathing on the beach. That's the main difference between southern-californian sand beaches and the rocky cliffs of the Oregon shore. I will high probably visit Oregon in 2016 again, and bring back a lot more of useful informations about its beautiful state.

KØBENHAVN.

Copenhagen was my first experience in one of the scandinavian countries, and i guess it was the right city to visit first. Copenhagen isn't too big, it's the perfect city-size for a weekend trip. Do it like the danes ... grab a bike and explore the city!

Below you'll find a map with my favorite spots in the city:

{YELLOW}  Nyhavn
{GREEN} Christiania
{BLUE} Tivoli
{RED} Orsteds Park, Botanical Garden, Peblinge lake

I gotta be honest, I wasn't well prepared, and didn't know anything about Copenhagen. All I knew was, that they served great food, own an impressive music scene, and got lots of beautiful danes. We decided to hit Copenhagen by car and the ferry, that we took on the german shore. Seven hours of driving, 1 hour on the ferry, and another 90 minutes to reach Copenhagen.

We  booked a double room at the WAKE-UP hotel, for an unbelievable cheap rate. The good thing about the hotel, was its central location, and the indoor-parking lot just below the hotel. The lobby and check-in desk, were just a few steps away from our car. 

The Tivoli amusement park was in the same neighbour-hood. Amusement park sounds more like a playground for kids, but that wasn't the case. The vintage touch of Tivoli, the green areas in the center of the park, sunbeds, restaurants and bars, ... all this made me appreciate the park as well. It's a nice place to relax with your girlfriend or kids after a vivid sightseeing day.

Christiania probably was the most eye-opening part of our trip. It's considered as a free-state right in the heart of Copenhagen. Taking photos behind the walls, which surround Christiania, is not allowed. As soon as you try to get one single photo of the location, there's already someone shouting at you, or tapping on your shoulder. The main reason would be, that you're allowed to buy just any kind of drugs. To avoid that the "dealers" could be recognized on tourists' photos, the use of cameras is not allowed. Besides the drugs, it still looks like the common danish neighbourhood. Plenty of wooden houses, a big lake, diy (do-it-yourself) markets and shops, a beer-garden, ... and no cars. That same night, after we had visited Christiania, i read a couple of articles, about the riots and shootings, when the governement tried to take over that part of the city. As far as I could experience Christiania it felt like a very peaceful place. 

I just loved Nyhavn. The lovely harbor alley, where a narrow canal leads to the big sea. The alley is packed with restaurants, bars, and some tattoo parlours. Enjoy some delicious sea food, watch the hipsters sitting next to the canal, and the danes docking their boats. It's a very busy and crowded place. At the end of the alley, you will notice the NOMA restaurant, just across the river. NOMA has been considered for a couple of years, as being the best restaurant in the world. In Nyhavn you can buy a ticket for a boat-tour. Usually i'm not a big fan of guided bus tours, but the boat tour, will bring you to areas, which are only accessible by boat. Totally worth it!

I discovered the northern part of the city center on a quiet sunday morning. I was looking for the tattoo parlour of a very famous danish tattoo artist. I planned to check out all the single parks which were on my path to the studio. I walked through Orsteds Park, the Botanical Garden with its castle to cross the bridges of the  Peblinge lake. Well they weren't the most prettiest parks I've been at so far, but it felt like the right spot to visit on a sunday morning, if you're just fed up with crowded streets, and the millions of bicycles passing by. Yes I said millions... if you think you've seen loads of cycles in Amsterdam, well, you haven't visited Copenhagen yet!

For early bookers, Copenhagen can be a bargain if you're on a budget. Food and alcohol isn't as expensive as in Sweden, or Norway. I barely couldn't notice a difference in prices compared to our capital in Luxembourg. I'm definitely going back pretty soon. There's still so much left undiscovered, and next time I'll do my homework, and visit the city better prepared.


TOKIO {BUDAPEST}

I just returned back home from my 3rd trip to the lovely city of Budapest. After visiting and testing some of their fantastic restaurants, I knew within a heartbeat that I got to write about the great japanese fusion restaurant "TOKIO" in Budapest, which is located nearby the St. Stephan Basilica, at Zrinyi Street.

On my very first trip I tried different kinds of makis, and they were all delicious. Of course they didn't blew me away like the ones I had in Japan. But I gotta admit, they put much more creativity and details on their sushis and makis at "TOKIO". It's just the right fusion of japanese and european cuisine. 

The chicken ramen was very delicious as well. Not as a fatty as the ones I tried in Japan. I guess they adapted it to the 37°C we had outside, while having lunch. Some light soja dashi & tare, vegetables, chicken, thin sliced scallions... a fest!

This time I tried their bento box. It was just too hot outside, to have a bigger lunch. The bento box consisted of some fried tofu with spicy mushrooms, gyozas, avocado makis, a salad, prawns tempura. Every small mouth-watering dish in that bento box, fulfilled the expectations of my japanese heart.

Another huge plus of the restaurant is its very colorful, and eye-catching design, that reminds you of of the "Bladerunner" city. The tables, chairs, and bar look rather classy. What a catch !

Compared to other restaurants in the city, it's quite pricey. Expect to spend at least 30 euro {36 us$} for an average size lunch, with drinks. The sushis & makis are pretty expensive, for a city, where drinking and eating is considered as rather cheap. But for myself, it was totally worth it. 

I always got the finest table service, which is also included in the final price. Therefor, no tip needed. 

Great location, great views, lovely waiters, an eye-catching design, delicous food... enjoy "TOKIO". Oishii ne !?

Adress: 1051 BUDAPEST, SZÉCHENYI T 7-8
Website: tokiobudapest.com