A tour of Jewish Budapest

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Budapest, and Hungary in general, used to have a very active intellectual Jewish life, and an equally interesting Jewish religious life. Most of the Jews were killed during Shoah, and the survivors who chose to stay in the country, had to fight, not always successfully, against the pressure of assimilation and frequent outbursts of anti-Semitism during the communism. Anti-Semitism is back now and life keeps being complicated. In and around the Jewish quarter, you keep seeing a lot of memorials and monuments in the memory of the innocent people murdered with cold blood and the memories of the past are always there.

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Every time I visited Budapest I went to the Jewish quarter, either for an exhibition or a visit to one of the many synagogues. But I never had a proper tour of the entire area and my memories were mostly based on stories told by friends and family. This time, I made everything more professional and booked a tour in English that explained very much the art, history and architecture of the area, with interesting insights about kosher restaurants and daily events in the life of Budapest Jewry. The walking tours, in English or Hebrew, can be booked at the kiosk near the Dohany utca synagogue and last around 2 hours. The guides are knowledgeable and familiar with the history, and equally able to explain to both the Jewish – less or more observant – and non-Jewish visitors about customs, religious detail or history.

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All the streets around Dohany utca synagogue has traces of Jewish history. Some of them are clear, like Hebrew writing and symbols some, like in the case of architecture, are only using discretely motives that can be spotted on the walls or on the old metal doors.

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The area has precious constructions from the 19th century, with 2-3 storeys, a symbol of the relative economic well-being of the Hungarian Jews at the time. The predominant style is Art Nouveau, with a choice of decorations inspired by nature and vegetation. Most of them look like carefully decorated with a lot of love and care, just to make sure that it does not contradict in any way with the environment.

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One of the most interesting discovery of this tour was the visit at the Orthodox Kazinczy Synagogue. It was built in one year, between 1912-1913, part of a larger effort to counter the Reformist movements within Judaism.  The facade, as well as the interior, seems to have some strong inspiration from the Iraqi Jewish architecture, although the construction was made by the brothers Löffler. The two brothers were very productive during 1908-1917, when they had their own architecture bureau, as they built almost most of the Art Nouveau houses in the Jewish quarter.

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The synagogue, colourfully painted, was part of a complex that also included a Jewish girl schools. Nowadays, it is predominantly used during the high-holidays, on some Shabbats and for various tourist tours. The joyous colours of the wall paintings are contrasting with the seriousness around the Torah Ark.

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The traditional Menorah that used to be in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is represented always with 6 branches, but because the Temple is no more the menorot on the walls of this synagogue do have 5, as a message of incompleteness of our times.

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The beautiful stained glass were painted by the famous Hungarian artist Miksa Róth, imperial and royal court glass painter who also made the painted glass at the Hungarian Parliament. Heavily destroyed during the war, and even used as a stable, it was rebuilt and repainted and part of the Jewish heritage of Budapest. Especially after 2012, the street were the synagogue is situated got a new life, cultural events organized around, as well as many kosher restaurants and small Judaica shops.

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A synagogue that needs a lot of restoration though is Rumbach – in Budapest, the synagogues are named according to the name of the streets where are located. The Moorish-style construction was built at the end of the 19th century by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner. It cannot be visited, but the style reminded me a bit of some similar synagogues in Timisoara and Bucharest (Romania).

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The memories of the past are everywhere in the Jewish quarter and it’s impossible to not start asking questions yourself about how and why happened. Before the war, Hungary used to have a very big Jewish community, of around 450,00 people, half of them being situated in the capital city. The prosperous economic situation and a relative tolerance encouraged Jews from all over Central Europe to move here. But the promises were short-term and illusory, and more than half of the population being murdered.

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The Dohany utca synagogue, second largest in the world, hosts also a Museum dedicated to the Hungarian Jewry, as well as periodical concerts and exhibitions – years ago I visited an impressive Chagal exhibition here. It belongs to the Neologue/Reformist movement and is hosted concerts of Franz Liszt or Camile Saint-Saens. Especially during the Jewish Summer Festival, a regular week of Jewish culture and history organized since 1998, here are organized concerts and many cultural events. Last but not least, on Dohany was born the famous Theodor Herzl, who reshaped the aims of the Jewish communities in Europe.

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Nowadays, there are around 20 synagogues of different orientations answering the spiritual and religious needs of the community as well as of the many visitors from all over the world visiting Hungary and Budapest. There is also a kindergarten, and school, as well as a Jewish center organizing various cultural events.

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What many of the Jewish travellers will always enjoy is the chance to find a little bit of homemade food prepared well according to the highest standards of kashrut. The Jewish Budapest offers a lot of healthy, good quality and kosher food to the hungry traveller. In addition, in many big food stores, as Corso Gourmet on the popular Vaci utca, there are a lot of kosher certified food, but mostly from the snacks type. After the interesting tour, we made a long stop at the Carmel kosher restaurant, near Kazinszky synagogue. It has a classical ambiance of Central European Jewish restaurant, with Judaica paintings and decorations on the walls, leather chairs or some comfy couches and many Cloisonée lamps. The menu offers a variety of Hungarian inspired dishes – veal goulash with Hungarian noodles, for instance – but I was rather hungry for a classical crunchy Schnitzel with hummus and French fries. Call it my usual comfort food when I miss my childhood.

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The fruit salad – apples, water melon and oranges – was a bit of disappointment, and the service was slow – the disadvantage of not being part of a big group of customers, but otherwise, it was good to have a stop in the air-conditioned space after so much walk.

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The food temptations brought us more often in the Jewish quarter of Pest during our stay. Another afternoon, we were back for a slice of cheese pizza at Carimama, a very small but welcoming dairy pizzeria. Is very cheap, tasty – although a bit too burned and too salty – popular among tourists on the run and with a very fast service.

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I could not have the heart to leave Budapest without at least one stop at the historical Fröhlich, the oldest kosher pastry shop in Budapest, who deliciously survived the communism to bring us today a lot of delicious sweets that I’m glad still exist. Their speciality is the flodni, a mixture of apple, walnut and poppy seeds cream stuck between dough layers and a coverage of caramel and there is also the famous Hungarian dobos, delivered kosher style. As for me, I was too nostalgic for a slice of ishler to answer the call of any other temptation: layers of nuts cream between creamy biscuits with a caramelized sweet chocolate cover. The sweetness of every bit is getting deeper and deeper. The ambiance is also pleasant, with a very friendly lady that makes you feel like you are just back in your lost home.

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Jewish Budapest quarter has a lot of stories to tell, many of them about the past. For the young generation or for those unable to learn a realistic story of their past memory benchmarks are needed. The stumbling stones – Stolpersteine – , a project started in Berlin arrived a couple of years ago to Budapest too, aiming to mention the memory of the Jewish inhabitants of the city, with a little golden-looking stone placed in the front of their former homes.

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In the sea of indifference and cruelty,  little sparkling stars of humanity happen. One of them was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomatic envoy to Budapest, who risked his own life to rescue Jews. I left Budapest, as usual, not only with the hope to return, but with the belief of hope that at least the new young generation, many of them leaving in big number the country in the last 7 years, will have more courage and determination to simply say ‘no’ to madness.

Island hopping in Budapest, can you believe it?

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Budapest has around 7 islands, the most popular by far being Margit/Margaret Island, famous as destination for various sports events and activities. The shell-shaped Margit bears the name of Margaret, the daughter of king Bela IV who lived on the Dominican convent on the island.

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The island can be reached either by boat or directly from the yellow Arpad bridge, via tram or bus. A former location for Knight of St. John in the 12th century and of various religious orders, but in the last century was used predominantly for cultural and sport activities. As we were walking on the other side of the bridge, we noticed rows of people going at the same direction, although it was the middle of the week. We assumed right that it should be a special tournament taking place: apparently it was a handball game taking place and many were hurrying up to support their favourite team.

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The sports seem to be the most frequent activity practised on the islands, and many stadium, playgrounds and swimming pool being open all round the year to the public. Bikes, including tandem ones, can be rented for one hour or more.
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However, most visitors prefer walking slowly the 2,6 km of the island or going there for the daily portion of jogging. In maximum 30 minutes, one can make the full tour of it and although the areas around the entrance can be crowded, there are still some quiet alleys left for a quiet meditative walking.

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On the island there are two UNESCO heritage sites: the water tower and the music fountain. It seems that the happiest visitors are the children, enjoying the big spaces and the many playgrounds as well as the temptations of street food and sweets that their parents and grand parents cannot resist to do not buy them something.

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Before the 14 th century, the island was called Rabbits Island, for the number of long eared inhabitants. As in the case of the Peacock’s Island near Berlin, I haven’t seen any proud representative of the animal world. Maybe all were taken to the small zoo on the island. Two hotels, one of them a thermal one, are inviting the guests to spend more quality time on the island, a bit far away from the busy day and night life in the capital city.

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One of my favourite corners are those with a quiet view over the Danube. Although the view might include some old blocks of houses, they are too far away though to bother with their daily problems and routine.

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Seeing so many people doing seriously their portion of running, I wished that at least from time to time – or maybe only when I’m on the road, which is a lot already – I am practising more sports than intensive walking and hiking.

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As we left, I praised my time spent on the island and I was glad that although nothing special was going during my short visit, at least I had some great uneventful time. From time to time, such experiences are part of the good life on the road.

Budapest, ten years after

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In the last ten years, Budapest changed a lot but still stays the same. Many of the people I used to spend unforgettable evenings talking for long hours in the bars near the Danube left the country, but meanwhile the city got new heroes and statues and the streets outside the areas of main historical – and political – interests – might look neglected a bit dirtier as before. The courageous spirit of the city is there as are the bullets from the 1956 Revolution left on the walls of some buildings though. After a long bus trip from Berlin, via Prague, I was finally back, and after a good night spent at my residence for the trip, Hotel Palazzo Zichy, I took a map and tried to revisit old places while always curious to discover some more new ones.

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Regardless of how fit and well trained for intensive jogging you might consider yourself to be, sooner or later you will need to rely on public transportation. During this trip, I used a lot the metro, the oldest metro line in Europe, which has good connections, is mostly in time and fast. Groups of ticket controllers are out on the field from early in the morning, especially at the entrance or exit from the stations, but friendly and helpful with the lost tourists. Some stations look elegant and well maintained, some – especially the old dusty trains – remind me permanently that I am in a Central European country after all that was under harsh communist control. This is a short video I made while descending on the huge stairs, that strangely reminded me both of Kyiv and of London. Using the yellow taxis is the most convenient way for those not keen to commute too much on holidays, but one must be careful to check if is using a licensed taxi.

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Whatever the good and bad changes, Budapest remains creative, and between the massive historical facelift of the city – even as a local or a person well familiar with the country’s history, I bet you will still need a lot of lectures to get the references to historical personalities and events outlined very often all over the city – the non-conformist minds left traces everywhere. Most of them do not have English translations, so all you have to do is to take notes and find the full history later on.

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I must confess that lost in testing various foods and enjoying the very warm summer time, my artistic activities were very limited this time. As during previous trips I marked all the important permanent exhibitions and museums this time I was, as usual, hungry for something new. However, I could not resist the temptation to go to Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, the first extensive display of the works of Lautrec in Budapest in the last 50 years. While walking to Oktogon area, one of the city’s major interections, on Andrassy avenue where the museum is situated, I passed by the controversial Terror House, hosted in the former headquarters of both the Nazi and communist secret service, offering an interpretation of communist too much infused by political opportunism, as well as many galleries and a good collection of Asian Art. Old Italian looking palaces situated on this street were either in various stages of decay or put on sale. 
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Close to the Oktogon  it is situated the Museum of Agriculture, hosted in Vajdahunyad Baroque Castle, built at the beginning of the 20th century, on the occasion of Millenium festivities, celebrating 1,000 years of Hungarian presence in the Carpathian basic. The Castle is surrounded by a garden, near a lake offering boats to rent during the summer and ice skating possibilities during the winter. Those interested in learning fast about Hungary, can visit also the Museum of Popular Arts.

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The Oktogon square is not only an important junction, but equally a crossing point of attractions. Besides the allegorical historical complex from the main the square, aimed to outline the strength and lineage of the Hungarian influence in the area, the Zoo is only a couple of steps away, and so are the Szechenyi thermal baths.

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One of the things I haven’t done before was a trip on the Danube. While returning from Szentendre and Visegrad – more about this trip in the next posts – I took a ride on the water which offered the possibility of a new perspective over both Buda and Pest. Here is a short video of this new adventure. The Parliament, which can be visited through various guided tours, was built in 18 years and is the largest and most famous building in Hungary. Those interested in the more or less recent history of the country should definitely book a tour.

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I wish I could have found an extensive guided tour into the architecture of the city. In order to catch up as many beautiful building as possible, it is very important to be very careful to all the details and look always high for spotting unexpected statues and details. All those pleasant surprises are part of the mysterious way in which Budapest makes itself loveable with the same charm to the first or 10th-time visitor.

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When history has a sweet wrapping, it tastes even better. At the fancy Vorosmarty square I went directly to the famous Gérbeaud, where Sissy, the sophisticated wife of Emperor Franz Joseph and queen of Hungary used to treat her sweet tooth. Created in 1858 by Henrik Kugler, it was sold to Emil Gérbeaud belonging to a long line of Swiss confectionery artists who turned it into one of the finest coffee house and pastry shop in Central and Eastern Europe.

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The sons of Gérbeaud left the country in 1945 after the installation of communists and the shop was took over by the state. In 1997, it was dramatically renovated and embellished, and new wood panels and typical decorations were added. A new restaurant, Onyx, was created in 2007 who is a proud owner of a Michelin star since 2011. The coffee keeps selling the traditional Sacher torte and Dobos torte, as well as macarons of all colours and flavour combinations.

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Convinced that I can keep my head clear and my objectivity not influenced by rich historical evidences, I decided to have a tasty stop here. The prices are high, and the service is a big disappointment, although we arrived there 40 minutes before closing. I ordered Gérbeaud’s slice, that screamed pure sour cocoa from every bit. The layers of nutty and fruity cream were re-establishing the sweet balance. So much concentration of cocoa gives the feeling of full satiety. If I could not finish it is only my fault, I know.

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Either if I was looking for new architectural surprises or checking the gossips that a lot of vegan and vegetarian shops and restaurants were opened in the last year, the same feeling of surprise kept me company. Sometimes I felt that at a certain historical time, architects got together and decided to introduce into the life of the city all their dreams, fantasies and desires. The rest of us, talking pictures, passing by or even living in those buildings, we are just part of the constant audience of their secret life, without being left with a dictionary for translating this secret language.

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The Danube is crossed by 14 bridges, connecting Buda and Pest in many points. Most of them were built at the end of the 19th century, and still are important characters into the tourist and daily life of the city. The bridges enforced the new unity of the city that was achieved administratively in 1873.

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Budapest, and Hungary in general, is famous for its hot springs, well known as tourist destinations but also for their health qualities. In Budapest only, there are around 118 natural springs. One of the most famous thermal bath is Gellert, inaugurated in 1918 and added since a big outdoor pool. One of the most famous spa in Hungary, it used a water source that was known since the 13th century. The interior is at least as impressive as its history: massive Art Nouveau decorations, mosaiques, colourful stained glass windows reflecting the various natural lights.

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In the vicinity of the thermal baths building, facing the Erzsebet bridge, there is a little hill, with a natural waterfall where I climbed for a little bit, trying to find some coolness against the heated sun.

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As in many such places in Central and Eastern Europe, I discovered a small improvised shop of an old lady selling various hand made traditional Hungarian products. Although she was not speaking other language but Hungarian, she was so friendly and good hearted that was about to buy her entire shop only for a smile.

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From the top of the little hill, both Buda and Pest looked busy, ready for a new day and week of work and very serious about everything on the agenda. Busy traffic both on the highway and on the water.

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An important part of my travels is dedicated to check and discover new local products. As I grew up with so many of them – the plum jam, eventually with some hidden nuts near many layers of flesh – I like to see if my beloved recipes are still popular. On Vaci utca (utca means street in Hungarian) which become too touristic, with predominantly Hungarian gourmet expensive restaurants serving goulash and paprika based meals, I made a long stop at Corso Gourmet. A special section of this huge shop dedicated to the traditional spirits, made of plums, as well as to the famous Unicum and the many fine wines, Tokaj included.

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More than the elegant Corso, I enjoyed spending a lot of time at Vasarcsarnok, the Great Market Hall, at the end of Vaci utca, resisting painfully the temptation to buy a little bit of Kapia paprika, or some Szeged Paprika or maybe some fresh good looking melons or tomatoes.

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I left a bit disappointed and with a heavy heart, and only the beautiful ethereal apparitions on the top of the buildings near the Jewish quarter – an extensive account of the tour and Jewish life coming up next – made me feel better. In the vicinity, the Hungarian National Museum can offer to the curious visitor another long excursus in the history of the country.

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Inside the Jewish quarter, between Kiraly utca and Dob utca, the Gozsdu courts are the newest attraction in town. Formerly an abandoned area, it was turned into an attractive avenue with pubs, restaurants, small shops and workshops for creative people, as well as antiquities shops presenting, among other, old collection cars.

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Although I accepted for being out of time for too many artistic luxuries, I regretted deeply for not being able to attend this Invisible Exhibition where the participants are experiencing a small part of the daily life of visually impaired people.

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Not too much time for shopping either, although Vorosmarty Ter, with its tempting fashion avenue and shops and many restaurants calling my name for an after-shopping relaxing appeared very open in my walking plans. After my elegant afternoon tea at Kempinski Hotel Corvinus I was not very tempted to get some street food displayed there, but at least I had a look at some of the wooden traditional products offered to the tourists. When it comes to touristic experiences, although the national currency is the Hungarian Forint, euro and also the dollars can be easily used in the touristic shops or for booking guided tours. The main languages are English, German and extensively Russian.

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Late in the afternoon, when the heat is regressing, I always enjoy walking near the Danube, passing near the interesting statues or just looking on the other side of the Danube.

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On the other side of the Danube, it is the famous Buda Castle, where I was back one again, using the small mini train. It was first finished in 1265, and nowadays includes a complex of buildings from different historical stages, some archaeological sites, museums of arts, restaurants and small shops offering traditional products.

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If you were so unlucky to arrive when all the exhibitions and most of the attractions were closed, there is always something good left: a perspective over Pest, and a very good standpoint to observe the life of the city in the afternoon.

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As usual, Budapest was good to me, offering me the chance to know more of its secrets, while tempting me again to come back for finding out even more, maybe sooner than the last time. I left with the good feeling that, from time to time, it’s good to be back in places that used to be home.

For more insights from the city, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/budapest/

How to spend two full hours in Prague

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My 3-week long trip to Central and Eastern Europe started with a pleasant surprise: I was offered the chance to spend 2 full hours in Prague. After ten years of unjustified absence from the city, I was able to visit the city twice within the last 6 months. As during my February trip I made almost the full list of to-dos in the city, I had the freedom of gazing to the buildings or just walk in under the sunny sky of this summer. With sure and (very) fast steps, we headed directly to the old town area.

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I will never have enough time to fully understand and admire the spectacular architecture and art displayed on the streets of the city. From the massive realist statues that seem to fight hard to get a life of their own out of the stone carvings to the delicate Art Nouveau details, my eyes were challenged to keep a permanent focus.

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Many of those details I’ve seen more than once during my trips in the city, but you can never have enough of too much beauty, I suppose.

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My wandering to the city had at least one clear direction: to spend a bit more time at the Municipal House, right near the Powder Gate. The massive construction that was inaugurated in 1912 after 7 years of work is situated on the former location of the palace of the King of Bohemia who lived there in the second half of the 14th century. The historical details might be not obvious for the first-time visitor, but the beautiful embroideries of the building and the elaborated glass paintings and decorations are unforgettable.

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Every inch of wall and surface was carefully adorned with elaborated glass walls painted mostly in the Art Nouveau style. Nowadays, the municipal house is a distinguished concert hall – Smetana Hall bearing the name of a famous local composer, but it was used for various purposes in the last century. Here, for instance, was signed the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence in 1918.

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The hall – that can be visited with guided tours – continues with a big coffee, Coffee Kavarna, where I dreamed to have my morning coffee for a long time. Before the coffee arrived, I spent a lot of time admiring the golden outlines of the interior decorations, delicately insinuated alongside the massive white marble.

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The lightning installation reflected in the massive mirrors are creating an even greater impression of a huge space. If you have a lot of imagination, you might feel invited to a secret ball at a castle.

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The entrance reminded me of old pieces of exquisite jewellery. Too much decorations are always a dangerous taste decision, but a creator should always assume the risk of going beyond the limits of accepted standards.

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Overloaded by colours and golden rays, I finally had my coffee paid with the local currency carefully saved from the last trip. Given the ambiance, the prices of a breakfast are much higher than the usual cheap offers around, and the coffee was not the best in the city, but I was too happy for finally spending time here for excessive kvetching.

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With some more time left, we took fast the road under the Powder Gate trying to see at least Charles Bridge in the summer. The only discomfort of the last trip was the late winter cold, which limited significantly our freedom of movement. Now, people were all over the places, many of them wearing delicate cotton umbrellas to get protected against the hot sun. Cleaning cars were spreading water on the streets aiming to bring more freshness.

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The streets were full not only with tourists, but with many more street artists, either presenting their works on sale, or sketching within minutes portraits of the visitors interested to leave with a special personalized memory from Prague.

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The colours of the painters were joined by the exuberant outbursts of sounds uttered by the street bands. Artists were almost everywhere and most of their music was very pleasant to the busy ears.

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Shortly after 12 o’clock, making your way through the streets was not an easy task. Especially if you hurry up as we did. Most shops in the old town were open and the offers of restaurants were becoming even more tempting. Languages from all over the world were heard on the streets, creating a good feeling for the indefatigable traveller in me: world can be so small sometimes!

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In the front of the Prague Astronomical Clock we went through another new experience: waiting together with a significant mass of people the last three minutes before 13 o’clock. Some were there with a purpose, some – like us – were simply by accident trying to get into the exciting mood of all the people gathered there. When the time had come, it was hard to stay untouched by the wave of excitement of people listening to the first gongs.

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We finally made it to the Charles Bridge as well, although for very short couple of minutes only, and at least with two new memories about Prague, we headed back to the bus station, waiting for the return in another dear city of mine: Budapest. To be continued.

For more insights from Prague, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/prague/

 

Liechtenstein, Europe’s best hidden secret

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When I started planning our adventure in the South of Germany, I tried to figure out what are the possibilities for extended trips outside the border, mostly around Switzerland, a country I neglected in the last years. While my fingers were moving in different directions on the map, I decided that instead of small bits of Switzerland, I should finally pay a visit to Liechtenstein. All approved, I needed to figure out how to reach this small country hidden inside Switzerland in the most convenient way. The best is to take the train till Sarcans and from there, a regular bus that in around 30 minutes arrives in Vaduz. The journey goes alongside spectacular high mountains with small villages cramped on the aisles, an invitation to humility and curiosity to walk by foot every inch of forest or mountain.

The castle that dominates the city from the high of its 120-meter, that can be partly visited only special guided tours was the first apparition upon arrival and kept appearing regularly from the corners of the buildings or streets of Vaduz.

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The sixth smallest countries in the world, Liechtenstein is a sovereign state since the beginning of the 19th century, being ruled as a principality by a family of Austrian origin. Nowadays a constitutional hereditary monarchy, it was visited by many cultural and political European personalities, among which Goethe, who stayed for a little while in a house situated in the center of Vaduz.

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The city displays a good taste combination between the overwhelming natural landscape and urban elegance, with flowers spread between dynamic statues that seem to occupy in the best way the vertical space between various constructions.

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The central streets were busy with tourists from the early hours of the morning till late in the afternoon, many of them curious to discover every corner of the city. With so many monumental art situated in many unexpected places, it was hard to be disappointed.

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My first cultural stop was at the Post Museum, learning not only about the interesting postmarks produced here but also about how the first telegraph lines started to connect Liechtenstein with the rest of Europe and the world, starting from the end of the 19th century.

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From there, I made a long stop at the Museum of Modern Art who is interesting not only for its collection, but also as an individual work of architecture in itself, but also for its L-shaped building.

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In full compliance with the environment, the architecture is integrating an abundance of natural elements, that bring harmony to corners that might look aggressively sober at the first sight.

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The irregular geometry of the buildings applies as well to the governmental institutions. Near the Parliament and government buildings, a small park with pebbles and little trees can bring peace of mind after a busy day deciding the destiny of the Principality.

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With some more available time and the Adventure Pass in my pocket, I made a tour of the Liechtenstein history and culture at the dedicated museum, in addition to a contemporary exhibition of textile works and a temporary exhibition about gladiators, exploring the daily life and the evolution of the shows usually displayed in Colosseum.

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The museum also offers on sale samples of the local production of wine, a distinctive category of products Made in Liechtenstein.

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I learned more about the vineyards later in the day, while taking the mini-train tour that leads the visitors in the main attraction points of Vaduz. Compared to other similar tours I took this summer, it also offers the opportunity for a small stop, in the best spots for photo opportunities. My favourite was near the Red House, where the eyes did not have enough dreaming about the time when the wine is almost ready. The Adventure pass generously offered by the Liechtenstein Tourism Office allows some free degustation of two wines from the winery of the Prince Liechtenstein. The famous local bottles of Pinot noir and Chardonay should probably wait till my next visit.

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The mini-tour during which the moments of explanations are intercalated with long pauses of local folk music – that sounded like a pop version of the Swiss yodlers – goes all round Vaduz, up on the top of the cobblestone old roads, many of them built probably late in the time of the Romans. In the middle of so many monumental art works and stone houses, Vaduz, a former farmer village in the old times, also has a stadium of 6,000 places where the national soccer team is playing regularly. For those interested in practising sports, Liechtenstein offers many indoor and outdoor swimming pools, minigolf, an adventure park as well as possibilities to practise winter sports many of them presented in the dedicated Museum.

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Exquisite shops are relatively few compared with the usual display in Switzerland, but with interesting design products, both for clothes and jewellery. Liechtenstein, made up of families owith diplomatic and military background, is regularly attracting intellectual audiences from all over Europe for its classical and jazz concerts held in Vaduz and other places regularly. As I spotted an announcement for a concert of Chick Corea I just had another regret for leaving this country.

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I said ‘good bye’ to Liechtenstein with a heavy heart, but at least now I promise to include it in all my coming plans to visit  Switzerland. Liechtenstein is Europe’s best hidden secrets and I’m glad that I had the chance to be part of its discovery too.

For more insights from Vaduz and Liechtenstein, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/vaduz-liechtenstein/

Liechtenstein Tourism Office offered me an Adventure Pass to discover the country, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

A little taste of Switzerland: Kreuzlingen

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One of the many things I love about Europe is the easiness to cross the borders. You walk slowly one afternoon and one step ahead you are in a new country without even noticing the change of landscape. A bit later you might hear the sound of a different language, but there is no official barrier that warn you, or even worse, stop you, from moving freely. Shortly upon arrival in Konstanz, we saw close to the entrance in the old city a sign mentioning the exit to a different country, but we were too tired to try another new travel experience after more than 10 hours of driving from Berlin. A bit later in the week, we took a slow walk and we passed on the other side of the border as easy as possible. Gone are the days when a precious visa for Switzerland was obtained after long lines in the front of embassies and lots of documents proving how reliable you are to come back in your far away country. I should appreciate more the present times! With the train from Konstanz, the station Kreuzlingen is only 3 minutes away. In addition, a regular bus is connecting the two countries all round the day.

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Kreuzlingen has a population of around 20,000 people and is the second largest city of the canton Thurgau, in the South-Eastern part of the country. It used to share the same history with the city of Konstanz for a long time, but nowadays, it developed its own German-speaking Swiss identity, as it proved the many local flags hanging out on the balconies and windows of the houses in the old quarter.

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The streets were almost empty, with the exception of some Italian restaurants without too many customers and some outlet stores. With flowers on the streets and a certain quietness that it is specific to many Swiss localities, there is a certain feeling of peace that conquers the first time visitor. Aiming to break a bit what can easily be misunderstood as monotony, the local authorities commissioned young artists various street art projects that can be found in the most unexpected places around the city.

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Before the street art was in fashion, there were the many parks and garden that were took care about by the local authorities. In 1932, the main park was arranged by Fritz Haggenmacher, whose works of gardening were famous especially in Winterthur area. Some of the sculptures were considered offensive by the local mentalities at the time, but resisted the test of time and nowadays are beautifully adorning the public spaces.

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One of the main signs that will show you are in fact in a different country is the architecture, proudly samples of Swiss work: wooden cottages transplanted from the top of the mountains in the middle of the city.

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Hardly meeting too many people, except some lost tourists from Germany like us, we made our way close to the lake, where it looks more animated.

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The promenade was inspiring not only to some eating experiences on the boat, but also to meditation near the lake, using one of the generous pastel coloured seats created there.

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The most animated part was the park though, with people of all ages having their dinner on the grass, children and adults playing together and an impressive number of acrobats choosing to do their exercises in the open air. Lucky me who watched them for minutes, as discretely as possible, trying to catch up at least the understanding of their special art. I did not go that far away to do such practises at home though.

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In a corner of the park, there is a small tower from the top of whom you can have an overall panorama over the lake, with its German and Swiss parts coming together smoothly. I took a short video to remember these beautiful moments. Up on the ground, people kept being busy swimming, playing tennis or chilling out in the sun.

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The lake looked more busy in its Swiss part, with small boats colouring the blue surface. In that moment I had a bit of nostalgia for the beautiful Zurich lake where I used to spend carefree hours, reading on a boat. Time for a return, probably!

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Viewed from Kreuzlingen, Konstanz looked impressively busy and with much more offers for tourists. For the local Swiss people, this city matters as well for its good and affordable prices, many of them preferring to do their basic supplies every week from the German side of the border. Similarly, those living close to the French border, are rather shopping from France, and instead of speaking about ‘Swiss invasion’, as I often heard I would rather appreciate the smart financial planning combined with the luck of living in a world free of borders.

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Near the lake, there were many more temptations for children and their parents: an open air theater, a minigolf and many playgrounds. Together with some joggers and bikers, we went closer to Bodensee Arena, where the local soccer team FC Kreuzlingen is representing the Swiss football since 1905.

If not my journalistic eye ready to spot the most curious details, we would have not notice that we are back to Germany, a red spider-like metal sculpture symbolically outlining the passage. Kreuzlingen might not be a top destination in Switzerland, but it makes you curious to see more and more from this interesting country. Thus, I promise to be back soon!

For more insights from Kreuzlingen, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/kreuzlingen-switzerland/

Island Mainau: the Paradise of Flowers

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Konstanz was a beautiful place to stay, but the travel bug rarely keeps me at the same place for too long. After touring the city more than once and intensively looking for more and more delicious treats, I was still left with enough time for trying something new. Like visiting one of the islands around the city. Once I’d found out about the live garden from Island Mainau, I took the first bus from the train station and in less than 30 minutes I was there. One can chose to enter the island either by foot, passing the bridge with a view over the lake, either by the special bus. Finally lucky with the weather in Germany, we decided for walking, although given so many natural temptations, it will be a bit difficult to stop your children for getting the real taste of the life in the nature.

??????????Up in the sky, an UFO-esque Zeppelin was watching discretely our steps. The hot weather did not discourage tourists from all over the world and ages to join the crowds heading to the island. The entrance ticket, both for the park and the island is 28 Euro/person, but special family prices and discounts are also available. Children under 12 enjoy free entrance.

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The joyful colours of the island charmed us from the very beginning of our excursion. Where the nature was silent or simply discrete, the human hands created matched clothes for the trees, trying to be as spontaneous and diverse in terms of the choice and combination of colours.

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Regardless of the high ability of human hands, nothing compares with the spectacular free work of the nature. The good weather from the South of Germany where the island is located allows a seasonal change of the flowers. For our time slot, predominant were the field natural flowers, with a lot of interesting roses and some exotic flowers brought from abroad. Many of the flowers were used in the old times for medicinal purposes, as the art of homoeopathy, a German creation, developed in this part of the country too.

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Huge works of wooden art are inserted into the landscape, inspiring for meditation and long summer readings, preferably somewhere on the shore with a view over the lake.

??????????While the parents are ,lost in their dreams or thinking about philosophy, the children can enjoy watching the ride of a miniature train running fast near a Lilliputian Alpin landscape. Enjoyable by adults too.

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Nearby, at the mini-farm, one can experience the real animal life, by feeding or by playing with the little ones. I had the initiative to get some food for the goats, but apparently did not inspire too much respect, as one of the ladies jumped on two feet on me and screamed a bit louder for my city ears. Maybe one day will spent some serious life at a farm and will have some real experiences to write about.

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The collection of flowers is so beautiful, that although wanted to carefully notice the exotic Latin names I gave up the scientific approach and focused instead of the first hand experience of the smells and colours.

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When it feels too hot, all you have to do is to get closer to the lake and feel the breeze. The little boats did take a discretion distance from the shore, thus the privacy is not a matter of concern.

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The human hands were present only when needed and taking into account the highest environmental concerns. Nowadays, the island can be considered as an example of good practices in this domain, and an exhibition dedicated to various green policies applied was aimed to increase the public awareness.

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The island belongs to Lennart Bernadotte Foundation, which is in charge with the permanent arrangement of the gardens.

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On the island, there are around 30,000 rose bushes and almost 20,000 dahlias. While the visitors were walking carefree on the alleys, the gardeners were dedicated to keep the maintenance of the garden.

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Although will be curious to pay a visit here on another season of the year, I bet that the full summer is one of the best moment to visit, with so many colourful flowers in mature bloom, under the blue sky and the long sunny days.

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There is nothing stylish in arranging the alleys, as the flowers grew up in a natural environment, looking wild in the eyes of the outsider, but probably following a certain mathematical distribution of beauty. Some of the flowers and plants bear curious names, such as Black Hockrose, Shuffle the deck or Bourbon hybride Cypress, each name being able to tell its own mystery story.

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We went up on the stairs leading to the little hills, almost mesmerized by the combination of deep distances, green grass with patches of colours leading straight into the lake.  Hard to resist the temptation of recording a short video of the ambiance.

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Contrary to an understandable misconception, the passion flower is very blue – without any single trace of red.

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The manicured alleys displayed so many beautiful roses that I was about to dream that I am in a kind of Alice in Wonderland setting up. However, the reality of the varieties of roses was so diverse that it was no need to paint them in various colours.

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From the top of the terrace, the coming and going of people seemed to never end, but it is enough place for everyone.

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The greenhouse was even more crowded, with people admiring the spectacular trees, or just resting outside in the hot air for a coffee or some delicious treats.

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Inside the castle, I visited an exhibition dedicated to – what else but- roses, by Josh Westrich,  after looking at various products made on the island on sale as souvenirs.

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The Castle used to belong to the Teutonic Order, but the secularization ended up this ownership. Bought by Frederick I, Grand Duke of Baden, in the 18th century, it went through several stylistic transformations, in the Baroque style typical for this part of Germany.

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The Duke brought to the island various exotic fruits and trees, many of them still there, especially the various sorts of citruses.

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Equally spectacular is also the bamboo forest brought from the North of China. An interesting fact is that the bamboo grows up fantastically fast, with a rate of 20-25 cm. the day.

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Another interesting element of the local collection: sequels of petrified wood from Arizona, my first time close encounter with this natural curiosity.

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Overwhelmed by so many new things in only a matter of hours – our stay on the island lasted around 5 hours, but I bet you can easily spend one full day there – we made a tasty stop at the open restaurant Schwedenschenke for a Palmencocktail: a cold mixture of banana, lemon, orange juice, coconut syrup. Very sweet, but with many vitamins and fresh flavours for keeping us energized for the rest of the trip. The restaurant serves the famous Swedish Kottbullar, and many other fish-based meals, but we were too much in a hurry for a longer foodie experience.

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After looking on one of the big maps hanging up on the alleys, we realized that we missed some highlights so returned to the park exploring the area near the 16th century Swedish tower.

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Around the tower, the old vineyard part of the local wine trail were brought to life in the late 1990s, keeping alive a tradition of more than 6 centuries that started with the Teutonic Knights. the vineyard is nowadays part of the restoration and maintenance plan of the original layout of the park, as designed by the Grand Duke of Baden from 1853 on.

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One of the most beautiful place to visit is the Butterflies house, when you can walk with colourful butterflies around you. Since visiting a butterflies farm in the North of Thailand a couple of years ago I did not have such an experience of fragility and beauty at one blink of wings away.

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The butterflies were very friendly, getting closer to the humans, and even resting on the fingers, despite the noise and the high excitement of the visitors.  But what makes the butterflies happier and friendlier are some little pieces of banana or apple on a plate. This is how most of them get closer to humans and allowed to be photographed and even touched.

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In the little pound, the turtles were less dynamic and not easy to move out of their comfort zone at any sweet price.

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On the map and the arrows guiding the visitors to the most interesting spots, the peacocks appeared often, and more than once we were in one of those areas. After not being able to spot any trace of the colourful birds, except some huge scale flower-made ones, we asked one of the gardeners where we can find them. Unfortunately, the answer was the last ones were eaten by the foxes living on the island.

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With only one less accomplishment, and some beautiful hours spent in the paradise of flowers, we paid a last visit to the local shop, selling products made on the island, such as typical sorts of bread, liqueurs and many wines from the local production.

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Konstanz was calling us back, for more travel adventures, this time in Liechtenstein and Switzerland, but the perfumes and images of the island of flowers are still powerful enough to call me back. One day, I promise.

For more insights and images from Island Mainau, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/island-mainau/