A summer without airplanes

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With only a couple of weeks – hope months – before the winter, the memories of the busy travel summer are still around. For over a month, I did an intensive country hopping, that lead me from the South of Germany to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Romania and Republic of Moldova. Usually, I’m the kind of traveler that can’t wait to arrive at the destination and thus, the airplane is always the choice no. 1. This time, I wanted to challenge myself with more slow travel and thus, alternated between (many) regional trains, buses and even mini-buses. From Konstanz, for instance, I used a regional Swiss connection, booked only 2 days advance from the train station in Konstanz. Surprisingly – and given the usual high prices I’m usually treated by the Deutsche Bahn – I got a very good price. The trains look good, with friendly personnel that helped me politely to get in time the shortest connections for the next destination.

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From the Eastern side of Switzerland to Liechtenstein, there are short-term buses, comfy, with a bit of air condition that goes in the middle of a beautiful scenery surrounded by spectacular mountains and quiet small houses. With the help of the Adventure Pass kindly offered by Liechtenstein Tourism Office I was able to explore extensively Vaduz, but also to use the public network for free for commuting in different parts of the city.

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On the way back to Konstanz, I tried something slightly different regional transportation, using some colourful little trains. When you switch so often countries, expect to significantly improve your linguistic proficiency. During my travels, I did my best – and sometimes succeeded – to leave the English for emergency situations, while using as often as possible the local languages of the country I was visiting. Don’t ask how your brains could feel after changing from German, then to French, then to Hungarian and then to Romanian.

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Due to the close neighbourhood, and the varied professional opportunities, it’s pretty easy to commute from a country to another in Europe: for instance living and shopping for food in Germany, working in Liechtenstein and eventually spending some summers in Switzerland. The trains around 15 o’clock and later are always busy with commuters, many of them ready to use the travel time to solve some important issues using the wifi opportunities on the board.

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Meanwhile, the little colourful trains ready to go in the scenic Switzerland destinations are calling to relaxing and enjoying the summer days, when possible. During the summer vacations, there is possible to take various rides in different popular locations, with windowless trains allowing real life landscape experience without leaving your cabin.

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Compared to the glamorous West, the Eastern part of Europe might be a bit shocking at the first sight. Many train stations look like there were never enough funds in the last decade to invest in the rebuilding, and some people hanging up around can be a bit intrusive. In Timisoara, for instance, I was surprised by the kind help of the lady from the ticket counter who helped me to find a simple and cheap connection to Brasov.

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I haven’t travel by train in Romania for more than 10 years, maybe, but was a bit surprised to discover that not too much changed, in terms of high-class comfort and facilities.

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Even the landscape stayed the same, with lots of weeds around the train lines, and tired personnel, not always able to help you too much. What I sometimes appreciate in the Eastern European part of the world, is the intensive dialogue and life sharing that can be done with full passion for one or two or more hours of travel between perfect strangers ready to share all the details of their life, although did not care about the name of the depositary of their secrets.

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The main reason I wanted to travel extensively slow, was for checking more carefully the reality on the ground, with a diverse overview over the landscape and even more human interactions. History is always present, but you need to be ready to catch it. In Arad train station, I spotted an old tent-roof stone building, hidden on the back of the train lines, most probably some kind of bunker left from the Cold War time.

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For the rest of the trip, I used intensively and on my own risk the local minibuses not only from a part to another of Romania, but also going as far away as Kishinev. The advantages are the very cheap prices and the availability round the day, with regular connections ready to go almost every hour. On the other hand, forget about safety belts, comfort or even cleanliness.

Now, that other travel adventures are calling my name, I’m glad that I made it through the summer and was lucky enough to be back home safe and healthy. A bit of slow travel once in a while can be a very rich experience, strongly recommended.

 

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Timisoara, a next European Capital of Culture?

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The first time I’ve been to Timisoara more than 10 years ago, I had to cope with a massive headache and wasn’t able see too much from the city. The second time I arrived was on a long train-way from Budapest, trying to cope with just another massive headache. Plus a shocking dirty looking train station where I was helped though by a nice lady to get the best price for the next leg of the trip to Brasov. Once I had the ticket in my pocket and was out of the station, I calmed down in a cafeteria called La Noemi, serving a good cappuccino and some traditional tasty pretzel (covrigi). Around me, I had a lot of very ugly looking communist housing projects, trying to get a bit out of the grey crowd, like this pinky ground floor. What we gonna do next?

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On the way to the small hotel we stayed, were the friendliness of the people helped me to ignore some muddy streets and dirty alleys, we noticed a lot of deserted industrial spaces, another testimony of the communist past of the city. With a nuance of regret, our taxi driver, in his mid-50s complained how the local industry doesn’t exist any more, forgetting that probably he would have not been able to talk with foreigners if the communist dictator was still in power.

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Too many historical considerations for a poor head like mine, so I rather tried to focus on the colourful present of the city, with colourful graffiti joyously invading the deserted urban spaces. Things changed a little bit more than some might want to recognize, it seems.

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The contrasts are easy to notice in Romania, where poverty and luxury can co-exist easily only steps away. Close to the dirty industrial space, it is situated a huge multi-storey mall with a sophisticated multiplex home theater, a favourite meeting point of young people. Although they probably don’t have the money to buy all the expensive clothes or electronics displayed, they enjoy the ambiance, meeting at the food court for social networking. The food is not that expensive, and besides the popular Mc Donald’s and pizza and Asian foods there are also some local Balkan dishes one should definitely not miss, such as the pleskavica, made of various ground meats and potatoes.

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One good news about my headaches is that when it happens, I should definitely try to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Hoping the cold rain will make me feel better, I took on Cuza Street, passing near a nice park with even nicer graffiti. Lacking too many tourist signs, we rather follow streets intuitively, hoping that sooner or later we will arrive somehow near the central area.

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Slowly, we entered Eugeniu de Savoia Street and from there on, we were in the historical area. Compared to many other big Romanian cities, like Bucharest, for instance, Timisoara was not affected by megalomanic urbanist reshape that might have been destroyed the old constructions. However, for decades, the local budgets are suffering for underfunding and the result is the decayed facades of classical buildings.

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The closer we were from the center, the bigger the problems. As Timisoara wants to apply its candidacy for the status of European Cultural City in 2020, the new mayor started a massive refurbishing of the streets. On the long term, it can be a good thing, and only considered myself very unlucky to be here at the wrong time. On the other side of the muddy holes, cute shops and youngish coffee shops were winking at me.

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Among the rest of the country, Timisoara as the capital city of the Banat Region, assumed always a leading intellectual role, the city enjoying for a long time a multicultural reality of many languages spoken and an intermingling of cultures and identities. It was said that at the beginning of the century, Serbian, Hungarian, German, Yiddish as well as French were spoken currently on the elegant streets of the city. Streets that were the first in Europe to enjoy the benefits of electric light. Even during the communism, who mostly destroyed the multicultural past, Timisoara was always considered the door to Europe, and given its vicinity with the more liberal Hungary and Serbia, many products prohibited in the rest of the country – including soaps, and shampoos and chewing gum – were more available here on the black market.

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All these horror histories are hopefully gone for ever, and the city is trying to get back its charming days. Going back in the early time it’s almost impossible, because many of the minorities and their representative intellectuals are long gone. Instead, the search for a new identity can be more interesting for the future of the new generation of people still living here.

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Timisoara is an university city, with many young people from the rest of the country and all over the world living here which can change and dramatically challenge the grey narrative of the past. The graffiti in the central historical area are one of the best I’ve seen during my whole European trip and at a certain extent could be read as the message in a bottle of a new generation of Romanians.

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Timisoara was the first Romanian city that in December 1989 decided to end up the fear-hate relationship with the communist dictatorship. People went out of the street, prompting other cities to do the same. In just a couple of weeks, the country was finally out of the nightmare and although there are different interpretations and versions of what and why things happened there, it was about time that the darkness in which Romanian citizens were kept for too long to end up.

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The Opera Square was one of the symbolic reunion points of the anti-communist demonstrators. Now, it was only the rain, us and some local people hurrying up. Very close from there, the small Tourist Information where we received a lot of insights about where to go next.

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Interesting Art Nouveau buildings, relatively well preserved, showed a different face of the city and I wished I can find an extensive book about the history of the local architecture. Maybe the next time.

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The square in the front of the Cathedral is another place where people risked their life to fight for the freedom of children to play freely near the alleys, without the need to hurry up to spend their after school time waiting in the front of the shops for a little bit more sugar or maybe some bread. Despite the rain, the restaurants around were full of people and a carefree feeling was in the air.

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The architecture can be surprising if you dare to explore more and more. There are a couple of guided tours in English that dedicated to the culture and history including of the huge Roma palaces around the city. If you ask the locals about them, they will feel a bit annoyed about the topic, but it’s one in a lifetime experience that tells something about the a relatively unknown European minority.

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The bad weather, the ugly headache, the exhaustion of the last long hours of train ride plus the perspective of an equally long trip shortened our stay in Timisoara. After a little walk on the bridge over the river Bega, we decided to slowly head back home for a healthy sleep. It was a short trip, but maybe of the city will win the competition to be an European Cultural City, I will dare to come back for getting to know the city in its newly restored glory.

For more pictures from Timisoara, check the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/timisoara-romania/

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/

Travel fatigue? Who, me?

The last leg of my summer trip: Kishinev, Republic of Moldova

The last leg of my summer trip: Kishinev, Republic of Moldova

Yesterday, I finally made it to the Easternmost European point: The Republic of Moldova, where I spent one full day in the company of the lovely young people of Kishinev. The happiness of finally being able to make true an old travel dream of mine was a bit diminished by the reality that my summer travels are done for now. In a long time, I spent an impressive amount of time on the road, that lasted for almost one month and started in the South of Germany, with the Danube city of Regensburg. It continued shortly after with Bodensee and the beautiful island of Mainau and its unforgettable flowers, continued with a little bit of my beloved Switzerland and the encounter with a well hidden secret: the beautiful Liechtenstein.

After a short weekend back in Berlin, I was back on the road again, this time direction Central and Eastern Europe, a region I know quite well but haven’t visited in a long time: after having my morning coffee in the sunny Prague, I landed for late dinner in Budapest. From there, I finally made it to the picturesque Szentendre and Visegrad – an unusual rainy day doesn’t diminish my pleasure of travel – after exploring intensively Budapest where I haven’t been in around 10 years.

The next stage of the adventure followed in Romania, where I’ve been to Timisoara, a city on my travel list for a long time, followed by a visit back in one of my childhood cities, Brasov, and a long stay in Bucharest, from where I am writing right now. From Bucharest, I took the (right) decision to pay a short visit to Kishinev, at the end of a 8-hour bus trip through the beautiful green countryside.

Beyond the accumulation of destinations, there is always a lot of work: planning the routes, setting up a travel schedule for covering topics – luxury and foodie including – of interest for my readers, but not missing the occasion to discover some unexpected locations. The time spent taking pictures and the long hours of later editing. Or moving from a location to another, using local transportation trying to use languages I thought were for long forgotten in my mind. More importantly, finding always time to meet friends and interacting with local people. Not forget about the real summer, with heat and dust, an experience that it seemed I almost forgot about it, after spending so many safe cold summers in Berlin.

Being for so long far away from the place I call right now home – the hectic city of Berlin, created certain discomfort: sometimes the Internet connection was slow – hence the low frequency of posts on the blog – sometimes I realized at the end of a busy day that I only kept myself busy meeting people talking about life without any ‘tourist’ touch of the schedule. I needed to cope with different eating habits – not too much cooking in the last weeks either – while trying to get used with new products and ingredients. But nothing compares with the pleasure of checking on my own the hectic markets, trying to avoid being impressed by all the sellers that invite me with their inspired words to buy their products. At least in the case of huge melons, couldn’t resist often the temptation…??????????Do I really miss my Berlin home? For my whole post-18 yo life, ‘home was where my heart was’, and most probably  this is how my life will always be. There is one place where I feel connected perfectly and permanently with my mind and soul and this is where my home will always be. A place where I am happy to return and whose people always make me smile. But at least for now, for very serious travel purposes, my home of adoption is Berlin and this is where I will return in a couple of days for catching up with writing, with more foodie and the expat life. From there will set up the next travel plans, because I am never tired of too much travel. I am feeling grateful for having the privilege of travel, knowing so many interesting and warm people, learning new languages and about new histories and cultures.

Meanwhile, my travel story will go on and on. Because I feel compelled to share my experiences and lessons learned. There will always be autumn and winter trips after the long summer travels.

 

Ilana went with the TGV

 

ImageAfter so many hours of travel by bus from Berlin to Paris and fast forward to Nantes, I decided that my trip back to Paris should be done differently and preferably in a more comfortable way. I also had some practical reasons to prefer the train ride to the 7-hour long bus ride: I wanted to be in due time in Paris for at least one more hour of long walking while still having enough time to explore what was left from Nantes. Spontaneity might be expensive, especially when it comes to transportation: I paid 60 euro for the second class. In exchange, I had a 3-hour non-stop pleasant trip. Looks like a fair balance, isn’t it? 

But besides the time-wise advantages, there were many other things that I really loved about being on the TGV. Everything is clean and designed in a modern way. There is air condition and except the price, I did not see too many differences with the first class – maybe the colour of the chairs and the quality of the chair materials. There was a small restaurant at the end of the train serving breakfast too, but for the afternoon one is left with biscuits and coffee. The restrooms are clean and well kept. 

When moving up and down to do a basic documentation for my article, I encountered the diversity of the passengers heading to Paris: from busy businessmen preparing the last details of a presentation or business meeting, to teenagers enjoying the vacation and students looking to find a place where to spend the nigh before the next trip. There is enough place to share a table with other three passengers, where to set up your laptop or your books. Some tables had a cute pinky chess design. 

Compared with my other European train experiences in Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland and Sweden among others, I found the TGV the most intimate and friendly. It seems that during the 3 hours or so of the trip you can rarely have some reasons to be bothered, by the other passengers or the people checking the tickets or about the level of cleanliness of the windows. Somehow, these three hours gave me the full energy to go successfully through another 15 hours of bus ride from Paris to Berlin.  

Now, I can’t wait not only to be back in France any time soon, but most specifically, to have at least another pleasant TGV trip.