Vineyards and Baroque in Würzburg

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I left Berlin for my first encounter with the Franconian region with a lot of side notes about the architecture, history and arts, but apparently I had missed the main point: the abundance of vineyards that can be seen on the hills from all the main streets. As a serious and I assume also experienced wine lover, my attention for the history and arts went obviously distracted for a long time. As I will later find out, the climate and the soil makes this part of Germany one of the oldest and largest wine producer in the country. However, the climate was not very kind with me this October Sunday, but the wind and some cold rain showers did not discourage me to keep discovering this mysterious city.

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Those not interested in the local wines, or simply with a durst for the German branded beer production are welcomed in old breweries  serving late breakfast and generous beer pints. There were enough courageous tourists enjoying their meal outdoors. As for the local people, it is a Sunday and this part of Germany is known for its religiosity and except the tourist spots, there are not too many shops or other daily attractions open.

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Due to its religious profile, Würzburg also had several cloisters that eventually in the recent centuries were turned into public hospitals. One of them is the rococo Julius Hospital, whose gardens and flamboyant architecture are part of the local attractions of the city.

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A serious part of my visit will be spent exploring the gardens labyrinth of the Residence Castle, part of the UNESCO heritage sites and one of the most beautiful ones in Germany. It reminded me of the beautiful Schönbrunn gardens, but the scale of manicured gardens bordering alleys that suddenly turn in completely unexpected directions or leading to unexpected corners of landscape is much bold.

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The work of the man is either manifested through the various styles of statues or the care to turn the nature into a piece of art. At the same time though, the force of the wild nature is strong enough to serve as the main inspiration for the cultured. This is how I can explain the extraordinary power of this place, that you feel in every corner.

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The art of creating illusions is so powerful that I’m feeling in a wonderland where I’m afraid of being lost, the place created so strong emotions that I can hardly remember the right exit password.

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A visit to the castle, built between 1720-1744 and used as a former bishops residence, revealed a more domesticated reality. The beauty of Tiepolo’s frescoes completes the landscape of the intricate influences that contributed to the conception of this castle, from the Viennaise style, to the French castle flavours and the emotional Northern Italy.

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The architecture of the streets and houses is less spectacular, with many embellishing decorations and various historical mentions of the previous history, before being destroyed during WWII.

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More about the local history, especially during its time as a Bishop residence is revealed at the 10-year old Museum am Dom.

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The old city hall, as many other similar constructions in Germany, especially in the Southern part, did not disappoint, with its imposing high and whose architecture seems to be inspired by the predominant religious constructions in the city.

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The modern world changed the functions of many buildings and just another former hospital was turned into an art gallery.

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Another hill of vineyards encouraged me to try hiking till the top of the Marienberg fortress, following tight cobblestone stairs and narrow alleys bordered by a houses built in all the historical styles, starting with the 18th century until the current busy times.

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The hiking till the top of the Fortress is pleasant, with many green trees announcing maybe a beautiful foliage season in a couple of weeks, but the vineyards are well hidden so I cannot have a good view of them. I am thinking about how beautiful everything might smell in the early spring, when the vineyards’ flowers are in full bloom.

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Initially, the fortress was built in the 13th century and witnessed many fights typical for those historical times. Now, it is a great place for the late afternoon dog walking or for jogging, but it can also explain a lot about the history and traditional architecture in this part of Germany.

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Back in town, I’m again on the bridge – it might remind of Charles Bridge in Prague, isn’t it – where tourists take pictures or are invited to do some wine tasting in one of the many small wine shops and bars nearby. It’s getting cold, but wine, drunk in the right amounts, can always bring some pleasant warm into the heart.

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Würzburg is also an university city and proud to be the home town of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. More I walk the streets, more I might think about the coexistence between various spiritual layers of the city and especially how the modern world can spring in the middle of traditional mindsets. The boiling Baroque of the castle can be an answer, and its traces can be seen in some small architectural details as well.

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The market square is empty, but it’s a good standpoint to notice various styles of the buildings. An Australian band is playing loud some Irish-music and most of the people are running there, maybe happy, as I was too when heard the sound of the music first, to see that there is still something going on in the city.

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Moving forth from the concert, my eyes were pleased to discover the Rococo exuberance of the 18th century Falkenhaus, a former bourgeois residence. All the small rebel details of the facade are balanced by the geometry and even by the windows and the special painted colour. It’s like a beautiful cake specially decorated to make you think about the pleasant surprises in life. Not always easy to get into this mood.

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From there, the streets around are very busy with the coming and going of shopping lovers, as here is concentrated the shopping district of Würzburg. Traditional tailoring, glass stores and shoe reparation shops also survived the top-notch demands for modern supplies.

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I did not find too much street art in Würzburg – and the more you go South of Germany, the less spectacular street art there is – but the local history and traditional art imagination did not neglected the care for making the city beautiful, or at least creating some artifacts that makes your living better.

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Not in the central areas, but on some streets around some exuberant Baroque putti are apparently busy catching butterflies.

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The parks and green spots can offer some quietness and the comfort of the almost perfect silence.

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When I am about to leave, I see again the abundance of vineyards and I wish I had much more time for some serious investigation into the quality of the local wines. A feeling that can also be translated into the simple and very much used on this blog sentence: ‘See you soon !’

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

The Ritz-Carlton Berlin: the luxury oasis from Potsdamer Platz

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Without reading a couple of books and watching maybe some more movies, it’s hard to imagine how Potsdamer Platz in Berlin used to look nothing far but 30 years ago: a depressive no-man’s land, just another picture of the Cold War. After the reunification of Berlin, it grew up as one of the most modernist areas of the city, with sky scrapers – something not that common in Berlin and in Germany in general. Behind the remains of the Berlin Wall and some futuristic architecture, there is hiding another hidden secret of the city: The Ritz-Carlton, one of the two hotels from the chain. Only ten years older, it equals in elegance and beauty the first ever Ritz founded in Germany, the one from Wolfsburg, that I visited a couple of months ago.

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My journey at The Ritz-Carlton started with a delicious afternoon tea, improving my knowledge about green teas while enjoying delicious bites of perfect pastry and cakes.

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My passionate guide through the world of teas for the day, Hernan Caballero, has another great talent: drawing and following the tradition of The Ritz-Carlton, his talents were encouraged and introduced to the visitors of the famous bar. His maps listing the geography of various drinks in the countries around the world are proudly showed on the tables. And he is not the only one here whose individual talents are recognized, as the hotel also used recently the greeting cards designed by one of the apprentices.

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It’s not time for the champagne brunch at Brasserie Debrosses, but paying a visit around is an interesting experience, at least from the architectural point of view. It reunites the old French brasserie style  - the floor is originally brought from an old 1874 French Brasserie with the same name – and the old former communist Germany influences in the furniture. The food served is French though. During the summer, the outside terrasse is an invitation to stop but not for too long, as there are so many shopping and cultural temptations around – almost most of the interesting top attractions of the city, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Tierpark are within minutes of walk from the hotel.

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But not only the adults are invited to enjoy their time in luxury: special programs for kids are offered all round the year, besides special presents given upon checking-in, like polo shirts with their name on it.  There is a chocolate festival for them and various cooking classes only for them – like waffle baking, as well as a special cocktails and afternoon tea programs. Wish there were such options when I was a child; probably I would have discover the pleasures of the afternoon tea much earlier. In addition, scavenger hunts or special tours of the hotel are also part of the regular menu for the smallest visitors. In the rooms, they will be waited by special beds and maybe some bed covers with their special cartoon characters.

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Meanwhile, the adults can enjoy the latest add to The Ritz: the Fragrances bar where special cocktails are prepared based on perfume recipes. Just think about your favourite famous perfume and soon you will taste it! As for now, there are around 15 cocktails available, based on recipes whose ingredients were tested enough to produce an unexpected pleasant surprise for the palate.

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Out of many other temptations, I would love to be back to try the Yuzu Watermelon, based on sake and lemon and watermelon syrup. Don’t worry about asking an overdraft soon. One cocktail can be as cheap as 14 Eur. And you taste it from the lounge of The Ritz-Carlton…

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The works of art, mostly created by German artists, are there to add another layer of distinguished ambiance to the other layers of educated pleasure.

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The interior design inspiration, a project made by Peter Silling, was inspired by the work of the famous Berlin architect Schinkel, whose signature is visible in most of the civil architecture of the classical Berlin. The glittering of the Swarovski chandelier and the mysterious corners of light are the modern translation of some old school classical principles.

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The lobby avoids extravagance for the elegance of style. When you arrive from the colourful joyous yet noisy outside, you might think that you arrived in your private universe of luxury. However, behind the closed doors of the many hotel offices, people are behaving in the most responsible possible ways allowed by the 21st century. The energy used is green, out of the recycled paper used in the offices,  around 5,000 school books were made and donated to a school in Wedding. Almost 65% of the vegetables used by the restaurant are produced at the field owned by the hotel in Mecklenburg Pommern. The own beehives are producing nothing less than around 300 kg. of organic honey every year. And the examples of sustainable luxury could continue…

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For a short moment, you can relax and think that you can spend here the rest of your stay in Berlin. Why not, you even have some Berlin Wall Memorabilia, some horrible grey concrete monsters laying on the polished floor. Another example that the Ritz-Carlton is not afraid to face the daily realities is the special open doors program organized a couple of months ago, when the Berlin citizens were invited to have a tour of the hotel. Maybe only few of them will ever be able to afford to every pay around 14,500 EUR/night for a stay at the luxury hotel suite, but at least they will be able once in a while to make some savings for an afternoon tea. Going out of your comfort zone is always a good challenge to take once in a while.

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Regardless of your plan, this hotel can be the best place to start new beginnings. In your life, for instance! What about an unforgettable wedding photo made on those white marble stairs? If you already married, at least you can try an extravagant selfie. If you rather like the ‘old style’, there is a photo booth in the lobby, where your photos are issued with a personalised logo of the hotel.

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For the very special guests, as the US president Barack Obama, a guest of the hotel, high-end privacy and security can be offered. As in the case of other hotels from the chains, there are different levels of privacy offered, the basic being offered at the club from the 10th floor.

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Basically, there is a hotel inside the hotel, with its own reception, lobby, meeting room, as well as other kitchen facilities.

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There, you can have your meals with an overview over Tiergarten and the modern architecture of the Western Berlin. Enough to want to finish your meal now, make your business meetings as successful as possible and just run out to know the city. What about a jogging trail through the Tiergarten, based on the advice of the specialists of the hotel?

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The Ritz-Carlton has 303 guest rooms, out of which 39 suites and a presidential suite. Add to this the banquet and meeting space, as well as the high-end facilities offered at the spa. For the highest security area, there is double access and other special facilities.

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The good taste and simple elegance are the predominant feature of the rooms. From the decorated walls, till the match between the furniture and the carpet, there is hard to find any failures.

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Suites can have 2 bedrooms, bedside control panels, in-room Internet and various luxury amenities. The customers also have access all round the day to the swimming pool and the fitness space.

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There are also heated bathroom floors and a very inviting sauna, just two stairs away. What if?

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But it’s about time to end my adventurous trip in the world of cocktail fragrances, green teas and marble ceilings. There is time for the opening call of the gentlemen’s club too. Good bye, good life! Welcome back to the real life of Berlin!

Disclaimer: I was offered a free tour of the hotel, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

For more images from The Ritz-Carlton, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/the-ritz-carlton-berlin/

Afternoon tea chez The Ritz-Carlton Berlin

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Although it has the perfect ingredients – and I am talking about the weather especially – for a successful afternoon tea formula, Germany is still a bit far away till adopting the good English habits. Especially now, when the dark, cold and bad weather is present more than ever, having a cuppa and enjoying a luxurious afternoon could be a good smoothing way to offer yourself a spark of wellness. In one of the last days of this summer, I started again the search for the best afternoon teas in the city, ending up at the little palace of luxury hiding near the high-scrapers from Potsdamer Platz: at the unique The Ritz-Carlton Berlin. Early this year, I have been the guest of the first Ritz-Carlton in Germany, in Wolfsburg, where the afternoon tea left me with unforgettable memories of tastes and special tea flavours. As I was told that each hotel from this chain do have its special luxury trademark, I am here to discover the different reality. The afternoon tea takes places at the end of the huge lobby, designed according to the principles of Berlin’s main architect, the 19th century Schinkel. Although situated in an open space, there is enough privacy and quietness to relax and enjoy your afternoon. Regularly, background piano music creates a special ambiance for the guests.

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As much as I would love to close my eyes and maybe have a little end-of-the summer dream, I know that I am here for work. The passion of the master tea Hernan Caballero telling me the story of the various teas I can chose from brings me back to the daily life. As usual, I am highly impressed by people that followed their dreams and passions and Hernan is a successful one of them. Trained by the famous Mariage Frères in France, whose special teas are exclusively served here, he makes my tea choices even complicated, as it seems that behind each flavour it’s a whole fascinating story. I can spend full days in the front of this sniffing box so, who knows, maybe I have enough passion too to be a tea master myself as well one day.

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As Hernan explained, sugar can change completely the texture of the tea and if you really want to have the real taste you should be careful with the sweetness as well as with the various taste combinations of the side dishes. In the case of the black tea, for instance, the sugar and the lemon can smooth the flavour, while too much caramel to the green tea will almost completely neutralize the green tea taste. As for now, there are 68 sorts of tea available, introduced in detail, in English and German, in an elegant booklet offered to the guests for consultation and lecture. The organic honey offered as an alternative to sugar is made on the roof of the hotel, at the 7 beehives that produce around 3-400 kg. every year.

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With so many new stories, my brain is fighting hard to make the right choice, at least for now. Trying to make my life easier, I decide to stay around my comfort zone: the green tea. As I was missing Japan lately, I said ‘yes’ to Gyokuro. According to the explanation offered in the tea menu, this tea seems to the result of hard work, similar to that of a work of art. Only buds are plucked, very carefully by hand, and only once the year. But before that, the plants are placed under the shade for three weeks in order to increase the concentration of chlorophyll and reduce tannin. The result is considered to be ‘the most noble, refined, and precious green tea in the world’. Brought in Mariage Frères teapot, it’s the best green tea I ever had – and the secret is that I am drinking as much green tea as possible: very simple, balanced, flavoured in a very neutral, humble way. Every drop brings more peace and balance and I’m almost back in my dreamworld.

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But it’s time to add some good foodie company to the special tea. The three-tiered plates are not less surprising. From warm raclette to small sandwiches with cucumber and various veggies cover or the delicate small pieces of sweets, everything ask me to stay more, just because I need to be truly objective with my final review, of course.

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Now, the perfect ambiance seems to be complete: the elegant architecture, pleasant background music, the tailored furniture – especially made by German artists, the small pieces of food, each one having a small delicious secret, as only one different concentration of spices or a bit of salt can make things completely different and, of course, the exquisite tea. The afternoon tea takes place every day between 2pm and 6pm. Besides the usual classic and Experience French Aroma – offering an exclusive Mariage Frères experience – afternoon tea there are also special Ladies Tea offers – for before and after the shopping tours and tailored winter offer during the holiday season. Regularly, there are also offered various tea classes, especially for children.

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When I was expecting less, the fresh, delicately warm scones, with clotted cream arrives. The combination between smooth fresh pastry and the perfumed clotted cream, with flavours of orange and lemon, is like the yin and yang of food excellence. The recipe of creating simple things might be more difficult, as you simply should wish for that perfect measure. It seems that in the case of this simple plate, the secret formula was used.

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As for the sweets, every simple bit is set to impress: the macaroons are one of the best I had in Berlin, and believe me, I am desperately trying to find the most crunchy, delicious ones for a long time already; the small chocolate beds with slices of strawberries do mix the sour cocoa taste with the natural freshness of the fruit; the small slices of cheesecake with berries do have a natural taste of smooth cheese, moderately sweet but the fruits make all the difference; the many other lucky combinations between various fruits – from passion fruit to various types of berries – and fine dough.

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When my afternoon tea is over – at least for now – I know that there are so many cuppas with their secret stories waiting to be discovered that I should be back soon. Maybe after so many years I finally found the right way to enjoy the long German winters, after all.

For more impressions from the afternoon tea, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/afternoon-tea-chez-ritz-carlton-berlin/

Disclaimer: I was the guest of Ritz-Carlton Hotel for tasting and testing their afternoon tea, but the opinions are, as usual, my own. 

A day at the dairy farm Gläserne Molkerei Münchehofe

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As I child, I visited a lot of factories – including chocolate and icecream factories -, dairy farms and even vineyards – without tasting, of course, and as a curious person, I enjoy understanding what I wear, eat or drink. I found always interesting the small details of the preparations and now, as a grown-up adult, I love to see with my own eyes the mysteries revealed. As a frequent visitor of the Bioladen – bio/ecological shops – in Germany, I noticed various advertisements for tours of Gläserne Molkerei Münchehofe, and after a while, I decided that I should pay a visit myself to this dairy farm, not that far away from Berlin, in the green Spreewald area of Brandenburg.

Dreaming is one thing, making it real might take a bit longer. Used so much with the precision and failure-free transportation connections in Germany, I disregarded a highly important aspect, well known by the local, but not too much disclosed to the wide public: from Königs Wusterhausen, S-Bahn station, there is a bus that connects Münchehofe, maybe once or twice the day. From Halbe, where I stop following the recommendation of some Deutsche Bahn employee, there are around 12 kilometres that without any proper wheel-propelled transportation, must be made by foot. With a lot of optimism and a good weather as trustworthy company, I started my walking journey.

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At 9 o’clock in the morning, everything looked fresh, with some last traces of the fading summer stubborn enough to still kept being around. Fresh air, flowers and colourful mushrooms diminished my lack of mental preparation for such a sudden early long walk.

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Accompanied by the silence of the woods, I made it relatively fast till the Märkisch Buchholz, near the Dahm river. With not too many people on the streets, except the one who brought me the bad news that there is no bus connection till the dairy farm and eventually I should keep walking and walking, I suddenly started to worry. With my appointment at the farm for a guided tour starting in less than 30 minutes, I was not able to be in time, unless will find some unconventional transportation way: hitch-hiking that I haven’t done since my final high-school years, when I went through Bulgaria for one week with only 100 USD in my pocket.

I think more than twice, pondering all my blogging priorities, especially the need to keep my word and be in due time at the appointed schedule. I set myself on a place near the main road, from where I can eventually grasp instantly the reliability of the driver. After a couple of minutes, a nice local old man stops, and in less than 10 minutes I’m there. Was simple, although my heart went as small as a sparrow.

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As I arrived a bit earlier – a deep sigh of relief after so many worries within less than 2 hours – I am using my time for getting to know the neighbourhood. Quiet, populated mostly by cars coming a going, the traditional Brandenburg country life.

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When it is about time to go, I go through the green alleys, bordered by happy relaxed wooden cows – it is a bio dairy farm, after all – and I’m ready to join the other members of the guided tour. The visit can be done only as part of such a tour, and dedicated tours for children of various age categories are also available by request.

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The dairy farm is hosted in a very modern looking building, that replaced the former communist Germany construction. A similar farm was created in Dechow, in the Mecklenburg Pommern.

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In the lobby, old wooden instruments, from the old times are only used as didactic material. Everything is mechanized now. The downside of a visit in a normal day of work can be that some of the machines must be under revision at certain times of the day, so during the tour, we did not see too much from the real processes that lead to the creation of the delicious dairy products – cheese and milk, especially.

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However, we are lucky enough to have a good guide – in German – that explains in the smallest detail everything related to the quality of the milk used – bought from producers, after a careful verification of accomplishing the standards requested by the bio production. Mostly, the animals should live free and not be treated with antibiotics. There are three main types of milk produced here: the pasteurized one (the green package) – which has a sour-cream like taste but the normal milk consistence, the usual milk – from the light blue packages – and the one meant to last longer – from the dark blue packages. After the presentation, I can test all of them, but it’s a bit difficult to make one and final choice, as all of them taste fresh and ask you for one more glass, and one more glass. And this comes from someone not so keen to drink too many glasses of milk per day. Wish my mother is still around to read this!

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The most spectacular view is in the front of the windows leading to the cheese production section. Almost 6,000 liter of milk are used, in order to produce around 600 kg. of cheese. The big bathtube-like made of copper, produced by a Swiss company offers the guarantee against microorganisms and also keep the composition warm as long as needed before the final production.

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Besides the impressive number of cheese produced daily, there is also a significant production of curd, with different fat concentrations. Our guide explains in detail about the salts used, and their qualities in creating various tastes. Except for the production of butter, which needs more human involvement, everything is mostly done automatically by the machines. The 1o0,000 liter of milk produced daily, for instance, is packed by the robots. The local laboratory keeps an eye on the daily quality of the mixtures, which the level of humidity is checked twice the day, in order to be sure that no additional micro-organisms are produced.

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At the end of the tour, after resisting heroically and some even taking notes in an ambiance calling for lunch, brunch and dinner, we are invited to spend some extra time testing and tasting the various types of cheese we’ve been explained about. Except the classical bio stores, the milk from this dairy farm can be found also at the classical German supermarkets. A stamp on the right side of the upper side of the package indicated when and where the milk was produced. With the cheese as a common topic of conversation, I am improving my language skills talking with the tour companions about the different qualities of different pieces of cheese and milk. Everything is delicious.

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Outside, some lazy cows are enjoying their day out. During the production process, mostly milk from Germany – Mecklenburg Pommers and the Southern part – is used. Also, certified milk from Denmark, Poland or the Czech Republic can be employed for covering an over-increasing need. Outside the farm, I walk a bit across the small garden, with some veggies and colourful flowers.

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Outside, on the streets, the same quietness and emptiness, except a postlady, with a minivan, who is running from a house to another to deliver the mail. Now, that my journalistic mission was accomplished, it is about time to think how to make my way back to Berlin.

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This time, I’m luckier, as I am around for one of the 1-2 regular bus rides. A classical car, maybe from the old times of the DDR. My adventures on the road put aside, I had a very useful experience, learning about cheese and milk. Now, that I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how everything is produced, I might be tempted to increase the consumption of milk in the house. The knowledge I got through my travels can lead me in the most unexpected places…

Disclaimer: I was offered a free tour of the Gläserne Molkerei Münchehofe, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

For more pictures and impressions from the dairy farm, check the dedicated Pinterest board

An uneventful discovery of Gera

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One of the many advantages of working hard to finish my project 100 Places to See in Germany is that I can discover German regions quietly, city by city. This summer, besides my love for Harz, I went more and more interested by Thuringia. Erfurt and Weimar are my two favourite cities and the discoveries I made there gave me inspiration for finding another destinations. What about Gera? A city that I did not know too much about can be a reason enough to spend one full Sunday there. The entrance by bus into the city did not impress me too much, with too many ugly communist looking buildings, but the neo-Renaissance style of the main train station challenged that first impression. And the mood kept changing, once arrived in the front of the imposing theatre, with the small local lion mascot in the front.  Built at the beginning of the 20th century, it has a capacity of over 600 places, which means that there are at least that many people interested to attend artist performances.

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More refreshed by the cultural news I just got, I moved forward to the Orangerie, surrounded by a French garden, with an impressive art collection, that due to various constructions cannot be visited till the beginning of the next year. Anyway, the weather was good enough for more trips outdoors. Nearby, the Hofwiesenpark, with long alleys bordered by chestnut trees and flowers of all colours.

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An art installation aiming to expose the representation of myths brought an intellectual note to the otherwise joyous and carefree ambiance.

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As I would find out more later on during my solitary explorations, Gera is a city of beautiful villas, a testimony of the rich industrial past of the city. At Villa Jahn, situated in the middle of a large garden, the sober architecture grew up near the long green alleys and luxuriant bushes of flowers.

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I could not resist to take the forest road and spend even more time walking in the middle of the forest, crossing paths sometimes with speedy bikes and ladies walking their big dogs.

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As usual, adding a pinch of culture to the nature is a welcomed encounter, and for the next hour, I decided to give more attention to the arts. First, a short stop at the Hof- und Kammergut, a 18th century building turned into an art space, gathering different art styles.

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I continued with the Otto Dix Museum, a city brand, where besides the reconstruction of old rooms from the time of the artist’s first years of life, there were also some rooms dedicated to the works of the artists that learned, among others, with Oskar Kokoschka.

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In the neighbourhood, a mixture of different architectural styles reminded the long history of the city and the relative wealth of its brave citizens.

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But another unbeaten forest path tempted me and I was in the right mood for more walking.

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My destination was Osterstein Castle, but as I was explained by a very well informed lady working at the art gallery in the yard, only one part of the wall belongs to what once used to be the castle. The rest was destroyed during the WWII bombings, and as usual in such cases, there are various variants of the reasons why the castle was targeted: either some high-ranking officials were hiding here, either by accident or simply because the Allies just detonated the bombs here as they were not allowed to bring the ammunition back home. As for now, I just listened to the various variants and kept my opinions for myself.

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Back to the central area of the city, I got out of the war stories mood, by simply looking around at the surprising art on the streets.

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More arts and nature continued in the area near the Puppentheater.

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My passion for architecture was rewarded while walking the streets near the central area: Leipzigerstrasse, Laasenerstrasse, Lessingstrasse. As it was a Sunday, almost everything was closed, but I may guess correctly that on a normal working day there will be many shopping opportunities for all kind of budgets too.

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The central square, with the classical Pharmacy in the corner – the Stadtapotheke – added a new and different perspective over the city. It was almost empty at this time of the week, the perfect moment for some Segway training introduction, before starting the tour in the city.

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Most coffees and restaurants around, including the tempting Pegasus Literary Coffeehouse, were closed or about to be open, so finding a good place to eat was not an easy task. However, a little tour around the square, guarded by the old city hall tower was an opportunity to get connected to the architectural geography of the place.

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When I finally set up for the lunch menu, it was the Markt restaurant, inside the city hall. The service was relatively slow, but the limette non-alcoholic cocktail kept me a fresh company till the rest of the order arrived. The fresh dough of the egg handmade tagliatelle matched the grilled salmon and the fresh vegetables. The creme brulée was a kind of deep disappointment though, too much sugar and artificial flavours for my expectations.

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Well feed, I continued to look for more Gera’s secrets. Behind the city hall, I arrived at the former corn market, once the Jewish street.

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There, I was very curious to have a look at the city from the top of the city hall tower, and after quite a difficult stairs climbing – blame the good food, maybe – I succeeded to reach the top of it. As usual, it is interesting to have a wide perspective of the different architectural and historical layers of the city, and Gera is no exception to the general rule of urban development in the former communist Germany: some chore historical area was maintained, while anonymous block-houses expanded in the outskirts.

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I was curious to learn out more about the city, and the Stadtmuseum was one of the places where such knowledge can be obtained, but unfortunately, I arrived there shortly before closing time, so the historical introduction was not possible. Instead, I did find more hidden statues near the green bushes.

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Visiting a city without noticing its street art is almost impossible, but this time, the encounter was not planned at all, as I simply stumbled upon some creative corners created by local street artists at the ground level of the UCI Kino.

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The typical motives and mosaiques from the communist era from the walls of the apartments on Heinrichstrasse reminded again of the weight of the recent history into the present and future of the city, at least at the level of the visible architecture. The time I spent in Gera, just helped me to understand much better the city, while discovering a new interesting German destination.

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

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.

 

Kishinev, my Easternmost European destination

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I wanted to visit Kishinev for many years, but either I always rather took the plane in the direction of Western Europe, or I was too far away to include it in my short-term travel plans. Familiar with the history and with a couple of good friends from Moldova, I kept regretting that I’m not able to check the reality on the ground on myself. Shortly after the plans to visit Romania were established, the thought of paying a visit, although short, to Moldova, returned. What if? But with the never ending troubles in Ukraine, some worried friends advised me to rather go to the neighbouring Bulgaria or maybe better spend more time in Romania. But I hardly give up, especially when it comes to travel, so kept asking on travel forums and friends about what’s like to be a solo woman traveller in Moldova. When I needed only one more inspiration to finally book my tickets, I met a young taxi driver in Bucharest whose emotional accounts from his home country finally convinced me that I should not miss the chance to go there.

Although it is possible to fly or to go by train, I rather decided to take a minibus, from Autogara Filaret, place that looked completely out of time. The round ticket goes around 40 Euro pro person.

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The journey lasts around 8 hours, it’s relatively safe – if you forget about the need to use safety bells which were completely broken – and the mini-buses on both ways are ready to go every 2 hours. There are around 3 companies operating regularly and phone reservations are also possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy to get a place without, if you are in the station at least 30 minutes before departure.

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The custom checking was relatively smoothly, although during the summer time, the traffic was quite busy with people coming back home from Italy, Spain or France, among others. The country was recently included in the free-visa program of the EU, but many Moldavian citizens succeeded to get a Romanian passport – the two countries have a long common histories and for those with Romanian ancestors it was possible to get the citizenship – allowing them free travel and working opportunities in EU countries. On the way back though, the checking took much more, because entering the EU area involves some serious restrictions in terms of the quantities of cigarettes and alcohol that can be carried. As I was carrying only a small bag for my one night stay in Kishinev, I did not make too many worries and enjoyed looking out of the window. Once arrived in Moldova, the rich landscape kept my camera busy. Kishinev is situated in the middle of a beautiful natural landscape, one of the most favourite destinations for the weekend of the local people being the outdoor experiences of Rezervatia Codrii, a large area covered by forests, small hills and green paths.

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For purchasing my tickets, using the Romanian currency was possible, and in many places in Kishinev, it was still allowed to trade with it. This goes too for Euro. However, for paying in restaurants in shops, you rather need to use the local money, colourful pieces of paper adorned with historical characters from both the Romanian and local history. Many exchange houses are open on Sunday too, especially near the train and central bus station, as well as on Stefan cel Mare avenue.

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My first contact with the city was through its people: the driver of the mini-bus, kindly explained me where I should stop for reaching the street where I had rented a too large apartment; the owner of the apartment to whom I paid around 30 Euro for a huge 4-room complex – sometimes, the monthly salary is around 25 Euro, the country being considered the poorest in Europe – and who bought me some water, coffee and some small breakfast treats; the same owner who the next day insisted to pay my ticket to Dendarium park; the many anonymous people who helped me with directions either in Romanian, English and my very broken Russian. Thus, I felt not only safe, but also welcomed. Maybe the streets were looking bad and the contrasts between the very expensive 4×4 cars and the big holes on the roads were too big to ignore, but the warm hearts can open the eyes for long-time friendships.

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Either part of Romania or the Soviet Union, Moldova regained its independence only recently. The National Museum of History presents extensive local interpretations of history, covering also the repression during the communist years, although there are a lot of historical events completely absent.

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At the Museum of Art, although I was only 10 minutes before closing time, I was allowed to visit the Otto Dix exhibition featuring graphic war experiences during WWI. A couple of weeks later, I visited Dix’s home in the German city of Gera, keeping in mind this encounter.

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Most part of my time in Kishinev was spent walking the long avenues – especially around Stefan cel Mare blvd – noticing the local institutional architecture, strongly influenced by the communist/rigid Soviet architecture.

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In the main square, the arch that was used as a meeting points for anti-governmental protesters in the last months. For now, the situation is stable, the only travel warning being related to the travels in the crony Transdniestr region, which is out of the legal and administrative control of Moldova where it reigns a pro-Russian communist Soviet-style government.

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Almost each historical encounter in this city needs an addenda. For instance, this monument dedicated to the historical character of Stefan cel Mare was moved several times in the next decades due to various historical and political circumstances.

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The institutional buildings are unusually big – sign that working for the public institutions might be a serious offer on a very unstable market – and pleasant apparitions.

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The new national identity is displayed in the most simplest way and as often as possible, but in such an open warm way that you might accept easily the clumsiness of the very beginnings.

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As in Romania, summers in Moldova are very hot and due to the high energy prices, not all the places do have air condition. After a couple of good hours of walking, I decided to have a foodie stop, trying some local specialities at Andy’s Pizza, a local network with air conditioned restaurants all over the city. It’s open 24/24 hours, with home delivery, fast service and very acceptable prices. The menu was in both Russian and Romanian, but the waiters were able to speak some English too. The lemonade was fresh, cold, perfumed and with the right amount of lemon, although a bit too sweet. The veggie mushroom soup was creamy, rich in parsley and with lots of crunchy croutons. I ordered some fresh back bread because curious to taste it, and was not disappointed by its freshness and dough aroma. I continued with a four-cheese pasta with dried tomatoes, nothing special, but consistent and with a good combination of cheeses.

Although I did not notice too many traditional Moldavian restaurants, there are plenty of Georgian menus all over the city, serving also their famous wine. Moldova has its own famous vineyards, a bit far away from the capital city, at Cricova, a special tourist attraction that kept the Soviet space traveller Yuri Gagarin, among others, busy for a couple of good days with its variety of bottles.

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There are many small streets where some traditional architecture and houses that used to belong to middle class people at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them are part of the historical heritage and waiting for enough state funds to be rebuilt. On the Armenian street, some decorations of the windows included also some communist symbols, the famous sickle and the red star.

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For the late evening, I discovered close to my Badulescu Bodoni street, near the high building hosting the OSCE Mission, a huge park, Parcul Morii, with long trails of ups and downs stairs, few small restaurants and a huge lake with little beaches and walking paths. It looked like late in the evening, most part of the city’s population is out from the hot apartments for enjoying the fresh wind of the beginning of the night.

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Some courageous one were swimming, others were fishing, the kids were running around and young people were gathering together to look at their iPads – there is free wifi in the parks of Kishinev – or to watch and play some street music and dance. Earlier on in the city, I encountered a group of break-dance youngs and in the front of Stefan cel Mare central park, people were also listening to various music improvisations.

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After so many experiences the other day, I started my next and last day in Kishinev, with a colourful and very sweet breakfast, at Caramel, on Banulescu Bodoni. The indoors looked very elegant, with white and green stripes wall papers and a very welcoming service. The big rose macaroon has a combination of sour rose, very crunchy, but maybe too sugarly to have an original taste. The same was for the chocolate mousse, where I also felt too much oil and artificial sweet flavours.

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The Monday mornings brought more movements on the streets, and on Armeneasca street, fresh veggies and huge water melons were on sale.

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Nearby, there were also other products sold at very small prices, mostly Made in China and of low quality. More interesting finds were at the flea market near the National Theatre, on the – already famous – Stefan cel Mare blvd. Looking around at product descriptions and recommendations of travel destinations, the usual reference system we are used with in Europe is completely different. There were recommendations of trips to Georgia and Armenia, of beauty products from Belarus or of ready made clothing products from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Buses for Moscow and other local destinations in Russia are regular.

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One of my addictive discovery was the street sold kvass. With my usual innocent face, I asked the vendor what does it mean, what are the ingredients used? She – many teenagers were selling it, probably as a temporary summer job – was so surprised by my question that I felt ashamed to ask one more time. Instead, I bought if for less than 0.50 Euro and instantly fell in love with. A traditional beverage in Russia and Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet countries, it’s a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread, with an accidental – due to fermentation processes – alcoholic concentration of less than 1.2%.  During my last 4 hours of travel in Kishinev, I tried to get at least one cold plastic glass per hour.

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At another end corner of Stefan cel Mare blvd., I was introduced to the huge Dendarium park, a local Botanical Garden, with beautiful roses and various selections of local flowers. There were not too many people around, so I enjoyed the silent presence of nature. Without a clear tourism strategy and too many street maps showing the directions, a successful trip to Kishinev should relate to the recommendation of the locals, and given my pleasant experiences I had by far, it’s a great opportunity to meet new great people.

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Kishinev is a green city, with an urban presence growing up on the slopes of hills. The central area used to be always the privileged habitation of rich communist elites, while the newly areas of block houses were built for hosting proletarians from all over the Republic and other Soviet countries. In the countryside, people keep planting their gardens with fruits and vegetables and vineyards, and their hard work is a valuable source of revenue. The country might be poor and with salaries at the limits of survival, but the people keep smiling, I rarely heard cursing or aggressive encounters and the street women fashion is always glamorous.

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Although at the very busy central bus station, where comical events can take place, names of other cities like Cahul or Orhei, were screamed loud for attracting more travellers I decided that it might be enough for this one short trip and booked my bus ticket back to Bucharest. But did not want to leave before another foodie treat, at Blinoff, serving traditional Russian pancakes. I ordered another tasty lemonade – after so many glasses of kvass, I needed a change – which was very well made – it seems that people here really know how to prepare it – plus some hard cheese and mushrooms filling and bechamel sauce blinis. An excellent lavish treat before saying ‘good bye’. For a fresh glass of kvass I’m ready to return any time. And not only.

For more pictures from Kishinev, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/kishinevchisinau-republic-of-moldova/