My Story of Southeast Asia

Chapter 1: Bangkok, Thailand

In 2017, I spent the month of December in Southeast Asia, staying for several days in each of the following locations: Bangkok, Thailand > Siem Reap, Cambodia > Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia > Phuket, Thailand > Pattaya, Thailand. To be able to get there, we needed to apply and obtain a Thai visa from the Embassy of Thailand, here in Bucharest, Romania, a few months before our departure.

For my fellow Romanians, interested in travelling there, make sure you do a thorough research a few months before travelling and start putting together the file needed for visa application. As we wanted to leave Thailand to visit Cambodia and Malaysia and then return within 30 days, we also needed a sort of re-entry permit, which we obtained once we got there from the Immigration Bureau. But, although this all sounds very complicated, it was both doable and totally worth it, as we had the experience of a lifetime. 

Today start a series of 4 stories, beginning with my story of Bangkok, Thailand. 

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on the evening of December 3rd, and got lost while trying to find our accommodation. So, off to a good start, once we got settled in, and being very hungry, we headed towards a night market I saw on the map, some 3 subway stations away, where I, luckily found some more weather-appropriate pants, that I wore almost every day for the whole month and as we were unfamiliar with the food, we thought we’d go for the “safe”, familiar option: KFC. First off, the menu looked nothing like the one back home, so we ended up ordering what looked good in the pictures. Bad idea. If you think KFC is spicy, you’d probably die eating Thai KFC. I barely got down 3 tiny pieces of chicken and 3 spoons of rice before tears came tumbling down my cheeks and I had to abort the mission. 

Wat Pho

Later that evening, we visited the closest farmers’ market in the neighbourhood, which we reached by dangerously crossing a 6-laned road because we didn’t see the footbridges, thus giving me a tiny heart attack. Once we got there, though already dark, the market was still open and running and we got to marvel at all the fruits and vegetables, some of which we were seeing for the first time. We also tried a bunch of them, from which I only remember the “rose apple”, a very watery, red fruit that felt like a God-sent, in the extreme heat my body was suddenly experiencing in the middle of winter.

Speaking of weather, in December, Thailand – or at least Bangkok – has temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, which is what we have in Romania in July. However, the difference is in the humidity which makes the heat less bearable, for someone not used to it. We also had some cloudy, slightly rainy days, but with roughly the same temperature.

On our second day in Bangkok, as we were concerned with our plans of leaving and re-entering the country, we went straight to the Immigration Bureau, located on the other side of the city. We took an Uber and I think it took us almost 2 hours to get there, which might give you a sense of what traffic in Bangkok looks like. As we were obviously rather late, we took a ticket and waited to be called for about 2 hours or so, until an announcement was made that we had to clear the room – it was lunchtime – 1-hour break. We tried the food in the cafeteria there, most of it traditional Thai food, that wasn’t great, but not too bad either, although it came with a smell that was rather strange and not very appetizing to us. We blamed it on the fish sauce, although even now, I couldn’t say for sure if that was truly the culprit. We sensed the same odour in many other food places, which made us not so keen on trying out different Thai foods. By the time we left Bangkok, however, we managed to discover some delicious food right in the neighbourhood of our accommodation. Although street food, the place and the ladies cooking were very clean and the food was simple and tasty: rice, omelette, pork – simply lovely.

By the time we got our re-entry permits, it was already late afternoon, but we couldn’t help not satisfying our curiosity and seeing at least a bit of the city. We headed to Khaosan Road, probably one of the most popular tourist places in Bangkok.

Khaosan Road

Khaosan Road is a conglomerate of street food stalls, buildings holding hostels, massage parlours, and some restaurants. At night, the street is brimming with tourists flocking around, getting drawn by vendors of scorpions on sticks or stalls of yummy squirming worms. Funnily enough, that was the only place I saw this type of exotic food. Although Thai food is completely different from Romanian or European food, I think the “eating worms and snakes and scorpions” thing might be a bit embellished. But then again, I might be wrong. We were looking forward to getting a massage, especially after standing in line for what felt like an entire day and were glad to find foot massage available at every parlour and at what seemed to us very good prices. We finally decided on a parlour and were taken over by two masseurs who massaged our feet for a full hour. It was so relaxing, I nodded off at some point.

If you’ve never had a foot massage, I can tell you a bit about how the Thai one goes. Once you decide on a parlour, depending on the looks of it and how convincing the masseurs are “Hello sir! Hello lady! Massage? Foot massage? 200 baht!” you go in and you can further negotiate the price. Once set and even paid for, in some cases, you are invited to take a sit on a very comfortable leaned-back armchair, take off your shoes (if you haven’t already done so before entering the venue) and the masseur proceeds to wash your feet. Once washed, they start off with a cream or oil and they also use a small wooden stick, rounded at the ends, the type of which we ended up buying and using at home – a very good investment 😉 

The “Temple Run”

The following day we started a sort of “Temple Run”, that lasted for about 3 days. We started with Wat Pho (The Temple of the Reclining Buddha) where we saw, of course, a gigantic golden statue of Buddha, lying on his side. What was interesting and something that we saw in many other temples, was that the statues are often covered with a golden-orange cloth and believers also stick golden foil to the statues in a form of prayer. After Wat Pho, we took a boat to the other side of the river and visited Wat Arun, a beautiful white structure, with impressive and intricate decorations – probably one of my favourites. We ended the day by climbing some stairs up to “The Golden Mount” – the Wat Saket Temple, where we found at the very top a sort of bell-shaped golden statue. However, what fascinated me more, was the stairs and some smaller statues on the way, such as the one with eagles. 

Wat Arun

On the next day, we left Bangkok, for a trip to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand, now a town about 3 hours away from Bangkok by train, a town that holds over 10 ancient temples worth visiting. Experiencing public transportation is probably one of our favourite things to do wherever we go, so naturally, we were fascinated by the train. It looked quite old, made a lot of noise, and most importantly the “air conditioning system” was made out of fans, stuck on the ceiling from place to place, some working and some not. However, in that heat, you can’t afford to complain. Every gust of wind is a blessing, although it sometimes comes with another heatwave.

Once off the train in Ayutthaya, we quickly booked a tuk-tuk right in front of the train station, where they were all lined up, waiting for tourists. This tuk-tuk was a pick-up truck made to accommodate 2 to 4 people in the back, sitting on small benches and being hidden from the sun or rain by a tarpaulin. The driver showed us a map and pictures of the temples and took us to 10 of them. Although fascinating, by the time we reached the 6th it started to feel like we’ve seen everything already and the tiredness was settling in. One of the temples definitely worth mentioning was the one with the Buddha head embedded in a Banyan tree. Not that the others weren’t very nice, but this is the one that stuck with me after 3 years. This particular temple is called Wat Mahathat. 


The day after visiting Ayutthaya, we resumed our visit of Bangkok, with the Grand Palace. We spent plenty of time here, as it is quite a big domain and it also, of course, contains a big temple, the Wat Phra Kaew. Once out of the Grand Palace domain, we headed to Sanam Luang, a sort of a park/public square, that holds different monuments and at that time was fully dedicated to the late king, which the Thai people were mourning. It was very impressive to see how much the people of a country can love their king.

The “animal tour”

After this, we visited a zoo, where I saw a real-life giraffe for the first time in my life, which for some reason, I’m still excited about. We also took a long boat ride on the river and visited the Museum of Royal Barges, which we didn’t take photos of, but I do recommend going there, though it is a bit out of the way. All the boats are very impressive. The next day we also went to an aquatic park, called Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World, which was quite small, but still fun, and finally, on our last day, we wrapped up our “animal tour” with a visit to the Snake Farm, where we attended a short presentation about different snakes and even got to take pictures with one. 

At the zoo

Some final tips and advice:

  • Try as many types of food as possible – though it might seem weird, street food is very good in Bangkok and very popular among the locals
  • Use public transportation as much as possible. Both the subway and the Skytrain are very fast and reliable. Also, you should take at least one bus trip purely for the experience. The drivers drive as if it’s a race and a lady snaps a metal box to cut your ticket and collect the payment. Probably one of the most exciting bus trips i’ve had.
  • Do take a trip to Ayutthaya if you have enough time.
  • Drink a lot of water and try some bubble tea as well
  • Wear sunscreen and breathable clothes that cover you as much as possible. Most temples won’t allow shorts and tops, for example.
  • Enjoy the smiles and hospitality of the locals – all of them are very nice, pleasant people who try to help you as they can.

My next story will continue the Southeast Asia experience and take you through a whole new adventure in Siem Reap, Cambodia.


My Story of Torino, Italy

I went to Torino (or Turin), Italy in the autumn of 2017. It was October and we decided to have a short city-break in one of the cities of Italy we thought to be less “touristy”. Torino is located in the north of Italy, and it is the capital city of the Piedmont region. It is also a business and industrial forum, being very close to Milan, in terms of such development.

We arrived in Torino sometime in the afternoon. Our accommodation was rather far from the city centre, some 4 or 5 subway stations away, plus an extra 10-minute walk. Somehow, it never actually bothered us. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in a quiet neighbourhood and getting from there to the subway felt like walking our home neighbourhood. 

Besides being a comfy apartment in a quiet neighbourhood, the best perk of this accommodation was actually the gelateria on the ground floor of the building. Possibly, the best gelato we ever had, every day we were there, at least twice a day…we basically lived on gelato for 3 days. So, if you ever go to Torino, even if you feel it’s out of the way, do go to Gelateria Telesio. It is totally worth it.

After getting ourselves settled in the apartment and obviously having some gelato we decided to do a recon mission in the city centre. By the time we reached it, darkness had already descended over Torino, so of course, there was no point in trying to visit any museums, but rather just stroll around the city center and make mental notes of what to return to the next few days.

Small pyramid in the Egyptian Museum

And so, the following day we started with the Egyptian Museum, which we thoroughly enjoyed, although it did give us the creeps from time to time, with its mummies and sarcophagi, though, I guess, that’s what made it interesting. If I remember correctly, the visit took about two hours, although if you are a “meticulous” tourist, it will probably take you longer, so if you plan to visit it, make sure you set aside enough time.

After the Egyptian Museum, we headed toward Mole Antonelliana, probably one of the most popular buildings and tourist points in Torino. This building was originally meant to be a synagogue but it now holds the National Museum of Cinema and it is believed to be the tallest museum in the world. The interior is a big circular room and you can get to the top with a lift that goes through the middle of the building, which makes the trip up quite thrilling. We didn’t visit the Museum of Cinema, but we did admire the inside and outside of the building and hopped on the lift that took us to the top, where we enjoyed a beautiful panoramic view of the city. 

View of the city from the top of Mole Antonelliana

Once out of the Mole Antonelliana, we stopped at a restaurant nearby where I ate, for the first time, ravioli. After satisfying my appetite, we continued our discovery of the city, at Porta Palatina, an imposing gate-towers structure, a remnant of Roman times, and The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, which is accompanied by a completely different bell tower, in terms of architectural style. This Cathedral, also named “Duomo di Torino”, is considered to be the most important church of the city. What makes it so important and attractive? “The Shroud of Turin”. This is a linen sheet, made in a manner used in ancient Egypt, that was used as a funeral cloth. Of course, the connection between this and the shroud of Jesus was made, making the linen sheet a holy object that attracts many tourists and pilgrims to the Duomo. And of course, whether it was the shroud of Jesus or another crucified man, the object is still impressive for its story.

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (Duomo di Torino)

On our third day in Torino, we visited the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale di Torino) where we spent almost the whole day, as it comprises various parts. We started with the main building, the actual Palace, saw the Sabauda Gallery, the Royal Armoury, and spent some time relaxing in the Royal Gardens. We also had a cappuccino at the Caffe Reale and this gave us a chance to unwind after all the walking we did. After the cappuccino, I, of course, just had to see the Royal Library, which still functions as a public library and is somewhat smaller than I expected. However, the old architecture and the walls lined with books still give you a feeling of an insignificant speck of dust in the greatness of time. 

The Royal Library

After seeing all there was to see of the Royal Palace, we started moving away from it and we got to Piazza Solferino and took a short stroll through the park there, then ended up having dinner in an American restaurant, called the T-Bone Station, where i devoured a big burger and fries. You didn’t think I could actually live solely on gelato, did you? 

For a city-break, I would say Torino is the perfect city. It still gives you enough places to visit, many of them with some surprising features, such as the Mole Antonelliana with its lift or the Duomo di Torino and its Shroud, while allowing you to take a slow pace, enjoy walks through the city center and have plenty of great gelato – if you know where to go. Besides this, we somehow felt very much at home in this city, so we probably wouldn’t have gotten bored even if we’d stayed longer. As I was looking at the pictures we took and following Google Maps to pinpoint all the places we’ve seen, I realised I actually miss it and hope to someday return to this weirdly familiar, yet extraordinary city.

My Story of Bruxelles, Belgium

After a sunny vacation in Parga, Greece, our next stop was Bruxelles, Belgium. We’re talking of a whole different kind of weather. Though it was the beginning of July, it felt more like autumn than summer to me, with winds and occasional rain. Despite the not so lovely weather, the city has a lot to offer and it is difficult to get bored there. If you ever feel you’re getting bored, just visit another museum. Fries, beer, chocolate, take your pick – they all have at least one museum. Apparently you can find over 80 museums in Bruxelles. All you need is time. And of that, I only had a handful – 4 days. Those days were all so rushed, I’m afraid my recollection of them will also feel like a rollercoaster at full speed.

This trip took place back in 2017 so it’s already a bit hazy in my mind. Luckily, the pictures we took will help freshen up my memories. This trip was also a bit different, as it was group travel. We enrolled in an Erasmus+ project involving both dance and foreign languages, so we took part in different activities, which made for less time to wander the streets. However, with my somewhat newly found appetite for travel i still wanted to see as much as possible, hence the rush.

Traditional Romanian instruments and costume for “Capra” (The Goat) – a dance performed around New Year’s for prosperity. All exhibited at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Bruxelles, Belgium

We, of course, began by visiting the city centre, Grand-Place and its surroundings, walked up to Monts des Arts and further to the Royal Palace of Bruxelles. On the way, I stopped to visit the Museum of Musical Instruments, which was far bigger than I initially thought (I know, “that’s what she said”) and really interesting – definitely worth the visit. Besides, the building, this museum is in, looks amazing! You’ll find here instruments from all over the world and from all periods of time. For music lovers, it’s music heaven.

Returning to the city centre, we stopped by the MOOF Museum (a museum that features vintage cartoons and comic books). We didn’t go in, as it was around closing time already, but spent some quality time with the statue of the smurf guarding the entrance. It’s definitely a good place to take as many pictures as possible.

In front of MOOF with the Smurf

At some point, we stopped to drink flavoured beer. I think i got banana-flavoured beer, which though it might sound disgusting, was actually really tasty. If you find that curious, you’ll be interested to find out, if you didn’t already know, that Bruxelles and Belgium on the whole are very famous for their beer, whether “regular” or flavoured. The most popular flavour is cherry and you can try different types either in bars or directly in breweries, which abound in the city.

By the time we reached Grand-Place again it had started to drizzle but we kept on strolling. We took a look at the windows of the shops in the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert. Luxury shops and especially chocolateries stole my attention. The windows of the chocolateries looked so good, and cozy (in a luxurious way), I felt I could move in…I wish I could move in. Everything would steal my gaze in such a way I almost felt dizzy, going round and round, just staring at the windows like a proper lunatic. 

One of the beautiful store windows in the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert

In the evening, i got to meet my high-school desk mate – in Romania, back when i was in school, and even nowadays, in most schools, a desk had two seats and we all had a desk mate. She lives and works in Bruxelles and I was so excited about it, I almost missed the group gathering at a local brewery, after losing track of time while catching up. Luckily, I didn’t. I finally got there and tasted some beer, which, to be honest, was not as good as the one we had earlier in the day. But, i’m not a connoisseur, so don’t take my word for it.

The next day, the whole group had an arranged tour of the city, with a professional guide. I don’t remember much of the tour, to be honest, as it focused mostly on Grand Place. The guide was telling us about each building as my attention was drawn to a formation parading around, other groups of tourists bumping into us and the fact that the rain was starting to pour again. I know the guide was very nice though, and that she took us to both the “peeing boy”(Manneken Pis) and the less known “peeing girl”. 

Afterwards, we had dinner with the group at a nice restaurant, where everybody (or almost everybody) had the house specialty: mussels. Just like beer, mussels are some of the stars of Belgium cuisine. I struggled, along with the others, to get all the yumminess out of the shells and enjoyed the whole thing, though it took me a while.

Part of Mini-Europe

Third day came packed with project activities. I did, however, skip on a few of them to go to the Atomium and Mini-Europe. Had to pick just one to visit and I went for Mini-Europe. I had fun taking pictures of the different miniatures of the most representative buildings of each European country. This is a really good place to visit with children as most miniatures are interactive. After playing with the Tower of Pisa, a volcano and some toy trains, I headed over to Parc Cinquentainaire and the Military Museum, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. And, of course, could not leave Bruxelles without taking a tour of the Parlamentarium. 

After a “tour de force” of visiting these places in roughly 4 hours, i finally got to join my project colleagues for a French class, where we played games, trying to guess words. 

The whole trip was wrapped up with a huge intercultural party in the evening and we left for home the following morning, where i needed an extra day of vacation to recover after this packed and exciting trip.

My Story of Parga, Greece

The winter between 2016 and 2017 was rather uneventful in terms of travel, so we eagerly planned a trip to Greece at the beginning of June. We managed to drag my parents and sister along, so now my whole family was packed in the car for a very long ride. It took us 12 hours to get from Bucharest to Parga, Greece. Parga is a small town on the North-West of the country, very close to the Island of Corfu, except Parga is on the mainland, occupying a golf and the hills guarding it. 

Our stay wasn’t long, but it was packed with activities. The hotel we stayed at was decent and the host, Kostas, gave us a lot of good tips for what to visit or where to eat. 

We got there in the morning and so we had a full day ahead of us, which we filled with exploring the town and its beaches. To get to the main beach, we had to go through a labyrinth of tiny streets packed with souvenir shops and gyros restaurants. However, we chose to have a moussaka instead, at a restaurant near the beach and left the gyros for dinner. Near the main beach, we found a cheesecake place that had the biggest diversity I have ever seen and where we stuffed our faces with cheesecake pretty much every day.

Ruins of the Castle of Parga

For that day, we stuck to the town and its narrow streets. We climbed to the ruins of the Castle of Parga. It oversees the city from its spot at the top of a hill, almost like a sentinel. There’s a beautiful view of the town from up there and you can also see the large sprawling beach on the other side of the hill, the one beach we never got to visit. Not because we didn’t have time, but because, to us, it was very similar to what we had back home, so we were hoping to find something more exciting.

And that we did. The following day, we got in the car, drove for 3km and stopped at Lychnos Beach, a large golf, mostly empty, where we spent the first half of our day. What was different about this beach was that there was no sand, only rocks. Round, colourful rocks, that looked pretty, but hurt your feet. So, if you ever plan to go there, pack your watershoes too. From there, if you’re lucky, you can rent a boat or paddle boat to get to what they call Aphrodite’s cave. However, as it was a Friday and not in full season, the shop wasn’t open, so we were stuck on land. We did, however, enjoy a nice ice-cream at the beach terrace. Coming back to Parga, all sun-soaked and starving, we went straight for a gyros and some of that delicious cheesecake. 

Lychnos Beach

On our third day, we took a longer trip, visiting the Acheron River, the one Greeks used to refer to as the River Styx. In Greek mythology, the Styx was the river that acted as a border between the world of the living and the Underworld. The river runs through a National Park and you can even go rafting on it. Don’t worry, it’s not a dangerous business. The waters of the river, though ice cold, do not make for a bumpy ride. And I mentioned the coldness of the river, because i just had to “bathe” in the River Styx, so I dipped my feet in it just enough to have some pictures taken and just enough to have my feet frozen too. 

Me “bathing” and freezing in the River (Styx) Acheron

Once my feet got back to a normal temperature, we headed to the Nekromanteion, a sort of temple built in the name of Hades and Persephone, where funerary ceremonies were performed – a House of the Dead, if you will. The writer, Rick Riordan, possibly used it as an inspiration for his novel The House of Hades. Or, well, at least I believe that’s where I first read about it, but don’t take my word for it. Anyhow, the Nekromanteion does give you the creeps a bit. After seeing some of the above ground ruins and the remnants of some huge, ancient pots, we descended into a crypt, barely illuminated and cold. Getting back up into the sunlight, sure felt safer…and warmer too.

The crypt in the Nekromanteion

After the brief immersion into mythology, we decided we’ve had enough of Hades and turned our attention, and car, towards a more cheerful location. And so, we lost ourselves trying to get to a secluded beach, that Kostas, our host, told us about. I’m pretty sure we drove through someone’s land and crops, though my boyfriend swears that’s not true and that the drive was ‘so much fun!’. The grass reached the car windows and there were rocks everywhere. We clearly have a very different definition of fun. However, we did manage to reach our destination and it was worth it. Our GPS announced that we arrived when we got to a sort of meadow that opened up above the sea, to a beautiful view of a small golf. After taking some pictures, we went down to the beach, called Alonaki. This one also had rocks, and these ones were not round. However, there was sand too, so you could lay down your beach towel and enjoy the view. The water was nice and most people were swimming from the beach to a huge rock in the middle of the golf. They would climb the huge rock and then jump into the water from there. It looked like a lot of fun, but since my swimming skills are next to none, I resorted to basking in the sun, taking walks from one side of the beach to the other and taking many pictures. 

Alonaki Beach

When we had enough of this beach and got terribly hungry, we packed and returned to Parga. There, we tried out a small family restaurant, also recommended by Kostas. The restaurant was on a tiny staircase street starting right from the seafront. The owners didn’t speak much English, but when it comes to food, I guess language becomes universal. We had some amazing dishes and I personally enjoyed some shrimp saganaki. This is a dish that contains cooked feta cheese with a red tomato sauce that can be combined with pretty much anything, hence the shrimp. 

We ended our day with a walk on the seafront, taking pictures, admiring the view and avoiding the very eager Greek men trying to get you to eat at their restaurants. If you’re not hungry, you might want to walk as far away from the restaurants as possible. Otherwise, you’ll get caught up in several conversations that go more or less like this: “Hello! Welcome! Come! We have fish! Fresh fish! Best fish! Where’ you from? [insert country here] Oh, I know that! Beautiful country! You don’t have fish like this there! Come eat!”

Ruins of Ali Pasha Castle

The day before our departure, we separated, as my parents and sister decided to go to yet another beach, a tiny, hidden one in Parga. Though it was a nice, more intimate beach, my partner and I felt we’ve had our taste of beaches for the trip and drove instead to Ali Pasha Castle, or better said, the remains of a structure dating since the times of the Turkish occupation. Once we got enough of the ruins, we drove to a nearby town, called Agia, nestled on top of a mountain. There, after struggling for a bit with the steep, curvy roads, we stopped for a cappuccino at a café that offered a beautiful view over the area. The owners were great hosts that spoke, to our surprise, great English.

In the evening, we all went for dinner at a restaurant near the Castle of Parga, which was slightly more expensive than the ones situated downhill, but where the food was really good and worth its money.

Our time in Parga ended with my dad and I drooling over some delicious-looking sandwiches, that we eventually decided to get for the road. They turned out to taste as delicious as they looked, and boy, were the two of us proud. In case you’re wondering about any souvenirs we’ve brought back, I bought a rock from a little boy selling them at the market, and my parents bought a bag full of onions. I know, weird choices, but the little boy had to be encouraged in his artistic endeavours and that onion was truly amazing – no tears, almost like a Johnson’s Baby commercial.

Bottom line is: if given the opportunity, I would return. There is so much more to the region than just the beachside. You have the atmosphere, the breathtaking scenery and, of course, the food. All in all, it ended up being worth the 12-hour ride.

My story of Istanbul, Turkey (part 1)

I remember Istanbul being one of those cities I really wanted to visit. Partly because I’ve heard so much about what an eclectic mix of cultures it is, partly because its’ location on two continents fascinated me and partly because I actually had friends in Turkey, and I was excited by the opportunity to visit them. 

So, obviously, I was really looking forward to going to Istanbul in October, 2016. I was already getting the hang of making plans for itineraries and places to visit, so I felt ready. It was also a cheaper trip than the previous ones to Barcelona or Lisbon. I spent about $300 on the whole thing with round-trip plane tickets, accommodation, meals and museum entrances for 3 nights and 4 days. A bargain, really.

We stayed at a hotel that was listed as being very near Taksim square, a fact which is still competing for the top overstatement of the decade. Although the actual distance might not have been that big, the road to the square, buzzing life and subway station respectively was an everyday adventure, going through uphill streets, some construction areas and lots of traffic. However, we got over the hassle of it and started enjoying the city.

On our first day, besides inevitably visiting Taksim Square, and after a quick brunch of incredibly tasty cheese toast in the Karaköy hip neighbourhood, we went to Galata Tower, located on the European side, the somewhat more modern part of Istanbul. This is where we climbed a too long (for my taste) flight of stairs and got to see a beautiful 360-degree view of the city. The area around the tower is also very nice, with steep cobblestone streets, and brimming with colourful souvenir stores and quaint cafés.

View of part of Istanbul from the top of Galata Tower

Later on, we went to the ferry station and boarded one that presumably would take us on a tour of the Bosphorus. I’m still pretty sure that was not the case, as we only got to the Asian side of Istanbul where we were promptly ushered off the ferry and onto another one that took us straight back. Regardless, it was a pleasant and relaxing ride, after all the walking we’d done. My partner even took the opportunity to have a short nap, although he’ll probably never admit to it. 

Although I carefully planned this trip with a thorough itinerary, it turned out it took us a lot less to visit different attractions and we ended up doing and seeing a lot more that day. After the ferry ride, we went on the other side of the river, the more traditional one, where we stepped into the world of mosques and palaces. We took a stroll in the park in front of the Topkapi palace and then continued with Ayasofya and Sultanahmet, two enormous, beautifully designed structures. What I most liked about them though, was the fact the we reached them in time for the afternoon prayer. Therefore, we got to hear what sounded like two prayers, one in answer of the other, blasting through the square between the two mosques. Speaking of mosques, if you plan on visiting one, make sure you are not wearing shorts or mini-skirts and, if you are a lady, have a scarf with you at all times, in case you are required to cover your head.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)

After enjoying this, we finally decided we’ve had enough for the day, and took the tram back to the river, where we stopped at a big, embellished boat, where fish in bread was made and served. There was a huge line and a lot of people around eating the sandwich, so it appeared to be a good idea. Wrong! Although the fish was indeed tasty, there was way too much bread, too much onion and too many bones. I gave up on eating it about halfway through the sandwich, getting tired of picking out the bones. However, it did fill me up, so, when my partner, also unsatisfied with his sandwich suggested we go on the other side of the river, where a fish market awaited just on the bank, I didn’t want to eat anything else. 

Now, this fish market is an interesting place. Around it, there were several street food vendors, cooking fish and making wraps. I was wondering how safe it would be to try one of those fish wraps that smelled really good and my partner, who had visited Istanbul before and had already tried the street fish wraps assured me he kept on “being alive” after eating them. Huh, you don’t say…

However, while we were having this conversation, we saw commotion around us. All the street vendors were quickly packing, taking the tiny tables with them and running away. The police were coming. All fun and games until my partner realized the police had just left him without dinner. Or well, second dinner (or whatever the hobbits call it). Luckily, on a side street, at the back of the fish market, there was one vendor that kept his ground. He had a slightly larger work table, plenty of regular and pita bread or tortilla and not a care in the world for the police. He worked in a clean and steady way, carefully and easily de-boning the fish, adding spices and vegetables and making an amazing fish wrap with no bones, which I also tried the following day. I’ve never had a juicier wrap. Not to mention one that felt this healthy, with it’s grilled vegetables and lemon juice and the never-absent pomegranate sauce, that you can find in many turkish dishes and which I bought and brought back home to successfully use as a salad dressing.  

Dolmabahçe Palace

The next day we went to the Dolmabahçe Palace. It sits on the bank of the Bosphorus and it is a large and impressive structure. Built to resemble Occidental architecture, as a way for the sultan to show off his knowledge of the world’s latest fashion, it is a mix of French architecture, British chandeliers and Turkish hammams, and, in a weird and fascinating way, it all works well together. There are guided tours only, which is nice, as you find out more about the history of the place. The courtyard was lovely and the whole visit was enjoyable and relaxing. It’s probably one of the places we spent the most time in. Once we finished visiting the entire palace, as well as the Harem, the building that held the women’s quarters, we rested on a bench, in the backyard, and watched the royal chickens (yes, they have those there) minding their royal chicken business in the beautiful and serene setting of the palace. I strongly recommend visiting this place, but do it during weekdays, as it can become crowded over the weekend.

After Dolmabahçe, we took the tram again to the other side of the river, planning to visit the Grand Bazar. I’ve already mentioned the tram a couple of times before, so I feel I should give it the full credit it deserves. I’ll begin by saying it is probably one of my favourite trams. Although crowded at all times, at least you don’t have to wait for it forever. To get to the station, you have to validate your ticket first, just like you’d do for the subway. No ticket – no access to the tramway station. There are ticket vending machines at the entrance of each station, where you can either buy tokens or top-up your card. The trip is smooth, as the tram line doesn’t mingle with the rest of the traffic. All in all, the no.1 tram in Istanbul is the no.1 tram for me. I know, puns, I’ve got them.

Anyway, the tram quickly took us to the other side of the city where we went straight into the bustling crowd of the Grand Bazar. All vendors try to sell you something. And by try, I mean almost harass you into buying something. They like to negotiate and they will not appreciate it if you don’t. If you only happen to glance over at their shop, they will immediately follow you to the end of the aisle, and try to get you back and talk you into trying out their shoes, leather jackets, dresses and so on. We spend a couple of hours in the bazaar, being taken from one stall to another by different gentlemen, who tried to convince my partner to buy a leather jacket. If they didn’t have what he wanted, they sure had a friend/brother/cousin, on the other side of the bazaar, who did. All the products were “original”, “best you will ever find” and all the vendors were “the first to make/sell” said product – again, “original”. All in all, they were nice and hospitable and offered me apple tea every time my partner was trying on a new leather jacket. It was a fun adventure and we got out of the bazaar two hours later, laughing and with no money spent.

Basilica Cistern

I was keen on visiting the Basilica Cistern, which I knew was in the area of Sultanahmet, where we were the day before, but yet, I hadn’t found it. So, this time, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns. Therefore, I used my phone and Google maps, which I really don’t enjoy using while travelling, to make sure we reached our destination. The thing is, I’m more of a papermap-person. I understand we live in an age of technology, but there’s just something about holding an actual map in your actual hands that just does it for me. You know, seeing the whole picture without having to scroll or zoom in and out.

As it turned out, the Cistern wasn’t really out of sight, I just wasn’t paying enough attention the other day, being wrapped up in the calls to prayer and all. So, we found it and went down into this enormous hall, full of columns and some water too. The cistern was made to store water and it was built with construction material from ruins of ancient structures, which lead to some of its columns having huge Medusa heads at their base – which, obviously, makes for the main tourist attraction of the place. However, I enjoyed the whole place, with it’s eerie red-ish lighting, its impressive columns and its labyrinthic vastness.

Because by the end of the second day we’d already seen most of the main attractions of the city, on the third day, we decided to walk from Taksim Square to Galata Tower, on the route of the old tram. The street is more of a shopping street, full of modern clothing stores, mixed with Turkish delight shops, cafés and fast food restaurants. We stopped to eat a loaded potato, which was really tasty and really loaded. We caught the vintage tram only for a couple of photos, making a mental note of riding it the next time we are in Istanbul. 

Loaded potato

In the afternoon, we switched again to the other side of the river to meet one of the friends I mentioned in the beginning, a girl who lives on the Asian side of the city, but who took the ferry to meet us at Sultanahmet. We went to the restaurant of a nearby hotel , from which you could see a beautiful view of the city, and where I had an apple tea, except, as opposed to the ones I had in the bazar, this one I paid for. Apple tea is really nice. It’s actually instant tea with a nice apple-ish flavor. Of course, the “real” tea, is black tea and the Turkish people drink lots of it.

We also took a stroll in the Spice Bazar, which I loved for its richness of colour and flavor and for the fact that no one was pestering you to buy their pepper or cumin. Another place I really like in Istanbul is the Galata Bridge. This bridge connects what I call the “modern” side of Istanbul, that holds Galata Tower, Taksim Square and Dolmabahçe Palace to the more “traditional” side that holds the Topkapi Palace, the mosques and the Grand Bazar. What’s special about it is that it basically has two floors you can walk. The one touching the water, which is full of cafés and pastry shops and the one above, where the tram crosses the river and where fishermen are catching whatever it is they make fish wraps with. Just like the main tourist attractions, the bridge is also a crowded place and offers a beautiful view of the city on both sides. 

Tiny Turkish coffee and a cafe latte

On the fourth and final day of our trip, with not many attractions left to visit and each of us with a pair of heavily tired feet, we decided to enjoy a coffee at a quaint hidden café near Galata Tower. I couldn’t leave Istanbul without trying the famous Turkish coffee, which came in a delightful tiny china cup that was half full with coffee grounds and half with what I could actually drink. Of course, this made it very strong, more like a shot of coffee that can actually take you throughout the day, rather than a full on tall-grande-cappuccino-chai-latte-machiato-you-know-what-I-mean.

And with this shot of coffee I conclude my story of Istanbul (part I). I shall tell you all about part II in a while. In the meantime, we still have to cover stories of Greece, Belgium, Italy etc. etc. To be continued…

My story of Pescara, Italy

Have you ever heard of Pescara? If you haven’t, this story might give you an insight into this fine coastal town in Italy. If you have, I hope you’ll still enjoy the story and my view on this trip.

This story is going to be a short one. Not only because we didn’t spend too many days in Pescara, but because the days we did spend there were rather uneventful ones. We also, unfortunately, did not take many pictures…

How did we happen to go there? Well, I believe a direct flight from Bucharest was just inaugurated, so the prices were down, we’ve never heard of Pescara before, but it sounded like there should be fish* there (*in Romanian, pescar means fisherman), and since we’re fans, we figured ‘why not?’. 

We landed on one of the tiniest airports I’ve ever seen and took a bus to the town center. From there, we decided to walk to the accommodation that was supposed to be somewhat close to the center. It wasn’t. Maybe it was the heat, but the walk there seemed to take forever. We walked through a neighbourhood of small apartment buildings, where laundry was hanging from everywhere and dogs were barking at us from balconies, so of course we stopped to talk to every dog along the way. Once we passed the apartment buildings, we reached some quaint streets with houses huddled together.

We finally made it to the villa and found it surrounded by a garden of lemon trees. The inside was also nice and clean and very well-kept. The lady that took care of the place didn’t speak English. Luckily, my partner surprised me and quickly charmed her with the few Italian words he knew, so we were good.

Breakfast was included and consisted of many types of pastry and espresso that we had to learn to make in a very small stovetop espresso maker that only made one espresso. Our little espresso experiment went a bit like this: we spilled some coffee, we spilled some water, we spilled some milk…there was a lot of spilling, but eventually, we did enjoy our morning espresso.

View of the port

Now, for the town. Once we got past the neighbourhood of houses and the one of apartment buildings, we crossed the railway and got into what you could call the town center, taller buildings, some of them looking like business centers. Once we passed those, we reached the seafront and, eventually, the beach and the sea. Right, I forgot to mention, Pescara is a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy, about two hours east of Rome by car, in the Abruzzo region.

I really liked the seafront. It was the meeting place of young people and street performers and it had a youthful, modern, playful vibe. The beach was very large and very empty, to our surprise. Although we were in September, the weather was still warm and sunny. At least that’s how it seemed to us. The Italians had a different opinion. Very few of them were sunbathing and we saw many wearing jackets, while we were only wearing t-shirts. 

We walked for a while along the seafront, until we reached a big, modern bridge that went over the river and into another part of the town. We found out that Pescara was actually formed of two different fishing villages on each side of the riverbank. We didn’t explore much of the other side, since in this trip we felt very lazy. However, I can tell you this,  that side seemed to hold much more history, it had older buildings, at least one museum and pretty much no tourists in sight.

After getting tired of the bridge, we went along the riverbank and found a small gelato shop, that had one of the best ice-creams we’ve had. And many many flavours. Suffice it to say, we returned to that shop every day, I believe even twice one day. 

And since we are talking about food, unfortunately for us, we didn’t find as much fish as we expected. We thought that there might be a fish market and street vendors, but we did not find such things. Instead, we did find plenty of fancy, overpriced seafood restaurants on the seafront, that we steered clear of. 

But we did have to eat. So, we ended up eating at an American style restaurant. A sort of diner that served steaks, burgers, and burritos. The place was decorated in a kind of vintage style and it probably gave me the most “American” feeling I’ve ever had (up until I went to a diner in the US, that looked nothing like the one in Pescara). It was like stepping into a different universe. And then, you stepped outside, right into the Italian seaside. Made no sense, but I loved it. And the food was good too. We did eat some pasta one day, at a very pretty and tiny place that only served lunch. Now, that I remember it, I’m thinking it’s such a pity we only discovered it on our last day there.

Pescara beach

Two other things are definitely worth mentioning. One: we did go to the beach and spent about two hours sunbathing and staring at the warm clothed Italians, who stared back at the two crazy tourists in swimsuits. In our defense, it was about 24 degrees Celsius, no wind and not one cloud in the sky.

The second one: we found the best, in my opinion, street art. An entire wall with Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, one of the cartoons I was quite fond of as a child. So, needless to say, I was very excited and asked for many photos.

All in all, our trip to Pescara was very relaxing and lazy. We found some surprising things in this town we’ve never heard of before and maybe, someday, we’ll get to explore its surroundings as well, as I’ve heard that the Abruzzo region has many beautiful places for us to visit.

My Story of Lisbon, Portugal

The trip I took to Lisbon, Portugal was about a month after the one in Barcelona, Spain, so in July 2016. Lisbon has a warm partly Mediterranean, partly Atlantic climate, which makes July a very hot month. Luckily, there was a breeze, so I didn’t completely dehydrate. 

In my last story I was telling you about the very important things you need on a trip, which I mostly skipped in Barcelona, but thankfully I was now a bit more prepared. Besides comfy shoes, I also had a plan and I decided to make use of the hop-on hop-off buses, which my feet were surely grateful for. 

The hotel was in a rather central area and had a subway station just 2 minutes away. The hop-on/hop-off bus station was also there, in a big square – Marquês de Pombal. This neighbourhood looked pretty high-end and was full of hotels. There was also a huge park – Parque Eduardo VII, which was nice for a relaxing stroll. 

The first day we started at Sao Jorge Castle, a castle located on top of a hill that offered a gorgeous view of the city and the sea, or better said the Rio Tejo. I will probably continue to call that river the sea forever, just because as long as I’ve been there, I was constantly under the impression that the river was the sea (I know, wishful thinking). And speaking about the castle and the hill and me trying to save my feet, I still had to climb to the top, as the bus doesn’t reach the castle, which is not a bad thing, but boy, was that a steep climb. But it was worth it, nevertheless. The view was indeed great and the castle walls were quite impressive too.

Sao Jorge Castle

We then walked towards Praça do Comércio, a huge square that is just on the shore. At some point on our walk, I had a very good and filling lunch of soup and fish and a drink too, all for a very cheap price, my guess is it was something like 8€. Many of the local eateries are quite small and hidden from view, but if you pay close attention you’ll find some treasures. Mostly family businesses, they offer good food in big portions at good prices. Of course, you’ll stumble upon the occasional high-end restaurant, but after the experiences I had, I would definitely go for the small family-owned restaurants. 

We also visited the Fado Museum, where you can learn about the history of fado music, a type of music that originated in Portugal. On another day, we had lunch there, though I don’t clearly recall when, but it’s when I had my first tuna steak ever. Despite any of my expectations, I completely fell in love with the dish and my mouth still waters, to this day,  at the recollection.

On the second day, we went to Torre Belem, a very famous landmark in Lisbon. The tower is located somewhat in the water but it is reachable via a bridge. Again, we decided not to go in (long line) and only enjoyed the outside of the building which is really nice. Nearby the tower, there’s also a monument in honor of the geographical discoveries made by the Portuguese, called Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries). It was being renovated when I was there, so only a part of it was visible. It is quite a large structure and worth seeing at least for the idea behind it. 

Torre Belem

Also nearby, there is the Jeronimo Monastery, a huge building, beautifully designed, that, guess what? Also had a huge line of excited tourists outside. We were on our way to take the bus to Cascais, so we skipped that too. I know this sounds like a lot of skipping, but after walking for a while in the heat, and seeing many monuments and museums and churches on the inside, the idea of looking at them from the outside only starts getting more and more tempting. And no, I couldn’t say I regret not entering these places, and the same goes for many future locations.

And so, we took the bus to Cascais. Cascais is famous for its beaches and is very popular among people looking for relaxation and a tan. However, neither I, nor my companion are big fans of the beach. I get sunburned easily and direct sunlight gives me severe headaches. He, on the other hand, gets easily bored and laying on the beach doing nothing is at the top of the list of boring things for him. 

However, we did find something really cool there, which was Boca do Inferno. One of the most spectacular sceneries I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. A rock structure beautifully sculpted by the sea waves, named  “Hell’s Mouth”, not only because of its shape but also because the place was quite dangerous for boats and ships. 

Boca do Inferno

After getting back from Cascais, we spent the afternoon taking a stroll through the city. We passed Elevador de Santa Justa, an old, vintage looking lift that can give you a nice panoramic view of the city. We decided not to go up, as the line to get in was huge and we did get a nice panoramic view of the city from the castle the other day, as you remember. We headed to Mercado da Ribeira, which is very similar to La Boqueria in Barcelona. A food market with many stalls where you can eat. However, the prices here seemed to be a bit higher than in other parts of the city. But it’s sure worth a visit. To get there, it’s nice to pass through the Baixa-Chiado neighborhood, one with small, uphill streets. 

The following day, we decided to go to the aquarium, known as Oceanario de Lisboa, also one of the biggest in Europe. Nearby, you can also see Torre Vasco da Gama and relax your tired feet on a trip in the cable car.

A building that I really liked, although it wasn’t on my list, was the train station, which I went to on the fourth day to get on a train to Sintra. 

Sintra is a town, about one hour away from Lisbon by train. For its size, Sintra has incredibly many attractions. It’s almost as if the entire town is a complex of attractions. There are several castles and museums you can visit. We limited ourselves to only two major ones, as we were planning to reach Cabo da Roca too. 

Once off the train, we exited the station and got a bus to the top of the mountain, where Pena Castle is located. The castle has a lot of charm due to its lively colours and it sure is worth visiting. After this, we climbed down a bit and visited the Moors Castle, or better said, its ruins. I loved walking the walls, although by the end, I could barely breathe and I was in desperate need of water (do take plenty with you, if you decide to visit). 

Pena Castle

We got the bus back to the train station and from the same bus station, took one to Cabo da Roca. I don’t really remember how long the ride there took – must have been around one hour. The road there is quite twisted and “curvy”, but the drivers seemed to be very experienced. It was probably one of my favourite places in Portugal. The view is stunning and the thought of being at what I called the “end of the Earth” is really great. I even paid about 11 euro or so (which might sound nuts – but I was crazy excited) for a certificate with my name on it that states I was at the end of the earth. Also, for those of you who plan more time there, you can find Praya da Ursa nearby. It is a gorgeous beach with huge rocks. Be careful on the way down and get ready for a steep climb back, but other than that, it’s by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, scenery wise. 

Praia da Ursa

After this one-day trip, we got back to Lisbon and somewhere behind the train station, in the Baixa-Chiado neighbourhood, if I’m not mistaken, we found a street full of tables and chairs from restaurants. They were dangerously inclined, but we took a chance and had something to eat at one of the restaurants. I’ve personally haven’t thought before that, of ever eating pork and mussels in the same dish, but it was delicious!

Another cool thing you can do in Lisbon is take the tram, which climbs a hill, so it works like a funicular. You’ll see plenty of photos of that tram on the internet. 

All in all, this was a really amazing trip, a bit more organized and it is definitely one of the places I would like to revisit someday.

My Story of Barcelona, Spain

The first time I really felt like a traveler was back in 2016, when I went to Barcelona in June. And in case you were wondering, yes, it was steaming hot. But, the sea breeze did help and even encourage me not to toss away my long-sleeved shirt. For those of you who are having trouble pinpointing Barcelona, this is a city in North-East Spain, the capital and largest city of the Catalonia region, located right on the shore of the Balearic Sea.

Now, in Catalonia, the first spoken language is Catalan and then Spanish. But fret not, everyone will understand and speak Spanish. Some will also speak English, especially the young. In case of vocabulary malfunction, turn to sign language – just point to the yummy pastry you have your eyes on and it will come to you.

Barcelona seemed to me like one of the most touristy places I have ever visited. The main reason for that was the huge amount of tourist objectives available. Another reason were the crowds, especially in the city center. And another reason was, of course, my thirst for seeing EVERYTHING. 

One of the entrances to Parc Guëll

This, obviously led to the following: by the time I’ve finished my first day, I could barely walk. The next day was even worse. Possible solutions: comfy shoes, breaks, organization and hop-on hop-off bus tickets. I only had the shoes. 

Being such a greenhorn at this, I didn’t really make a plan. I only had a list of things to visit. And so, I started checking them off, one by one. First stop – Parc Guëll – not to sound Carlsberg-y, but probably, the best park in the world. Why? It’s a mix between a park and a museum. You’ve got grass and trees and flowers and houses and columns and this amazing terrace created with stones and coloured tiles, so beautifully shaped and so sea-like, I could spend the entire day there (I spent half). And if you think that’s the one you see in all the pictures #barcelona, you are precisely right. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the genius author of this place – Antoni Gaudi. Do google him.

Parc Guëll

Next on my list were the two famous houses, by the above-mentioned artist and architect. Casa Battlo and La Pedrera. Now, I’ve only entered La Pedrera. The reasoning went like this: I took some pictures of the front of the Casa Battlo, which by the way is by far one of the most impressive structures I’ve seen and while taking pictures, I kept hearing the house is the same on the inside and you’re not seeing anything new. Now, keep in mind that might be wrong, so if you have decided to visit this museum, by all means, do it. There was also another reason for me missing Battlo, which was the ticket price. I was on a low budget and I can tell you museums in Barcelona are not making it easy for you to keep to your budget. The same goes for food. I had a lot of sandwiches there ☺)

So, skipping Battlo, I decided to visit La Pedrera and I was not sorry. Although not as impressive on the outside, the roof of the building is quite an attraction and the ventilation system is really smart. In the exhibition, you could also see Gaudi’s thought process behind his creations, including a simple mock-up of the Sagrada Familia. That might not seem like a big deal but it was one of the things that really struck me and will stay in my mind forever. Not to give spoilers, but it was upside down and mirrors were involved.

La Pedrera

Another place I managed to visit, one which seems to be regularly overlooked by tourists, is Palau de la Musica Catalana, a music hall of great architecture and beautiful sound. I visited it as a museum, but you can also buy tickets to see shows there.

Besides different museums, this is a beautiful city to just have a stroll in. The most famous streets are Avinguda Diagonal and Las Ramblas. Here is the heart of the city. The biggest crowd, the most cafés and shops, and the quaint but buzzing La Boqueria – a food market where you can both buy produce and have lunch or dinner. If you go further towards the sea, you’ll also find the Barcelona Cathedral, a gothic structure, as well as Santa Maria del Mar, recently made famous by the novel and now tv-series Cathedral of the Sea.

Glass ceiling inside Palau de la Musica Catalana

And, if you get to the sea, you can visit the Maritime Museum, see the harbor and visit the aquarium which is one of the largest in Europe.

In a different part of the city, there is Plaza d’España, where you can find the Magic Fountains. Why “magic”? Because at night, for about one hour or so, they light up in colours and music accompanies them in their water choreography. So, yes, quite magic. But expect huge crowds and lots of hands in the air carrying phones and cameras. 

There is also a castle in Barcelona, called Montjuïc. I have never managed to pronounce it correctly, but regardless of the name, it is worth visiting. It’s located on a hill and you can take a cable car there, called “teleférico”. To get to the top of the hill, you can also take the funicular, a sort of train that climbs up the hill. 

One day, I also took a short trip to Montserrat. This is an impressive mountain, home to an equally impressive Monastery. Needless to say, the view from the top is amazing. It takes about two hours to get there from Barcelona and there’s another funicular there. 

View from Montserrat

Now, I must admit, I’ve been a very touristy tourist and focused on seeing as many things as possible and forgot about doing things and experiencing the Catalan culture, as I should have. I was young and disorganized and completely in awe with this great city and especially its architecture. 

But bear with me through my other stories. I promise it gets better 😉