What do Manneken Pis, exquisite chocolates, French fries, dark beer and BDs have in common?

Grand Place


First time in Brussels was in 2011 on the way to Germany. It was a brief encounter just walked around a bit in the city center, took some pictures of Manneken Pis, bought some Godiva chocolates and off we went to Germany.  At that time Brussels seemed to me more like a one day pass through city and nothing more. When I started planning the 5 days trip to Brussels in November last year I was a bit worried about what we will do for almost one full week. If you ask me now what I think about Brussels I will tell you that it is the kind of city that grows on you with each minute you spend there and sticks to your heart forever. But let’s leave the poetry behind and get into the real talk about what you can see and do while in Brussels.

 
Once arrived in Brussels the first place you should go is the Grand Place or Grote Markt.  This is the central square of Brussels surrounded by guildhalls, the Town Hall and the Breadhouse and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

 
Next (at least from where I see it) is beer, beer, beer and some more beer. Beer in Belgium varies from pale lager to lambic beer and Flemish red. There are roughly 180 breweries in the country. It seems that beer in Belgium dates back to the age of the first crusades; under Catholic church permission, local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed beer as a fund raising method. If you ask me abbey beers are still one of the best beers. More on Belgium beer here http://www.roughguides.com/article/top-twenty-best-belgian-beers/.

 

 

My personal favorites were Chimay and Delirium Tremens. The Delirium Tremens Cafe (http://deliriumcafe.be/) which you can find next to Jeanneke Pis (more on this below) in Impasse de la Fidelite is like a huge laboratory of beer with tubes and glasses and pretty cute waitresses and they sell nothing else than beer. In 2004 the place won the prestigious Guinness book of world records for being the establishment with the most commercially available beers with a total count of 2004. Today they have more than 3,000 beers.
 

 

And since we are talking about beer you next topic should be food. You can eat in Brussels all kinds of food you would imagine: there are fancy restaurants, coffee places, fast-foods, local Belgian kind of fast-food with French fries and huge sandwiches, Turkish food, Vietnamese or other Asian food, Greek food, American food. We tried fancy restaurants, local Belgian kind of fast food, Greek food and Hard Rock Cafe. First on our list is definitely A La Morte Subite (http://www.alamortsubite.com/). It opens at 12 sharp and get instantly crowded with locals that like to have their breakfast with a pint of beer…just to start the day better :p
 

 

 


If you are a chocolate lover than Brussels is the place to be. You can find chocolate shops everywhere you turn your eyes and we are not talking about any chocolate but one of the best chocolate in the world (for more on this see http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/28/the-10-best-chocolatiers-in-the-world/). If we were to listen to Google, Brussels has more than 2,000 chocolate shops. We entered a couple of them and tasted some of the chocolates on display and we confirm that yes they taste delicious. As chocolate lovers you must not miss the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (http://www.mucc.be/). It has a nice exposition on cocoa and chocolate and provides for free lessons on how to make chocolates with a chocolate fountain that you can use for tasting.

 

 

 

 

And if we are talking about chocolate and cookies definitely one of our favorite shops is #LaCureGourmande (www.la-cure-gourmande.com)- with biscuits, chocolates, caramels, cheerful old time boxes and many more surprises for sweets lovers. We stuffed half the luggage with their biscuits.
 
 
Now that we walked a bit, tasted the beer, eaten something is time for Brussels landmarks or those things you see on those lists of 10 things to do when in…
 
One landmark of Brussels is definitely Manneken-Pis. Who would have thought that a peeing kid could become so popular. The famous statue is located a the junction of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chene.  The small bronze statue was designed by Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618/1619. You can read some of the legends on Manneken Pis here http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMFX6V_Manneken_Pis_Legends_Brussels_Belgium.
 
 
The statue of Manneken-Pis is dressed in costume several times each week, according to a published schedule.  We did visited the City Museum, located in the Grand Place, which has a room dedicated to the wardrobe of Manneken-Pis (call it a dressing :p). The wardrobe of Manneken-Pis counts today more than 800 costumes (seriously the little fellow has more clothes than I have!) from lots of countries around the world like UK, France, India, Canada, USA, Japan, Korea, Mali, Mexic, Peru and we are happy to say that the Romanian traditional costume was among the couple of costumes on display.
 

 

And if you think this is all about Manneken Pis well think again. When searching for the big Delirium Tremens to drink some beers we found the little peeing girl because yes Manneken Pis has a little lady called Jeanneke Pis.  The statue may be found on the east side of Impasse de la Fidelite from the restaurant packed street Rue des Bouchers and was built in 1987. More about Jeanneke here http://www.jeannekepisofficial.com/index_m.html. And if you still did not have enough with this Pis know that in Brussels you can also find Zinneke Pis which represents a dog in the same lines as Manneken and Jeanneke.
 


Another landmark and one of my favorite part of Brussels are the mural paintings.  BD – the Brussels’ Comic Book Route offers more than 50 mural paintings, most of them located inside the Pentagon (as the city center is often called due to its geometrical shape).

 

 
Broussaille by Frank Pe was painted in 1991 and is the first city’s giant comic mural depicting a young couple arm-in-arm discovering Brussels. The strip is located in Brussels’ gay nightlife hub and, in the original version, it was difficult to tell whether the couple was straight or not. More on Brussels BD here http://www.ebru.be/Other/Strips/StripsHome.html.
 
 
We did visited the Atomium (http://atomium.be/) just because it was pictured on all the lists of to see when in Brussels. Honest opinion? Too much advertising :). We used the metro to get there and all in all with transportation, ques and visit it took us around 4 hours. Atomium was built for the Expo in 1958; it represents a molecule and it provides a view of the city (more of a glimpse) from almost 100 meters.
 
 
Although not on the landmark list we have to say that we enjoyed immensely  the Musée royal de l’Armée – Royal Military Museum (http://www.mivb.be/). Great exhibition of military clothing, gear, vehicles, planes and we even got to “fly” a plane :p.
 
 

 

 
Finally we did visit also the quarter with the European Union institutions but let’s just say it was not our favorite part of the city and felt like it misses a bit of the free spirit in the Old City Center.
 
Tips and tricks:
 
– if you are coming by plane to Brussels use the train to get into the Old City Center; is cheaper than a cab and really fast; it took us not more than 30 minutes to get from the airport to the Ibis Hotel where we were staying in the hearts of the old city (more information here: http://www.brusselsairport.be/en/passngr/to_from_brussels_airport/train/);
 
– don’t bother with buses or Metro while in the city, just wander around by foot; surprises are around each and every corners and if you are a BD lover you are going to definitely enjoy the walk;
 
– plan to stay more than 2-3 days in Brussels; in addition to the city that offers lots of adventures it is damn easy to take the train from Brussels and in not more than 3 – 4 hours get to Paris, London or Amsterdam (we went to Amsterdam and back in just one day and had plenty of time for wandering around the city, eating Argentinian beef and visiting coffee shops);
 
– if you are a beer lover make sure you taste all the beers in Delirium Tremens locations;
 
– best brunch you can have (with a must have 12:00 o’clock beer) is in the restaurant “A La Morte Subite”; opens at 12 sharp and servers omelettes with bread and butter as big as a main course plate;
 
– do not go to the Beer Museum unless you go there for drinks, there is not so much of a Museum more like a movie about beers playing in the background in a small room;
 
– do not miss the Musée royal de l’Armée – Royal Military Museum (Metro need for this one) – it’s free entrance and they have an impressive collection of military equipment, vehicles and planes (http://www.klm-mra.be/).

 

View of Mini Europe from the Atomium



 

 

 

 

Istanbul or the cohabitation of Europe with Asia

Since today Turkey celebrated the Republic Day and I have not yet finalized the story of the recent trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia (but stay tuned :p) I thought of talking tonight a bit about Istanbul (Turkey) or the biggest city in the world spread on two continents – Europe and Asia.
Yeni Mosque
How does my story with Istanbul begins?  Well, like every story it begins with planning for New Year’s Eve in 2010 and having no idea were to go.  Finally me and my friends decided that it is time to try something more out of the ordinary European vacations but not to go to much over the edge.  The evident choice was Istanbul, a combination between the edge of Europe and the edge of Asia and add on top that it was supposed to be warmer than the usual European Christmas/New Year location such as Prague, Budapest, Vienna or Amsterdam.
So there we were, four ladies storming to new horizons on 28 December 2010 after a miraculous taxi trip with a Romanian cab driver that for sure forgot to drink his coffee.
Lucky us the flight from Bucharest to Istanbul is a short one and in 2 hours we were there.  I am not going to annoy you with tales about touristic objectives and details about our 6 days in Istanbul.  Instead, I am going to share with you some impressions about this city which hopefully will get you excited and make you want to put on your trip list the city about which Atatürk used to say that “On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, İstanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens.”
At a first glance Istanbul seems, feels and looks like a huge city.  Forget about the tram, the metro, the ferry, the cabs, the train…there’s nothing quiet enough to cover it all. For an European, used to gray flats and orthodox or catholic churches and women who express themselves in far to many words and far to few clothes, Istanbul stroke me with its mosques and very conservative women.  You can find a bit of everything once you get here but you should definitely not miss the following:
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque (by its real name Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was built from 1609 to 1616 and is still popularly used as a mosque.  More than 20,000 Isnik ceramic tiles, huge colorful prayer carpets, the mihrab, many lamps that were once covered with gold and gems, the colored glass of the windows…all impressive and all an introduction to the Muslim faith.
Tips – Pay attention to the prayer hours when the Blue Mosque is closed to visitors; recommend you to go in the morning. Make sure you are properly dressed and, if you are a woman, you have something to cover you hair with.  Also, be prepared to take off your shoes.
 
Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox church, later an imperial mosque and now a museum.  Its interior is decorated with mosaics and marble pillars.  Apart from the mosaics a large number of figures can be found such as an image of Christ in the central dome, Orthodox saints, prophets, scenes from the gospel, Islamic elements on the main dome…
 
Mosques are all over Istanbul.  You will notice most of them by their towers (called minarets) and you will “hear” tem when the imams will call people to prayer for the five daily prayers.  Do not miss the Suleymaniye Mosque (my favorite because of the interior light and openness and the well known masterpiece of the architect Sinan), Yeni Mosqu (or the New Mosque for the blue mosaic), Iskele Camii (mosque on the Asian side with heated floors), Semsi Pasa Camii (small and beautiful and one of the last works of Sinan).
 
Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar
Enter the Basilica Cistern to see the old drinkable water system of the city.  The cistern is an underground chamber capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water.
Go on Yerebaten Cadessi, walk for 10 minutes and on your right you will find a little restaurant called FishHouse.  They make the most amazing fried shrimps with butter covered in sweet pepper.  Ask for the hot “halva” with ice cream as desert and you will not regret it.
Walk on Divanyolu Cadessi to get used to the crowd and the shops as you go towards the Grand Bazaar.  When you enter the Grand Bazaar be prepared for a place where you can buy anything at any price.  No price list, no strings attached, no rules.

Negotiation is the rule and is a cultural thing so it’s a must to do it.  Here you will be surrounded by gold, sliver, precious stones, smoking pipes, glass, porcelain, lighting appliances, Turkish delights, sellers who are there to sell you just about anything.  Check out the paintings on the walls if you are an art lover, the streets with gold sellers if you like jewelry and start negotiation for a scarf.

Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace was ordered by the Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdulmecid I, and built between the years 1843 and 1856. The design of the palace is a combination between the European styles (Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical) and the Ottoman architecture.

Topkapi Palace
The palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years.  The palace had its own water supply, kitchens, dorms, gardens. libraries, schools, even mosques.  The imperial harem contained more than 400 rooms for the sultan’s mother, the concubines, the wives of the sultans, their children and servants.
Tips – take an audio guide at least and you will get a better insight of the Topkapi Palace and it’s history.
 Eminonu Port
Forget about museums; instead walk the streets near Eminonu Port and go to the spice market.  Enter the trains station at Eminonu.  It’s new and modern but it used to be the last station on the tour of the Orient Express.  If you pay attention to details you can still see the old structure of the train station and imagine the passengers of the Orient Express with their fancy clothes just sipping a coffee in the train station coffee place.


Galata Bridge, Galata Towe and Taksim

Take the tram over Galata Bridge and get down in Takism Square.  Walk on Istiklal Street for shopping.  Shopping malls are to far away and just don’t worth the hassle.  Here you can find also clubs and bars for chilling.  Ada Café (which is a restaurant and a bookshop) has a great New Year’s Party.  Forget about Coffee House, is to crowded and to European.  Choose instead one of the side streets from Istiklal Street and find a small local restaurant were you can drink Turkish coffee and savor a baklava.

In the night take the elevator in the Galata Tower; the view on top is amazing.  Stop for a while at the coffee place at the last level to enjoy a Turkish coffee with biscuits and watch over the Old City of Istanbul.
Asian side
Take a trip to the Asian side.  Ferries leave from Eminonu Port regularly.  The trip is no more than 20 minutes.  When you get to Uskudar visit the three mosques on the shore.  You will notice that people in the Asian side are more conservative and rather curious with tourists than in the European side.
 
Once all of the above done…
 …enjoy a nice traditional food in one of the restaurants where you notice a woman in the window making bread (some sort of pancakes). You can find two of this restaurants on Hudavendigar Cadessi which is in Sultanahmet (great neighborhood for finding your hotel)
Tips – make sure you try the lamb kebab and the local red wine. Ask for starters (zacusca and yogurt with cucumber).
  
….take a cruise on the Bosphorus…
Tips – choose the one that is around 2 hours is enough to give you a great view both of the European and the Asian side and a glace at Marmara Sea and in the same time spear you of seasick.
 …buy souvenirs, they are cheaper than in other places. For architecture fans search for a book of Sinan on Istiklal street and enjoy the mosques. Over 400 works are attributed to Sinan. For movie fans, make sure you buy DVDs in one of the DVD/Bookshops – they have a good price and you can find the Audio in English.
…for cooking fanatics do not miss the spice bazar and make sure you take home sweet pepper, sumac, mint and saffron.

…for music lovers book a night in one of the restaurants with traditional dances and Turkish belly dance.

Teşekkür ederim (which means Thank you) for reading!

All roads lead to Rome

The first story of this blog travelers is about one of my favorite cities in the world Rome, Italy. First time I visited Rome it was in 2008 in a power tour of Italy including the romantic Venice, the full of art Florence and Rome.  Loved it so much that I promised I would return soon despite my long time plan to never return to the same city twice :p. 
 
Vatican

 

In 2011 I returned to Rome for three days of freedom. May is the perfect time to visit Rome. Summer months (and especially August) are very hot and winter…well when you are a bit cold nothing feels so special anymore :). In May the weather is just as it should be, 24 degrees Celsius just enough to enjoy the sun on a nice small Italian terrace but not too much so you start sweating.
 
Too much for an introduction so let’s get down to business. If you are in Rome for three days here are some places you should not miss.
Vatican view from the Basilica

Vatican – small and nonetheless so overwhelming. Visit the Basilica Saint Peter – the biggest in the world – and watch the columns that embrace you from the entrance, the Swiss guards that keep the palace and the pontiff safe.
You will see here many works of Bernini, one of the most famous sculptor of Rome the art of which is all around Rome (the Barberini fountain, the Four Rivers Fountain, Fonatana di Trevi, etc.), the amazing Michelangelo for which the human body had no secrets, Rafel Sanzio in love with nature…Definitely go up the Basilica, there are some stairs to walk to go up there (323 stairs) but the view is worth it!

 
Colosseum by night
Colosseum – If you are passionate about history and everything there is to know about Roman life here is the place to start. Buy an audio guide or bring some information about the place so that you understand a bit what is nowadays in ruins.
 
You will like the stories about the manner in which the Romans were sitting in different rows depending on their statute in the community and their wealth, the fact that elevators where in use at that time, tickets were sold and seats were numbered, plans for fire protection and evacuation in case of danger on different gates were observed, etc. 
Colosseum


Once you have seen the Colosseum move to the Roman forum to see ruins of the temples and Roman houses. Interesting to see is the Vestals Temple (the Vestals were virgins who dedicated there life to the gods and kept alive a flame inside the temple) and the Cloaca Maxima which represents a sewage system that Romans were using.

Fontana di Trevi




Fontana di Trevi – Who amongst you has not seen the old time movies (like A Roman Holliday) where the main actors where just jumping in the Trevi Fountain. Fontana di Trevi is better in reality that you have seen in pictures. Is all the time surrounded by people who make noise, take pictures, throw coins or just sit down and relax drinking an espresso. Fontana di Trevi is the place to which I always come back to in my mind when I need to go to a quiet, safe and comfortable place.
 
Pantheon 
The Pantheon – Amazing building for lovers of architecture with its huge oculus and place of rest for Rafael Sanzio. The place offers cooler temperature and a place to hide from the sun and also a place where you feel extremely peaceful. The square where the Pantheon is located is full with terraces and I do recommend you to sop for a beer and a pizza and just spend 2 or 3 hours to eat, drink and enjoy doing nothing at all.
Here, near the Pantheon you will find the best espresso in the world. Just go on Via degli Orfani to Tazza D’oro and you will not regret it!
 
Piazza Navona – The square has the shape of a big vessel and was once the place where chariot competition took place. It is now the place where you can enjoy the fountains and the street artists. 
 
Take a pizza and a Nastro Azzurro and make sure you eat gelato (ice cream). This is a place to sit around and breathe in what Italians call “la dolce vita” or “dolce far niente”.
 


Piazza di Spagna
Piazza di Spagna – This is the place to relax on stairs and enjoy the rumor of the street after you have walked down Via del Corso and spent an afternoon shopping. Walk up to Trinita del Monti for a better view of the square and La Barccacia – designed by Bernini and his father to resemble a sinking ship.
I like to say that in Rome history and the art have left the buildings and moved into the streets because if you walk down the streets of Rome you will find art and history at every corner.
 
Doria Pamphilj Gallery
If you wish to leave the streets and hide a bit from the sun do not miss the Doria Pamphilj Gallery and the Borghese Gallery. Both the homes of wealthy families are now the home of great painters and sculptors. A tip for Borghese Gallery, make sure you call prior to your arrival in Rome and book a time to visit because it’s only done on pre-booking. For Doria take the audio guide; you pay some extra euro but the story of the gallery is told by one of the descendents of the family and is unique.
 Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II – This is the monument you will see from many spots in Rome and if you have heard the expression “all roads lead to Rome” than from what I can tell in Rome “all roads lead to Vittorio”. The monument is often called the typing machine or the wedding cake because of its shape. I’ve seen one similar in Vienna.
 
Ok. I bored you with all the details about places to visit let’s point out some other interesting stuff.
Giolitti
For the best ice cream you ever eaten go to Giolitti http://www.giolitti.it/home.html . For coffee go to Tazza D’oro and forget about everything else; if you are an addict don’t think you will find here big cups of coffee, this city is all about espresso http://www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com

 

For food do not go for pastas unless the restaurant is very good. Try instead the pizza. I know everybody complains that is not that good but I for one love the pizza con tonno because they make it without onions and with tomato sauce.
 
For shopping go to Via del Corso but make sure you have money to spend because the streets have medium budget shops but also high life shops.
 
For views go up the Vatican.For small streets and street life go in Trastevere. For souvenirs just walk the streets between Trevi and the Pantheon. Make sure you buy one of the black and white pictures with Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe or one of the colored pictures with Vestas motorbikes – they will make your life better once you get back to the real life.
 

For night views go to the Collosseum, to Fontana di Trevi and to Vitttorio. Watch out for weddings you will see a couple of them. For movie addicts go down Via Venetto to see the plaque dedicated to Federico Fellini. Here you will come across lots of fancy and expensive hotels and terraces. If you have the time and you go with a bigger crowd try visiting Cinecitta Studios.
Finally, for young tourists I recommend Roma Pass – you have free access to transport means and free access to certain museums. For the Colosseum this magical pass will allow you to go in front by skipping the entire line.
Roman forum


Top 10 things to do when in Rome:
 
(1) sit in front of Fontana di Trevi in the morning;
 
(2) eat gelato from Giolitti;
 
(3) drink an espresso from Tazza d’Oro;
 


(4) relax on the stairs from Piazza di Spagna;

(5) go on Vatican to enjoy the view;

(6) sit for a bit in the Sistine Chapel and try to imagine Michelangelo on his back on the scaffolding painting the ceiling;

(7) ride a Vespa;




Piazza Navona


(8) buy a pizza in Piazza Navona in the evening and enjoy the street artists;

(9) sit at the feet of the columns of the Pantheon and breathe in the cold air; 

(10) walk on Via Sacra in the Roman Forum and imagine you lived in ancient Rome.

 
And after all of the above who’s to say that Rome is not the city of art, food and love….
 
Piazza di Spagna
Trastevere