laupäev, 13. aprill 2024

In the Carpathian Garden. Beach Day

We learned from our past missteps and set an alarm this morning. By 7:30am, we were up and by quarter to nine, we were on our way to the car rental place. Arriving there, we were greeted by the local version of Lasnamäe, minus any actual car rentals. Calling the office didn’t help; they just confirmed that their only rental spot was at the airport and that picking up a car in Lasnamäe required booking at least a week in advance so they could find a team to bring a car over. So, off we went to the Grand Hotel's Avis office instead. The young man there looked at us and announced that his three available cars were already reserved for four different clients. However, after a few quick calls, he managed to conjure up a brand-new Dacia for us. Fifteen minutes later, we were in the car, and off to Constanța we went.

Our first stop was McDonald's because, in our rush to get out of the city, we skipped coffee. I was going on about how I’d order coffee, a pie and fries. Scott gave me a skeptical look and said, “You do know McDonald's serves breakfast in the morning, not fries and burgers, right?” I assumed there were no such limitations here and that a client could get fries whenever they fancied. When placing our order, I got my coffee, pie, fries, and yes, even a burger.

The 225-kilometer freeway to Constanța was a bug slalom; after the first half-hour, they hit our windshield like a dense rain, reducing visibility to 35%. We stopped at a gas station to wash the windshield.

Imagining Constanța, we pictured a seaside resort town with beautiful blue water and a charming old town. Turns out, the city's heyday was back in the 70s and 80s, and for every nice, renovated building, there were two that were crumbling or abandoned. The city center was bustling with cafes and noise though. The farther from downtown, the larger and more ostentatious the houses became.

I spotted a doughnut stand and decided I wanted five doughnuts. The young man behind the counter asked what I’d like on them. I asked what the options were, and he pointed to a list in Romanian over his head. Recognizing only chocolate and powdered sugar, I opted for the powdered sugar.

We visited Starbucks and a small Italian shop where Scott ate a ham focaccia, then we strolled to the casino. The seaside promenade was nicely done up, but the casino was still in scaffolding. They had thought of the tourists, though, who'd undoubtedly want a photo in front of the casino — there were photographers everywhere with canvases of the casino where they'd snap your picture.

Deciding it was time to head back to the capital, we took the 2 hour drive, parked the car back at Avis and walked to our hotel.

From April to October, Bucharest runs a pilot project every weekend where the main street is closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, street musicians, and food stalls. Unaware of this project, arriving at the hotel, our first thought was, "Is there a protest going on?" as the street was so packed with people.

Later, when we went out to eat, the streets were even more crowded. Every cafe, restaurant, and food stall had a line stretching around the block. We enjoyed some excellent tartare, gazpacho (almost as good as mine), and tomato salad with burrata. When paying the bill, the waitress asked if we wanted to leave a tip by card or in cash.

reede, 12. aprill 2024

In the Carpathian Garden. The City of Queues


By the time one of us (and let's be clear, not me) managed to roll out of bed, it was pushing 9am. We wandered to a nearby café and ate some sandwiches, cured salmon, and poached eggs, joined by four dogs who weren’t exactly the best of friends with each other.

Since the hotel had decided a hard log was a suitable substitute for a pillow, we ventured to the reception to request something softer and less tree-like. Turns out, the hotel's pillow inventory was exclusively limited to these wooden impostors, but a supremely helpful young man handed me the address of a department store where tourists can purchase a pillow worthy of dreams. He shared a tale of his own pillow struggles, confessing he's been traveling with his own pillow for six years, which has seen more hotel beds than a bedbug inspector. Grateful for the insider info, we headed back to our room, pillow-less.

By 11am, it was crystal clear that our planned excursion to the Black Sea was off the books for today. Instead, we headed to Ceaușescu’s residence. No walk-ins allowed, and since the next tour was more than half an hour away, we skipped the wait. We strolled through the nearby park and, dear loyal reader, snapped some photos foryou of a children's slide that, I kid you not, seemed designed to train future bobsledders from toddlerhood.

Learning from yesterday’s missteps, by 1 PM we were back at the market. The queue at the mici stall was impressively long—it reminded me of old times when floral fabric arrived at the textile shop, and half the town would line up, hoping the supply wouldn’t run out before their turn. After a 20-minute wait, we secured the mici. Scott also grabbed a bottle of beer from his favorite vendor from yesterday, and polished off all four sausages in record time. Speaking of the vendor, when Scott asked her if she spoke English while buying beer the previous day, she gave him a long look from head to toe and declared she spoke Romanian, English, French, and a bit of Spanish. They immediately hit it off and chatted away.

In the evening, we returned for more fresh pasta and planned to watch the illuminated fountains, but ended up just crashing at the hotel instead.

neljapäev, 11. aprill 2024

In the Carpathian Garden. Party within you


Waking up in the morning, I was greeted by the sleep-deprived Scott. It turned out that while I was lost in deep sleep, there was a party happening under our window and a family dispute right outside our door, both keeping Scott awake all night. So, we started our day by asking to cancel our remaining four nights and get our money back so we could find a more suitable hotel — one where neighbors don't start hammering each other's eyes at four in the morning. The receptionist seemed a bit puzzled and claimed that we were in the quietest rooms of the house where not even half a chord could be heard. That explained the bowl of earplugs at the reception. We weren't satisfied with the idea that listening to bass all night qualifies as a peaceful sleep, and the receptionist reluctantly got the manager. A man in sweatpants appeared, listened to our complaints, and allowed us to check out.

We packed our stuff, booked a room at the Novotel just 850 meters away, and walked over there. We left our bags in storage and did a walk near the parliament building. The Romanian Parliament building is one of the heaviest structures in the world (over 4 million tons) and the second largest administrative building globally.

In the afternoon, we took a taxi to a market located in a local version of Lasnamäe. Next to the market, there was a square filled with fantastic food stalls. While Scott queued up for mici (local skinless sausages), I headed to a lángos stall (fried bread topped either with sour cream and cheese or, say, Nutella and bananas). It turned out lángos were sold out, so I then went to a fish stand. Shortly after, Scott joined me, sans mici, as they ran out right before his turn. Well, fish it was.

We did another round in a local shopping mall and Starbucks, then started our one-hour walk back downtown. The main street was lined with architectural relics from the eighties — large, grey, pompous buildings whose glory days were firmly stuck in that decade. The only plus compared to Lasnamäe was that every building's ground floor was crammed with various shops — groceries, bakeries, currency exchanges, erotic shops, phone stores. But as soon as you stepped through the alleyways between the buildings, you'd find two to three-story buildings from the '30s and '50s with beautiful but deteriorating facades. The closer we got to the city center, the more completely abandoned and derelict haunted mansions there were.

In the city, we ate fresh pasta, which was superb, followed by cakes at a local Peruvian's place. By eight o'clock, we were back at the hotel, ready for tomorrow's trip to the Black Sea.

kolmapäev, 10. aprill 2024

In the Carpathian garden. Service experiences


At Riga airport, the clock had ticked so far ahead that I was starving—who wouldn't be? :D So, I bought a slice of cheese cake and a mango dessert from a kiosk. The cashier whipped out a wooden spoon from the drawer and before I could blink, an extra 20 cents was slapped onto my bill. I asked her to remove it.

On the plane, it turned out there was some electrical issue, and we were warned that the power would be turned off for a couple of minutes while they figured out the cause. Those "couple of minutes" stretched into about ten, but when light finally flooded back into our little tunnel, it was confirmed that the airplane was in perfect working order and fit to fly.

Once in Bucharest, the taxi dropped us off at the edge of the old town, as cars couldn't enter. We navigated through bars, pubs, strip clubs, and construction zones to find our hotel, got a scrap of paper with our door code, and headed to our room. Starvation nearly blinding us, we dashed to a nearby café to eat. Instead of meatballs, we were served some mush that had been rolled into balls and deep-fried in breadcrumbs. Everything else was really good, though. The menu stated that a 10% service charge would be added to the bill, but it seems that the waitress thought she delivered such an extraordinary experience that she tacked on 15% instead.

laupäev, 16. märts 2024

Delicous Thailand. Flight home

My bag was packed tighter than a level 16 in Tetris game - 15 kilos of luggage looked like a grocery bag after a fifteen-minute visit to Prisma. We headed to the airport, trying to guess whether electronic boarding passes would suffice or if we needed to go through the counter again, where luggage is weighed. Turns out, we didn't need to go through the counter and could walk straight through security to the gate.

Knowing I wouldn't survive a 12.5-hour flight with just two sad airplane meals, we properly stocked up at McDonald's. As I returned to the gate with said paper bags, I saw local airport staff dragging suitcase measuring box and scale to the gate. I could already envision us repacking our bags and shelling out 100 euros to check half of our luggage. Turns out, our bags were so expertly packed that we breezed through without any issues.

I am eternally grateful to the genius who decided to bring internet to the airplane, because otherwise, that 12.5-hour flight would have felt even longer than it already did. We arrived home by 10 PM.

reede, 15. märts 2024

Delicious Thailand. A Whirlwind of Temples, Treats, and Tourist Troubles (not us!)


This is how most of the PoS were. First time I was super confused. And since the numbers were always randomly organized, it never got any easier.

Welcome to our last full day of the trip and Scott's first time in the vibrant chaos of Bangkok. So we set out to cram as much excitement into our day as humanly possible.

Our first stop was the illustrious Golden Mount temple, promising breathtaking views, lush garden and an ample dose of religion. The climb to enlightenment involved a very long stairway to sweaty heaven, complete with a surprise detour to a shoeless toilet - who would want to take off their shoes and walk barefoot to a public toilet? And as a twist - temple etiquette means the shoes are not to be taken off when entering the temple.

After emerging from the temple, slightly disheveled but brimming with newfound spiritual enlightenment (and a touch of sweat), we made a beeline for the sanctuary of consumerism: Siam Paragon Shopping Centre. Armed with a hunger for both blizzards and mugs, we indulged in a Dairy Queen delight, a Starbucks visit, and a smorgasbord of sweet treats, including a Krispy Kreme donut and a chocolate cookie. The shopping center's vastness was nothing short of stressful – a labyrinth of luxury and confusion at every turn.

A brief respite back at the hotel recharged our batteries before we embarked on the next leg of our journey: a public boat ride to the vibrant flower market. Navigating the bustling waterways was a very different experience, with the salty water hitting us when sailing through the waves. From there, we made our way to the iconic Wat Arun, where serenity and spirituality awaited amidst the gleaming spires. However, our tranquil moment was interrupted by the antics of some less-than-savory tourists, who thought it was totally appropriate to walk in shirtless and start harassing the girl, who asked them to cover their beer bellies. Regretfully they were not denied entry after they all had shirts on.

As the sun began to set, we found ourselves in the area of Khao San Road to grab some long-awaited dinner. From sizzling chicken satay to zesty papaya salad, fragrant pad thai, and decadent mango sticky rice, our taste buds were treated to a symphony of flavors that danced upon our palates with each sweet or savory bite.