Richtung Ost: Suwalszczyzna & Podlasie

I enjoy building small repositories for my foreign friends about my country of origin, and the nearest bordering country to Berlin at the same time: Poland. So far, I’ve mentioned bits and pieces about the city I was born and grown up: Poznan, the capital: Warsaw and the North-Western coast altogether with the city of Szczecin.

This time I’d like to focus on the North-Easternmost region of Poland: Suwalszczyzna and Podlasie, which is the home region of my boyfriend and thanks to whom I managed to discover this beautiful remote landscape this summer.

It takes between 13-18 hours altogether to reach Suwalki, the capital town of the region by train or bus from Berlin, so it made sense to visit our friends and family in Poznan and Warsaw on the way, especially that the summer was extremely hot this year and the journey was tedious. Then, the train took us to Bialystok, the capital of Podlasie, and all the way up to Suwalki, surpassing one of the largest woods in Poland and making way to the region of countless lakes.

It was my second time in Suwalki, since I’ve visited it on my way to Lithuania when I was a teenager. It’s actually quite close to the Russian, Lithuanian and Belarusian border, which naturally brings various culinary, linguistic and architectural influences to this region, including having banyas for the long and cold winters. Actually, Suwalki is considered the most remote and cold city of Poland. The weather forecast always places it as the frozen North Pole of Poland, and during winter it’s not uncommon to have the temperature drop to -25 or -30 Celcius degrees.

This is probably why the current tagline of the city is ‘Pogodne Suwalki’ which can be loosely transalted to ‘cheerful’ or ‘sunny’ at the same time. I could experience that for real. We were discovering the city on bikes thanks to the currently expanding infrastructure. It’s not entirely possible to visit all the surrounding lakes by this means of transportation yet, but it’s a great leap forward for the region to preserve the nature.

We were also very lucky to participate in the jazz concert from the series of the local cultural society SOK. We watched a jazz recital by the Silesian pianist Krzysztof Kobylinski, a founder of the Silesian Cultural Centre Jazovia where he invested most of his earnings from his previous life as a business man.

During the remaining days we were mostly day drinking, daydreaming, eating out at local Tatar vegetarian (yes!) bistrot, and birdwatching. The silence of the woods and the lakes made us spot such rare species as Osprey Eagle. My boyfriend could not believe such species exist, i.e. eagles that hunt fish from the lakes. And now while I write this blog post, he’s binge watching the osprey channel on YouTube.

On the way back to Warsaw we have stopped by Bialystok, the largest city in the Eastern part of Poland, the capital of Podlasie. Contrary to its current fame of being the most right-wing city, and that it’s not very welcoming to strangers, in the past it was one of the most multicultural cities of Poland, bringing together Jewish, Tatars, Orthodox and Catholics. Even its city hall is grinning all the time, despite the controversy.

Bialystok has as well a very impressive Branicki palace complex and a cosmic-shaped opera house. Speaking of birds again, we wanted to visit Silvarium – a unique, forest-based shelter for wild animals that need rehabilitation but we did not manage to find time this year.

Altogether, it was a great insight to the remote part of Poland which is a secret well-kept, so if you ever explore these natural wonders, do it with consideration, which is my usual ask for the places I write about. Even though, as the last rumour I’ve heard, the airport is built in Suwalki, and the remoteness of the place might be gone soon…

 

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Balkan Hot Step

It took me a very long time to put together my impressions from various travels around Balkans. The diversity, and the amount of beautiful pictures I took was simply overwhelming and I couldn’t really decide should I be crafting a single blog entry or multiple ones.

Truth is, it’s been over a year ago since my last visit to Croatian Zadar, Nin, Plitvice Lakes and Ugljan island and I am officially ashamed of procrastinating publishing these gems.

To start off with, visiting Zadar in April 2017 was a great idea, since the springtime in Berlin didn’t really kick in, and the amount of sun, friendliness and music coming from the famous Sea Organs were literally a bliss to me, after a few intense weeks and healing after some operations I had to take last year.

I decided to take a day trip to Plitvice National Park, where the spring was only blossoming, as it is located further up in the mountains. It was still not so crowded, so I could enjoy myself visiting at my own pace, not worrying about the massive groups stepping on my shoes.

I can imagine though that Croatia, being one of the most popular tourist locations, attracts thousands of visitors to their national parks during the high season. To avoid getting too much crowds, there is a daily limit of entrance, which seems a valid thing to do to protect this stunning nature.

Some other sites around Zadar’s area I’ve visited include the picturesque town of Nin and nearby island Ugljan, where you can explore various hiking trails and peace of mind. I didn’t manage to visit the islands of Kornati where thousands of bird species are nesting, due to the lack of ferry service around the lower season.

Looking back to 2016, I spent over a week in between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, as I was invited to speak at a conference in Dubrovnik.

I was amazed by a daily trip to Mostar in Herzegovina region, where the cultures truly melt, and years after the war, the city is shining. Driving through the country, the signs of the painful times remained, making me wonder how come such terror could have happened in this beautiful land.

Dubrovnik itself is a special city. Located in a land strip between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, is typically more expensive than the rest of Croatia, but is a gem nevertheless. Old town, villas, riveras and wonderful neighbourhoods are spread around the hills and various bays.

I also took an opportunity to visit the Kotor Bay in Montenegro, which stole my heart, especially taking a boat trip to a monastery located in the middle of the bay, and exploring the sleepy and not so crowded town of Kotor.

Even though Montenegro is not a part of EU, due to an economic post-war treaty, it is possible to pay in Euro currency.

Taking time to drive around these three countries was a great experience, as I wanted to learn much as I could about various cultures, religions, conflicts and its resolutions alongside the history.

Last but not least, I explored the area of Split, where my flight was originating from and I had a great time both in the city and on the surrounding islands of Hvar and Bol.

Split is a lively port connecting Croatia and Italy, and Dalmatian history is very well preserved there. Besides the old town rich in historic monuments, there’s a lot of city beaches and relaxing spots.

It is very easy to travel from Split for a day trip and hike around the magical islands, like Hvar and Bol, with its turquoise waters and golden sands, some of them rated as a top sites according to the beachtesters.

Since Croatia has over thousands of islands to visit, I don’t think this is the last time I’ll be exploring that place and can’t wait to be back in the warmth of these regions. I still would love to visit the inland part and countries of Serbia and Macedonia, but sooner or later I know I will, especially knowing I have some great friends coming from these places. Hvala!

Oishii Osaka

Around this time of the year thousands, if not millions, of tourists head to Japan to see cherry trees blossoming. And even though Berlin could compete with the number of cherry trees with any Japanese city, my mind travels back, especially that my social media is full of photos made by my friends currently exploring this beautiful country. So, here I am back with my Japanese travelogue, 6 months after my trip! Today’s turn is for Osaka – the city of guilty pleasures.

It was a third city I visited on my way through Japan by the Shinkansen speed rail, after Kyoto and Tokyo, and I chose to arrive there on Friday evening. Only 30 minutes away from Kyoto, I spotted an instant difference (or my expectations were set very well): a city which never sleeps, which is more relaxed and modern at the same time. As a harbour city, it has more foreign influences and has been considered as the most open-minded in Japan.

Smaller than Tokyo, yet equally dynamic, and considerably cheaper Osaka is a perfect place to explore the dining pleasures – both street food and various restaurants. I was also lucky enough to find a secret party place on the backdoor of a vinyl store – only to find out that one of the residents have lived and played in my neighbourhood in Berlin. The world of techno & house has no borders! While exploring the city by day on its light rail, I was amazed by the architecture and the skyline – including the futuristic Sky Building.

But Osaka is not only concrete and glass outta space architecture, it is also very kawaii, diverse and colourful. Exploring the city at night is crazily fun, especially when you are open to a possibility to get lost under the neons or ‘meet’ the walking street lights. Osaka is a Japanese home for the Universal Studios, where I was lucky to meet a lot of cos-play teenagers.

Having played with iguanas, listened to street music of various genres, eaten things I can not name and trying various types of Japanese beers at the local brewery festival, I was ready to move on to the South.

But before that, I made sure to combine the city craziness experience with the stunning nature and I woke up early to visit Koya-san. To be continued!

(You’re not) alone in Kyoto

The title of this post is true, even in the times of post-truth, since during my stay in Japan I felt it was the most flooded place with tourists. Even so, I managed to get away and spend some quality time with me, myself and I. How did I manage to do it, surrounded by the crowds of tourists dressed as geishas and selfie-sticks?

Well, weather was somewhat on my side, since the thyphoon hit me just as I was walking through the Fushimi Inari temple at dusk. Geishas and selfie-sticksters were not prepared for the sudden weather change and they escaped quickly, leaving me in peace and shelter of this magic temple. The thyphoon heading from Okinawa Islands to mainland Japan was not as strong anymore, the gusts of wind and rain were just fine for me to do the sightseeing, thinking that this sort of winds are nothing special in Berlin. However, as a disclaimer &promoting staying safe during travels I would not recommend ignoring thyphoons!

The next day I had a chance to revisit Fushimi Inari in the radiant sun, and enjoy the 4-km walk underneath the countless Torii, hoping that the Fox (messenger for luck in business and wealth) will listen to my thoughts.

While staying in Tokyo it may take you years to notice a real geisha, in Kyoto is the question of minutes. Not only it’s a city hosting the most traditional education for this special profession, it’s naturally more conservative than Tokyo or Osaka. I even got to know an Italian professor educating the foreigners about the art of wearing kimonos.

However, there are parts of Kyoto trying to overcome the stereotype of being the old capital and traditional design only. The tower of Kyoto is a good example – hated by some, I managed to capture its controversial beauty from various perspectives.

Kyoto is fascinating for its small town-like neighbourhoods like Hanazono, Gion or Higashiyama which makes you forget you’re in almost 3-million city. I especially enjoyed the walks by the river.

One walk that can’t be missed while in Kyoto is the Philosopher’s Path by the Daimonjiyama mountain’s creek. I was lucky enough to meet an elderly man with a corgi dog, probably both a pair of renowned philosophers!

 

Thanks to my friend’s brother Kay, Kyoto’s local and Cabo Verde music’s expert, I was introduced to a bunch of Italian expats living in the city and to the local food and sake. What a treat it was, and I had a lovely evening in the mixed sounds of Japanese/English/Italian and Portuguese surrounding me! The next day I couldn’t help myself and visited the Nishiki Market.

Kyoto is a city of sacred temples, zen contemplation and letting the nature speak for itself. I found the less-crowded places like Ryoan-Ji very special (and quiet that your thoughts are louder than the frogs in the pond). The iconic Golden Pavillon (aka Kinkaku-Ji) is probably one of the most picturesque places I’ve seen in my life, regardless of the crowds.

Last but not least, during my 3-day stay, I took a walk through the Bamboo Forest, reflecting on how small I am comparing to these beautiful trees and the time it took them to grow. I often wondered how Kyoto looked hundreds years ago, and I can only imagine wonderful pictures in my head.

During writing this post I was listening to the LPs released in Berlin in early 2000s, which were somewhat related to this wonderful city: Kyoto Jazz Massive – Spirit of the Sun and Jazzanova – Hanazono.

Berlin-Tokyo-connection

It’s been already 4 months since I visited Japan, but I can’t get this place out of my mind. Eating out Japanese food, drinking matcha instead of coffee and listening to Japanese jazz & funk in Berlin can help only partially, as I miss this place so much! And I only scratched the surface. However, in a way I do think that these cities are somewhat connected in the way they bridge 24/7 craziness with awesome and orderly urban planning, let alone big errors in their history and reinventing themselves after all.

So it’s high time to publish at least some of my photos taken during my 15 days travelling around and visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Koya-San, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Nagasaki, Gunkanjima, Yokohama and Nikko. Indeed, scratching the surface but there is so much to see almost everywhere!

When I landed in Tokyo, although jet lagged and overwhelmed by 22nd century inventions (TOTO included), I already felt I will love the place. I’ve chosen a good time to visit: Indian summer felt warm, but not too humid, which can be a problem if you visit Tokyo during summer months. I decided to share my time and energy between the crazy neighbourhoods like Ikebukuro, Akihabara and Shinjuku and peaceful places like Ueno Park, Asakusa or Hamarikyu Gardens.

But usual unusual places like owl shrines, directions to ‘Sunshine’, noisy pachinko spots and cat cafes were stealing my attention continuously. Crowded Tokyo makes anything possible: J-pop merging with dark techno, commercial centres located next to sacred shinto places. And its cities for some reason stay almost sterile.

Not only safety and cleanness impress tourists, also train and subway connections make you feel very small. But not lost – it’s actually very difficult to get lost in Japan, even if you don’t know the language. Everyone is helpful, patient and information is usually available in English… to some extent. For some reason I always felt I was missing out a lot, if not being ‘lost in translation’.

Among the most remarkable things I’ve done in Tokyo I listed: visiting geysha bar with my sexologist friend Masayoshi, trying to fry our own okonomiyaki with Gosia – a friend from Poznan I only managed to meet in Tokyo after years, and visiting onsen in Tokyo Dome with Kyoto-born and Spanish-speaking Yasue followed by a feast of ‘Japanese tapas’. All of that, was shockingly (!) good!

My personal highlight would definitely be digging the vinyl crates around Shibuya and Ebisu and finding some rare gems at Jazzy Sport Music Shop, to start off. And buying XS-sized Issey Miyake clothes that fit me on a ridiculous sale.

For some people the size of Tokyo is overwhelming, but I have to admit, after finding my way throughout the city, I felt pretty comfortable commuting between the neighbourhoods. I guess it’s the proportion between the amount of concrete and the green spaces that makes Tokyo such a healthy living organism. Also, I was told that it never stays the same: due to space limitations, the buildings are rebuilt approximately within 10-20 years, so chances are, that when I visit it next, I won’t recognize some of my pictures.

Day and night differ so much though. Bars between Shibuya and Shinjuku in a weird way remind me those from Berlin, and during my stay even Tresor Festival took place in Tokyo.

It all leads me to a conclusion: the discovery is never complete but there are dots that one can connect easily. It felt impossible to write a single entry about Tokyo, and after reading a few books, I know there is no such thing like a closed chapter that can be written about this city. I feel the same about Berlin, although on a different, everyday scale. Time for my last matcha latte today!

Taipei 101 and more

During my latest trip to Hong Kong and Macau, I decided to spend a couple of days in Taiwan, since I have heard great things about it from my fellow friends travellers.

It was only 90 minutes flight away from Macau, so I could not resist the temptation, but I did not set too ambitious goals about the sightseeing. I focused mostly on its capital: Taipei, and the North of the island. Here I’d like to share my thoughts and experiences of staying for 3 nights in this exciting capital.

What was strikingly different to other places I’ve visited before in East Asia: Japan, Hong Kong and Macau is that it was still sort of ‘undiscovered’ and not touristic. Maybe it was a matter of the season, but I could probably list less than a handful of foreigners I met or bumped into during my visit.
On a flip side, it was very easy to get around and communicate with people: most of them spoke quite good English, and I was also very fortunate to meet Chelsea – a friend of a friend who used to live in Spain and offered to take me around her favourite restaurants and bars. I enjoyed this experience a lot!
However, even if you don’t know anyone in Taipei, the city has a very friendly and safe vibe. I felt very encouraged just to wander around the night street markets and old town, checking out delicious, fresh and vegan-friendly cuisine with 1000 varieties of tofu. I even risked trying the famous ‘stinky tofu’ which actually tastes really great (the comparison with the stinky cheese is very relevant here).
Taipei offers a lot of room of relaxation, including public hot springs in the Beitou district and green parks. For the first time I also enjoyed staying in the shrines, simply because they were not flooded by tourists (unlike in most parts of Japan) and offering a very spiritual experience.

The only hazard I spotted were the scooters: or people using them, not really respecting the order of the lights or other driving rules.

Taipei bridges amazingly authentic old town experience with stunning skyline of buildings like Taipei 101 or neon streets of Ximending. Apart from that the monumental sites like Chaing Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Grand Hotel or National Palace Museum are really breath-taking. I was pretty impressed by the street art and hipster backstreets with tattoo and designer clothing stores.

For more romantic souls (like me 😉 there is one more place you can’t miss: Tamsui. Not only for its ‘Love Bridge’ but more importantly: for its sunset, beach and a long walk in the park, followed by a ride on a speed boat. My journey to Tamsui ended up, no, not by any romantic encounter, but  at a concert of the Brazilian music and spotting some corgi dogs playing in a park. Well, call it a serendipity for me!

In one word: Taipei = 101 of lots of <3. With special thanks to Chelsea, my wonderful host!

New Year’s Chungking Express

I ended up 2016 with reminiscing travel locations I managed to visit in the past 12 months, and I kicked off 2017 in one of the most crazy places: Hong Kong. I’ve dreaming about going there since I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, so it comes as no surprise that I stayed in a microscopic room for the first 3 nights at Chungking Mansions in Kowloon.

New Year’s Eve celebrations took place in Victoria’s Harbour – since I arrived there around 9 pm, I had no chance for a better view of the fireworks, but I was pretty impressed by the syncronised smartphone lights of people recording the show.

Afterwards, I stayed in the area of the Hong Kong Island called Causeway Bay renowned for its nightlife. And I fell in love with the skyline from the first sight. From above, from below, doesn’t matter from which perspective you look. As a comparison, I think that only the skyline of Nagasaki I visited in October last year can picture the sea, the mountains, the bay and the skyscrapers in such a harmony.

But Hong Kong is so much more than bars on the 144th floor, skylines and luxury stores: it’s a very strategic place on the map, and thus rich in its history. The influence of the British reign can be found in the presence of double-decker buses and trains, the language and the pace, and the city lives 24/7.

Although it is such a dynamic place (some saying New York City’s minute is Hong Kong’s second!), it does not lack amazing opportunities for hiking in the stunning nature sites. Victoria Peak and Dragon’s Back trails are definitely a must-do hikes with some of the most rewarding views in the world!

And Mid levels Escalator System – why would it be interesting? Apart from Kowloon, Midlevels is a part of Hong Kong featured heavily in ‘Chungking Express’. I tracked down all the places ‘starring’ the movie: the bar with Chef’s Salad is in reality a tobacco place, but the crowd on the escalators is equally crazy like in the movie. ‘Crowd management’ is actually very impressive in Hong Kong – lanes, overground pavements and escalator systems make walking around the city very convenient. Or even: possible, taking into consideration the number of residents and visitors, making one of the most crowded places in the world.

To relax and unwind (it was still crowded though, also with the cows!) I took a subway line to a green Lantau Island, where the famous Buddha sits on the top of the mountain. The journey paid off in the views, albeit the smog was quite thick on that day.

And the Star Ferry… The cheapest and the most romantic way to commute between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, offering the wind breeze and spectacular views for some 25 cents for a one-way ticket!

I know I will come back to Hong Kong at some point, but how will it look like the next time? During the time I stayed, I bumped into a ‘camping protest’ on one of the major streets of the Hong Kong Island. Movements such as the Umbrella Revolution show the democratic needs of the society.

Overwhelmed, enchanted after all that, we took a ferry to visit curious place called: Macau… And then, Taiwan!