Sunday, 13 November 2016

Uzbekistan Travel Tips

What and where is it? Tashkent is the capital city of Uzbekistan, one of the largest countries in Central Asia, a former republic of the USSR. It is situated on the old "Silk Road" that connected China to Europe.

Why go there?
Amazing architecture, decorative arts, music, fresh organic fruit and vedge and above all for the Uzbek people, one of the most hospitable and welcoming I have ever met. 

When to go?
Early autumn (September) may be the best time as temperatures are going as high as +30C and the markets are packed with the best fruits and vegetables, spices and nuts. Summers tend to be extremely hot and winters extremely cold. This trip happened on September 2016 and contains tips and experiences that may change in the future. But definitely, Uzbekistan is opening more and more towards the world and travel throughout the country becomes easier. 

Border Customs
Foreigners must complete a Customs Declaration in duplicate on entering Uzbekistan. Customs officials will review and stamp both copies. One will be retained by the Customs Authority, you keep the other and present it when you leave the country. Make sure that you declare every single coin you have. Failing that may be a cause for long discussions you may want avoiding.

Who Wants to be Millionaire? 
If you do, then this is your time to swim in cash. Uzbekistan is a cash country at least for the traveler. ATMs are few and far between and if they work you will always lose not because of the commission but of the official exchange rate that is used. At the time of our visit the official exchange rate for the dollar was 3,200 Soms while the black market paid 6,200 Soms. 

If you are coming from the USA this is your paradise as the US Dollar is on everyone's lips. It is easy to deal and pay in USD everywhere. Alternatively Euros and Russian Rubles are welcome too. You can change them for Uzbek Soms on the black market (in the street, bazaars, hotels, shops). Having lived the black market exchange experience in Eastern Europe I was a bit nervous about changing money in the street so opted to do it with the hotel management and count the money in a friendly environment. Counting the money takes time as for a single 50 euro bank note you might end with two bricks of paper money of 5,000 or 1,000 Soms. In no time your money counting skills will improve. Bring a small rucksack to carry your cash with you.

Arty Metro & the Full Inspection
Transport in Tashkent is well organised. The fastest way to move around is metro though it may put you down for its double filter of police control at every station where you will need to present your passport and bags for full inspection. There is absolutely no way you can take photos underground as the security is high and police planted everywhere. The reason for this are 6 car bombs that killed 16 people and injured 120 on February 1999. The pics related to the Tashkent metro are from the Internet. 

Metro stations are impressive with Soviet and national design all over while metro trains are the Soviet standard of the former USSR. Once you get through the security check buy your blue token 1,200 Soms (6 cents) and make your way through the gates to the platforms. My favourite metro station is ”Космонавтлар” (Cosmonauts - in English) that depicts in beautiful ceramic medallions of portraits of the first Soviet cosmonauts (including Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova). 

KitCat for a Train Ticket
Buying a train ticket in Tashkent railway station is an experience in itself. It is an adventure for what you need to budget some generous time. First you need to pass through the security and passport control. Then you are allowed to get into the ticketing hall where there are plenty of desks but with no particular order or destination. Some locals jump the queue and when you eventually got to speak to your lady you will get either a big "niet" or a finger pointed to another desk. And this game goes on until you get to know several employees and they are by now accustomed seeing you around. 

Then someone will "adopt" you and join your round dance from a desk to another. When you will have your tickets your newly acquired "godmother" will tell you that she loves chocolates very much. If you still did not get the hint, she will point to the vending machine in the corner stocked with KitKat and Bounty bars. :-))) Obviously by now you are glad to give this episode a happy-sweet end.

It is interesting to note that as in any post-communist country, the local made chocolates with real cocoa, nuts or fillings are put in a dense cone of shadow by the multinational food companies' sweets that don't get even closer to the quality of the local products but they shine with the glam of Western marketing. 

Meet the Locals!
Markets are probably one of the best places to meet, greet and know Uzbek people. The Uzbeks are open, extremely friendly and chatty, calm and warm hearted, always ready to offer you a wide and sincere smile. I never founded myself so welcomed than in this country. People are not shy at all. They are happy to pose for you and start to know you. I was impressed how everyone no matter how young or old was greeting us with an honest "hello!" across the entire country.

On summer and autumn months markets are packed with top class vedge and fruits, fresh herbs, spices and teas, bread, sweets, nuts and dried fruits and other shoppers. All in all it is a free show not to be missed. Each Uzbek market is a heart of the country, thus making Uzbekistan the country of endless hearts.

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm of sanitizing and cleaning the historic city centers of the Uzbek towns to please the tourists, local authorities moved the markets outside the city walls and in this way removing literally the heart of the old towns (Bukhara and Shahrisabz).

Icebreaking Tip
A few bobs of Russian and/or Turkish language comes in super handy in making new friends. In addition, we carried a pocket Polaroid photo printer that helped us give away instant "presents" and engage further with locals.

Uzbek Food for Hulks
National Food (1 Gafur Gulom Street, Metro Gafur Gulom) is probably the best restaurant in Tashkent to get acquainted to the Uzbek food on your very first day in the country. It seems that most of the iconic dishes are prepared at the entrance in large cauldrons. This creates a strong visual impact. 

Soon you will realize that Uzbek food was designed for hulks who move mountains and burn thousands of calories. In spite of this reality, we rarely saw obese people. Apart the sweet cakes from breakfast time, sugary food doesn't pop up on the Uzbek tables. The national dish is called "plov" - a sort of (pilaf) rice with vegetables and topped with cow meat that often came with fat. Mains cover sheep, cow and horse meat, some boiled vegetables, tortellini-like pasta filled with meat, sausages and more grilled meat. Soups are rich in noodles and meat. Bread is a piece of art and should be enjoyed as it is at any time of the day. Bread in Bukhara was one of the best breads I tasted in the world!

Wash down your culinary feast with black or green tea always poured from blue ceramic teapots into handy bowls. Alcohol is not present on the table. The wine we tasted is slightly sweet for Western palates and for the meaty dishes. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Airport With a Beach

Ever wondered how to spend a couple of hours waiting in between two connecting flights in an airport? What about going to a virgin beach surrounded by a Mediterranean pine forest and a natural resort with canals where birds fly high?
You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one, says a song. And in addition this place exists, right on the foot steps of Barcelona's El Prat Airport. You can get here in no time from any of the two airport terminals either by a taxi or walking. If you come from Barcelona city just grab the city train to the Airport T2 Terminal (ride costs about 1 euro if you use the T10 travel card) and from there you can either bike or walk. The detailed map is included at the end of this page.

Kingdom of Water and Birds

Once you pass the barrier of the Remolar - Les Filipines natural reserve you could feel the air is changing: it gets a bit cooler and the perfume of the wild vegetation around you embraces you just as a shawl. On your left a canal with still sweet waters is bordered by tall water plants pierced from place to place by wooden fences with cut off tiny windows where you can do some bird watching. Bellow the cuts there are displayed all the birds that could be spotted here. The listing is done in English, Catalan, Spanish and Latin. Further away observation towers allow you to get a better view of the area from high platforms.
As you get closer to the beach wild blueberries are inviting you to stop at each step you try to make towards the sea. Then the air starts to feel even fresher and the Med perfume of the pine trees kicks in in a symphony of crickets.

Beach & Sea

After so many treats you are finally arriving at the large Mediterranean sea. To the lest, the Remolar beach is narrower but cosy. To the right, the Les Filipines beach stretches as wide as 50-60 meters and long (a couple of kilometers) flowing into the Viladecans and Gava beaches. The sand is as fine as the flour and the beach descends gradually into the sea that always moves in happy foamy waves. The sand dunes behind the beach are protected areas and when I say protected the local authorities really mean it. You can see patrols inspecting the area.

Golden Lights

The wide beach being bordered by the natural reserve allows sun worshipers to soak in all the sun they want until the big star sets behind the far away mountains offering gold-infused light and unforgettable swims with sunsets brushing strong colours in the sky.

The Flying Giants

Because of its remote location, even on weekends these beaches are not crowded. The space between people is abundant. Bring with you some water and a snack or packed lunch as there are no beach bars. There are no hassling beer/cola/water sellers, no mojito offers, no cheap massage offers or beach towels on sale to disturb your peace and the sound of the sea. The only odd presence that give this place a unique character are the airplanes that are taking off from Barcelona's Terminal 1 Airport. On weekdays at 3.30 pm Emirates' plane to Dubai or the 5.25 pm Qatar Airways' huge aircraft are taking off. Due to their weight they need more space to get higher, so they cruise over the beach like huge whales with a white belly, or like a shiny metal clouds. The effect will let you in awe.

Zero Connectivity to Disconnect

This place is the perfect place to disconnect from the bustling rhythm of the city life. As a bonus to that you can hide your phone in the deepest pocket of your bag as here Internet and phone signals do not work.

Useful Links

Itinerary of the natural area of Remolar - Les Filipines - here
Link of the natural area of Delta de Llobregat - here

Monday, 25 January 2016

Pleasures of Mataró

Mataró is one of those places where you go with little or no expectations at all and you are blown off your feet. In no time you fall in love with this little Catalan town. Being situated in the ribs of Barcelona, you can hardly believe that beauty and charm knows any other address than Passeig de Gracia or Eixample district. In fact you can hop on any regional train from Barcelona heading north along the coast. The journey will stick your nose to the windows as you swish along the coast line where all the small towns pawns their golden sand beaches, marinas and sailing clubs and neo-colonial architecture. Your day dreaming stretches only 30 km and ends once the train stops in Mataró. In fact this very bit of railway that you have traveled is the very first railway in Spain opened on the 28th of October 1848. Another interesting curiosity of this place is the fact that it was the starting point of the marathon competitions during the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992!

Start With "i"

As soon as you start your stroll you realize that it is a small town with a provincial touch, where everything is at a stretch of a hand, where people are friendly, ready to help you and time flows at a slower pace. I sort of like that. My first stop was at the tourist promotion office on the main walking street (La Riera). After living over a year in Barcelona, the warm and friendly approach of the lady working there made me wow. She listened to my interests and needs and immediately gave me 4 maps and a list of the best restaurants. Here you can get a free audio-guide or if you pop in during the weekend you can join one of the many thematic free guided tours of the town. 

The Sweet Street

The La Riera looked like an Italian corso where high window shops blend well with beauty centres, pastry shops and chocolateries. Unio has a slight 70s, retro style but the chocolate pralines with almonds, hazelnuts or truffles are to die for!

Baroque Fruits

Leaving behind the swanning scene of the town, I plunged into the heart of the old town. Suddenly the Turn-of-the-Century and Classicist architecture peels off into Baroque. An organic food shop in Carrer Nou street makes me say "Gosh!": above the beautifully displayed organic food the walls and ceiling are covered with XVIII century original frescoes! I think it was the most beautiful food shop in the world I have ever seen in my life! 

The Religion of Modernismo

At the end of this charismatic street opens a triangular piazza where among the old lamps raises the Basilica of Santa Maria. The interior is elegantly illuminated and like a veiled voice invites you walk in and reflect on the beauties of life. Not for long as behind a Vth century early christian tomb stone there's the entry to a real Paradise: Capilla de Sacramento decorated in beautiful blend of Byzantine and Art Nouveau styles (1892)! Everything here seems to be so modern, gentle, vegetal and done with such a refined taste - from the lights, the golden mosaics, the powerful paintings to the mosaic floor finished in 1903.


Little Drink in Little Square

If your "wow"s did not dried out completely, try going down the Carrer de Santa Maria. Little boutiques, gourmet cheese shops, more organic food shops will all tempt you to stop at least to admire their windows. 

On your left opens the "Market of the Big Square" (Mercat de la Placa Gran), a picturesque little square surrounded by classicist facades of early 1800s and in the middle there's a miniature market with two faces of stalls. The cosy, human size of the square and market invites you to sit down and have a bite and sip a drink. 

Art Nouveau & Treats

Once you fueled your batteries stop for a sweet bite in the lavish "La Confianza" shop (1896) built by the Mataró born architect Puig i Cadafalch. He was considered the last Modernista (Art Nouveau) architect and among his landmark projects in Barcelona are Plaza de España and Casa Amatller situated to the left of Gaudi's Casa Batlló.

The Italian Connection

Further down, the street opens in a sort of balcony where an elegant colonnade façade embellishes the former fish market (1841). From here, Carrer de Barcelona due to its Baroque lining and design it recalls the Italian pedestrian and shopping streets with loads temptations. It ends at the San Sebastian Chapel and the Church of Santa Anna. 

The Beginning of Gaudi

Apart the beach, the sailing harbour, the technology university campus, Mataró has interesting Roman ruins, a textile museum and a modern art collection hosted in Gaudi's first project: the Gaudi Nave (Nau Gaudi). While still a student, due to his personal contacts with the social movement leaders from Mataró, Gaudi decides to do something innovative for the local workers' association, a nave with wooden arches that will become the germ of his future projects. If you want, this nave has been the Big Bang of a new constellation and architectural movement.

Useful Links:

Cultura Mataro:
This tour's map: click here