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venerdì 30 marzo 2012

Belgian chocolate

When in Belgium there is no way around it. Either you eat chocolate or, as they seem to suggest, what the hell are you doing there ? Fortunately for me I simply love it, so it wasn't a problem at all although I was there for work only for two days. I arrived in Bruxelles from Paris with Thalys the fast train coming from Paris and connecting France , Belgium , Germany and the Netherlands. A little expensive but really convenient. I had been in Bruxelles years before and hardly remember a lot except for the Grand Place (and how can you forget that?). This time I stayed in a very funny and coloured hotel called Pantone, where everything is colours including sugar at breakfast! It was a nice change for a grey and rainy day( not unusual it seems). I was given a room where the main colour was orange and a little yellowand where the painting behng my head was instead a giant lamp. I surely would go there again. Then I decide to take a stroll to go again to the grand place area and I found it very beautiful as I remembered it to be. I was famished at the time so with all the chocolate shops around me I was going crazy and I decided to have a taste of it, so i entered into Cafè Tasse and had a hot chocolate with a taste of typical Belgian sweet bread and speculoos biscuits plus of course some other chocolate. Guilty? Not at all. Pleased? Very much so.
Chocolate at Cafè Tasse
Grand Place
My room at Hotel Pantone
Then, while waiting for a very good friend of mine for dinner I wondered around the area. It's a very nice and lively part of the city, which on the other hand seemed to be (at least when I went there years ago), a little sad and dull. I'm sure it was also the weather and actually when the evening came the atmosphere changed and became warmer. I walked through Saint Hubert gallery very close to the Grand place and the Marchè des herbes and looked at the beauty of all the arcades and the old shops. Of course most of them were chocolate and sweet shops but I decided not to indulge more in the chocolate spree for the day. All the bars around the area quickly filled up with people giving the place a nice flare of northern European fascination. Then I met my friend who took me for dinner atT'Kelderke right in the Grand place: a very warm and lively place where you can taste the main Belgian specialties. I went for the moules mariniers with pommes frites which I used to eat all the time at this little restaurant in Greenwich village when I was living in NYC called La petite abeille.
Sweets shop
Bar in Saint Hubert Royal Gallery
Chocolate shop in Saint Hubert
Gallery Saint Hubert
Then my friend took me for a stroll in Bruxelles by night and I have to say I was misled from what I thought the city was. It's very interesting and fascinating. I have to say though that Antwerp is another story. I just love it and I suggest to anybody who hasn't been to go for a weekend or a couple of days. I had been there years ago and already liked it but this time I just loved it. Beautiful buildings, beautiful streets and beautiful atmosphere. The first imperssion at the railway station was excellent since it is absolutely stunning. Of course the weather was not too nice but still I enjoyed it very much (at least what I could see in between my work meetings). I would like to go there again just for fun and spend some time just wandering around. I stayed in a very nice hotel just by the station called Park Inn by Radisson not to be confused with the big Radisson in front of the station. I really really enjoyed staying there althoughI basically saw my room in the morning to drop my suitcase and late in the evening to sleep. I didn't find a lot of chocolate there but I found Wagamama (!) the London Asian restaurant chain I'm crazy about . (see my post on London). Before taking the train to Holland I realized how understimated Belgium is sometimes. I would really like to go back. Maybe next time I'll be so lucky to have a nice and sunny day for once...
Antwerp central station
Antwerp City hall

giovedì 15 marzo 2012

Get lost (in) Namibia

The reason for this title is that the summer of 2010 my journey to that part of the world was a complete disaster. I had already been to South Africa three times and I went again since (as you might have gathered) I really love the place . That year everything went wrong.. I was very stressed and overworked and I arrived by myself in Cape Town with the idea of going north up to Namibia . The part of South Africa you cross to reach the border is a very desolate and wild (not in a very good sense) one. But I'll skip on that part since it's not worth talking about it even because it was half a disaster as well. I arrived after a dreadful 10 hours bus journey at night from Upington, South Africa to Windhoek capital of Namibia. The bus, which was supposed to be a Sleepliner with very comfortable reclining chairs was rather a Wreckliner... old and freezing one, completely packed with people . We had to get off the bus twice at the border and line up for hours to get our visa and then run through the country in the deep night and in the cold. In addition everybody on board was coughing and I didn't know then that I would start as well very soon .. When I arrived in Windhoek,I went to Pension Steiner ( care to guess where they're from -like half of the businesses in Namibia?)which was a very basic but quite nice accomodation apparently the only one available since everything in town was taken for the African Congress or something like that which was taking place just in those days. I was immediately told off by the owner for being so disorganized since I did not plan ahead and did not have a car. This was a place for very adventurous people with jeeps and tents and kaki suits and what was I thinking? So I decided that in the end I could rent a car and drive around to go and meet my three Italian biker friends on a tour in the same area, even because I was literally stuck in Windhoek where there is nothing to see and nothing to do. Before taking off I had a very good plate of pasta in Sardiniathe only Italian restaurant of the city even because the night before I had been toJoe's beer house and my stomach didn't feel very well. So I took my Toyota Corolla and left to go and meet my friends nearby Etosha Park. On the way I stopped at Otjiwarongo at the Cheetah conservation fund, conservation centre for these magnificent animals where you learn everything there is to learn about them .
At the Cheetah Conservation Fund
Smiling on the way there
I stayed nearby the conservation center for one night and then went to meet my friends. We were very happy to meet and we didn't know what was coming next.. We went to Etosha,which is one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen where animals are so used to people they come really close, one of the resaons why my friends (all men by the way) basically decided that I shouldn't drive anymore although they were in my car. (actually I think it's a way of sciovinism ). The most amazing thing is the desert pan in the middle of the park where you can drive to and walk around, where there is no plants,no animals, nothing:just you and the desert.
Etosha park
I started having this very annoying cough (told you) and to not feel well and learnt the same night that the next day my friends were going to Opuwo,400 km away 250 of which on a gravel road... The next morning I woke up and I was feeling even worse but nevertheless I followed my friends with my car. On the way we stopped in a village I had a quick check up at a doctor's and found out that I had fever and a bad bronchitis. My strenght was diminishing drastically but I was in the middle of nowhere so I decided to drive and follow my friends to the final destination. The doctor gave me antibiotics and a cough syrup containing codeine,which of course I had to take at night only. When we got to the gravel road I was the colour of a ripe tomato and sweating profusely although shivering, notwithstanding the 30 ° temperature outside . One of my friends told me to go ahead since I was so sick and since I could not go over 50 km per hour assuring me that they would be right behind me since they could go faster with the bikes and they would catch up easily. Well, guess how it ended : I lost them or better they lost me and I had to drive for God knows how many hours by myself on a gravel road where I saw for the whole time only three human beings.One of those situations you wish you never find yourself into especially when you're sick and with no mobile phone connection ... (there isn't any in Namibia out of the main towns). I don't know how I did it but somehow I managed to arrive at the hotel and collapse on a bed and take my medicines. In the mentime my friends, who had also lost each other on the way (and ended up arguing out of my door) arrived and assisted me while I was in a semi comatose state. The next day the fever was gone but I wasn't feeling very well. Nevertheless I went to see the Himba tribe, which is the main attraction of the area. When you get to Opuwo they walk around the streets dressed in animal skins and with their bodies and their hair covered with butter and red ochra as a protection from the sun. Nevertheless they live in villages with hay shacks living a very basic life, so if's funny when you meet them at the village store for example with a mobile in their hands...
Himba village
After that, things continued to go wrong: we went to visit another area but my friends got lost on a gravel road and I called the police since they were five hours late at night, when it gets pitch black and there are wild animals running around including elephants. All this resulted in an argument with one of my friends(swearwords and door slamming etc) and the next day we left to go to Swakopmund always on separate roads (tarred for me and gravel for them ). I had not been feeling well during the night but I didn't think this would result in fainting in the middle of nowhere and not being able to stand up.While I was driving I had to stop in a village and entered into a little restaurant. I didn't even manage to say hello that I had to run to the toilet since I was about to throw up for what resulted to be many many times. In one of the breaks from this pleasant activity I realized I didn't have the strenghth to stand up so I collapsed and the woman who owned the place basically had to catch me from falling and took me on her shoulders (literally) to a B&B close to there so I could lie down. And did I! Sixteen hours on the bed not been able to move nor speak with a lot of medicines a pharmacist came to give me while I was in this semi comatose state. In the first hour I called my friends to ask them to come and get me.. only to learn that they had a far more serious problem: one of them had had a bad accident on the bike and had broken seven ribs!! Can you believe it? I couldn't at the time but I was also in such a state I didn't even know where I was. I slept for 12 hours and then still weak but a little better I drove 250 km to get to Swakopmund to see my friends , especially the one in hospital. Now I didn't see anything of this place really : apparently there are a lot of things to do but I didn't do any. The only thing I did which was worth doing was to drive to Walvis Bay which is just a few kilometres away and it's on the ocean. The peculiarity of the road is that you have the ocean on one side and the desert on the other. It's very beautiful but also a little eerie since the ocean is very rough and the wind blows very violently and to be honest I really wasn't in the mood.
My friends at the hospital
Me and my Toyota Corolla
Desert on the way to Swakopmund
While my friends drove back (by car)to South africa I decided that I had to give a meaning to my trip, therefore I went to visit three places I strongly reccomend if you are in the country. Not too far from Windhoek even. The first one:Amani lodge: one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my whole life. Situated on a hill (not too short though since it's 2150 m )it looks like paradise when you enter the property. I originally went for a sunset big cat experience drive but since the place was so amazing I ended up staying for the night in one of the bungalows and having a lovely dinner in the lodge restaurant. I thought I really deserved some pampering after what happened. Imagine this : I arrived looking like a crazy witch with a bird's nest on my head and the first person I saw was the angel -like looking guy you see in the website who just smiled and said "You have arrived here now, you can finally relax and relieve all of your stress". I must have looked awful. Anyway, the drive was really amazing : we went to see the cheetahs, the two lions and the leopard and then we had champagne at sunset on the terrace. After dinner when I went to my bungalow I sat on my veranda overlooking all the valley and I listened the lions roaring in the distance which resulted to be a weird but very effective lullaby.
Lion at Amani lodge
Louise the pet warthog of Amani lodge
Ongwe six months pet cheetah at Amani lodge
View from my bungalow
Second place: Dusternbrook Guest farm: spectacular drive off the highway into the nature and wildlife surrounding the place.Best time to go is always sunset because the earth becomes reddish and the bush takes on some many different vibrant tones of yellow and orange, that when you see that with baboons and bucks running around it can really move you to tears. The place itself is very nice and the cheetahs are amazing.They would stand on their back paws and cling onto the jeep to ask for food. They make this sound which is like a miaow and when they feel good they purr.... Lovely and amazing animals. I also played with a three legged one which was just like a big cat.
Dusternbrook cheetahs and leopards
My three legged friend
Third one: N/a'an ku se, a wildlife sanctuary and research center run by beautiful conservationist Marlice Van Vuuren where there is also a lodge but I didn't stay the night. The style is very modern and minimalistic however it is amazing to be there surrounded by nature and I guess one night there could be quite an experience. I learnt about all their projects and went to visit the animals. It's really quite impressive. I left with these images in my heart and realized that notwithstanding what happened, maybe those three days were the reason why I took that trip in the first place almost to say : it's not that bad, as you can see: things happen sometimes and sometimes we also take too many risks: probably you should come again just not alone driving around such a rough country when sick .Just take it a little easier and get a bit more organized and then you'll see that this country has so many things to offer. Will I take it on that? I probably will. I'll just act smarter next time. A lot smarter...
N/a'an ku se dining room
Caracal at N/a'an ku se
Lioness at N/a'an ku se

lunedì 5 marzo 2012

Midday in Paris

I was in Paris just last week for business for literally 48 hours and I thought about this video when I passed by the Stravinski fountain in Boubourg. Of course many videos have been shot in Paris but I used to love this song as a teenager so I decided to use this instead of others. I was very lucky with the weather since it was sunny and quite warm and we all know how wonderful this city can be when there is also sun and mild temperature. I stayed in a small and cosy hotel close to Charles de Gaulle Etoile called Hotel Des Acacias in Rue des Acacias, in a great and conveniently central location. The price is not particularly cheap but hey what is in Paris? After eating a sandwich nearby I went to my first meeting in the Opera area. Every time I go to Paris and take the metro I always note how many people make a habit of not getting tickets for it and jump over the the entrance even in front of the controllers. Now the ticket entrances are even more complicated (especially with a piece of luggage ) but nevertheless Parisians seem to get more and more athletic and skip their duty to pay. I was very tired and with a very annoying heartburn which was driving me crazy. However, I managed to wonder around a bit and even go for dinner at one of the places suggested on Trip advisor which luckily was in the area Chez Gabrielle. In the Trip Advisor reviews you'll also find mine which is not totally enthusiastic, but having said that I have to admit French cuisine is not one of my favourite. Too much creme fraiche and sauces for my taste. The place is really nice and very warm and cozy atmosphere like dining at somebody's house. I didn't think too much of the food but then again, besides not being a fan of French food I am also a non -meat eater so in France I have a very difficult life. However,I absolutely love la soup d'oignons and everytime I go to France I always order it.
Arc de Triomphe 2 minutes away from my hotel
Stravinski fountain, Boubourg
Soup d'oignons gratineè
When I had it I was in a brasserie on Boulevard de Montparnasse sitting outside in the sun and enjoying the marvels of the city. Another place I would suggest for dinner is a very funny restaurant called Le Crabe Marteau a place where you can eat giant crabs from Bretagne and break them with a wooden hammer. That was a little too hard core for me so I decided to go for oysters and fish. Well the place is nice: I had a newpaper as a tablecloth and a bucket where to throw shells. The waiter was extremely helpful and charming (plus handsome which is always a good thing) and the price reasonable. I would definitely go back there . During the day when I went to my work meetings I found out that one of them was at Boubourg just behind the Centre Pompidou, one of my favourite places in the city . Last time I was in Paris before this one I went to see a wonderful exhibition of Louise Borgeouis but unfortunately this time I couldn't see anything because all the museums are closed on a Tuesday.
My table at Le Crabe Marteau
Centre Pompidou
Old Paris metro signs
I then went to Opera area rue des Capucines for my other meeting and I decided in the end that I would walk from there to my hotel. So I took a wonderful stroll through la Madeleine, Place de la Concorde and all the Champs Elyseè. Very long walk but wonderful. While I was walking through the little park which lead to the Champs Elyseè I was already feeling like a Parisian and strangely enough.. in love . Maybe with somebody back home, or somebody there or even somebody in another country who knows, but in love like I have never been before, because this is what Paris does to you believe it or not. And even if I have very bad memories of this city lovewise, since I broke up with a boyfriend of mine right there almost fifteen years ago and I also broke up with my ex boyfriend (one of the one million times it happened, as who reads my blog already knows) a few days before going to Paris, which made my staying really painful and melencholic, this time it was being in deep love with life and love itself. This is also why I chose Howard Jones' song: I don't think it could have been shot in another place when trying to give a definition of love. And when I was having my pain au chocolat with my cafè au lait sitting on a stool at a lovely boulangerie before taking the train to go on in my journey I repeatedly thought: God bless Paris!
Paris Opera
La Madeleine
Place de la Concorde