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Destinations, Europe, Travel Blog

How I ended up making Motanka dolls in Ukraine

February 11, 2014
Ukrainian Dolls

Yes, you read it right, dolls. I never thought that I’ll be making dolls and especially in a country like Ukraine.

After walking around Kiev, I, Claudia, a fellow traveller, and Natalya our Active Ukraine tour guide travelled 20 minutes to the outskirts of the city for lunch and our handicrafts session. The last time I did serious handicrafts was in high school, and I remember that I was pretty bad at it.

Yulia, our host, greeted us as we entered her home. Yulia, her boyfriend and their dog welcomed us to their humble apartment.  We were hungry and fortunately to my relief, she ushered us immediately to the dining table for lunch.

Yulia prepared varenyky (potato dumplings), borscht (beet soup) and salo (cured pork fat) . And yes, you guess it, the food was delicious. I particularly can’t get enough of salo especially when eaten with salt and raw garlic cloves.

Over lunch, we chatted about Kiev, the city and their culture. Yulia does arts and crafts as her profession. She paints and sculpts eggs and makes dolls for a living. She even crafted dolls for display on one of Kiev’s biggest Church. And she does this travel session together with her sister as part of their sidelinebusiness. So I’m happy to see that we have experts to teach an amateur like me.

After the hearty meal, we proceeded to the living room to start the doll making action.

We were brought to create a Motanka doll – a traditional handmade doll that was once use as a symbol for fertility and procreation. In Ukrainian tradition, the doll acts as a talisman that symbolises wisdom and protection for home.

We were handed the materials – cloth, thread, cotton balls, rice and flowers to stuff our doll. We had to first make the head and stuff it with rice. Once it pretty much look like a head, we went on tying knots for the hands and the body.

After, we had to tie in two strings around the head, alternating to make a square in the centre of the face. Ukrainian dolls are not your typical doll, it has no eyes nor a face, just a square that made it look like a cyclop. Yulia told us that there was no face as they don’t want dolls to reflect much of the human form, as they are afraid of it being use for black magic (=Voodoo dolls in some culture). Instead,of a face it has cross that is symbolises the sun.

It was an arduous task to do that required some patience and magic slight of hands. I finally made the face of my doll and we put in some clothes and a head band.

My verdict? I don’t think I’m seeing myself doing dolls for a living. But definitely, it was an activity that is out of the ordinary and I enjoyed doing on a Sunday afternoon.

But one thing is for sure, I’ll stick back to communications as a day job.

I had an amazing time with Active Ukraine who arranged this doll making activity as part of the Kiev’s Off The Beaten Path tour. Many thanks to Oksana and Natalya for the amazing experience. All views however are my own.

Destinations, Europe, Travel Blog

A walking tour of Kiev in photos

February 4, 2014
Saint Andrew's Church

After my post last week on the Euromaidan issue, you may be wondering why I am passionate on talking about Kiev in the first place. Kiev is an underrated destination when it comes to travel but the places, people and experiences you get from the city is amazing. In an unusual feeling, I felt somewhat at home there – where I embraced the chaos, lack of structure, food and the abundance of alcohol (like a full aisle in the supermarket dedicated to vodka).  In my weekend trip there last November, I realized that the city has a lot to offer and and here are some of my favorite ones.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)

Kiev’s Independence Square is the place to be for locals and visitors alike. The main boulevard traversing Maidan Nezalezhnosti is closed on the weekends converting the busy highway into an urban concrete park. And funnily enough, the streets got crowded with the most random set of characters. From mascots of giant pandas and minions, girls in traditional Ukrainian costume and segways – they had it all there. Today, this is where the current tensions at Euromaidan is taking place and though I hope that the giant pandas will be back once these tensions are over.

Kiev Funicular

The Kiev funicular connects the historic uppertown to Podil, the city’s commercial area. It’s been transporting people up the Volodymyrska hill for over 100 years. The best part of this funicular is the view of Kiev and the Dnieper river that you get to see as you go up.

Volodymyrska Hill

At the end of the funicular, you’ll get treated to a panoramic view of the Kiev and the winding Dnieper river. It was autumn when I travelled so the colours were grey, brown and red. Still beautiful though!

Saint Sophia Cathedral

A few blocks from the viewpoint at Volodymyrska Hill, you get to walk towards the St. Sophia Cathedral. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was first constructed in 1037 and is believed to be named after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s green and golden domes acts as its crown and one of the towers transforms into a viewdeck. 

St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery

Opposite to St.Sophia’s Cathedral is the blue St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Next to the St. Michael’s Golden Monastery is a small monument honoring those who suffered from the famine in 1941 brought by Stalin during the Soviet times.

Saint Andrew’s Church

Kiev knows how to rock it when it comes to churches. Saint Andrew’s Church sits atop of a hill and accordingly to stories, the apostle Andrew came to this hill and declared that the present day Kiev would become a great city. I think Saint Andrew was right on that.

Andriyivskyy Descent

Probably the most colorful part of the city and known as the Montmartre of Kiev (though I think it’s best to recognize is by its real name). The street starts from a top of the Saint Andrew’s Church and goes down to Podil.  I went there with the Active Ukraine team for the first part of our day tour. I’ve enjoyed going through the shops finding strange knick-knacks from teddy bears, toys, souvenirs, and army clothes. You can even see a monument to a couple that when you touch the lady’s nose, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. I’ve touched her nose as well as her ass for extra luck. 😉

City Life

Out of the usual touristic activities, I particularly enjoy going around and just seeing the city. Here are my favorite off the beaten sights at Kiev.

Flowers Galore

As much as there’s a McDonalds in every corner in most capital cities, in Kiev, they are all about the flowers. There’s a flower shop in almost every corner and most of them are open 24 hours. I don’t really get why they are open all day, but when you have fights with your girlfriend at 2 in the morning, you know where to buy a last-minute apology.

Kiev Metro

At 2 UAH (0,17€) a ride, Kiev is home to the cheapest metro system in the world. It’s even cheaper than a ride in the Philippine Metro (0,24€). It’s clean, efficient and spacious.

The city also has one of the world’s deepest metro station. Arsenalna is 105 meters below ground and it takes about 10 minutes just to get out of the station. It’s a perfect for speed dating too. (according to this couple below).

Vodka

Combining with cheap metro stations, Kiev also has  cheap vodka. There are aisles in the supermarket dedicated to vodka alone. And yes, this is secretly my favourite highlight of the trip. 🙂

Coffee

While I am not a regular coffee drinker, having “Startrucks” or café in trucks that sells coffee on every corner of the street. It’s convenient especially after a chilly walking tour. And yes, the coffee was better than I expected. Beat that, Starbucks!

I travelled there with my local friends and I was also supported by the wonderful team at Active Ukraine who had given me a complimentary Off the Beaten Tour at Kiev. All thoughts in this post are my own.

Have you been to Kiev, Ukraine? What are your favourite places in the city. Share it on the comments below!

Education, Europe, Experiences, Travel Blog

Kiev: A tale of two cities

January 29, 2014
Ukraine, Kiev - Independence Square

When I visited in Kiev last year, it was a different city than what is in the news today.

I went there in November, a couple of weeks before the current political turmoil started. I’ve been invited by my two former couchsurfer guests, Artem and Oleksandr, who had convinced me to visit them in Kiev.

Life in the city went on as normal. There were no barricades, no protesters, no riot police officers. Roads were full, not of protesters, but of cars and yellow marshrutkas hailing in passengers along the highway. People were preoccupied of their own daily lives and not of political discussions.

 

 

My first day in Kiev, I walked around Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) with my friend Artem. The main avenue across Indepedence Square, Khreshchatyk, were closed on weekends for Kiev locals to enjoy a stroll on that autumn afternoon. There were segways, young Ukrainian girls selling sweets and people participating in local games of hanging on a tube for more than 90 seconds.

There were no riot police officers and protesters clashing on each other. Instead, I saw mascots of Puss in Boots, Despicable Me minions and giant pandas crowding  the square. The only tension I felt then was when a giant stuffed Tigger was bugging us to pay to have a photo with them.

The roads did not smell of teargas but of coffee coming from weird snail-shape pink coffee carts.

The city skyline had hardly any smoke on it but instead it’s the golden domes of the St.Andrew and St. Sophia churches that greeted my eyes as I looked upwards.

From the viewpoint overlooking the Dnipro river, the city was brown and red, not from smog and flames but from autumn leaves scattered on the roads.

I came to Kiev without much expectations yet left with a vow to visit again.

However my dream of coming back may not come anytime soon.

As I watch the news today and follow my friends’ Facebook posts, it’s obvious that it’s not the Kiev that I saw in November. I feel anxious and disheartened with the news I received. I feel helpless not having the power to act to curb the situation. It’s hard to see the once vibrant Maidan square is now tainted with blood from the ongoing violent protests fuelled by contrasting political ideologies. What I see is not the reflection of the vibrant and happy Kiev locals that I once met  but rather of people tired of oppression, corruption and political unrest.


 (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)

 

It’s hard to imagine how fast the city transformed to what I currently see now. And the outlook looks like there will be no easy end out.

Unfortunately, the spotlight it continues to gain is not only the spotlight it deserves.  I hope that after this turmoil, whenever it will be, the Kiev of my memories will still be there.

And I hope that a lot of travelers will not be discourage to visit Kiev after this event. For sure I won’t be.

It’s a great city that flourishes with traditions, historical sights and of people that despite the language barrier are willing to help you. Not forgetting also that it’s a place that has one of the cheapest public transportation and bottles of vodka.

I hope that this underrated travel destination will rise back from the ashes and show the world it’s true side – the side that people deserve to see.


 (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)

 

It’s a city that stood the test of time for thousand of years and I have high hopes that it will stand this test as well.

But now, from a mere spectator, all I can do is hope that the situation will be better.

Europe

Rocking at Rock Werchter

July 20, 2013
Rock Werchter

There’s something about festivals that make me want to come back for more. But as years went by my attitude towards it changed.

As a teenager, festivals like Glastonbury and Benicassim were stories that I read only in music magazines and saw on television. When I moved to Europe, it was one of the points to do in my bucket list.

I went to my first European festival in Werchter back in 2009. Rock Werchter is Belgium’s biggest festival and is known for being one of the best in Europe.

It was as if I went to music heaven to see all my favorite artists all in one place. I and my friends were treated to a great selection of music in an atmosphere that smell a mix of booze, weed and nature. Jason Mraz, Bloc Party, the Killers and Coldplay headlined on the day I went and I wasn’t disappointed.

Rock Werchter 2013

In the Philippines, it’s only in dreams where you’ll get a chance to see them all together. And even if it happens, it will be five times more expensive.

There were more than 50,000 people then but I didn”t mind the crowd. They even heightened the experience. I remember one moment where we joined the crowd singing Viva La Vida as we walked towards the bus station.

Last year, I accidentally went to Belgium’s Tomorrowland. It wasn”t particularly the music that I normally listen to but I had fun. It was a massive party and definitely something someone should experience once in their life.

Same same but different

This year, I decided to go to Rock Werchter again.

 

I had the same expectations as in 2009, and I know that my preference had changed, so the experience was different. It was great and hardly had any regrets, but I accepted the fact that it wasn’t the same anymore.

I still like the music and I didn’t mind the crowd of 80,000 people in general but having to sift to the crowd just to be able to hear from the stage sucked the fun out of the experience.

Rock Werchter 2013

I had a few beers but I knew that I wasn’t there to get drunk. At some moment, I was pissed with the other people who kept on stepping on us while we were seating.

I didn’t feel the same euphoria as the last time. I danced and sang with the music, but the feeling wasn’t the same.

I felt that it was dirty, smelly and I was relieved when I finally left the festival.

Rock Werchter 2013 - Friday

I slept on the train station. It did the same three years ago, but this time I regret that I didn’t pay for a hotel instead.

Will I be going to a festival again? Definitely. I’m already planning which ones I’d love to go next year.

I had complains but in the end I realized that I should have come with lower expectations.

It’s an attitude that I think didn’t only cover festivals, but my feeling towards travel in general.

After being on the road for five years, my expectations have changed. I now make conscious choices that values comfort more. I pick hotels over hostels, prefer quiet drinks in a pub over partying until dawn, and wake up early than nursing a hangover until afternoon.

My preference may have changed and priorities may have evolved, but the spirit remains. I have to accept the fact that it’s time to grow up and that I grew up.

Have you been to a festival in Europe? How was your experience? Share your thoughts below

Europe

New Year’s Eve in Skopje

February 15, 2013
New Year Skopje

Oh New Year’s Eve !

I was telling my friends that since I moved to Europe in 2008, one of the biggest cultural shifts for me was on how to celebrate the New Year’s.

In the Philippines, it’s all about the family. As it’s a week difference from Christmas, I had mostly spent it with my family in our place. We light our fireworks and join in a potluck dinner together with our neighbors. It’s all about the karaoke, the lechon (suckling pig) and the amounts of noodles to consume (eating noodles was supposed to bring you long life).

At home, I never spent New Year’s Eve with friends – it’s not that I don’t want to celebrate with them but rather they were also together celebrating with their own families.

When I moved to Europe, I noticed the difference. While Christmas is often spent with families, New Year celebrations are reserved to be with friends. It’s about the drinking, the dancing and the partying. Instead of insane amount of noodles, you get insane amounts of alcohol (not that I’m complaining 😉 )

And in the four years I’ve been here, with the exception of last NY eve spent with my mom, the rest was spent partying in Prague, Brussels and this year in Macedonia.

Prague 2008

And my recent New Year’s Eve in Skopje was one for the books.

My trip to Macedonia didn’t start well. I was supposed to be in Macedonia for a 10-day trip for both Christmas and New Year, but I got sick at the beginning of my holidays and I had to stay in Brussels for an extra week.

And to add, I almost missed my flight after a long night out.

But luckily, I managed to still squeeze in a 3-day trip to Skopje.

I arrived in Skopje on the 30th of December and was welcomed by my Macedonian friend, Danco, and his family to their home with a dinner fitting the cliché “for a king”. After the big dinner, it was a bit of drinking and then off to rest.

Skopje New Years Eve 2012

As I’m only there for a couple of days, we had an early start in the morning of New Year’s Eve, and have spent the entire day going around Skopje.

But as the day turned into night, the preparations have set in. We got home, went for a short nap and started preparing for the long night ahead.

The night started with some food and drinks at Danco’s place. Together with his friends, we celebrated with food, wine and good share of Rakia – a staple liquor in the Balkans.

After the pre-drinks, we continued the night to a Kafana, a sort of bistro restaurant staple to the Balkan region. It started with a gracious serving of food – a food plenty of cheese, cold cuts for the starters and mouth-watering roasted pork for the main course. If there’s one thing that Macedonia does well, is with its meat roasting. 🙂

Kafana - Skopje

The place erupted at around 10.30pm when they started playing traditional Macedonian dances. We danced the Oro, resembling a circle dance. As one of the only foreigner-looking guy in the crowd, definitely there was some attention drawn to my dancing (unfortunately, I wasn’t too good).

It was criss-cross of dancing and eating – with a few involving dancing on top of the drums, and a lot of circling. And as one of the three Asians in the room, the DJ even played Gangnam style and of course, we became the star of the show.

Kafana - Skopje

The night continued until the wee hours of the morning and after plenty of eating, drinking and dancing – at around 4am we called it a night.

I like the fact that travel allowed me to discover new and fun ways to celebrate New Year’s. Looking forward to how I’ll celebrate it next year!

 

What are your favourite New Year celebration moments? Do share them in the comment box below!

Europe

Celebrating the first year of 2013 over the skies of Skopje

February 10, 2013
DSC_0733

How do you start a year?

I’ve always seen the importance of making the beginning of the year a special one.

My parents told me that the actions you do at the start of the year will be a sign on how your life will be for the year ahead.

In the beginning of 2012, I was travelling in the streets of Paris with my mom. And 2012 continued to be a year filled with amazing travel memories.

This year I was travelling again in Macedonia, visiting a friend in the capital city Skopje. It was this moment at Mount Vodno that made it for me.

Skopje - Mount Vodno

Mount Vodno

On the first day of January, even after a long night celebrating New Year’s Eve, we all agreed to have an early start and visit Mount Vodno, one of Skopje’s highest and most famous peaks.

It’s a 40-minute drive up from the downtown Skopje to the base point of Vodno.

From the base, there are several ways to go up to the peak. You can hike for two hours or drive up for another 30 minutes, but we took the most scenic way which is through a cable car.

Going up to Mount Vodno

The cable car ride costs 100 Macedonian Dinar (roughly 2€) for a 5-minute ride up. The cable car system opened a couple of years ago and was one of Skopje’s cultural and tourism development projects.

As we ascend towards the peak, the clouds slowly started to blanket the view. The once brown mountainside turned to white, the trees gone.  The feeling was surreal.

Skopje - Millennium Cross

The first thing you see once you reach the peak is the towering Millennium Cross and is said to be biggest cross in Europe. It was  built in 2002 to celebrate the 2000th year since Jesus Christ’s birth.

There was also a large Macedonian flag towers the sky and the ground.

But it was mostly the view that got us. Standing at over 1000 meters, we were greeted with a blanket of clouds that covered the city view of Skopje and the surrounding towns. It’s a nice feeling, to be on top of the world and get that experience of as if you are in a storybook.

We spent most of the time taking photos, playing tourists with gangnam style jumping shots.

Skopje - Mount Vodno

I had time as well to reflect and just enjoy the scenery in front of me.

We came back down to the base just as the sun was about to set.

I’m lucky to have celebrated and traveled on New Year’s in several places across the world. I’m hoping that this year will be an even better year than the last and that travel will continue to play a strong part of the year. And I’m looking for more moments, literally and figuratively, of being high above the clouds.

*Special thanks to Yuma for the photos. 🙂

Europe

Getting in the Roomorama bandwagon in Paris

July 4, 2012
Roomorama

In my travels, I’ve done my share of sleeping in different types of places – hotels, hostels, couchsurfing beds, airports, tents – you name it, I’ve tried it.

And lately, I’ve seen travelers looking at short-term rentals as an option for their accommodation. It recently hit mainstream and thanks to Roomorama, who approached me recently to review one of their places, I had the opportunity to try it.

What makes Roomarama different?

Roomorama is an online platform for finding short-term room and apartment rentals when you travel. It offers accommodation option that gives you the opportunity to live like a local – something that often hotels and hostel dorms lack. Roomorama allows you to choose between getting your own apartment or a room rental in a shared apartment. I decided to go for the latter.

How does Roomorama work?

The roomorama process is simple, and it works like any other booking site. You type in your location, the dates you are going and the number of guest expected, and you will get a list of available options. You select and inquire on a couple you like and wait for your host to confirm availability. You take your pick on the ones that have confirmed and you book.

My personal experience was very easy, but because as I was paying with a credit card, I had to pass through an extra
step to confirm my credit card use and sign a docusign sheet to confirm my booking. I guess it’s an added security for meand for the host but I haven’t encountered it when booking for hostels and hotels online. It was a step that caused a bit of delay since I have wait to have access on a PC in order to confirm and I can’t do it on my mobile. It’s a small thing though.

Picking the right destination

Having a couple of travel plans these months, it was challenging to pick the right destination to work with Roomorama. I’ve had Sweden, Portugal, France and Thailand as my options. I chose Paris, where I was expected to stay for a night, to try it out.

Eiffel Tower

We know that Paris is notoriously known for very expensive, sometimes less-than-the-value, accommodation. I’ve been to Paris several times and stayed in a ritzy hotel in Champs-Elysees, a basement pretending to be a hotel room, and even a grey bench at Paris’ Orly airport – with the last two being disappointing experiences.

My Parisian Roomorama Experience

It’s always a pain to find accommodation in the city but thanks to Roomorama, I think I found the sweet spot.
I rented this room on a shared apartment in 11th arrondisement of Opera Bastille. The location is great with lots of stores, restaurants and access to public transport a short five-minute walk away.

Take the metro and you are 10 minutes away from the famous Parisian sites like the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, Champs Elysses and Montmartre.

Roomorama - Paris

The room may cost 150€ to 200€ if you have the same room in a hotel, but through Roomorama, I got the room for half the price. Definitely on a Parisian summer, that is a budget score.

The room I got has a foldable yet comfortable sofa bed, a set of good books to read (that made me wish I could stay more), and wi-fi access. It also has huge windows that let natural light in.

Prior to coming, my Parisian host, Wilfried, took time to send me directions to his place, including some tips on interesting spots near his place. You rarely get treatment like that when you are booking a hotel or hostel. Staying with a local gives you the advantage of knowing the destination from a local point-of-view, which for a traveller is more enriching than the staple tourist activities.

My experience with Roomorama introduced me to the option of short-term rentals – and thanks to my short yet very interesting stay in Paris – I’ll definitely considering staying in one again!

Photos from Roomorama –  credits 

Big thanks to Roomorama.com for my accommodation in Paris. All opinions and views expressed in this post are my own.

Europe, How To Guides, Travel Blog

Tips on travelling in Europe on a budget

October 19, 2011
Dining with locals

Travelling to Europe doesn’t come cheap, we know that.  Airfare from Manila is already expensive costing at least 30,000 pesos return. It’s no wonder that trips to Europe are often reserved to those with deep pockets.

But travellers don’t despair, there more ways to travel than doing it high roll. You don’t have to be rich to experience Europe. For those adventurous and open-minded enough, here are a few simple tips you can follow:

1. Research before your trip

Planning on where to go in Bruges, Belgium

Doing good research before a trip helps in managing the budget.  Read travel blogs and forums as they offer tips on what to see and how much is needed to see them. Museum websites, for example, can give you dates to getting in free. Paris’ Louvre (first Sundays / Friday evenings for under 26) and Madrid’s Prado museums (from 6-8pm Tues-Sun)  both offer free entrances on certain dates and times. 

2. Do Couchsurfing

Couch in Brussels

Couchsurfing  is a great way to meet local people and get free accommodation as well.  The website offers over thousands of hosts with “couches” to surf into.  It’s also a good way to experience local living. Giving out a simple gift or helping out with household chores often is enough to pay back for their hospitality.

3. Spend a day on parks

Park Cinquantenaire - Brussels, Belgium

Europe has the best parks in the world– and most don’t cost a Euro to visit. They’re beautiful and usually donned with trees, bike paths and old monuments and statues. It’s a good place to relax and still feel the city’s vibe. During summer, parks also play host to free concerts and street performances. My personal favourites – Parc Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Retiro Park in Madrid, and Vondelpark in Amsterdam.

4. Eat local and stack up at groceries when you can

Dining with the locals in UK

When in a new place they say to “do as the Romans do”. This comes with dining too. Avoid tourist dining establishments if you can. Find places where locals go and try some local flavour instead for an authentic travel experience. They serve good perhaps even better food at a lower price.

For those who want to take shoestring travel to the next level, head  to a supermarket and get ready-made salad or sandwich. Stack up on water as well for your day trips. Another cheap alternative is to cook at your hostel or at your host’s place.

5. Join free city tours

Free city tour in Amsterdam

Keep an eye for organisations like the New Europe tours, that offer guided tours around most big cities. It’s a great source of information about the city and a good way to meet other travellers. It’s completely free yet they do accept tips for those who enjoyed the tour (which is often the case).

 6.  Rent a bike

Bicycles in Amsterdam

Public transport is already a good way to travel cheap around but to those seeking a richer travel experience, best is to hop onto a bicycle. It’s a cheap (and healthy way) to jump from various sites. You can go around at your own pace and can control which route or area you want to see. Smaller cities like Amsterdam & Brussels can easily be navigated with a bicycle. In Brussels, check out Villo which rents out bikes starting at 1,50 euro a day.

What are your tips on travelling on the cheap in Europe? Share your tips on the comment section!

This article has originally been published for Discounts Philippines.  I wrote it together with another article on tips about Backpacking in Bohol. Grab a copy of their anniversary issue on most magazine stands and bookstores today. 🙂

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