O Mayotte! (Comoros -> Mayotte -> Madagascar)

O Mayotte! (Comoros -> Mayotte -> Madagascar)

 

After our day in Comoros — the #10-#12 least visited country in the world (depending who you ask) — let’s get even more off the beaten track: Mayotte, a French island in the Indian Ocean off East Africa between Madagascar and Mozambique that ceded to France from the Comoros group of islands in 1843.

In the spirit of anti-colonialism when Comoros voted for independence in the 1970s, Mayotte surprisingly voted instead to remain a French “collective”.

Then in March 2009, the islands sealed the deal by voting 95.2% YES to become France’s 101st ‘department’ effective 2011. Therefore at over 5000 miles, the flight between Paris and Mayotte is the second longest domestic flight in the world, with the first being Paris to Réunion (which I’m flying myself next week!).

 

 

Although France has indubitable administrative control of Mayotte and it is considered part of the EU, Comoros claims it as one of the Autonomous Islands of Comoros. Because pride. We get it.

 

 

So from Comoros, we were picked up this morning by a pre-arranged taxi at 6am to check in for our 8am AB Aviation Y6 303 Flight at 8am from HAH to DZA airport in Mayotte.

 

 

The check-in was as austere as that in Kiribati, with everything happening in one, small, partitioned room.

 

 

Their conveyor belts for checked luggage are shorter than treadmills:

 

 

And the immigrations counter was right behind us in the very same room after checking in:

 

 

And as how it was in Tuvalu, flight tickets are handwritten instead of printed.

 

 

Since we had too much food given to us for breakfast by the hotel, we handed them out to fellow passengers turning the waiting room into something even better than a de-facto Priority Pass lounge.

 

 

We then boarded promptly at 7:45am, taking off on time at 8:00am.

 

 

After 45 minutes in the air, we landed in Anjoaun: one of the 3 autonomous high islands in the Indian Ocean that’s part of the Union of Comoros.

 

 

Although our final stop would be Mayotte and we were expecting to stay on the plane, the staff instead made us disembark with our bags and escorted us into literally an empty arrivals room.

 

 

After 5 minutes here, we were led into the main check-in area, where we had our tickets re-inspected and our carry-on baggage go through security (no x-rays machines here; staff open and comb through your bags instead).

 

 

Afterwards in the waiting area, airport staff asked us one by one to step outside to pick out our checked luggage so they knew which ones to reload back onto the aircraft.

 

 

Once back outside, they then scanned us with metal detector wands and reopened our carry-on items before allowing us to reboard the very same airplane we had arrived on.

FYI, men are asked to go first for this process. This confused me — after being asked to skip past a long line of women who were waiting in front of me to go outside and claim my checked luggage, I left my cell phone, bag, and travel pillow behind in the waiting area thinking I was going to be allowed back in…but nope. Shit on face moment.

Luckily the rest of my group of monsooners were able to retrieve those items for me!

 

 

After a 45 minute flight from Anjouan, we landed promptly at 9:45am in the Mayotte’s only civilian airport (located on the island of Petit Terre).

 

 

You notice the difference between Comoros and Mayotte as soon as you land.

 

 

And unlike Comoros’ long visa process, we instead got stamped as if we were literally entering the European Union (after all, Mayotte is a French territory!)

 

 

And as you can compare with Comoros’ airport, this is apparently what it looks like when you choose to remain a colony instead of independence:

 

 

Alas, the eternal debate between security vs. freedom rages on.

 

 

After retrieving our checked luggage, we hailed a taxi for 15 euros and a 5 minute drive to take us to La Fare Beach Restaurant where Sarah, Ines, and Bessie stayed behind to sunbathe while watching over our bags.

 

 

Evan, Ann, and I instead continued onwards for another 2 minutes to the docks where we boarded the passenger ferries to take us to Grand Terre island for Mamoudzou, the de-facto capital and largest town in Mayotte.

 

 

The ferry departs every half an hour on the :30 and :00. It runs exactly like the Staten Island Ferry.

 

 

There is no payment here as they expect you instead to pay the fare (1.25€) on return. So once you arrive into Mamoudzou, just get off and keep moving as if it were a free ride!

 

 

Once on Grand Terre, we quickly walked around Mamoudzou, running through the streets of its colorful markets. However, there’s really not much else, let alone unique, for the typical visitor.

 

 

Once we were done, we ran back to the docks for a return ferry back to Petit Terre, this time paying the 1.25€/per person fee.

 

 

Once back at the docks of Petit Terre, we walked over 12 minutes to meet with the rest of the group waiting for us at La Fare.

 

 

We then had one of the best lunches on the trip so far.

 

 

Thank you, French cuisine.

 

 

At 12:45pm we wrapped up and called in a taxi to take us back to the airport where we boarded the 2:45pm (which was delayed by an hour) Air Madagascar Flight MD150 from DZA to TNR in Madagascar via another quick layover in Comoros. The flight had us change seats in between to accommodate for a full flight.

 

 

Next up: Madagascar!

 

 

- At time of posting in Mayotte, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Rwanada Forever!

Rwanada Forever!

 

After a week in Afghanistan and a sobering day in Kabul, it’s definitely time to get out of harm’s way and return home. There’s no need to exacerbate the situation by lingering during what will be another tense period in Kabul.

On our way back, Evan and I decided to spend 3 days in Rwanda as one of the cheapest itineraries back to NYC.

Why Rwanda? Well, imagine a country to boldly become the first in the world to ban plastic bags, and where the last weekend of every month requires one person from every household to help clean the neighborhood and then use that time to discuss community events. Imagine a country that has reeled from a genocide that killed 70% of an ethnic population to become one of the fastest growing economies in modern history, all the while boasting low corruption compared with its neighbors and becoming one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament.

Security and safety are prevalent — every mall, hotel, and restaurant requires airport-level screening — even though there is no active threat like there was in Afghanistan. It may still be a work in progress and its leadership may still have its controversies regarding political suppression but so does Wakanda. But am I talking about Wakanda?

Rwanda comes pretty close!

Look at how clean these streets are. This was everywhere we went:

 

 

So from Kabul, Evan D., Amanda and I boarded a 1.5 hour Flydubai flight FZ 306 at 6:15pm, landing in Dubai at 8:45pm where we met back up with our UAE host Sean and Evan K., another friend we met on the Afghanistan trip (who had left a few hours earlier), at a swanky hookah bar in Dubai called QD’s.

There we decompressed about our trip to Afghanistan until Evan D and I said our goodbyes and caught our connecting 6 hour Rwandair flight WB 305 to Kigali at 1:55am, landing at 6:00am.

I even got in a good full night’s rest while on the flight!

 

 

At the airport Evan and I debated whether to rent a car, eventually relenting after haggling our agent down to a decent rate.

We then drove over into the city and dropped off our stuff at our lodgings at Mijo Hostel.

Now I don’t usually comment on lodgings, but this has got to be one of the best designed free-standing hostels I’ve ever been to:

 

 

I even left a little message there, just like old times back in Punta Cana, DR:

 

 

After a lazy coffee at the hostel and breakfast at nearby Java House, we headed northwest to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a sobering tribute to victims of the Rwandan genocide where an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans and up to 70% of the Tutsi population were killed.

Free admission but the introductory 10 minute video is required before entering.

I wrote about this back when I visited Tuong Sleng and the Killing Fields in Cambodia: Conceptualize the notion where 70-80% of the ordinary everyday people you meet in an entire country is a survivor of genocide. This museum puts that very fact into perspective. Everyone here has lost someone close to them.

 

 

After an hour here we drove further south, paying our respects at Hôtel des Mille Collines aka the “Hotel Rwanda” famous for sheltering 1268 people during the genocide.

The story of the hotel and its manager at that time, Paul Rusesabagina, was later used as the basis of Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda in 2004.

 

 

Afterwards we drove further south to the highly effective Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial, dedicated to the 10 Belgian soldiers who were captured and hacked to death by the presidential guard during the initial events of the genocide.

 

 

If you’re not yet overwhelmed, there’s are 3 more memorial to the genocide south of Kigali. The closest is 20 minutes away at the Nyanza Genocide Memorial Centre. Admission is free.

 

 

Ntarama Genocide Memorial is another 20 minutes south of Nyanza. They require that you go on a compulsory 20 minute tour at reception but like all the genocide memorials, there is no admission fee.

 

 

It’s the piled up clothing of the dead here that really hits hard for me:

 

 

Then finally at the end of the road another 20 minutes away, we visited the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.

 

 

As it was not even close to evening yet, we drove the hour up north back towards Kigali, heading to the Rwanda Art Museum by the airport. It’s famous for housing the debris of the plane crash that killed both the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda that sparked the beginning of the 1994 genocide.

It closes at 6pm so we had 20 minutes to spare when we arrived. Entry fee is 10,000 Rwandan Francs and photography is strictly prohibited. They really watch you like hawks.

 

 

Then heading west, we stopped by for a wander at Kimironko Market north of the airport.

 

 

And finally after sundown, I was recommended to try the roasted goat ribs at Royal Car Wash:

 

 

After dinner, we returned to the hostel where we met Tom Karrell, a fellow American visiting Rwanda with friends for the week from his home base in Uganda. After an hour speaking with him and at his suggestion, Evan and I decided the next morning at 8am to drive the 2 hours up north to the Rwanda/Uganda border just to have lunch at scenic Lake Bunyonyi. That post is here: U-“Gone”-Da in 60 Seconds!

When Evan and I floored our back back to Kigali at 3:30pm, we both made it just in time to a well-deserved 1.5 hour massage at Zenora Wellness Center for 50,000 RWF. You can book ahead online on their website here.

 

 

Then we drove over 5 minutes to take a peek at the art exhibits at Inema Arts Centre.

 

 

While there, we were recommended to come here on Thursday nights as they throw a huge art gallery party featuring the artists along with drinks, BBQ, and a DJ for a crowd of 300-400 locals and expats.

 

 

Afterwards we then killed time with some tea and coffee on top of a library at the swanky Innovation Village (aka Shokola Storytellers Café):

 

 

After an hour here, we headed to the airport to return our car. On our way back, we finally hailed the thrilling moto-taxis for 1000 RWF for dinner at Sundowners.

Once again, I had the roasted goat. And it was divine.

 

 

And to make things even more interesting, we would happen to be in Rwanda on July 4th, their annual liberation day that formally recognized the end of the Genocide when the Rwanda Patriotic Front regained control of the country.

This means nothing would be open so I celebrated by chilling at the hostel and giving myself a well earned rest day before getting on my return itinerary back home to NYC via a free Ethiopian Airlines business class flight that I just redeemed with 70,000 Ultimate Rewards points.

From Kigali to Addis Ababa (No In-Flight Entertainment systems!):

 

 

The Cloud Nine Business Class Lounge at Addis Ababa was also so crowded!

 

 

But they do offer special ceremonial Ethiopian coffee here near the entrance, which I thought was a nice touch.

 

 

Thank goodness for business class as I was able to skip the lengthy security lines for the USA/Canada/Israel flights (Gates 23-26):

 

 

But be forewarned, some people will try to jack the business class line without having their tickets checked so be aggressive in holding your spot on the line.

Flight ET 500 from Addis Ababa (ADD) to Washington DC (IAD) includes a 45 refueling stop in Dublin in the middle (An 8 hour flight and 7 hour flight respectively for each leg), so wherever you sit should be like a home away from home.

I snagged seat 1A (luckily seat 1B next to me was also empty, so I had the whole first row to myself!):

 

 

The amenities kit has your standard toiletries set, skimpy eye mask, foam earplugs, socks, a pen, foldable comb, lip balm, and toothpicks:

 

 

Where the IFE left much to be desired, they fed me A LOT on both flights: Light snack, dinner, and breakfast for the first leg from ADD to DUB, then a hot canapé and a 3 course lunch on the second leg from DUB to IAD.

My favorite was the local Ethiopian set where you get to choose from a variety of delightful local Ethiopian dishes on a cart complete with their special soft Injera sour flatbread:

 

 

After 16 hours in the air and sleeping for 10 hours of it, I landed 10 minutes early in IAD at 8:10am.

With a 9 hour layover before my final leg back to NYC, I messaged everyone I knew who would be free to meet up. Guess who ended up answering the call? Anya Solovyeva whom I first met back at our hostel in Baku, Azerbaijan 10 months ago!

 

 

Now I’m waiting on my final leg home where there’s a total ground stop to LGA. I figure of all the delays to experience on this entire trip, it would be the domestic one back home. First world problems.

 

- At time of posting in Kigali, Rwanda, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Manchester By The Sea

Manchester By The Sea

 

On my way to Isle Of Man this evening, I enjoyed an unexpected 8 hour layover in lovely Manchester.

Taking the 10pm Thomas Cook Airlines flight from JFK Airport in NYC, I arrived 7 hours later at 9:55am local time at Manchester Airport.

 

 

My morning started with first going back and forth between Terminal 3 and 1 to find a left luggage facility to drop off my big bag (the guy at Terminal 3 said “I’m not trained to use the x-ray”…erm yeah). 

Once solving that, I headed over to The Station on the 7th floor and took the 20 minute shuttle train into the city.

 

 

I got off at Victoria station at around 11am.

 

 

From there I began my walking tour north at Chetham’s Library, a public library built in 1653 housing thousands of books & manuscripts. There are set times for entry for otherwise free public tours inside.

 

 

Afterwards I walked 5 minutes south to and around the Manchester Cathedral:

 

 

It’s free to enter:

 

 

After a few minutes, I walked 10 minutes south to an oasis of calm at Trinity Bridge:

 

 

Then turning east, I walked 5 minutes towards Saint Ann’s Church:

 

 

Down the block south from St. Ann’s Church is John Rylands Library, famous for being the home to the ‘Manchester Fragment’: the earliest known fragment of the New Testament and part of St. John’s gospel that was found near Alexandria. It dates from 2nd century, shortly after the gospel itself was first written.

 

 

If you come at around 12pm, they’ll open the upper galleries for an hour for you to take photos.

 

 

As UK’s notoriously perennially bipolar weather went from sunny to rainy back to sunny, I happened to come across a religious parade/procession right outside:

 

 

Across the street to the east and through a small alleyway lies St Mary’s Church, Manchester’s oldest Catholic church and built in 1794.

 

 

I then kept walking along Princess Street and passed by Manchester City Council:

 

 

Next to the city council is the Manchester Central Library:

 

 

Manchester Chinatown, the new center of Manchester’s changing and evolving youth culture, which is right down a few streets:

 

 

And The Village (aka Gay Village) is embedded within this neighborhood along Canal Street:

 

 

And from the Alan Turing Memorial in a quiet park across the bridge, I walked along the canal back west.

 

 

After a nice 15 minute walk, I reached Castlefield, a relaxed neighborhood of public esplanades, canals, casual waterfront bars and green spaces.

 

 

And the best part was that this whole walking tour took about 2-3 hours at a turtle pace. 

At around 2pm I decided to get back on the train here towards the airport o catch my onward 5:35pm Flybe flight out to the Isle Of Man.

 

 

- At time of posting in Manchester, UK, it was 16 °C - Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: manic depressive: sunny, cloudy, sunny, and rainy

 

Flying The Qatar Airways QSuite Business Class (777-300ER From Dallas To Doha)

Flying The Qatar Airways QSuite Business Class (777-300ER From Dallas To Doha)

 

 

So nice it deserves its own post.

 

The Occasion

After the past weekend speaking at MAASU 2019 Spring Conference in Boulder, Colorado, and hot on the heels of an upcoming destination wedding in Islamabad 5 years in the making (and one I wouldn’t miss for the world), I discovered I could save both money and time by flying directly from Colorado to Pakistan via Qatar Airways’ new QSuite Business Class.

I figured I could kill a lot of time by skipping a return home to NYC after the conference (I’d forego repacking by using the same suit for both the conference and the wedding), and instead flying a quick AA Business Class flight to Dallas, TX, catch the opening weekend screening of Captain Marvel at the famous Alamo Drafthouse (both of which were awesome!), freshening up at the AMEX Centurion Lounge at DFW, and then taking the 14 hour Qatar Airways QSuite flight #730 directly to Doha before catching another Qatar Airways Business Class flight to Islamabad.

I’d also save money by finally redeeming the 70,000 American Airlines miles I had been saving up for this very occasion. The whole itinerary would cost me $14.00 USD total in additional taxes and fees. Yes you read that right: FOURTEEN DOLLARS TOTAL. And how did I get 70,000 miles in the first place? By taking a mere 5 minutes to sign up for a credit card a few weeks ago (don’t be alarmed by a signup — my credit score has since climbed to 820+).

Of course you didn’t come here to hear about my itineraries, did you? You came here to hear about the QSuites. And how did they fare? Overall it’s a high-class fresh design and deserves its reputation as the best business class cabin in the industry. However, the only gripe was that I got a more full night’s rest and deeper sleep on EVA Air’s Royal Lauren cabin last year on my way to Sydney. But that’s a small, petty comparison.

 

The Seat

The seat itself is gorgeous. You have ample table space that doubles as the electronic shelf, as well as a stowaway compartment under the larger armrest that holds a bottle of water and noise-canceling headphones.

 

 

Once seated, you’re greeted with your choice of pre-flight beverage (including pink champagne, which is what I got) and either a warm or cold wet towel.

 

 

The highlight of the QSuites would be the sliding door, rendering your business class seat to feel even more private than it already was before. The doors can be closed only after takeoff and before landing.

 

 

The Amenities

 

In addition to your Dasani bottle of water and noise-cancelling headphones in your stowaway compartment under your armrest, you also are provided a plush, velvet blanket as an in-flight duvet. You unfortunately cannot take these home with you (as my attendant would warn me).

 

 

The leather amenities pouch carries a delightful Castello Monte Vibiano set of refreshing facial spray, lip balm and facial moisturizing cream, as well as the standard eye mask, socks, slippers, and ear plugs.

 

 

Finally you’re gifted a pajama set by The White Company of London. These you can keep.

 

 

The Bathroom

Sadly, the bathroom is pretty standard. Not as large as Emirates’ but they offer plenty of dental and shaving kits as toiletries.

 

 

The Menu

Surprisingly unlike other business class cabins, Qatar Airways’ Business Class doesn’t really offer a set menu with choices but rather an a la carte selection style where you can choose multiple, if not all the offerings at your pleasure. 

 

 

The Meal

We began with a set of nuts and a starter beverage, of which I chose the Pineapple Margarita.

 

 

Next came an artisanal bread selection served with olive oil, a choice of vinaigrette (I chose the pomegranate), butter, and a piece of ceviche shrimp.

 

 

For appetizers I ordered the Santa Barbara hot smoked salmon with potato dill salad, micro greens, and extra virgin olive oil

 

 

For the main dish I chose the herb crusted tenderloin with haricot vert, parsilied potato, sweet peppers, and beef jus.

 

 

For dessert I said yes to nearly everything including the Fresh berries with rose water syrup:

 

 

…and the Gourmet ice cream selection with their signature So Jennie pale pink sparkling grape alcohol-free “luxury” bubbly.

 

 

Finally they finished my meal service with a choice of cardamom or saffron tea (or coffee) with a box of Godiva chocolates:

 

 

The Sleep

After the meal service it was time to head to bed.

Here the QSuite Cabin takes things a step further with two more arrangements for group travelers. One is the double bed option for couples by sliding down the middle divider to turn two beds into a larger one. The other is the unique “quad” cabin when the entertainment displays can be slid down to the side to allow for paired rear and forward-facing center seats to become one large room of 4 seats/beds — a setup designed for families or work colleagues traveling together.

 

 

After the meal service the attendants will make your bed for you by furnishing a mattress covering:

 

 

And of course, you can set your seat to lie completely flat at 180º:

 

 

Finally, there is a “DND” aka Do-Not-Disturb button on your seat that turns on a red light on your cabin decal so attendants can leave you alone except for take off and landing.

 

 

The Breakfast

I was able to get in a good 3 solid hours of sleep until I couldn’t sleep anymore, partly because my back started to hurt a little bit. Thus I spent the next 3-4 hours watching movies and doing some work on their super fast onboard WiFi (The first hour is complimentary and then you have to pay $10 USD via credit card to be connected for the rest of the flight), until they began their breakfast service around 2 hours before landing.

I started with Greek yogurt, added in with some mixed berry compote, toasted granola, and nuts:

 

 

Next I asked for the steel-cut oats served with berries and cream:

 

 

Finally, I finished off with a hearty steamed eggs and chicken sausage with toasted brioche, sautéed spinach, and hollandaise sauce:

 

 

And with less than an hour until landing, I enjoyed a cup of coffee and another moist warm towel before changing out of my pajamas to prepare for the inevitable end to my 14 hour hotel in the sky.

 

 

After disembarking in Doha, where I had been only 9 months before, I headed straight through transfers security and towards Al Mourjan Lounge for Qatar Business Class passengers.

 

 

You have to show your boarding pass and get scanned to board the escalator upstairs for lounge access.

 

 

And just like the QSuites’ design, Qatar Airways’ Al Mourjan Lounge is also out of this world bonkers nice. By surface area it boasts to be one of the largest in the world. Although it may not enjoy as many food stations, activities, entertainment options and frills as the equally large (but chaotic) Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge in Istanbul, it makes up for it with its grander use of space, attention to detail, and higher quality furnishings.

 

 

There’s even an infinity pool and grand staircase to an elevated dining room:

 

 

Here I just met up with Evan (who also just flew QSuites from Chicago O’Hare International Airport), with whom I had just traveled with last month in Prague and Budapest, and now will be part of my monsoon wedding party heading to Islamabad for the upcoming festivities!

 

 

- At time of posting in Doha, Qatar, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 41% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear with periodic clouds

 

Czechmates For Life: Prague

Czechmates For Life: Prague

 

The last time I was in Prague 19 years ago, I was 11 years old. 

 

 

And I haven’t been back since. So does it count if I really don’t remember anything but this photo? NO IT DOESN’T.

 

 

Last month, when 7-time monsooner (Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait!) Ann Wen found out she had more days off than expected and asked me to extend my travels, the convenient thing was to ask her to join me in Fiji since I was already in the area. Of course, being based in NYC she balked so we had to find a compromise…where could we meet in the middle? And if she’s never let me down on past trips, how could I?

After finding ridiculously cheap flights from Fiji to Prague via layovers in Auckland, Shanghai, and Xi’an, it was meant to be. Prague was happening. 

15 more people signed up within 2 weeks, and then Ann recruited a random stranger she met at the airport on the way to Prague: a medical student from Kazakhstan studying in Prague named Aia. Another monsoon was forming.

For “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

 

 

And nearly 2 decades later, I was back in one of my first European cities: Prague.

 

 

After 3 weeks island hopping in the Pacific and the least visited countries in the world, I took off from Suva for a 3 hour flight to Auckland (on almost the one year anniversary I was last there!) where I had a few hours to transit to a 17 hour Emirates flight to Dubai, and then a few more hours there before finally getting on a 7 hour Emirates flight to Prague. And right after disembarking and stamping into the EU, I hailed an Uber for a 25 minute ride into the city to meet up with the rest of the monsooners at a pre-reserved lunch at Terasa U Prince.

 

 

It’s known for having one of the best rooftop views in the world for lunch, although I don’t know which governing body would determine that.

 

 

After lunch and introductions, we returned back to our hostel and immediately hit the ground running in monsooning Prague.

There are sights everywhere; right outside our hostel grows a little statue called Embryo. Designed by Czech sculptor David Černý, it was created as his statement about the difficulty of creating art in an unimaginative world

 

 

A few paces east we found Man Hanging Out, aka “Zavěšený muž”: Černý’s statue of a dangling Sigmud Freud as a critical statement about intellectualism in the 20th century.

 

 

About 5 minutes away south we walked by the Velvet Revolution Memorial, which commemorates November 17, 1989, the date that changed the Czech Republic forever.

 

 

It was that date when a crowd of students marched towards Wenceslas Square from Vyšehrad to demonstrate against the one-party rule of Communism, as well as to celebrate the anniversary of a similar student demonstration against Nazi occupation 50 years ago. After being met with fierce resistance by riot police, the students’ numbers swelled from 50,000 to 200,000 within days, leading to the eventual fall of Communist Czechoslovakia.

Across the street is popular Café Louvre, where we grabbed breakfast on our 2nd day.

 

 

And if we hadn’t had enough memorials and monuments, A few paces more east is the fittingly enigmatic and constantly shifting Head of Franz Kafka:

 

 

We then walked 10 minutes more south, passing by the birthplace of Kafka (thanks Jommel for pointing it out!)

 

 

. . . to the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.

 

 

After assassinating SS-Obergrupenführer Reinhard Heydrich in the Operation Anthropoid, 7 brave Czech paratroopers escaped to this basement crypt and over the course of 20 days killed 700 Nazis before they ran out of ammunition and killed themselves.

 

 

And next door to the memorial we had to take obligatory photos with Dancing House, the famously curvy office building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

 

 

Get creative here!

 

 

We then headed back north, passing by the Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc memorial, which marks the site where Jan Palach immolated himself in 1969, followed a week later by his friend Jan Zajíc, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague.

 

 

10 minutes more north you’ll reach hit the eastern edge of Old Town at the Basilica of St. James, which is known for its art-filled baroque interior, as well as a 400-year old shriveled mummified hand of a thief dangling from a chain (having served as a warning to other kleptomaniacs).

 

spot the hand?

 

And from there we entered the gorgeous Old Town Main Square.

 

 

We made sure not to miss the Prague Meridian, which was used like a sundial to tell time back in the day.

 

 

And in the spirit of telling time, the creme de la creme would be the Prague Astronomical Clock. Installed in 1410, this gem exists as the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

 

 

Legend has it that its creator was forcibly blinded by the Prague Council in order to prevent him from making similar clocks for other nations. In response, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the clocks’ gears, hence placing a curse on anyone who attempted to repair the clock in the future.

Then we walked north to Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto. Once you pass by another odd Memorial sculpture to Kafka, you’re at the eastern edge of the former ghetto.

 

 

We first visited The Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest synagogue and Prague’s first building of Gothic design when it was completed in 1270. More famously, however, it is the reported legendary home of the Golem of Prague (that’s who that ladder on the outside is for!)

 

 

Next door we looked for the photogenic Old Jewish Cemetery, which houses over 12,000 tombstones of bodies up to 6 layers deep!

 

 

Leaving Josev to the south, we stopped in the Municipal Library of Prague, which features the “Idiom” installation: A literally literary (get it? hah!) tower that appears to stretch into infinity.

 

 

We then crossed the street to sneak into Prague City Hall, which is home to one of the world’s only Paternoster elevator, aka the elevator that never stops! Accessible after 10:00 Monday to Friday, we went through the huge doors on the front of the building, and then headed to either left or right to get around to the other end of the building where the lift is.

 

 

From the ground floor it goes up 4 floors but then it keeps going…I mean  you can stay on the lift after it passes the last stop but only If you dare…

 

 

… you really can’t say you’ve ridden a Paternoster unless you’ve gone over the top and around the bottom!

 

Then the sight that all tourists who come to Prague for: We finally crossed The Charles Bridge, Prague’s landmark stone bridge that links Old & New Towns.

 

 

Be careful of your stuff here! This is where Joanne got pickpocketed, losing both her wallet and green card! However, luckily she was able to get an emergency re-entry permit from the U.S. consulate within 24 hours despite the current shutdown.

 

 

When we approached New Town, we made a quick left for the John Lennon Wall.

 

 

We then made an about-face north and passed the narrowest street of Prague to our right, built originally as an emergency fire exit.

 

 

Steps away we had a laugh at Piss Sculpture, also designed by aforementioned David Černý, which features 2 statues that will piss out actual messages that you can text to +420 724 370 770

 

 

Then we walked over to St. Nicholas Church, a structure that took over a century & 3 generations of architects to complete when it was finished in the 1850s.

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes south to the Church of Our Lady Victorious and The Infant Jesus of Prague, open late and famous for its statue of infant Jesus and its constantly rotating wardrobe throughout the year. According to Jommel, this was the statue that inspired the spread of Christianity through The Philippines.

 

 

Finally we walked uphill to Prague Castle, the symbol of the city and the holder of The Guinness Book Of World Records title for being the largest ancient castle complex in the world at 70,000 sq. meters (750,000 sq. feet) and the official office of the President.

 

 

The group then split, with a third staying at the Prague Castle for the numerous art galleries and other exhibits, while the rest headed west to Loreto Prague just to take a gander at the peculiar Statue of St. Wilgefortis, a bearded female saint. We sang our heart out karaoke style to “I Want It That Way” here.

 

 

They also have a treasury on the 2nd floor, of which in their collection the most famous being the 6222-diamond encrusted monstrance, the Prague Sun:

 

 

Then we walked up to Petrin Tower, a 378m cast-iron tower that was built to be taller than the Eiffel Tower in 1892, featuring a deck for city views.

 

 

We paid for the elevator up just in time for sunset.

 

 

Then as we headed out of the park back towards the direction of old town, we sauntered past an equally sauntering Monument of Karel Hynek Mácha.

 

 

As we exited, we took pause at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which commemorates all the political prisoners jailed during Communist rule.

 

 

That’s pretty much most of central Prague, all of which can be done in 10-12 hours over the course of 2 days!

 

 

For our third and free day, some of us caught on the latest trip gossip over a lazy brunch at Café Savoy,

 

 

. . . with others checking out the weirdness of the Kafka Museum:

 

 

Later in the afternoon, some chilled out at one of the handful of beer spas in the city.

 

 

…and there was a lot of socializing at our gorgeous rooftop maisonettes at Old Prague House:

 

 

And what would a monsoon be without group dinners and drinks at some fine establishments? On our first night we pregamed at Hookah Place next to our hostel.

 

 

And then across the street at 5-story Karozy Lane — aka the largest nightclub in Central Europe — we were able to turn this:

 

 

. . . into this:

 

 

And finally we celebrated Katy’s birthday at Mlynec!

 

 

What To Eat In Prague

 

Open faced sandwiches at The Sisters Bistro:

 

 

Next door is Lukásskálacukrár for sumptuous Czech pastries:

 

 

They can be generous with free samples!

 

 

And don’t leave without trying the Pork Knuckle

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Prague, Czechia, it was n/a - Humidity: 86% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: snowy

 

Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

 

Thanks Fanny for the pun of a title!

I realized that whenever people ask for advice for what to see in Kiev and I look through my blog to rev up my memory again, all I have on Kiev is a crazy night out that began at the infamous Palata no. 6 (aka Hospital Bar), and nothing on what to actually see.

 

6 years ago in Kiev:

 

And we returned to Kiev today after a week in Armenia for an extended layover, I understood nostalgia and traditions are hard to quit.

Today in Kiev:

There’s been a few more tricks up their sleeves since then:

And yes, we even returned to Sorry, Babushka! afterwards.

 

 

But we also saw things this time! And when Ukraine International Airlines e-mailed me to say that our final flight home from Kiev to NYC would be delayed a whopping 8 hours, that left us with plenty of time to explore Kiev the next morning sober. 

Let’s begin — (Some of these photos are credited to Mihaela, who arrived in Kiev on an earlier flight than the rest of us)

 

 

From our hostel, we started at Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew’s Descent, a steep but charming cobblestone path lined with souvenir sellers, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and museums.

 

 

The descent’s official start is at Saint Andrew’s Church, and it ends at Kontraktova Ploshcha in Podil.

 

 

From Saint Andrew’s we walked 10 minutes over to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev’s oldest church dating back to the 11th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts the world’s largest ensemble of frescoes and mosaics. 

Admission fee is 60 UAH.

 

 

For an extra fee you can climb up the bell tower for these views:

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes over to Golden Gate, which is a 1982 reconstruction of the Golden Gate of Kyiv, which was immortalized in Mussorgski’s “Pictures of an Exhibition.”

 

 

Afterwards we turned onto Kreschatyk Street, the main path of Kiev’s center, where we took advantage of it being closed on weekends for pedestrians.

 

 

This street would then lead us to Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), which as I recall was also where we scrambled around for an hour thinking that we missed our bus to Chernobyl 6 years ago. 

More importantly though, it is Kiev’s central meeting place as well as the site where people camped for weeks on end during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that led to the election of Yushchenko and the violet crackdowns of the 2014 Ukranian revolution that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych.

 

 

You can take a small set of stairs above the mall for elevated views:

 

 

Nearby is a tribute composed of scattered bricks to the 113 of those who died during the 2014 Revolution.

 

 

We then walked to Globus Mall for dinner at Ostannya Barykada, a famous speakeasy restaurant devoted to purely Ukrainian cuisine.

 

 

You have to find the dedicated entrance first:

 

 

Then take an elevator to a hidden floor:

 

 

Grab a few drinks at the simple bar and give this password in Ukrainian: Boritesya i poborete! (Fight and you will win!)

 

 

Once your table is ready, head through a hidden entrance inside the walls:

 

 

And eat, eat, eat away. Our recommended dishes were the goat, steaks (big cuts for $10 USD!), catfish, black pudding (pork blood), and borscht.

 

 

After a filling dinner we walked about 8 minutes to St. Michael’s Monastery, which is an active monastery that dates back to the 12th century.

 

 

If you’re still up for a longer walk, head 20 minutes south to Friendship of Nations Arch where you can get great views of northern Kiev.

 

 

From there you can walk into a pleasant park beginning with Park Bridge:

 

 

Right at the end of the park is 140 year old Mariyinsky Palace, which was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who is also famous for designing the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

 

 

Walk another 25 minutes south to reach the Holodomor Holocaust Memorial and its underground exhibit in the park.

 

 

A few more paces south from the memorial will be the entrance to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, one of Ukraine’s oldest monasteries. Dug out by hermit priests, these cave monasteries are still intact today for visiting, where pilgrims and tourists alike can venture to see their mummified remains.

 

 

Finally, at the southern end of your walk will be The Motherland Monument, adorned by scores of military vehicles and classic Soviet-era memorial statuary dedicated to the sacrifices Kiev made during World War II.

 

 

And the motherland statue itself looks much larger in real life. Of note, the design on her shield is the only example of a Soviet hammer & sickle insignia allowed in Ukraine.

 

 

This whole walking tour took about 4-5 hours, after which we returned back to our hostel to pick up our bags and headed to the airport for our return flight home.

 

 

Perhaps because it’s my birthday tomorrow or Thanksgiving Day is in 2 days, I gotta say when this group first spontaneously formed a few weeks ago I remember not being able to help myself but have this gut feeling I would be traveling with and getting to know a solid bunch of special, amazing, funny, mature, and down-to-earth people. I didn’t know why; except for Mihaela, I never traveled with any of them before. While I tried hard not to overhype expectations, my expectations instead would be exceeded. By being themselves and coming on this trip with me, they gave me one of the best birthday presents I could ask for.

I’m already finding myself missing everyone before the trip even has ended, and I’m beginning to feel this sense of bittersweetness that because there are so many moving parts in this thing called life, these 4 people may never travel together with me all at once like this again.

I hope the universe may one day prove me wrong. Thank you for an amazing 9 days. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kiev, Ukraine, it was 5 °C - Humidity: 72% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear