Serbia, another treasure from the Balkan

Serbia was unexpected and unplanned. Beginning of August I took a break from the Wild Elephants Hostel in Bratislava where I am still volunteering. And I decided to meet up somewhere in Europe with a friend.  So I booked a bus to Sofia where the plan was to stay two weeks and travel around Bulgaria by car. But an event happened (bad or good, we will never know!). And we completely changed our plans. I have to admit this was the most stupid thing that could have happened but I forgot my wallet in Bratislava so I had no money. I mean not really I had 70€ in coins but I figured out that the exchange offices don’t really take coins or they exchange it for a really bad rate! So I found myself without money. Thankfully I was not travelling alone. But this changed our initial plan.

So from Sofia, where we spent two nights and three days, we decided to slowly find our way back to Bratislava. On our way we made a stop to Serbia, somewhere I had always wanted to go but never had the opportunity so far.

Nis, a random stop over which became a highlight
Nisville, where the Jazz festival took place

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop was Nis in Serbia on our way to Belgrade. I think we were crazy this day because we stopped there for 7 hours, at night (our bus was at 2:30 am and we got there by 7 pm) with our backpacks (between 7 and 11kg each!). But I guess that what the excitement of travelling makes you do. So we arrived in this nice little city in the South of Serbia which was a really nice discovery and a highlight of our trip. There was a jazz festival happening and it was settled in the fortress where different events were going on, such as open movies, concerts…

At Nis, we tried Serbian food for the first time and it was delicious, it is really similar to Albanian food, to be honest, but really tasty. We ordered the typical salad (cucumber, tomatoes, onions and a local cheese) with kebab meat, sausages and homemade bread. It was simple but good. We spent 12 euros for two including the drinks. Then we spent the rest of the night hanging around near the river, waiting for the bus. It was a perfect summer holiday night.

A typical Serbian meal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After 3 hours drive,  we finally arrived in Belgrade at 6 am. We stayed in a hostel a bit far from the centre (about 10minutes walk) which was really great because really quiet and away from all the tourists. There, they welcome us with a shot of Rakja (the typical alcohol of the Balkan that the most common on is made of plums), which is quite strong especially in the morning. And also at the hostel, the lady who was working night shift taught us some basics Serbian sentences which were really useful for the rest of the stay :

-Good afternoon: dobre vece;

-thank you: Hvala;

– bye: ciao.

 

A day trip to Novi Sad

During our stay in Belgrade, we did a day trip to Novi Sad. It was really interesting because it is a city very similar to the one you can find in Eastern Europe more than in the Balkan area. Our trip started in a hurry because we almost missed our bus! The thing is that it was a local bus, it stopped in every town. So it took us more than 2hours for a trip that should usually take 1h/1h30. Once in Novi Sad,  I found some similarities with Brno, Krakow or even Bratislava for example. And a day in Novi Sad was enough as the city centre is quite small. Even though it is the second biggest city in Serbia.

 

Belgrade, another capital crossed by the Danube

Concerning Belgrade, we liked walking around, the buildings are very impressive and the atmosphere of the city is really cool. There is also an area with very small streets where you can find all the local restaurants (but quite expensive because all the tourists go there).

 

So as Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, Belgrade is a Capital city where the Danube flows through. Which I think gives another atmosphere to the city. Indeed, the night life becomes more attractive as most of the parties are happening on boats. That change from the typical night clubs and for reasonable entrance fees as well. But also, all those cities are really nice to see at night time. Indeed, it becomes magical where all the enlightening buildings, particularly in Belgrade.

 

 

 

 

 

One thing I really enjoyed in Serbia, as well, is that the fortresses are free of entrance. And you can have a really nice walk inside with a really nice view of the city.  Moreover, Belgrade has kept some memories of the war. Indeed, you can find in some part of the cities, bombed buildings which are been kept destroyed. I found it interesting to see the contrast between the new Belgrade with all the beautiful buildings and those old buildings from the war.

The trip from Belgrade to Budapest

The bus back to Bratislava was also really intense. We took night buses which first went from Belgrade to Budapest and then a second bus from Budapest to Bratislava. So our first bus left on time but after an hour only we got stuck in a traffic jam. It delayed us by 2 hours and then at the border with Hungary. And again, it took us 2:30 hours to go through. Normally I would not mind being delayed but the thing is that we only had a stopover of 3hours in Budapest, so we were running out of time. We even thought we could not make it on time. But miracles happen sometimes. And we arrived in Budapest 10 minutes before the departure time of our bus to Bratislava which was perfect!

Tirana, Albania : a city and a country to visit.

In June 2017, I went to volunteer in a hostel in Tirana, Albania. I did not know anything about it, I just knew the colour and symbol of the flag and its geographical position and that’s all.

The centre of Tirana
A bit of History

So Albania is part of the Balkan as well as Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.  It has borders with four countries: Greece in South, Macedonia at the west, Montenegro and Serbia in the North.

It was a communist country until 1990, so from there a lot of things have changed. For example, Albanians started driving at this time.  That’s why the traffic is a bit chaotic. I had the chance to take a dum-dum ( a car with only 3 wheels, one at the front and two at the back), because we had to carry heavy stuff to the hostel, and it was amazing! First, the vehicle did not have a car radio, only three buttons were on the car board, I don’t even know what they were used for … Second, it’s a bit like in Africa, if you can put more people than the number of seats available it does not seem to be a problem! And third, the traffic is a complete mess, every time, the drivers are about to knock over the pedestrians.

The other local transport I took was the bus and it is also something really interesting to experience. Indeed, in Albania there are no machines to buy tickets, you buy it directly in the bus from the ticket inspector.

Very nice people

the Albanians are very nice and helpful; I was freshly arrived in Tirana and was looking for my way to the hostel that two Albanians helped me. One of them, a lady, even asked where I was coming from and called a friend of her who was speaking French to help me find the street I was looking for. It was incredible! And this woman, Suzanna, also came with me to the street I needed to go. Moreover, I found that quite a lot of Albanian people, especially the younger, speak and understand English.

A really tasty food

Albanians eat a lot of meat! It’s their favourite food. When you go to a restaurant and you order meat with sides, the sides come first and the meat comes at the end. Or you can also see people ordering only meat! Also, they cook a lot of pasta with the water that is used to cook the meat to give a meat taste to the pasta. At the hostel, for breakfast, we served byrek which is a kind of pastry with cheese inside. But you can also find Byrket with spinach, meat, tomato and onions or even yoghurt.

Byrek with cheese
Mix plate of meat
The Capital itself

One amazing thing about Tirana is that it is surrounded by mountains so the view is always nice. Moreover, it is a really chill place. I was there in June, the weather was really nice maybe a bit too hot for most of the foreigners but the Hostel I volunteered in, had this amazing rooftop with a bit of the wind which made it just perfect.

View from the rooftop

 

 

 

 

And Tirana has also a huge park in which you can find an artificial lake. A lot of people are going there. The athletes run around, while the kids play football or any other games and the elders relax under the sun and play dominos (one of the guests was spending a lot of time playing with them, which I found very cool). Or they even take a bath but it is not really recommended to swim in the lake as the water is quite dirty.

View of the Lake

 

 

 

 

 

What’s more, Tirana is a very colourful city, with flashy colours on some houses or buildings. On some of them, you could find different designs. Those designs are inspired by the Qylym (Albanian word for rag).

Houses with some designs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonus and tips about Tirana

But I would say one of the most intriguing things of Tirana is their habit to have fireworks every time, and when I say every time is not an exaggeration, they do it even during the daytime! If there is a wedding or a birthday there will be fireworks, so one night I saw 5 fireworks! That’s so crazy but when you are on a rooftop it’s amazing!

I will give you the last tip about Tirana, do not come in August! Everything is closed. All the bars and restaurants, they all move to the coast where the weather is a bit more bearable.

And for more information about the life in Tirana, you can read the interview I made with Megi, an Albanian girl I was working with: Click here!

Brest : Some reasons to visit the city

Brest is grey, Brest is sad, Brest is Ugly. These are all the things I have heard since I am a child. I was born and raised in Brest, Brittany, France. Of course, Brest might not seem to be the most attractive destination in France but I will give you some reasons to come and visit it. But first, let’s start with a bit of history to understand the city. As a harbour, it was a very important location during the war. Indeed Brest is the most western city of France, facing the United States. So, unfortunately, it was destroyed during the Second World War by the German and had to be rebuilt very quickly that explains the grey atmosphere of the city.

The Castle

 

 Its landscape, Its weather

The first thing that you should know about Brest is that it has the reputation for being a rainy city. Indeed it is a really wet city but if you compare to other cities in the South, the percentage of rain over a year is less. Moreover, the temperature rarely goes over 30degres during summer time. This weather is the reason why the landscape is so green and flourished. You can compare it to the Irish landscape.  The sky is often grey but there is nothing better than the reflection of a grey sky on the sea which makes it blue grey, and as the colour of the sky changes every day, the sea has a different colour every day!  And yes, we also do have tempests sometimes but have you already seen the sea when the wind is blowing? It is something amazing! In addition to that, the weather is wet but we have a saying which says “the Bretons are not made of sugar”. So we are not going to melt if it starts raining.

20minutes drive away from Brest and you will find Paradise!

 Marine activities

As it an harbour, there are a lot of marine activities to do like sailing, kayaking or even fishing. But most of all Brest hosts one of the biggest marine culture centres in France called Oceanopolis. It’s a perfect place for all the marine searchers but also for all the families to chill on a Sunday. Oceanopolis is divided into 3 main sections, a Breton section with all the animals you can find in the surrounding seas like seals, seaweeds … But also a tropical section in which you will find different kinds of sharks and a lot of tropical fishes. The third section is the polar section with penguins, arctic seals and a lot of other strange fishes. If you want to disconnect with reality and dive into the marine world in the middle of the city that’s the perfect place to go!

The bay of Brest
A contrast of ancient and modernity

In contrast with its old buildings, Brest is a very innovative city. Indeed, Brest has different old buildings like the Castle which has been built more than 17centurys ago and which has been classified historical monument since 1923! And this is what is fascinating about the city, the contrast.  At the end of 2016, Brest became the first French city with an urban cable car. This was created in order to connect the two parts of the city called left bank and right bank. Because the city is separated by a river called Penfeld River. And more particularly to connect a new neighbourhood called “Les capuchins” on the right bank. But this was not the first modern improvement made by the city. In fact, in 2012, Brest had re-created a tram line (that had already existed before 1944 and was destroyed because of the second world war), to decrease the circulation into the city centre. All along the line, you can see different urban arts among which one of them was elected the ugliest public building in France!

The tram
The cable car
 The Sport

Modernity has also been brought to Brest thanks to Sport. Indeed, when a team becomes better and better you have to provide it with the right infrastructure. That’s why they created l’Arena, a huge sports complex which is also used for concerts. It has the shape of a basketball’s filet. For now, it is mainly used for our Handball team: the Brest Bretagne Handball which performs in the France First league. The team is composed of a lot of international players such as Alison Pineau (France), Melinda Geiger (Roumania), Cleopatre Darleux (France), Marta Mangué (Spain). But Brest also shines in soccer, in the second major league called Ligue 2, where the Stade Brestois is in the top rank of the Ligue.

A Cultural city

Speaking of culture, it has a big impact on the city mainly about Art, Music and Movie. Indeed, while you are walking around the city, you can find a lot of street arts including mural paintings. One of them was made by the most popular artist in Brest: Paul Bloas. Otherwise, If you ask about music to Brest people, the first answer you going to get is Astropolis. It is a huge electro festival happening twice a year in Brest (in January and in July), it is even known all over the France. But if you want to listen to world music you can go to “Le bout du monde” in Crozon which is about 30minutes drive from Brest. It happens in August. Or for Celtic music, you can go to Lorient for “The Interceltic festival”. The last cultural aspect which has a big impact in Brest is the world of the cinema. Indeed, every year in November Brest hosts the “European Short Film Festival” which gathers a selection of European short films at “Le Quartz” our theatre.

“Le Lamaneur” symbol of the port of Brest

 

The Cuisine

In Brittany, we have a cuisine very rich, we cook with a lot of Butter. We are mostly known for our crepe, a very thin pastry made of flour. The most famous crepe is made of ham, cheese with on top a fried egg. But you can add any ingredient on your crepe. Crepes are usually eaten with a glass of cider which is also some typical from Brittany. We also have something similar to crepes but a bit thicker called galette.  If you are more into sweet things I recommend to taste the” Kouign Amann” which means in Breton butter cake. It is made of bread dough mixed with butter and sugar! And if you just want a small snack you can also have our famous Palet Breton, also mostly composed of butter or our salted caramel sweets.

If with these arguments you think it’s not enough, you can just come for the people! Brest is populated by students and foreign students, thanks to the Erasmus program for the European students, which makes it very diversify and attractive. And as being part of the Celtic culture, we also have the reputation for drinking a lot so there are a lot of bars in the city so if you want to meet the locals you know where to go ;). Otherwise, you can just come and enjoy the beauty of the landscape, you won’t be disappointed!

 

24 hours in Shkoder, Albania

Shkoder is situated in the North of Albania next to the Montenegro’s border. Indeed Podgorica, the capital city is only 1hour drive away from Shkoder.

Map

I benefited of two days off to visit this northern city of Albania. I took a mini bus from Tirana for only 300Lek (about 2,20Euros) for a 2 hours drive. Like in Tirana the city is surrounded by mountains but plus a river and a lake which are the most attractive things to do in addition to the castle: Rozafa castle.

The castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I went there with two guests from the Hostel (Hostel Albania) I was volunteering in Tirana. As my time in Shkoder was quite short we managed to do 3 of the most interesting things about the area.

We first started with the discovering of the lake and to do that we hired bikes from the hostel we were staying at. Indeed, cycling in Shkoder is very popular, everyone has a bike and unlike Tirana, it is way safer to bike there. That’s how we got to the Lake by Bicycle, on our way we had a really nice view of the castle, we passed through a typical Albanian village. We cycled for about an hour and a half (because we needed stops to take pictures!) before reaching a “public beach” where one of us took a bath, apparently the water was really hot! It was a really nice first approach to discover the city and its area.

View of the Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second touristic thing we did was the visit of the castle. To go to the castle you can either go on foot which is around 40minutes or by bus (30Lek =22cents), so we took the second option and I think we did well because once you get out of the bus you have to walk all the way up to the entrance of the castle and when the temperature is over 30degrees, it takes your energy really fast. Then the entrance fee is 200Lek (1,5euros) and it is really worth it! Indeed, the view from the castle is amazing, you have a vision of the city plus the lake, the river and the mountains! The castle in itself is mostly ruins but there are some hidden spots which were used by the people to protect themselves from the enemy. The only thing that was really disappointing was the souvenir shop in the middle of the ruins… We really did not get it. But I guess, this what the world has become everything has to be a source of income to the cost of the authenticity and of the protection of historic sites. But except for this detail, we all really liked the Castle.

Ruins of the castle
View of Shkoder from the castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third and last thing, we did was to go to Mesi Bridge so to go there we took a bus to the terminal station and from there we did hitch-hiking but the first car which stopped was actually one of the shuttles which runs from the city to the surrounding villages. The cost for both types of transport was about 80lek (60cents). I found this place amazing, it might only be an old bridge but standing there with the mountains in the background it is just beautiful. Moreover, as it was during summer time, we could walk on the pebbles which are normally recovered by water, but the heat dries the river during summer so there was no water when we get there.  On our way back we also hitch-hiked and this time was successful (but I think we waited for about 30minutes before getting a ride).  I have to say that hitch-hiking in Albania is something that is done very well. Unfortunately for my, this was the end of my trip in Shkoder and I had to take the bus back to Tirana but I really liked it!

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike Tirana, I found it more touristic but still more authentic as on the road you can see some carts but also some modern carts (without the horses but with a scooter).

Bratislava & the Wild Elephants

The title could be very confusing: how come could you find Elephants in Bratislava?  “The wild Elephants” is actually the name of a hostel where I volunteered for a month. It is situated in Bratislava old town, Slovakia and, to be honest, it is the best place I have been working in so far. But before developing about the Hostel, I will give you some reasons to stop at Bratislava.

The city

To start with, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, formerly known to belong to Czechoslovakia. It was also the former capital of Hungary.  So in the city itself, the old centre is nice to visit with a lot of interesting things to learn and buildings to see, like St Elizabeth’s blue church. Also, Bratislava has a nice Castle that can be seen from quite far away.  But the view you get from the top of the Castle is worth it especially at night when the city is enlightened. Mentioning view, I can recommend two other spots where to go to enjoy different perspectives of Bratislava. There is the abandoned hospital situated 20minutes drive from the old town. And also the Slavin war memorial which surrounds the whole city.

The Castle
Elizabeth Blue Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And speaking of buildings, one of the ugliest buildings of the world is situated in Bratislava, it is an inverted pyramid. So I don’t on what their judgement about ugliness has been based but I quite find it original. I let you judge by yourself:

Slovensky rozhlas

 

 

 

 

 

But what I really enjoyed in Bratislava, as a traveller, was its centrality between the other European cities. For example, it is situated only 1 hours by bus from Vienna, Austria and Brno, Czech Republic; 2h30 from Budapest, Hungary and 6 hours from Krakow, Poland. And, the prices go from 5euros to 14euros.

 

The Wild Elephants Hostel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wild Elephants Hostel

Despite all the beautiful cities I have visited, my best memories are coming from the Wild Elephants Hostel. I arrived there on a Friday night and as soon as I arrived I could feel a great atmosphere. The same I could feel in the streets of Bratislava. Maybe this feeling was reinforced by the fact I was flying from Johannesburg where the freedom of movement in the streets is not the same as in Europe. But it was a really good feeling.The walls of the reception have memories of previous guests who left a memory of them with their drawing, on the opposite; if they were not so much talented to draw they could leave a note on the walls of the hallway. The attic has been reorganised into two parts. One is dedicated only for staff, and the other part is a smoking area and a chilled room where we had some movie nights and jam sessions.

My personal experience

I spent a month volunteering there and I enjoyed every minute. Thanks, first, to all the volunteers I met there and to the three managers. But also to all the guests, who were always coming with a big smile, a lot of energy and a lot of adventures and stories to share; and dinner is the perfect moment to share it. Every day, one of the volunteers is cooking which makes it, even more, feel like home! And not to forget the “Pub Crawl” at night time when everyone can enjoy a cheap beer (1euro the pint) in the local pub of the city where it is still allowed to smoke inside!

The Attic

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to admit when I decided to go there I did not know anything about the Eastern European countries. And I found myself being amazed by the beauty of the European cities like Budapest, Cracow or even the small city of Brno. (Here is my Photo reportage)  I am a solo traveller but there I found a home and a family. The best words to describe my feelings have been written by another volunteer and friend, Céline: “I was looking for happiness and I found the Wild Elephants”.

Spice Alley : Asian taste in the middle of Sydney

 

 

At the beginning of 2016, I decided to start the Australian adventure thanks to a working visa. So I landed in Sydney. The plan was not to stay too long in Sydney. But I found a job in Spice Alley and I stayed there for more than 6 months. Spice Alley is actually a food court but I worked there as a cashier. Indeed, I worked at the drink station so I sold drinks but I also had to handle all the cash of the restaurants. And the place was cashless so you could not pay cash at the restaurants.

Spice Alley is hidden in a middle of a random street, in the centre of Sydney near Chinatown. It was created after the Singaporean street food. Which is a row of restaurants in boxes with, in front of them, space with tables and chairs where you can sit to enjoy the food. So I will focus on the 5 street food restaurants that compose the Alley. And, also known as “Kopi-Tiam”, which means “coffee shop” in South-Eastern Asia. The Alley also hosts, a Vietnamese restaurant “Lower Mekong”, a bar “Bar Chinois”  and a dessert bar owned by one of the former winners of Top Chef Australia.

As I mentioned before there are 5 restaurants that I want to focus on: Alex Lee Kitchen, Old Jim Kee, Bang Luck, Hong-Kong Diner and Kyo-To.

Alex Lee Kitchen

So the first and the most popular street restaurant was called “Alex Lee Kitchen”, it offered Malaysian cuisine. This restaurant was famous for its roti, a kind of bread which is often eaten with different dip sauces and called Roti Canai. Or a Roti that can also be spread of banana and Nutella, served with an ice cream. It is eaten as a dessert just like the Breton crepes! It was a good discovery and I used to eat the roti with their chicken curry which was grassy but really good as the rest of their meals. I think for the first two months I must have gained 2 to 3 kilos.

Roti Banana Nutella
Roti Cheese
Old Jim Kee

The second restaurant was called “Old Jim Kee” and was in a strong competition with “Alex Lee Kitchen”. Both of them were cooking Malaysian food but in a different way. In this restaurant, they had crunchy chicken wings that we ate with a sweet chilli sauce. I remember eating a lot of them so as my colleagues! But the meal that had given me full satisfaction every time was, the Char Kway Teow. It is stir-fried flat rice noodle with chilli, prawn, Chinese sausage and crunchy pork lard, a delight! The only fact to mention it makes my mouth water! Moreover what I liked about this restaurant is that they offered typical Malaysian drinks and desserts. For example, Cold coffee, Longan Ice made of the dragon eye fruit or Ice Kacang, a typical ice cream made of beans, jelly and crushed peanut.

Bang Luck

Bang Luck was the third restaurant, the kitchen was way smaller than the previous but I think it was my favourite! They offered Thai food; I could recommend the full menu as it is the only restaurant where I tried all the food. But I really had a crush on the crispy pork belly, a portion of rice with on top the crispy pork belly, some Asian vegetable and a lot of chillies. Of course, you can ask for light spice but be aware that Thai people don’t know how to cook without chilli! The second dish I would recommend is the Pad See Ew. Which is stir-fried noodles with crispy greens, garlic and sweet soy choice and you have the choice of chicken, beef or pork. But as I said earlier I could also recommend the curries. Or for people who really like spicy food, Som Tum also called papaya salad. It took me two full days to recover from the hotness of the dish. And believe it or not, I don’t usually have any problem with hot food…

Pad see ew
Hong Kong Diner

The further you walked in the alley the more authentic it got. Indeed at The fourth restaurant of the alley which served Chinese food and was called Hong Kong Diner. You could see on the walls some drawings of typical Chinese ladies with their outfits and their umbrellas. Their main sales were the Dim Sum which is bite-sized portions filled with chicken, prawns or vegetables and which can be steamed or fried. They also had buns and I have to admit that I particularly liked the Barbeque pork bun which I ate with this Chiu Chow sauce, made of chilli and soy sauce. It was nothing special but the sauce made the difference!

BBQ Bun
Kyoto

As for the previous restaurant, “Hong Kong Diner”, “Kyoto”, the last and fifth restaurant, was a bit isolated from the rest of the restaurants but It had its own identity. Indeed it has is own space and a typical Japanese music that you could hear from the covered dining area. When people think of Japanese food in our society, they probably think about sushi, rolls. But Kyoto had the particularity to offer all kind of Japanese food except for sushi. You could find Udon soup, Miso, and some other strange dishes as the Takoyaki which is Octopus balls often served with mayonnaise. And that’s something I have noticed, Japanese people love mayonnaise, they add it to every meal! The first meal I had was at this restaurant. I had a Don, the Shogayaki one, and a stir-fried pork slice with ginger, sliced leek and dry chilli on rice. It was quite good but I mostly enjoyed the Salmon Teriyaki Don and the Teriyaki Tofu Don. I also liked their Bento, a takeaway box, in which you will find different Japanese dishes. For example, a teriyaki chicken with a miso soup, a Japanese omelette and rice.

Bento
Salmon Don

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apart from food, what I will mainly keep in mind are the people. Loving your job is one thing but working with amazing people is something else and it usually makes the difference.

So if you are lucky enough to be in Sydney or planning to go to Sydney do not hesitate to stop by this Alley. It is really worth the walk!