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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Parting Thoughts on Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Our one week trip is coming to an end, we're leaving today January 30th, it's been nice to get away from the cold although the weather here has been temperamental especially the wind which is finally starting to let up today.  Without the wind it would have been very very hot and muggy, I suppose the wind was welcome relief in retrospect.
Need to start with a little disclaimer.  Not a huge fan of all inclusive vacations, it's not my preferred mode of travel although it will certainly do in a pinch.  I've traveled a great deal and only managed three all inclusives in all that time.  First one was in Cuba a 3 star experience in Varadero on which I wrote extensively.  The second attempt was Fuerte Venture in the Canary Islands, departure from Nantes France. It was a 5 star outfit.  I also wrote extensively on that one.  This latest all inclusive is called Arena Blanca and it's a 4 star.  We've done all the stars, don't think there are 2 stars all inclusive outfits.
Arena Blanca was pretty nice overall, the best of the bunch.  The room was spacious, there was plenty of hot water, the food was decent although it too became boring after a week.  The beach did  have white sand but not quite like the pictures in the brochure.  Because there was so much wind there was a lot of flotsam which ended up on the beach and the water was never calm.  Apparently in this area it's still the Atlantic and not the Caribbean therefore it's natural to expect more waves. Waves do mean you can have some fun in the water which is always nice.  Impossible to go for lengthy swims, way too bumpy.
The complex also had two enormous pools, plenty of lawn chairs to go around.  Recently there was a report on the BBC which claimed that all inclusives have become so popular, there are so many tourists using them, that reserving your own spot on a pool chair is going to become necessary.  If not it will be a fight to the finish, ok maybe not quite but you get the picture.  Crazy tourists hungry for their tan want their place in the sun assured.
I have learned virtually nothing about the Dominican itself.  These places are not geared to learning, it's strictly fun in the sun.  There are a few things I've noticed.  Of course the area is heavily dependent on tourism, it's their bread and butter.  Without it the island would shrivel to nothing.  The Dominican is very popular with Europeans who,no doubt, find it quite a bargain with their Euro currency so strong.
Everything here is quoted in American dollars which really pisses me off.  You have to ask for the price in the Dominican peso otherwise it's not posted.  You don't get too much for 1000 pesos, a bottle of rum can be bought for around 800 pesos but bargaining is always an option and it's not the best rum around.
The trips outside Arena Blanca are extremely expensive.  The most expensive out of the 3 resorts we've been to and certainly more than any comparable trip in South America or Mexico.  
Couldn't help but notice that female tourists no matter their size, shape or age appear to prefer bikinis 
which could be seen as liberating or just plain gross in some cases.
Dominicans are generally trim and pleasant.  They work very hard picking up endlessly after the  messy don't really care where I put my stuff tourists.
Had to interrupt the post because bus was here to pick us up. Most of the money we spent we gave out in tips which are greatly appreciated.  I had also brought stuff from home for the ladies who clean the room.  They do a fantastic job and don't get paid very much.
What bothers me the most about all inclusive is the bloody waste when it comes to food.  The food is prepared on an industrial scale which means there is a lot of it, too much.  I didn't ask where the leftover food goes to, hopefully it serves a higher purpose than ending up in the trash.
One thing that was surprising there is very little animal life.  No insects, not even flies, I think they fumigate the entire place periodically.  In fact they were scheduled to fumigate our room with biodegradable (sic) stuff on the day we left. It's not just lack of insects though.  There are hardly any birds. We saw a few frigates, 4 or 5 pelicans (that's odd, so many in Mexico) and a type of crow or blackbird, a tinier version especially fond of eggs.  There were a couple of those which hung out in the main dining areas where the buffet was served.  Lots of stations at the buffet and they do vary the menu every day but nothing is ever piping hot except if you have something made on the spot.
Generally people don't socialize a great deal.  Everybody stays in their little bubble.  We befriended na older couple from Quebec who were there for 3 weeks and felt it was way too long.  They were on their second week when we met them.
For one week I would definitely recommend it, one week more unless you're a total lover of dolce farniente by the pool and at the beach then by all means two weeks might be just your bag.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, first impressions

We arrived in Punta Cana yesterday from a cold, rainy Montreal.  Had to wait on the tarmac for about 40 minutes in order for them to deice the plane.  We arrived in Punta around 2:30.  It was quite a shock getting out of the airplane into 28 degree Celsius weather.  It takes a little adjusting plus we were wearing way too many clothes.  Had to peel off some layers pronto.

A little bus drove us to the main airport area.  It's a relatively small airport, very clean with palapa style buildings. On the plane they gave us tourist cards worth 10.00 U.S. each, included in the price of our tickets.  Kind of silly, we gave them back as soon as we landed.  Guess it's a little taxation bonus for the island.  A couple of the regular forms to fill out, nothing major.  There was nobody to greet us from Arena Blanca.  You have to exit the airport and look for the bus which will take you to the right spot.  Not too difficult, I got to practice my rusty Spanish right off the bat.  Could be confusing if you're older and not sure what's going on.

The bus dropped off a few tourists at another resort called Blue and Sand which looked all right but it's not as nice as Arena Blanca, we do share the same beach with them.

We arrived  in a spacious lobby, palapa style again.  The resort is quite spread out but easy to get around.  It's very airy, lots of beautiful green spaces, extremely clean and well maintained.  There are at least 4 or 5 restaurants a la carte to choose from in addition to the main buffet style restaurant which offers a wide variety of choices.  We were not disappointed with the food.  Lots of fresh fruits, the papaya was scrumptious, it must be the season for it.  A lot of mixed greens, plenty of variety with meats, even freshly cooked turkey, ribs, Chinese and Italian dishes cooked on the spot.  The deserts are varied and not too big which is perfect.  Of course there are plenty of drinks to be had including everyone's favorite: Pina Colada, it's always ready to go, you get it from a dispenser.  It doesn't have a lot of rum but that's fine, you can't get drunk on it.

Today we went to the beach.  The beach does have white sand which is very powdery and doesn't get hot, easy to walk on.  There is a fair bit of algae kind of brown looking which mars the look of the beach a bit, not quite like the pics. represent but it's a small complaint.  It's been windy, windier than usual for this time of the year, the sea is throwing up a lot of this algae.  The water is a beautiful turquoise color, very clear, the waves are tiny. There are wave breakers along where we are.  The water is warmer than it was in Cuba in Varadero.

This is the third all inclusive we will have been in. Varadero was a 3 star, too cheap for Cuba and some problems with the food and the room, way too long a stay at 2 weeks.  The Canary Islands were too cold, you couldn't swim either in the pool or in the ocean and it was basically boring.

So far I've noticed quite an international crowd here, people from all over.  There are quite a few Europeans, many French, German,Russian, Polish.  Of course lots of Quebecois, Canadians, Americans and some South Americans as well.  I like that, makes it more interesting.  The Dominican is apparently a favored destination of many who crave the sea, the sand and the sun.  The personnel here is extremely helpful.  They don't always have their hand out either but it's good to leave propina and little things in the room for the cleaners.  I brought quite a few things from home.  They're always happy to get stuff for their children too. 

We're not planning on doing any side trips since we're only here one week.  The only area of complaint concerns those very same trips.  They are the most expensive of anywhere we've traveled.  For instance a trip on a catamaran to a secluded beach with lobster meal (langouste actually) will run around $220.00 U.S. a person.  Most trips are in the $150.00 U.S. vicinity, way too much money for us. Whenever we've done trips of that nature in the tropics, we've often been disappointed.  Too much time spent with drunken idiots on buses, boats etc... with .lousy overpriced meals.  In terms of culture there's not much "artesania" here, not like Mexico which is so rich culturally therefore they don't have a lot of items for sale other than the usual trinkets.  It's fine our home is filled with stuff we've brought back from other trips, don't need more.  Apparently the Dominican is the biggest producer of cigars in the world, thought it was Cuba.

Last night we were treated to a Michael Jackson extravaganza. The impersonator was truly fabulous and the dancing was spot on.  It was fun and it was free.  I will provide another entry at the end of our stay if I feel there's a lot more to add. So far we like it a lot.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Parting reflections on Prague

Perhaps I was a little harsh on Prague in my last blog.  Upon reflection we won't have been here long enough to properly assess it.  Apparently there is a square but we were unable to find it,unable to even walk around too long because of the weather.  Rain and getting wet will do that to you.  Stan is also nursing the end of a cold while I caught a whiff of it myself.  Not viable excuses but they will have to do.  I'm sure Prague has a lot to recommend itself for and has been loved by countless other travelers.  We went for a walk in the evening and did see some lovely buildings and a fairy tale looking church complete with turrets.  We ate at the Bohemian restaurant, settling for burgers which were very meaty but unfortunately under cooked.  It was cool to see kids and dogs in bars, common enough in most of Europe, I had forgotten how great that can be. 
It does look lovely doesn't it? Adios for now.

Hello Prague

We are officially in Prague, arrived yesterday courtesy of Polski Bus and first impressions are of the so-so variety but first a few words in praise of Polski Bus.  We went from Gdansk to Warsaw, Warsaw to Krakow, Krakow to Prague for the unbelievable sum IN TOTAL of 151 zlotys which is approximately $51.00 and that's for the two of us.  These prices are unbeatable, cheaper than Mexico and that's saying a lot considering Mexico has extremely competitive prices.  Other travelers appear to have had a somewhat negative experience with this company, rude drivers, delays, cramped seats, "midget size" toilet, WiFi connectivity not great, people who sit where they want etc...That was not our experience. Yes the drivers  did not speak English but why is there an expectation that everywhere one goes, all over the damn world, everybody should and must speak English.  Frankly it's annoying and disturbing.  We travel to experience other cultures not to seek and find the same thing we left at home.   Sure it's helpful if one can understand the language and yes Stan speaks Polish but even if he hadn't been there I would have managed just fine.  Most of the buses are direct.  You get in at one end and off at another.  The only bus who stopped somewhere else was the bus to Prague and it was clearly indicated where you were, I don't understand what the problem might have been for other travelers.  They're just a bunch of whiny little babies, sorry but some of them expect royal service on a shoe string budget.  I've traveled all over the world and made efforts everywhere I went to speak whatever little local language I could without the expectation that they would know mine.  OK enough of a rant.  If you don't mind long bus rides in fairly comfortable buses I would recommend this company, enough said.
Driving into the Czech country was not much of a contrast except the roads were in much better condition.  Poland needs new roads that's for sure.  This highway was a paying highway in Poland but stopped being so once we entered the Czech Republic.  Noticeably there were no panels filled with ads along the road.  Poland is littered with them, they're quite unsightly especially around Zakopane, they were everywhere.  In the Czech Republic they filled up the panels with the Czech flag instead of removing them completely.
The arrival at the bus station was a bit complicated.  It was dark, we were tired, we didn't have a map of Prague or any of their currency which is the koruna (1 $ equals about 17.64 czk) not the easiest conversion and frankly we haven't been really bothering.
The cab driver knew where the hotel was. The hotel is called the Park Hotel and it's a big, square, glass building, not at all what I expected but good enough.  It's not in the old town of Prague but there are plenty of old buildings around.  We were hungry and had Vietnamese food, not very good and too expensive for what we got.  There are plenty of Asian restaurants around more than in Poland but they all seem a little questionable.  We love Vietnamese food and after two experiences here we're not impressed.
The next day it was raining pretty hard.  I suggested we take a tramway to the older section of Prague but first we went for breakfast at a coffee shop.  Weird breakfast with cucumber slices, tomatoes, two stringy pieces of white toast, slices of ham and cheese plus some bocconcini like cheese and a croissant on the I said weird although the coffee was good.  There doesn't appear to be any buses in Prague. The whole public system runs with these very efficient tramways on rails which is great since they're never bogged down by traffic.  We took number 17 which did get us close to old town but we continued on since it was still raining. Went all the way to the end where we had to get off and hop back on another number 17 going in the opposite direction.  Lots of Soviet era buildings in the burbs and an unbelievable amount of graffiti.  It's a pain in most European capitals but I have to say Prague has really outdone itself when it comes to tagging. Every available surface which can be tagged has been, even upright standing poles for electricity, doors to private buildings, buildings themselves, signs, fences, you name it it's tagged.  It's extremely distracting.  I suppose if you only go to the old part of Prague you might not notice this as much but it was hard to miss for us.  We did get off at a bridge into the old city which was again filled, to the brim, with tourists.  Lots of beautiful old buildings, shops which sell the usual "tourist" crap, restaurants, cobblestone streets but no big meeting area plazas like in Warsaw or Krakow.  We preferred those two cities by a mile and then some. Yes it was raining and shoving your way through masses of people with umbrellas is no fun but the mood of the place is off somehow, sort of sour.  It's not a shiny, happy place full of vim and vigor it felt aged and tired frankly we did not enjoy old Prague or the little we saw of it. The weather might have had a role to play but regardless of weather the atmosphere was not "sympathique".
In the afternoon, the sun came out.  I went out for a walk by myself. There's a sort of hush to the place, it's all quiet and subdued. Found where they shop for groceries, kind of small, poor selection of fruits and vegetables, the bakery section slightly bigger than our room which isn't very big.  The buildings appear to be somewhat neglected, the stores I saw were more on the rundown end of the scale.  I found a bustling place with second hand goods, mostly clothes for women. Went in and was not impressed with the quality of the stuff.  We sell way better stuff in our cafe in Ste. Adele, much cheaper too. They had coats for around $18.00 (more like jackets) we sell them for about $5.00 to $8.00.  In any case it was a popular spot.  I noticed a lot of bars. Stan loves the beer Pilsner Urquell one of the best beers around.  I tasted it and it is very very good.
I'm sure Prague might be a great experience for other travelers but in our case it just didn't do it.  Poland was definitely the highlight.
This will be the last entry for my blog.  I've written about Paris before, don't want to repeat myself. I've written quite a bit about France in general. There are many different entries in my blog including some film criticism when I got bored and wanted to write something.  Hope you enjoyed reading this those of you who took the time.  It's fun to write but it's also great to be read so thank you.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Auschwitz Birkenau and a few random thoughts upon leaving Poland

Left around 10:00 for our final tour, the most momentous one, to Auschwitz Birkenau.  We were picked up in a brand new mini Mercedes bus and the irony wasn't lost on me although it appears to have been lost on everybody else.  German efficiency at its best efficiency which we would soon encounter in Auschwitz where around 6,000 people a day were ruthlessly murdered. Auschwitz was one of the biggest concentration camps with Birkenau functioning as a sort of satellite camp where people were housed in the most appalling, inhuman conditions.  Both camps had gaz chambers as well as crematoriums, the ashes were dispersed in ponds on the Birkenau site.  The Nazis never dug any graves, everybody who died was cremated so as not to leave any traces of what was being done under the "cover of war".
I don't have too much to write about the visit, it's too horrific to contemplate and even more horrific to imagine. Even being physically there doesn't give you the full scope of how truly awful it must have been with the dogs, the constant barking, the crying, the mud (it was very muddy where grass is now found) the big lights, the incessant screaming in German, the smell of rotten bodies, the fear the smells coming from the crematorium, the ash falling like flakes.  The crematoriums worked on a 24 hour schedule especially during the last year of the war when Hitler was desperate to carry out his "final solution". It truly is amazing to contemplate the ingenuity, the skill, the intelligence, the efficiency, the organization which went into the act of killing untold amounts of people on a scale never before imagined. 
The most horrifying was seeing mountains of human hair used for all manner of things which I prefer not to think about.  People were taking a lot of pictures but I didn't feel like taking a single photo. There are many photos on the internet for those of you who want to see what it looked like.  We were pretty horrified to discover some graffiti on the wood in some of the barracks and on one entire wall in a barrack housing young children ages 2 to 14 in Birkenau.  Silly graffiti of names, hearts, so and so loves the usual drivel which certainly smacks of disrespect in a place where so many have died. It really pissed me off.  We were glad we went, it wasn't a pleasant visit but the memory of the horror perpetrated there must live on. It's essential lest we forget.

Parting thoughts on Poland:

  1.  The Poles like to visit their own country many of them in groups here and in Warsaw, in Gdansk as well.
  2. Polish food is not very varied with heavy emphasis on meat, not too many options for vegetarians or vegans although apparently Warsaw is the capital of vegans in Poland. We only saw one vegetarian restaurant there.
  3. The country is mostly white, even in Krakow not too many foreigners of a different color or immigrants.  Stan's relatives are deathly afraid of immigrants mostly Muslim, even though there are hardly any in Poland. 
  4. Poland is probably one of the most affordable countries to visit in Europe especially for Canadians, good value for the exchange rate.
  5. Generally service is not of the highest quality especially in ordinary stores which don't cater to a tourist clientele.  They can be sort of surly, ok that was our experience and probably a gross over generalization.
  6. I will never ever become conversant in Polish, it's too damn hard to pronounce.
  7. There are a lot of cars, too many, the traffic is horrendous.
  8. KFC is very very popular especially in the countryside although it's also found in the cities with Macdonald having a premier place.  
  9. Everybody is wired to the max, hardly anybody without a phone except us. 
  10. There's a lack of good highway but the more roads they build, the more cars will travel on them. It's the same where we live.
  11. The Russian nesting dolls are very very popular. Stan had assured me we would never find them here, he was wrong. They're everywhere.
  12. Paczki (polish donuts) and cheesecake both are way better in Montreal, at Jean-Talon market. They were a huge disappointment.
  13. We enjoyed our time here, we discovered a lot of new places, there is a lot to see and do in Poland. 
Side note:  Running shoes are the shoes of choice of the entire planet (it seems).  No matter what the nationality or gender or age, most people are wearing sneakers brand name sneakers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Zakopane and the Wieliczka Salt mine

The Zakopane tour was a huge disappointment and it was the costliest at 300 zlotys per person it comes out to about $204.00 Canadian.  What you basically get is a long drive to the mountains in a car.  The car was a Mercedes surprisingly not all that comfortable.  We were the only two taking the tour that day.  The Zakopane tour depends a lot on the weather.  We left Krakow with foggy weather, the sun did turn up but the mountains remained shrouded in mist.  We were only able to see a tiny bit of a mountain with snow on it.  Zakopane is a ski/snowboard destination but it's also popular in the summer.  It's a bit of a tourist trap with a market selling mostly stuff made in China year round.  OK there are a few things produced  in Poland like sheep skin, some good quality leather, amber jewelry of course and some folkloric clothing items.  The rest consists mostly of cheap toys, trinkets etc...such that you find everywhere all over the world.
The trip there took forever.  It's only 100 kms. but again the traffic was pretty bad, there's a general lack of highway, too many secondary roads, the result being at least over 3 hours to get there.  Once there we took a short ride in a funicular down to the main square which had more of the same in terms of shops, gadgets, tourist crap and food.
We met our laconic guide again, he had to go park the car, and took a little walking tour of Zakopane.  Our guide by the way did not like Zakopane and couldn't understand why people would want to go there.  Guess he was right.
The highlight was this old house, the oldest in Zakopane built in the traditional style of the area.  It's all made of wood with a very peaked roof, less ornate than the Tyrolean style but resembling it with just a "je ne sais quoi" of something different  Truly impressive architecturally.  I took photos which I can't download right now so you'll just have to imagine it.  Zakopane does have an impressive setting nestled in the mountains but I think Mont Tremblant in Quebec is just as pretty although the mountains there are not as high.  Not a total waste of time and money since we got to see a different more "country" side of Poland.

The Wieliczka Salt mine was a tour we took the following day.  Impressive is too small a word, it's stupefyingly grandiose in scope, design, ingenuity and sheer brute labor.  It's one of the oldest salt mines in the world having been started in the 13th.century when rock salt was discovered.  It led to Poland's fortune for many many years to come.  The mine has been declared one of Unesco's world heritage site and along with the city of Krakow itself, it's easy to see why.  There are over 800+ steps going down, endless kilometer long galleries, huge cavernous chambers, chapels, all meticulously maintained.  It's hard to underscore what a mammoth undertaking this must have been, with pic and ax as primitive tools.  Some of the galleries are so huge they are used as ballrooms and concert halls.  They're also very popular for wedding ceremonies and special themed events.
There is a lot of walking involved and of course it's to be avoided at all cost if you're a tad claustrophobic.  The areas we walked in are wide enough and high enough but there's still that sense of pressure from the earth pressing down on you with its incredible force.  Nevertheless there's nothing dangerous about the mine, security is at a premium with millions of visitors per year of all nationalities.  It's a popular place indeed and well worth the visit.  I don't think my puny little camera will do it justice.  The best thing is to go online and check it out yourself.

These photos should give you a little taste of what the mine looks like inside.  It truly is magnificent and well worth seeking out on the net for extra photos.
We came back very tired but satisfied.  Stopped at a market near the main square which was thronged with people since it's the weekend.  We were hungry after our long day and had Polish sausage with potatoes and vegetables from this stand which is incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike.  I'm not sure if anybody is reading my blog.  I do still enjoy writing it and it will remain as a souvenir of our travels in Poland.  Tomorrow we will be visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and that will be the end of our trip to Poland since we will be gone on the Polski Bus to Prague on Monday.