Antwerp and Brussels

Before saying anything about Belgium, I have to give props to the Crowne Plaza Amsterdam City Center Hotel! During my stay there, I slept better than for quite a while. The room was quiet, impeccably maintained, and the staff was nice. The location is excellent for an independent traveler. And, as I was charged for free internet use by a trainee who was only learning the ropes, I received a phone call a little later from the manager who was apologizing and going out of his way to make it alright again. As a result, one of the nights I stayed there was refunded, and apparently there’ll be a nice discount waiting for me if I’ll ever choose to stay in Crowne Plaza Amsterdam. Not bad.

Belgium is a wonderful country for a traveler! The distances are short, there’s a lot to see, and the food is as delicious as in the Netherlands. When I arrived to the historical city of Antwerp, which is a big city in northern Belgium, the Main Square had to compete hard with wonderful scent of food that was lingering from the cafés in the nearby alleys to keep my attention. I had had an excellent breakfast in Amsterdam in Café Tapas Bar near the central railway station before I took the bus to Antwerp, but by the time I got there, I was more than ready to have a tasty, warm sandwich. However, before I got to it, I saw a tour guide at the Main Square who was just going to tell about the history of the buildings, so I tagged along and let all the information soak in. It’s crazy to think that the City Hall was erected between 1561 and 1565, and it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List with the belfries of France and Belgium.

My stop in Antwerp was a short one, so after the lunch I continued toward Brussels. On the way I stopped at the Atomium which is a building constructed originally for World Expo in 1958. The whole of forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal, except that it is magnified 165 billion times. Nowadays the building is a museum, and on the top sphere of it, there is a restaurant that has an amazing view of Brussels. Surprisingly, I didn’t eat there but just had a glass of white wine and admired the views! I had wanted to see this symbol of Brussels and Belgium for a long time, ever since I saw the picture of it back when I was still a school girl, so I was really excited to get to explore it. After all, it is the most popular attraction in the capital of Belgium.

It was already afternoon when I got to Brussels. The Grand Place was pretty packed with tourists, which is no wonder as it was voted the most beautiful square in Europe in 2010 and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Town Hall was constructed between 1402 and 1420, bust most of the buildings date mainly from the late 17th century. Its architecture is said to provide a vivid illustration of the level of social and cultural life of the period.

In one of the side streets starting from the Grand Place is a small bronze sculpture, approximately two feet tall, depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. Yes, you knew it, I am talking about Manneken Pis (“Little man pee”). It is one of the landmarks of Brussels, and it is a tradition that it is dressed in costume several times a week. It is a funny little thing, and even though highly popular among tourists, it is worth checking out. However, there was also another reason why the streets surrounding it were calling my name: they were full of really cool chocolatiers selling all kinds of Belgian chocolate! I visited a few and walked out with more than my fair share of tasty little bits of heaven to bring home to my loved ones. Then it was time to treat myself with an amazingly delicious Belgian Waffle! They were sold everywhere and the selection was astonishing, so it was hard to choose what to have and where. I ended up getting one with strawberry jam and whipped cream from one of the stalls that sold them, and it was as divine as what I had heard.

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Before walking to my hotel (Floris Arlequin Grand’Place), I passed the statue of Everard t’Serclaes, a lord of Kruikenburg, who lived in 1320-1388, and rubbed his arm. Locals say that the statue brings luck and grants the wishes of all who touch it. Rubbing the arm is supposed to ensure that one will return to Brussels. This way or that way, it didn’t hurt.

 

Lithia, a rural community in the middle of fields

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From Apollo Beach I continued my journey toward a small agricultural community of Lithia. I’m not kidding when I say small, its sports a population of 8,527. When I checked the population online, I noticed that Lithia was called a suburb of Tampa. That didn’t really feel right, because it is a good 30-40-minute drive away and also very much an inland community of its own. I suppose that if the logic is that everything located within 50 miles from Tampa is its suburb, so be it then.

Lithia is a funny little place. It’s practically as in the middle of nowhere as a community located 20 miles from a large city can be. There are a lot of fields and farmhouses scattered all over, and some forest islands here and there. I didn’t notice that it would have had a proper city center, but maybe the buildings in one intersection marked the center. There’s certain charm in rural communities like Lithia, even though I would imagine that it would not be easy to move there and become “one of them”.

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I arrived to Lithia in the afternoon and had just enough time to meet some friends of mine in the Alderman’s Ford Park. It is a popular county park that has an excellent hiking loop along the banks of Alafia River. It may not offer the views a hike in a mountainous area would, but it is a good stroll in nature. The park is really well maintained, and especially the bathrooms were in a great condition. The only problem we had was choosing the place where we wanted to eat as there were so many picnic tables all over! We had so much fun there hiking, playing football, and having a picnic.

The next morning we went and had a breakfast at Tim’s Café. I cannot praise this small home-style breakfast place enough! They serve really tasty southern food, the portions are large, and the service is fast and friendly. I had some grits, a few slices of bacon, and some pancakes. Simple and delicious! The place was full but not overly crowded. Some of the local (or so I assumed) bikers were having a breakfast there as well. The place may not impress you with the decorations and furnishing as it seems a little worn out, but the food is good and inexpensive.

As there wasn’t much else to see in Lithia, I headed toward the Atlantic coast of Florida.

Naples – Apollo Beach – St. Petersburg, FL

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So, I continued my journey from Miami along I-75 towards Naples. The drive through Everglades National Park was scenic in its own unique way. There weren’t many spots that would have offered something special to photograph, but the roughness of the wilderness made the scenery beautiful. The early afternoon traffic in Naples was not bad, so I decided to take a break from driving and visit Naples Botanical Garden. The garden is pretty and cozy, and a lot of plants were blooming even now which was surprising considering the time of the year. Parts of the garden are quite exotic, so a couple of hours go by really fast, especially if you are into taking photographs.

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When I continued from Naples toward Apollo Beach, the traffic slowed me down quite a bit. After Punta Gorda darkness started to fall, so I focused on driving. My initial idea was to visit Sarasota, but the plans changed due to the extra stop in Naples. One of my best friends lives in Apollo Beach, so I had a good reason to get there as quickly as possible. In the evening, we decided to eat in a local sports bar called Beef ‘O’Brady’s. The atmosphere was perfect for catching up, and their sandwiches are really delicious, so it’s worth a stop in case it is on your way to or from Tampa.

The next day we decided to visit a few places that sounded interesting to me. One of them was the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. The place offers best possibilities to view manatees during winter months, and it is common to see 50-100 manatees right from their viewing deck. We didn’t see just manatees but also rays as well as various other fish, crabs, butterflies, and birds when we walked down their natural trail bridge. The center also has interesting exhibitions, and it’s near I-75, so it is really easy to get there.

Then we decided to drive around the Tampa Bay, because on the other side of the bay, in St. Petersburg, there was a well-known Salvador Dalí Museum. However, on our way there, we stopped in Ruskin for an ex tempore picnic lunch. A local deli called Hot Tomato Café and Bakery made us tasty sandwiches to go, especially their Cuban sandwich was to die for! We ended up eating in the E. G. Simmons Regional Park. It is a lovely waterfront sanctuary and campground that offers swimming, kayak rentals, picnic facilities, and plenty of bank fishing areas. The park itself is smallish, but it is well-maintained and the skyline of Tampa across the bay creates a nice background for all kinds of outdoor activities.

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The drive to St. Petersburg over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is really beautiful. Even though I had just driven 120 miles along a road that goes from one island to another, this road had a different feel to it. There was less traffic at this time of a day, and maybe the clearer day was a reason for it, but the waters surrounding the road seemed more inviting. The bridge that was built in the 1980s is 4.1 miles long and raises high above the emerald-green Gulf waters. The rest areas in both ends offer good opportunities to admire great views. In the north end of the bridge there are often kite boarders enjoying the warm waters and nice breeze, and as I am a kite enthusiast, I just had to stop there for a chat. When they heard that I had been flying all kinds of larger sport and foil kites, one of them invited me to take his kite and board out there. It was really tempting, but maybe not the safest idea as I didn’t know the waters at all, so we thanked him and wished steady winds.

The museum is located in an interesting looking modern building and it has the largest collection of Dalí’s work outside Europe. It also is home to seven of the eighteen “masterwork” paintings that Dalí has painted, the most of any museum in the world. The museum is a “must see” place in the west side of the bay! The guides are knowledgeable and funny, and the garden behind the museum is beautiful. If you have hard time motivating the teens of the family (or younger ones) to visit the museum, I would recommend watching a short film called “Destino” on YouTube. The production of the film originally began in 1945 as a collaboration of Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney, but it was not released until in 2003. It is a beautiful six-minute story that tells the love story of Chronos and a mortal woman named Dahlia. In the film, she is shown to dance through surreal scenery inspired by Dalí’s paintings.

In the evening we visited some relatives of my friend and enjoyed a delicious family dinner! Thank you Grandma Theresa and Grandpa Vincent!

Top three picks in the area:

  1. Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center
  2. Salvador Dalí Museum
  3. Sunshine Skyway Bridge

The epic city hopping tour of Europe begins!

Amsterdam. This city has it all. When you are on a city vacation in Central Europe, you are not after beaches, right? Because that’s pretty much the only thing you cannot find in the very city center. Well, no mountains either, as most of the Netherlands is below sea level, but that is it. Pretty much everything else is right here, on your fingertips.IMG_8462

I can’t praise the compact size of Amsterdam enough. First off, the airport is only a short train ride away, and the central railway station is in the city center. A lot of the attractions are in the walking distance, and the excellent public transportation system takes you wherever further you are about to go. It’s a good idea to keep the ticket somewhere safe even after you enter a tram and get it stamped, because that will keep you from a lot of trouble. Live and learn, that’s all there is to say about that… The transportation system is excellent, and it is complemented by private water taxis that are practical if you want to avoid tourists. However, canal cruises are an amazing way to get an overview of the city.

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I arrived to the city in the morning and after dropping my backpack to the hotel, I took a tour on one of the water buses. There was a couple commenting that it was the most romantic bus ride they had ever taken, and even though I don’t know about their previous experiences, I agree that the ride was a pretty one. The driver was also our guide, so he explained a lot about the history of the city as well as about the accommodation situation in Amsterdam while we navigated those narrow canals and passed houseboats that were anchored along the canals.

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Food is one of the reasons why I love Amsterdam so much. Many may not know it, but the city has a ton of Indonesian restaurants, and a lot of them are worth checking out. If you want to eat at the iconic MAX restaurant, making a reservation is a good idea unless you want to wait and see if you’ll get lucky within the next couple of hours. Even that is worth it though, because the restaurant is located on one of the nicest streets in Amsterdam and if you like people watching, the waiting time offers a great opportunity for that. When the food is in front of you, you know why you chose to wait instead of dining at some other restaurant. There are a lot of other good restaurants in the city as well. On my second day in Amsterdam, I decided to have dinner at the Indian restaurant Moti Mahal that is only a couple of blocks away from the central railway station. The food was tasty and the service was friendly, so it was a perfect place for a casual meal with friends. In regards to culinary experiences, I hope the couple I mentioned went on one of the dinner cruises that are also offered as those are a lot more romantic and the food is alright, of course not like in three star Michelin restaurants but it is set up really nicely and tastes good as well.

If you love museums, Amsterdam doesn’t let you down. The city offers an amazing selection of museums. The famous Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum (Dutch art and history), Stedelijk Museum (modern and contemporary art and design), Sex Museum, Jewish Museum, there’s something for everybody. My personal favorite turned out to be Van Gogh Museum. This museum has the largest Van Gogh collection in the world. It is quite pleasant otherwise as well as it has good cafeterias that manage the visitor flows excellently as they never are too crowded even though the museum is ranked among the top 25 museums in the world with 1.6 million visitors each year.

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In general, Amsterdam is a perfect destination for a long weekend vacation, but if you are like me, you’ll be longing for more time in there.

The top three picks in Amsterdam:

  1. Van Gogh Museum
  2. Canal cruises
  3. Long walks to explore the city

Key West – Everglades National Park

Starting the trip from the south tip of Florida sounded like a good idea. Spending a couple of days in Key West doing nothing but exploring the small town, no hurry anywhere, was exactly what was needed to wash away the tension and stress that had built up during the weeks leading to the deadline of my last project. The town surprises with its friendly, laid-back atmosphere. The restaurants are crowded with people who clearly enjoy their visit; the same cannot be said about the drivers who desperately try to find a parking spot for their cars. I visited the mandatory buoy of the southernmost point of the continental US, walked through the rooms that Ernest Hemingway once lived in, and ate in the Deuce’s Off the Hook Grill. The food was excellent in general even though I really loved their hummus platter. The whole town has managed to hold on to the real small town feeling even though massive amounts of tourists visit it every year.

The drive along the chain of the Keys is not exactly full of new experiences but rather quite redundant. However, switching to the attitude of paying attention to details helps a lot in conquering the boredom that may linger around. The ocean is, after all, really beautiful, and short stops here and there offer opportunities to notice things that do not necessarily stand out at first. Like, for those who love fishing but are not familiar with the ones in these waters, this sign:

Everglades: Swamp and alligators? Definitely plenty of both, but also beautiful birds, turtles, panthers, and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico. Both the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and the Flamingo Viewing Center are worth a visit, but the closest to the animals you can get at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. The guides there are really knowledgeable and tell interesting facts about the animals and the history of the Everglades National Park. The tour is perfect for both adults and families with children, because there is something for everyone to see. There is quite a lot of parking space, so even that is not an issue. All year round, a water bottle is a must!

 

Top three picks in the area:

  1. The whole small town of Key West
  2. Deuce’s Off the Hook Grill
  3. Royal Palm Visitor Center

Welcome to travel with me!

The big life choices I have made as an adult have rarely followed the norms that people usually consider some kinds of mile posts of their lives. I have gone where life has taken me, and most of the time, traveling has been the only common denominator in the process that has made me the person I have become. In regards to traveling, anything is possible. Choose your battles wisely, and you can spend years exploring the planet while learning about who you are, who you want to be, and whom you want to surround yourself with.

I have been traveling all my life, but when I turned 10, my mother started taking me abroad every year. Different countries, different kinds of reasons for those trips. When I was 16, my parents let me travel abroad by myself and explore life in another continent. That was an experience that taught me a couple of things about how to be responsible while taking the most out of new surroundings. After that, I have traveled all over but never stopped reflecting what is important for me in life. As a result, I am a communication consultant, a freelance journalist, a photographer, and a happy owner of a doctoral degree.20151015_182447

However, as much as I love what I do for living it is not all there is in life. I am also an active role player, a free-spirited kite flyer, and a devoted lover of national parks. If possible, I would want to see all of them. All. The thing is though that I also want to see all cities and towns, beaches and deserts, islands and mountains. There are way too many destinations just on this planet to be explored in traditional ways. I have solved the problem by becoming an avid time traveler and an experienced teleporter user.

My journey with you all who read my blog begins from two different continents. A city hopping tour in Europe and a road trip in the United States are calling my name at the same time. I hope you enjoy traveling with me as I document the progress of the journey!