Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Exploring Cyprus

Paphos, Cyprus
Before taking off to Cyprus we, of course, had lots of expectations. For instance, we expected loads of sun, great snorkeling, amazing (Greek) food and lots of local culture. To make the most of the trip, we decided to stay in three different places (that later turned into four but we'll come back to this later), in Larnaca, in Kissonerga near Paphos and Potamitissa in the mountains. We also drove to Nicosia for a day to see the capital and spent about an hour across the border on the Turkish side.

View from the balcony of Agrohotel Ambelikos in the mountains

Fun in the sun

We visited the island mid-August and had basically non-stop sunshine every day. The beaches varied almost dramatically from almost white sand to sky high cliffs but also dirt and all sorts of trash that washed up on the shores.

We flew to Larnaca and were planning to stay there for six days as we expected it would offer us a slightly more authentic experience than, for example, Agia Napa. To be honest, I wish we had chosen Limassol instead of Larnaca. Our AirBnB apartment on Stasinou turned out to be quite awful and even though we were really trying to stay positive, we ended up leaving after staying only two days. We were also quite happy to leave Larnaca as it turned out to be quite a boring place that just didn't offer much. The beaches were quite lousy, the sand had the color of mud and was dirty. Aside that, there wasn't much to see! 

Larnaca after sunset

On the second evening in Larnaca, as things really escalated with our AirBnB host, we decided to leave the apartment on Stasinou street. No warm water and cockroaches crawling around was really not something we signed up for. Luckily we had AirBnB on our side, which made it easy to leave. However, finding a hotel during the peak travel season when almost every single hotel was sold out was not an easy task! Even though we tried to avoid Agia Napa, because of it's reputation as the party capital of the island, we ended up not far from it, in a small town called Pyla.

Enjoying the sea view at Lordos Beach Hotel in Pyla

Staying at the Lordos Beach Hotel in Pyla turned out to be a great decision. First of all, this was the only hotel in the region that had a room available (and only one room) on such a short notice and for our travel dates. We didn't have much flexibility as the rest of our trip was all planned out already.

On arrival the receptionist at the hotel told us that we are immediately upgraded to a better room as they are all sold out. Needless to say, we were happy. So we got to the room with a nice sea view and after 30 minutes we got a call from the reception, telling us that we will once more be upgraded to another room as they need to do electricity maintenance in the current room. So we get our stuff and move to a wonderful room with an even better view and two balconies. Yes, we were very happy. The hotel was indeed absolutely full (mainly full of families with small children, which usually isn't what we go for) but I must say that it turned out great. Going from a really dodgy AirBnB rental to a double-upgrade truly felt like the travel gods were on our side.

The Famagusta region had the nicest beaches and best snorkeling. The water was crystal clear and we saw a great selection of sea life while snorkeling in the blue lagoon, not far from Agia Napa. This was also by far the best place to snorkel as the sea was  calm and, even though the blue lagoon was very popular among tourists that arrived by cars and boats, it never felt too crowded. The scenery was amazing in this area so bring your camera!

Amazing scenery in Famagusta

Getting there from our hotel in Pyla was very easy by car, parking was easy to find and free. There are some food trucks along the road in case you get hungry.

Later we drove to Kissonerga, not far from Paphos. The beaches there were nice, there were less tourists and the sand was generally nicer, beaches were cleaner. Snorkeling was ok, but the variety of sea life was better in Famagusta. Also, there were more waves so you need to be a good swimmer. However, we found some beautiful, almost empty beaches and rocks by the sea that offered amazing views and privacy to escape the crowds.

Erdo III Shipwreck

Nature everywhere!

Aphrodite's Rock

Kouklia, Paphos

The cities - where to stay

As I've already mentioned, skip Larnaka. While we didn't actually stay in Limassol, we drove through the city and hoped we had stayed there instead of Larnaca. Limassol seemed much cleaner and better maintained. Also the beaches were generally nicer.

While Limassol seemed nice, we would recommend Paphos instead. Some of the smaller towns west of Paphos were tourist villages lacking authenticity but Paphos was actually quite nice, offering the usual services for tourists but you also get to experience the local vibe. Also, it's near some great beaches.

We visited Agia Napa on three different occasions as we had to drive through the city to get from Pyla to the Blue Lagoon and the Love Bridge (a natural stone arch, very pretty). Agia Napa was truly a world of it's own and we felt like we were thrown into a Jersey Shore episode. No matter what time of the day it was, and we were there once early in the morning before sunrise, then around noon and later in the evening, it looked like a club around the closing time, on all times.

The Love Bridge

In Paphos you can visit the famous Tombs of the Kings (oldest ruins were from 4th century BCE). Even though we normally love Greek and Roman sights, these didn't seem so significant for us. From the archaeological aspect it is a beautiful place to visit but I wouldn't necessarily build the holiday around visiting this site.

Inside a tomb

Nicosia turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. We do recommend driving to the capital of Cyprus but the main sights were not so significant and I think that our visit to the Turkish side was the highlight of the trip. We felt that the people were nicer in Nicosia, the food was better, but it was very small. Also, the trip across the border was very interesting. As soon as we stepped to the other side, it felt like we were back in Turkey. The difference was really that big.


Nicosia, the Turkish side


Our favorite place of all was definitely the tiny village of Potamitissa in the mountains. The drive was absolutely beautiful, everything was clean and the people were genuinely friendly. The food was so much better up in the mountains than anywhere on the coast. Unfortunately I fell ill during the trip and had to stay in bed all three last days of our trip. So no hiking for us, but I must admit it was the best place to be sick in bed because the air was clean and slightly cooler and we had a wonderful hotel with amazing staff.

Agrohotel Ambelikos in Potamitissa

Dine with the locals in Agros

Village of Potamitissa

Best of Cyprus

The Blue Lagoon and the Love Bridge, Agia Napa, Famagusta
for snorkelling and photography

Aphrodite's Rock, Paphos
for swimming and photography

Erdo 3 Shipwreck, Paphos
for photography

The rocky shore east of Paphos
for swimming and snorkelling

The mountains and especially Agrohotel Ambelikos
for hiking, food, culture, nature

There's always time for a selfie

If you got the impression that we weren't especially amazed by Cyprus, you are right. While it's not a bad place for a holiday in the sun, we felt it was way too touristic for our taste. We definitely tried to find places that had a bit more of that real, authentic local vibe, we often felt disappointed. The island lives off tourism but there is so much to improve in all areas, especially in the coastal regions. Being on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea you would expect to get some delicious seafood yet none of the seafood we ate tasted particularly fresh or that well made, at least when you compare it to any of the other Mediterranean seaside regions. We also found that while Cyprus isn't an expensive destination at all, the hotels were over priced and you couldn't get a good value for money.

Edro III Shipwreck

Friday, October 6, 2017

Christmas Markets, Cologne, Germany

Ever since we moved to the Netherlands we quickly adapted a new tradition - the annual Christmas markets in Germany. They usually start at the end of November or in the beginning of December and end right before Christmas, normally on the 23rd of December. During this time you can enjoy all the Christmassy things but most importantly food. This is what keeps us going back, year after year. We normally go to Cologne because the city is very nice, compact and it has seven different markets, all slightly different.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

1. Book your hotel on time

Christmas markets are a huge thing in Europe, and especially Germany is famous for them. This is something they definitely know how to do! However, everyone else also knows how good they are, therefore the best, most central hotels get sold out way in advance. While we used to book a hotel sometime around November, this time we booked it well in advance, in August, to make sure we get to visit one of our favorite hotels in Germany.

2. Don't arrive too early, but neither too late

The markets are popular at any time but it has quite a different vibe on different times of the day. The closer you get to the evening, the busier it gets. The best time to start your market tour is around 19.00 or 20.00. You can easily visit the markets you want (even all seven of them) and have lots of cheerful people around you. The Catherdral X-mas Market is the most popular and also the busiest one at all times yet make sure you visit all of them because the atmoshpere is very different depending on the market.
Note that the markets usually end around midnight, so make sure you have enough time.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

3. You will get drinks spilled on your clothes

Since most of the markets are very crowded, people will bump into you, drinks will be spilled (maybe even food). Around the most crowded vendors, shops and drink stations it can sometimes be nearly impossible to walk forward (but don't worry, it's actually fun!) so you'll definitely feel veeeery close to other people. Don't wear your whitest, brightest clothes and make sure your pockets and pags are zipped. We've never had any issues with security but better safe than sorry.

4. It can get cold!

German winters can be cold so check the weather forecast. Even though you'll probably be moving around quite a bit and eating, it can also get chilly when you stand still so pack along maybe an extra sweater, some gloves and a hat.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

Markt Der Engel, the Angel Market

5. Shopping

There's lots of vendors selling all sorts of stuff from food to sweets, Christmas decorations, jewellery and so on. It might not be the best idea to buy that gigantic Christmas decoration in the beginning of your visit. It might be a good idea to save it for the next day. The markets open in the morning so if you visit on Saturday evening you can easily drop by on Sunday morning to pick up whatever you got your eyes on.

Dusseldorf during the Christmas market period

6. Eating

The food is what keeps us coming back every year! There's something for everyone, from the traditional bratwurst to sauerkraut and steaks, soups, vegetarian food and lots of sweets. The vendors normally have a spot in the same place every year so we have a sort of a pilgrimage every year to visit the same vendors for bratwurst, steak sandwich, hot Mojito's, Feuerzangenbowle (Fire Punch), Hungarian lángos and Kinder crepes.
Have lots of change with you because most of the food is around 3-7 euro's and it's quicker if you have the exact money. Some do accept credit cards but it's so much faster to pay in cash.

Cathedral market, Cologne

7. Drinking

You cannot visit a German Christmas market without having lots of glühwein, although be aware that if you go for glühwein mit rum it does indeed include lots of rum. The further the night, the more rum you'll have in your mug. You can also have it without the rum, but why would you? There's also other drinks like eggnogg, hot cholocate, beer, wine and so on. Naturally, there's also non-alchoholic drinks.

Every market has their own mug for the glühwein and on most years they're slightly different. We're not completely sure if they make new mugs every year because sometimes you get a mug from one of the previous years. It's fun to check the mugs and see what's different this year. You can even take the mugs with you, if you want, to start a little Christmas mug collection. Normally they have a year on the mug also. How it works is that you buy a glühwein (or another warm beverage) that's usually roughly around 4 or 5 euro's. A deposit of 2,50e is added to the cost. If you bring the mug back you get the deposit back but if you want to keep the mug, you've already paid 2,50e for it.

Feuerzangenbowle, a must try!

8. All the different markets

Every market is different and it's a good idea to visit (almost) all of them. They have different themes, different vendors and different food. Some have music, activities like ice-skating and so on. We often start either from the Neumarkt that's a bit smaller but has great food or from the one by the Cathedral which is not our favorite as it's by far the largest and the most crowded one. From the Cathedral X-mas market you can continue around the corner to the next one. We don't know it's name as it's not on most maps but it's smaller than the rest but is definitely worth a visit. From there continue to Alter Markt which is probably the most beautiful one and has an ice-skating rink. From Alter Mark we continue to Angel's Market (Markt der Engel) that's our favorite one as we feel it's has the best atmoshpere. In case we started our journey from the market at the Catherdral, we walk to the Neumarkt to end the visit there or in case we started from Neumarkt we walk the other way and end the day at the Cathedral market. There's also a Gay & Lesbian market that's fun to visit, too and another one by the harbour we've never visited.

Neumarkt Christmas market

The biggest Christmas market in Cologne, the Cathedral market

Monday, September 25, 2017

Estonia vs. Finland

If I got a penny every time someone said that Estonia is basically the same as Finland I would have a lot of pennies by now. Even though these two countries share some similarities, like similar languages and maybe culture in some ways, these are still two very different countries with completely different mind sets. Here's our list of some major differences we think are important to understand.

Old Porvoo

First major difference you'll immediately notice is the architecture that starts to unveil the major differences of these two countries. When you approach Tallinn by ferry you'll see the beautiful, medieval skyline with thick towers along the city walls and the distinctive churches. In Finland you don't see quite a similar sight anywhere as the countries had their days of glory on quite different times. I always mention Tallinn having been in the hanseatic league in the early middle ages but this is indeed such an important thing to mention as it defines the history and the culture in so many ways, even today.

Flying over Helsinki in a hot-air balloon

However, if you fly into Tallinn by plane you'll see quite a different view being composed by so many long lines of soviet time apartment complexes surrounding the city from the huge districts of Mustamae to Lasnamae and beyond. Again, this is a strong reminder of more recent history when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, something that many of us consider quite a dark time period for the Estonians.

Tallinn from above

Finland, however, had quite a different history being under the rule of Sweden and later Russia. Finland doesn't really have such strong architectural reminders of the historical events. As the biggest airport in Helsinki-Vantaa is in the capital area you don't see too many historic buildings on the way as Helsinki was made the capital only in the year of 1812. Before that, the biggest town in Finland was Turku, another hanseatic town, which was settled in the 13th century, around the same time as when Tallinn got it's town rights. Turku was, however, badly destroyed in the great fire of Turku in 1827 after which majority of the city had to be rebuilt. So you see lots of buildings from the 17th-19th century in both Turku and Helsinki. When arriving to Helsinki by ferry to the Katajanokka terminal, you will probably pass by Suomenlinna, an island fortress (18th century) that is currently a popular place to enjoy a nice day out sightseeing, have a picnic and so on. A few moments later you see the beautiful, white Helsinki Cathedral (completed in 1852) and the orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (completed in 1868). Tallinn, however, has more and older historic sights going back to the middle ages.

Estonia has a more colorful history

Because of it's great location and access to the Baltic Sea, Estonia has been in the interest of many larger countries in the region. Estonia has been under the rule of present day Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia which has affected the culture, cuisine and the language. As Estonia was in the Hanseatic league, it was influenced by even a larger amount of nearby nations involved in the trade.

Christmas market in Tallinn, closed for the night

Finns are more tolerant

Generally I would claim that the Finns are way more tolerant than the Estonians when it comes to racial differences, sexual minorities and gender equality. Estonians tend to be quite traditional, and not always in the positive ways.

Estonians are healthier and have better genes

Since Estonia has been occupied by many different nations, it means that there have been much more different genes walking around than in remote Finland. Due to this, Estonians tend to be healthier than the Finns, well, at least when it comes to hereditary illnesses. Finns also suffer from allergic diseases (food allergies, hay fever and such) much more than the Estonians.

Midnight sun in Estonia

Tallinn has a more central-European vibe than Helsinki

Tallinn has many cafe's (purely for drinking non-alcoholic beverages or a nice glass of wine) that stay open until late in the evening. In Helsinki it is difficult, almost impossible, to find a cafe to that's open in the evening and is not filled with people who have had a little too much alcohol. Also, and I'm claiming this purely from my own experience, Estonians visit museums, theaters and other cultural events more often than the Finns. In Estonia, you dress up when going to such event (to see a play at the theater, for example) and wearing something like jeans and a sweater to such event is often frowned upon.

Island of Kökar in Finland

Finns are (more) religious

I was 9 when I moved to Finland. First thing that surprised me at school was that religion was one of the subjects being taught throughout the whole educational cycle. Up until this, religion didn't play any part in my life what so ever so you can imagine the confusion I experienced. Aside this, kids say grace before eating lunch at school, although I believe this only applies to the younger pupils in smaller schools and maybe it's not done as often as it was in the 90's. Teenagers attend confirmation school around the age of 15 and every school year ends with a divine service at a local church. This might be different in larger cities or in schools with a significant amount of foreigners.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church (which is about 75% of the Finns) children are baptized about 6 weeks after birth and the christening event takes place either in a church or at home. On average every child has 2-4 godparents. Imagine the confusion when some of my classmates found out that I was actually non-religious (read: an atheist), wasn't baptized and also had no godparents at all! Also, the weddings and funerals are very often held in churches. Finns also pay something that's called the church tax. "All members of either the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church (the two state churches of Finland) pay an income-based church tax of between 1% and 2%, depending on the municipality. (Wikipedia)"

Estonia, on the other hand, is one of the least religious countries in the world. More than 50% of Estonians don't believe in God, at least not in the traditional way. You can read more about this on Wikipedia. Baptism isn't very common in Estonia as names for newborns are registered at the city hall. Actually nowadays you can do all this online. While funerals are often held in churches, weddings not so often, although personally to me it does seem that church weddings are becoming somewhat more popular in Estonia.

Tallinn old town

Estonians are more innovative

In Estonia you can do many things online and the local ID card allows voting, doing your taxes, using public transportation (which is free for those that live in Tallinn, by the way) and more.

There's also e-Health meaning that over 95% of the data generated by hospitals and doctors has been digitized, which makes it easy for the doctors to store patient data digitally (

So technologically the country is quite advanced in this sense.

Enjoying traditional dinner in Naantali, Finland

Finns complain more, yet also take action

Personally I find the Finns to be the type of people that generally complain about things more than the Estonians do, but this isn't necessarily a negative trait as they actually do something about the complaints. Finns aren't shy about their opinions and often make them public and make sure the feedback or complaint reaches the required sources. If an Estonian gets bad service in a restaurant, hotel or a shop, they don't normally complain as these bad experiences are often forgiven because of the low salary of the impolite/unprofessional service employee.

Fall colors in Porkkalanniemi, Finland

Estonians get things done faster

While Estonians might not send out complaints as often as the Finns do, they still get things done by searching for alternatives. In working life Finns often seek for everyone's approval, while Estonia is more hierarchical in the sense that decisions are made fast(er) and not everyone's approval is necessary. It's sometimes good, like when Estonia legalized same-sex unions / partnerships.

Aesthetics are more important in Estonia than in Finland

Generally things look a little nicer in Estonia. People value aesthetics more in Estonia than in Finland. In Estonia it's important how things look, how you look, how your house looks. It's just a part of who we are. It has changed a lot in the last 20 years but even when you turn on an Estonian TV-channel, everything just looks.. better! Flip through a few of Estonian Facebook profiles and see the difference. The pictures are generally prettier, more thought through before posting.

The medieval old town in Tallinn

Estonians are more private

When you compare the social media behavior between these two nations, the difference is significant! Finns share more of their personal opinions, pictures, thoughts, anything. Estonians post a few pretty pictures here and there but don't post actual status updates or personal opinions very openly. Same applies to general communication. I feel that the Finns generally value openness and even honesty more than their southern neighbors. Estonians often make things look and sound a little nicer than they might actually be. It's not the case of dishonesty, it's about keeping your private life private. So they might tell you that they have a new great job, but don't mention that the employment contract is only for three months and their role in the company is actually lower level than in the previous company. A rough example, but you get the idea.
The Finns, however, often discuss even negative things more openly.

Summer in Nauvo, Finland
The (un)traditional naming habits

Even though we consider the Estonians to be quite a bit more traditional than the Finns, this definitely doesn't apply to the naming habits of children. While Finns are increasingly favoring older, more traditional names like Kerttu, Hilla and Elias and Vilho, Estonians prefer more international or modern names such as Mia and Arabella for girls, and Miron and Romet for boys.

Families are closer in Estonia

Families are much closer in Estonia compared to Finland. Estonians have more and bigger family gatherings, cousins are more important part of a family, grandparents are a huge part of the childs life and adult children generally take care of their elderly parents in Estonia. In Finland, unfortunately, families tend not to be that close. A good example of this is Christmas, when many Finns celebrate the holidays with their immediate family. In Estonia it is often slightly different, and the celebrations tend to be larger including even more distant family members like second cousins, in-law's and more. 

While in Estonia we don't know even one person that doesn't know their cousins, we do know many people in Finland that really don't have any interaction with theirs, ever.

Spending habits

A Finn would brag about the great deal or the low price they got on something they bought.
An Estonian doesn't brag about cheap prices. Estonians generally take pride in being able to afford expensive things and would feel slightly ashamed for having to search for a bargain. And if they did, they certainly wouldn't go around talking about it.

Both want to be better than their neighbor

Being better than your neighbor is actually a thing in both countries but how it's handled is sometimes different. When a Finn's neighbor buys a new car, the jealous acquaintance might call the tax authorities to start a check on the owner of the new car, to see if there's something shady going on as there's no way the neighbor could be doing better by honest means. And even if they were doing better financially, they should, at least, be paying more taxes (at least, according to the neighbor)!  Estonian will, however, work their butt off, get a huge loan and sell the shoes off their feet to get an even better, faster car that they can't really afford.

A Finn and an Estonian in their natural habitat