Living La Vida Local

July 29, 2011 11:05 am
Cuba -0045

Unlike the typical Cuban getaway – in mid-winter complete with package tour and all you can eat buffet, I decided to see Cuba in reverse. That is, in full early July heat and staying at the opposite of a resort – at a Cuban home complete with grandma, mum, adult kids and babies – out in the Havana suburbs. It proved to be unforgettable “auténtica experiencia” – and one I would not willingly exchange for the pre-packaged kind.  It’s not often after all, that you get to meet an 85 year old Cuban grandma who spied for Castro during the Revolution, have a Spanish speaking guide or to walk the streets of Havana at 4am with a bunch of newly made Cuban friends. Then there was learning how to hail cabs local style, eating at unknown hole in the wall restaurants and learning how to push your way into a line up for a hot Latin jazz band a la Cubana. It was a week of living la vida local – Cuban crazy, fun, hot and humid – and not for the faint at heart.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

For starters, the first thing you discover about Havana is that it well, isn’t Ottawa. While in Ottawa public servants are sensibly tucked into bed recouping from a day pounding the keyboards in an air conditioned office, young Cubans are out all day and night – and they are partying, hard. As my Air Canada flight landed into Havana Airport almost three hours late – turning  a scheduled 9:33pm landing into an after midnight touch down, I was concerned my host family would be sound asleep oblivious to my knocks on the door. Worse still, my cab driver was lost. I need not have worried. My arrival at 1am left my Cuban hosts unfazed and slightly puzzled by my apologies. Eighty five year old Grandma Carmen was on the balcony enjoying a well earned rum along with her daughter Esperanza. In relaxed Cuban style, they were warm and welcoming as I explained in broken Spanish the flight delay and the lost cab driver.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

I was offered rum, snacks (dried plantain and fresh mango) and shown my digs. My room did not disappoint. The  room was at the far end of a sprawling, grand-looking Spanish-Cuban style house, complete with 12 foot ceiling, photos of Castro and gorgeous antique furniture. The room was large, with louvered wooden slat screens that opened out into a small garden and a large private luxury bathroom. At $40 Cuban pesos a night with a huge breakfast of fresh, garden picked pawpaw, mango, soursop, toast, omelette, cheese, honeydew melon jam and best of all, thick Cuban style coffee  – it was a bargain. But the best was yet to come – a one week whirlwind tour of Havana with a local – Carmen’s 31 year old grandson Juan-Carlos – who doubled as interpreter, tour guide and photographer, and who has lived in Havana all his life.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

My week of living La Vida Local started next morning, after six hours of light sleep at the untimely hour of 8am in the morning.


Tale of Two Cities…Part Two: Bratislava

July 18, 2011 9:00 am
Streets of Old Town Bratislava

In the middle of Europe lies a very small but proud country, with a small but lovely capital city. The country that I speak of is Slovakia and it’s lovely capital – Bratislava. Bratislava is in part, a world divided, with half its foot in the past and the other half brightly in the future, architecturally and aesthetically speaking at least. The most obvious divide exists with the Danube River, which flows through the center of the city and separates the old town from the Communist-built Petrzalka, perhaps equally as interesting but not as aesthetically pleasing as its older counterpart. There is so much history here, that it is a wonder how it all fits into a city with a population of barely 500,000. Bratislava’s geographic location couldn’t be more beautiful, as the city is nestled between the Carpathian mountains and the Danube river. But aside form its history and location, Bratislava is also a city buzzing with  social life, which becomes obvious when one enters any of the many restaurants, trendy cafes and bars, modern shopping centers or galleries alike.

Streets of Old Town Bratislava

Walking through History

The old part of Bratislava is unique: it survived over 40 years of Communist rule, which left the city’s historical buildings neglected and shabby. After the fall, however, large reconstruction projects took place and most of the buildings were returned to their original grandeur. One just needs to walk through the many alleyways and cobble-stone streets of St. Michael’s Gate in order to appreciate the history of the space. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the old buildings have been turned into small cafes, shops, restaurants and bars, which provide both a charming and distinct atmosphere to enjoy a meal or drink. While artists and crafts people set-up shop in various stands throughout the old town, underground wine cellars dot the city and provide a place where one can sneak off and take a sample of wine at virtually any time of the day. Verne cafe, which is located right across the Carleton Hotel and the US Embassy, is one such locale that features authentic Slovak cuisine, keg house wine (“sudove vino”) and an eclectic collection of furniture. In the summer, virtually all restaurants and cafes have outdoor patios, but I am not talking about plastic lawn furniture, it’s white table cloths or carved wooden pub tables and benches for a truly authentic European dining/drinking atmosphere. The Slovak Pub, on Obchodna Street, offers exactly this kind of authentic Slovak eating experience. Complete with historical Slovak farming equipment on display and various other traditional paraphernalia along with organic Slovak food fare and drinks, this place is a must for any tourist keen on trying Slovak food made Bratislava-style.

Old Town

Main Square

If history isn’t your thing, then Eurovea is sure to please. The 2 year old modern construction features funky cafes, trendy restaurants and a large shopping center, all located scenically on the edge of the Danube. The lawns of most establishments here even include large bean-bag seating, comfortable for even the pickiest of guests.  Many locals and tourists alike, congregate here for  food, drinks, shopping and sun – a perfect way to spend a lazy summer afternoon or weekend.


Across the Danube lies Petrzalka, the Communist-built concrete jungle. Although seemingly vast and uniform, even this part of town has its hidden gems and charm. For the shopper in you, there is Aupark – a large shopping center featuring H&M, ZARA, New Yorker etc. Plus a plethora of restaurants, some Slovak, some fusion. It is also a strong reminder of what the regime destroyed, created and left behind. A constant reminder of the Communist functionalist aesthetic.

Petrzalka and the Bratislava Castle

However, one cannot leave this city without visiting Bratislava’s emblem: the Bratislava Castle. Part restaurant, part museum this magnificent structure overlooks the entire city, and gives any visitor an appreciation of the small-in-size but rich-in-culture capital.

Unique Bratislava

A Tale of Two Cities…Part 1: Berlin

July 8, 2011 10:44 am
Graffiti Park

A city formerly divided, both figuratively and literally, by a giant concrete wall now adorned with art and graffiti from all over the globe…A city formerly divided by clashing political ideologies and philosophies…but no longer. Today Berlin is a city united both by its past and its present. The wall now stands only as a symbol of the past – of what has been and what no longer is – a constant reminder of both Berlin and Germany’s tumultuous history. But this is not a story of that history, rather this is a story of the present, a tale of the vibrant, creative and interesting city that is Berlin.

Berlin streets, nooks and crannies. Photo by Katarina Kuruc.

Walking through the side streets and main streets of Berlin, it is easy to see why this city has become a haven for artists, the not-so underground party-goers, intellectuals and tourists alike. This is because walking down any random street is like walking through a pop art exhibit, complete with bumping base undertones emanating from almost every corner and neon-clothed partyers celebrating to the wee hours of the morning all the while being surrounded by a plethora of cafes, restaurants, museums and galleries.

First stop on anyone’s travel planner in Berlin should be the infamous Berlin Wall (of course!) Although the city is littered with its remains, the main section of the wall remains intact in the area of Ostkreutz-a vibrant, formerly East German area of the city complete with cafes, bars and 48-hour party venues. The walk along the wall is long, but never boring. As aforementioned, the wall has been preserved with art from local and global artists alike. Think: giant outdoor pop art exhibit with a political history. While exploring this section of the city, however, one cannot ignore all the other street art and graffiti that dots the Berlin landscape. Virtually no corner or wall has been left untouched, particularly in one graffiti park I personally managed to stumble upon in the area of  Warshauerstrasse. But if street style isn’t your style and the history of the city is of great interest, then the GDR Museum is the place to go. Complete with actual objects from the former Communist regime, including a Trabant car, this interactive exhibit gives a very good depiction of what life under the Communist regime was really like. The museum is also located near Museum Island, that features some of Berlin’s most famous historical museums-it’s your one-stop-shop for anything ancient and ornate.Yet another amazing outdoor exhibit is the newly reconstructed Topography of Terror, which documents the rise and fall of the Nazi Regime. Not for the faint of heart, but something everyone should see in order to remember the horrors that befell people during the Nazi reign.


Berlin Wall. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

Aside from graffiti, art, and history Berlin also features a wealth of amazing restaurants. Rosenthaller Bar and Grill in Rosenthaller Platz offers personal pizzas starting at a mere 3.90EU (trust me in Europe this is a steal!) along with other grilled and baked goodies. As a result of the city’s large Turkish population, shawarma stands can be found virtually everywhere along with beer gardens and cafes that feature both German as well as international cuisine. Germany is famous for its beer and schnitzel (a breaded and fried pork cutlet) and many of the restaurants in Berlin clearly reflect this national culinary tradition. Surprisingly, however, Asian food also seems to be popular. Transit restaurant, which features a lower priced but equally delicious fusion menu is sure to satisfy any thai/vietnamese craving, also located in Rosenthaller Platz, a trendy area with shops, cafes, bars, hotels and hostels.


Transit Fusion Restaurant. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

On Sundays, any vintage lover simply cannot miss the Mauerpark flea market, which features everything from food to vintage furniture, clothes and other random, yet charming, nick-nacks. Aside from all the vintage commodities another bonus of Mauerpark is the traditional  “Crazy Karaoke” which happens near the market every Sunday, weather permitting. Apperantly a local Berliner started this tradition and it has lasted ever since. A karaoke machine is set-up in front of colleseum-style seating and those brave enough can sign up and wail their favourite songs. A perfect way to spend a Sunday in the city.


Mauerpark Flea Market. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

As mentioned, Berlin is a city of art. Photography, painting, sculpture, you name it and it has got it! One gallery especially worth mentioning that combines photography with biography is the Helmut Newton Foundation, which features the life and work of the Berlin-born fashion photographer. The space is filled with most of Helmut Newton’s famous photographs, movies, scrapbooks and a replica of his home in Monaco. The observer can stroll through Mr. Newton’s famous collection of polaroids, get a glimpse of his most prized possessions and watch several of his movies. A “must” for any fan of photography, fashion or art.


Helmut Newton's Monaco home. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

An this brings an end to the first installment of the “Tale of Two Cities”. Stay tuned for the second part which will feature another post-Communist city: Bratislava.

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