3 days in Chernobyl

I was hesitating to write about tourism in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, since I worked so much on the topic and it has such a personal touch for me, that I wasn’t sure I would want to return back to it.

This abandoned Ferris wheel became a symbol of the ghost-town Prypyat. It never operated.

This abandoned Ferris wheel became a symbol of the ghost-town Prypyat. It never operated.

As some of you know, in 1986, aged 1, I was evacuated from the now ghost-town of Prypyat after the explosion on the Chernobyl Nuclear power Plant. My father worked on the plant on the night of the accident (operating a different reactor, though), while my mom and me were sleeping at our home at Lenin Avenue 17, just a few kilometers away from the greatest nuclear disaster of all times.

Me and my mom in front of our former apartment house in Lenin Avenue 17, Prypyat

Me and my mom in front of our former apartment house in Lenin Avenue 17, Prypyat

I went back to Prypyat (or, as you might now it from the Russian transliteration - “Pripyat”) many times, the first visit was back in 2000 with my dad, who went there for work.

I returned in 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016 while I was working on my book “Prypyat mon Amour”, dedicated to people, who were evacuated from Prypyat. You can order it online or shoot me a message.

In November 2016 I was invited to visit the Exclusion Zone as a tourist for the first time.
I wanted to go - out of natural curiosity and to see, what kind of knowledge people have of the area and what happened and what kind of information they get from the guides.

In November 2016 I visited Chernobyl as a part of the group. Wearing protective suits in the area is not needed, but tourists do it for pictures and dramatic effect

In November 2016 I visited Chernobyl as a part of the group. Wearing protective suits in the area is not needed, but tourists do it for pictures and dramatic effect

I shot a little vlog (I wasn’t planning a huge film and shot everything entirely on the cell phone) to share parts of my experience with you. I always appreciate feedback!

I constantly get questions from people, who want to visit the Chernobyl Zone, as well as there are many misconceptions, so I would like to clarify some of them.

First question is usually - how dangerous it is to visit, isn't there radiation everywhere?

The answer is not really simple and I won’t bore you with scientific facts – I am not a huge expert on gamma- alpha- and beta-radiation myself, but I will tell you one thing – it is fine to visit Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a part of a tourist group.

As soon as you are cautious and don’t go where you’re not supposed to – you will be fine. The radiation levels vary, but you literally have to stand still for weeks in one spot to get a doze, which will have any kind of impact on your body. The biggest danger in the ghost-town of Prypyat now are crumbling houses. You have a much higher chance to break a leg or twist your neck, than become a radioactive mutant ninja turtle.

The main danger in the ghost-town are decaying buildings

The main danger in the ghost-town are decaying buildings

The biggest dangers in the surrounding territories are the wild animals - also not of a mutant kind. Wolves and wild pigs don’t come out during the day anyways, and most of the tourists have to get out of the Zone by 6 PM anyways.

Second question is how to get there. Is everyone allowed to go?

If you google “Chernobyl tours” you will find many companies, who organise group and private tours to the Zone. They vary in prices (30-200$) and I’d suggest going with a smaller group, but for a mere educational purposes a bus tour from Kyiv will be enough. You can also get a permission to enter the Zone as a journalist, but in any case you will have to plan in advance, send you passport number for approval etc. There is no hop-on hop-off service to Chernobyl. After all it is not a joke.
The checkpoint Dytiatky, which serves as the entry to the Zone is situated 115 km and approximately 2 hours car ride from Kyiv.
Going or not going to the Zone is a personal choice. As I’ve mentioned, one day in the area won’t harm you, but if you’re pregnant, had radiotherapy or were exposed to big doses of radiation in the past, you should consider the risk.
I was exposed to a big dose of radiation in my childhood and I still went several times. My mom didn’t support my decision though.

What is the name of the ghost-town I’ve seen on pictures and videos?

Most people falsely assume, that Chernobyl is the name of the ghost-town from the spooky HDR-pictures and computer games. In fact Chernobyl is a different town, it is situated in the 30-km Zone and you still need to go through the checkpoint to get there, but it is still inhibited by almost 3000 people, who work shifts on the Object “Arch” (the new Sarcophagus over the burned reactor) as well as in the Exclusion Zone.

The spooky abandoned ghost-town is called Prypyat (or Pripyat in Russian transliteration) after the river Prypyat, on which it was built in 1970. It was a very young town of barely 50 000 inhabitants, with the average age of 26 by the 1986. Now, the population is 0.

Do I need protective clothing if I go on a tour to Chernobyl? Do I need a gas mask?

Unless you are working inside the plant, other highly contaminated areas, you absolutely don’t need protective clothing. Most of the radioactive particles are in the ground, and in 30 years they sank deeper than the surface, so there is no need to cover your clothes. Also, LEAVE THE GAS MASK ALONE! Personally, I hate seeing tourists posing with gas masks - gas masks are not meant to protect from radiation and they were never used as protective measures! The only masks which were used were the so-called “petal” respirators (“Lepestok”), which protects from the inhalation of the microdispersed particles.
But the petals don’t look as cool and spooky as the gas masks, thus tourists keep taking pictures with them, misinforming others.

But what about that picture of hundreds of gas masks on the floor of the school?

Just like the black sad dolls and melancholically lying around children shoes are not more than props, compositioned perfectly by amateur (and some professional) photographers, to emphasise the drama, the famous classroom, filled with gas masks has nothing to do with radiation, evacuation or tragical events of the 1986. The gas masks were a crucial part of every Soviet’s school “civil defence” training. In other words - these masks were there for educational purposes and were scattered around not during the evacuation, but much later for that dramatic Hollywood effect.

What is a sarcophagus and is it possible to see the insides of the 4th reactor?

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Sarcophagus, also named “Shelter Object” is/was a massive still structure, covering the remains of the 4th reactor of the plant. It was constructed in 1986 in the period of 200 days to protect the environment from the continuous radioactive contamination, cause by the radioactive fuel and tonnes of radioactive materials inside of the ruined reactor (as you might know, some types of radiation don’t disappear for billions of years). The old sarcophagus was built as a temporary measure and wasn’t supposed to last for longer than 30 years - repairing it wasn’t an option, since the levels of radiation inside the structure exceed the limits by far.

Old sarcophagus - as of November 2016 the new "Arch" structure was shifted over the shelter

Old sarcophagus - as of November 2016 the new "Arch" structure was shifted over the shelter

Unless you are a scientist or a National Geographic photographer with a very special permission from the government – YOU CANNOT GET INSIDE THE 4TH REACTOR. 4th Reactor Hall is a place which contains huge amounts of radiation and even with all the protective clothing you can get, you won’t be able to stay inside the remains of the reactor unharmed for longer than 2 minutes at a time. Otherwise – acute radiation poisoning, and slow, painful, torturous death. To be more specific - the radiation levels inside exceed 10 000 röntgens per hour, while the lethal dose for a human is 500 röntgens over 5 hour course).

How much time do I need for a Chernobyl tour?

As I’ve already mentioned, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is very vast. The most popular route is the Chernobyl - Sarcophagus of the 4th reactor - Prypyat ghost-town. Since the entry to the Zone is 116 km from Kyiv, it is a day-tour. You can also book longer tour, where you will visit abandoned villages and some other remote parts of the Zone. There up to 7-days tours.

Can I get inside the Exclusion Zone without a permission?

Theoretically you can and many adventure-seekers do. Keep in mind, that it is a restricted territory, and going without permission is considered trespassing under the Ukrainian law. Not to mention, that it can be really dangerous to walk around alone - there are radioactive spots, wild animals and little help available, if you get lost or injured in some remote area.

Can I eat/drink inside the Exclusion Zone?

Guides will advice you not to eat inside the 10-km Zone. Some micro-particles can get onto your food and you better avoid that kind of risk. But If you stay overnight in one of two hotels in Chernobyl, there are hot meals available as well as couple of Soviet-style grocery shops in the area. The food is delivered from the outside, for obvious reasons. When you walk around the Zone in autumn, you will stumble upon old apple- pear- and apricot-trees, full of fruits - they look edible and picturesque, but I will strongly advice you not to touch them.

It's harvest time, but no one is picking these apples

It's harvest time, but no one is picking these apples

I’ve seen people living in the Zone? Who are they? Do they have electricity, water etc? Why aren’t they all dead from radiation or mutated into monsters?

There are people living inside the Exclusion Zone indeed. As I’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of personnel from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (which was conserved in 2000, but still needs a lot of maintenance - you cannot just drop everything and run away).

There are people, though, who returned to the abandoned villages surrounding the Plant. The villages were evacuated, just like the ghost-town Prypyat, with people leaving all their belongings, cattle, furniture etc behind. Many didn’t adopt to the new conditions or were mistreated and decided to return. Most of them returned couple of months or years after the accident. There were thousands of so called “samosely” (self-settlers) in the beginning, but now the count is low - officially its is couple of hundreds, spread around the Zone. Most of these people are in their 60s and 70s and die from natural causes.

They grow their own food, gather mushrooms and brew moonshine, but are also supported by the government and get the pension, just like any other elderly citizens. Once a week a kiosk-on-wheels would drop buy bringing goods from the city, but many tourists visit samosely every day, bringing them presents and food.

I’ve made friends with baba Gania, who lives in the Zone with her handicapped sister Sonya. She fed me potatoes and sauerkraut, as well gave me a bottle of her special Chernobyl moonshine. I know, there was a risk, but I couldn’t say no to her hospitality.

Under a current law, new people are prohibited to resettle to the Zone. Nevertheless there are always plenty of visitors and some relatives tend to come for summer months, using an opportunity to relax away from the city life in the (bit radioactive) nature paradise.

Are there monsters/mutants in the Exclusion Zone? Did a lot of people get sick?

No. There were some mutations registered in the past, but no two-headed wolves or plasma blurbs are running around.  

"Monsters" of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

"Monsters" of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

It is hard to connect radiation to health issues directly. Many women, who were pregnant at the time were almost forced to get abortions, but I know a few, who didn’t and they had healthy children and now healthy grandchildren.
Even though it is hard to link radiation directly to diseases, but the rates of thyroid cancer and leukaemia grew drastically after the accident in the affected area. Southern Belarus was affected by the so called “Northern path” of the radioactive cloud, caused by the accident the most, and much higher than usual rates of birth defects are observed in the areas. The affects of radiation can be traced years and years after the accident. While working on my book “Prypyat mon Amour”, I’ve met many people, who were evacuated from the Zone, and almost everyone had a relative, who died young from some kind of cancer. So did my father in 2006. He was 47 years old.

As a person, who was a part of the tragedy, what do you think of tourism into the Exclusion Zone? Isn't it some form of disrespect for the dead/affected?

I think that tourism to places of great disasters should be not only tolerated by promoted. People need to see the results of the dangerous activity of human beings, to avoid such mistakes and tragedies in the future. I am also a curious person, and was interested to see some of the aspects I’ve never thought about or seen before (like the “Russian Woodpecker” radar station). meeting the “samosely" (self-settlers) was also a very unique experience, since instead of some philosophical wisdom, one would probably expect from such secluded members of society, you get that they are normal people, with average human needs, desires and interests.

Nevertheless, I am totally against senseless tourism, with no understanding or feeling of responsibility. I’ve observed many young tourists treating Chernobyl as some kind of extreme playground. I think it is very important to educate young people of what happened, why it happened and why it should never happen again.

1 week in Morocco

Originally for PassionPassport.com

After months of gloominess and rain in winter Berlin, a friend (talented Istanbul-Berlin photographer Helin Bereket) and I decided it was time for a change, so we escaped to the warmth of Morocco.

Morocco is a country for photographers, and I see photos  of it  all the time — colorful medinas, vibrant markets, exotic architecture, and impressive camel caravans through the desert. I remember thinking that it looked like a dream —  straight out of “1,001 Nights” — and most of my experience in Morocco lived up to that visual expectation.

Though Morocco may seem distant, most Westerners are more familiar with it than they realize thanks to movies and TV shows like ”The Gladiator,” “The Mummy,” “Game of Thrones,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and hundreds of others that are filmed at the Ouarzazate Film Studios. I bet if you pick a movie set in ancient Egypt or Palestine, chances are it was actually shot in Morocco.

Ancient Jerusalem set, built in the desert near the Ouarzazate Film Studios

Ancient Jerusalem set, built in the desert near the Ouarzazate Film Studios

Though representations of Morocco are often “picture perfect,” there are many factors that paint a more realistic picture of what to expect when traveling through this Northern African country.

What to Expect in Marrakech:

Minarets, markets, great food, gardens, the mild climate – This is Marrakech in a nutshell, and I loved everything about it. It wasn’t too crowded in December and I wish we had planned for longer than two nights in the capital city.

Marrakech’s most impressive sight was the famous Madrasa Ben Youssef – the former Islamic college decorated with colorful tiles. The site features perfect symmetry and is great for photography. Despite the pricey entrance fee, the Jardin Majorelle wowed us with its indigo-colored house that once belonged to the French painter, Jacques Majorelle, and later to the famous designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

 

Adventures in the Desert:

A visit to the desert is a must, and  you can book many different types of tours. If you stay in Marrakech, you can take quick one or two day tours that return to the city. However, we decided on the three-day, two-night tour from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, the ancient fortress of Ait Benhaddou, and the Atlas Mountains, before ending our adventure in Fez.

Fortunately, the abundance of options means that there are cheaper group tours and more expensive private tours available. Since we wanted plenty of time for photography, we wanted to have the opportunity to stop anywhere we wanted, so a private tour seemed to be the best option. We each paid 150 euros, which included  the jeep and driver, morning and evening meals, one night at a hotel, and another night in a luxurious desert camp in Erg Chebbi – a small sand dune next to the famous Merzouga.

The highlight of our time in the desert was approaching the Merzouga Desert from afar. I’ve never seen such a huge mass of sand appear out of nowhere. It reminded me of a surreal children’s sandbox. The dunes are best photographed at dawn or in the late afternoon and evening, when the piles of sand cast impressive shadows on one another.

Camping under the stars was a unique experience, though I suspect its luxury was not customary. We also rode camels at sunrise. The people who worked in the camp were friendly and talkative, and we spent the evening playing games and drums together, singing and telling stories.

Fun in Fez:

With one of the biggest medinas in the world and over 9,000 narrow streets, Fez has always been on my travel bucket list. I have to admit, I was hesitant at first to hire a guide but, in the end, I was really happy we did. Our guide pinpointed the nicest spots and  also managed to keep all of the persistent street “helpers” from bothering us. He told us a bit about his life, his wife, and his everyday experiences in Fez. We paid him 30 euros for a five-hour tour and it was money well spent. I know that people can get lost in Fez’s medina for hours on end so hiring a guide is always a good idea.

Fez’s most popular attraction is the ancient tanneries, where leather has been colored for centuries. A variety of natural, but quite stinky, ingredients, including bird poop, are used in the coloring process. The smell in summer is so strong that you’ll be given a mint leaf to avoid either fainting or throwing up. December’s cool weather helped mask the smell, which wasn’t as horrible as I’d expected.

I also enjoyed visiting the oldest university in the world — the University of al-Qarawiyyin — founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman, in 859. It is a common misconception that the university, once a madrasa (religious college), is open only for men – but, in fact, it has provided education for both men and women since it became a state university.

Nearby, the picturesque Madrasa Al-Attarine is situated just around the corner from the university. The unique geometrical architecture of the madrasas, with perfectly aligned tiles and symmetrical windows and doors are explained by the Islamic prohibition to the artistic depiction of Allah. In Islam, the mathematical symmetry of the religious architecture is the only way to “portray” God’s perfection and superiority.

Chefchaouen and Tangier

Taking busses in Morocco was an easy and convenient way to travel. The tickets are relatively inexpensive, the schedules are  well-suited for travelers, and the busses we took were new and comfortable. The journey from Fez to Chefchaouen, the famous blue city, is only a few hours long.

Known as the “Blue Pearl of Morocco” for the unique color of its buildings, the small town is a fascinating and vivid visual experience. The valley that surrounds it provides great conditions for growing hash, so there are people offering joints to passersby on every corner. Despite being picturesque, I found Chefchaouen’s streets quite repetitive and wouldn’t recommend spending more than two days there.

If you are a fan of saunas and baths, I’d opt for a local hammam experience – I had one in Chefchaouen and felt like a newborn after it was over.

We spent our last night in the port city, Tangier. Tangier became a mecca for the beatniks, European cultural elite, and musicians during the ‘50s and ‘70s.  

It soon became apparent that much of the ‘70s Western music we already knew  referenced the traditional Northern African melodies and used similar instruments. We spent three days driving through the desert and mountains accompanied by the sounds of local tunes, which could have easily been Jimi Hendrix, but were, in fact, were traditional Moroccan improvisations. Musicians weren’t the only ones drawn to Tangier: Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles spent their fair share of time wandering the streets, and William Burroughs even wrote most of his “Naked Lunch” here. Despite its storied past, there aren’t many remnants of its former glory, and its interesting history now lives only in memories, books, and music.

Bargain Hunting as a Way of Life:

Morocco is a country of bargaining. If you don’t bargain, you’ll lose money and feel fooled. Haggling is a part of Moroccans’ everyday life, and our guide in Fez mentioned that merchants actually don’t respect those who buy without bargaining. His wife, who is Spanish, learned the art of bargaining so well that she is now better than himself.

Don’t be surprised if the price of a small lamp or a bottle of argan oil at the market will drop from 50 euros to three in just a few minutes. Most Moroccan vendors are willing to take as much money as you’d like to pay but, since many tourists compare prices to the ones they’d find at home, they end up overpaying.

This makes it difficult to discern the true prices of certain items. Even those who are supposed to help (like travel guides and hotel managers) will sometimes still tell you the fixed tourist price. For example: a meal, which will cost locals the equivalent of a single euro, will be sold to tourists for eight. A carpet, which is probably typically sold for only 20 euros, might have a price tag of 100 euros or more for European or American visitors.  

Staying Safe:

Safety is always a top priority. I traveled with a female friend and, despite hearing some stories that gave us pause, we didn’t have any trouble while we were in Morocco.

Man advertising his teeth-pulling business at a local market

Man advertising his teeth-pulling business at a local market

As a precaution, always take basic safety measures, especially at night. For example: don’t walk alone down dark alleyways. It is hard to go unnoticed as a tourist in the Medina (the historical part of town), so be prepared to ignore the “helpers,” “guides,” and curious children who may follow you through the streets.

In most cases, the people who approach you on the street are harmless and only ask for money for small services like showing you the way to your hotel or helping you with your bag. Keep that in mind and make sure to have pocket change for times like these.

As a woman, I didn’t feel harassed or unsafe, but would still recommend being mindful of the local traditions and not showing too much skin. While traveling I tend to abide by the proverb, “In Rome, do as the Romans do,” or, in this case, as the Moroccans do.

Riad Sweet Riad:

We booked all of our hotels and riads (traditional Moroccan houses with interior courtyards) on the go and were able to organize everything online. The prices ranged from 12 to 30 euros per person per night, and so did the quality.

Overall, our accommodations were pleasant and welcoming, with friendly owners, beautiful and intricate interiors, and good food.

Speaking of food — when in Morocco be prepared to eat a lot of tagine, a slow-cooked savory stew usually made with sliced meat and vegetables. A complimentary tea usually comes with your food but, as mentioned earlier, most establishments used to visiting tourists will still overcharge. Alcohol is generally not served unless you’re staying at a hotel or deliberately go to a tourist bar. Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Morocco still has some lovely vineyards and produces varieties of local wine.

December can be an especially good time for travelers who want to avoid both the huge crowds and the heat. During our time in Morocco the weather was pleasant — 22-24C in Marrakech and in the desert — though there was some mild rain, cloud cover, and cooler temperatures in the north. Nights were considerably chilly, with temperatures in the desert dropping to almost 0C. If you travel to Morocco in December, pack a variety of clothing to cover all possible outcomes. I was definitely not prepared for the rain and snow in the northern part of the country, aptly called  Moroccan Switzerland.” Apparently, there is even a ski resort.

Our Itinerary:

  • 2 nights in Marrakech
  • 3-days, 2-nights on a Jeep tour in the desert
  • 2 nights in Fez
  • From Fez, there is a bus to the beautiful little town of Chefchaouen, famous for its blue-colored houses and hash fields
  • We ended the trip  in Tangier, a huge port city, popular with the European and American boheme and beatnik generation in the ‘50s – ‘70s.

Morocco is a place for anyone fascinated by vibrant scenes of everyday life, unbothered by smells and constant human interaction, and accepting of all cultures and traditions. Visually, you’ll be stunned and will likely bring half a market of souvenirs home in your suitcase.

My Gear:

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

Nikon D610 with Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24–120mm F4 G ED VR

Canon PowerShot G5X

3 days in Istanbul

If you ask me what’s the most romantic city I’ve been to, don’t expect "Paris."
For me the most romantic city I’ve ever been is Istanbul, Turkey.

On the roofs of Sultanahmet. Photo: Van Vorobei

On the roofs of Sultanahmet. Photo: Van Vorobei

I don’t know what exactly attracts me in that 20-something-million metropolis, spread over two continents and divided by the sea.
There are so many things, which create that one picture – the imperial history, chanting of the muezzins, hundreds of cups of black chai, smell of the musk and roses in the old bazaar, crowded ferries, bloody sunsets over Bosporus, getting lost in the narrow streets of Taksim, going out in vibrant Kadiköy and taking a taxi from Asia to Europe at night. All these little impressions created a picture, which, undeniably, made me fall in love with this city.

Rainy night in Taksim. Photo: Alen Palander

Rainy night in Taksim. Photo: Alen Palander

The portrait of the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of indipendent Turke, in a window of a reseidential building in Moda

The portrait of the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of indipendent Turke, in a window of a reseidential building in Moda

Istanbul is way too big and way too spread out to be able to discover it in three days. But if you are on a tight schedule, you have to set priorities. What is that you want to see – the historical touristic part or the everyday unbeaten paths and youth culture?


I can assure you that can do both (and we did), but if you don't want to be constantly in a hurry you should discover the city more gradually, over time. One can come here once in a while – from Europe it is quite easy and relatively inexpensive to do, thanks to the Turkish airlines rates and network. Talking about these airlines – they provide the best service (and are awarded for that on a regular basis) and honestly, I rarely flown better and felt more of a welcomed guest.

Istanbul is the only city in the world divided by the sea and placed on two continents – Europe and Asia. This noble city, currently most populous in Europe and 7th most populous in the world, was founded approximately in 660 BC and served under different names as the capital of many empires – Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman. The mixture of different cultures, religions, traditions, architectural styles and topography is probably what makes Istanbul one of the most interesting places to visit.

Cargo ship makes his way through the Bosporus at dawn

Cargo ship makes his way through the Bosporus at dawn

European Side


Most touristic sights can be found on the European side, mainly in the districts of Fatih (including Eminönü and Sultanahmet), Beyoğlu (formerly „Pera“) and Beşiktaş (yes, that’s why the football club is called like that).

Fatih is the place to discover history. The neighbourhood Sultanahmet with the most prominent sights – the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia museum, as well as the Grand Bazaar (one of the biggest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and over 4000 shops) and the Basilica Cistern (made extra famous to the Western Audience by Dan Brown’s novel Inferno and the movie of the same name) can be found here.

Blue Mosque seen from the window of Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque seen from the window of Hagia Sophia

The mysterious interior of the Saint Sophia gave me goosebumps.

Spice market is situated next to the Grand Bazaar and offers a feast for your senses.

The hipper young parts of Fatih include the twin quarters of Balat and Fener – the equivalent of Kreuzberg and Neuköln in Berlin or Williamsburg and Bushwick in New York City (pardon me this rough comparison). If you want to sit in a cool café, discover local designers or take pictures of low-flying planes and colourful buildings – you should come here.

Could you catch a plane in between the buildings, like a pro instagramer?=)

Could you catch a plane in between the buildings, like a pro instagramer?=)

Beyoglu, separated from the Old City (Fatih district) by the Golden Horn, is the capital’s center of art, nightlife and entertainment. You can walk in the waterfront commercial neighbourhood of Karaköy, climb the Galata stone tower or have a great time in one of the bars in Taksim neighbourhood, with its main artery – the Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Honestly, since it was my second visit to Istanbul, I skipped Beyoglu almost completely, since – regarding the nightlife part – it is very touristic and I like to feel myself a visitor but not a tourist.

Galata Tower seen from across the Golden Horn

Galata Tower seen from across the Golden Horn

When it comes the Beşiktaş (the municipality, neighbouring Beyoglu) the most interesting part of it for the short visit would be the neighbourhood of Örtakoy with the beautiful neo-baroque mosque of the same name. Hint for photographers – the square nearby the mosque is a key place for the sunrise pictures. Another key historical building of Beşiktaş is the eclectic Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the 19th century to suit the modern European tastes of the Sultan Abdülmecid I, who thought that the Ottoman Topkapı Palace in Sultanahmet was too old-fashioned.

Örtakoy neo-baroque mosque. The best time to come here is at sunrise.

Örtakoy neo-baroque mosque. The best time to come here is at sunrise.

Asian Side


The Asian side is connected to the European by several bridges, but the best and most spectacular way to get there will be by taking a ferry from many stations – the usual most central stops are in Eminönü and Karaköy. The ferry system is a part of the public transportation in Istanbul, thus ferries are very regular and inexpensive).

Taking a ferry at sunset is an experience of its own. You will be offered the usual chai and can enjoy it on the open deck with the view of the city, opening to you from the sea. The trip from Karaköy station to the opposing Kadiköy will take no more than 30 minutes. This is a trip I could take on an everyday basis – definitely much better than being jammed underground in a usual subway.

Take a break...drink a chai

Take a break...drink a chai

Kadiköy is the name of the district as well as the popular neighbourhood within. The neighbourhood is a heart of Istanbul’s alternative nightlife, with many bars opened till late. The upscale waterfront neighbourhoods of Moda and Fenerbahçe are have great places for a relaxed stroll or a day on the beach.

The most famous historical sight of Kadiköy is the Istanbul Haydarpaşa Terminal, the train station on the sea shore, which was a connection point for the passengers of the famous Orient-Express, who wanted to continue their travels further to Asia. My desire to visit Istanbul in the first place was triggered by seeing the heroine of Audrey Tautou in the beautiful 2009 Chanel commercial, directed by acclaimed director Jean Pierre Jeunet, and shot in Istanbul. In this commercial Audrey takes the Orient-Express to Istanbul, meets a good-looking stranger and falls into his embrace at the Haydarpaşa train station.

If you feel more adventurous and want to discover further quarters of the Asian side, I would recommend getting off one of the stops in Üsküdar – the district, neighbouring Kadiköy.
We went to Çengelköy, a residential neighbourhood with a beautiful waterfront and many villas and palaces built during the Ottoman period.

Busy street life in Çengelköy

Busy street life in Çengelköy

Another tourist-free stop was the historical Jewish neighbourhood Kuzguncuk, with its wooden houses, which reminded me so much of San Fransisco, and a breathtaking sunset view of the Örtakoy and the Old City in the distance.

In the sea offshore Üsküdar you will find one of the most hashtagged and photographed sights in the world – the Maiden's Tower. It is best photographed at sunset, with the gorgeous backdrop of the European side’s Old City. Several private boats take tourists to the islet, where the tower stands – I still think it is better observed from the distance though.

Another glass of chai with the Maiden's Tower in the distance

Another glass of chai with the Maiden's Tower in the distance

I can imagine reading about all the districts, neighborhoods and sights can be rather confusing.

Thus I also prepared my own list of Top-10 things to do in Istanbul over a short visit:

  1. Visit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – standing just few hundred meters from each other, they both offer a perfect introduction into the history of Istanbul. Hagia (Saint) Sophia, first a Christian church, then a mosque, and now a museum has not only an almost 1500-year old history, but also a mysterious atmosphere, which left a huge impact on me. Blue mosque (Sultan Ahmet mosque), named so after the beautiful blue color, dominating its interior, is a working religious building and visitors should treat it with the according respect.
  2. Walk through the Grand Bazaar and buy some overpriced souvenirs. You can definitely find cheaper prices at a supermarket, but here you pay for the almost-cinematic experience.
  3. Climb on top of the Grand Bazaar or one of the surrounding secret roofs to have the most breathtaking view of Istanbul. This can be a tricky one, but it is definitely worth it. You can find ways of getting on top of buildings in Fatih by simply googling it. There are also several rooftop terraces at the surrounding hotels
  4. Drink 10 cups of black sweet chai in one day. I never drink sweet black tea, but in Istanbul it’s a must. I even bought a small glass as a souvenir. The usual price at any street café would be 1,5-2 Lira, an equivalent of 40-50 eurocents.
  5. Photograph a plane in between the buildings of Fener. I saw pictures of low-flyng planes on Instagram and always thought they are too good to be true. Nevertheless, after visiting Fener and seeing an airplane flying so low, I could almost hear a baby screaming in the economy class, I changed my mind and even took a cool picture on my own.
  6. Eat a kebab. Or three. Best hangover food ever. Not that I drink much, but kebabs in Istanbul are delicious. Might be problematic if you are a vegetarian though;)
  7. Wake up before sunrise to catch the first morning rays by the Örtakoy mosque. To be perfectly honest – I didn’t do it. I generally have problems waking up early. But the pictures I’ve seen were spectacular.
  8. Take a ferry from Karaköy to Kadiköy at sunset. This is probably my favorite activity in Istanbul. Enough said.
  9. Visit the Maiden Tower. Just to cross off your list one of the most hashtagged sights in the world!
  10. Go all the way to the posh Bebek district to have a (non-Turkish) coffee at the most picturesque Starbucks in the world. This might sound funny, but google that terrace. Bebek is one of the poshest neighborhoods, with many boutiques, upscale restaurants and bars. The Starbucks there with the view over the Bosporus is first class as well

Here is also short list of places, which I recommend:

For fine dining: Mikla and Leb-i Derya in Pera (Beyoğlu) both with a tremendous city view and great food.

For sleeping: Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet – an upscale, but absolutely amazing choice for those who appreciate art (original paintings and drawings of the famous Azerbaijani artists on the walls are museum worthy), service and privacy.

The entrance to the Ajwa Hotel Suntanahmet is sightseeing worthy

The entrance to the Ajwa Hotel Suntanahmet is sightseeing worthy

For drinks: Külhanbeyi and Alex’s Bar in Beyoğlu for classic cocktails, Kadife Sokak street in Kadiköy (Asian Side) for casual drinking.

For hipster culture: just head to Fener and Balat and wander around. I really enjoyed the Coffee Department coffee shop and roastery there with its Brooklynesque vibe.

For chai: atmospherically the best places to drink chai would be either on the ferry (they’d always offer tea to passengers) or in a small café in front of the Haydarpaşa Terminal in Kadiköy.

I really hope you enjoyed my little guide to Istanbul. In no way I am an expert and would love to discover this marvellous city again and again, but for those, who share similar tastes as me, I hope this will be helpful and informative.

I am very thankful to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism for organizing this trip for me and several other instagramers. Check out the full VIDEO from our trip.

The next part of my Turkish journey – our 2-day trip to the hot-air-balloon region of Cappadocia will follow! Stay tuned.

 

2 Days by the Lake

If you are a cinema lover, like I am, you’d know that the name is a reference to the James Irvin’s movie A Month by the Lake with Vanessa Redgrave and young Uma Thurman.

The movie takes place at lake Como, Italy.

I saw this movie when I was a child, and going to Como this time evoked some nice memories. This time I could compare the real views with the cinematic ones and I have to admit, the movie totally gives the credit to the incredible landscapes of this Italian Lombardy region.

Lake Como is located only 40 minutes ride from Milan and about the same time from the Bergamo airport, where the low-cost Ryanair flights from Berlin fly. The end of February is an off-season, so we booked our tickets for 26-euros round trip only!

The lake is easily reachable by the train, but we preferred booking a small Fiat 500, to move around easily and not depend on the train or ferry schedules.

Lake Como gets really busy starting the beginning of April - this is the time when the most villas on its shores open and the wedding season starts - the destination is really popular with marrying couples.

For me though, visiting in the end of February was a perfect choice - it was much warmer than Berlin (13-15C during the day) and sunny. We managed to avoid the crowds of tourists too, which are especially big in summer, especially in such touristic towns as Bellagio and Varenna.

Talking about Bellagio - to my shame I wasn’t aware that it is the original town, from which the famous Las Vegas luxury hotel takes its name and inspiration.

The lake is big enough to have a variety of activities around, but small enough to reach all the important destinations in 1 to 2 days.

It is worth mentioning that ferries are a popular transportation as they connect the main spots on the lake. The summer schedule is very busy and you can always catch onto the next ferry, while in winter you have to wait for an hour or so for the next boat.

The first day we decided to go directly to Varenna, where the train from Milan also stops.
We wandered around the beautiful little town, had a snack at the main square (nothing fancy, but sometimes a small panini and an espresso is just what you need) and caught a ferry to Bellagio.

Varenna from the ferry

Varenna from the ferry

While Varenna is situated on the Eastern side, Bellagio is right in the middle of the lake - on the peninsula, which divides the lake into two of its arms.

We walked by the beautiful (but closed) Villa Serbelloni, which is a luxurious hotel, situated in the 15th century building, currently owned by the Rockefeller foundation. We wandered for a while and reached the Gardens of Villa Melzi, before heading back to the ferry.

If you want a great view, you have to go to the Punta Spartivento to find yourself just in the middle of Como just between its two branches.

Lakeside in Bellagio

Lakeside in Bellagio

After having a coffee in the port, we had back to Varenna, only to get the most amazing bloody sunset over the lake and the still-snowy mountains in the background.

The next day we woke up quite early to discover the Western part of the Lake. We quickly drove through the town of Como (it is a big touristic destination, thus the decision to skip it) and did our first stop in Chernobbio - a very lovely little town, with not a single tourist in sight.

The places to visit in Chernobbio in summer are the Renaissance Villa d'Este and Villa Erba from the 19th century, which belonged to the mother of the famous Italian director Luchino Visconti. Interesting fact - the Hollywood movie Ocean’s Twelve was filmed on the grounds of Villa Erba.

Talking about Ocean’s Twelve - George Clooney is one of the hundreds of celebrities who own property on the picturesque lake. His Villa Oleandra is some 10 minutes away from Chernobbio in the small village of Laglio. If you check the villa reviews on Google, you’ll find some witty comments from several people about George’s loud slippers in the morning or his lousy toast-making skills.

The next stop was Argegno, with its cable car, reaching over 800m and offering the most breathtaking view. While at Argegno we had lunch at a nice bistro Argegno, which was also obviously the local retirement card-game headquarters.

I really wanted to visit the famous Villa Balbianello, situated on a small wooded peninsula overlooking the lake. It served as the filming location for A Month by the Lake, as well as Casino Royal and even Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. Unfortunately, it was closed for the winter as well.
Nevertheless we took some beautiful shots of the Isola Comacina nearby.

The feeling of tranquility I felt on the lake washed away all the stress and all the troubles of the busy city life I’ve had in Berlin. I can imagine staying on the lake much longer would soon become boring for such a city girl like me, but this short retreat really did me well.

The evening light was perfect, as we approached the commune of Tremezzina. The sun was setting and the mountains was bathing in the golden mist. Few speed boats were zigzagging through the shimmering lake surface and I felt really really happy for just no reason.
Tremezzina has couple of famous villas as well. The most beautiful is probably the Villa Carlotta, with its neoclassical look and vast terraced gardens.

If you are a history lover, you would probably like to stop by the Villa Belmonte in the neighborhood of Mezzegra - by its gate the infamous fascist dictator “Il Duce” Benito Mussolini was shot together with his lover Carla Pettacci in 1945. Apparently there is a mark on Google maps, saying “Benito Mussolini shot dead here”.

The last stop on our road trip was the town of Menaggio, which is situated just across Varenna.
We had a nice dinner at a simple but authentic restaurant called Trattoria la Vecchia Magnolia on the top of the hill before heading back to our hotel in Malgrate near Lecco - about 1 hour ride, in the bottom of the right branch of the lake.

When picking up a hotel round the lake, one has plenty of options - from the lavish villas, with pools, gardens and original paintings on the walls to the smaller boutique hotels.

We picked up a nice and cozy Casa sull’Albero, which offers contemporary architecture with huge panoramic windows, facing a nice garden and lake. I woke up really early each day to capture the mist above the lake. Hotel offers a nice breakfast in a dining room facing the garden as well as the dinner option for those who are too tired to go out. The small pool is a great option for the summer, but unfortunately, February was still to cold to go swimming.

I was very pleasantly surprised how friendly everybody was during our 2-days stay at the Lake and its surroundings. People would smile at us, let me pet their dogs and not once somebody acted grumpy or non-welcoming. Old people were going for a stroll along the promenade, dogs were barking and spooking the birds, waiters in the few opened cafes were busy serving everyone espressi.
I had the most marvelous time by the lake and I will go there again - this time probably in October, when the season ends and the trees turn red and yellow.

Photographer's note: I’ve had an opportunity to test a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on this trip and I have to say, I was really happy to have it with me— long shots across the lake, beautiful depth of field, layering of the mountains. Well, you can see for yourself - this lens is a keeper, even though my hand almost fell off carrying it=)

2 days on the island of Rügen

I like German word "Sehnsucht" more than "nostalgia". Nostalgia is overused and Portuguese "saudade" forever will be associated with Brazil.
Yet Rügen, the island in the North of Germany, famous for its white chalk cliffs and Caspar David Friedrich views forever will stay with me as the island of Sehnsucht.

I didn't come up with that word or even the description, unfortunately - Karl Lagerfeld did. In 2008 he did a fashion shoot on the island for the German Vogue, which he ( or the editors, for that matter) called Insel der Sehnsucht. Featuring young models Toni Garrn and Siri Tollerod, wandering through the woods of the Baltic coast, the shoot inspired me to visit the island.

Only 3 hours car ride to Berlin, the island offers beautiful wild parks, strong winds and amazing views. Probably more middle-aged and families oriented, the island doesn't have a party spirit, unlike the other German famous island Sylt.

To go to the island in February, like we did, one has to be a tough cookie, since the weather is not tropical, to say the least. Nevertheless, since most of us were photographers, we were more than happy to get our feet wet and our thumbs frozen while shooting in the foggy forest or in the nearby swamp of the Jasmund National Park.

Finding a reasonably priced hotel was also not a problem - for merely 20 euros per person (we were 4 people) we've booked an excellent apartment with a little fireplace in the town of Sassnitz, just a short drive from the Park and its main attraction - the chalk cliffs and the Königsstuhl ("King's Chair"), which could be seen on the paintings of the famous German romanticism painter Caspar David Friedrich.

If you live or are visiting Hamburg or Berlin for a longer time, I can only recommend a weekend tour to the island. Fresh air, sea buckthorn liquor, dried fish, the lighthouse of Cape Arkona - I promise you, that one some warm summer nights, you will get nostalgic, or as German would say "sehnsüchtig" for the beautiful and cold island in the equally cold and beautiful Baltic sea.