Backpaco world explorer http://www.backpaco.com Travelling the world Sat, 16 Nov 2019 19:16:16 +0000 en hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.4 Two days in Puebla – A must do from Mexico City http://www.backpaco.com/mexico/two-days-in-puebla-a-must-do-from-mexico-city/ http://www.backpaco.com/mexico/two-days-in-puebla-a-must-do-from-mexico-city/#respond Sat, 16 Nov 2019 19:16:15 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8932 Puebla is the the fourth largest city of Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are many reason why it’s worth visiting, especially since it’s so close and accessible from Mexico City. I had no initial plans to visit Puebla, but due to the high levels of pollution in Mexico city, we started searching for a way to flee the city we started to feel several side effects. Puebla was the best choice for a quick getaway until the pollution level left it’s ”extremely dangerous” status.

How to get to Puebla

Puebla is so close from Mexico city that it is worth taking a good two days there. You can grab a bus for less than 15$ and the ride is a bit less than 3 hours. The view while leaving Mexico city is interesting and you get to see the suburbs on the side of the highway and just how massive Mexico city really is. Once in Puebla, you will need to find a taxi to reach the old city. Keep in mind that it will be easier for you to negotiate a reasonable price if you don’t go for the taxi line and simply get by the side of the street. Puebla is also very safe compared to most cities in the country, the rampant crime still hasn’t taken root in the city and it’s notorious that rich drug cartel members send their family in Puebla so they can be safe.

What is so great about Puebla ?

Puebla is a colonial city with a beautiful old center, some of the best universities of Mexico – hence, the student vibe. There are tons of bars, cafe, gastronomical restaurants and a very artsy feeling to the city. In an afternoon you can walk around most of the colorful streets of the old city but that’s only scratching the surface of the city. You need to take the time enter public buildings, universities, libraries and even some restaurants with beautiful interior design. Be curious!

San Andrés Cholula

San Andres Cholula has a lot of things to do, it’s almost a part of Puebla and can be reached by taxi in less than 20 minutes. There is an old city center, churches and monasteries, plazas but it is better known for the Zona Arqueológica de Cholula. A small Church (Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies) sits at the top of a hill where there is a view on volcanoes. However, there was far too much pollution when we were there to see the volcano, the hike was still fun. You can spend a good day in San Andrés Cholula and everything can be done by foot and it’s very safe.

View from the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies

I enjoyed how compact the old city was and the amount of things to do in such a small perimeter.

Cerveza, Pasita and tequilla

Puebla is a good place for having fun. There are high end night clubs on rooftops all around the main square, bars everywhere and bars to refresh yourself when it gets warm.

San Andrés Cholula main square

There are tons of Mescal and tequila bar near the city center of Puebla and it’s a great place to do a pub crawl and even at night the center is safe.

Our friend Miguel showing us his Mescal resistance.

The most popular and unique bar in Puebla is La Pasita. The bar is older than a 100 year and they became famous for the drink they invented : La Pasita! It’s a sweet raisin liqueur, served in a small tequila glass, and it’s balanced with fresh goat cheese and a raisin stuck on a toothpick. There are dozens of options of shots to try, all of them very original and they are classified in order of alcoholic intensity. We ended tasting several of them, while making friend in a very unique decor.


Culture and Architecture

Walking around Puebla was my favorite activity, however it’s the kind of city where you need a context as you know the city is rich in history but you can’t find that information by yourself. A free walking tour is offered everyday to share the story of the city to curious travelers. There was only four of us and our guide allowed us to dive in the history of Puebla and also of Mexico itself as Puebla was once a very important hub during the colonization times.

The colors are incredible and most buildings contrast each other, and it’s not just a street, it’s all the streets in the old city.

There are also several other monuments and parks to see but some of them are hardly accessible if you don’t have a local driving you around. I especially like this giant monument with the flag flying above the city.

If you go a week in Mexico, make sure you take the time to visit Puebla!

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10 days in Southern Morocco http://www.backpaco.com/morocco/10-days-in-southern-morocco/ http://www.backpaco.com/morocco/10-days-in-southern-morocco/#respond Thu, 14 Nov 2019 02:41:44 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8939

Our Itinerary

Since we had some direct flights from Montreal to Casablanca with AirTransat, Morocco was a perfect choice for a week off that combined week ends.We focused on the southern part of Morocco as we knew it would not be possible to see the northern cities and that another trip would be done in the future.

3 days in Marrakesh

Marrakesh is incredible, a normal day is buzzing with activity and with the intensity of a festival, but it’s like that every day. From getting lost in the souks, museums, architecture and culture, street artists, visiting tanneries (you might get scammed!) and just the overall crazed ambiance.

Our ”Ryad hostel” was better than most 5 stars hotel and we paid less than 20$ per nights each. It’s important to be in the old city especially since at night it’s very safe and it allows you to go around without any problem.

Desert tour

Seeing the Sahara desert was what I was the most thrilled about for this trip and we reserved a classic 4 day trip. There are 3 days trip that do the same itinerary than us but I don’t recommend it as 4 days was already very packed.

It took me a lot of time to get a company that offered a decent price. Almost all companies do the same activities and have the same providers – so paying tons more will barely get you anything more. After a lot of research and discussions we booked with www.desert-morocco-trips.com (Aziz was our driver.) I wrote to more than 30 companies before making my choice and a few of them tried to outright rip me off with some deposits.

Here is the description of the activity we did from desert-morocco-trips website with my pictures.

DAY 1: MARRAKECH – TIZI -N-TICHKA – AIT BENHADDOU – OUARZAZATE – DADES VALLEY/GORGES

We will pick up you from your hotel/riad/ bus station the we will start our journey from Marrakech to Dades Gorges. Across the Tizi-n-Tichka Atlas pass, with far-reaching views across the mountains, to the traditional High Atlas Berber village of Telouet and we continue to Ait Benhaddou to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou, a spectacular fortified village (Ksour).you’ll take your lunch at Ait benhaddou or ouarzazate and continue to Dades valley, we well spend the night in a riad/hotel in dades gorges

DAY 2: DADES GORGES TENGHIR TODRA GORGES – TINJDAD ERFOUD MERZOUGA NIGHT IN DESERT MERZOUGA

After the breakfast, we go from Dades gorges to the erg chebbi Sahara desert in Merzouga. Berber villages are scattered along the way, we’ll pass through Tinjdad, Jorf and Erfoud in which we’ll feel the beginning of the Saharan oasis of Tafilalet, and the we continue to Merzouga,after relaxing few minuts in Merzouga,we go to ride the camels who are waiting to take us on an adventure in the sand dunes. we will spend the night in an camp(Nomad berber tents) with drums music in the middle of the Sahara,this is a great opportunity to take lovely pictures of the sunset and sunrise,when we arrive at the camp we go to a high dunes to see the sunset , we will spend the night in nomad tents .

DAY 3: CAMEL TREKKING BACK TO MERZOUGA – BERBER VILLAGES – OUARZAZATE.

After seeing the sunrise in desert we go back on the camels to Merzouga after the breakfast and take shower in Hotel then start our journey to Ouarzazate trough the Berber villages of the atlas mountains ( Tinjdad , tenghir todra gorges ,Boumalene-du-Dades )we arrive to Ouarzazate in evening/night

DAY 4: OUARZAZATE – BERBER VILLAGES AND ATLAS MOUNTAINS to Essaouira

Leaving Ouarzazate in the Morning ,we will visit UNESCO protected site of Ait Ben Haddou. A most impressive Kasbah and well-preserved fortress in Morocco. Many movies were filmed here such as the Gladiator. Leave Ait Ben Haddou and start heading towards the majestic Atlas Mountains. Cross the High Atlas Mountains via the highest road pass in Morocco Tizni Tichka 2260m high offering impressive views of valleys, mountains and many Berber villages nearby. arrive a in evening.

Essaouira

After the dessert we wanted to see some of the Moroccan coast and we heard good things about Essaouira, a port city with an artistic vibe to it. The old city is fortified and there are a few things to do like visiting the fort, fish market and souks.

When you visit the old fort, there is a tower you can climb to get a view on the center of the old city.

At the fish market (not the touristic one) you choose a place to sit at a table, and you order and negotiate what you would like to eat. The owner goes on the other side of the streets, buys the fish from a stall based on what you asked and then his wife cooks it for you. The dynamic is very interesting, the quality and taste fantastic!

Going back to Casablanca

Casablanca felt pretty blend compared to the other places we saw in Morocco, however the Hassan II Mosque is a unique sight and absolutely worth the visit. We were blessed to have a friend from my university drive us around the city to show us some of her favorite places.

My girlfriend and I having a moment.
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Hiking Mount Marcy in New-York | All you need to know http://www.backpaco.com/united-states/hiking-mount-marcy-in-new-york-all-you-need-to-know/ http://www.backpaco.com/united-states/hiking-mount-marcy-in-new-york-all-you-need-to-know/#respond Sat, 12 Oct 2019 15:45:38 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8913 The highest peak of the State of New-York is Mount Marcy ( 5,344 feet | 1,629 m ) The 9 mile trail is a very rewarding and fun one that can be done in less than 7 hours by advanced hikers or 9 hours for hikers looking for a great view and a day in the great outdoor.

Where to start the hike and how to get there : The trail to the summit of Mount Marcy is easy to find. It starts at the Adirondak Loj & Heart Lake Program Center . https://goo.gl/maps/UuXxApNj7TcZZTsT9 The issue we faced, like most of the hikers, is that the parking lot it usually filled at 6 am. If this happens you need to park your car on the road leading to the Program Center – for the first mile there are some ”no parking signs” on both side of the road and a ticket of nearly 250$. The cars pile up quickly and you can end all the way to 2.5 miles out of the Program Center – this makes a good difference to the hike duration adding an additional hour to the total hike.

Best time to start the Mount Marcy Trail : The earlier the better, also depending on the time of the year, you need to be careful due to the fact the hike is difficult in darkness. In summer, starting around 9 am makes a lot of sense while in Autumn, like we did, earlier is better. Keep in mind that the path was very icy as we came close to the summit, it’s better to do the hike when freezing temperatures can be avoided.

What to bring : The most important item for this trek is some waterproof / Goretex shoes. The trail is very wet and often you walk in streams and puddles. You’ll need to jump from rocks to rocks and there is a risk of getting pretty wet. Make sure you bring a lot of snacks and several liters of water.

It’s one of the great hikes of the North-East and enjoy.

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A Two Week Roadtrip around Albania http://www.backpaco.com/albania/two-weeks-driving-around-albania/ http://www.backpaco.com/albania/two-weeks-driving-around-albania/#respond Tue, 08 Oct 2019 11:37:32 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8827 Having done all the Balkans a few years before, I heard that Albania was still decades behind from a touristic perspective and especially transportation. I assumed that the country would be hectic to visit and difficult to get around. Turns out that Albania is one of the best countries at the moment to visit as the they possess everything to make travelers delighted ; from delicious food, UNESCO world heritage site, amazing variety of landscapes and very warm and welcoming people. The roads are also in way better conditions than expected and although public transportation might be challenging, all conditions are in place for a fantastic road trip. These are some of the reasons why Albania is in my top 10 countries I visited.

We rented a Dacia Duster with Europcar for 12 days (300$) and did the following Albanian roadtrip.

Arriving in Tirana

We arrived at 1 am in the morning in Tirana and we were afraid to get scrammed by Taxi drivers as it’s the only way to get to the city during the night. Turns out people really wanted to help us out and the price is fixed to 2500 LEK / 22 USD and they didn’t try to negotiate higher.

After a little bit of sleep, we started walking around the city of Tirana. It’s a small capital considering there is less than half a million Albanians living in Tirana. It’s very different than other capitals of Europe as the city was developed under the communist regime in the 1950s. Until 1998 Tirana was close to the world and as unreachable as North-Korea is today.

The Tirana free walking tour is a must as it’s a city where you need explanations to really understand how the city was shaped.

After visiting the city and getting a Vodaphone sim card for the roadtrip, we left in the early afternoon to rent our car at Europcar (275 usdfor 12 days) and initiated our way to Shkoder. The ride to Shokder is great, the road goes through several cities and you can see castles and different landscapes while rolling on a decent highway.

We stopped at the Patoku Lagon to eat some fresh fish and later at lake Shokder for a beer.

Lake Shokder

Our evening was spent walking around in the city of Shokder. Even though it was a Sunday night, the city was buzzing with activity and all the restaurants were full.

Shkoder to Valbona – The man made lake Koman

Our plan : Start in Shokder, go to Valbona with the ferry, cross the mountains on foot (no roads exist) and come back from Theth to Shkoder.

The previous day, we parked our car in the hotel parking and left most of our items in the trunk as we only wanted to bring the necessary items in the mountains. We woke up at 6 am and shortly after, a van picked us up and started going around several hostels and hotels to pick travelers going towards the Lake Koman Ferry. The ride lasted several hours on bumpy roads and we eventually started going up the mountains and then though a tunnel where a small platform with several ferries were awaiting us.

Lake Koman is a reservoir due to a dam built in the 1990s. The ferry allows us to go straight through the mountains and save hours of car while enjoying wonderful views and a pretty unique ecosystem. The Koman fery is a unique activity to do and it allows you to visit a remote region – the only problem we saw was all the plastic trash floating everywhere on the lake.

We arrived in Fierza and a van going to Valbona dropped us near our B&B in the middle of the afternoon.

Valbona to Theth – crossing the peaks of the Balkans

The trek from Valbona to Theth isn’t a very hard one and there are several water sources along the way. The challenge was needing to carry around our backpack as we weren’t coming back to Valbona afterwards.

As we reach the summit, the path becomes steeper and the vegetation changes drastically.

On the other side of the summit, we got some incredible views on the valley where the village of Theth is located.

We arrived exhausted at Theth and after making some Dutch friends and drinking a few beers we went to bed thinking we would sleep deeply… Reality is that a dog barked all night a few meters away from our door.

Blue Eye of Theth and going back to Shkoder

The next day we started a hike after a great mountain breakfast filled with local products. The hike turned out to be longer than expected and due to our feets having blisters from the previous day it turned out to be very difficult.

After 2 hours of hiking down the valley while following the rivers. We entered a small village from where we started another hour of ascension towards the blue eye.

In the afternoon, for 60 euro divided by four passenger, we had a private jeep waiting for us to take us back from Theth to Skhoder. The drive is full of crazy swirls on a horrible road but these drivers have been driving the same road for years and they know it by hearth – hence they go at crazy speeds to maximize their revenue.

Berat – the Town of a Thousand Windows

After 4 hours of road from Shkoder, we arrived in Berat. The city has been designated a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site in 2008, comprises a unique style of architecture with influences from several civilizations that have managed to coexist for centuries.

The old city of Berat is divided by the river and the view from the bridge is incredible. There is also a castle at the top of the city and it’s unique in the sense that an entire city is protected by it’s walls. The view is also stunning from up there.

Berat is also one of the best places to eat local cuisines. We went to the Piccolo Grande Amore restaurant and the owner prepare an entire ”special” menu for us. We tasted a wide variety of fresh specialties from around the country for less then 40 dollars each.

Gjirokaster 

After less than 3 hours of drive from Berat, we arrived Gjirokastër, a city older than 700 years that has several unique features. The city has a very cute small old district that was being partly renovated and improved when we were there. The roofs of the buildings are all made of slabs of rocks and this gives it a very interesting look. There is also a massive fortress at the top of the city that is absolutely worth visiting.

Gjirokastër forteress

Butrint National Park and the beaches of Ksamil

Butrint National Park is an exceptionally preserved archaeological site with artifacts and structures, dating from the Iron Age up until the Middle Ages. You walk this massive site covered in ruins and with great explanations and you are in awe before all the civilizations built over time and the decline of the middle-ages. It takes a few hours to visit the ruins and there is also a museum within the medieval castle. We also took a boat ride across the Corfu straight as there are several locals wanting to sell you a boat ride in the parking – for 20$ why not?

Corfu can be seen right across the water from Butrint National Park
Christianity later took root and a church was built in Butrint

The principal architectural monuments in the park includes a Roman theatre, Dionysus altar, Nymphaeum, Thermae, Gymnasium, Forum, Aqueduct, the temples of Minerva and Asclepius, the Lion Gate and a Baptistery situated in Southern Albania and declared a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1992.

Ksamil

After an afternoon in Butrint, we headed 20 minutes north to Ksamil. The town is part of the Albanian riviera, some of the best beaches of the country are located here while boating a beautiful view on Corfu. Things get overcrowded in the summer, but visiting during the low season like we did, it’s a great place to relax.

We spent the afternoon relaxing, reading and swimming.

Sarande

Sarande is a coastal city that is well located due to it’s proximity with the Albanian riviera, Butrint National Park and many beaches. We spent two days there in a Airbnb with a view on the sea so we could visit the surrounding attractions. However, the main reason we came here was to take a ferry that would take us to Corfu.

We simply left our car in the streets of Sarande, the country is extremely safe and we felt that no wrong would happen to our rented car. We bought out tickets to Corfu and spent the next hour and a half enjoying a small cruise on the Ionian sea.

Our visit to Corfu was a bit of a deception. Corfu living mainly on tourism and massive Cruise ships, the experience doesn’t feel the same. We did a full day visit of the island and also took a boat to go on the mainland and visit some caverns and villages. However, after 2 days we decided to come back to Albania as it was calling us for many reasons : the people, the food and the authenticity.

Albanian east coast

We started going north again after our time in Corfu. When we went south across the country, we were within the mainlands surrounded by mountains and driving mainly in valleys. Going North was a completely different kind of view as we took roads that followed the ocean. This road (SH8) is in my opinion one of the most beautiful roadtrip in the world. The mountains surge out of the sea and small valleys formed due to erosion between these giants while the road zigzags constantly offering an ever changing view. The drive was as much of a highlight then the small villages we crossed.

View from the side of the road

We spent two days relaxing in the village of Dhërmi at Drymades Beach. Almost everything was closed, a kilometer of beach was shared between less then 10 tourists. Perfect place to let go before returning home.

Vlore

Vlore is a big coastal city we crossed on our way back to Tirana. We didn’t stop to visit the city itself but we did a detour to see the Manastiri i Shën Mërisë. It’s a small monastery on an island in the middle of an interior lake which can be accessed by small bridges.

The end of the trip in Albania

Our trip finished in Tirane where the trip started. The car company didn’t charge is the scratches we did going around the small streets of Berat!

We spent the last day visiting the city and it’s museums and the night going around several bars as our plane was at 4 in the morning.

Albania is definitely in my top 10 countries.

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Two weeks road trip in Georgia and Azerbaijan http://www.backpaco.com/georgia/two-week-road-trip-in-georgia-and-azerbaijan/ http://www.backpaco.com/georgia/two-week-road-trip-in-georgia-and-azerbaijan/#respond Tue, 04 Jun 2019 11:52:51 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8745 This trip occurred in May 2018.

Visiting Baku

Baku is the capital and the largest city of Azerbaijan. The city is built about 28 meters under the sea level and interestingly, this makes it the lowest capital in the world.

We were lucky when we were there as the temperature was perfect and there was almost no wind. This is important to know as Baku is derived from the persian words Bād-kube, literraly meaning “Wind-pounded city.”

The city is rich but the wealth comes almost entirely from the oil production. They started drilling for oil around 1850 and they reached a point where half of the oil sold in international markets was being extracted in Baku. At present Baku produces close to one-fifth of the international oil.

The city is built in a desert but the wealth is palpable. The old town is perfectly preserved and is a must see. It used to be a small village bordering the Caspian see before the oil boom. The city expanded around that fortified village and a feeling of authenticity and history is present in those small alleys. Also, in the 20th century, as wealthy families came back from their education in Europe, they felt Europeen and decided to create a ”small Paris” around the old city. The clash is stunning!

However, the more recent parts of the city has a ”Dubai” feeling to it. Money is abundant and modern skyscrapers, monuments and buildings are taking over rapidly but there doesn’t seem to be any soul to it. As if people don’t really live there and that those neighborhoods haven’t been created properly for citizens but more for showing off the wealth of the city to international visitors.

Fact remains, I strongly recommend visiting this city for 2-3 days and the food was delicious.

Night train from Baku to Tbilisi

The night train is an experience itself. We brought our ticket the previous day and after spending a couple of hours at Baku train station drinking some beer with a view, we made our way to train. Tickets in first class allow you to have a two person room (you both get a bed.) The way we saw it is that even if it’s more expensive than the second class (4 people) since it’s a night train we are saving on the accommodation anyway.

Train rides have something comforting and relaxing to them. As you leave the train station, you can see that Baku is all light up at night and modern buildings are colored in LED lights. Things get pretty dark once you exit the city itself.

When you wake up in the morning, the views are interesting and you eventually cross the border – we waited about 1 hour for the police border to scan everyone – the good part is that you can stay in your wagon and there is no need to go out. The train kept going all the way to Tbilisi as we looked at the view with our Turkish coffee and ”had to enjoy” the loud music of our train neighbor who never heard of earbuds.

Tbilisi – A warm location

The name Tbilisi derives from Old Georgiant′bilisi (თბილისი), and further from tpili (თბილი, “warm”). The name T′⁠bili or T′bilisi (literally, “warm location”) was therefore given to the city because of the area’s numerous sulphuric springs.

Tbilisi had a soul, it was a noisy, a bit chaotic and lively. A very old city with a caste on top of the hill that survived through the ages.

What I liked the most was just how friendly the locals were. It’s part of their culture to make sure that guests are well taken care of and to show their hospitality. They have a saying that “a guest is a gift from God” and they show it.

We explored the city, visited the castle on the hill and the botanical gardens on the other side of that hill.

Telavi & the wine region

The Georgians are proud to be the first wine-makers. They are well known for the different high quality wines and local grapes that can’t be found elsewhere. I tasted a lot of Saperavi wines during the trip and I was glad to go through the core of the wine regions of this country.

A delicious Saperavi wine

While going through the wine-region that is found east of Tbilisi, we stopped at a monastery for a stroll and to enjoy a nice view on the valley below.

We spent our afternoon at Sighnaghi a charming city with several wineries and restaurants to visit. You feel as if you traveled several hundred years in the past as you share the city with the locals who are rooted in traditions.



We finished our day at Telavi, an ancient city built in the valleys, that was once the capital of a kingdom.

Ananouri to Juta

Goin from Telavi to Ananouri was a hell of a driv. The dirt roads in the mountains were completely destroyed and some holes could be several feet deep and dodging them was not always possible. It took us more than 2 hours for 25 kilometers crossing a mountain range.

While on those dirt roads, we decided to take a break and follow a small path since we wanted a view. We ended up in what used to be an ancient monastery. Although it was all abandoned and seems to have been so for a long time, the small chapel was still in a perfect condition in the middle of the ruins. This felt like otherworldly and it was a great experience to walk these ruins alone with my friend.

We stopped near the Zhinvali Reservoir for a quick leg break and also the Ananuri Fortress.

Ananuri was a castle and seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area from the 13th century. The castle was the scene of numerous battles.

There are several view points on the way to Stepantsminda. The tea culture is strong and you can always find people selling some. This region was very touristic during he Soviet era and these installations were made for the Russian visitors.

An intersting sight to the road was the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument.

The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument or Treaty of Georgievsk Monument is a monument built in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and the ongoing friendship between Soviet Georgia and Soviet Russia. Located on the Georgian Military Highway Inside the monument is a large tile mural that spans the whole circumference of the structure and depicts scenes of Georgian and Russian history.

Stepantsminda and Kazbegi

We woke with this view and we knew we had to climb to that monastery. We got some provisions and a hefty breakfast before hitting the trails.

The trail to the monastery took more than an hour and part of the trail is the dirt road the tourists take. The monastery is packed with 4×4 and many people in the valley live from the pilgrimages and hikers.

We decided to venture as far up as we could near mount Kazbek. With it’s snowy peak and it’s 5033 meters it is one of the nice hikes I had the chance to do.

Mount Kazbek, is a dormant stratovolcano and one of the major mountains of the Caucasus located on the border of Georgia’s Kazbegi District and Russia’s Republic of North Ossetia–Alania. It is the third-highest peak in Georgia and the seventh-highest summit in the Caucasus Mountains.

We made it to 3000 meters before having to turn back due to the snow. We got caught in a rainstorm on our way down and hitched a ride in a 4×4 once we made it to the monastery.

Horse Riding in Kazbegi

The next day, we were very sore and my back problems became all too real. We decided to go around the valley on horses. The guides did not give us a lot of latitude with the horses and mine was extremely lazy and unwilling to go anything faster than strict minimum. We visited a church, a riverbed and a forest.

The road to Svaneti

Svaneti is another remote mountain region and we had three days of road to get there from Stepantsminda.

We started the next morning with Uplistsikhe is identified by archaeologists as one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia Uplistsikhe s an ancient rock-hewn town built on a high rocky bank.

Uplistsikhe contains various structures dating from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages, and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture.

After a lot of road, we also visited and slept at Kutaisi. The city has a modern hipste vibe to it and the Rioni river is impressive. It is worth the stop.

We crossed a region where the Russian influence was very strong from an architectural stand-point. The russian

Once we left Kutaisi, nature quickly took over and we crossed villages once in while during those hours on the road. There were numerous rainfalls and Aleks managed to drive like a pro in difficult conditions. We stopped several times to enjoy the stunning views.

Later that day

Mestia

We screwed up our planning as our goal was to reach Ushguli but our rented car wasn’t allowed to go there, and a GPS chip was embed in our car.

Mestia was actually stunning and worth exploring, I would have stayed longer as the medieval feeling is still strong although the tourist industry has boomed. The Svan are a very different cultural group than the rest of the Georgian and they are known for their honesty.

The town has several stone defensive towers. A  typical Svan fortified dwelling consisted of a tower, an adjacent house (machub) and some other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.

We also also did two different days of hiking. One day to the Chalaati Glacier – an easy hike with a rewarding view on a glacier surrounded by massive peaks.

Our other hike was a bit harder due to the snow and started at the village of Mazeri. Several waterfalls were waiting for us at the end of the trail and beyond the ice-field.

We spent that night at Grand Hotel Ushba were we ate like kings, played ping-pong with a million dollar view and slept like babies after those two days of hiking.

Our last day in the Svaneti was spent horse riding. Our host at Hotel Ushba knew who to contact and we got a guide that took us far in the mountain to see some ruins and enjoy some views. The perfect way to finish our visit in the Svaneti.

I do not think I will go back to Gerogia but the only reason I see myself returning is to spend more time in the Svaneti ; enjoying the mountains and outdoor activities.

Going back to Tbilisi

Going back towards Tbilisi took some time. The cows roaming the highway makes those roads not too efficient.

We stopped at some wineries.

We visited Gori Castle.

The last days in Tbilisi

As we walked the streets, we came to a conclusion that a festival of some sort was going on as the street were packed with singers and activities. It turns out that Gerogia was celebrating their 100 years of independence on May 26 2018.

The military display was interesting although not very impressive when you know it’s Russia they are trying to send a message to.

Tbilisi has several museums and the Georgian National Museum was very interesting has had several anthropology expositions due to the fact that Georgia is so ancient.

We decided to finish the trip by relaxing at the Royal Bathouse in Tbilisi where we reserved the royal room. This was an incredible experience and also came with a scrubbing massage.

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Two Weeks Around the Garden Route of South Africa http://www.backpaco.com/south-africa/two-weeks-around-the-garden-route-of-south-africa/ http://www.backpaco.com/south-africa/two-weeks-around-the-garden-route-of-south-africa/#respond Sun, 05 May 2019 17:17:43 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8647

Cape town

I arrived downtown in the later afternoon using the public transporation from the airport. My Airbnb where I was to meet my friend was further than expected. I had to walk a good 45 minutes from the central bus stop to that neighborhood. The first moments walking a new country is special, you stand out with your big backpack and analyse your surrounding to capture the atmosphere and any signs of potential danger. As in most places, Cape Town was much safer than I expected. What I learned later is that this region of South Africa is vastly different from the rest of the country in term of safety and tourist safety. Cape Town is very safe during the day and feels a lot like Europe.

The brother of the owner of the airbnb walked me through the things to do in the city and some tips. The best tip I got is to ONLY go around in Uber and avoid any taxi in Cape Town – best case scenario, they will scam you, worst case … you will end up in a fake taxi and violence might ensue – the best part is that there are no ways to know a fake taxi from a real taxi.

Once my friend arrived from Berlin we went to buy a SIM card right away (extremely cheap and easy to negotiate your way in obtaining a pre-charged sim card without needing a passport proof) had some good food next to the Airbnb, a few pints and the day was done.

Free walking tour and getting to know Cape Town

It’s almost always sunny in Cape Town, clouds form in the valley as they reach Table Top mountain and the mountain is always part of the view.

We had some time before the Free walking tour and we decided to walk around the central district to discover a mix of modern architecture and colonization era buildings. The city is vivid and full of action and there are things to view at every corner.



The free walking tour took us closer to District 6. Our guide showed us the Zonnebloem college and several buildings covered in Street art as he ran us through the history of the district. Zonnebloem College was founded in 1858 and was opened so princes and princess of African chiefs from the eastern Cape Colony, among others could be educated.

After the walking tour we explored Long Street where tons of bars and restaurants are available… the prices are higher here but still affordable. Micro-breweries lovers and foodies can find what they want here.

We ended the day at the Cape Town Harbour or the Victoria and Albert Waterfront as they call it. This section is more for shopping but there are several more expensive restaurants and bars and also The Nelson Mandela Gateway Dock To Robben Island.

Driving along the coast to Gansbaai : Penguins and Cheetahs

We picked up our car near the Waterfront early in the morning. We had a big day ahead and we wanted to be in Gansbaai before it got dark.

We started the day at the Cheetah Outreach Preservation center for cheetahs & other predators, with education programs & animal encounters. We spent a good 20 minutes with a Cheetah and a guide asking several questions while petting a cheetah in the shade. They are big and intimidating and you feel quite vulnerable. The animals are well taken care of and not sedated as in many touristic places in Asia.


The road itself is stunning and is considered to be one of the best road trips in the world. The landscape keeps changing but however, you are always right next to the ocean and you can stop at several view spots along the way.

Stony Point Nature Reserve

After several stops and a quick swim in a tide pool in the ocean we arrived at the Stony Point Nature Reserve. This unique mainland seabird breeding colony is the home to three endangered seabird species and one rarity, all of whom are visible from the reserve’s elevated viewing boardwalk.

Agulhas National Park

The main reason we went at Gansbaai is that it is known for its dense population of great white sharks and as a whale-watching location. However, a group of Orcas emerged a few days before and chased all the great whites away.

We decided to improvise and go to Agulhas National Park. The trip to Agulhas is much easier with four wheel drive due to the dirt roads.

You can spend a full day in the park as there are a lot of hiking trails. This park is a must-see as it is the southernmost tip of Africa and the official meeting-point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. There are multiple shipwrecks and interesting geological formations. You can also visit Agulhas lighthouse, the second-oldest lighthouse in South Africa.

Once we got back to Gansbaai, we drank some good local wines, had a bbq and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.

Quad in the valleys

We spent half the day going around in quads and exploring the multiple valleys and forests around Gansbaai with our guide. Usually, in touristic tours, the quads are speed-locked and automatic… but not this time! I have little picture of this event but you can see some moments in the video.

We drove a lot at the end of the day as our Shark activity we canceled called us to inform us the great whites had been spotted in Mossel Bay.

White Shark Cage Diving

I always wanted to swim with sharks but when it came to great whites, a cage sounded like a great idea. We got a flat on our way to Mussle Bay where the boat was waiting for us. The SIM card allowed us to call and let them know we would be late – there was a lot of stress knowing we might miss our chance.

The boat ride is about 30 minutes outside the port and takes you to a small island/rock where there are a lot of seals relaxing… but when the tides get high, the waves sweep the island push the seal in the ocean where the sharks are waiting to feast.

The water is cold and you need to suit up before getting in the cage. We got lucky enough to see 6 sharks and a massive female that made the other ones scamper away. The best moment was when I felt something touch my leg, and as I turned I could see it was one the sharks ”tasting” the cage a few centimeters away from me. My face could peak into the predator’s mouth and I got one of those adrenaline surge I love.

The evening was spent drinking wine in a state of bliss as we listened to rugby matches – not understanding the rules but not caring. Just feeling good.

Storms River Bridges –Tsitsikamma National Park and big trees

This is the day we entered the Garden Route.

The name comes from the verdant and ecologically diverse vegetation encountered here and the numerous lagoons and lakes dotted along the coast.

We did a small hike at The Big Tree Tsitsikamma which
boasts an eight hundred- year-old Yellowwood. ” This majestic tree towers over the rest of the canopy; standing 36+m tall and with a trunk circumference of 9m – this is a giant among giants.

The afternoon was spent hiking the storm river suspension bridges and trails.

Sand Surfing and chillin’ and J-Bay

Jeffreys Bay is one of the five most famous surfing destinations in the world and hosts the annual World Surf League (WSL) surfing event. The place is popular for the chill vibe on the main avenue and also the calamari. Perfect place to relax after a day with the shark.

It would have made sense to surf but let’s just say that once you swam a couple of miles out with some white sharks… Sand surfing sounds like a much better idea! Renting the boards are a couple of bucks and you can spend the afternoon waxing and falling of the board.

Addo Elephant National park

This was the furthest point east of our road trip. We woke up at 4h30 am to be among the first in the park and also enjoy the freshness of the morning where most animals are out grazing.

” Addo Elephant National Park is situated 72km by road from Port Elizabeth. Established in 1931 to save 11 Elephants on the brink of extinction, and now home to more than 350 of them, 280 Cape Buffalo, black Rhino, a range of Antelope species, as well as the rare flightless dung Beetle, Addo Elephant Park is a perfect destination for the adventurous outdoor and nature lover. ”

The best moment was when our car got surrounded by a herd of elephants. Definitely a must-see!

Monkey Land and crazy roads

After seeing dozen of species the previous day it made sense to continue our streak. Monkey Land was on our road and was a perfect stop to break this 6 hours of driving (our longest) in half.

I had low expectations as usually these installations are too touristy. This one turned out to be very different. The forest surrounded by the fence is big enough for monkeys to cover a big territory and enjoy a great life. The guides only allow small groups in at the time and the paths are perfect to watch them play at different levels of the forest. There is even a hanging bridge which allows you to see the forest from high up and the monkeys who prefer this environment.

The rest of the afternoon was spent driving through Prince Alfred’s Pass. A very dangerous road that made this journey very exciting. As you cross several valleys to the north the humidity drops and it slowly turns from a lush rain forest to a desert. Every valley is a a different ecosystem than the previous one only miles apart.

Oudtshoorn – The ostrich capital of the world

After waking in a ranch and feeding the horses, we did the best thing to do at the “ostrich capital of the world” … go play with some ostriches!

” Oudtshoorn is a town in the Klein Karoo area of South Africa’s Western Cape. It’s known for its ostrich farms and rests along the Route 62 wine route. The central C.P. Nel Museum traces the ostrich-feather boom era and houses a working synagogue.  ”

The farm we visited allowed us to understand the animal better and the entire economy and lifestyle surrounding these magnificent ”dumb” giant birds! As you gaze in their big eyes (larger than their brain) you are surprised to realize that not much is happening… we tend to expect intelligence from big animals but this one is shockingly the opposite.

At night, I had one of the best meals of my life. Ostrich meat has no fat but is red meat. It’s like a giant fillet mignon and when it’s paired with delicious local wines, it’s a perfect meal.

Owning a regional park for a night

Airbnb has been one of the highlights of the trip. It allowed us to experience some situations which would have traditionally been impossible. On that night, we rented a luxury tent in a private region covering several valleys and mountains. I don’t know anywhere else in the world where you can get all this for less than a 100$ a night.


More wine regions!

This is the kind of morning where I was drunk at 11h am. Most wineries in South Africa are free for tasting and there is a wine I like a lot back home which comes from Robertson Winery. We arrived around 10 in the morning and I was surprised to find they had more than 60 wines! So… I HAD to taste them all!

Special thanks to my friend for being such a dedicated driver.

Most days of the roadtrip we stopped to at least one winery when driving between activities. But those two days allowed us to really focus on discovering two wine regions. We visited some modest family wineries, massive industrial ones and prestigious high end ones who poured millions in architecture.

Back to Cape Town for a few days

Having a car in Cape Town allows you to visit some beautiful view points around the valley.

Before visiting South Africa I read the a ”Long Walk to Freedom” from Nelson Mandela. It gave me a context and better understanding of the country and racial struggles it endured and is still enduring. I recommend everyone to read it as it will prepare you for the trip.

Robben island visit takes all it’s meaning once you have read the book and shared a bit of the 18 years Mandela spend imprisoned there.

On the day of our flight, we spent the day hiking around Table Top mountain. We knew there would be no cloud thanks to the weather forecast.

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Day 11: Hermitage and partying with the Russians outside Saint-Petersburg http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-11-hermitage-and-partying-with-the-russians-outside-saint-petersburg/ http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-11-hermitage-and-partying-with-the-russians-outside-saint-petersburg/#respond Mon, 16 May 2016 16:08:04 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8551 Walking in front of Hermitage the previous day and listening to Marcella talk about it made me realize we absolutely had to go there. The hermitage is similar to the Louvre in its size. Several palaces together, can offer up to two full days of visit – the lady at the information desk told me that there are 24 kilometers to walk if one wants to visit the entire thing.

The section that greatest impression on were certainly the various rooms of the palace dedicated to impress the guess. The Hermitage was the seat of power of the Tsar since the tsar Peter the first. The palace has impressive stairs and ball rooms and corridors full of portraits. The tsar had several rooms for ceremonies and taking decisions and in one of them, when standing in front of the majestic throne you could feel the power of this place and the weight of the decisions taken in this room that shaped Russia. We only explored the sections with themes that interested us considering the little time we had to see it all.

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The late afternoon was spent relaxing under the sun in a big park while drinking a pilsner. Having accumulated so many kilometers allowed us to relax our legs.

My friend Aleks studied abroad in Germany for a semester and he made a Russian friend. She wanted to go eat with Aleks and I was invited. So we met at the rendezvous point outside the metro at the center of the city at 7h00. She came with her boyfriend, who was very nice and pleasant. They both had good English and we proceeded to take a beer in an Irish Bar and we order some fish and chips. The friend of Aleks decided to pay the food for all of us. That was an extremely nice thing to do, and I was really impressed me as she had no reason to do so except being genuinely nice. The four of us got along very well and they invited us to the party of their friend in the suburb of the city. We thought, why not?! Real Russian experience!

So after around 30 minutes of metro we got out in her neighborhood and it was a real shock. The huge buildings, soviet style, built cheaply to fit as much people as humanly possible were everywhere. This hard nothing to do with the center of the city; this was another face of Russia – the one tourists don’t get to see. We bought them some alcohol at the liquor store to make up for the dinner they paid for us and made our way to the party.

In the middle of the giant buildings was a small neighborhood of higher quality house with private yards and parking. The contrast was shocking; the friend in question lived in one of these nice apartments that stood out. We listened to some music, drank and had a lot of fun and the rest of the information is not appropriated for this PG 13 blog.

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We ended up sleeping at Alek’s friend apartment since the metro closed at 1h30. It was a great experience and I am really happy I finally had a night of drinking with a Russian called Ivan.

Truly a glorious cultural experience.

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Day 10: antropology museum, Bunny and military party at St-Petersburg http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-10-antropology-museum-bunny-and-military-party-at-st-petersburg/ http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-10-antropology-museum-bunny-and-military-party-at-st-petersburg/#respond Mon, 16 May 2016 15:03:41 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8540 Marcella didn’t know about walking tours, so we told her to tag along so she could discover how great they are. We ate at the marketplace again that morning; tasty chicken pancakes, mashed potatoes with fruits and some green tea… and Imodium.

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Once at the walking tour meeting point we waited for a while and no one showed up. We were a disappointed. I wrote to the guy and he never answered my back. We had only discovered a small part of St-Pete at this point and so we headed toward the Hermitage and walked around that central part of the touristic city. The architecture impressed me a lot, the Tsar of the time really wanted every details to be perfect.

We later crossed a bridge and ended up in a part with a nice park. A military event seemed to be going on and so we watched and enjoyed the view of the river for quite a while. I took many pictures and got some weird look from the military officers – I’m a horrible spy.

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We analysed our options and voted for the museum of anthropology. This museum is the oldest of Saint-Petersburg and has accumulated an impressive collection of many items from around the world. Most of the museum is only in Russian and so some rooms were quick to clear. There is a particular that is worth mentioning. Some people collected the foetus and dead babies who were called monstrosities because of their malformations; they were then displayed into formol for all to watch. The museum has a diversified collection of dead babies that honestly gave me Goosebumps.

st-pete foetus

Once back to the hostel, I regrouped people interested in watching the hockey match that was starting at 20h15. The city has installed a huge screen and had established a special zone for the hockey enthusiasts. The world championship of hockey, taking place in Saint-Petersburg and Moscow made the whole thing even more vibrant. Just before the Russian match, Canada won 5-1 against USA. I wished to feel the Russian vibe during their match and I thought that since they are playing against Czech Republic they might have a good chance to win – well since it was cold and windy outside and that Russia got score upon in the first period we didn’t stay for long. It was a great experience and a lot of fun though.

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We proceed to go eat at a typical Russian restaurant. The waiter was funny and when we asked him to cut the bill he literally did – funny Russian humour.

 

After the restaurant I told them I wanted to go try a bar we walked in front earlier. There were weird rabbit statues and I was intrigued by it. Turns out the bar was a psychedelic bar inspired by, I think, Alice in wonderland. Every night at midnight, they would celebrate the New Year. As soon as you entered the bar they would fabricate some bunny ears in paper; we knew we looked ridiculous with these on but looking around and seeing a SUPER BADASS LOOKING RUSSIAN wearing those, I decided that it’s actually pretty cool! The night ended after dancing with the Russian Santa Claus and taking a few beers. It was an interesting evening; Saint-Petersburg is really full of surprises.

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Day 9 : Walking around Saint-Petersburg and the museum of Russian history http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-9-walking-around-saint-petersburg-and-the-museum-of-russian-history/ http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-9-walking-around-saint-petersburg-and-the-museum-of-russian-history/#respond Mon, 16 May 2016 07:28:18 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8533 The marketplace is such a good restaurant we decided to make our way there as soon as we woke up. I received an email telling me there would be no walking tour on this particular day but to go to the meeting point tomorrow. This meant that today was a museum day!

While eating we made some researches on what museum we should attend. The Russian history museum seemed perfect to introduce us to the history and acquaint us with the Russian culture through paintings.

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It is an extraordinary museum with paintings from everywhere around Russia and artists that explored the various social casts of Russia through various centuries. Paintings are one of the best way to learn about a country and a culture. An interesting fact is that every room had an old lady in charge of making sure none of the paintings might get damaged by the visitors. It seemed that as soon as we could be heard speaking French by them, we would automatically turn into high level threats. They old ladies, some of them very very very old, would be only a few centimeters away from us the whole time spent in the room and they would just stare at us intensely with that mean Russian face. They were the most threatening aspect of my entire trip in Russia. And so, we decided to start pointing paintings as a provocation – they did not like that. The museum must have offered at least 300 jobs to these old ladies.

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We took a beer with a nice view on the street and a chicken sandwich as a late afternoon lunch. The Russian service isn’t great compared to other European standards. The girl explained to us that it is normal in Russia that ordering a beer can take far more than 10 minutes to receive. I didn’t mind the beer just tasted better after the wait.

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We then went back to the hostel in the middle of the afternoon so I could take care of my business, answer clients email and dispatch the work. We wanted to try another typical Russian restaurant and we invited Marcella to join along and a French guy called Hadrien. By the time we got to the restaurant it was close due to the late hour, and so we ate in a Belgium restaurant.

The cost of life, food and particularly alcohol is very expensive in Saint-Petersburg.

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Day 8 : 30 kilometers of walk around the gardens of Saint-Petersburg http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-8-30-kilometers-of-walk-around-the-gardens-of-saint-petersburg/ http://www.backpaco.com/uncategorized/day-8-30-kilometers-of-walk-around-the-gardens-of-saint-petersburg/#respond Mon, 16 May 2016 07:12:23 +0000 http://www.backpaco.com/?p=8526 On the previous day I asked the German girl – Marcella – what was her plans for the day. The two of us being solo travelers we decided to go for a big walk around the city – I had many hours to burn before Aleks would arrive in the late afternoon. I wanted to explore a part, which I knew he would not want to see as we had only a few days to visit the city.

We decided to go explore the several parks of the city and go to the beach of the north side of the river where the first part of the city of saint-Petersburg was established. Many parks made me thing about the ones found in Versailles with the various statues and particular presentation.  We walked, visited a huge mosque, crossed the bridge, and visited various other parks. We found a small grocery store where I could finally try to practice my Russian as everyone so far I interacted with had a decent level of English they were more than happy to show. We bought fruits, nuts and I got myself a Fanta (I only    drink that in  Europe) and we made our way to the beach. The weather was perfect, 20 something with a little sea wind and a strong sun. The artificial beach is located near the ramparts of the old fortress and it’s a great place to relax with an amazing view on the hermitage and various other palaces.

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We walked 26 kilometers; my legs were a little bit soar. In fact, they were extremely soar. We found a small table on the street with the perfect view on the church of our savior of spilled blood. That church has so much details and is a real joy to look at. Marcella and I shared green tea while enjoying the moment and relaxing our legs with one of the best view possible.

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Once back at the hostel, Aleks was unpacking in the room and he was quite hungry after the long bus ride. We decided to go eat and Marcella followed. We went to a recommended restaurant just in front of a super massive orthodox church. The restaurant, called the Marketplace, is one of my favourite as it is an open buffet with a very indie design that seems to have taken everything popular on pinterest and just mashed it all together. The food is great, you take a plate, go around and select the different choices and customize yourself a glorious plate for an acceptable price. Also, eating on the terrace with the view on the church and one of the busiest streets of Saint-Petersburg is priceless. I love to sit down and breathe in the vibe and feel the pulse of a city and this was the best place to do so.

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Every night, the streets of St-Peters are full of people enjoying the multitude of bars and restaurants available throughout the city. This city has an amazing night life. We met with our group of friends from the hostel, and went out partying. We did an improvised Pub Crawl and discovered many interesting places. The alcohol is expensive in the bars, and so we drank a bit in some street liquor shop where you can get a big variety of alcohol for a very reasonable price. I discovered a couple of new interesting beers. The night ended very late, by the embankment with the nice view and surrounded by fun people.

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