Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Exploring Italy: Mt. Etna Helicopter Tour in Sicily

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The otherworldly landscape of Mt. Etna

I find volcanic landscapes oddly compelling and helicopters are my favorite mode of transportation. So it did not come as much of a surprise to me that the highlight of my trip to Sicily was the helicopter tour of Mt. Etna.

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Helijet’s sweet ride

Arranged by the excellent concierge at the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea and booked with HeliJet, the 45 minute tour departed from the airfield at Calatabiano, about a 30 minute drive from Taormina in early morning traffic.

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Aerial view of Castello degli Schiavi

As an added bonus, the Mt. Etna helicopter tour gives you an aerial view of Castello degli Schiavi, the villa used as the setting for Micheal Corleone’s wedding to Apollonia in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (known locally as Il Padrino). The villa, located in Fiumefreddo, is privately owned and can be visited with special arrangements. The fly by was enough to satisfy my inner film buff.

Video of helicopter tour of Mt. Etna

It was interesting watching the plumes of smoke expelled from Mt. Etna and how they drifted and merged into the cloudscape against the bright blue sky.

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Harsh volcanic landscape of Mt. Etna

The rich volcanic soil of Mt. Etna makes for good grape growing. With an altitude of over 3,500 feet, the slopes of Etna are the highest commercial wine producing vineyards in the world. Wine tasting tours are also popular in the area.

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Interesting clouds over Mt. Etna

With a current altitude of 10,922 ft (3,329 meters) Mt. Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe. It is the largest volcano in Italy. It’s last summit eruption was in 2012.

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Mt. Etna from above

If you’re looking for interesting things to do in Sicily, I’d highly recommend taking a helicopter tour of Mt. Etna. Those interested in taking pictures should sit next to the pilot for the best views.

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Plums of smoke from Mt. Etna in the distance

After viewing the crates of Mt. Etna, our helicopter tour headed along the coast towards Naxos, Taormina and Isola Bella, with lovely views of the Sicilian coast.

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Our Helijet pilot

Helijet can provide transfers to and from hotels to the Etna Volo airfield. Photos in the Helijet office show off that Rihanna enjoyed her helicopter tour of the area.

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View of Naxos

HeliJet
Via F. Atenasio 2, 98039 Taormina (ME)
casella postale 7
E-mail info@helijet.it
Tel +39 345 1528975
Tel +39 347 5928546

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Exploring Ukraine: The Pearl of the Black Sea, Odessa

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Sunrise fishing 

Ukraine isn’t a particularly popular tourist destination, although it has a plenty of wonderful sights- like the Black Sea coast with sandy beaches and great local wineries, and the Carpathian Mountains with their striking natural scenery and beautiful small villages.

Odessa, a beautiful city in the south west part of Ukraine, is a longtime favorite spot for a getaway. It has very distinct culture and its inhabitants even have a region specific accent. It is very different from any other Ukrainian city, yet as welcoming as the others.

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Passing Vorontsov Lighthouse on a boat

Port

First and foremost, Odessa is a seaport. It started as a port and it still holds it’s privilege of a free port and free economic zone. During the 19th century, it was the fourth largest city in Imperial Russia, after Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Warsaw.

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Port of Odessa

It’s port (locally known as Morskoy Vokzal) is a great place to get oriented with the city. From impressive hotel buildings reaching towards the skies to fast and elegant motor boats in Yacht Club, it offers quite a few photo ops.

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Yacht Club

Once you are at the port, don’t miss a chance to go further – by a scheduled or private boat tour. The prices start as lows as $4 for a group option, and from $30 for a private hire. It is also the only way to see the 27 meter (88 foot) red-and-white Vorontsov Lighthouse, one of port’s famous landmarks.

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Selfie on Board

The Port is also a good point to start a nice city walk. Go climb (or use funicular!)  the recently renovated Potemkin Stairs considered a formal entrance into the city from the direction of the sea. This giant staircase 142 meters long is the best known symbol of Odessa. As a bonus you get the greatest view of the harbor.

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Viewing machine at the top of Potemkin Stairs

Architecture

Odessa’s historical architecture has a style more Mediterranean than Russian, having been heavily influenced by French and Italian styles. Some buildings are built in a mixture of different styles, including Art Nouveau, Renaissance and Classicist.

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Inside the museum of Western and Eastern Art

If you’re dreaming to get away from the crowd, try going to museum instead of a beach, try Museum of Western and Eastern Art (entry fee $2). Not only it is located in a beautiful 19th century building, it also has a magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures, porcelain, furniture and more. The exhibitions include ancient, western European and eastern arts, and western European collection of exhibits.

 

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Keep walking towards second most famous symbol of Odessa it’s Opera Theater. Its neo-baroque building was constructed in 1887 by two Viennese architects, Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer. It was also the first building in Odessa to use electric illumination.

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Fountains Near Opera Theater

Beach

Although Odessa has a few public beaches, they become overcrowded in the summer. For a more pleasant experience I would advise to pick one of the numerous beach clubs. The entry is usually free, but you have to pay for a beach chair ($5-10/a day), towels or umbrellas, if you’re using any.

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Early morning at Bright On Beach

My choice was Bright On Beach club, for bright girlish design, reasonable prices and perfect peach sangria at the bar!

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Peach Sangria at Bright On Beach

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Oh, and don’t forget flamingos!

Food

Summer is the season of open terraces and cold coffee in Odessa, my all time favourite it a White Whale, where you can find the best cappuccino in city and  a variety of alternative brews. For a fancy cup with vegan options try order Coconut Latte at Moloko Bar. Their specialty is actually a trifle yogurt with a broad list of add-ons, so it’s a perfect place to indulge yourself with healthy and yummy breakfast before heading off to the beach.

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Trifle yogurt with blueberries and coconut latte at Moloko Bar

Eating local is a must at Odessa. And here it means you should try the seafood. I woulds advise you skip Forshmak (a combination of pickled herring and apples is not for everyone, or at least not for me), but local mussels are a dish of choice. While you can find mussels at almost every cafe in the city, I advise visiting the place that specializes in bivalve molluscs, like Kotelok Mussels Bar.

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Grilled mussels with cheese and tomato sauce at Kotelok

For a good dinner with live music head to Odessa City Food Market. The newly established local food hall is the one and only in Ukraine. With an open floor plan; fresh food prepared in front of your eyes; a post-industrial space, and good-looking people sharing communal tables or sitting on stools around countertops this place is a perfect pick for a night out.

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Oysters and Wine

Welcome the Sun

There is something special about sunset and sunrises at the seaside. Odessa is facing the East, so sunsets are quite boring here, yet seeing the sun rising from the water is very special experience.

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Sunrise colors of Odessa Port

My favorite sunrise spot is Langeron beach. It is the closest beach to the city center, and has unobstructed views of the sun. On weekend mornings, you’ll always find here late party goers, fishermen, tourists, local park workers, all of them gathered with a single purpose: to witness the first light of the day. So why not join?:)

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Chasing the sun

Odessa International Airport (ODS) has daily direct connections from and to Kiev, Vienna, Istanbul, Ankara, Warsaw, Budapest, Minsk, Prague,Tel-Aviv. Several days a week there are also scheduled flights to Athens, Dubai, Milan, Sharm-El-Sheikh and Saloniki.

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Exploring Montenegro: A Stay at the Aman Resort Sveti Stefan

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A view of the Aman Resort Sveti Stefan and the Budva Coast

Montenegro has only been an independent country since 2006. This emerging Balkan destination seems like an unlikely location for an upscale Aman resort, but after spending a few days at the Aman Sveti Stefan, I totally get it. The vibe is chic European Bond villain lair, with the former island resort now connected to the mainland by a narrow narrow isthmus, with an active security detail making sure only guests get to the resort.

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One of the pools at the Aman Sveti Stefan

Sveti Stefan’s coastal location has been used as stronghold on the Adriatic coast since the 15th Century. It has a Game of Thrones luxury resort vibe that is highly unique.

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Stunning from every angle: the Aman Resort Sveti Stefan

During the communist era, Sveti Stefan was occupied by the Yugoslavian government and used as a posh resort for guests. In 1972, the hotel received a Golden Apple award for it’s exclusive upscale excellence. Now, as Montenegro gains traction as a bubbly destination for the European yachting set, the Aman Sveti Stefan is once again very well positioned.img_4194

Boats on the Adriatic

Since Montenegro gained independence it’s Adriatic coast has been an emerging destination. This Balkan country is beautiful. The Adriatic coastline is picturesque and stunning, and is not yet overcrowded. The Aman makeover of this former fishing village has restored the red-tiled roofs to perfection, and magically kept a few small churches intact (including one next to a swimming pool). They’ve even maintained some of the fortress-like elements so it feels as though the resort’s history is incorporated in it’s design.

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Balkan Zen at the Aman Sveti Stefan

The Aman brand of Zen goes Balkan in a way that keeps it luxe yet understated. But you still feel ancient bones of the resort. The water closet in my room was clearly located in what was once a closet. The stone walls and fortress windows don’t have the cross ventilation you would expect from a new build. But the curving streets are immaculate and the outdoor dining areas dotted with Olive trees and gorgeous infinity pools with stunning views of the Adriatic.

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A view from my room at the Aman Sveti Stefan

The understated vibe of the Aman Sveti Stefan is a nice counterpoint to the flashy Porto Montenegro, located 33 kilometers away, where the “more is more” asthetic reigns. The closest airport to the resort is Tivat, but that is only going to help you if you’re flying in from Kiev or Moscow. Most guests fly into Podgorica or Dubrovnik, which are are hour and 2 1/2 hour drive away. NOTE: The drive from Podogrica to Sveti Stefan is not great for those prone to car sickness. The stretch of road is beautiful but dizzying. I found this drive nauseating, and I am usually unfazed by car travel.

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Aman style bathtub

Like all Aman resorts, you never feel like Sveti Stefan is crowded. The resort has 58 rooms and is well laid out. There are gorgeous spaces for meals inside and out, a gorgeous spa I did not have time to check out, and some lovely public spaces and courtyards. The service is top notch. The food… well, there is a reason that Montenegrin cuisine is not yet “a thing.” The Aman’s restaurant was as good as any I tried during my time in Montenegro, but there was not a dish on it that I wanted to order twice.

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Pool and church next to the Adriatic

I am just not a fan of the cuisine in this part of the world. It’s vaguely Mediterranean but not and somehow the disconnect is especially jarring for me. I’ve had similar dining experiences in Croatia and just found the food underwhelming. This could be personal preference, but I did not get this feeling Montenegro is the next big foodie destination. Fortunately cocktails are delicious and the environment lends itself to an Aperol spritz (or three).

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A gorgeous spot for a cocktail at the Aman Sveti Stefan

Yet I am now more intrigued than ever by the Balkans. This is an interesting part of the world with some interesting not-so-ancient history. The new influx of money makes Montenegro kind of fascinating.

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Left: Linguine with clams Right: Adriatic oysters

The resort offers all sorts of interesting experiences (including several by boat). All come with the price tag one usually associates with Aman properties. Boat experiences are weather dependent and ours got cancelled due to rough seas.

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Spritz o’clock in Montenegro

The Aman Sveti Stefan is a great choice for travelers who are interested in exploring the Balkans and want to stay at a highly atmospheric and unique property. It is a logical extension of a trip to Croatia.

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The view towards Budva from the Aman Sveti Stefan

Montenegro is a great place to visit if you’ve already done the coast of France and Italy, but it’s not really a substitute. This destination is best suited for the more adventurous traveler. The scenery is just as stunning but the surrounding vibe still has some post-communist charm. Service outside the resort can be hit or miss.

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Vertiginous views at the Aman Sveti Stefan

Like all Balkan supermodels, the Aman Sveti Stefan has great bones, and no bad angles.

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The atmospheric streets of the Aman Resort Sveti Stefan

May’s weather was temperamental, and cooler than I would require to lounge at the beach. But Budva had plenty of beachgoers that found the Adriatic warm enough. The resort would be especially appealing during the peak summer months.

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Gorgeous details on a small church on Sveti Stefan

Without doubt, the Aman Sveti Stefan is one of the most atmospheric luxury properties I’ve ever experienced. But I don’t think it’s for everyone.

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Adriatic coast framed by the old fortress of Sveti Stefan

This property is slightly edgier than other Amans I’ve visited… but that is also it’s appeal. It’s unique and isolated and wildly historic. You can’t help but feel like you’re wandering through the streets of King’s Landing as you find your way to dinner.

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Luggage cart still life at the Aman Sveti Stefan

This is the Aman of choice for GOT fans and intrepid travelers looking for someplace a bit different.

Sveti Stefan 85315
Montenegro
Tel: (382) 33 420 000
Fax: (382) 33 420 222
Email: amansvetistefan@aman.com

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Exploring France: A Stay at the Newly Renovated Hôtel Ritz Paris

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Classic fluffy bed goodness at the The Hôtel Ritz Paris

On my recent trip to Paris, I had the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Ritz Paris for the first time. The iconic Parisian property located on the Place Vendome re-opened in 2016 after a four year renovation led by French architect Thierry W. Despont that is rumored to have cost over $400 million. Yet the property doesn’t shout “updated.” The upgrades are subtle and sublime, focused on adding more natural light to the hotel, updating the technology, and restoring it to a modern day version of Belle Époque glamour that would continue to lure today’s jet set, who care about things like speedy wifi, ample electrical outlets, indoor/outdoor dining and Black Mambo hairdryers.

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Looking up at the gorgeous main staircase at the Hôtel Ritz

While I have long been a customer (and fan) of the hotel’s Bar Hemingway (which seems strangely untouched by the renovations), this was the first time I actually spent the night at the property. I did not stay in the one of the hotel’s suites but in room 126, which was still all kinds of fancy.

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Ritzy stairs

The Ritz has an over-the-top traditional luxury vibe and excellent service. After being shown to my room, I was asked if I’d like to have someone unpack my suitcase for me. Since I like to keep it real, I passed on this service but appreciated how casually it was offered. While I’m not the traditional Ritz guest, I could not find a flaw with their service. It’s omnipresent and invisible. You are not going to spot an unattended housekeeping cart in the hallways of this hotel.

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The working desk at the Ritz

The 19th Century over-the-top traditional elegance of the Ritz is not usually the type of hotel I’d pick and I knew that before going. But it’s fun to mix it up at hotels. There was a moment around midnight at the hotel’s Ritz Bar when I realized I was the only woman in the room not wearing Chanel, unless my nail polish counts. This is not really surprising since designer Coco Chanel lived at the Ritz for decades, and the hotel has a Chanel Spa.

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An extremely comfortable chair in the corner of room 126 at the Ritz Paris

The famous guests of yore are name dropped throughout the property. There’s the previously mentioned Bar Hemingway (no longer accessible from the side entrance post-renovation) with it’s €30 cocktails and €18 mini hem burgers, and €1500 Ritz Side Car, which in 2001 was named the most expensive cocktail in the world.

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Left: a beautiful welcome amenity Right: Marie Antoinette would approve of the vomiting swan faucets

Tea is served in the gorgeous flower-filled Salon Proust. There are historic suites named after luminaries including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin. I did not see any reference to Diana, Princess of Wales, who ate her last meal at the property with Dodi Fayed, son of the hotel’s current owner, Mohamed Al Fayed.

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The gorgeous Salon Proust

The hotel’s restaurant, L’Espadon, has a one Michelin star restaurant for lunch and two Michelin stars for dinner. I did not eat at either since I got sick and spent much of my time in the wonderfully fluffy bed and large marble bathroom. But I can vouch for the property’s room service. It was excellent and they honored my request for chicken soup (not on the menu) at all hours of the day. My room was blissfully quiet and my bed fluffy and comfortable. If you have to get sick while traveling abroad, the Ritz is a great place to do it.

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Flowers at reception

Breakfast was included in my room rate and it was as rich and over-the-top as one would expect. The hotel’s Place Vendome location is perfect for the fashion week and shop-til-you-drop set. I’m a woman who is more comfortable in Saint Germain than in the 1st Arrondissement, I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to stay here again. But if you have the chance, particularly on an expensive account, it’s divine.

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Left: French toast it’s native environs Right: Very rich Eggs Benedict

I will definitely return to the hotel’s Bar Hemingway, which remains of my favorite hotel bars of all time.

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Your syrup is served, Ritz style

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€30 Earl Grey martini at the Bar Hemingway 

Travelers who favor the gilded aesthetic of Emirates Airlines are the ones most likely to be comfortable at the revamped Ritz. It’s fabulous in every way.

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Ritz Paris
15 Place Vendôme 75001 Paris, France
1 800 745 8883

Rates from $1,098.10 USD

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Exploring Ukraine: The Ghost town of Chernobyl

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Walking along Chernobyl-2, a secret Soviet radar fed by infamous nuclear power plant

Editor’s Note: Anastasia Chernykh, the social media manager for My Life’s a Trip, recently took a trip to Chernobyl, the site of 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident. I found her images powerful and interesting and asked her to write up this guest post. I hope you find this photo essay as fascinating as I did. – Jen Pollack Bianco, Editor in Chief

We keep hearing the weird beeping from time to time. It’s dosimeter, a device in our guide’s hand showing the current amounts or radiation.

“No worries” says the guide, “our route is mostly safe, on usual tour you’ll get about the same radiation you’ll have on an hour flight at 20000 meters altitude. But you’d better not go anywhere off the road or step on the moss growing on side streets.”

Thirty one years after the explosion, and ten years after authorities allowed tourists in Exclusion zone, Chernobyl became a widely advertised attraction. Every day at least couple of buses bring in crowds of tourists to visit the ghost city of Pripyat, newly established safe confinement for Reactor #4, and, if lucky, see giant species of catfish.

The explosion that happened in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in human history. It was more radioactive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Thirty one people died during (or immediately following) the disaster.

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Reactor No 4 under New Safe Confinement

Geiger counter at 1.27 μSv/h in Chernobyl (for comparison natural background radiation at airline cruise altitude is 2.7 μSv/h) 

The first check point is 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the reactor, the beginning of the “zone of alienation”.  To get through the cordon prior registration and ID is required. This area is mostly uninhabited, except for a few residents who came back after evacuation, despite Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years.

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An alley in Chernobyl with plates naming every city in Exclusion Zone

But even after evacuation had begun, the world didn’t know anything about the accident. Only on 28 April, after radiation levels set off alarms at the nuclear power plant in Sweden, the Soviet Union made a public announcement about the accident.

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Abandoned buildings in Chernobyl

The residents who fled were told to take only enough belongings for 3-5 days, as the evacuation was temporary. So most people left everything behind, unaware that they would never return. Now tourists can visit the frozen Soviet reality. It’s a real life time capsule.

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People were told to leave everything behind

More than 100,000 people were forced to leave, but the evacuation has another side-effect. Without competing with humans for space and resources, local wildlife population started to grow rapidly. Wild horse crossed our path once, and the cutest highlight of this trip was fox feeding!

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Wild Horse X-ing

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Feeding the fox near Chernobyl Power Plant

In 2011 another part of Chernobyl’s mystery past was opened for visitors: Chernobyl-2, Soviet radar installation, powerful enough to detect an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile. 150 meters tall and 500 meters wide, radar is incredibly impressive structure, some say even more impressive than the rest of the tour attractions. It’s now a silent reminder that Chernobyl nuclear plant wasn’t built only for civilian purposes. A huge amount of it’s power was meant to feed the giant radar.

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Chernobyl 2 radar installation

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Nature taking it’s course over the main square in Pripyat

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Amusement park in Pripyat

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In Ukraine, we used to hear about Chernobyl disaster a lot. Mostly at school, but also on television and radio, you’d read about it in the newspapers.  To the rest of the world Chernobyl itself started to be a synonymous of something wicked and scary. But after this visit to the Exclusion zone my I feel like I changed my mind. Chernobyl is not scary anymore. It is most of all very sad.

Go2Chernobyl

Chernobyl tours depart from Kyiv, Ukraine, prices start at $78 per person. Private tours available on request.

 

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