Unchartered territories

Unchartered territories

I was about to start Dostoevsky’s Demons when I decided to write this nagging entry. Last week, on the way to Plaza Espanya, I found my old passport stuck in the tiny pocket of my hand luggage. I don’t often use this hand luggage so this passport has been here for years until last Friday. Seeing it again flooded me with so many travel memories so I kept it in my hand bag for several days, all the while thinking of the title of this article.

This was my very first passport, issued in 2008 which I consider the turning point of my life. I was 24.

In May that year, I went abroad for the very first time, together with my husband who is returning to the Netherlands after more than two years of living in the Philippines. We can hardly be considered serious couple then, having just hooked up five months before. That first trip sort of decided whether what we were having was true love or just a passing dalliance. After two months, we’ve decided that we can’t live far from each other so I began processing a more permanent visa to the Netherlands which luckily got approved. However, when I went back to the Philippines, I was faced with several immigration hurdles that kept me in the country for several more months, hanging my future and my sanity on a ridiculous accusation of a jealous ex girlfriend.

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In China, if I remember correctly, in Suzhou, considered as the Venice of East.

In the middle of those harrowing months, my editor probably saved me from my suicidal tendencies by sending me to a familiarization trip to China, allowing me to experience Guangzhou and Shanghai in a very pampered manner – that includes a night at the posh Ritz Carlton hotel. For a few days, I was relieved of my depression, enjoyed a completely different world and became a little more positive.

Looking at these first two visas in my passport, I am reminded of how the world opened up for me for the first time in such extreme circumstances. When 2009 started, I came back to the Netherlands and began travelling to parts of the world previously unknown to me. And I have not stopped since.

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I went to Morocco twice in a year. I don’t think I am coming back soon.

My old Philippine passport took me to a lot of countries in four years- to most parts of Europe, to Turkey even to Africa (Morocco) – all unchartered territories to me. It’s ironic how five years ago, they were all new before and now Europe has become so familiar. The novelty of first setting foot in the Old World and being amazed by it’s difference are all lost to me now, preserved only in the tattered pages of my first passport.

I was telling a friend a couple of months ago how I am finding it difficult to get satisfaction from my recent travels. Not only has my travelling been reduced to business trips, it has not made me feel that sense of adventure and anxiety that my first few travels has gifted me. That mad anticipation of experiencing something completely different from your normal routine.

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Russia is still my favorite place. This one is in Pavlovsk Palace just outside St. Petersburg. I am lucky to have left this place safe and without frost bite.

The last time I felt that way was during my trip to Russia in 2012 – the fear of being in a place where you don’t know the language and you have no idea if your trip will pan out or if you’ll ever get out of there alive.

I am a slow traveller. I usually get in the plane or train without a definite plan. I don’t even buy guide books and I make do with free maps in hotels and train stations. I don’t normally list things I want to visit until I am already in that place. You can say I don’t travel with a purpose. The purpose itself is to travel. That’s why I also don’t bother with bucket lists.

That’s probably why I am not easily impressed by merely visiting a new city. Before I used to say that you should never visit a city twice because the world is too big and you should go to a different place every chance you get. But my view on travelling has changed a lot since the first trip to the Netherlands. I no longer have to see the world.

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Inside the Blue Mosque in Turkey.

Lately I have been going back to Barcelona often because that’s one place I’ve made real friends and where I feel that my soul is nurtured (as well as my stomach). It’s probably because Spain has been in my consciousness since childhood through history classes.

I look forward to Africa and Siberia. The Americas seem like a great place to visit particularly the Southern part. Maybe one day I will sleep in an igloo or go throwing boomerang with the aborigines in Australia. I still like to take that long journey from Europe to Asia through the Trans-Siberian line. Unfortunately it’s not on the year that I had hoped for. I will be turning 30 this year and would have wanted it for my birthday trip. But my Russian is not good enough and I have to strengthen my roots in this new home before I can go on exploring new horizons.

Hello again+memories of Crimea

Hello again+memories of Crimea

It feels like an eternity since I wrote here last. 2013 went so fast and I realized, I only wrote about six posts the entire year. That did not mean that I was not travelling anymore. Only that I’ve been too busy to write about them.

You see, last year I launched The Filipino Expat, a bi-monthly lifestyle and living magazine for and about Filipino expatriates in Europe. It has taken over my entire life, including my bank accounts and my travels. Sometimes I still wonder what the heck has gotten into my head and I started a magazine with a European distribution. But it’s going good and I think it’s what’s called investing for the future. After all, I am not getting any younger. Money should go where there there is a probability of return. Operative word is probability.

So why am I back in this space suddenly?

Well I miss blogging…writing. A few days ago I posted on Facebook about how I long for writing just for the purpose of satisfying the need to express. One of my friends commented that he thought that’s what I do for a living. And I replied that it’s different. When a passion turns into a job, it becomes much more difficult particularly in writing. It has an entirely different purpose now, my regular writing. I am writing for an audience. In The Weekend Traveller, I am free to write whatever I want without the purpose of pleasing, explaining or satisfying.

And I want to go back to writing freely, at least once in a while here.

I was given this special card by our Ukranian client for women's day. I have never received one for this occasion. Apparently, they give very high regard to their women. They even have a party to celebrate it in their office.

I was given this special card by our Ukranian client for women’s day. I have never received one for this occasion. Apparently, they give very high regard to their women. They even have a party to celebrate it in their office.

Palace in the sky - the Swallow's Nest in Yalta

Palace in the sky – the Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

It’s already March and the same time last year I was in Crimea, Ukraine. I did not write about that either but I had a crazy, wonderful business trip in that part of Ukraine currently conflicted because of different ideals. The Crimea that they are depicting in the media now is not the Crimea that I’ve seen last year. It’s a simple region that’s living peacefully with the remnants of their many wars and Communism. The media is right about one thing though, Crimea is more Russian than Kiev will ever be.

The people I have met were very nice but most of all they still have passions that is quite rare in people nowadays. One purchaser in the company that I have visited was very passionate about the history of Crimea and told me stories of his time in the army and the Russian Black Fleet. We also talked about religion and I smile whenever he would refer to himself as “we Russian people.” But he was also the one who told me that “Love is the main power in our life and love to God and to all living creatures must be our main feature.”

First look at Sevastopol - an Orthodox church along Morskaya.

First look at Sevastopol – an Orthodox church along Morskaya.

Good morning from Sevastopol. The view of the Black Sea from the breakfast room.

Good morning from Sevastopol. The view of the Black Sea from the breakfast room.

One of the highlights of our visit was lunch in a restaurant where our client has taken us. It’s called Glechik, a cosy tavern hidden in a residential area, way beyond the off-the-beaten-track – where the menu is in Ukranian and only one (good-looking) waiter speaks English, hardly. Our client ordered several traditional Ukrainian dishes and lots of vodka to go with it.

Bottle of vodka & a plate of Salo (pork fat). This pretty much started and ended it for me.

Bottle of vodka & a plate of Salo (pork fat). This pretty much started and ended it for me.

I said earlier that my trip was crazy and wonderful. Well the crazy part started during this lunch. I would not elaborate now because it involves some really embarrassing moments but let me just tell it this way – before the soup was finished, the first bottle of vodka is gone. I lasted until two bottles and a half and I barely remember what the appetizer was. At one point I  found myself sleeping in the toilet, we were apprehended by the police the next morning and missed our flight. It’s almost tragic when I was going through that ordeal of too much vodka, being left out in the 10-degree cold outside (in the hope of bringing me back to consciousness) and desperately a flight out of Sevastopol the same day. But once the alcohol has subsided, I realized that, that was probably the best adventure I’ve had that year. I mean, how many times in your life would you get apprehended by the police while still being half-drunk, in Ukraine, nonetheless?

Anyway, I must keep this short because I am still in the office and just stealing some precious minutes to allow this itch to write to go away. I won’t promise to be back to regular programming but I will try. I definitely have loads of stories, not only about my travels but also little things about my expat life here in the Netherlands.

By the way, you can follow and be a fan of The Weekend Traveller via this link https://www.facebook.com/TheWeekendTraveller and Instragram by searching The Weekend Traveller. I post often there.

Third time’s a charm – weekend getaway in Barcelona

They say third time’s a charm and maybe it’s true. The first two were for work and even though the third was a mix of business and pleasure, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the city. This time, I brought the husband along for the much desired photos (without twisting my neck for selfies). It was his first and it’s my third time this year, fourth time since July 2012. And we both enjoyed Barcelona very much.

But I would not wax sentimental to this proud Catalan city. Barcelona is different from the other cities I have been to. Here I don’t feel the need to SEE anything. I am happy just soaking in into the Spanish atmosphere, drink copious amount of sangria as early as 12 noon, eat tapas for dinner and just enjoy the company of the people who have become so dear to me in the last five months.

In Barcelona, I do not need to rush.

One afternoon, husband and I decided that we want to see the Sagrada Familia cathedral. It was a beautiful day, chilly but the sun is shining and the city evokes it’s typical siesta ambiance. So after finishing sangria and coffee, we lined up for tickets. Five minutes later, after realizing it would take another 30 minutes before we get our tickets, we left the line and decided to get ice cream from  the gelateria across the street. After all, neither of us care so much about church interiors – me because I do not think I’ll find anything more beautiful than the church of Spilled Blood in Peter and the husband just because it’s not his kind of visuals.

Just today, while looking at all the photos, we realized that he did not have a single picture of Park Guell without our beautiful model. Because that’s Barcelona – we didn’t have to practice our professions. We were just there to enjoy the Spanish lifestyle in one long weekend getaway.

Nonetheless, here are some photos I took while we roaming around the city. I was finally able to test my non-existent photography eye with the camera that the husband gave me “because I am so poor at technique.” Enjoy.

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A graffiti artist working his skills at a fashion boutique.

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Boys having fun at Plaza Universidad at night.

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Colorful menu at restaurant Lolita.

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Gardeners at Montjuïc, keeping the fortress picture-perfect for tourists like us.

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If you have geography skills, Barcelona is great city to cycle.

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Inside the Montjuïc fortress.

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Las Ramblas, it’s never empty.

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Not the best churros con chocolate. Probably because we had it in a Turkish place.

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Sangria at 12 noon, why not?

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Snap shots at Park Guell before our very short photo shoot.

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Standing high and proud- the flag of Catalunya.

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The best pulpo I’ve had in ages.

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The husband approves.

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The small Saturday antique market at Plaza Real.

 

 

True beauty – Bergen, Norway

 

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It had been several months since I’ve last written here. I guess that is how it goes when you one has many passions and are busy with travelling, that kind of travelling where you try to enjoy the places you visit instead of planning your next blog post.

I am looking at a rather run-down Hanseatic building across my hotel room in Christies Gate in Bergen, Norway while writing this post. In a couple of hours I am flying back to the Netherlands after (hopefully) a fruitful business trip. Bergen is such a beautiful city, pretty as a button and that is probably the reason why I am blogging about it.

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When I arrived on Thursday evening and walked towards one of the wooden houses in the Bryggen wharf to make my powerpoint presentation, I thought that Bergen looked familiar, that I have seen a city like this before. I was not entirely wrong because Lubeck, another pretty place in Germany, is also a Hanseatic city. But I must say that between the two, Bergen gets the price for being the most beautiful. There must be a reason why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Apart from the old town, I was given the rare chance of visiting the estate of one of Bergen’s biggest shipping family. The family has a little boathouse that overlooks the fjord. The view from the window was breathtaking. It is that kind of serene beauty that makes you cry. The water was very calm, almost noiseless. Black pine trees around are giving the fjord a sombre atmosphere but little wooden houses dotting the horizon add a unique charm to the panorama. I imagined months of writing here or reading by the window and having a fine, glass of whiskey while the sun is setting but of course that would be impossible.

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Last night, when I settled on my tiny bed after a day of walking around Bergen, I browsed through the photos that I took. Of course, Bergen being itself, colorful but almost always overcast and raining, most of my photos lacks good lighting. But for the first time I did not care.

True beauty would be impossible to capture even with the most expensive or advanced camera. Beauty is not only seen but felt. Most especially felt. A person must feel that connection between himself and the place in order to be able to really say that one thing is beautiful. And no amount of technical settings or technology would be able to translate what the naked eye sends to the brain whenever it sees something that pleases it, especially when it is as gorgeous as a place like Bergen.

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What would come closest to what the naked eye can see are paintings because it is made with memory and emotions. I visited the Kode musems where works of famous Norwegian paintings are displayed, including those of one my favorite painter, Edvard Munch. There was a painting called Moonlight, where the moon is settled behind the rocks and shinning a faint light to the fjord. There was also a boathouse and dark skies with clusters of clouds. I wish I could have brought it home.

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I will definitely return to Bergen. There are only very few places which can make me wake up in the morning, run uphill and jog even when I am soaking wet. And that means a lot to me. I guess the only way is to get more business here.

And I hope this trip will help me return to travel blogging.

In Dresden – how I traded dinner for a concert

In Dresden – how I traded dinner for a concert

On my second night in Dresden, I was wandering around Frauenkirche (Church of our Dear Women) in Dresden’s Old Town, looking for the famous Kunst-Cafe Antik which was recommended by many because of it’s unique ambiance. Of course in the tradition of my geographic ineptness, I got lost. I tried following An der Frauenckirche street but it disappeared into Munzgasse street and I didn’t know where else to go. I was already on my 4th loop, tired and hungry, having survived the day with only four pathetic pieces of sushi from a pseudo Japenese restaurant along Wilsdruffer street.

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I was ready to give up and walk into the closest restaurant when I noticed a group of old people lining up in the entrance. The church closes at 4pm so I thought there must be a special event scheduled that night. I also saw young men in tuxedo, ushering those who are entering the church.

Near one of the doors I read the poster which has the words “konzert” and “gedenken”. I knew that it was a commemoration concert so I asked one of the lady usher how much the ticket was and if it’s still available. Apparently there were not so many enthusiasts that night and I was able to secure a ticket for €24 euros, momentarily forgetting my growling stomach.

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The interior of Frauenkirche, like most old European churches, is grand, beautiful and impressive, but it’s very apparent that the building had been restored. It does not exude the Renaissance atmosphere that one would feel when entering one of the churches in Rome. The interior looks so polished like it has never seen war.

I was seated in the blind area near the stunning golden altar of Frauenkirche, where I can only see my fellow audience and look up to the balcony. But since hardly half of the church was filled, the people in my row decided to go to the front, myself included. Throughout the whole concert, I had a full frontal view of the orchestra.

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Did I already mentioned that this is my first opera concert? You know where there is a conductor in tuxedo, a whole set of instrument players and there’s a soprano, tenor and bass – all dressed elegantly?

Yes it was and I felt very lucky that it only cost me a fraction of what I would have paid in a normal opera concert.

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When the orchestra began to play,  I watched the audience around me. Most of them are old people, I was probably among the few who is below 30 years old. Surely most of them have lived through the war, some might even be children when the Allied Forces bombarded Dresden to ashes in 1945.

The music grew more powerful, the tempo went faster and then it slowly faded into a sad harmony. It was beautiful, hair-rising sometimes. This is after all Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus for his wife Constanze (that’s Wikepedia for you).

Being the sentimental traveller that I am, I thought of the war and the faces around me. This orchestra is playing to remember a very tragic year in Dresden’s history – what could they be thinking?

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Do they remember the sound of exploding bombs with every blow of the brass?

Do they remember their tears with each pull of the violin?

Sitting safe inside a church that was pounded into pieces during the war, do they remember how they fled when the bombs dropped?

And do they think of the mothers, fathers and siblings they could have lost that day when the music mellows down?

As the concert progressed, I thought of the war that I have not known. It makes me feel like an outside, an intruder even.

I wouldn’t know how it was to be scampering for cover when the sky was raining with fire from the enemies.

I do not share their pain. I do not know their pain.

Reading Slaughterhouse-five is not enough for me to understand what the city went through.

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I will never know the Dresden that these residents around me knew during that concert. Because the Dresden that I’ve seen is far from the Dresden that was almost obliterated for three days in February 1945.

Sometimes, I feel like travel is superficial.

Dresden was bombed by the Allied Forces from February 13-15, 1945. War is cruel.

In photos – weekend in Limassol, Cyprus

Last year in autumn, I made one last business trip to Cyprus. It was already Nevember but the weather in Cyprus was still between 20-23 degree Celsius sometimes even warmer so I was able to enjoy a little more of summer before my sub-zero adventure in Russia.

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We rented two apartments at Avalon Traditional Village Houses, a beautiful property tucked in the small town of Phasoula. I think we were the only tourists in the village that weekend. Finding the property in the middle of the night proved to be a very difficult and dangerous task but we were able to check in alive.

This was my view while working on a presentation in the morning. Don’t be fooled though, the water was ice-cold and I did not freeze my buns off.

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My first brunch was this huge serving of fish mezze at Angelos Fish Tavern. I was hesitant at first for fear of allergic reactions but this seafood spread was very fresh and I did not get a single rash after devouring them. My favourite would be the grilled octopus drizzled with olive oil, still tender but very meaty. They also served at least half a dozen dips but I was already happy with my vinegar dip, just like at home. Sayang walang toyo.

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After a series of meetings in the morning, we unwind and followed one of Limassol’s wine trail. That was the view going up to Omodos. Since it was already November, most of the grapes have already been harvested. But there were still some wild ones scattered on the side of the roads and they were very, very sweet. If I had a plastic bag with me, I would have picked some wild grapes and bring it back to the apartment.

In one of the wine villages, we were offered to sample the goodies served in this small store – biscuits, wines and a shot of Zivania, a Cypriot distilled alochol that my boss wanted to take home. But the seller denied him and said it is illegal to bring the alcohol outside the country. We only found out later that it’s only illegal if the alcohol content is too high – which was the case of the one they have in Omodos.

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On Saturday morning we asked the owner to prepare us a traditional Cypriot brekfast. Breakfast was not included in the room rate so it must be requested the night before. She prepared and cooked a feast personally, with fresh halumi cheese, olives, fruits, bread and freshly-squeezed orange juice.

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We stopped by the Cyprus Wine Museum in Erimi Village before heading to the airport. Of course yours truly could not leave without sampling the wine. Maria was a charming sommelier and very proud of the Cypriot wine varieties.

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We also visited some archeological sites. This was in the Graeco-Roman Theatre at the Kourion Village. Lots of interesting information especially about the intricately-designed tiles used in the floors of the Roman baths.

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I did a little color-blocking style on my last day. I thought it would be a nice pop up against the soft colors of Cypriot’s old architecture. This was in front of the Orthodox church in Phasoula.

I hope I’ll have time to blog about my weekend in Cyprus in the coming days. My stories are piling up but so does my work. Of course there are no apologies but in the meantime, please enjoy the photos.

In the details – a day trip in Brussels

In the details – a day trip in Brussels

I have a yearly tradition of travelling in August, before or after my birthday. Last year though, my mother visited me in the Netherlands and we made a small European tour so money was a bit tight when my birthday came. Not wanting me to miss my tradition, my husband took me to Brussels for a day trip.

Approximately 1.5 hours drive from Zeeland and about 2.5 hours from Rotterdam, I am a little ashamed to admit that it was the first time I am visiting the European capital despite it’s proximity to where I live. There was just not enough reason to visit Brussels, except maybe during a lay-over in the airport on the way to other cities.

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The hunt for an antique locket in the Sablon market

We left early so we can still catch the famous weekend antique market at Palace du Grand Sablon which is open from 9:00 – 14:00 on Sundays. I love antique markets, especially old jewelry and tea sets. For a while now I’ve been scouting for a unique, antique locket for myself and was hoping to find one in the Sablon but the prices were still too steep for me. I guess jewelry does not really loose their value in time. I did spied on some beautiful jade rings and pearl earrings but nothing really fascinated me well enough to buy.

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A visit at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts

The Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België is housed in a neoclassical Beaux-Arts architectural style designed by one of Belgium’s finest architect, Aphonse Balat. The facade is already impressive, the inside even more.  But we came here for the paintings.

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And  the paintings I saw and felt. 

One of the many that made a lasting impression was this interpretation of the story of Apollo and Marsyas by Italian painter Jusepe de Ribera. The story goes that after Marsyas lost a music contest to Apollo, as a price, Apollo skinned him alive. You can feel the excruciating pain in the face of the poor musician. I could not erase this image from my mind for days on end.

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I also found two works of Dutch painter Dieric Bouts very intense, graphic and disturbing – The Ordeal by Fire and The Justice of the Emperor Otto: The Execution of the Innocent Man. Both shows two decapitation apparently executed in front of spectators.

Whether true or not (as I have done that much research while writing this) it shows the cruelty that human beings are capable of. Barbaric was the only description I can think of while looking at the paintings and I shared this strong dislike with my husband.

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I guess this is how you measure a painter’s success – when he can channel this sort of emotions to the viewers of his works.

After these intense viewing, I needed something to take my mind off the gruesomeness so we moved to the landscape and portrait area of the museum. Landscape paintings are not really my favorite so I thought of a little game with Robin to make the experience a bit more fun – spot the details. We did not expect it but this game turned out to be a hilarious activity.

Look at the details that we found from the works of popular painters.

First painting is by Jacques Callot called The Fair at Impruneta. Those dogs sent us laughing hysterically.

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Second photo is by Pieter Bruegel I entitled The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Do you agree with me that that creature in the far bottom left is farting? Sorry for the blurry photos but here is a sharper one. Link

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Lunch by Le Grain de Sable

After a while we had enough of scrutinizing the little details in the landscape paintings and left the museum to pacify our growling stomachs. We ended back in Palace du Grand Sable at a place restaurant called Le Grain de Sable which were filled with gay couples at the time of our visit. The place was decked in white and bathed in sunshine so for some time we had to endure the blinding lights shining on our eyes.

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The food was excellent so we stick to the place even though we have several other choices for lunch around the same area. I had entrecôte with salad and a glass of Bordeaux while Robin ordered calf slow-cooked in Belgian beer served with Belgian french fries (which is better than the Dutch by the way) and a bottle of Westmalle Trappist. I finished only half of my entrecote and half of my husband’s calf stew and later that month cooked my own version of that Flemish beer stew. Needles to say, the lunch was unforgettable.

We were almost slipping to food coma after our huge lunch but instead of walking it off, we stayed in Le Grain de Sable, this time with some cocktails in hand – mojito for the both of us. Coupled with the sweltering summer weather and the effect of the alcohol, we magically sweat the sleepiness away.

We did not forget the Atomium.

So we drove there after lunch hoping that after some sight seeing we can have a high tea at the Atomium restaurant. The view would have been wonderful, just like in Euromast tower.

It took us at least half an hour to find a parking space and when we get to the reception, they told us that the restaurant is closed so we ended up drinking tea in one of those touristy cafe around the Atomium.

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After taking photos with Brussels iconic structure – which is all there to do there – we found a cosy spot in the park nearby. The bench that we chose overlooked the park’s amphitheater, shaded with a lot of trees and you can feel the soft breeze in your skin, just enough to cool us off. At three in the afternoon, it was a perfect place to take a nap. So we did.

Nothing could have been better.

“Are you not going together?” The downside and upside of travelling alone when you have a partner

“Are you not going together?” The downside and upside of travelling alone when you have a partner

“Are you going with Robin?”

This is usually the first question I get when I tell  my friends or family that I am off to a visit a new place. Which is fine, because since we are a couple, people expect us to travel together. After all, our relationship started when we went on a three-week adventure together and fell in-love while on an island with only 4 hours of electricity a day and both intoxicated with local vodka and rum.

But  after a while these kinds of questions get into you and at one point you start to question yourself .

“Should I feel bad that I am away from my husband almost every month and even on occasions like Christmas, Valentine’s Day and even our anniversary?”

Our first travel together in Palawan, Philippines 2007

Our first travel together in Palawan, Philippines 2007

We started out as two people gripped with wanderlust.

Robin lived in the Philippines for more than two years, as a student exploring the mountains of Isabela for bats as part of his Master’s degree and as an amateur photographer hoping to make a career out of it in a foreign land. He had back packed throughout Europe and visited several Asian countries before settling in Manila.

I met him in 2007 on an interview that involves a lot of coffee and a lot of vodka. He was looking for a writer for a travel assignment to Palawan – three weeks of paid vacation and a good per/article rate. At that time I just came back from a weekend sojourn in Pagudpud where I decided to stop all the nonsense in my life and pursue happiness. Needless to say I was also job less, having just left a lucrative marketing position.

The Palawan getaway was a perfect gig but it came with a catch – I need to spend Christmas and New Year away from my family.

In the tradition of strong Filipino family-ties, these two occasions must always be spent with the family. But I told him that for all my 24 years, I had spent it with my family and it wouldn’t hurt if I skip one Christmas away from them so I follow my dreams to travel.

Fast forward to two years after, I moved to the Netherlands to be with him and start a life together. And although we still have that wanderlust, life caught up on us.

We got full time jobs, bought a house and began a life of a normal Dutch couple – a life that involves taxes, bills, immigration processes and assimilating to my new country.

Summer of 2009 visiting my friend in Madrid

Summer of 2009 visiting my friend in Madrid

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A weekend trip in Berlin

I got lucky with my job which allows me to travel Europe for free. On the same year, I began to travel again with my first salary. I went to Madrid in the summer and slept at the airport on the eve of my birthday – the trip that began my yearly birthday pilgrimage and revived my desire to travel. And I haven’t stopped since. I am away at least once month, sometimes spending two weeks away from my husband – both for work and leisure.

While Robin’s job is also flexible, he decided to venture deeper into his passion and made it into a business. Robin Kuijs photography is slowly building a reputation and he spends his vacation days photographing weddings, editing hundreds of photos and working on his website. Sometimes he also travels out of the country for work or to go to a photo trip alone.

Table for one please

Always a table for one.

To make the story short, we don’t have enough time to travel together and since in this country, more work means higher taxes and more travel means a lot of expenses, our budgets don’t meet either. Two people who are crazy about good food, loves good alcohol (even in a Muslim country) and who prefers to be pampered while travelling definitely needs more than sufficient funds to travel together.

So for the last two years, I had been travelling alone most of the time – I went to Morocco, Istanbul, Italy, Nantes, Tallinn, Greece, Russia and the Philippines without him and we spent two Christmases and two anniversaries thousands of miles away from each other. And just last week I booked a  weekend trip to Dresden without realizing that I am leaving on Valentine’s Day until he saw the ticket and blurted, “You are leaving on the 14th?! I was already planning something.”

A weekend retreat in the High Atlas Mountain, Morocco

A weekend retreat in the High Atlas Mountain, Morocco

One of our mirror shots in Luxembourg

One of our mirror shots in Luxembourg

 

Yes we still do travel together, like our  weekend in Geneva meeting with Perps, road tripping in Portugal for a week and when I brought him back to Morocco with me where we stayed in a mountain and watched the stars brighten the North African sky.

But whenever I am overwhelmed with the beauty of a place that I have recently discovered, I wish that he would see the same and I can share the same feeling with him. That desire to drag him along to all the beautiful places that I have seen made me cry a lot and caused  plenty of  intense arguments.

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Last year in Russia, at the beautiful Pavlovsk Park just outside Saint Petersburg

I wish he was with me while I was enjoying the pleasures of travelling. 

I wish he was with me in Russia while I wonder in amazement at the opulence of the Czarist’s palaces and the immaculately, white gardens which provides for endless leisure walks. I am sure he would have photographed them beautifully.

I wish he was celebrating with me and my family during Christmas of 2011. We could have had the same feast of roasted pork knuckles, boiled crabs, tiger shrimps, chicken curry and leche flan that my family cooks very well.

I wish he had seen the monks of Theotokos Monastery in Paleokastrista and their dogs and probably hundreds of cats living with them. He loves cats.

I wish he had visited the mosques of Istanbul with me and see for himself that the inside of a mosque can be as rich and amazing as the grandest Catholic churches. We only saw the facade of mosques in Morocco and really didn’t t really bother to enter one back then.

And most of all, I wish he was with me during all those nights that I spent alone in a strange hotel room, lying awake throughout the night, waiting for ghosts or a serial killer to scare or bludgeon me to death. I am one scaredy cat. And God knows how many sleepless nights I had because of this.

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Girls who travel – my travel companions in Morocco.

Making new friends in Istanbul

Making new friends in Istanbul.

But I must admit that while we could have had a lot of fun  travelling together, there are also many things that I enjoy doing alone. 

I think Russia would have not been as meaningful if he was with me. Part of the reason why I went there was Dostoevsky and he does not have patience for philosphy books. I would have had a hard time explaining it to him.

I would not have made new friends on my first time in Morocco, Sardinia and Istanbul.

I would not have experienced the inconvenience of getting lost all the time, travelling on a rickety train and getting fined €50 for not stamping my ticket to Milan or sit at the back of a Vespa and being driven to the bus station by a charming, old Italian man because I was too drunk to understand directions.

And don’t even let me start on how annoying shopping in Venice, Milan, Tallinn and Madrid would have been if he was with me. We all know how men hate shopping.

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Our shadow shot (since there is no mirror) in Luz, Portugal, autumn of 2012.

Yes there are guilty moments and lonely times whenever I travel without my husband. But through these years I have learned that not only travelling together enriches a couples’ relationship, travelling apart also allows you to become a better person for the one waiting for you at home. 


A leisurely weekend in Luxembourg

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My husband and I are masters of slow travel. After all, that is how our relationship started – three weeks of leisure travel in Palawan, one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines. We do research a bit beforehand but we don’t really mind getting side-tracked. It only adds up to the fun.

Since moving back to the Netherlands, we have been going on a weekend trips on his birthday. We did Paris in 2010, a castle-weekend in Aye, Belgium in 2011 and last year stayed in another castle in Luxembourg. The last two years had been easier now that we have a car and we  can just drive wherever we feel like.

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UrspeltFrom Rotterdam to Urspelt

For this trip, we stayed at Chateau d’ Urspelt, a modernized castle in the middle of the Urspelt valley, surrounded with nothing but rolling hills, few houses and well pig farms.The drive from Rotterdam took us at least three hours but we were blessed with a beautiful 22 degree weather, just in the beginning of spring so it was a relaxing journey

In the early months of 2012, the prices of gasoline in Western Europe has gone up dramatically so we thought that we might save some euros if we refuel in Luxembourg. Half an hour before reaching our destination, the gas light turned red and there wasn’t any gasoline station in sight. We were worried that we would get stuck in the middle of the road with no fuel and no food.

Luckily we made it to the border in time and the funniest thing was, there were at least ten refilling stations within a 10-kilometer radius of the border. The price of gasoline was at least €0.20 cheaper than in the Netherlands so surely those living in the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany drive all the way here to save on gas.

After checking in at the hotel, drinking our cremant and changing rooms, we set off immediately to explore the Old City and take advantage of the gorgeous spring weather. It was almost unbelievable that it could be that hot in early spring. I was even able to wear a knitted dress without stockings.

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Exploring Luxembourg city centre

The city centre of Luxembourg is small and compact, making it ideal for leisure walks, even on stilettos. We parked in one of those underground parking places near the city garden and walked to the centre, crossing the Adolphe Bridge. This 100-year old arch bridge is unique to Luxembourg city, designed by two Pauls, the Frenchman Paul Séjourné and the Luxembourger Paul Rodange and a symbol of the country’s independence. The Adolphe Bridge looks down at Grund quarter, a valley with beautiful colors during autumn and spring and with a small river running in the middle of it. From here you can also see the skyline of Luxembourg, old houses, new building and the towers of Luxembourg castle, all doting the horizon and sparkling pretty in the evening.

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We continued walking to Petrusse Park where the Adolphe Bridge can be seen with all it’s splendor. The park itself was well manicured, no stray bush or grass can be spotted from the viewing deck. This park is a magnet for photo ops and lovers enjoying lazy afternoons outside.

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Place d’ Armas and Place Guillaume II

Place d’ Armas is the main city square which was brimming with locals that sunny afternoon. We had our coffee in one of the outdoors cafes and watch people for a while, got bored and decided to poke around the shops which are aplenty in this area. We scoured through the cheese stores, delicatessen and clothes shops, all lining the main streets of the city centre, for something to bring home to colleagues and families back home. There were a lot to buy but we were not in a shopping mode so we left with only a pack of cheese and walk more around the town.

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Luxembourg will give Paris and Milan a run for their money when it comes to fashionable people. Everybody was dressed well, not necessarily in the latest vogue but in elegantly put together pieces appropriate for the weather. The Dutch can learn a lot from Luxembourger when it comes to dressing nice.

Like I said, we don’t have a plan nor a map, we just let our eyes and instincts find pretty little nooks for us. We wandered through the main shopping malls and as usual I had to stop at the bag stores, especially La Tanneur, the same store in Nantes France where I met a bag named Viktor. I did not find anything special so we continued strolling, saw funny and grand statues like that of Guillaume II and a little square with the first  of the spring flowers blooming in their full beauty.

After a while we got bored again. Somehow after seeing so many old European cities and living in one for almost four years now, they don’t charm me anymore. Maybe if I have a lot of money to shop in those high end stores housed in century-old buildings, I would have stayed a little longer but we all know they too expensive.

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Schengen

So we drove out of the city and headed for Schengen, a small village in the south-east of the country where the borders of Luxembourg, Germany and France meet. This is also where the Schengen Agreement, an economic treaty between five countries (including Belgium and France) which was meant to abolish border control in trading.

But there’s really not much to do in Schengen, it’s just really small wine- village where there is even not enough place to park your car. It’s historical significance wasn’t enough to make us stick around or even get out of the car so after circling the rotunda for at least three times and receiving three notification for three countries from our mobile providers, we drove on.

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Chateau de Malbrouck 

After cruising for a about 30 minutes, my husband slowed down to this small village then ascended up the hills where a fortress can be seen from a distance. Turns out this castle is Chateau de Malbrouck, an old castle restored to become a museum. Several exhibitions are held here every year in addition to the castle’s own archive. Unfortunately it was close when we visited so we can only peek inside,  roam around the castle grounds and take our favorite photos – mirror shots.

With our stomach grumbling, we headed down and had some snacks in one of the road side cafes where a group of biker were enjoying the sunny day outside with huge glasses of German beers.

By sun down we decided to go back to the hotel and freshen up before my husband’s birthday dinner. On the way, we soak up on the golden view of Luxembourg’s rolling hills, the tress still brown from the previous winter, the grasses starting to get greener and the sun casting it’s orange rays on the countryside.

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Dinner at Chateau d’Urspelt’s restaurant was lovely, albeit expensive, party because of that bottle of 2007 Haut Medoc wine and the champagnes. The waiters were very attentive and we were even treated to a serenade by their resident violinist.

Vianden

After frolicking in the bubble bad and sauna of Chateau d’Urspelt and partaking a champagne breakfast, we checked out immediately so we can still drive around before heading back to the Netherlands. My husband wanted to show me Vianden, the only place that was planned.

Vianden is another charming town located in the north-east of the country and famous for it’s massive castle named after the town. Before going to the village, we saw that the Our river provides a mystic foreground to the castle. It was the first time my husband was using his new Canon 5D  so I dragged him down the river banks so he can take as much photos as we want. It was not an easy descend, the rocks are loose and crumbled down under our feet and there were small, sharp branches which gave little cuts on my legs. While my husband took photos, I laid on the rocks and sun bath a little.

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There was nobody in sight, the river was flowing silently and from we were sitting, mist was still clouding part of the castle. You would think that such a romantic sight would inspire amorous escapade from lovers like us but it was just so peaceful that at one point, we were just sitting on a rock holding hands and staring at the river. I wish we can stay there forever, it would have been lovely to have a house on that bank. I can imagine how the residents of the Vianden Castle must have felt whenever they look down below their ivory towers.

Unfortunately we have to leave so we climbed up, on all fours, and drove to town.
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Museum of Victor Hugo

We strolled around the town following Grand Rue, up and down the hill and along the river banks until after crossing the bridge we stumble upon the house-museum of Victor Hugo. I was thrilled at this happy coincidence. I am huge fan of Victor Hugo though I must say that I am more familiar with his poems than with his novels. Forgive my inadequacy but I have never even read Les Miserables nor The Humpback of Notre Dame but I have memorized one of his poems by heart - More Strong Than Time.

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The Victor Hugo Museum was small and has three floors, each not more than 50 square meters. Most of the rooms have a picturesque view of the Our river and the Vianden Castle. I can only imagine that this would have been the perfect little cottage for writers, a small, quiet town with a breath-taking view can inspire so many stories. Unfortunately, he was here on exile and did not really write so much except for some letters and a lot of drawings. I was hoping to see the French version of More Strong Than Time but no luck.

There is a free audio tour every Sunday, one in the morning and another at 2:45 in the afternoon. We couldn’t wait for that anymore because it’s still a long drive back home so we left to look for a place to eat.

Since it was a sunny day, we decided to eat al fresco, in the terrace of restaurant Auberge De L’Our smacked right at the river bank. We had a fantastic view of the Our and an equally satisfying meal – a 550 grams of Ardennes’t-bone steak paired with glasses of Bordeaux for me and mixed meat grill for my husband.

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A little tipsy, I at least, we left Vianden just before sundown and head back home. And that castle visit, the main reason why we went there? We drove past it but not before taking photos. We have already seen too many castles during our travels and it would not make much difference if we miss one. Although it makes a damn good background for a photo-op.


Christmas market in St Petersburg, Russia

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After my rather emotional Christmas walk from the the Church on Spill Blood, I headed towards Nevsky Prospekt, passed the brightly-lighted Lutheran church and headed to the Christmas market at Ploschad Ostrovskovo (Ostrovskovo Square), a five-minute walk from the right side of Gostiny Dvor metro station.

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Ploschad Ostrovskovo is a small square dominated by the huge, bronze monument of Catherine the Great and behind it is the Alexandrinsky (Pushkin) Drama Theatre. This is where the annual Christmas market in St Petersburg is held since it opened in 2006. The market opened on December 21, 2012 and will close on January 14, 2013

The market cannot be missed. It’s sparkling blue lights and a big arc attract attention of passerby’s and commuters alike, even from a snow-shaded window of a crowded bus passing Nevsky Prospect and loud sound of the performances can be heard once you get out of the metro station.

Although smaller compared to European Christmas markets, the one is St Petersburg is not any less festive. A temporary stage was set up beside Alexandrinsky  for nightly entertainment, including a performance of Russian folk songs.

Stalls of different products encircle Ostrovskovo Square, mostly typical Russian products like wooden kitchen utensils, woolen clothes, socks and scarfs, crystal decorations, dolls etc – items that you can also buy from souvenir shops or at the nearby Gostiny Dvor metro station. There were also a lot food stalls selling Christmas market staples like sausages and gluhwein and Russian meat breads and pastries. More