• How are you doing lately?

    Friday, August 29, 2014 1 No tags Permalink

    Really, right now I should be writing a travel article for my magazine and an advertorial for a client (excuses to my editor and my client). Instead I am blogging. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to switch from that mood of writing for an audience in mind and just writing, diary-style. Maybe there should not be a difference between the two. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.

    After last month’s African post, you haven’t heard from me again. Ironically I had been busy, travelling. In the span of one month, I had two weekend trips, in Madrid and Umbria, and a week’s holiday in Germany. Sometimes if you ask me where I was two weekends ago, I wouldn’t be able to remember right away. I kid you not, travelling is exhausting, especially short trips.

    And so now I am back in the Netherlands with loads of work, killer deadlines and in dire need of a detox. At least until my next weekend trip in two weeks.

    I hoping to blog about these trips soon but for now let me share with you a new passion of mine. This has been giving my travels a whole new insight.

  • 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.

  • 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 want to 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.

  • A leisurely weekend in Luxembourg

     

    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 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, making the journey relaxing.

    In the early months of 2012, the prices of gasoline in Western Europe have 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. 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 southeast of the country where the borders of Luxembourg, Germany and France meet. This is also where the Schengen Agreement was signed, 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 that left 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 is 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.


  • Weekend Guide: Black Forest, Germany

    There are fairytale towns deep in the heart of the Black Forest in Germany. In the mornings, when the sun rises at seven, one can still see the smoke coming out of the chimneys of beautiful wooden houses, mixing with the clouds slowly rising up from the mountain. Just like in those Disney princess’ movies.

    During autumn, the lush greenery turns into a panoramic sea of hues as the leaves change colors and starts to fall. It is unbelievable how the world can be so beautiful in such a somber place, accessible only after so many hours of racing with flying cars in the no-speed limit German autohban.

    Bad Wilbad is among the many little towns tucked in the valleys of the Schwarzwald, Germany’s most famous mountain range. The city owes its name to its most popular attractions, thermal baths. Bad Wildbad is considered the second largest spa town in Germany, next to the nearby city of Baden-baden. For one weekend, Bad Wildbad had been a sanctuary for me, an escape from the rush of city life.

    What to do

    Walking literally in the clouds is very much possible in the Schwarzwald. In Bad Wildbad, you can ride the Sommerbergbahn cable car to the Sommerberg Mountain and spend your sunrise watching the sleepy little town wake up and touch the rising clouds. The experience cost £2,50 (P50) with a discount card that you get from most hotels in the area.

    In the summer, hiking and cycling are recommended but for the adventurous, skiing during the winter down the steep mountain slopes is a great adrenaline-pumping activity. You can also do water sports like kayaking but a good wet suit is a must if you opt to dare the freezing waters of the Black Forest.

    A perfect way to end a day is to soak yourself in one of the many thermal baths around the Baden-Wurttemberg especially during fall when the weather in this region is marked by rain and grey skies. Bad Wildbad has two big centers, Palais Therme and Vital Therme and many more around this area. One must be prepared though to loosen inhibition and share the bath with naked men and women. If you are made of stronger confidence, you can also strip naked and enjoy the warm, medicinal bath that these spas offer.

    If you have a car, which is necessary to conveniently reach this place, it is easy to navigate around the nearby towns and cities. Driving is an experience itself, as you cross the steep and narrow roads, zig-zagging inside the huge Black Forest, climbing high altitudes, the surprise of discovery a charming town as you ascend is never-ending.

    The mountain is lined with huge fir trees and it is easy to mistake a morning as late afternoon because of the shades it cast upon the roads.

    Unfortunately there is actually not much to do here for young people so it is no wonder why most tourists in this part of the Black Forest are older people, probably retired individuals who find joy in a real rest and relaxation vacation. For partying, the nearest place would be the city centre of Baden-Baden.

    Dining in Black Forest

    When in the Schwarzwald, first order of business is naturally to treat yourself to the sinful cake that made this mountain range famous.The black forest cake, locally known as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, is traditionally made of cherry liqour, which gives this dessert a special kick.

    Unfortunately, the first one I tried at the cosy Café Am Bad was a disappointment but the dinner was saved by a surprise appetizer of bacon-coated whole plum. They also served salad with plum seeds which is refreshing and fulfilling at the same time.

    In Baden-Baden at Amadeus Hausbrau , you can find the softest black forest cake and pair it with restaurant’s own brew. This homey restaurant is the perfect place if you want to eat decent and affordable food. Their turkey sandwich is one of the best in the menu.

    Plums and cherries seemed to be abundant in the Black Forest so it is an ingredient that you can find in dishes in most restaurants. There are also a wide variety of game dishes.

    The Black Forest ham is the best-selling smoked ham in Europe. The process takes almost three months. Unlike normal hams, it has a deep-red, almost black color and a bit on the salty side. Filipinos would enjoy this with a bowl of white rice and fried egg.

    The German cuisine is simple and very heavy with a lot of meat and potatoes. When ordering a dish, try to be on the safe side and finish the appetizer first before ordering the main course.

    There are many hard liqeur served in local pubs but when dining, try sampling the sweet Reisling wine produced in Germany.

    Where to stay

    The panoramic view of the Black Forest is just about everything that makes a vacation in this place memorable. When booking a hotel, try looking for one that has a mountain view or located in the mountains. Avoid city hotels because hotels there they tend to be more expensive. In the Baden-Wurttemberg, there are several hotel-spa’s where you can stay, which makes it easier and more affordable to have the spa experience in the Black Forest.

    I had been fortunate with my choice of hotel. For £137 (P8,000) for two nights for two persons, Aparthotel Schwarzwald Panorama offers a fantastic view of the Black Forest, a huge room with a balcony where you can sip your coffee in the morning, big bathroom with a bath tub and free wifi access and breakfast. The only downside is that the owner only speaks German with a heavy southern accent so it will be handy to learn the basic German tourist terms. Prices of accommodation range from £40 to £100 depending on the rate of the hotel and location.

    Like a true Filipino, I brought home souvenirs, a cuckoo clock, another famous product of the Black Forest, a witch doll, a Black Forest doll with the traditional Bollenhut and a pink wooden chicken, pieces of fairy tales from the place where it began.

    Originally published at Manila Standard Today, April 1, 2011-  Article

  • Weekend Guide: Bruges, Belgium

    Bruges or Brugge, depends on what language you are speaking, prides itself in being a well-preserved medieval town and one of the many Unesco’s World Heritage site in Belgium. Stripped off tourists that floods Brugge everyday, it can actually be just a ghost town as if time stood still in there and you can expect to meet a man in cloak and a woman in kirtle while taking a midnight walk in one of its dark alleyways. Probably that’s why director Martin McDonagh chose it as the setting of his dark comedy film In Bruges.

    “The problem with Brugge is that nobody lives there anymore. The locals have moved out of town because of the  influx of tourists and the town is just one big tourist trap,” said a rather critical colleague about Brugge.

    I must admit, there’s hardly any locals (except for the business owners of course) littering around town but this doesn’t make Brugge any less charming. On a weekend visit there two years ago, I drank into its lovely architecture (that spans 700 hundred years) and Old World charm of Brugge while getting tipsy with Belgian beers and chocolates.

    Do what?

    Walk – This is the only way to appreciate the beauty of Brugge. Anyway the town is so small that going around it will probably just take half of your day. Brugge has some of the world’s most amazing architectural designs, from Medieval (of course) to Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Romanesque and Classic, sort of an architectural porn for a design student. To see all of them you have to put a pair of comfortable sneakers (don’t make a mistake of wearing heeled shoes unless you want bleeding feet afterwards) and “walk around town.”

    Start from the Big Market Square and challenge yourself to climb the 366-steps of the Belfry Tower and if you get the chance, listen to the 48-bell carillion. Afterward proceed to another square called Burg where the Provincial House, St Donatius church, the Holy Blood Chapel, the Basilius church and the Old Civil Registry are located, all of which have been built with different architectural styles.

    If you get tired of walking, take the one-hour canal tour, relax and enjoy taking photos of the old houses and charming little gardens at the river bank and going under very low bridges (where you even have to lower your heads while crossing), sights which are exclusive when you take the boat. But before hopping on one, spend a few minutes to browse through paintings and photographs of vendors near the boat terminal.

    If you are staying on a Sunday, wake up early and  attend church services in any of the many churches in Brugge, like in the Church of Our Lady where Michaelangelo’s Madonna and the tombstone of Mary of Burgandy are located, or in the Cathedral (but don’t get distracted by the lovely stained glasses), in St. Anne’s church or in the Church of St. Walburga.

    Visit a museum and a gallery. There are five big museums and galleries in Bruges which exhibits/sells paintings and even diamonds. Of course, like almost every Belgian city, Bruges also have a Chocolate Museum which will surely be a hit for travelling families with kids.

    For ladies go shopping at the Braderie during the summer when they close off some of the streets and everything is up to 70% off. Or visit one their flee markets and take your pick at the many pieces of antique jewelry that they were selling. Watch out though because most of them are obviously fake.

    For lovers, spend the sunset at the Lake of Love or the Minnewater and watch the lovely swans attack a piece of bread thrown to them by tourists. For parents, let your kids run and roam at the park nearby.

    Eat what and where?

    You can’t leave Brugge (or any other Belgian city) without indulging in their national prides, beers and chocolates. For the beers, head over to De Stoepa, an almost secret bar and bistro at Oostmeers street. Have a mug of Duvel at the backyard garden during summer but best to bring your friends on a cozy autumn evening. For lunch or high tea, you can try the Meridian where I had a an indulgent afternoon meal of Brussels waffles and espresso. There are a lot of restaurants serving international cuisine in Bruges but since you are in the Flanders part of the country, sample a serving of rabbit dish or other meaty Flander’s meals.

    If you somehow ends up in a small square where they have those restaurants and walked into a restaurant called Aquarel avoid ordering their roasted chicken if you don’t want to feel that you got ripped-off. For chocolates, the best place to go to is Chocolatier Dumon, one of the oldest producer of chocolates in Bruges. They have three stores in Bruges, in Eiermarkt, Walplein and the original atelier and store is located in Torhout.

    Stay where?

    Bruges, being a popular tourist spot, does not have a shortage of hotels and inns that are up to your budget, from budget hotels to five-star and even a castle. For a budget traveller like myself, I would recommend Hotel Keizershof, Brugge because of its affordability and homey ambiance. A double room, with two single beds only cost €44 but that’s with a communal bath and toilet. They also have rooms with their own toilet and bath.

    But if you are looking for comfort, luxury and a little bit of Hollywood fame, book yourself a room at Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel. This “dingy-looking” hotel (at least in the movies) is where Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson of the movie In Bruges stayed. A standard room costs €182-240 and a superior classic room ranges from €350-450. It is situated at the banks of the canal and for that price, you can wake up to a beautiful sunrise spreading over the medieval buildings of this beautiful city. But like I said, it comes with a price. A cup of espresso in its little restaurant downstairs can even cost you €5.

    And finally, if you want to make somebody feel like a genuine royalty, treat them to a room at Kasteel ten Berghe, a Gothic castle located just 3km away from Brugge. It might even be cheaper than Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel at 140,00 €/night and prices goes down still goes down if you are staying a minimum of three nights.

    Bruges is a perfect city for a weekend travel. It is not very big and almost everything about an old European city is there. There is no shortage of things to do and it is very much accessible by public transport especially by train. It is also ideal for couples who have kids because there are parks where children can play, have fun and learn about history.  So either you are travelling on a weekend as a couple, single or a family, Bruges should be right for you.

  • Conversations at the beach: Lido Island, Italy

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 1 , Permalink

    In July 2010, I took yet another birthday sojourn in Italy, a month before my birthday. Wanting to escape crowded Venice, I decided to stay in Lido Island, about 15 minutes away by vaporetto (water bus). Much as I wanted to spend my four-night stay in Grand Hotel de Bains, the famous setting of Death in Venice, my budget settled me instead in a rather dingy hotel called Vime Byron which is located few meters away from the beach.

    In the afternoons, I’d take long walks at the boulevard and around the island. The sunset in Lido island is breathtaking, made even more special with the silhouette of historical buildings, all the way from San Marco, dotting the horizon. There’s quite a few interesting buildings around Lido as well, like an old mansion which is the residence of a very lucky cat.

    This was my first time in Venice so instead of lounging in Lido’s beach, I spent most of my time visiting the must-see sights and shopping for my first set of Murano. On my last morning, I eventually decided not to leave without swimming.

    I arrived when the first sunlight broke. There was no one in the beach and I stayed there just soaking myself in the calmness of the surrounding and the gentle crashing of the waves. At around seven in the morning, the beach started waking up and boys started to set up the cabins and the parasols.

    While busy taking a picture of myself, a young boy of about 17 approached me and asked me  if he can help. I willingly gave him my camera and posed for the mandatory souvenir photo in my two-piece. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French so our conversation was mostly in sign language .But we had a nice little talk about how he is staying with his friends for two weeks, about his hometown and the beautiful beaches in Tunisia and the course he is taking in college.

    When it was time to say goodbye, he gave me his email address and asked, “The disco in town, you know?”

    “Not really,” I said.

    “I’ll wait for you, tonight, 8PM,” he answered with a big smile, apparently misunderstanding me. It sounded like a scene from a romance flick. He must have not notice the ring on my finger.

  • In Bruges

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 4 No tags Permalink

    In Bruges

    “Bruges is a shit hole.”

    This is probably the most memorable line in the 2008 movie In Bruges, a dark comedy film set in the city of Brugge (pronounced bru-kke), Belgium. The movie is about two professional killers, Ray (played by Colin Farrell) and Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson), who after a botched job, are sent by their handler (Ralph Fiennes) to the city to await their fate.

    Enchanted by the night scenes in the film, I trooped down to Brugge for a weekend.

    On the first day, I almost agreed with Ray (who uttered the memorable line) on his first impression of the city, considered the Venice of the North.

    It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon when we arrived and what greeted me after the late lunch and the two-hour trip from Netherlands was the “braderie,” the time of the year when they close the city to car traffic for two weekends and stores set up their items outside, offering 10 to 70-percent off the regular prices. People from all parts of the world littered the streets, shopping, sightseeing and leaving their trash on the beautiful medieval streets.

    It was a wise decision to stay for the night because when I turned away from the shopping area, I discovered what made Brugge one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium. I was able to completely immerse myself in the sights and sound of the city, with its century-old churches, romantic canals, numerous towers and all the reminders of history from the medieval era until the 1907, which must have been the period when time stood still in Brugge.

    Locations, locations

    Because my primary reason was to see the locations in the movie, I planned my itinerary around this. Brugge doesn’t disappoint and even had little surprises along the narrow cobbled stone pathways that one wouldn’t discover unless they are prepared to go on foot.

    I started the tour with the Belfry Tower, where Ken jump off to save the life of his friend. At first I thought it was the wrong decision to climb the 366 narrow winding steps of the tower and get stuck on top, one foot away from the big bells clanging the hourly reminder. But once I reached the top of the 88-meter high tower, I was rewarded with a magnificent 360-degree view of the skyline, with the typical Dutch roofs, the canal and the sea and the Big Market Square. On one of the landings is the 48-bell carillion that can be heard for free on occasional days.

    Descending the tower, exhaustion and hunger engulfed me and I went back to my hotel for food and a quick nap. I woke up too late to see the city at night, except for the square where the midget in the movie was filming, which for me wasn’t that impressive.

    The next day was spent walking around the city. I went past the Big Market Square, where Ray and Ken spent hours analyzing their lives as killers.

    I marveled once more at the neo-gothic lines of the Provincial Court, the medieval houses and the statues of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, leaders from the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302.

    I proceeded to the next square, the Burg, which is even more beautiful and artistically built than the Big Market because of the different architectural styles. This was where the former castle and courtyard of Count Baldwin I once stood. Now it is the center of administration and politics in Brugge. The former medieval church of St. Donatius used to be here, but was replaced by a Romanesque church in the 12th century. There’s the gothic-style town hall with six gothic windows in front, the Old Civil Registry in renaissance style with its gold accents and statues and the former Court of Justice built in the neo-classicist style. Two more religious buildings m

    ake the square a postcard of history, the Basilius church and the Chapel of the Holy Blood.

    With aching feet and grumbling stomach, I head down to Wollestraat for breakfast and a cup of espresso. I finally discovered the hotel where the killers were booked, the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel in front of another hotel, five feet away. Unlike its trashy manifestation in the film, the boutique hotel is actually very chic, not to mention expensive. A cup of espresso cost almost five euro (about P340). The hotel has a half-timbered façade and stained glass windows which you can only appreciate from the other side of the canal or when you take the boat tour.

    Canal tour

    I finally took the canal tour with 20 other people and enjoyed a 30-minute glide through more medieval houses, rustic gardens and old bridges. The tour ended at the Minnewater or the Lake of Love. It was one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, where the killers watched two swans swim together on a romantic night in Brugge. I did see swans, about 20 of them in fact, but it was far less romantic because it was mid-afternoon and tourists were all over the place.

    On the way back to the hotel, I passed the Gruuthuse, the mansion of a rich Belgian family, on the way to the Our Lady’s Church, where Michaelangelo’s Madonna sculpture and the tombstone of Mary of Burgandy flickers all throughout the day from the flashes of cameras. The somber and dimly-lit Madonna evokes a sense of peace and spirituality when not being photographed all the time.

    Shopping, eating, lodging

    If you’re a shopaholic, the best time to visit Brugge is always in the summer during the Braderie season. The shops are on sale frenzy and everything can go as much as 75-percent off. Facing the Belfry, you can find all the modern shops on the streets on the right side, with all the designer boutiques and stores carrying European and American brands.

    Booking a room online in one of the many hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts

    is a breeze and range from backpacker to five-star accommodations, depending on your budget, the view of the hotel and amenities. Most hotels are situated near the city so walking to the center is no problem at all, unless you are not so fond of it, in which case you can take the bus going around the city. Rooms can cost as low at 25 euro (about P1,700) per person, per night.

    When it comes to dining, Brugge also has a range of snack bars (eet cafes), bistros, tearooms, diners and restaurants. If you want to sample the local dish, try ordering something of Flemish origin. Since Belgium’s culture is largely influenced by two countries, the variety of dishes range from the bland Dutch food to the more palatable French cuisine. Its touristy reputation also brought international restaurants into Brugge, from Asian to European cuisines.

    Chocolate and beer are two things that you shouldn’t miss when you visit Brugge. Chocolate stores (chocolatier) are scattered in every corner of the city like 7/11 convenience stores. They can be a bit expensive but the taste is heavenly. For those who can’t get enough of the sweet stuff, authentic Belgian waffles with rich dark chocolate or fruit sauces can be had for about five euro (P340) or less if you are buying from street vendors.

    Meanwhile, local restaurants and bistros serve all kinds of Belgian beer, from the spicy Duvel blondes to the Bellevue kriek (cherry beers) for ladies. They cost really cheap per bottle and can be enjoyed thoroughly with a plate of tapas. Young locals and foreigners hang out in the De Stoepa, a quaint restaurant which lights up and becomes lively during the night.

    I left Brugge the same hour that I arrived. The Brugge Centraal Station, where the chase scene was filmed, was not as busy as the day before. Most tourists leave early. After all, Brugge is only good for a day or a weekend tour. I was glad to have walked through European history and see one of the Unesco’s World Heritage site. Curiosity satisfied, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Brugge, as there are other European cities, as lovely and as historical, waiting to be discovered.

    Originally published in Manila Standard Today, August 13, 2009