Europe 2011: Paris (6/6)

Serena and I had to take different flights going into Paris because hers came with her US flights. We managed to get the same arrival time, but we had to fly into different airports – I to ORY and she to CDG. We semi-freaked out about this since we’re going to by ourselves and we thought French are rude, but we were wrong. French people don’t mind speaking English, and was not any more nice nor rude than other countries.

As soon as I got to the airport I shelled out some euros to get the Museum pass which was €35 for a two day pass – well worth it if you want to see a lot of things in Paris. I also recommend getting the Paris transportation pass since you’ll probably be using a lot of their metro.

I found out that the major train that was going to take me to the city – RER B – was on strike that day. The helpful girl at the tourist counter recommended me another route which involves taking the bus to Denfert Rochereau metro. I didn’t want to take taxi, so I took the bus option and it was the worst airport-to-city journey I had throughout the entire trip. We were packed into the bus like sardines (i guess because everyone had to take this bus), when I tried to get into the station my luggage almost couldn’t fit through the gate, and THEN the train into the city was so crowded that I was pushed against everyone with my big luggage.

But finally, I made it safely to our hostel – Plug-inn hostel at Blanche area.  This hostel was probably the most commercialized and expensive accommodation we paid, but Paris isn’t exactly a cheap city. I don’t mind the hostel much and it was located in a convenient area. It was also down the street from Moulin Rouge area, but it was actually not very sketchy.

Day 11 – November 9, 2011

Like most people visiting Paris, we were of course excited to see the Eiffel Tower! We were starving so we had a quick lunch at a chinese place down the street (we really missed asian food, you see) then took the metro down to Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel tower!! we gasped at the first sight of it. you’d never guess how excited we were to see this tall tower!

Jardin du Champ de Mars – so pretty with the yellowing trees around it

Hoping to be able to check out the summit of the tower that day, Serena and I got in line. To our dismay, the elevator decided to malfunction right when we get to the end of the line. One hour wasted and we were pissed. It was getting dark at 5pm, so we decided to just enjoy the city and walk to Champ-Elysees at the other side of Seine River.

But, halfway through Pont d’lena bridge, we looked back in awe as the Eiffel tower started to light up as the night fell. It was one of the most gorgeous sight of the entire trip! We were no longer pissed off.

Jardin du Trocadero, where we got a better view of the magical Eiffel Tower

After taking a million pictures, we continued to walk towards Arc du Triomphe, and onto Paris’ main shopping street – Champ-Elysees. I was VERY impressed by this street. It was big and very full of life and glittering with all kinds of high end stores. I see now why Paris time is shopping time!

Serena and I had our own agenda at Champ-Elysees. She wanted to check our Louis Vuitton, while I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some french macarons. They both happened to be close to each other so it all worked out well! We hit the Louis Vuitton store first, which was huge and extremely overrated but walked away empty handed as their collection was just not impressive. We continued to walk down the street, and I spotted the famous pastry shop Laduree! We quickly made our way into the small shop and was delighted that the line wasn’t too bad.

Click here for the post on macarons.

Tired from all the walking, we decided to call it a day and went home.

Day 12 – November 10, 2011

We were determined to get to the top of Eiffel Tower today, so we set out to the tower – bright and early. The elevator didn’t malfunction this time and we were able to get to the summit! The summit ticket costed us €13.40

The summit is tall. Very, very tall. Looking down was almost scary but we enjoyed our stay.

Paris was cold around this time. I’m glad I brought my coat!!

Satisfied with the tower, we made our way to Notre Dame de Paris, a gothic Catholic church at the heart of Paris built in the 12th century.

The front door was decorated with a statue of Jesus and the twelve apostles

Inside there was a small, intimate mass! No idea what it was for though.

From there we went to…

Musee du Louvre! It was actually within walking distance from Notre Dame but we had the metro pass so we took those instead :P I was slightly disappointed to find that there was no line at Louvre. I wanted to use my Paris Pass privilege!! ah well. We went straight inside and looked for Mona Lisa.

Finally! The painting was a lot smaller than I had expected, but there she was. I had to wade through a thick crowd to get a picture up close…

Venus de Milo, created on 100BC and is one of the most famous ancient Greek sculpture.

Louvre is a HUGE museum. Art lovers can spend hours, if not days, wading through this museum. Serena and I wasn’t exactly one of those people so we were in and out within two hours after checking out the must-see arts. We went to check out Jardin du Tuileries right outside of Louvre

Such a pretty and relaxed place. I looooved all the parks we went to in Europe!!

Louvre from afar

From this park, we took the train to another park – Jardin du Luxembourg, which has now become my favorite park!!

They had all these chairs instead of benches for people to sit in. Everyone just literally sat in circles, reading books or chatting with friends as they’re enjoying the beautiful weather!

So Serena and I followed suit, we sat on the chairs for awhile before moving on

Our next destination was about two blocks away the Pantheon

This Pantheon isn’t as old and full of history as the one we saw in Rome, but I was still impressed by how massive and beautiful it was

We were close to St. Sulpice, an area Serena wanted to check out for shopping and also home for my second macaron hunt: Pierre Herme. On the way there, we passed by Jardin du Luxembourg again and I went picture happy, again. The entire park was just too pretty to resist!

Amidst all the activity and excitement, I spotted this old couple slowly trotting through the park, arm in arm. I’m not sure if it was just the romantic atmosphere in Paris or what, but I was very touched by them. I hope to find someone I can share the same experience with, one day.

A few blocks down from the park, we found ourselves at Rue de Bonaparte – where one of Pierre Herme store is!

Read my entry on macarons here!

We were hoping for some cheap shopping at St. Sulpice, but it was actually the opposite. All the stores were high end boutiques and expensive! However, we stumbled into a Burberry store and Serena did stumble out with a new coat :P

We wanted to have dinner at a place my french friend recommended but it wasn’t open till 7:30 so we walked to Musee d’Orsay nearby. I was hoping to see Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, but as soon as we got there I found out the painting was currently on loan… in, get this, Singapore. of ALL the countries and time! The good thing is I can still see it as it will be here till Feb 5.

I did enjoy the rest of Orsay very much though. We got to check out Van Gogh’s other works, as well as various works by Claude Monet I had previously learned about. I much preferred Orsay compared to Louvre!

Afterwards we went back to Rue Saint Benoit for french dinner at Au Pied de Fouet, and went home.

Day 13 – November 11, 2011

We woke up bright and early again to the place I looked forward the most. I was a french revolution geek growing up, so I was extremely excited to visit Versailles!

It was located about an hour away from Paris and we took the train to get there.

On the way to Chateau de Versailles. How pretty is this?

The gates outside were entirely painted in gold.

Chateau de Versailles – a beautiful palace where three generations of French monarch lived – Louis XIV to XVI (and his famous queen Marie Antoinette) lived. Upon entering the palace, we were given an audio tour guide which was very helpful. I still can’t believe I was at the very site where Marie Antoinette tried to escape during the beginning of French Revolution!

Versailles

And get this, this is the backyard of the palace. a freaking forest. No big deal!

We started making our way to Petit Trianon, which took about 15 minutes by foot.

From Petit Trianon, we also tried to check out Marie Antoinette’s estate but it was just too cold outside and the park was way too big! so we saw what we could and made our way back to the palace.

The entire Versailles trip took half a day. When we got back to the city, we went straight back to Champ-Elysees to check out Arc du Triomphe.

Nice view of Champ-Elysees from the top of the arc. We were also up there at the right time and got to witness Eiffel tower’s mini light show. Apparently every hour right on the dot, the Eiffel Tower begins to glitter for about 5 minutes.

From there, we went back to our hostel to prepare ourselves for tonight’s dinner at Eiffel Tower!!

Click here for my post on dinner at 58 Tour Eiffel.

Good bye Eiffel tower.

Day 14 – November 12, 2011

We don’t have much to do that day so we slept in and only went out at noon. It also marks my last day in Europe :( I fly out at 9pm that day and Serena flies out at 8am the next day… the whole day we kept saying how much fun the trip has been and how we can’t believe we had to come back home!!

Visited yet another point point chinese food place.. ok, i guess in a way we’re also glad to be coming back home…

They had Sriracha!!

We decided to stop by Sacre Coeur since it’s only 10 minutes away from our hostel.

Our share of morning cardio…

Best decision ever. Sacre Coeur is located on top of a hill, overlooking Paris. the weather was beautiful that day and we got to sit on the steps for awhile, people watching and just enjoying the view of paris.

The small square opposite of Sacre Coeur, Square Louise Michel.

Be careful at the area around the bottom of the steps though! There will be a bunch of people walking around holding what seems to be bracelets, and they would just come up to you and try to wrap these bracelets around your wrist with or without your consent. Once it’s on, they will demand you to pay 5 euros for their silly bracelets! A guy actually grabbed my wrist and tried to put one on me despite my repeated “no no no”, and only backed off because Serena practically YELLED at him!

We decided to finally go for a real Paris shopping trip at Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette is a famous shopping place. It has all the high end brands house in one single mall! The place was also invaded by Asian people, us being two of them… You know it’s a good deal when there are asians around :P

Not sure if you can tell, but the mannequins on top are tiny models of the actual clothes! i thought it was soooo cute…

My loot of the day – a miu miu wallet for my sister. I got it in a very miu miu color – the pink Mughetto! it was also a great deal since I got it for €310. They retail for US$400 in america and S$660 in singapore, so we saved a few bucks :P

The man was drawn entirely in crayons!

Stopped by laduree to buy a box of 24 macarons for my coworkers. OMG just remembering the heavenly smell of these makes me want to cry T_T

Right after that, we went straight back to the hostel and waited for my shuttle bus to come pick me up at around 7pm. I decided against taking the train with my big luggage, so we booked a shuttle to the airport which costed €20.

Good bye europe… This whole trip has just been amazing and such an eye opener for me. It was definitely a top 3 moment i my entire life thus far!! I will be back some day..

Emirates have pretty decent in flight meal :)

Europe 2011: Venice (5/6)

We arrived at Venice in the dead of the night

Ok, not quite. we arrived at 9:30pm but we’re in Italy and everything just seem to close early.. so we decided to just go straight to our hostel and sleep.

Except, it wasn’t so simple. From the train station we had to cross the Grand Canal, which involves taking a rather long bridge filled with steps – and that’s not so easy when you have a 17kg suitcase in tow.

Day 10 – November 8, 2011

We didn’t have anything planned in Venice except for sightseeing, so we took our time to wake up and only got out the door at 11am. So in a way, Venice and Florence was our “break” destinations since we had to prepare for Paris next.

It’s true what they say about Venice. The place is extremely beautiful and whimsical. Their mode of transportation is obviously by water. I don’t think I saw a single car in the island (except from where we took our shuttle to the airport).

And everywhere you go, there are shops selling Venetian masks. They’re all hand made and very beautiful. You can find all kinds of styles, from vibrant and bold to dainty lace masks.

I think the best thing to enjoy Venice is to just walk around and get lost in the array of small alleys and cute little shops. We walked around for awhile not knowing where we’re going, and that felt very liberating after 1.5 weeks of living by the map.

SUPER CUTE model of bookshelves! the books are really tiny!!

Eventually, we found our way back to the Grand Canal and one of their main bridge, Rialto bridge.

Rialto bridge is huge and filled with more shops. I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our luggage up THIS brudge!

We had a quick lunch at another chinese restaurant (by now we were really sick of western food…) and let ourselves get lost in the midst of Venice’s alleys again… this time we found ourselves at St Mark’s square

Since it’s pretty close to the southern beach and the water seemed high, I suspect this part of Venice gets flooded when it’s raining hard. There were a few raised catwalk-like platforms built on some parts of the square.

Gondolas are super romantic and very Venetian, but we didn’t take any because they are pricey!

Another thing you’d see very often in Venice aside of the masks are these beautiful and colorful jewelries / household appliances made out of a special glass called Murano glass. We decided to take the water taxi to Murano island which costed €13 round trip and took about 30 minutes. I got seasick pretty fast so I spent most of the ride passed out…

Because we arrived rather late at the island, it was very… empty. There was nothing much to do except walk around and shop for more Murano glass, so we went back after an hour.

This beautiful Murano sculpture can be found in the middle of the island.

We looked for a place to have dinner. I really wanted Caprese salad and I finally got it! The rest of the meal was just ok though. I think Venice isn’t really known for their food unless you want to pay for it.

After dinner and walking around a bit more, we decided to call it a day and went back to our hostel to research about our next big (and last T_T) destination… Paris!!

Europe 2011: Florence (4/6)

Day 8 – November 6, 2011

We took train italia from Termini to Firenze Santa Maria Novella. When we first got to Termini, we were confused because none of the trains listed their destination as Florence. Apparently trains there just list their END destination, Florence was one of the stops on the way to Venice so they listed that instead (you should instead check the train number). I’m glad we took the train! Europe by train is pretty. It reminded me of the drive between San Francisco and LA…

Less than two hours later we arrived at Florence. Our hostel (Il Ghiro) was located super close to the station which made me happy because that means we didn’t have to drag our luggage for too long!

Was even happier when we got to the hostel and the room was really spacious and pretty! The ceiling was super high and the bathroom was spacious. I was sad we’re only staying here for one night :( The staff was very kind as well, they let us leave our luggage with them when we were out exploring Florence the next day!

Our first destination was Mercato Centrale, which was across the street from our hostel

This place is great for leather goods! Super cheap and makes great gifts! I got two leather wallets for €15 and €17, and 3 small leather journals for €20 total. I could probably bargain a bit more, but I felt like the price was good so I didn’t fuss too much. We had lunch at a place nearby, which wasn’t really worthy of mentioning. In Italy they do this weird thing called cover charge, which is usually €1-1.50 per meal.

Serena then went across the street to get some gelato. Except somewhere, something was lost in translation and she ended up with a GIANT ice cream and lost €15. It was yummy gelato (I had to help her finish it) but expensive!!

At least she got a cute picture out of it… the thing was as big as her face!

We had nothing much else to do, so we spontaneously decided to take the train to Pisa. It’s only an hour from the Firenze station, and the journey costed €11.90 for return trip! Once we get there, we took the bus to the tower. We read this blog to find out which bus to take.

I can’t believe we’re looking at Pisa tower! THE Pisa tower! Over there, everyone was trying to do the same pose – where you pretend to be touching the tower. We tried to get that picture too but failed miserably -_-.

We got back to Florence and checked out the shopping area. They have quite a few high end stores at Via de Tornabuoni, so Serena went to visit Burberry (her favorite store) and walked out with a new scarf for less! High end brands are cheaper in Europe and on top of that they have 12% tax refund (in Italy and France, Spain is 18%). Collecting tax refund is pretty easy and if you visited multiple countries like we did, you can just do your tax refund at the last destination. In some places you can also get your tax refund in the city, but they would only give you back the refund in form of cash. If you want to get the refund credited back to your card you can only do so in the airport.

After shopping we were hungry for dinner, and we had been missing Asian food so much after a week of constant western food. We hadn’t looked up where to eat, so we just walked around aimlessly until Serena spotted a Peking restaurant in one of the corners! We happily went in and ordered a lot of dishes.

The damage for comfort and familiarity: €20. Pricey, but we were happy with the meal!

Day 9 – November 7, 2011

Realized we missed out on most of the museums in Florence because we forgot that they close on Monday. Was upset that we missed statue of David, but there’s nothing we can do about it… so we headed out to see the Duomo at Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore instead.

The cathedral was finished in 1436

Left with nothing much to do, we shelled out €8 for a ticket to go up to the dome. Except no one warned us there would be no elevators and the hike up the dome are filled with stairs like these:

and an especially steep(!!) one like this one:

Even when we maintained a steady pace, we must have climbed for 10-15 minutes. It was intense cardio!!

The ceiling of the dome was painted with paintings depicting heaven and hell. You start with hell imagery from the bottom, and gradually became heaven as you go up the dome. I couldn’t capture the whole thing..

The hike up isn’t easy, but once you managed to make your way up the dome you are greeted with a beautiful view of Florence from above.

It was drizzling a little bit, but thankfully didn’t interfere with the view from above!

I wanted to try Bistecca alla Fiorentina, so we made our way to Sostanza which received a great raving review for their bistecca. It deserves a separate post so I wrote about them here.

We wanted to check out The Mall outlet, which is about an hour away from Florence and is famous for their low price for high end brands, but we missed the noon bus (because we were at lunch) and the next bus isn’t until 3pm. Given that we had to leave Florence by 7pm and the last bus back to Florence is at 5pm, there wasn’t going to be enough time so we opted to stay in Florence.

The rest of the day in Florence was rainy and drizzly, with nothing much to do but chill in a cafe or shop around… and we did exactly that. It’s a bit boring since we had a crazy activity-filled days for the first week, but in a way it was a welcomed break for my tired feet…

We picked up our luggage from the hostel and got onto our train to Venice.

Europe 2011: Rome (3/6)

Sad to leave Barcelona, but Serena and I were pretty excited about our next epic destination – Rome!

Before I go on, the age old question: Is  Roma Pass worth it? YES, it is, if you’re visiting Rome for the first time. The card only costs €25 for 3 days and gives you free entry for the first two museums / historic sites you visit, as well as the privilege to skip the line on those sites. It also gives you an unlimited access to the public transportation, which we found very very useful. A visit to the Colosseum (that also includes the Palatine Hill and Roman forum nearby) alone would set you back €13.50. Then we used our second free entrance at Musei Capitolini, which was €10 and on top of that we practically abused the unlimited public transport . We were also able to skip a LONG snaking line at the Colosseum, so we think the card basically paid for itself!

Day 5 – November 3, 2011

Rome Fiumicino Airport is located an hour away from the city, and they do have a train that takes you straight to the Termini station at the heart of Rome. We chose to take a shuttle bus from the airport though, since it costs €15 which is just €1 more than the train, and the shuttle takes you straight to your hotel. You can buy the shuttle tickets at the airport train station.

Anyway, we hit a little blunder finding our hostel. Getting to the building was fine since the shuttle dropped us off in front, but we had problems locating the hostel itself since they didn’t list which floor they were at! After about 30 mins of frustrated calling and ringing wrong doorbells, someone finally got us into our room. We were not pleased, but the hostel room itself was nice so iwe were happy again, and would recommend this hostel (called Luxury Rooms in Rome)… just make sure you let them know roughly what time you’re supposed to arrive?

So after setting our stuff down, we eagerly walked out and explored Rome.

The thing about Rome is, if you’ve seen a lot of maps before you’d take one look at the map and freak out because there are a lot to see and the city seems so big. But once you get down to the actual city, everything is actually within walking distance. It only seems big on the map because a good chunk of the streets on the map are actually small alleys, and most of them tend to be close together. It totally threw me off! I’m usually pretty good with directions and can find my way easily, but Rome was a bit tougher.

Another thing is for a city that is said to be 10,000 years old, Rome’s public transportation is surprisingly outdated. They only have two (really ghetto) subway lines running across the metropolitan part of Rome. The locals instead rely mostly on city bus which are not easy for tourists.

Thankfully the city redeemed itself – I would say in terms of sightseeing experience, Rome hands down trumps all the other cities we visited. Rome is an extremely old civilization, so naturally it houses plenty of historical buildings and these buildings are peppered all over the heart of Rome, right where people are living. It’s crazy how the Romans are literally living next door to some 2,000 year old ancient buildings!!

Anyway, we made our way down to Trevi fountain, stopping here and there to take random pictures of the city.

But we got lost on the way there (since I, being the navigator, overshot the distance) and ended up way south from where we were supposed to be. We ended up at National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, which was so grand and beautiful that we didn’t mind being lost.

Eventually we found our way to Trevi fountain, which was possibly the most gorgeous fountain I’ve ever seen! It’s the largest fountain in Rome and dates back to 1762.

From then on, it was just historical sites after historical sites. Best of all, they were public monuments so they were all free! We didn’t even use our Roma pass until the second day.

Temple of Hadrian, dates back all the way to 145AD, which was just a short walk from Pantheon

Pantheon

The Pantheon. This one made us go “wow” when we first turned into the area. It was quite impressive in size, and dates back to about 126AD.

Also known as Santa Maria Rotonda

The Pantheon’s dome still holds the world’s record for largest unreinforced concrete. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but quick google search reveals that unreinforced concrete simply means that there is no reinforcement bar within the concrete itself. Given the sheer size of this dome and the fact that it was build nearly 2,000 years ago, it’s a good indication of how sophisticated roman architecture was!

Despite being used as roman catholic church from 7th century, the inside of Pantheon contains statues of many different gods.

Sant’Agnese in Agone, an ancient Baroque church dating back to the 16th century.

Piazza Navona

By now we were really tired, and my boss Subha had recommended a place nearby for dinner so we called it quits and walked there. It was La Focaccia at Piazza Navona, and it was so good that I had to make a separate entry here!

Day 6 – November 4, 2011

Determined to see both Vatican and the Colosseum today, we set out from our hostel early. We took the bus down Via del Corso and walked past the national monument again. Pretty during the day :)

National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II

Also walked past the Trajan’s market ruins

And finally… at the end of the main road, it’s the Colosseum! I’ve heard so much about this place!

As you can see, the line to the colosseum was unbelievably long. this is how it looks like outside, then you get inside and line up some more. Thank god we got the Roma Pass :x

Took this later that day.. looks so pretty sunkissed!

Inside the colosseum, it was massive! The colosseum was completed in 80AD and has gone through nearly all of the known Roman history, including several great fires which renders some parts of it irreparable.

A horse butt that was found and excavated in 2008. I forgot how old this is but it’s amazing some details of the statue were still preserved!

Arch of Constantine, 312AD.

We walked over to the Roman forum / Palantine hills area, located just north of the colosseum.

Ruins of the Roman forum seen from above. History in this area dates back to 7th century.

Forum Ruins

It was magical to be standing right on the location where so many Roman history took place!

By the time we were done with Colosseum and Roman forums, it was already too late to go to the Vatican (plus we were tired). We tried to go to the catacombs instead, but it was off the map we had at that time and ended up getting lost instead :(. So we made our way back to the subway and had a quick bite. In Italy, they have this “happy hour” thing where booze comes with a buffet of food. This is called Apperitivi and usually runs from 6:30 to 9:00pm.

The food that comes with my booze. not bad. I really liked the risotto looking thing.

Then we took the subway and visited Spanish steps. We were too tired to walk up the stairs though!

After that, we tried to shop around the area but found that most shops in Italy close by 7:30pm!! how boring. So we headed home instead after a little souvenir shopping

Day 7 – November 5, 2011

Serena mentioned she wanted to see the head of Constantine at Musei Capitolini, so we tried taking the bus there. Except… we didn’t know where to get off and overshot our stop. Wasted 30 mins trying to retrace our steps back.

Also known as Colossus of Constantine, it was this huge statue carved out of white marble and was said to be 12m / 40ft high, likely to be made between 312-315AD.

After that we finally made our way to Vatican. Thanks to this helpful guide on Vatican city, we decided to show up around 1pm. We didn’t know where to go or how to enter Vatican, so we just walked to what seems like a good place to go. We ended up at St. Peter Square.

There was a LONG line and we were getting worried. We thought this was the line to get into Vatican, but this was actually the line to get into St Peter Basilica. The line looks long but it was actually moving really fast so we decided to stay in line despite people trying to sell us “Skip the line” tour tickets.

Inside St Peter Basilica. It spanned almost the entire block! Definitely the biggest church I’ve ever been in, with impressive decor to boot.

After walking out of the basilica, we headed to the entrance of Vatican city. I’m glad we didn’t fall for the “skip the line” tour earlier, since there was practically no line to get into Vatican!

We weren’t very interested in much else, so we made a bee line for the Sistine chapel for Michaelangelo’s work on the ceiling. Sistine chapel itself was a lot smaller than I anticipated though.

We spent some time in Vatican buying souvenir and having lunch before heading out. We basically had nothing more we wanted to see, so we spent the last night in Italy shopping around. I got my new luggage for really cheap, €25, around Vatican. It was of questionable quality but it lasted me through the last half of the entire europe trip and back to Singapore just fine, so I didn’t regret buying that!

Last dinner in Rome. This was a Gnocchi if I’m not wrong.

I think the last notable thing I want to mention from Italy is that they seem to be really fond of Asian girls – or maybe just girls in general? Serena and I kept feeling that we got preferential treatment and curious stares as we walk down the street. Guys are also a lot more friendly and willing to chat with us, though I’m not sure if this is just their friendly culture (and not because we’re asian or girls). They’re always very curious about where we came from!

Next morning we’re off to Florence on italian train! :D

Europe 2011: Barcelona (2/6)

Ahh Barcelona… where do I begin.

Barcelona was above and beyond my expectation. So much, in fact, that it ended up being my favorite city of the entire trip. To be honest prior to this trip my knowledge of Europe was close to none – I had no idea what to expect, especially in Spain. After living in SoCal for 10 years I tend to associate Spain with our neighbor Mexico simply because both countries speak similar language, but I’ve found out that they are completely different!

Day 4 – November 1, 2011

It could be that my expectation of Barcelona were set low. When I told friends Barcelona is one of the cities we were planning to visit, everyone immediately gave me tips on how to not get robbed.

On top of that we didn’t exactly get a good start in Barcelona. We took an airport bus to the city then dragged our luggage for 20 minutes to our hostel which completely drained all energy from us after an early flight, AND Spanair managed to break my luggage so I was dragging it on one wheel. Then when we finally got to the hostel the first thing we did was sit down and be briefed about all the scary bizarre tricks people use to mug tourists. Some involved pretending to be a cop asking for your ID then they’d snatch your wallet and run with it, which prompted us to look at all police officers we see on the street suspiciously for the next two days.

And… it didn’t stop there. We happened to arrive on one of their big national holiday, Día de todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day). So basically Barcelona looked like America on Thanksgiving day – all of the retail stores were closed and tourist destinations were only open for limited hours :( But thankfully, we were again blessed with a very nice and helpful staff at the hostel. Not only did they warn us about Barcelona trickeries, they also gave us a brief overlook of what to do and visit in the city and even lent us a map marked with all the major attractions and good places to eat! The hostel we stayed at was Central Garden Hostel One which I would again highly recommend because we had such a comfortable stay there.

So after briefly resting up following our intense morning cardio (of dragging around luggages), we walked up Barcelona’s major street Passeig de Gràcia to experience our first Gaudi creation, Casa Batlló.

Passeig de Gràcia

Beautiful Passeig de Gràcia. Another thing I love about Barcelona is that the streets are so wide and spacious, and each street and block was perfectly arranged.

See this amazing shot and you’ll see what I mean.

I think, it makes Barcelona both very easy and hard to navigate. Easy because with the uniform-ness you can easily gauge the distance from one main street to another, but hard because during night time when buildings aren’t so easy to recognize each block may start to look the same after you’ve walked down a few of them and may not be able to retrace your steps back. If you have a map in hand this shouldn’t be a problem though!

A large portion of Barcelona is about Gaudi, Gaudi and Gaudi. Now, if you were as ignorant and uncultured as me, you would have no idea who Antoni Gaudi is. He was, apparently, a famous Spanish architect with a distinct style and extreme consideration for fine details. He was said to be greatly influenced by nature and religion, and this was evident on all of his works I saw.

Casa Battlo

Casa Batlló was originally a plain ol’ building until Gaudi got his hands on it and transformed it into a beautiful, whimsical piece of art. It immediately reminded me of a lot of Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, in that “otherworldy” fairy tale feel. But of course Gaudi comes first so I would not be surprised if the latter was inspired by the former.

Casa Battlo

A void in the middle of the building. This whole building was peppered with marine/ocean elements all over. If you were taking the elevator up/down the building, Gaudi has also installed textured glass windows which is said to be simulating the feeling of ascending/descending into the water. There were many great well-thought-out details all over the house, starting from the ergonomic curve of each door and window handles, right down to the blue wall tiles on this very void which are gradually darker as you go up, because the top part gets more sunlight during the day and will appear lighter and uniform to the darker tiles on the bottom.

My favorite part of the house is this room, which i’ve dubbed the ‘rib cage room’ because it resembles a sort of bone structure of an animal. If you look at the facade of Casa Battlo, you would notice that the roof of the facade resembles dragon scales. Many of the rooms in the house will make you feel like you’re inside the animal, one of them being the rib case room.

A bit north of this is another one of Gaudi’s creation, Casa Milà / La Pedrera.

Casa Milà

In the sea of perfectly straight and similar buildings, La Pedrera stood out with its undulating facade and unconventional roof top decorations. We were only allowed to access the roof area and one of the apartments.

Casa Milà

An organic-shaped gate frame, another example of Gaudi’s nature-inspired style.

Casa Milà

Rooftop decor of La Pedrera. Was said to be the inspiration for the design of Star Wars Stormtrooper.

Casa Milà

The weather was perfect, so we spent some time on the rooftop watching sunset.

Casa Milà

After this we took the bus down to Plaza de Catalunya…

Plaza de Catalunya

and headed further down south to La Rambla.

La Rambla

La Rambla is perhaps the equivalent of third street promenade in West LA. It’s a long strip with stores on the left and right (mostly closed that day though), eventually leading to the beach. We walked and shopped all the way from Plaza Catalunya till the end of La Rambla and our feet almost fell off by the end of it.

Colombus Monument. Looks small on this pic, but it was quite tall!

and finally we reached the pier!! crossed the bridge and had more tapas for dinner..

Another thing about Spain, when in a restaurant the cost of your meals varies depending on where you sit. Generally if you sit on the terrace it would cost you more than sitting inside the restaurant. Sitting on the bar may also cost you less than sitting in restaurant / terrace.

After dinner we walked around the area more and somehow got ourselves walking into a dark quiet alley, which results in paranoid power walks because of the scary criminal stories we’ve heard about Barcelona. We weren’t about to get robbed in a foreign country!

Thankfully we found our way to the metro and back home safely, and braced for a full day ahead since we were trying to make up for the lost time today due to the holiday…

Day 5 – November 2, 2011

We finally got to see the city in its regular state. Barcelona is lively, yet not overly crowded. Their metro is equally extensive as Madrid, and feels more modern and cleaner.

Today we set out of our hostel and took Bus 24 up north to yet another Gaudi place, Parc Güell. Located up in the mountains, this place was originally built as a private housing complex but was a failed project with only two of the houses were sold. The complex became a public monument instead in 1969. All fine by me!

Parc Güell

Parc Guell involves hiking. lots and lots of it.

Parc Güell

Parc Güell

but it’s so worth it because once at the top you’re greeted with a beautiful view of Barcelona from above!

Cake house! likely to be inspired by Hansel & Gretel?

We descended down the mountain once again to our main destination of the day – La Sagrada Família church. We’ve seen amazing pictures of the place and just could NOT wait to get there! So we took the bus down (I think it was number 93, you take it from the same bus station that Bus 24 dropped you off at), and then the metro down to where the church is.

Upon exiting the metro station (took the stairs up from underground) I exclaimed tiredly “Okay, now where is this thing??” then turned around, and my jaw dropped.

Sagrada Família

There it was, the grand, breathtaking Sagrada Família. No pictures we’ve seen thus far did justice or prepared us to the magnificence of this piece of art. The details on this church are just indescribable. It’s really not surprising that it has been a work in progress since 1883, and they’re still continuing to build even today!

Sagrada Família

When we got inside, Serena and I were just at loss for words. Absolutely beautiful and it ruined all the other churches we visited afterwards because none of them came even close to Sagrada Família.

Sagrada Família

The tall pillars throughout the inside of the church resembles a forest, and you can see near the ceiling that the pillars started branching out.. like trees!

Sagrada Família

We also bought a lift ticket to go up one of the towers, so we had to wait for our turn.

Sagrada Família

The tower is really tall, I think if I remember correctly about 65m tall. This gives us a closer look of Barcelona from above than Parc Guell.

Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

We didn’t want to wait for the lift to descend down, so we took the stairs instead. It wasn’t so bad except for the part with the tight spiral staircase which can make you feel dizzy after awhile…

Sagrada Família

After successfully descending Sagrada Família, we headed down to the gothic quarter of Barcelona

Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter

Had quick bites at a place called Taller de Tapas, which serves some of the best croquettas I’ve had so far in Spain!

Our hostel happened to have Flamenco nights on wednesdays, so we were able to squeezed in a bit of Flamenco that night. you haven’t been in Spain if you didn’t watch Flamenco. We only paid €6 for ours which was good because we almost paid €30 for it in Madrid!!

Flamenco

The show lasted about an hour and I was pretty impressed by the stamina of these girls! as well as the main singer. I don’t know how they can keep up such show for the whole hour!

Then serena and I took the metro once again to have dinner at Cal Boter for some authentic catalan cuisine, which was just amazing! :D Read my whole review of the place here.

And that concludes our last night in Spain. We fly out to Rome the next day at 11am.

Europe 2011: Madrid (1/6)

Day 1 – October 29, 2011

I arrived in Madrid at 2pm, by myself. My travel buddy Serena (who also went to Taiwan and Hongkong with me earlier this year) wasn’t due to arrive until the next morning at 7am, so my first day in europe was a solo journey! exciting times :)

I flew with Emirates Airlines from Singapore. Emirates is an excellent airline, I have zero complaints and their Singapore to Europe fares were unbeatable. I got an open jaw ticket which means I flew in and got out of Europe through different cities – Madrid and Paris, respectively. I stopped over at Dubai and chose the shortest possible layover which was three hours. the airtime for each leg of flights were 7 hours, which makes my total flight time 17 hours.

Anyway, Madrid is a nice city. It was easy to get around in and the majority of people understand english and/or willing to accomodate your english speaking. The city is relatively clean and safe – I didn’t encounter anything out of the ordinary during my visit, even when I was by myself. The metro network was extensive and easy to understand.

From the airport I took the train into the city for only €2.50 and did not get lost/confused at all.

One thing I noticed is that people stand on the right side on the escalator and this applies throughout Europe. I had a hard time adjusting when I got back to Singapore after two weeks because we stand on left. You can also eat and drink in the subway or do practically anything (except smoking) which was bewildering to me coming from a country with so many rules!

Serena and I booked a room at Hostal San Martin, located smack dab in the middle of Calle Gran Via which is Madrid’s liveliest street and their biggest shopping district. I would highly recommend Hostal San Martin based on the location itself. The friendliness of the staff and the cozy room were also appreciated of course :)

Gran Via

I dropped off my luggage in the hostel and promptly set out to explore around the area and shopped around. I couldn’t believe I was in Europe for the first time ever!! Soon, it was easy to understand why good things were always said about Europe. The place IS quite charming.

I was so excited when I saw H&M across the street but I soon found out there were H&Ms practically on every block in this district. They’re like Starbucks for shopping!

My friend Christina is doing her business school in Madrid so I arranged to meet up with her for dinner. That’s when I realized Spaniards have their dinner late. As in very, very late. I took a little nap around 8pm due to jetlag and met up with Christina at around 9:30PM for dinner(!). She took me to Mercado de San Anton, just off Gran Via station, for a very Spanish dinner.

Basically, Spaniards consider lunch as their main meal and they would go out to have 2 hour lunch. Traditional stores would even close during this time for a “siesta” which is basically… a nap time. Yeah, I know, when I found out about this I thought “Damn, europeans have it good!” – another positive thing to add to the Why I Love Europe list. I guess because of this, a popular choice of dinner would be tapas which are small dishes of a variety of food. They were cheap too, about €1-3 per dish. Dinner that night costed me only €7 including alcohol!

Mercado San Anton

The plate on the left is spanish omelette – not what I expected from omelette at all since it contained very little egg and more greasy, greasy potatoes. The plates on the right are little bruschetta-looking things topped with all kinds of fish. All of them were very yummy, but also very salty. I noticed this is true across almost all Spanish food I had during my trip.

Afterwards Christina took me to what she calls “churros fondue” at Chocolatería San Ginés. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m game with chocolate and when we got to the place at 11pm there were a bit of a line going in so that’s a very good sign.

Chocolatería San Ginés

And it was literally just that. Churros dipped in hot chocolate, except the hot chocolate was melted chocolate fondue in a cup. Christina told me it’s also a typical Spanish breakfast and I began to wonder how the girls stay so thin and beautiful.

I was also supposed to go out with her that night, but due to late dinner Spanish party doesn’t start till 1am, and at that point the jetlag has completely owned me and there is just no way I would survive the night. I didn’t go out and in retrospect it was a wise decision to do since I had a lot of walking to do the next day!

Day 2 – October 30, 2011

Serena landed at 7am, but I figured after getting luggage and getting into the city et cetera, she would only get to the hostel by 10am. I was still jetlagged and was up and awake at 6am, so I set out for a morning walk around the neighbourhood around 8.

All the street signs in Madrid looked like this. Very, very pretty but inefficient. In fact it wasn’t just in Spain, it was like this all throughout europe. Instead a hanging street sign they would put the street names on the first building parallel to the street. It makes for a harder navigation and I just can’t imagine how hard it is for those who doesn’t know the area well to drive around. It wasn’t a problem for us when we were walking during the day, but in a dimly lit area during the night it became quite frustrating. More on that when we get to Rome later….

Anyway, I kept walking down Gran Via to the west, and (after stopping at a random place for a very greasy breakfast – again wondering why people aren’t overweight here) found myself in the middle of Plaza de Espana park!

Very pretty park! I spent some time strolling around leisurely and taking pictures.

I felt a bit adventurous so I ventured more down the street south of the park, and somehow ended up at the Royal Palace. By then it was already 10am so I headed back to the hostel in case Serena got in, and she was already there when I got back. So after she settled down, we explored the city more.

We ended up at Plaza Mayor, and decided to have lunch there since it was such a beautiful day out. Big mistake. The place was such a huge tourist trap. We ordered a plate of cured ham and a plate of Spanish omelette, and ended up with a bill of €20 per person and it wasn’t even that good.

But I did get a nice picture so I’m not going to complain anymore.

From there, we walked south to find El Rastro, a flea market swarmed with people. It was too crowded for us so after about ten minutes of walking we bailed and took the metro down to Prado museum instead. Yet another mistake as none of us were well versed in Spanish art history, so that became a waste of €10 and two hours of boredom.

Thankfully, next door to Prado museum was a big, beautiful park called Retiro Park.

We promptly headed there, walked around and sat on the park bench for awhile, appreciating just how BEAUTIFUL the weather was that day. I really couldn’t ask for more!

Except I could. After about 30 mins of catching up (I hadn’t seen Serena in person since HK/TW trip), we decided to walk to the north of the park, with the intention of taking the metro back. Then we came across…

… The REAL area of the park where it was just completely alive with people, kids and tons of things to look at. We ended up staying for 30 more minutes before taking the metro back to Gran Via. After a little bit of shopping, we were both jetlagged and tired so we decided to take a nap. I had plans to meet up with Christina again that night, but we both managed to sleep through alarms and didn’t wake up for dinner… we only managed to get out for a quick meal at midnight and promptly went back to sleep >.<

Day 3 – October 31, 2011

Thanks to sleeping early the previous night, we were both up at respectable time. While Serena was getting ready I spent most of the morning running around the city trying to look for a working Citibank ATM, but they ALL seem to be out of order! I was really unhappy with Citibank that morning since I was running out of cash.

Anyway, I remembered seeing an interesting looking place near Plaza Mayor that looks similar to the place Christina brought me to on my first day so we decided to go there for lunch. The place was called Mercado de San Miguel.

… and JACKPOT! It was a tapas place!! I got the above things, and some croquettas (not pictured) for €6.40. including the rose wine too!

Serena also LOVED the place. in fact she loved it so much that we went back again later that day for a second lunch!

We headed out a bit south to Royal Palace Madrid. We were a bit disheartened to see the line snaking around the block, but it actually moved pretty fast and we didn’t wait more than 20 minutes.

The palace inside was absolutely beautiful and totally worth the €10 entrance fee. We weren’t allowed to take pictures so I don’t have any, but I was busy being amazed anyway that I forgot to sneak in a few pictures.

We also visited the big cathedral across the palace, called Almudena Cathedral. Inside was just amazing:

Made me think of my mom. She would LOVE all the cathedrals and churches we saw in this trip.

We then stopped for more food at Mercado San Miguel, then walked to Puerta del Sol, the city square center, where we encountered a group of teenage girls chanting and waving around canadian flag. I can only assume they were Justin Bieber fans…?

I was really impressed by this guy. His costume was very well-detailed and he looked like he was sitting on air (probably using the same trick as one of those KLM ‘invisible chair’ installation… or maybe this is where KLM got their idea?)

We took the metro down to Plaza Cibeles for more picture time:

Then we walked back home and rested till dinner time, where I finally met up with Christina again for dinner. She took us to a famous Paella place at La Baracca, which I’ve written a separate entry for.

After that Christina had invited us to a halloween party, but we had to decline again since our flight the next day is at 9am :( which means we had to get up at 6 and be out by 7. so in short, I didn’t party at all in Europe! It’s okay though, it was still an EPIC trip.

Our next stop was Barcelona, my favorite city of the entire trip.