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.

Bangkok in 2011

Day 1 – June 26, 2011

We arrived back in Bangkok at 1pm, and was promptly picked up by Paul’s nice cousins. They took us to lunch, then to one of his cousin’s house where I stayed the night. There wasn’t much else to do that day so I decided to get an hour head and foot massage at a place nearby. Massage was so good that I fell asleep and drooled -_- plus it was pretty cheap too! Man, I love Thailand…

Afterwards we decided to book the same hotel as the one I stayed in on my last trip in 2011, simply because it was closer to the city: Citadines on Sukhumvit 23. I highly recommend this place if you’re ever in Bangkok!

For dinner we met up with his extended family.

Day 2 – June 27, 2011

It rained really heavily in the morning, but thankfully stopped by the time Paul picked me up and we went for breakfast.

Thai breakfast

Yeah I had no idea what’s going on, so I let him do all the ordering.

Thai-style chicken rice

Thai-style chicken rice! It was more flavorful than the one we have here in Singapore.

Thai breakfast

Dunno why he decided to act cute with the food…

After breakfast, we drove around a bit and Paul took me to get some Thai iced tea at a local market.

Driving around Thailand

Getting Thai Iced Tea

Yummy iced tea in the making. Paul told me his dad had been going here for YEARS. It was seriously one of the best I’ve ever tasted! We got it to-go so they placed it in this tiny plastic bag with straw sticking out of it, and you just drink it like that.

Market

Walked around the market place for a bit, then we headed off to Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm. We were just in time for the elephant show, so we immediately headed off to that area

Elephant Show

After this and the elephant trekking in Krabi, I became obsessed with elephants. They are so adorable and extremely intelligent! Prior to this trip, I’ve never had so much interaction with elephants before but I want go to Chiang Mai next year and do elephant day care :)

Elephant Show

We were laughing our asses off because one of the elephants (pictured above) is named Boonmee, which is Paul’s last name.

Elephant Show

Elephant Show

If you hold out a piece of fruit, the elephant will take it off your hands and start munching on it. After the show, I bought a thing of bananas and Paul was all ready to take more pics of me while telling me “feed the bananas one by one!”. But as I was trying to tear off one banana one of the elephants kept coming towards me and I got scared, so I ended up giving the whole thing to him all at once! We couldn’t stop laughing after…

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Upon entering the zoo, we saw this huge tiger in an open space, no cage in sight. Turns 0ut visitors can take pictures with the tiger! So we did, for 200 baht. Nothing crazy happened but I was pretty nervous. I’ve never been so close to a HUGE adult tiger, let alone touching it!

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Tiger not happy.

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Cuuuute chimpanzees! They look like babies!

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

I also fed two bottles of milk for tiger cubs. They are SO CUTE!!

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Fed alligators some fresh fish too. That wasn’t as exciting since we just drop the food down and most of them were pretty lazy.

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

We caught the crocodile show, which was one of the most nerve-wrecking show ever! The guys would put their hands and stick their head inside the crocodile’s mouth, and pull it out seconds before the jaw clamps down.

Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Bought yet another thing of bananas and fed it to the hippos. Upon seeing us, the hippos immediately swam over and opened their mouth.

We originally wanted to only spend maybe an hour in the zoo, but we ended up staying there for FOUR hours. When we got out we were pretty starved so we went straight for lunch.

Got a sour mushroom soup, and some “salad” dishes. I guess thais use the term salad very loosely because one of our salads have crispy bacon in it.

Lunch

That corn salad was SO yummy!! I loved it. Had to pick out the dried shrimp though.

After lunch, me, paul and his cousin went back to the same massage parlor and we got yet another massage. Two hours later, we were driven to downtown Bangkok to our hotel and was stuck in traffic for almost two hours -_-. We ended up eating around 8:30pm thanks to that. We met up with (yet another) one of his cousins at this all you can eat Japanese BBQ place at Sukhumvit 51. The whole street was filled with Japanese / Korean BBQ restaurant! I’m kicking myself for leaving my iPhone at the hotel.

Day 3 – June 28, 2011

We woke up pretty late – almost noon and had breakfast nearby the hotel. After that, we caught the cab to the Grand Palace, which I skipped on my last year Bangkok trip.

It didn’t take long for us to reach the palace. Upon arriving, we had to borrow clothes because I was wearing a skirt and Paul was wearing shorts. Also, I had to pay entrance fee of 350 baht since I’m a foreigner while Paul gets in for free. Upon entering we were curious if I could pass as a Thai, so both of us went into the “Thai only” line… and I passed!

Grand Palace

Grand Palace

Grand Palace

A miniature of Angkor Wat. I’ll be there to see the real one some day!!

Grand Palace

Grand Palace

gold foil, incense and flower to be put on the buddha.

Grand Palace

Poor guy must have been SO HOT in that uniform! But he trucked on and kept a smile as tourists take turns taking pictures with him. MAJOR props to him!!

Grand Palace

After the Grand Palace, we went shopping at Platinum. Paul went crazy shopping but I just couldn’t find anything aside of a cute necklace (i really like it!). Mainly because while everything was very cheap and cute, I couldn’t try it on and I hate buying something without trying on first. Paul pretty shopped his way up to the top floor, and we decided to just have a late lunch there since it was raining out. While having lunch, we talked about what else to do and at that point i was pretty much thailand-ed out. So I told him to go back home because he wanted to meet up with some of his friends and his house is pretty far from downtown Bangkok. Plus, he was going back to America the day after I leave and doesn’t have much time left in Bangkok.

So he left around 8pm, and I took a shower while trying to figure out what to do. I ended up exploring sukhumvit, walking from Sukhumvit 23 to Sukhumvit 11.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Somehow I ended up in a dark alley by myself. I was walking really fast out of fear when taking this picture, thus the blurriness.

Bangkok

Cowboy Soi near my hotel. Guess what it’s famous for?

Bangkok

Clean clean BTS station!

Bangkok

This picture was taken at the same spot as this one i took last year!

Then I took the BTS down to Siam station and walked some more before going back home around 10pm and watched TV before sleeping.

Day 4 – June 29, 2011

I woke up and got breakfast at the same place I did before, and pretty much just chilled and savored the last hours of vacation in the hotel. I checked out promptly at noon, took the tuk tuk shuttle to the Asok BTS station and took BTS to Phaya Thai. From there I transferred to the airport link, which was dirt cheap at 45 baht!

Bangkok

The train were also nicer than the inner city trains (which were already pretty nice) and smooth. I think it only took around 30 mins to get to the airport.

Bangkok

I arrived pretty early so I spent some time scouring the DFS section since I had a coupon, but I only wanted to get Miss Dior perfume and that coupon can’t be used on Dior brands.

Bangkok

I walked to my gate, stopped by Burger King for lunch and finally flew out of BKK at 5pm :(

Krabi, Thailand 2011

A month or so ago, my friend Paul (who came to visit me in Singapore last year) facebook messaged me saying he’ll be in Thailand for a month and that I should come. Of course, without much hesitation I booked a round trip ticket from SIN – BKK :D. We ended up deciding to go to Krabi for 4 days as well.

* * *

Day 1 – June 23, 2011

A day of travelling. I woke up early since my flight is at 11am. Took the cab to Changi Aiport and flew to BKK. I arrived there at 1pm, and met up with Paul. We had lunch at a ridiculously cheap food court in the airport.

My whole meal was only $3!

We then waited around for our next flight to Krabi at 4pm, just chatting and catching up with each other. I hadn’t really talked to him that much since last year.

We got to Krabi after a short flight at 6pm. Our tour van was already waiting for us and took us to the hotel. BUT, upon arriving we were informed that our hotel was full! Paul had even called in to confirm in the morning and they didn’t say anything then. We had no choice but to be sent to another smaller hotel. It turned out to be fine though, although still unhappy about the hotel overbooking us.

They did serve us dinner though..

We got to the hotel, showered, and I had a masseuse come to our room to give me Thai massage. First massage in the trip :D it costed me 300 baht, which is expensive but she came pretty late at night so i’m not complaining.

After the massage I pretty much conked out till the next morning.

* * *

Day 2 – June 24, 2011

Woke up at 7:30am to a sunny day. Thank god, because we had been informed that the weather was bad for the past week that they couldn’t bring the boat out for snorkeling.

Anyway, the tour van picked us up and we had breakfast at the other hotel. We were then picked up again using this shady tuk tuk to the beach.

Then our boat set out to sail by 10am.

We visited four islands that day. The first island was called Tap island, which is this tiny island with soft sands and clear water!

Our second stop was snorkeling. It was basically the same as phi phi snorkeling I did in Phuket. I saw a lot of fish and some people saw sea snakes but I didn’t :(. After about 20 mins of snorkeling we came back onto the boat and had lunch there. We stopped by another island, and ate there again because I was still hungry.

The last stop (and our fourth island) was an island with very pretty cliff by the beach.

We passed by a lot of natural caves. There was also a lagoon, but we didn’t have time to visit it since it required a lot of extreme climbing to get to.

After that we sailed back to our starting point, and that’s when i started getting a bit sea sick. Thank god it was near the end of the trip! We were transported back to the hotel, showered and was picked up again to go to Ao Nang, which is the down town of Krabi.

We stopped by this restaurant by the beach, which serves crazy good Thai food. Paul went a bit overboard with the ordering…

After dinner we walked down the road for a bit of sightseeing, and stopped at a massage parlour. Paul had back and neck massage while I got mani/pedi for 300 baht. while walking around we also managed to book a cheaper price for the Jungle Tour, so we canceled the tour with our hotel and booked it here instead. It was only 900 baht as opposed to 1500 baht that we were going to pay at the hotel!

* * *

Day 3 – June 25, 2011

We woke up at 7:30 again, went to the original hotel with our luggages (since we’re moving there finally) and was picked up by 9am by the tour van.

After picking up all the other tour members, we arrived at our first stop – elephant trekking. Without much delay, we climbed a makeshift tent and onto our own elephant. It was quite possibly the most exciting experience in my life!

We crossed the street onto a eucalyptus field, and onto a small forest. The whole time we were on the elephant’s back with a trainer, but after awhile the trainer let me sit on the front near the elephant’s head.

After about 30-45 mins, we came back to the starting spot and bought bananas to feed the elephants with. We then set off to our next destination, the Tiger Cave temple.

The temple was famous for the 1000+ stairs it has that leads to top of the mountain. We took the shorter route though, a 200+ steps to a natural cave. It was only 200 steps but my body was all sore the next day -_-

Our third stop was a natural hot spring. We took a dip for about 10 mins before it got too hot, then got out and had some snacks since we were hungry. Thankfully the next item in agenda was lunch :D We had a simple lunch right outside of the hot spring place, inside a private hut for each of us.

We then drove to our next and last stop, which is the emerald pool. We were dropped off on the entrance and had to walk a mile or so in. I made the huge mistake of using the bathroom here and it was quite possibly the most disgusting one i’ve encountered so far -_-. We also decided not to go into the pool since there was a lot of moss and I hate moss, so we just walked around the pool and back to the entrance. I had an ice cream for 20 baht while outside waiting!

After everyone came back, we got back into the van and was driven back to our hotel. Once we got to the hotel we showered and went back to Ao Nang for dinner. We got a foot massage for an hour first though, since we weren’t that hungry, and it was very cheap at 190 baht.

After massage we walked around to look for a dinner place and settled down at a place we saw the night before that was full with foreigners. It’s called Aning restaurant and everything was delicious and CHEAP here. ok, not gonna lie, the main reason why we ended up here is because their cocktail was 1-for-1, which means it was only 90 baht per cocktail! I went ballistic.

We ordered three dishes: A duck pizza, olive fried rice and thai glass noodle that i became so fond of during this trip. Everything was so delicious! the place also had a good live music going on throughout the night.

We finished dinner around 10 and was picked up to go back to the hotel.

* * *

Day 4 – June 26, 2011

We checked out of our hotel and got into the airport shuttle at 10am. We stopped by at a small souvenir place to buy some souvenirs back before finally getting to the airport and back to Bangkok.

Taiwan 2011

After spending four amazing days in Hong Kong Serena and I flew to Taiwan on separate flights, because Serena had booked hers as a package while I booked mine individually since I traveled budget with Tiger Airways from my Singapore flights.

As mentioned before in my HK entry, I flew Eva Air and the flight was expensive for a short one way ride! I’m not sure if there’s a cheaper way, but I searched high and low and considered many alternatives before finally settling with the flight booked through ZUJI Hong Kong. It set me back HKD2251, which is almost US$300! ridiculous. but the flight was smooth, so I’m not going to complain further.

* * *

Day 1 – Arriving in Taiwan, Hotpot at Taihoden and Shida Night Market

Serena and I landed in Taipei at around 2pm local time. Taipei was gloomy and cold throughout my trip, but I really enjoyed my stay the city. It made me fat and broke, but happy! You’ll see why in a moment! :D

From the airport, We took the shuttle bus to the city which costed us NT125 (very cheap! US$4). Then, from Taipei Main station, which is a HUGE station by itself, we traveled a few stations to the west and transferred to the brown line to Da’an MRT. all the while lugging our heavy baggage. It was very exhausting.

We stayed at W Hostel. I highly recommend because for a hostel, it was very clean, cozy and conveniently located. only one minute away from the MRT station! The owner was also very helpful and friendly. The only downside is communal bathroom and no wireless in our individual rooms, but that’s actually not too bad.

Immediately noticed a few things about Taipei: they aren’t as foreigner-friendly as Hong Kong. A lot of the names are very chinese (so took me some time to get the hang of), and aside of the public transport places, they don’t really provide english translations for things. Also locals don’t speak english, which makes it hard for me to communicate aside of hand gestures. Thankfully Serena speaks mandarin, or I would have died.

After setting down our stuff, showering and resting up for awhile, we walked down Xinyi rd towards Taipei 101 building since I needed to find a DBS atm to withdraw some cash.

Witnessed insane traffic on the way there. You think your city’s traffic is bad? think again. But to be fair, the traffic was only this bad that one night. The other night’s weren’t so bad but that’s probably also because we were there right before Chinese New Year.

Continue reading “Taiwan 2011”

Hongkong 2011

I just got back from my epic Hongkong – Taiwan – Jakarta vacation! so epic that I took a million pics and am too lazy to blog about it now. but i’ll suck it up and do it anyway.

* * *

Day 1 – Getting to HKG

I flew out of Singapore at around 1pm, and landed at HKG at 5pm. Serena, my travel buddy + friend from high school + facebook wife, doesn’t land till 45 mins later, so I scampered around the airport mooching free wireless to organize how to meet up with her. Thankfully we were able to meet up right away (I waited near the exit, and caught her). We immediately took the airport express to Kowloon station while catching up along the way. I talk to her online a lot, but I haven’t seen her in person since maybe 2-3 years ago! You know the friendship is real when you haven’t seen each other for that long and still able to pick up right where we left off ;)

The airport express train ride is super comfy – the train is super nice with cushy seat and cheap too: HKD 160 for round trip (about US$20). Anyway, we got to Kowloon station after about 30 mins of train ride, took the taxi to our hostel which was located at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. We found later that this location is extremely convenient. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city so it’s only a short walk or a few MTR station rides from most of our destination. We stayed at Ashoka Hostel, which was very cheap and clean with friendly staff but it was very small place (think dorms in universities). Doesn’t matter to me since I’m not very picky about where I sleep as long as the bathroom is clean.

We didn’t do much that night since it was already pretty late by the time we were all settled and ready to get out. So we had a quick kebab dinner and walked around the vicinity of our hostel.

Continue reading “Hongkong 2011”

Phuket 2010: I have seen paradise

I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier, but this past weekend I finally made my way up north to visit a little island in Thailand called Phuket. It’s a very famous tourist destination in South East Asia, with the beautiful beach and white powdery sand…

I went there for four short days. it was very hard to leave the island back to Singapore (and back to reality). I’ll let the pictures do all the talking.

I met up with my sorority sister Christina. She got us a room at Sheraton Laguna. Christina traveled a lot for work, so she has a special privilege with all Starwood hotels. It was awesome!!

Continue reading “Phuket 2010: I have seen paradise”

Paul’s Visit Day 2: Sentosa Island

After a whole day at Universal Studios, we took the monorail to beach station to see what the island has to offer. I’ve always wanted to try the luge and skyride, so that’s exactly what we did!

On our way up on the sky ride.

so high up!!

Us on the luge ride. it was a TON of fun! we went twice for each trail, however on the second ride my stupid car wasn’t working properly :( it wouldn’t let me slow down, so if i’m going down the hill at high speed i have to stop abruptly (and make a loud screeching noise). so scary and dangerous.

Had dinner at Chili’s

HORRIFIED to find how expensive they are in Singapore! I had a chicken sandwich which costed me SGD18. If I recall correctly sandwiches at Chili’s in the US were only $8-10! It was still yummy though.

Also watched the circus show Voyage De La Vie. They’re kind of like Cirque Du Soleil. The show lasted about 90 mins, full of acrobatic goodness. It was a fun show. I was very impressed at the super elastic boy.