Sunday Sofa Sojourns #19: Pisa, Italy

While at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy with the Hub, I thought two thoughts:

Random Thought #1.

Where did I put away my 4th year high school Physics book? Paul Hewitt was the reason why Physics was my favourite science subject then. I remember reading up to Einstein’s theory of relativity, past the required reading list, just because I was so caught up with Mr. Hewitt’s writing + his Hewitt Drew-It cartoons. (Ah, the nerdy days of yore.) I hoped my mom hadn’t given the book away. Random connection to Pisa: I vaguely recalled one of his cartoons showing Galileo throwing balls from the tower to demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion.

The shadow of the tower on the neighbouring buildings
The inside of the Baptistry looks like a spider’s web. The font is at the centre

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Random Thought #2.

Why is the Leaning Tower of Pisa so squeaky-clean white? Considering its age, I expected it to be a little dirtier. Was there perhaps some mould-repelling characteristic of Italian marble which I didn’t know about?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Duomo

A Google search that night revealed that the tower’s fresh-as-nearly-nine-centuries-old look was the result of eight years of careful restoration, finished in 2010.

Do not be deceived into thinking the Leaning Tower is an easy climb because it appears short. The lean itself threw me off. I felt like I was falling when rounding those corners, as if navigating a marble fun-house.

However of all the buildings at the square, my favorite was the cemetery, or the Camposanto

It wasn’t as popular as the Duomo or the other buildings so there was hardly anyone about. There’s something peaceful about the early morning light, the scuffed marble on the floor, the stone faces that had long lost their noses, the empty sarcophagi.

Most of the frescoes were destroyed in WW II
A famous resident

Of course I also did my touristy duty and had a token “Look Ma, I’m holding up the Leaning Tower” shot that kind of looked like this:

Tai-chi at the tower (Source)

I also tried to imagine what Mr. Chinese Factory Worker was thinking (because really, all the souvenirs I’ve bought here in Europe have a ‘Made in China’ sticker) when he was making these leaning shot glasses.

Think critically dear readers,

The Hilltop Merlion

We live near a small hill in central Singapore called Mount Faber. One afternoon after fetching our kid from school, we decided to hop on a cable car (not too much of an indulgence, since we have an annual pass) and walk to the lookout on top of the hill.

We recently learned that apart from the famous Merlion in the central business district downtown, there were four other official, Singapore Tourism Board-approved Merlion statues scattered around Singapore, and our neighbourhood hill housed one of them. (There used to be six, but the giant Merlion on Sentosa with Cyclops laser eyes was closed last year.)

The Merlion statue itself is a short ten-minute walk from the cable car stop, at a spot called Faber Point.

You can get there via a shaded path where you can find murals depicting various scenes in Singapore’s history.

The view at Faber Point was stunning – on one side was the sea, the tall cranes at the port, the distinctive shape of the luxurious Reflections at Keppel Bay residential complex, and the orange egg yolk-sun sinking slowly on the horizon.

On the other side were neat rows of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats in the Bukit Purmei estate and a glimpse of the city skyline.

It was quiet when we dropped by, with only a few joggers catching their breath and one enthusiastic teen busy with what I guess was a TikTok video. She danced alone, with her phone camera on a little tripod.

There were many telescopes at various sides of the lookout point for us to get a closer look at the scenic views. Each side had an arrow which indicated both an international and a local destination that – I assume – one would eventually reach by walking straight as the crow flies, through walls and water.

Here’s looking at you, Manila.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #18: London, UK (The First Day)

I dug in my archives for this one. I wrote it back when we lived in London. Homesickness hit hard back then.   

I’ve been in London for around two years now, but I remember my arrival here clear as day. While I’m in the process of catching up with my backlog of travel posts, I thought it would be good to write about my current home and the very first European city I ever visited.

The Hub (then the Fiancé) picked me up at Heathrow after an hour or so of nervous waiting, because my scheduled ride from the relocation company never showed up. We took a black cab to Citadines Barbican, the serviced apartment where I would stay for my first month. I remember passing by the Big Ben, all lit up in the evening, and thinking to myself it was shorter than I expected.

Citadines Barbican, my first home in the UK

Since I arrived quite late, most of the nearby stores were already closed. (Another thing to get used to, coming from Makati where the malls close 10pm on weekends!) There was a Tesco Express near the apartment so we went there to stock my tiny fridge for the next few days. My very first purchases were a carton of Tesco chocolate milk, a jug of Cravendale whole milk, Yakult (only because it reminded me of home), a Lindt orange dark chocolate bar, a bottle of Evian, and a box of Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Clusters. I also bought a tray of juicy Sweetheart cherries — it was my first time to see fresh cherries that didn’t come in a jar.

The apartment was 10 minutes from the office. I arrived a few days before starting work to allow myself time to settle down and recover from the jetlag.

The Hub walked me to the office so I would know where to go. Afterward, we went for a stroll around the immediate neighbourhood.

A glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a short walk from the office

It was the perfect introduction to London weather: a grey “summer” day, complete with rain.

The streets around Barbican

I found it fascinating that there were plaques commemorating most anything all over the city. It was like a mini-history lesson wherever I went.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with reading so many British authors–Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Jane Austen, etc – I felt like the city was foreign yet familiar.

Street art around the Barbican
My first time to encounter the concept of cycle hires. In my time, these were Barclays bikes a.k.a. Boris bikes — and they had just been introduced. I think they’re now called Santander Cycles, and they changed the colour scheme to red.
Street art around the Barbican

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Since then, whenever I feel stressed from work, I always remind myself how absolutely lucky I am to be working in London, surrounded by so much beauty and history.

I’ve taken thousands of photos, been to many more places since then. There are still some days though, when I remember that first week when the City and I were both new to each other. And I just can’t shake off a strange melancholy.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #17: Brussels, Belgium

It’s a historic, joyful day for our friends over in the USA. Deep breath, savour the moment!

In the midst of today’s excitement and the absolutely hilarious, yet fitting end to that man’s presidency in a random landscaping company’s parking lot, I thought I’d keep today’s #SundaySofaSojourns short and sweet (literally).

We did a lot of stuff in Belgium – including a token visit to the popular tourist spot Mannekin-Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing a jet of water into a fountain (why is this famous?) – but I particularly enjoyed the little taste test the Hub and I conducted on one of the things Belgium is best known for. Introducing:

The Great Belgian Chocolate Challenge!

The Contenders: Neuhaus vs. Wittamer vs. Marcolini (It’s like the name of a dorky three-way boxing match.)

The Mechanics: Buy a box of chocolates from each store, eat them, and judge which was the best. Simple enough.

We started “judging” these on the train from Brussels to Bruges. The sweets barely made it.

(1) Neuhaus’ Claim to Fame: Established 1857. Creator of the praline and the ballotin. Mr. Neuhaus created the first filled chocolates ever in 1912 (bless him) and also created a gift-wrap box to protect them from being crushed, i.e. the ballotin.

Neuhaus pralines

(2) Wittamer’s Claim to Fame: Creating chocolate-y goodness since 1910. Official supplier to the Court of Belgium. Chocolates fit for the royals!

Chocolates fit for royalty — Wittamer

(3) Pierre Marcolini’s Claim to Fame: The youngest kid of the three, born 1995. Mr. Marcolini was named the World Champion of Pastry.

Marcolini heaven

The Verdict: Neuhaus’ pralines were a winner in my book. The Hub liked the richness of the cocoa flavours in Wittamer’s chocolates. However, both of us loved the variety in Marcolini’s “origin” chocolates – it evoked delicious, exotic locations (even the Earl Grey Tea flavor was *chef’s kiss*).

So… a three-way tie I suppose. 🍫

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #16: Jungfrau, The Swiss Alps

I’m back! I feel bad that I haven’t been blogging as often as I’d like to lately. Believe me, if I had the time these past weeks to blog I would.

Cases are on the rise again in some part of the world. The day when all of us hit the road again seems even further away. For now, I hope you enjoy this throwback post as we travel together from the safety of home.

We made Wengen our base for our Swiss Alps trip. We stayed at Hotel Edelweiss, run by warm and friendly hosts whom we got to know a little over the next few days. It was the kind of place with an “honesty box” in the lounge for the snacks and tea.

The garden had two huge bunnies and a nice playground nearby with a wooden log house our kid would’ve loved, had we brought him along. I told the Hub that Wengen looked a little like Tagaytay Highlands, except with better views. The air was so fresh and pure.

The next morning, we had a breakfast of toast with honey, cherry jam, homemade wild berry juice, cold meats, and cheese from Ultima, the hotel cow. We were set to visit Jungfraujoch that day, a mountain that billed itself as the “Top of Europe” at 3,454m above sea level. The Hub was obsessively checking each mountain’s live webcam on the hotel TV to see whether the peaks were foggy or rainy, ready to change our itinerary depending on the weather. (The webcams are also available online.) Thankfully it was clear skies over Jungfraujoch that day.

From Wengen, we traveled to Kleine Scheidegg via Lauterbrunnen, and onward to Jungfraujoch. Rail tickets are crazy expensive in Switzerland. Instead of buying individual tickets, tourists can save by opting for a Swiss Travel Pass, a 2nd class 4-day adult ticket that costs over CHF 410 and allows you unlimited travel throughout the Swiss rail, bus and boat network.

But we found the Half-Fare Card (CHF 120) to be better value for us because #1, we weren’t staying in Switzerland that long and the Swiss Travel Pass was better value only if you spread the cost over more days and # 2, most of the rail journeys we had planned were quite short. The Half-Fare Card is valid for one month and you need to have a copy with you at all times, as most conductors ask to see it when they check your tickets.

The Jungfraubahn train looked like it came straight out of a Hercule Poirot novel, with its red velvet seats and cog wheels. The route to the top takes you through the mountain via a tunnel hacked, cut, and dug by manual labour in the 1890s. The visionary engineers who designed the Jungfrau Railway were so good at their job that the railway has been running virtually unchanged since 1912. The fascinating history of how it was built is on this link.

There are two 5-minute stops at Eigerwand and Eismeer before you reach the top, except if the train’s running late (which in our case, it was). I didn’t mind too much because Jungfraujoch was just… wow.

Jungfraujoch has come a long way since the 1900s. It’s a vast complex with an observation deck, a snow fun park, a historical exhibit called Alpine Sensation, an Ice Palace full of sculptures, restaurants, and even shops selling Swiss watches and chocolate.

The best part of the day for me was when we walked out in the snow in an attempt to make it to Mönchsjochhütte, a hut with supposedly breathtaking views of the Valais mountains. I couldn’t even see it from the trail, it was such a small speck.

But oh, how I loved the vast expanse of white. The Hub said we could actually get sunburn from the chin up because the white was reflecting everything. (We both did get a little tanned by the end of the trip.) There were very few clouds, which moved briskly by, and the sun looked so close directly overhead.

I felt a little thrill whenever I slipped on the ice. What if I fell all those many meters above sea level? The snow was as soft as our kid’s powdered milk (I thought of him often on that trip).

We said yes to everyone who asked us to take their picture. We saw not one, not two, but three different waves of women stripping off their sweaters and thick jackets for a photo facing the mountains.

They looked so brave, with their “I ❤️ SWITZERLAND” pompom hats and perky breasts and YOLO, devil-may-care shrieking. I thought for a second what it must feel like to be young and carefree like that, a chilly wind on my naked chest. “Why?” an Asian tourist beside us laughed in disbelief, taking a snap. Well, I thought, why not?

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The Ice Palace had sculptures of eagles and bears and a rooster with Chinese script – a nod to the many Chinese tourists we saw on our trip. They often moved in massive groups and you had to make sure to scoot ahead of them else you get caught in the tide.

We took too many photos on the observation deck which was over-full with people. I had qualms bringing our kid to Switzerland because we would be climbing peaks like Jungfrau, and I read that the high altitudes and thin air could make very young children sick. But I saw a fair number of little people on the deck, tiny ones in baby carriers and some close to our kid’s age, toddling around way too close to the rails.

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We had lunch at the cafeteria. It seemed the Indian tourist groups were fairly large too because they had their own restaurant, Bollywood, right below the Lindt chocolate shop. I had chicken nuggets with fries — I suspect I accidentally ordered a kids’ meal — while the Hub had chicken in a yellow curry sauce.

While we were eating, we suddenly heard a roaring rumble. The cafeteria walls shook. A giant mound of snow, presumably from the restaurant roof, fell down the mountainside. Apparently it’s all part of a normal day up at Jungfrau, but for a moment there I thought we were going to tumble in a wild avalanche down the mountain.

This is much bigger than an “icicle”

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On our way down we chatted with an American couple on the train who were on holiday. It turned out the guy’s stepmom is Filipino (“Her cooking is over the top, but I miss it!”). He told us about how long it took for his dad to bring his stepmom over to the US. The train conductor gave us two small chocolate bars after he stamped our tickets.

That afternoon, the Hub and I had a silly argument about stamps (don’t ask). It lasted for the length of the walk to Trummelbach Falls (around 45 minutes), during which time:

  • I got momentarily blinded by an unknown insect that I had to rinse off with sweet-smelling water from a trough,
  • We both saw a paraglider falling gracefully down the field next to us (first of many I saw on that trip), and
  • We got turned away at the falls because they closed at 5PM.

I remember that strange, quiet walk with the Hub because later that evening, a bombing at an American pop star’s UK concert was all over the local news in our hotel. And I realised I needed to be more like the women in the pompom hats. They had the right idea. Life is too short, much too short, not to live in the present.

Think critically dear readers,