Sunday Sofa Sojourns #7: Venice, Italy

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Venice to me is a beautiful, eccentric grande dame, bedecked with heavy jewels. Her lipstick is a shade too bright. Her gait is a step too slow and heavy with history. She’s seen everything – from the elegance of the Renaissance to the steady grip that tourist kiosks selling knock-off carnival masks and keychains from China have on her narrow streets.

A city built over the Adriatic Sea. What can get more romantic than that? Venice sparked my imagination ever since I read an adaptation for kids of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Later I came across Casanova; I imagined the sea salt in the air as I read about his escape from the Doge’s Palace. I sensed how eerie the city’s canals must look late into the night, reading Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now.’

And then there I was. I could taste the air and meander through her alleyways myself.

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We queued very early the next morning for Basilica San Marco and a climb up the Campanile for a wider view. (There’s also a lift to the top.)

I felt something magical looking down on Venice’s brown tile roofs and seeing Sky blue meet Sea blue on the horizon. It made me feel absolutely at peace with the world.

Piazza San Marco is a great place to hang out. You don’t have to buy coffee from the pricey caffès around the square. The Hub and I each had a bottle of Lipton peach iced tea bought from a small convenience store and sat on a bench a little way from the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (where public executions used to be held, imagine). We people-watched.

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To get around, the Hub and I often rode a waterbus or vaporetto. Before you start thinking about boats traveling at breakneck speed à la The Italian Job, note there are actually speed limits for boats because of wave-induced damage to stonework and building foundations. The vaporetto travelled at a measured, leisurely pace – as did life in the rest of the city.

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We went on the Doge’s Palace Itinerari Segreti or Secret Itineraries Tour, which I highly recommend. You have to book it separately – this section of the palace is not accessible on the standard ticket. The hushed tone of the tour was set from the start when we entered through a small wooden door which led us to hidden rooms, with floors that groaned with age.

It’s the part of the palace where the torture chambers used to be. This was where old Venice’s political prisoners were detained and made to confess through a disturbing yet ingenious device constructed from rope and water, where the cells where Casanova was jailed (and escaped, and jailed, and escaped again…) are located. The small barred windows in the cells were claustrophobic. There was barely any sunlight and the stone walls felt cold to the touch.

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My favourite part of our trip was when the Hub and I just walked aimlessly along the back streets, chatting. It was quieter there, with less tourists and fewer souvenir kiosks.

We stumbled upon a genuine Venetian mask shop, La Bottega dei Mascareri, in the market. The shop crafted intricate, detailed masterpieces and even supplied those mysterious masks used in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. We found creamy gelato and deep-fried cheese sandwiches. I enjoyed the fresh seafood best though.

While the map on our guidebook tried to be helpful, Venice’s streets had a mind of their own – they squeezed out of straight lines and twisted, turned. Leapt over canals, led us over nameless bridges with railings for safety and without.

It was in the quiet side streets that Venice let her hair down. We both liked the city better that way.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #6: Moscow, Russia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Moscow’s train stations had an old-book smell, which I loved. I think it was because of the wooden escalators. Until our trip, I had never seen wooden escalators before. In London they were banned because of a big fire at King’s Cross in 1987. In Moscow, they are still very much in use.

Moscow was one of the more difficult cities we’ve had to navigate in by far. There were no English translations in the Metro. The Hub and I tried memorising the station names to navigate our way around but belatedly realized most of them ended in “-skaya” so we got lost anyway. To add to our confusion, the Cyrillic alphabet kept fooling our brains into thinking we understood the signs — but the letters in the Roman alphabet all mean and sound very different here.

C in Cyrillic is pronounced “es”

I clearly recall that the interior of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square was just as beautiful as its unusual onion-shaped domes. Inside there were colourful frescoes, tall ceilings painted with somber-looking icons, and a male choir singing Orthodox chants.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral
The cathedral interior
The Kremlin

The Kremlin State Armoury is a must, must, must see. Of the many museums we’ve visited, I think it’s by far the most impressive and the richest. The collection was vast and clearly valuable — ancient medieval plates, golden Bibles set with rubies and precious stones, Tsarist-era gowns, dainty French clocks, intricate wooden carriages (with their original wheels!), ingeniously crafted Fabergé eggs. It spanned several ages and even countries (were the pieces donated? were they “borrowed” from other museums?). The Orlov Diamond in the Diamond Fund (where you had to pay a separate entrance fee) was sparkly and crazy huge, it almost hurt my eyes to look. On the bright side, I could stare at it for as long as I wanted.

No photos are allowed inside the armoury, so this photo of the exterior courtyard is all I have.

Included in the Kremlin ticket price — a visit to the medieval Dormition Cathedral
The impressive interior of the Moscow GUM (State Department Store) facing the Red Square

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I wasn’t leaving Moscow without my own matryoshka dolls (also called nesting or Babushka dolls), so after a failed search at Arbat Street we trekked up to Izmaylovo Market. Izmaylovo is a flea market of sorts and a Russian souvenir paradise: you could find the kitschiest (NBA nesting dolls, anyone?) to the most detailed of matryoshka dolls (with up to 15 little ones nested inside). Even better, you’re allowed to haggle.

Interestingly, Izmaylovo Market also seemed to have been an amusement park in its former life. If you look up when you enter the market, you’ll notice a rusty kiddie-size roller coaster track leading nowhere. There are also stranded pirate boats in odd locations. Does anyone know how it ended up as a market?

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We used the Metro to go everywhere. Almost everyone in the city did too, I think. It actually felt quite nice being part of the rush hour crowd, shoving and bumping along with everyone else.

I think Moscow’s Metro train stations are things of beauty and worth a trip by themselves. Each had its own unique character and style. So towards the end of our trip that’s exactly what we did — we station-hopped with no particular destination in mind.

Partisanskaya Station, the stop for Izmaylovo Market, had Soviet statues.

Partisanskaya Station

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station had even more bronze statues of Soviet citizens under each of the station arches. Presumably they’re holding the ceilings up?

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station

Mayakovskaya Station was decorated in an art deco style.

Mayakovskaya Station

Kiyevskaya Station had interesting Russian-themed mosaics between the arches.

Kiyevskaya Station

Novoslobodskaya Station had back-lit, stained-glass panels.

Novoslobodskaya Station

Komsomolskaya Station, with its Baroque-style chandeliers, was especially unique for me. It had a lot of Communist-themed hidden Mickeys. We spotted a bust of Vladimir Lenin and a ceiling mosaic of him rallying the troops (I think!).

Komsomolskaya Station
I see you, Lenin

Ironically, we ended up missing our train to the airport and having to race through the airport Home Alone-style to catch our flight. We barely made it.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #5: Marrakesh, Morocco

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

If I dig deep enough in the recesses of my memory, I find the Moroccan souks.

We wandered down its narrow, sun-dappled lanes where we promptly got lost. There were the tanneries – streets covered with animal hides drying to make leather, heavy with the smell of cow.

Vivid colours from baskets of saffron and turmeric, the heady scent of lavender and verbena, bottles of argan oil and sticks of cinnamon. A strange, sticky mound that looked like the sundot kulangot one finds in Baguio. Chameleons in cages, blending with the rust. Fanous lamps made of coloured glass and rusty metal; small silver lamps shaped like Aladdin’s; miniature camels carved of sweet-scented cedar wood.

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We stayed at a local riad, within walking distance from the famous Jemaa El-Fna square, a UNESCO cultural site. The walk is a bit tricky, but once we got the route down pat it was easy to navigate. Inside our riad it was quiet and peaceful, in contrast to the nightly carnival outside.

Riad Altair, where we stayed.

They served great breakfast. We had soft cinnamon bread and yoghurt with fresh fruit and honey. The little spreads included fig, which was seedy like kiwi, but sweet. I remember the pot-holder with hot breakfast tea shaped like a man wearing a djellaba, the national dress.

Oh, the tea. It was everywhere — mint tea that both cooled our throats and left a warm feeling in our bellies. It was made simply, from mint leaves steeped in hot water (no tea bags here!) and served with generous amounts of sugar cubes.

We waited with our hot tea until evening came, then made our way to Jemaa El-Fna. The map on our guidebook’s back cover had plenty of white squiggles which were meant to represent streets – except there weren’t any street signs so the map wasn’t particularly helpful. The Koutoubia Mosque stood tall and was visible from afar, so it was a more useful compass.

Koutoubia Mosque.

I remember the hustle and bustle of Jemaa El-Fna, which at night magically transforms to an open-air food market. For our first dinner in Marrakesh, we opted to try our luck there. Don’t be intimidated by the very forward food hustlers. We took our time considering what each stall had to offer and politely shook our heads each time a plastic laminated menu was shoved in our faces. Funnily enough we were greeted with endless ‘Konnichiwas’ and ‘Nǐ hǎos.’ Maybe to them all Asians looked alike.

There was a lot of food on offer: grilled meats, snails in spicy broth, hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with cumin. We picked stalls that were packed with patrons. Our first meal was at Chez Ali. The grilled lamb and couscous were unremarkable but the staff were very friendly.

I love ox tongue, so naturally we just had to try the stalls that served sheep face and tongue boiled in a delicious brown sauce (in what looked like Oscar the Grouch’s can). Delicious, but not for everyone.

Ox brain? Kelangan mo nun

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It was back to the souks for us the following day. Cross the street at your own risk. Go slow and you might see live peacocks on a bicycle. I didn’t want to think about where it was headed.

I remember Le Musée de Marrakech suffused with a warm, gold light. There were plenty of artists, all women, sketching the paintings.

We eventually found the Medersa Ben Youssef after several false trails into the souk streets. The colour of the glazed tiles and the intricate carvings on the walls were an enigmatic, yet calming sight. We took our time wandering the small rooms, which used to be student cells back when the Medersa was an Islamic theological college.

Medersa Ben Youssef.

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That evening, we were drawn back to Jemaa El-Fna. While some may think the square too touristy, I found there was much to observe.

Apart from the food stalls there was the entertainment and the market, which had modern touches but also parts which to me felt and looked like it came from a different, much older time.

Ever wondered what a Coke in Morocco looks like?

We saw young acrobats performing in the street–cheerdancers making pyramids with no safe, soft rubber mats to fall on.

But there were also more unconventional sights: tooth-pullers with small piles of teeth hawking their trade; charmers with sleepy-looking snakes under large cloth hats; murmurs of rapid French and Arabic; pink clay rooftops all dotted with satellite dishes; tired horses pulling caleches for the tourists; stray cats having sex in the corners; the faint sounds of prayer punctuating the times in between snacks.

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If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost smell the clay pot of tender, steaming Moroccan tagine. Soft slow-cooked lamb, tarty olives, fragrant spices, chopped apricots.

The aroma of Marrakesh lingers in my mind.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #4: Yangon & Bagan, Myanmar

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I think visiting a country for the first time feels a bit like plunging into a pool — there’s a mild feeling of disorientation initially, but you slowly adjust. Then you start to see the similarities.

To me, Yangon looked like Quiapo, and its old creaky buses looked like those Love Buses popular in Manila during the ’80s.

The Burmese looked just like us. The Hub got mistaken for a local at least twice. Women and men both used thanaka, a white pasty cream spread on their cheeks and forehead (in some cases, all over their face). Our cab driver said it’s a traditional cream made from tree bark and acts as a coolant / sunscreen. Useful in the sticky heat.

A young boy sporting thanaka patches on his cheeks

We visited the Sule Pagoda and the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The latter was crowded with tourists and locals alike. We took off our shoes and the feeling of cold marble under our bare feet was nice since it was so hot that afternoon. Around the pagoda were labels with the days of the week. These corresponded to certain planetary saints and birthdays. We also saw the locals conduct a coordinated sweep of the marble floor with long walis tambo — a long line of women with thanaka-covered faces.

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We took a cab to the bus terminal for JJ Express. They run an overnight bus that would take us from Yangon to Bagan in the Mandalay region, where the ancient pagodas were. There were several stops along the way. We had a late dinner at Feel Myanmar Express, a local fast food. I recall we had fried eggs, fried rice, and something that looked (and tasted) like beef tapa.

We arrived in Bagan around 6am and made our way to our hotel in Old Bagan. The Hub started to sing “We’ve only just Ba-gaaan…” (to the tune of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’) and it cracked me up.

It took us two days to tour the temples in Bagan. We hired a car from our hotel the first day, and took our time visiting each temple, marking it off the map as we went. The heat was amazing — but our hired car came with cool towels scented with lemongrass (the driver seemed to top this up mysteriously every few temples or so) and cold bottles of water. We made good progress, and the Bagan pagodas were more interesting to explore than the newer ones in Yangon.

We watched the sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was gorgeous — but the crowds, the jostling, and the nonstop camera clicking dampened the mood somewhat for me.

Behind every great sunset photo, a crowd

Bagan has over 3,500 temples, stupas, and monuments scattered around the landscape, built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Sadly though, I read that several of the structures were restored a little too hastily by the military regime, and some academics viewed this as having damaged the integrity of the old architecture. While this initially impeded Bagan’s designation as a UNESCO heritage site, in July 2019 Bagan was finally officially named by UNESCO as such, 24 years after the military government first nominated it in 1995.

In line with this, from last year onwards Bagan has stopped tourists from scaling the temples. A good move, I think.

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The second day we had a buffet lunch at Golden Myanmar. It was a wide array of food at a carinderia-style establishment. Excellent value at 4,000 kyat (Php 150 or US$3) per person, with dishes that looked and tasted like Filipino dishes: binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste), adobo (but an oilier version), pinatisan (meat in fish sauce). Familiar yet unfamiliar.

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The third day was especially exciting, as we had booked a ballooning trip with Oriental Ballooning (they use green balloons). They compete with the established Balloons Over Bagan (which uses red balloons) — but as we later saw for ourselves BoB left the ballooning grounds later than we did and landed earlier than we did. I also noticed BoB had bigger baskets that held more people, which (to my non-ballooning expert mind) probably meant heavier balloons and lower flying altitude.

We woke up 5am and were fetched from the hotel. The deflated balloons lay spread on an empty field of dusty red clay. Oriental Ballooning served a light breakfast of unlimited coffee/tea, croissants and small banana muffins. It was a chilly morning. We were given a safety briefing then they started pumping the balloons with air.

Our balloonist-in-charge, Mike, hailed from the UK and had only been in Bagan for three weeks. He had been flying balloons since 1982 as a hobby. He told us most of the balloonists only stayed 2-4 months, some for half a year, then went back home. He was still getting to know Bagan’s temples himself.

Ours was the first balloon to go up. We also went the highest. We watched the sun rise higher over the landscape and color all the temples in soft red, then orange hues. There was a light mist and in the early morning light, the view seemed surreal.

We waved to people down below, and they waved back. One kid actually hurried out to greet us — she was so excited she hadn’t tied her wraparound skirt up properly and almost tripped.

We had champagne and papaya slices afterwards.

A beautiful start in beautiful Bagan, and hardly past nine in the morning.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #3: Reykjavík, Iceland

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post a throwback photo every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

It seems cliché to talk about bucket lists nowadays. But seeing the Northern Lights has always been near the top of mine. When I saw Iceland Air’s promo package ads in the London tube station, seeing the “most spectacular light show on Earth” was just too tempting to miss.

The trip did not disappoint.

No bench inscription on this one! But what a peaceful place to think

Years on, I still remember how cold my toes were waiting for the lights. They are a beautiful, if unpredictable, natural phenomenon after all. There was no guarantee we would see them on our trip. In fact, the night we were scheduled to go aurora borealis-hunting, it snowed very heavily, so our tour operator gave us a second chance the following night to try again, for free.

Why “hunt,” you ask? Well, because it really is a hunt, more than anything else. What happens is this: you go out with a huge bunch of people in a convoy of large buses. The bus driver switches off the lights and you all drive around in pitch-black darkness while the tour guide talks about the phenomenon, how/why it happens, its history, etc. The guide also asks all passengers to keep their eyes peeled out for any signs of the lights. They can be green or even red, it all depends on the conditions.

And like I said, there’s no guarantee you’d see them. Aurora borealis (or the Northern Lights) can be seen around November to early April. Best conditions to see the lights are clear, cloudless, and cold night skies far away from city lights.

The following day, our guide tried to manage our expectations lower because it had been snowing earlier that day. He even told us stories of disgruntled tour passengers asking for their money back because of an unsuccessful trip. (Of course, that’s not possible. No soli bayad.)

We finally stopped at what the guide/driver thought to be a good spot and disembarked. Everyone had their cameras and tripods at the ready. It was butt-freezing cold outside… the first and only time since then that I felt cold so intense, my toes seemed disconnected from my feet. I kept jumping from foot to foot, thinking of frozen North Pole explorers and hypothermia (overactive imagination thanks to NatGeo channel). We stayed outside for close to two hours – at one point even resignedly climbing back into the bus – waiting, waiting.

So, imagine the pure pleasure we all had seeing this.

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By the time we visited Reykjavík, we had already travelled to a number of countries. 10/10, we always, always came across Filipinos – be it a noisy tour group; the old university org-mate we hadn’t seen in years whom we suddenly bumped into at the Spanish Steps in Rome; or the sweet manang cashier who, when she found out we were Filipino, gave us an extra cup of mashed potatoes in a Barcelona KFC.

I thought to myself that because Iceland was so far up north, this was finally going to be the place we don’t see Pinoys. The first morning after our arrival, Hub and I were getting ready to leave the room for the breakfast buffet downstairs when I heard, in clear Tagalog, not one but two housekeepers chatting in the room next door. They were tidying the beds.

Turns out, there’s a small community of Filipinos in Iceland, over 1,400+ strong. We Pinoys really are everywhere!

Think critically dear readers,

P.S. We just watched Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga on Netflix last night — I had no idea the main characters were from Iceland! Fun film. Makes us want to go back, after all *gestures broadly at everything* this.

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #2: Madrid, Spain

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post a throwback photo every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Was this taken in Luneta Park?

No — this was taken almost 11,650km away in Avenida de las Islas Filipinas, Madrid. It’s a replica of the Rizal Monument in Luneta and bears Rizal’s last poem, Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell), on the side in both Rizal’s original Spanish and the Filipino translation. It’s difficult to miss; the monument is just a short walk from the Islas Filipinas metro station.

It was a little odd for me to see something so familiar in a place so far from home. Yet another reminder that the ties between Spain and the Philippines run deep.

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One of my favourite moments in Madrid was when we visited Botín, an institution of Madrid traditional cuisine. Established 1725, it’s also the oldest restaurant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records (fans included Ernest Hemingway). We ordered Botín’s specialty, conchinillo asado (Castilian roast suckling pig), which came with a boiled potato. Hub and I were discussing what else to order with it when the waiter – who turned out to be Filipino – overheard us and came over saying “Ma’am, masarap po ‘yan sa kanin.” (Ma’am, that tastes good with rice.)

Not only did he bring us a small bowl of rice to go with our conchinillo (off menu perk!) but he introduced us to the chef downstairs, also a Filipino.

Hence, we discovered that Spain’s oldest kitchen is run by fellow OFWs too. Ties run deep, indeed.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #1: Tagaytay, Philippines

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post a throwback photo every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

It’s Father’s Day today, so for my first #SundaySofaSojourns post here’s a special one with Dad.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tagaytay – its cool breezes, its view of Taal (the second most active volcano in the Philippines), its roadside stalls teeming with souvenir pineapples and walis tambo. The city is home to local favourites Bag of Beans barako coffee, Rowena’s buko tarts (coconut tarts), Sonya’s Garden greens, and Antonio’s upscale fare.

It’s also the city where I got married.

This is a photo from our father-daughter dance. I had carefully chosen my wedding playlist and picked Jose Mari Chan’s ‘Sing Me A Song Again, Daddy’ for this moment. Chan’s whole album was one of the soundtracks of my childhood and this song was particularly meaningful for both of us.

I could not get through the dance without crying. Likewise, for Dad.

I heard the traffic going up to Tagaytay has only gotten worse since then. These days we also have to navigate four time zones for a family call. And of course, there’s the virus to contend with.

I still hope Dad and I get to see you again, Tagaytay. Our bowls of hot, hearty bulalo soup at Josephine’s await.

Think critically dear readers,