Sunday Sofa Sojourns #15: Bormes les Mimosas, France

We were on the train en route to Toulon, headed to M’s wedding. To my right the sea whizzed past. I saw a few divers bobbing on the surface and wondered if there were reefs in the dazzling blue below.

Before we left the Hub warned me about the number of train rides we needed take on this just-us trip. I told him not to worry, long train journeys didn’t bother me as long as I had something to read. I came armed with plenty of books. One of the books I brought was a dud — after page 49 it was suddenly page 248 — and I made a mental note to exchange it at Kinokuniya even though I had lost the receipt. “If they won’t take it, I’ll make them go viral!” I declared. He laughed, “No one would care.”

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We flew to Nice where we spent a day to experience a bit of the famed French Rivieraalso known as Côte d’Azur — because who knows when we’d be back travelling in this neck of the woods? (In this post-B.C. era, that turned out to be a good call.) The water was as blue as I imagined it to be. The blue was in three shades and the sky did its best to match.

We passed cliffs dotted with what looked like villas and I remembered an old Garfield comic I read when I was really young where Garfield rattles off his wish list to Jon, ending with “…and a villa in the South of France!” I’m not sure why the phrase stuck with me after all these years. Perhaps I did not know what “villa” meant, or why a tubby cartoon cat would want one. But now I think I do — anyone would. The place is a dream.

We found a vintage merry-go-round
Ride-on vehicles for sale — I was so tempted to buy one

We dropped off our bags at the hotel and had an unimpressive seafood lunch near the flower market. Afterwards we had a mojito, praline, and pistachio gelato from Fenocchio which was absolutely delicious. Then we strolled along the promenade.

We passed by a lot of runners. I wondered how they could jog without so much as a glance at that sparkling Mediterranean sea. How was it possible to live next to it every day and not at least look, stare, linger?

We also noticed people were sunbathing on the rocky beach. It couldn’t have been comfortable — it looked like it was just gravel everywhere, with small rocks piled high in mounds in some spots. But the sun was out and the weather was lovely, so I don’t think people minded. We paused to watch two men play beach tennis with a pink ball that flew with the breeze.

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From Toulon we took a bus to Bormes les Mimosas, a small village with tiled roofs and houses all painted the same soothing peach hue. The church where M would be wed was here, Église Sainte Trophyme, and the wedding was that afternoon. We only had time for a quick quiche and a shower. Exploring Bormes would have to wait.

We got lost at first on our way to the church, but a kind French lady left her shop to walk us there. The interior of Église Sainte Trophyme was quaint and the same hue as the houses. Both of M’s sisters and her nanay were dressed in elegant Philippine terno dresses (“Para may representation!” said M’s ate) and of course most guests were from the groom’s side since it was his hometown.

The sermon was delivered in English with most of the service — and M’s vows — in French. A lovely, simple service, with legal formalities at the end, and torotot distributed to the guests for when the couple exited the church. M’s ate did her bridal makeup and arranged tiny rosebuds in her hair. “Sabi ko nga pwede rin pala magpakasal ng simple lang,” M’s nanay later said, when we were enjoying cocktails outdoors before the reception dinner. “Sa atin kasi…” and she trailed off, assuming I knew what she meant. (I did.)

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The reception was at La Magnanerie de Saint-Isidore, a long drive from the church. We booked a cab to take us there. Two hours were allotted for guests to mingle outdoors with pre-dinner Provençal apéro: wine, fruit juices, and various finger foods which I thought were better than the main course that followed.

I especially liked the anchoïade, a Provençal dip made from olive oil, anchovies, basil leaves, and garlic. At M’s reception the fresh vegetables were artfully arranged so it looked like they were growing in the anchoïade “soil” dip. I liked the baby radishes best.

Another favourite of mine was the freshly grilled meat station. I had my fill of bite-sized tender chunks of beef, marinated chicken, and blood sausage. A waiter went around urging guests milling in the gardens to help themselves from a tin bucket of foie gras (yes please two for me).

During dinner, there were messages from families and friends (his in French and hers in English — but M’s ate also delivered hers in French — “C’est magnifique!” exclaimed M’s in-laws, understandably impressed). The Hub and I were seated next to a banker and his girlfriend who asked us questions about Singapore. (Is it true they don’t allow people with long hair in? Can you chew gum there? What’s it like living there? “It’s good for families,” I answered. “We don’t have kids,” he said.)

Unlimited dancing followed dessert but the tiredness was taking over. Honestly, there were times too that I felt like a fish out of water. Most introverts might be familiar with the feeling — by then I had used up my day’s supply of small talk and just wanted to recharge back at the hotel. Finally, the Hub and I hitched with a friend and left after taking Polaroids for the wedding guest book. I took one extra snap of us, for me.

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The next morning we were up early and had our chance to walk around Bormes. The mimosas the town was known for were not yet in full bloom but I could imagine what the streets and the house gates would look like whenever the season was right. The souvenir shops, with their postcards, sweet scented perfumes, ceramic jewelry, and bags of lavender and other dried herbs, were just starting to open. There was no one around.

Some houses were nearly covered in bougainvillea flowers

We had tea and a croissant at the hotel cafe with a truly Provençal view (mountains, the peach-coloured houses with tiled roofs, blooms, and the startling blue sky with a single streak of white).

I thought to myself how difficult it must be to think of the rest of the world and its many troubles if I lived in a place like this.

But in some small way, I was also glad to leave.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #14: Rome, 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!

Rome is a delicious assault on the senses. There is the sight of an almost 230-year old fountain grafted on to the back of a palazzo when you turn a street corner, the taste of thick, creamy gelato as it melts on the tongue, the pain of sore feet when you walk too long on its cobbled streets.

The sore feet are worth it, in my opinion. Walking around Rome is the best way to discover hidden gems. Like finding the Fontana delle Tartarughe, a small fountain with tiny turtles crafted in the 1580s by Bernini himself…

… discovering Bartolucci, a toy shop selling whimsical wooden toys and a real-life Pinocchio…

… or spotting an angel making off with a stop sign.

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Pounding the pavements also allowed us to chance on the unexpected. We went up to Pincian Hill one afternoon and found a giant, yellow can with a radioactive sign painted on it. It had been set up by members of Greenpeace. I forgot what they were protesting about.

Looking up Pincian Hill

The distracting can aside, the sunset view from the hill was romantic and it was peaceful to people-watch from the top overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. We made our way down to the piazza as the big, open space filled with the sound of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ We sat on a bench to the side and watched an MJ-lookalike dance to a medley of songs in the middle of the square. The crowd slowly grew and I could see people singing along.

We stopped at Castel Sant’Angelo where we could see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance, as well as enjoy a good broad view of the Tiber river and Sant’Angelo bridge.

Castel Sant’Angelo
The view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the top

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On a side note, we visited a lot of churches when we were in Rome. I’m not overly religious, but I find European churches fascinating. The grand cavernous interiors, the abundance of blank-eyed marble saints, the way people automatically whisper when they step inside. The churches in Europe felt more aloof and imposing in my mind, in contrast to the generally relaxed and homely atmosphere in Philippine churches. Parang Gregorian chants lang yung bagay kantahin sa loob.

My personal favourite of the Roman churches we visited was the Pantheon, a formerly pagan temple saved from destruction only because it was converted into a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV. A well-preserved, 1000+ year old wonder.

The Pantheon

There was also a small 6th century church named Santa Maria in Aracoeli next to the Piazza del Campidoglio. It’s at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Legend has it that if you climb the 122 steps on your knees you can win the lottery. (I guess the fine print reads that you can win, not that you will win.)

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All the walking around the city is bound to make anyone thirsty. It’s a good thing the flowing water found in most of Rome’s fountains – and we found plenty of these – is safe to drink. All we needed was an empty reusable water bottle. (Never mind the water in the basin, the flowing water from the tap tasted fresh and clean.)

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We ate our way through Rome too. The Hub and I indulged our sweet tooth at Tre Scalini via a creamy triple-chocolate tartufo ice cream ball with a fudgy cherry centre, topped with cream and a chocolate wafer stick; at Giolitti for hazelnut gelato; and a double gelato dose at Il Gelato di San Crispino.

A tartufo ball

We had a shot of excellent espresso at La Tazza d’Oro, had our fill of excellent pastas and crisp salads with barely a misstep. Maybe we were just lucky, or Rome really doesn’t have bad restaurants.

Fresh salads from popular chain Insalata Ricca

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I think the sight of the Vatican City is impressive to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Even devoid of all religious associations, one can still appreciate that it’s a beautiful testament to humanity’s creativity. So much to see feel do think, in such a small space.

At the Vatican City

It was a Sunday so there was a blessing by the Pope at noon. We waited in the crowd until he arrived. Actually, we couldn’t tell what was going on since the announcements over the speakers were in Italian. We didn’t even know where to look; we thought the Pope would appear on the front balcony overlooking the crowd. I then spotted an open window with red cloth hanging out and remembered thinking to myself someone was drying out the Pope’s towels. Apparently, this was the window where he eventually showed up.

We made our way up the St. Peter’s Basilica dome for a bird’s eye view of the city. I remember the Hub (then the Boyfriend) and I lingering a little too long at the top of the dome. I thought he was taking his time with his photos – little did I know he was working up the courage to propose.

Our proposal story – saying “Yes” behind the saints

We eventually started to make our way down the dome, and made a brief pit-stop behind these marble statues of the saints. I had the camera and was snapping away when suddenly I felt a back hug (insert K-drama reference here) from the Hub and saw a small brown box open in front of me. I couldn’t see his face but it dawned on me what was about to happen.

Yes, behind these saints

I had imagined this moment perfectly a dozen times in my end. In each imagined scene I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Why ruin such a happy occasion with tears and what would most likely be a runny nose?

But when the reality of what was happening started to sink in fast, I felt my tears start and by then it was difficult to stop. The actual proposal went something like this:

Hub: (Box open in front of me, revealing the ring.) “Will you…”

Me: (Mumbling to self, realising I was crying.) “No, no, no…”

Hub: Ha?! No?”

Me: Ay, hindi! Yes, yes, yes!”

So that was my Expectation vs. Reality moment. Still, I think it turned out better in real life.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #10: Seville, Spain

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!

There are oranges almost everywhere in Seville, or at least, in the places tourists like the Hub and me frequented. There are trees heavy with orange fruit, fallen oranges on the ground, oranges accidentally squashed underfoot, mouldy oranges, oranges not yet quite ripe.

However temptingly orange and Sunkist-like the fruit looked, the general advice was not to pick one up and eat it. Notice the locals don’t do that either? That’s because Seville oranges are bitter. The British actually use it to make their beloved marmalade. So, we just contented ourselves with deep breaths of the fresh citrus-scented air.

In Seville we took long, leisurely walks all over the city. It was small and compact, and the number of “must-sees” was just right for a short weekend break. Unlike other European cities we had been to, we didn’t feel as pressured to be out and about all the time, and we even had time for a siesta in the afternoons.

We managed to get one of seven lovely rooms at a small hotel on Calle Zaragoza. The breakfast at the Taberna restaurant was exceptional – fresh squeezed orange juice, hot baked bread with sweet olive oil for dipping, coffee with kick, and slices of Jamón Serrano.

The Taberna del Alabardero courtyard

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The hotel was within walking distance of the Seville Cathedral, the largest Christian church in the world. The cathedral’s towering Gothic arches allow the building interior to have a temperature markedly different from the outside – inside it was cool and perfect for muni-muni (deep thinking).

The Seville Cathedral’s main entrance
The main altar’s 15th century altarpiece, the world’s largest. Composed of 45 Bible scenes with over 1,000 characters
The cathedral’s arches
Found this 17th century Madonna with Child in one of the displays. It’s by an “anonymous Filipino artist”

While we were there, we also climbed up the cathedral bell tower, also known as La Giralda. It had fantastic rooftop views of the city. The climb was made easier by the fact that it was a ramp rather than steps, the original design being intended for men on horseback. It was still quite steep though.

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In Barcelona, bull-fighting had been banned since the year before our trip. I’m not too sure about Seville, but when we were there the season hadn’t started yet so we just went to the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza for the tour and a visit to the museum. I’ve never seen a bullfight before– and I’m not too sure I want to.

Plaza de Toros

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We toured the usual spots in Seville – the Real Alcazar, a luxurious Moorish palace with intricate designs on the walls and ceilings, the Plaza de España, a lovely square that was apparently used in a Star Wars film for its other-worldly feel, the Casa de Pilatos, a well-preserved urban mansion that reminded me of old Spanish-era houses in the Philippines.

Real Alcazar
Real Alcazar’s Sala de Justicia, with its impressive ceiling. Look closely: it’s composed of little stars with the royal emblems in the middle
Plaza de España, with colourful tile maps of Andalucian cities
A whimsical sculpture of a reading little girl we found while wandering, whom I later found to be a monument to the Spanish politician and women’s advocate Clara Campoamor

Seville was the first Spanish city we had been to, so we were really keen on seeing authentic flamenco dancing. Walking around the back-streets we chanced upon a small, cosy theatre on Calle Alvarez Quintero. The flamenco show started at 9pm and costed a mere €17 back then (€15 if you’re 26 years old and below). We were treated to passionate (in the guy’s case, the hip-swaying, furrowed-brow crooning, really intense kind of passionate) flamenco dancing and singing. Eyes closed one could easily imagine oneself walking in a fruit-laden courtyard, bathed in red-orange hues in the style of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or eating tapas on a rustic table in a small whitewashed kitchen.

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Then again, I could be over-romanticising things.

We made a side trip to the Archivo de Indias, a library of documents related to the Spanish colonization of the New World. The building itself was built in 1598. I wanted to go see if there was anything about the Philippines in there.

We watched a short video presentation about the history of the building itself and the neglect it experienced – apparently, at some point it even became a halfway house for the homeless. It’s been renovated extensively since. The day of our visit, the exhibit was mainly about Latin American colonies. The only mention of the Philippines was a tiny dot on an old brown map exhibited behind glass.

Archivo de Indias

Sometimes, I catch myself talking casually about difficult times in world history and feel an odd twinge of guilt. My colleagues in a previous workplace included a British national and an Argentinian. I recall discussing colonies and empires with them over our lunch breaks. (It was the Argentinian who asked me if I ever felt upset about having to apply for a Schengen visa, given we were colonised by the Spanish for centuries. According to him, we should get a free pass since the Philippines was practically a part of Spain. Suffice it to say, a lunch hour was not enough for that conversation.)

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I’ve mentioned how much I liked grocery stores in a previous post. Same thing goes when we travel; we make it a point to stop by one in the places we visit. I feel that I get a glimpse into a country’s culture by looking at what they buy. I also find we have more in common than we think.

Anyway, we found these biscuits in the store we went to:

The Filipinos biscuits were doughnut-shaped, and came in milk chocolate or white chocolate flavours. It had either a light-coloured biscuit inside (similar to rosquillos biscuits in the Philippines, except Filipinos biscuits didn’t have scalloped edges) or a dark-coloured biscuit.

I remember reading about these Filipinos biscuits many years ago in the Inquirer when some congressmen thought the name an insult (note these biscuits have been in the market for over 40 years). The foreign secretary at that time, Domingo Siazon, attempted to counter the protest by noting that Austrians do not complain that small sausages are called “Vienna sausages.” (How about Belgian waffles, Hawaiian burgers, French toast?)

Names aside, it was a tasty biscuit.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #9: Athens, Greece

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!

Whenever possible, we try to visit a McDonald’s when we travel.

Why McDonald’s? Mainly because there’s a good chance the city has one (The Economist invented the Big Mac Index for a reason). Now, before you start thinking we’re unsophisticated eaters who don’t appreciate local cuisine (we do!), our reason for doing this is the exact opposite – McDonald’s has a menu item unique to the city and we like trying it out. In Paris, we had a cheeseburger that used blue cheese (au bleu) instead of the usual processed cheese slices they served elsewhere. Singapore used to offer a gula melaka (palm sugar) flavoured McFlurry.

In Athens they served a ‘Greek Mac’: two beef patties, lettuce, and tomatoes sandwiched in pita bread.

The McDonald’s branch was a short walk from our hotel in the Plaka district but the route was a little dodgy – graffiti on the walls, men loitering in the street corners. It was the year of Grexit and my siblings joined me on a rare “just us” holiday to Athens. Parliament was also close by. I recall expecting protests in the neighbourhood and being a little worried.

The evzones or Greek soldiers in front of Parliament, dressed in traditional attire

The view of the Acropolis from the hotel roof deck was unforgettable though, so we made do.

We headed to it the next day. The Acropolis is the highest part of the city. The walk up the hill was easy and clearly signposted. We passed several places that evoked memories of our high school “History of the World” textbook: theatres with names like Dionysus and Herodes Atticus, a temple named after Athena Nike.

At the top of Acropolis Rock was the Parthenon. At that time, restoration was in full swing so parts of it were covered in tarpaulin and there was scaffolding too. But still… it was the Parthenon. A building built circa 5th century B.C. during the golden age of Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world. We were right there! And the view was stunning.

The Erechtheion. According to myth, Athena and Poseidon battled for Athens on this spot
The Parthenon

From the Acropolis we made our way to the Agora, where Socrates was born and where St. Paul preached. There was hardly any shade on the way so water bottles and face towels are recommended.

The Agora is for wandering. There are several buildings on the site you can explore. You can shut your eyes and imagine it as the ancient marketplace it once was centuries ago, complete with the hustle and bustle typical of a public palengke, the famous philosophers who spoke, the huge crowds that must have gathered here to listen.

We continued on foot to the Roman Forum, where the Romans moved Athens’ marketplace from the old Agora. It’s smaller and has the beautifully named Tower of the Winds, an octagonal tower built in 50 B.C. There used to be a bronze weather vane on the tower roof which indicated the direction of the wind, personified in carved relief at the top of each side. Rays of sundials are carved on each side beneath the scenes of the winds, and inside there was a water clock powered by a stream from the Acropolis.

Dogs at the foot of the tower, napping in the shade. There were plenty of askals in Athens

We had lunch at Diogenes taverna. It had a shaded terrace, which we craved after the heat. I ordered a creamy moussaka, a traditional Greek dish made of minced beef and eggplant baked in a tomato sauce, and our youngest had rabbit stifado, a local meat stew.

For me, the best part of this trip were the conversations with my siblings. As sweltering as the walks may have been, their company was hard to beat. That made it okay.

We talked about ourselves, mostly.

This is a bottle of Absolut being repurposed as a water bottle. We got our mom, whom we Skyped often while on the trip, to a near panic when we joked that we were having an inuman session

We sat in a cafe, To Kouti, for rose petal ice cream and strong shots of Greek coffee and talked and talked. The conversation was at times light, at times serious. By then, I had lived abroad for a few years. It was the longest I’d been away from my family and I felt out of touch. I used to know the daily minutiae of A’s love life. When I left, our bunso was still in university. Now A was in a serious relationship and the other was about to become a high school teacher.

While I did keep in touch with my siblings since leaving, I felt I was only getting a highlight reel of what went on in their lives. It just didn’t feel the same.

I think the distance from home helped us talk a little more freely. Without going into detail about our (fairly sheltered) childhood, it was thrilling for me to be there in a foreign country with two grown individuals whose lives I felt I knew intimately (and yet didn’t), whose voices sounded like mine (but spoke differently), whose thoughts reflected mine (but still managed to surprise me, in fascinating ways).

In Singlish, same same but different.

So, how about it, A and C? Let’s get another round of ice cream — it doesn’t have to be rose — we can have chocolate this time. Let’s pick the place together, it doesn’t need to be far. Let’s have more

Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Let’s do this again, just us.

Think critically dear readers,

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 #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,