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,