Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Harry Potter and the Amazing Race

London didn't make the cut when we were planning for our trip initially. However, it was added in only because it was cheaper to fly to Istanbul from London than from Prague when we were looking through cheap flights via Easyjet. We were quite happy to make this detour as we have always been a huge fan of Harry Potter and talked previously about visiting Platform 9 3/4.

A huge bonus to this stop was that Neal (Fiji) and his wife, Eleanor, lived there and we were able to crash at their pad in central London for several days and do some site seeing.  We also met up with Ashvin (Fiji) and my good friends from the Guatemala days, Steph and Imogen.  As always, it was great to see good friends again and catch up on the past several years.

We sampled the local beverages and food (Beer and Fish and Chips), had a typical Sunday Roast, and cruised around town in Steph's convertible for a couple hour city tour.  We also went nuts on food we probably won't eat for a while (Thai, Japanese, etc) and chilled out to watch all 3 Underworlds since we watched the 4th one the week earlier in Turkey.

Getting around town by Tube was as easy as everyone says and we went everywhere, including the famous Harrod's department store.  They literally DO have everythere there from furniture, food, modern art, chandeliers, etc.  Best of all, they had a Harry Potter store set up temporarily and we hit it on the very last day.  Jaime took pics with the staff there, who were dressed up as Griffondor and Slytherin, we played with mock-wands, and got a free Harry Potter 'maze-game' ala the Goblet of Fire.

All in all, we did a lot in London and it was a great 'last second addition' to our Amazing Race around the world.  Once again, a HUGE thanks to Neal and Eleanor for letting us stay with them and being such great hosts. :)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Prague: a dream come true!

When I was in my early 20s, I remembered seeing a picture of the snow capped Prague castle and I instantly fell in love with it. I wasn't travel savvy then and hence spent the day googling about Prague & how to get there. At the time, Prague was not easily accessible from Singapore and I buried the thoughts of ever going there.

So when Chris and I were planning for the round the world trip, and I knew we were going Europe ( Italy being the place both of us wanted to see), I casually mentioned to Chris about Prague. With our limited time and the vast number of countries we wanted to go in that region,( mind you, we wanted to go London to see Harry potter's 9 3/4 platform, Spain & Sweden) we had to really pare down our itinerary. But Chris knew it was my dream to see the Prague castle and here we are in beautiful Prague. (i got a sneaky suspicion that he so readily say yes to it because he wanted to meet up with his gaming friends who are in Prague). Chris's note: actually, I have nerd friends all around the world.  I was just being super considerate in fulfilling Jaime's dreams because I'm such a great guy.  Really. :)
Cenda, a beach volleyball friend of ours who came to SG a couple of times, came to Prague to be our tour guide! He lived in Brno but took a 3hr bus ride to be with us for the 4 days!

Cenda introduced us to Medovnik, a very common cake in Prague, which is well known in Russia, Poland, the Ukraine and Croatia. Medovnik is a 10-layer honey cake flavored with cinnamon and nuts. It is not a dry cake but contains just enough cream to give it a little moisture. Its cream, as Cenda kept emphasizing, is hard to make to the right consistency, and when made correctly, the cake will taste heavenly. The Medovnik is unlike any cakes I've eaten before. Its like a cross between Kueh Lapis (thousand layer cake) and carrot cake. I'm going to try baking Medovnik when i am in Canada! (Chris's note:  this stuff is so good that it's almost on the same level as gelato.  Actually, it's just as good if you were to put them in their on dessert categories.  It's awesome.  We purposely ate less at each meal afterwards so we could eat at least 2 medovniks).

It snowed on our first day in Prague and it was really beautiful! We walked around the entire city center but stopped frequently in a bar or cafe for drinks or Medovnik. (too cold to be outside for long!) Our record was a whooping 5 cakes in a day! :p

The food in Prague is yummilicious! It's a great break from all the pizzas and pastas( high carbs) from Italy for me. Of course Chris can still eat 10 pizzas a day if he can get away with it without me sulking. Not forgetting the infamous Czech beer. It's cheaper than water if you order it in a pub!

We had enjoyable evenings with Chris's friends who brought us to various places for local delights! We tried the goulash, which is a soup or stew of meat, potatoes and vegetables seasoned with spices. There is also another type of goulash that looks very much like the beef rendang we have in Singapore, except that it is not spicy and it is mixed with cabbage. I had the pork goulash and it reminded me of 肉丁!

Chris took me to the ice skating rink as it was part of the Amazing Race task that we had to do! We will talk more about the Amazing Race tasks later in in our blog. We spent a cold afternoon skating with Chris's friends (Zdenek and Maga). It was my first attempt at skating but the skating rink has a little metal rod thing for me to use as a balance which proofed really helpful for beginners like me!  (Chris's note:  Jaime only fell once.  Amazing.  We actually went skating twice - the first time was by the fruit market with Zdenek, Maga, Lucas, Barbara, and their super cute daughter, Natalie.  Jaime had a strained back so sat that one out.)

For 4 days, we went out and walked around old town for several hours with frequent stops for food, dessert, and beer to warm up.  As all of their sites had entry fees (even the churches!! WTF?), we mostly stayed outside and passed on the churches, palaces, and art galleries.  Instead, we decided to spend our money on entry to the Torture Museum, which was kind of cool and eerie.  Cenda was a bit queasy, Jaime uneasy, and Chris was expecting more 'innovated' torture devices and thus, a tad disappointed.

Some of the highlights of Prague included:

1) Making a 4-way pact to get back into shape with Zdenek and Maga so we'll be checking on each other frequently and in a couple months, we'll be so buff, you won't recognize us. 

2) A good laugh was when Cenda was getting hit on by a woman in a dessert cafe without knowing it and capped the smooth session by kissing her on the cheeks when she was trying to shake his hand and ask what his name was.  However, she never did call by 9pm that night (or at least a week later) so Chris lost a beer on that wager.

3) Chris and Cenda racing down and up the stairs by the castle in the freezing cold and having the exact same time.  Chris had lung congestion for the next 30 hours, proving that even if you look skinny, you can still be out of shape.
We will definitely miss all the good food and company in Prague!

Milan in a half day

Due to our tight timelines, we only had a half day in Milan.  So we got some pizza, gelato (of course) and checked out the Duomo, which was amazing, even after seeing all the other duomos and sites in Italy.  It is huge.  The plaza outside was filled with people and shady characters who were offering free bird seed, likely in an attempt to distract you with pigeons as they pick your pockets.  But we were too crafty for that and I had to do some tai-chi circle hand moves once a guy grabbed my wrist.  Then I proceeded to fake punch a pigeon on his hand in slow mo in an attempt to show off that I wasn't an easy mark.  At that point, the guy left us alone.

Right beside the Duomo is a huge outdoor covered plaza with super posh shops.  This was the first place I (Chris) came to in Italy 12 years ago and I remember going into the Prada shop in shorts, tshirt, and a huge backpack.  The shop was still there, in its prime location with the other 3 corners taken up by luxury stores like Ferragamo, LV (or something like that) and...... Mc Donalds!

After the Duomo, we had a huge pizza and good spaghetti carbonara at a restaurant before turning in to catch our 4:30am bus to the airport the next morning.  Note:  If you take the bus to the airport, you can buy the tickets at a booth OR right by the bus where they give you 3 for the price of two.  Meaning, you can sell the other ticket and buy more gelato with it.

Cinque terra, Italy

Cinque Terra literally means five lands. Its called 5 lands because of the 5 little picturesque towns that made up Cinque Terra. These five tiny villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – are cut off by mountains choked with olive groves and dry-stone-walled vineyards, where farmers have eked out a living over the centuries. Cinque Terre is one of Italy’s treasures. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside.

The best way to get to Cinque Terra is by train to La Spezia from any city (Rome & Florence being the most accessible), then take another train that comes every 15 minutes and stops at each of the 5 towns.
We stayed at Riomaggiore as it is supposedly the main town where you can buy tickets to the national park. To hike or walk the trails, you will need to pay €3 per person. We took the day package of €10 per pax which includes unlimited train & bus services + the fees for the trails.  Unfortunately, the last 2 towns were damaged by flooding last October, so we couldn't walk there.  Good thing we got our exercise in walking to Veladros after missing the bus.  A straight up the mountain 1 hour hike left us breathless but the view was equally breathtaking.

Riomaggiore is connected to Manarola via the Via del'Amore boardwalk. It is also known as the Lovers' Lane. We saw a lot of padlocks locked on every chains or metal grills along the boardwalk and graffiti on the rock walls with love messages. It is a very lovely walk as it overlooks the Ligurian Sea.

The hike that connects from Manarola to Vernazza to Corniglia was tough. You need to wear proper hiking shoes as the terrain consist of steep climb and plenty of loose rocks. The hike was well worth the muscle aches after because you actually get to walk through all the vineyards, pass by houses of the farmers & get the great view of the entire place from the top of the hills.

If you are ever tired of seeing all the architectural stuff in Italy, Cinque Terra offers a good change of environment. The serenity that envelops you during the hike is priceless.  The only kicker is that in the off season and due to the flooding, there was no food in the last 2 towns.  NONE.  So we had to head back to Manarola for dinner.  Also, NO gelato shops were open in the off season, so that's our main gripe with Cinque Terra in January.

Rome a second time

We were happy to return to Rome after Venice to meet up with Chris's good friend, Colin, who is a pilot enroute to Rome, for 4 days. We bunkered in with him in the Hilton Hotel and all thanks to him, we got to enjoy breakfast & snacks at the lounge everyday! Colin also saved my life when he brought all those cup noodles from Taiwan for me. I was so sick of pastas and pizzas by then. (Chris's note:  I was in Pizza heaven and could easily have done another several weeks of the stuff)

Chris calls me a homing pigeon because I am always able to find back a street that we had been to or recognize the way back to our hostel. I, on the other hand, think that Colin is a walking map. He amazingly led us to places without ever needing to take a peek at the map! Once, we were in quite a bit of a rush to catch the Hilton bus back to the hotel and he led us on an entirely different route and magically transported us to the pick up point in half the time.

We managed to check out the Sistine chapel this time round. There was NO queue at all! Chris said he went 12 years ago and the queue was snake long and would have taken him 4 hours just to get inside, except that he cut queue after an hour in the 40 C heat.

The Sistine Chapel is the best-known site in Vatican City. It is famous for its architecture and its decoration that was frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists including Michelangelo. Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis of which the famous 2 pieces are the Creation of Adam (is the best known - the hands of God and Adam almost touching each other) & The Last Judgement. We spent a great deal of time in the Sistine Chapel and I thought I saw Colin, who was still jetlag from his flight, dozing off at one point. I couldn't be sure as his transition lens glasses turned dark.  (Chris's note:  He WAS dozing.  I suggested he put on the shades so people wouldn't know).

A little tip when using the rail service in italy: during low season (winter), you can get 2 tickets for the price of 1 when traveling on Saturdays. do check out the trenitalia website for offers. Sometimes the ticket staffs might forget there is such a deal and will not offer that to you, hence you have to specifically ask for it when you buy at the ticket sales counter.

As per our usual Modus Operandi, we had several gelatos and revisted Blue Ice and a couple of its other outlets.  With so much cheap gelato around, who needed food? 

A-maze-ing Venice

Venice in the winter is a little bit less beautiful than one would imagine.  Nonetheless, it was still breathtaking.  So was the cold.

Navigating in the cold with fog misting in front of your face with every breath was not that fun. Venice is like a maze. Just as you think you're about to reach your destination on the map, you'd often find yourself walking into a wall or heading to a dead end. We weren't surprised to find many tourists lost amongst all those narrow corridors between buildings that looked so alike. Walking around after sunset can make your imagination run wild. I was anticipating someone to jump out behind a wall wearing a 'I know what you did last sumner' mask.  It didn't help when some big haired rasta dude started walking in the same direction as us for a few minutes. (Chris's note:  I saw him and would have whooped him if he made a move on us.  Long hair = disadvantage)

A combination of the cold weather and a gorgeous apartment kept us indoors for the majority of the time. We booked a double room at the L' Imbarcadero and was told that their private rooms are located a few blocks away. Turned out that our double room is actually an apartment with a kitchen, huge hall and 2 balconies on each side of the hallway. There wasn't anyone staying at the other room at the time and hence we had the whole house to ourselves!

Food is VERY expensive in Venice. They charge €2 per person as cover charge for a sit down dinner (unless you order take away!) on top of your regular pasta ( no meat) costing €12 per pax minimum.
It made more economical sense for us to make our own dinner - pasta with pork chop and eggs.

Public toilets are expensive too! €1.50 per visit. I suggest you carry an empty water bottle around to pee in.

We went to Piazza St Marco, a must see in Venice, on our last day. It was so cold that the air turned foggy. There were a million pigeons in the square and those pigeons were bold; Chris held out some crumbs and the pigeons flew up onto his hands and one landed on his shoulder. It looked like one of those bird shows in the bird park!  Still, it was a beautiful city and definitely worth a revisit during warmer times.  Oh, and in case you're wondering, of course we had gelato while walking around in the freezing cold.  A few times.