So last April my friends and I took a second trip to Japan. This time we mostly stayed around Tokyo, while taking a few days off in-between to visit Fuji, Hakone and Nikko.
I like Tokyo, so I’ll talk about Tokyo for now. I’ve only been here twice, but I could imagine myself living here for an extended period of time. It solves my top three problems with Metro Manila: overly hot weather, poor transportation options, and poor internet.
Both visits I found the temperatures to be within the generally agreeable range of around 5-25 degrees celsius. The low end is slightly too cold, but manageable. Of course, I haven’t experienced actual Japanese winter, so it’s probably colder then.
Transportation is great and easy! There’s like twenty lines of trains or such (OK, I didn’t really count, but there’s a lot!) and a lot of buses too. The great thing is that the trains and buses run on very exact schedules. At trains stations or bus stops you’ll see a list of times to the minute telling you when the next train or bus will arrive. That kind of thing would be unheard of in Metro Manila.
One of the downsides is that the train lines can get a bit confusing. They’re not all interconnected either – there’s some lines that are part of the Tokyo Metro, while some are part of JR (Japan Rail), and so on. It can cause some confusion for example some places might have both a Metro station and a JR station, and they might not be connected. The staff are always very helpful in the train stations though, feel free to ask them how to get to a particular station. They will try their best to help even if their English isn’t the best. Most stations will also have helpful signage showing maps and routes and stuff, and the trains themselves will have announcers telling you what the next station is.
For paying your transportation fares, there’s a few options, but for me the best one is to use an IC card – these are reloadable cards that you can use on any train or bus in Tokyo. (I have no idea what IC means.) You can get one at the airport when you arrive – there’s two providers, it’s either Suica or Pasmo and you can reload them at any train station. There’s also an option to get a 2-day or 3-day unlimited metro pass, which is a great idea if you plan to travel around Tokyo many times within a short period, but it only works with Metro lines which can be a bit restrictive.
Internet in Tokyo is obviously very good of course. If you’re staying at an Airbnb, try to get one that provides you with a mobile wifi unit you can use while wandering about. Being a tourist these days is a lot easier with internet, given google maps and similar apps. If you don’t have a mobile wifi unit, you can also leech free wifi from any 7-11 or train station!
The city is also very friendly to people who like to walk – during this last trip I managed to walk from Asakusa to Akihabara at one point. While wandering around if you get hungry there are always shops nearby and lots of vending machines to get a quick drink from.
What to do in Tokyo though? If you’re a gamer or an otaku, there’s obviously Akihabara – on each trip I went there more than once just to browse the numerous shops selling comics, toys, figurines, games, and so on. I would spend even more time there if I could read Japanese of course! (Working on it!)
Aside from that, there’s a few tourist spots you can visit in the city proper. Some of the places I’ve been to include:
Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. This is a good place to visit mainly because Asakusa is a good area to stay in, as many of the places to visit are easily accessible from Asakusa station
Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa. I only climbed the Skytree during the second trip, it offers a great view of the city.
Tokyo Tower. It’s smaller than the Skytree, but I’m sure fans of Rayearth will want to visit it haha. I visited it on this last trip to see One Piece and Final Fantasy exhibits.
Shibuya crossing. It’s a famous crosswalk for some reason, and there’s also a statue here of that dog Hachiko. There’s also a lot of shopping places nearby if you like that kind of thing.
Even if you don’t have much you want to visit in Tokyo proper, it’s a great base of operations that you can use to visit nearby areas. That’s what we did during this trip. You can leave most of your luggage in storage – there are coin lockers in the major stations – and just take an overnight bag to visit nearby tourist spots like Fuji or Edo wonderland in Nikko.
I’m not sure when I’ll visit Japan again (I don’t think going there for the Olympics is a good idea), but I wouldn’t mind staying in Tokyo again, that’s for sure.
A couple of years ago, two friends and I were being tourists in Barcelona. With its wide, spacious streets and strangely uniform city blocks, we walked around a lot. During one of our tourist days, we decided to eat some paella on the way back to our AirBNB. Who comes to Barcelona and doesn’t eat paella right?
We ended up walking for quite a while. Every time we came upon a new restaurant that served paella we would consider the price and the restaurant and would think, hey maybe we can find somewhere better or cheaper further along the way. At one point a Pinoy working in a nearby restaurant even overheard us talking about it in Tagalog and he called after us as we walked away. “Dito, mura lang!”, but we paid him no heed.
How could we know which restaurant was the best one until we walked all the way and saw all the options? But walking all the way back to the AirBNB to see all the options meant we would go for a longer time tired and hungry, so that was obviously no good. Even worse, we may find at the end of the walk that the best choice was too far back and we end up with a suboptimal paella. At some point, we would have to decide that “Okay, the paella here looks good enough, let’s eat here.”
I thought it was kind of a metaphor for life and choices and such. You can’t know ahead of time whether the options presented to you now are the best you’ll ever get. But at some point you have to stop browsing and overthinking and decide to settle for something that is “good enough”. Sometimes it turns out great, sometimes it ends poorly, but it’s almost always a gamble. Life decisions are only hard if we make them hard. But as long as you made the best decision with your limited information, I think you can always choose to live without regret.
We ended up eating at this small diner near our AirBNB. It was run by an Asian dude and his family, though it seemed they spoke better Spanish than they did Chinese or whatever. I had the Valencian paella which had meat instead of seafood or whatever (no surprise for anyone who knows my dietary habits.) I don’t know whether it was the best or the cheapest paella we could have eaten that day, but I could tell you it was pretty damn good anyway.
As I write this I am at the airport, trying to kill time. As per usual, I am more than an hour early before the check-in time for my flight. It’s a thing I do, no matter where I’m travelling, that I put in lots of buffer time so I will more often than not arrive way too early and need to wait. It’s not just for flights either – I have a tendency to arrive early for any sort of time sensitive appointment. (Except work of course, where I often take what I call “tactical lates”, but that’s a story for another time)
The buffer time and arriving early is a form of risk management I suppose. Since flights are costly to miss, you have to manage the risks involved. It’s also a form of anxiety I guess, something I’ve been prone to lately – worrying about all the things that could go wrong. I’m especially familiar with travel anxiety given how much I’ve travelled this year – this is now my fourth time flying out of the country for a while. I plan to go easy on the air travel next year, I’m kind of burned out a bit by it. Not that I don’t like visiting new places, but as I mentioned above there’s a lot of anxiety around it. Some sources of anxiety are:
1. Traffic. Metro Manila right now is one of the worst (if not outright the worst) city in the world with regards to traffic. On a normal day, you’re pretty much rolling the dice on any estimate of travel time as the traffic will randomly grind to a halt unexpectedly. And I just happened to be travelling during the week that we are hosting the APEC summit, which means random road closures and traffic congestion in the southern part of the metro where the city lies. Granted, I’m targetting to arrive at the airport a bit after midnight so the risk of a traffic jam is very low, but I’d prefer not to roll the dice
2. Flight cancellations; this is pretty much a unique risk during APEC week as a number of flights have been cancelled due to visiting dignitaries and security and whot not. There is supposedly a no-fly zone on the airport until the last day of the conference, and I’m flying out on the last day. My flight wasn’t on the cancellation list, but I couldn’t get a straight answer from any of the official channels whether the no fly zone would affect me. The airline’s helpline just kept me on hold for a while, not enough to hold my patience when I just wanted to confirm my flight eill push throu. Given it’s an early morning flight, the risk is again low, but still someing to think about.
3. Scams. Before APEC and the Paris terrorist attacks took over the local news cycle, one of the big causes of worry for travellers was the so-called “laglag bala” scam where unscrupulous airport staff would plant bullets in your luggage and proceed to extort you when they are detected at the xray machine. I don’t seem to be the target audience, but I plan to check in my luggage to minimize the odds of such problems occuring. It’s a shameful issue but the good news is that it has brought to light the sheer incompetence of officials in the transport department.
4. Forgetfulness. There’s always a risk that you arrive at the airport and realise you forgot something important and have to go back. My mom likes to tell the story of hpw she once almost left for the airport to travel to Vietnam and had to go back home because she forgot her passport of all things. Or even worse, what if you travel to a foreign country and realise you forgot to pack any socks? Or underwear? (Not a true story). Nowadays I always prepare a checklist ahead of time of what I plan to bring, to minimise the risk of forgetting things. Of course, you need to remember to check the list again on the way back home – during my last trip home I left my phone charger at the flat we were staying at and had to double back for it
5. Accommodations/getting lost. This is more of a problem when you’ve already arrived at your destination and there’s some problem with the accommodations you’ve planned out. Maybe there was a problem with the booking or you got lost on the way there. For the first night on this particular trip, I’m staying alone at an airbnb in a country that isn’t primarily English-speaking. It’s also my first time using airbnb. So I have a number of things to worry about: will I be able to find the place? Will I be able to communicate well with the owner? Will he murder me in my sleep? (Ok I guess the risk of that last one is probably pretty low)
6. Flight problems. Well, I don’t have a fear of flying per se, but I can imagine some people might, especially given how there’s a lot more incidents of flight problems, crashes or even disappearances happening latly. I would guess it’s pretty much a product of the information age
Well, worrying too much about all of these things isn’t helpful of course. It’s a habit I have to rid myself of – I need to learn the right amount of worrying that’s appropriate enough to manage the risks, but not enough to drive myself crazy. After all, one of the reasons for travelling is a sense of adventure and to anxiety so I should learn to let go of my worries and enjoy being out of my comfort zone for a while
This series of posts has taken longer than I thought it would, and I grow weary on it. We’ll cover things a bit faster from here, less of the daily stuff and we’ll stick to the highlights. This will be the final entry!
Sunday March 15th
This Sunday we took a long walk to visit the famous Louvre museum (why go to Paris and not see the Louvre). The French person behind the ticket booth greeted us in Tagalog when we told him we were from the Philippines. I was pleasantly surprised to find out the audioguide offered for the museum used a Nintendo 3DS XL and a custom cartridge.
The museum had a lot of Greek and Roman pieces and of course French artwork. Some of the things I found most interesting follow.
The tickets we had gotten also let us visit another nearby museum, but we were and had already spent most of the day in the Louvre so we decided to pass on that. We walked around a bit more, passing by one of the Paris bridges with love locks all over it. We ended our walk at the famous Notre Dame church; still tired, we passed on the long queue to get into the cathedral and took a taxi back to our hotel to rest up.
Monday March 16th
After a late breakfast of omelettes at a nearby French cafe, we spent the first half of the day travelling to the Eiffel Tower and hanging out at the base of the tower for a while, near a grassy area where there were a lot of other people just lounging around. We held off on going up the tower, saving it for our last day. Nothing of import happened for the rest of the day.
Tuesday March 17th
We had set aside this day to travel to Versailles, which required us to take a longer train ride out of Paris. We took a short walk from the train station to the Chateau, bought our tickets and got audio guides (from which we learned a lot). Some highlights follow.
I think we managed to visit most if not all of the rooms of the Chateau, which gave me a new perspective on how ostentatious the life of royalty really was and a better appreciation of French history.
After the Chateau we went prowling around the gardens which were huge. We visited the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, smaller complexes which were the residence of Marie Antoinette, and spent some time being lost on our way back to the Chateau.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we finished our tour of the Chateau and the Gardens, well worth the trip. We took the train back to Paris and decided to have an expensive dinner at a fancy French restaurant (one of the few times we decided to splurge on food). I had a French onion soup and a rather large pork chop.
Wednesday March 18th
After eating our last breakfast at the old lady’s pattiserie near our hotel, we took the Metro to the Montmarte hill overlooking Paris and famous for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur (“Sacred Heart”), though we didn’t bother going inside the church. We spent some time here listening to a street performer and taking pictures of pigeons (omitted here for brevity, available upon request)
We walked back to our hotel, passing by the famous Moulin Rouge. We decided to rest and split up for the remainder of the day and just meet up later in the afternoon for our climb up the Eiffel Tower.
I took a leisurely afternoon walk to the Eiffel and waited for my companions at the same grassy spot we hung out at before. As the afternoon grew late, the wind grew bitingly cold and I was thankful when they finally arrived so that we could go up the tower.
Thursday March 19th to Sunday March 22nd
We flew back to Barcelona Thursday morning. We had booked a different hotel for our last leg, the Charm Suites along Parallel Ave. It turns out the staff were mostly Filipinos so they were very welcoming to us. The 3-person hotel room was easily the best we had booked for the trip. The room was large and came with a large TV, a fridge, a kitchen area with plates, utensils and a stove for cooking and thankfully free wi-fi.
We spent the last leg of the trip in decompression mode, mostly relaxing at the hotel room. I was planning to attend a Dragons of Tarkir (MTG) Prerelease that weekend so I took a 30-minute walk Thursday to find the place I would be playing at, which turned out to be in an area filled with shops relevant to my interests: toy stores, book stores, comic stores, etc. I decided to register for the prerelease at Gigamesh, a large sci-fi/fantasy/comic book store with a back room for the tournament.
Before the weekend we took a leisurely afternoon/evening walk to the Barcelona coast so that we could make contact with the Mediterranean sea and having seaside paella for dinner.
I spent Saturday at Gigamesh having a good time playing with Spanish cards at the DTK prerelease. I had spent some time during the past few days studying up on the card lists in Spanish, worried that I would have a tough time with the local players. Most of them understood English well enough though.
Finally, Sunday was our flight back to Manila through Singapore, and the end of our trip. And the end of this series of posts, I hope you enjoyed it – I’m not sure I’d be willing to go into such detail again haha. Well, I have a couple more trips planned this year, so let’s see what happens there. Thanks for reading!
This was our last day in Rome and we were planning to visit the Colosseum and the nearby Palatino Hill. It was a long walk and we passed by a few palaces and the usual open plazas, many of the landmarks identified by Egpytian obelisks placed there by the Roman emperors. Rome is chock-full of cobblestone roads and plazas lined with souvenir shops and pizzerias and buildings fronted by 12-foot-high steel doors with large lion-head knockers and churches liberally sprinkled every other block. One of the churches we passed through was the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church which featured the Bocca del Verita/Mouth of Truth, made famous by the 1953 film Roman Holiday. There’s a short queue outside the church for tourists wanting to take a picture at the Mouth of Truth.
The church itself wasn’t too large – it was only a minor basilica, but there was a display of the relics of St. Valentine.
We also passed by a large elliptical open field on the way to the Colosseum, which we found out later to be the site of the Circus Maximus. It used to be the site of ancient Roman chariot races. For some reason, I decided to pick up a rock from the field and take it back home as a souvenir (hopefully not illegal LOL)
After that we arrived at the Colosseum itself. Outside the Colosseum were the usual merchants selling various souvenirs including replica Roman soldier helmets and swords. I asked the merchant how much one of them was an he jokingly told me it was one million euro. There were some people offering guided tours, but we decided to go our own this time. The ticket price was 16 euro for a combination ticket that gave us access to the Colosseum and the nearby Palatino Hill and Roman forum.
The Colosseum had a few exhibits inside showing artifacts recovered from the site that gave insights as to how the ancient Romans enjoyed the games, including graffiti from the stone seats depicting Roman gladiators and pots and pans indicating the audience cooked meals while watching.
The Colosseum has three levels and a basement level, although our ticket did not allow us access to the basement. It was thankfully a rather warm day although still a bit windy, as we spent some time going around the first and second levels. I had to resist the urge to shout “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?”
Just across the street from the Colosseum and up an inclined road was the entrance to the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. We head up the elevated area first to go around the gardens and building ruins of the former palace. We were already a bit tired by this point and climbing up the hill was exhausting but it did afford us a good elevated view of the Colosseum and the nearby sights.
We wasted some time trying to figure out the correct path to climb down the hill (we totally weren’t lost!) At the base of the hill we visited the ruins of the Roman Forum (disappointingly, it was just a bunch of stones) and we also visited a couple of temples before deciding that we were too tired to look at everything. Tapped out, we tried to figure out where the exit was.
We walked back to our hotel, stopping for a late lunch of sandwiches at a small corner shop and later on at a gelato place along the way where the young woman behind the register somehow managed to figure out we were fellow Filipinos while we perused the menu.
It was still early, but since we had a late lunch that day so my companions didn’t want to go have dinner any more. But I felt like while I was in Rome I should eat more pasta so I headed out into the chilly night and decided to return to the Montecarlo and I had some gnocchi despite not being too hungry (it was still pretty good!) After dinner, I headed back to hotel and we rested up for the trip to Paris the next morning.
Saturday March 14th
After a slight scare with a delay in finding our check-in luggage, we took a taxi from the ORLY airport in Paris to our hotel. The taxi turned out more expensive than we had expected, but I think by that time we were at a point in the trip that we were more willing to spend than be tired.
Our hotel was the Hotel Camelia International on Rue Darcet. We were greeted at the lobby by a grumpy-looking one-legged Frenchman who reminded me of Ray’s father from Everybody Loves Raymond. He confirmed our reservation and gave us keys for our room on the sixth floor, instructing us to use the lift. The lift turned out to be able to carry only two people at the time, so we had to take two trips. The room itself was mostly just the three beds crammed into a tight space. The bathroom/toilet had no lock and if you were sitting on the bidet, the door would slam right into you when it opened. The room had no wi-fi – you would need to go sit at the common area in front of the reception to use the wifi. We did not take the breakfast option at this hotel, which turned out to be a good idea, as it turned out later to be only a croissant and coffee. While pleasant enough, the place was easily the worst among the places we stayed at during the trip.
After a bit of rest we headed out to find something to eat and ended up ending at a restaurant serving South-Asian style food where I had some sort of shawarma type of thing. As usual while eating we planned out our day: we decided today to visit at least the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees.
Paris wasn’t like Rome with all the crowds and tourist spots so close together, it was closer to Barcelona with wide streets and lots of open spaces. Like Rome, there seemed to be no skyscrapers in Paris; we passed by what seemed to be residential neighborhoods lined with trees coming back from winter cut in identical patterns. We arrived at the rotunda surrounding the Arc de Triomphe and we took the tunnel to cross the road to the island where it was. We decided not to pay the fee to climb the Arc since we were planning to climb the Eiffel later on and we would get a better view from there.
From there we made our way to the Champs-Elysees. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but it was full of fancy, high-end shops. Lots of tourists too. We only went into a couple of shops (I’m not really into shopping). The wind was brisk and cold as we made our way down the avenue; eventually we moved past the area full of shops and arrived at a couple of museums adorned with gilded fences and statues of angelic hosts, I believe one of them was the Grand Palais.
From there we walked a bit south until we were at the Seine near the Pont Alexandre, a well-decorated bridge which gave us a good view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The bridge was surrounded by pillars on each end with ornate gold statues atop them. Apparently this bridge is a popular location for prenup pics; we counted no less than 6 couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns having their pictures taken on or near the bridge.
It was almost dusk by then so we started to make our way back to the hotel. We make our way through a maze of streets named after different capital cities, passing near the La Madeleine church. By this time night had rolled around and the buildings and restaurants are illuminated in various shades of neon. We arrive at the hotel late at night, and we turn in early in preparation for more walking around the next day.
It’s early in the morning when the shuttle picks us up to take us to the airport for our flight to Rome. When we first planned the trip a few months back, only Spain and France were on the itinerary. But due to a last-minute change in circumstances, we decided to add Italy to the trip. We had also acquired a railpass and were planning to travel by train between Spain and France, but given the change of plans we decided to refund the railpass (up to 85% of the cost can be refunded) and we literally booked inter-Europe flights during our layover in Singapore at the start of the trip.
We had booked all of our inter-Europe flights on Vueling, a Spain-based budget airline. I was a bit apprehensive about it since internet searches led to some stories of people having trouble with lost baggage, but luckily they were able to get us and our luggage to Rome safely and without incident.
Upon arrival at the Rome airport, we went to a tourist information kiosk to get some maps and whatnot. While we were there, this Italian man kept wanting to talk to us, offering free information about a shuttle service from the airport. We already had instructions on how to get to the hotel by train, so we ignored him at first and tried to figure out ourselves where to go. Eventually we gave up and just took the shuttle service with a few other travelers. We were the last to get off the shuttle, so we got something of a preview of the different places in Rome as the other passengers were dropped off at their hotels.
We were dropped off on a cobblestone sidewalk in front of a four-or-five-story building with a 12-foot tall metal gate in front. We walked in cautiously and found ourselves in a short hallway with a doorway at the end. The old lady who popped up from behind the doorway told us we needed to go up one floor when we told her we were looking for our hotel called Migdal Palace. Another large door on the right side of the hallway led to a stairwell. At the bottom of the stairwell was an old-timey open-air elevator made up of rusty metal bars. We only needed to go up one floor, but what the hell. We rode the small elevator up.
At the reception desk, we were greeted by a pretty Italian lady named Alina who spoke with accented yet clear and understandable English. She was very friendly and told us there was a room ready but we would have to wait a bit for the beds to be set up. We had not yet had breakfast at this point, so we asked her the most relevant question: was there a nearby place where we could eat some good pasta?
She directed us to a small restaurant at a corner a few blocks from the hotel, the Montecarlo, saying that she ate there all the time. We were a bit early for the lunch hour so we had to wait a few minutes for them to be ready. We were seated at an outdoors table; I ordered some carbonara, since Marco from Freehostels had recommended it, while my two companions ordered cacio e pepe, recommended by Alina at Migdal Palace.
While waiting for the meals to be served we pored over the maps to plan out our Rome trip. We only had 3 days in Rome, so we allocated today for walking around a bit and seeing nearby things, then the next day we would visit the Vatican, and on the third day the Colosseum.
The carbonara was very good and very cheesy; the sauce was egg-based without cream (as opposed to the cream-based ones I’m used to) and luckily no mushrooms (I dislike mushrooms). I also had a few bites of my friends’ cacio e pepe and it was a strange combination of tastes but also very good.
After eating we headed back to the hotel where the beds had already been set up. We rested up for a bit before heading out to explore the city a bit.
We made our way through the city, passing by a couple of plazas with small fountains surrounded by a maze of irregularly-arranged cobblestone streets. Rome was easily way more crowded than Barcelona and was very much a tourist city, made obvious by the abundance of shops and street stalls peddling magnets, keychains, miniature roman helmets and other random souvenirs.
We visited the Pantheon (an ancient Roman circular domed structure adorned with various exhibits including the remains of the ninja turtle Raphael), the church of Saint Ignatius de Loyola (which would turn out to be the first of many well-decorated churches we would visit) among other places. We made our way to the well-known Trevi Fountain, but unfortunately for us, it was undergoing renovation at this time and was drained of water. We walked around a bit more and late at night we ended up eating at this kinda fancy Italian restaurant which charged us an extra 5 euros for the tablecloth (or at least that what the chef’s gestures looked like when we asked him to explain the bill)
Not too much detail to talk about here, but here are some pictures I shared via Google Plus: Wednesday afternoon in Rome. (You might need to be logged in to Google to access, I have no idea how this works)
Thursday March 12th
Next day we availed of the free breakfast served by Migdal Palace, which consisted of bread, croissants, eggs, goat cheese and no meat, which ranks it below the breakfast from Free Hostels. Nonetheless we had our fill before heading out for the day’s walking around.
We made our way west towards the Tiber river, then followed it north until we crossed the river at the Angel Bridge towards the Castel Sant’Angelo. From there we walked westward along the Via de Conciliazone which would bring us right in front of Vatican City.
As we approached the Vatican, a blonde lady started walking with us and offering us details about a tour package she was offering. I wanted to ignore her, but my companions started listening to her so we stopped to hear her spiel. The way she told it, the tour involved us paying 46 euro each and included a 26 euro entrance fee for the Vatican Museum and the tour groups would also have access to a special passage from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St. Peter. While there was no entrance fee for the Basilica, going with a tour group would allow us to skip the ridiculously long line of the tourists waiting to enter the Basilica. However, the fee the lady was offering seemed too rich for our blood so we passed on it and carried on.
We reached the border to Vatican City and stood there for a while contemplating how to proceed, and we were approached by another person selling tour packages. This time it was a man of South Asian descent who reminded me of Community’s Abed. He got our attention by calling out in Tagalog “pinakamura dito!”
The tour package he offered us was similar to what the blonde lady had, except he was was offering us a price of 36 euros each, or 10 euros less. While we were contemplating it, we also met with a couple of Filipino expats who were referring people to a nearby souvenir store they were involved with, and they told us the price Abed was offering was already pretty good. After some discussion, we decided to go with it.
We were introduced to our tour guide Angelica and handed phone-sized receivers with earphones that we could use to listen to her while she talked about stuff on the tour. We started in front of the Basilica, joined by some white people, and Angelica described to us the history of Rome and Italty and Vatican City and Pope Francis and all that jazz. Pretty informative stuff, but nothing I need to repeat here. After a bunch of these introductions, we would go over to their tour office to pay the fee before heading off to the Vatican Museum.
As we were walking towards their tour office, I saw Abed calling me over away from the group, and I walked over to him and he told me that the white people that were part of our tour group had been given a higher price so that we should avoid mentioning how much we are paying. Felt a bit shady, but I guess we were getting a better deal so we ran with it.
After paying at the tour office, we headed over to the Vatican Museum. At that point we found out that the Vatican Museum entrance fee was actually only 16 euro, so I’m not sure why both the blonde lady and Abed said it was 26 euro. Whatever.
The Vatican Museum was filled with exhibits featuring statues depicting Roman emperors and other events from Roman history, including statues of Roman gods (which I didn’t expect from a Catholic institution). There was also a section filled with Catholic-focused murals and ceiling paintings. Angelica would stop at various exhibits to give us a brief background and history. We stopped at a corner of the pinecone courtyard so that Angelica could give us a briefing on the history of the Sistine Chapel – apparently they were not allowed to give briefings inside the Sistine Chapel itself. Naturally she had to give us the joke about the missing first fifteen chapels.
Afterwards we went into the Sistine Chapel itself. No photography was allowed inside so we spent most of the time staring upwards at Michaelangelo’s masterpieces on the ceiling (being a tourist in Rome apparently meant looking up a lot).
After the Sistine Chapel, Angelica took our group through the secret passage reserved for tour groups. It brought us to the front entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica where the tour ended. Angelica gave us some last words and left us to take a look at the Basilica at our own leisure.
I’m finding it difficult to find the words to describe the Basilica itself, I guess the most appropriate word to use is grand. We spent one hour walking separately around the Basilica just looking at things (although I did spend some time sitting down since we had been walking through the Vatican Museum for around 3 hours before this). There’s just a lot of history and statues and paintings and chandeliers and tombs and relics. As a Catholic it was well worth the visit. On our way out we took some pictures with some Swiss Guard standing by one of the side entrances.
We left the Basilica at around 3pm and had a late lunch at a restaurant along the Via de Conciliazone. After that it was still early so we spent a couple more hours walking around checking a few more sites and running into some weird yet entertaining street art. We wanted to visit the Villa Medici, but it was closed on this day. Eventually we got tired and decided to take a taxi back to the hotel and rest.
I was hoping to cover all of the Rome leg in one post, but this post is already long enough as it is. It may take at least three more posts to cover everything else, I hope the audience doesn’t get tired.
For today, we had decided to visit Park Güell, a Barcelona tourist spot created by this old-timey big shot to display the works of well-known Catalanion architect Antoni Gaudi. I say “well-known” but I’ll be the first to admit that my culturally-ignorant self had not heard of him before, but he’s kind of a big deal in Barcelona with many souvenir shops sporting some thing reminiscent of his works. My travelling companions seemed to know what they were doing, so I generally deferred to them when we planned out the day during breakfast.
The park was some 4 to 5 kilometers north of our hostel by foot, though as usual we took a more leisurely pace. One of the interesting things we saw along the way was a park-like area near a major thoroughfare where we found a number of old men (and one young man apparently playing hooky on what should be a school day) playing some sort of game which involved tossing metal balls around in a sand-covered lot.
There were benches nearby so we sat there for a while observing the game and trying to figure out the rules. As far as we could tell, first they toss a smaller ball that then acts as a target, and they have to lob the larger metal balls as close as possible to the target.
After watching the games for a while, we decided to continue our trek. From this point on the path we were following (provided by Google Maps) started to tread uphill and I started to get a bit tired. Eventually while my two companions were taking a break and looking at something I vanished for a while as soon as I saw a supermercats so that I could buy a bottle of water and recharge a bit. Supermercats are something like a combination of a small grocery store and a convenience store (they’re everywhere, and they don’t have 7-11s), and they seem to be often run by people of South Asian or Arabic descent. Whenever I see a supermercat, the name makes me visualize some combination of a cat superman who is also half-fish.
We continued along the uphill route, through winding paths and eventually up three flights of stone steps at a 45 degree incline, by which time I was pretty tired and was complaining a lot. I was told we were close, so we trucked on and eventually we turned a corner and found a series of outdoor escalators that would have saved us a lot of effort with those stone steps. I glared at the person guiding our route before we all laughed out loud. The entrance to the park area lay just ahead.
We climbed up a hilly area that afforded a good view of the city of Barcelona before eventually coming upon a tourist area overlooking a sealed-off area that was actually the roof of the columned area of the park. The park was the first tourist attraction we would pay for, and though my stingy self balked a bit at paying 8 euro for the entrance, it would turn out to be one of the cheapest tourist spots we would enter anyway.
I have not much to say about the Park itself, given my lack of architectural and artistic vocabulary. There’s a large columned area where the roof is lined with what I could describe as shattered plates, an impression which would turn out to be typical of Gaudi’s work.
The columned area is surrounded by a gardens area on one side and on the other side an overhang held up by a series of earthy stone columns one of which is carved in the shape of a washer-woman (which took us a few minutes to find). There’s also an actual school inside the park (I’m not sure how that works with the entrance fees) so we get to see a playground full of children enjoying themselves as we walk around the side area to get to the actual front of the park.
The front gate of the park features two guardhouses that give me the impression of gingerbread houses (though one of them was undergoing renovation). The gate opens to an intricately decorated walkway leading up back to the columned area. By intricately decorated, I mean there’s more of the shattered plates designs everywhere.
After touring the park we were kind of beat, and we had not yet had lunch despite it being late afternoon. So we decided to take a taxi back to the hostel and rest a bit before heading out to search for some paella.
When we were ready to head out, the person at the hostel reception desk recommended to us a nearby fancy restaurant a couple of corners down that had some good paella so we headed over there. However as our first lesson of how European restaurants actually work, we found out that we were too early as the place would only open at 7:30 pm. This would turn out to be typical in Europe – most restaurant type places would only be open a few hours during lunch time and again a few hours during dinner time, which was bad news for us since we tended to skip some meals and eat at irregular hours.
Undaunted, we walked around a bit for an alternative before settling on a small bar that advertised paella at less than 10 euros each. The proprietor turned out to be a Chinese person affording us the opportunity to miscommunicate with him in two languages as he did not speak English. Paella is a Valencian dish although it’s also common in Catalonia, so I went with Paella Valenciana (okay, it’s also because I eat meat and not seafood)
After partaking heartily of the delicious paella which took a while to cook, we also ordered some churros with chocolate dip before heading back to the hostel and crashing for the day.
Tuesday March 10th
We would be having our fourth breakfast at the hostel by now, so we’ve kind of gotten to know some of the other guests. One of them is a Japanese woman who speaks clear English; she often brings in fruits from the nearby supermercats during breakfast time. She’s apparently a frequent traveler who would be visiting a few other European countries before heading back to Japan. Another person we got to know was Marco, the owner of the hostel. He’s a talkative Italian man and upon finding out where we’re from and our travel plans he talks to us about how he plans to visit Boracay soon and gives us some tips for visiting Rome.
We headed out Tuesday with the intent of visiting the Sagrada Familia and not much else planned. This meant a leisurely walk along the Diagonal road, one of the major thoroughfares running across Barcelona. It’s called the Diagonal because it cuts diagonally across what is otherwise Barcelona’s orderly-structured regular square street blocks.
The Sagrada Familia itself is a church designed by Gaudi, a large somewhat out-of-place structure occupying one of these city blocks. One of the hostel people had told us its’ history, about how it was started back in the 1800s and that construction was still ongoing up to now. There’s a fee for going inside the church, with the funds contributing to the construction.
We opt not to go inside, as the facade of the church already offers a lot to see. There seemed to be three different facades and numerous spires, each lined with decorations and statues of a different theme.
We spent some time admiring the structure, and even a few minutes in an FC Barcelona exhibit right across the street. Afterwards, we headed up a slightly-inclined street towards one of the tourist spots highlighted on our map before deciding to have a late lunch in one of the open air restaurant areas in the middle of the street.
We managed to arrive at the Sant Pau hospital knowing nothing about what it is other than it was a nearby spot on our tourist map. The sign outside tells us it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, but it doesn’t look too impressive from the outside. Nonetheless we paid to go inside and we were surprised to find that it’s actually a rather large complex with a number of elaborately-designed buildings inside.
This place was a hospital during wartime. It’s no longer a hospital though, the hospital was moved to a modern site. It’s currently a museum and cultural center and some of the buildings are being used as UNESCO offices. There are almost a dozen buildings lining a central plaza dotted with orange trees. Each building has a different facade, though all in the same style, designed by the Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. There was some sort of media event going on though, and we were only able to visit a few of the buildings. The thing about visiting these types of architectural displays is that we’re always walking around with our heads tilted upwards.
We roamed the grounds for a while before deciding to head back and prep for our flight early the next morning to Rome. Our visit to Barcelona was very relaxed, we weren’t too worried about hitting too many tourist spots because we planned to be back here for a few days before flying back to the Southeast Asian side of the world.
My previous post only skimmed my trip to Europe. I did not want to write too much, partly because I was uncertain at how many would be interested to hear the sordid details and partly because while I was writing the post, the words did not flow as freely as I would have wanted. Despite this, I have received good feedback and more than one person had asked for more details. So here we are.
Saturday March 7th
My first impression of Barcelona (and hence my first impression of Europe) was that it was a very… brown city. Most of the buildings were shades of red or brown.
The three of us arrived at the Barcelona airport around ten in the morning and from there took a metro train to the Barcelona Sants station. One of the first things I noticed (aside from the brownness of the buildings as the train rode into the city proper) was the vast amount of colorfully-lettered graffiti that can be seen on many walls as the train passed by. This sort of graffiti would turn out to be common not only here but in Paris and Rome as well (though not as much)
From the station our hostel would be a short walk, but first we hunted around the Sants station for a place to eat. We looked at some signs for the McDonald’s inside the station before deciding we wouldn’t be having any American fast food for the duration of our trip. We ate at the adjacent restaurant instead, taking in an assortment of breakfast foods on some sort of combo plates. We didn’t have too much language trouble even though the staff spoke no English. Although the local language is Catalan, most of the locals will speak or understand Spanish, and we spoke and understood a bit of Spanish ourselves.
We stepped out of the station to a crisp windy afternoon, with the temperature a bit under 10 degrees. I was worried that my hoodie might not be able to handle the expected cold Europe weather but I held up fine so far. We walked around a bit a midst crowds of skateboarding, rollerblading and scooter-riding youths before figuring out where we were supposed to go for the fifteen minute walk to our hostel. We walked through what a quaint area with a wide open space in the middle of the road for pedestrians – such a thing seemed impossible back in crowded Metro Manila. Many of the storefronts were closed, probably for the weekend, with their metal security grills lined with the same style of colorfully-lettered graffiti I saw from the train.
For this leg we would be staying at Free Hostels Barcelona. The lady at the reception was very friendly and her English was quite good. She answered most of our questions and handed us a few tourist friendly maps that highlighted many of the places we could visit in the city before showing us our rooms. It was a dormitory-type room with four beds and storage units, a bathroom and not much else. One of the beds was already occupied, she said, so the three of us would be sharing a room with a stranger that night. (Spoiler: we did not get murdered in our sleep)
After resting up for a bit, we went out to spend the afternoon taking in a bit more of the city. We made our way towards the nearby Plaza España; the friendly hostel reception lady told us the mall there would give us a good view of the city from the top floor. On the way we passed by what one of my companions called out as a “giant penis”:
We climbed to the top of the Centro Comercial de las Arenas, which I found comparable to a small mall back home with mostly high-end shops. The circular rooftop was an open-air area that gave a good view of the nearby city and some fancy restaurants that we thought of eating at but never managed to get back to.
We decided to head towards that large building in the distance (I believe it was some sort of museum) since friendly hostel lady told us there was a nice fountain show there we could see. On the way we got distracted by this street performer doing bubbles.
Since we were a bit too early for the fountain show, we sat there for a while to take a break from all the walking and let ourselves be entertained by the large bubbles and the little kids enjoying them. He was using two short sticks with some rope entwined to catch some of his soap solution and he would let the brisk wind create the large bubbles. “I should try this back home, the niece would enjoy it.” (Spoiler: I haven’t tried it)
Shortly before 7 pm we went to the fountain area where there was already a large number of people gathered around the nearby steps and other seating areas in anticipation of the show. There were street performers entertaining some sections of the crowd with some sort of dance-off, but the fountain show began before they could come over to our side.
The fountain show was some sort of preprogrammed series of lights and changes in the fountain heights and angles against a backdrop of someone who sounds like Freddie Mercury singing something that starts with “Barcelonaaaaaaa~” The show was very good, I don’t believe I’ve seen anything like it locally (but then again I don’t see fountain shows too often). Imagine, I said to myself, somewhere out there are people who design these shows for a living.
We enjoyed the show a bit longer before deciding to head back to the hostel to get an early rest after the long travels.
Sunday March 8th
I woke up earlier than my travelling companions and headed out to the hostel’s common area to check out the free breakfast. Breakfast was cold cuts of ham and sausage, slices of cheese, bread and croissants with various spreads and some juice. Nothing too fancy (i.e. no bacon), but there was lots of food for us to enjoy. The spread would be the same every morning, and it meant we could load up on breakfast so that we don’t have to spend too much on lunch and dinner.
It was Sunday and as a Catholic I was planning to hear English mass. As far as I could tell from the internet, the only place to do that was the Parish of Mary the Queen at 10am. One of my companions wanted to hear mass in Spanish and the other one was planning to attend a football match around noon, so we separated for the first half of the day.
The church I wanted to go to was around 3.5 kilometers away, a 40 minute walk according to Google Maps. I allocated an hour and a half to walk there at a more leisurely pace. It turned out to be a good call, as Google Maps didn’t tell me I’d be walking up a bunch of inclined roads (these wouldn’t be the only inclines I’d have trouble with in Barcelona…). I passed by mostly residential areas, with small parks every few blocks letting me take a few minutes break when I needed it.
I was greeted at the church entrance by some white folks who were waiting for the mass to start. The church itself wasn’t too large, it was maybe a third the size of where I usually hear mass back home. There weren’t too many attendees, maybe around 50 people at best, which is less than I would have thought given the large Catholic population in Spain, though I guess most of them hear mass in the local languages. Most of the attendees seemed to be locals instead of expats; for some reason I was expecting a larger Asian/Filipino presence, maybe based on when I heard mass in Hong Kong or Singapore. The priest was very friendly and would greet each mass-goer as they left after the service. He even gave me a “good job!” with thumbs up as I went out, not sure why 😀
Friends know I enjoy a good quiz night, and my travelling companions were no different. So for Sunday night, we planned to attend an English pub quiz at the Black Horse Pub, roughly an hour’s walk from our hostel. We met up again late into the afternoon and headed out on foot (we liked walking, apparently). Along the way we enjoyed the fancy-looking buildings that lined the major roads. There are apparently no skyscrapers in Barcelona, most of the buildings we saw were maybe five or six stories high at most, with most of them being old-timey buildings lined with fancy ornate facades and some with random minarets or towers at the top. Any time we passed by an obviously modern-style building it looked hilariously out of place.
We decided to walk along the Via Laietana, a thoroughfare famous for buildings with different kinds of fancy architecture (I am too ignorant to name them). Aside from the buildings and their architecture which I am surely unqualified to describe, the street itself had a wide middle island for pedestrians, the island lined with trees that looked like they were groomed to look similar in branch structure, recovering from winter. The middle island held a number of outdoor seating areas for the nearby restaurants, a common thing in Barcelona. We debated having some paella right there, since that’s the famous dish in the region, but the menus here were a bit pricy so I suggested in Tagalog that we look for some cheaper alternatives later near our hostel. As chance would have it, one of the restaurant staff we passed by overheard us and I heard him say behind us we walked away “Mura dito!”, leading me to comment about the innate ability of Pinoys to find one another when in a foreign land.
It was night time by the time we found the pub among a maze of side streets, and the friendly British proprietor welcomed us for their quiz night. The questions were recited out loud in both Spanish and English (leading to one of my companions translating the Spanish instead of paying attention to the English one!). We took an early lead since we used our joker early, but fell behind when it came to the music-related categories (not an uncommon result for our quiz nights!)
After the pub quiz, we decided to take a cab home since it was late. The cost wasn’t too prohibitive since there were three of us to split the bill. I think it came out to just 2-3 euros each.
As I expected, this post already feels way too long. I was hoping I could cover each leg of the trip in one post, but this feels like a good stopping point. In Barcelona part 2, we visit Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia.
My friends know how stingy I am with money, and my family knows I’m not much of a tourist, so some might have been surprised that I took the better part of two and a half weeks off from work to travel around Europe with a couple of friends. It was my first trip outside of Southeast Asia and the first time I took a long haul flight. Other than my concerns regarding the possibility of my luggage getting lost, the trip was relatively smooth and the Singapore Airlines plane had relatively decent food, service and in-flight entertainment.
The first leg of our trip was to Barcelona, Spain (aside from the layover in Singapore). My first impression of Barcelona (and hence my first impression of Europe) was that it was a very… brown city. Most of the buildings were shades of red or brown. Barcelona felt quiet, maybe even rustic. There were a lot of wide-open spaces making it very friendly for walking, with most of the city center structured in well-organised square blocks that made it easy to navigate. The first few days of the trip were very relaxed, we walked around a lot looking at ornately-decorated buildings and hitting the occasional tourist spot like Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. We even managed to do poorly at a pub quiz somewhere in between.
The second leg of the trip took us to Rome, Italy. As opposed to Barcelona, Rome felt busy, crowded and very much a tourist city, easily evidenced by the numerous souvenir stands and sellers of selfie sticks that littered the seemingly unpredictable maze of cobblestone streets interspersed with ruins and fountains and plazas and museums and churches and ornate sculptures and Egyptian obelisks. The city is pretty much an open museum – there’s always something to see around the nearest corner. Unfortunately, the famous Trevi Fountain was undergoing renovation during our visit, but we also managed to visit the Colloseum and the Palatino / Roman Forum (that place is huge).
We allocated one day of the stay in Rome to visit Vatican City. For the first and last time we hired a tour guide (and maybe overpaid) to take us through the Vatican Museum and so we could use the secret tour guide entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. There was a lot of stuff in the museum, but the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Basilica itself were the highlights of tour. Or maybe that’s just because I’m a Catholic.
The next leg took us to Paris, France. Paris was cold, very cold, with biting winds. Easily the coldest city I’ve been to. It felt more like a city than either Rome or Barcelona did, with long avenues and high-end shops. Not particularly tourist-friendly, given that there’s less English speakers around. Also the most expensive among the cities we’ve visited – with food costing maybe 1.5 or 2 times as much as it did in the prior two cities. The Louvre and the Eiffel Tower (especially the view from the top) were magnificent though, well worth the cost of entry.
After Paris we spent the last few days of the trip back in Barcelona, relaxing and decompressing. We walked around a bit, visited the beach and I even managed to hit a Magic prerelease the day before our flight home. I managed to get back into work immediately after almost an entire day of travelling, with minimal jet lag even.
There’s more to talk about that I won’t write about at the moment – the on-the-fly planning, the food, the hostels, the budget airline flights, etc. I signed up for the trip on a bit of a whim, but it turned out to be a pretty good trip for me. I’ve never been a culturally inclined guy, but I still found myself immersed in all the ancient sites and museums we visited. The company was good, it was nice to experience an entirely new continent, and it was a welcome break from the usual routine.
I was in Singapore from June 2 – June 6, mostly to visit friends who are getting married and compete in the MTG Grand Prix held there last weekend. I like bullet points, so here’s a summary of my trip:
public transportation. One thing Singapore and Hong Kong have in common: well-defined, convenient and tourist-friendly public transportation systems, namely trains and buses. It makes our local buses and trains here pale by comparison. The trains are well-maintained and more or less go everywhere including to and from the airport (there’s really no need to take an airport taxi unless you arrive some time after the trains close), and there are maps everywhere and machines that dispense tickets and such. The buses can get crowded but still well-organized. There are numerous bus stops and they identify the bus numbers that pass by that stop and many stops will also have maps and routes shown; buses are tracked via GPS so some stops will tell you how long until the bus arrives. They even have an iPhone app that helps you find your bus. Oh, and of course you can buy one of those reloadable cards that you can use to pay for buses and trains. Okay, I really liked the public transpo system. 😀
Mike and Tin (congrats again guys :D) and the rest of the Singapore guys who put up with the visiting team, especially since they let me crash at their place on my last night there.
12 mbps internet at Mike and Tin’s place, which meant we were able to spend a couple of hours one night just watching stupid youtube videos continuously and letting me get my ass kicked at SSF4 online without any lag. Arr, makes me wish ISPs on our side weren’t so terrible
anime. Well, just the fact that I probably watched more anime over the weekend stay than I have over the past year or so. At least I now have some idea who these Fate/Stay Night people are.
air travel. In general, my Cebu Pacific flights went smoothly (I even slept well on the flight back) and I breezed through customs and immigrations both ways without much concern. I’m always a bit worried about some unexpected problems like baggage getting lost (so I never check in baggage) or some problem with the bookings or my travel documents or whatever.
very muggy weather, making it very uncomfortable to travel outside (to be fair, now that I’m back in Manila it feels almost the same here). It felt good to take a shower back at the hotel everyday
Oxford hotel for not having free internet and serving basically the same breakfast everyday. Oh and aircon unit that dripped on the couch; I actually woke up with water all over my iPad’s case (luckily not broken)
the Grand Prix Singapore venue, for being so far from the train station
me for trying to get into the driver’s side of the taxi
Somewhere in between:
I guess I’m fairly satisfied with how I fared in the Grand Prix, despite my sloppy misplays at some point. At least I broke my curse of going 0-3 all the time in Grand Prix tournaments. I’ll write up a tournament report in a couple of days
getting off at the wrong bus stop in Telok Blangah, causing me to wander amongst the apartment building while carrying my huge bag and there was a slight drizzle. It’s not completely a bad thing, as I kind of enjoy wandering around by myself on foot. It’s something I’ve done in other countries I visited (usually at night), but didn’t really get the chance in Singapore because once I got back to the airconditioned room in the hotel, I didn’t really want to go out 😀
As per usual in my travels to other countries, I did not spend much time shopping or sight-seeing or any touristy stuff like that. I’m not really a tourist kind of person. Overall the trip was ok it was great to be able to visit and meet up with friends, compete in the Grand Prix and see how daily life is in Singapore (still not inclined to work there though :p)