#yenkaitravels #onemontheuropetrip

Believe it or not, those were the very first hashtags I have ever used. I wanted to share photos or even videos as I travel, and what better way to do this than through a Facebook page @ facebook.com/yenkai.net. I hope you will find it interesting!

By the way, I have kept the one day integrated metro and bus ticket for Rome as pictured above in my wallet since 2009. One fine day back in 2009 while visiting Rome, I lost my one-day ticket somehow and was going to purchase a ticket to get back to the hotel. There was a gentleman waiting at the ticket vending machine and he handed me a ticket and walked off without saying a word (well I wouldn’t have understood Italian). I suppose it was a ticket he didn’t need anymore and he would give it to the first person who arrives at the vending machine. I can’t tell you how blessed I felt at that moment!

Here I come again, Rome!

Europe one month itinerary

The highest concentration of nations is found in none other than Europe, which means you can experience the highest diversity of culture in the shortest time here. Europe also offers much in terms of places of historical significance, natural landscape, food, shopping and more, which is why you keep having to go back.

There are millions of permutations when planning for a Europe itinerary. Here’s how I am going to do it this time:

Days 1 to 8

Villa d’Este http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1025

Italy. I have been to Rome twice, yet there are many places near Rome I have not visited, such as Necropoli della Banditaccia (UNESCO heritage site) and Civita Di Bagnoregio. No trip to Italy is complete without a visit to The Mall, the famed luxury goods outlet centre. This would be my fourth time there. Continue reading Europe one month itinerary

Travel Bucket List: English Gardens

In 2010 when i visited my sister who lives in Manchester, UK, she asked what i would like to see while in the UK. I thought for a moment, and the idea that came up was, gardens. That’s what they’re famous for right? Well, they’re also famous for a few things: Soccer, Theatre and Musicals, Fish and Chips, afternoon tea etc., but i thought seeing an English garden would be the perfect sightseeing thing to do while in the UK. My sister brought me to see Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon.

268408_10150240443578726_8243070_n
The Abbey Ruins

268197_10150240443618726_2482063_n

To be honest, I don’t know much about gardening, but anyone would be able to appreciate the carefully put together elements of plants, water, sculpture. The Bodnant Garden was one of the best.

DSC_0048
One of the most beautiful flowers i have seen, in the Bodnant Garden
DSC_0213
Laburnum Arch
DSC_0077-2
Bodnant Hall and Lily Terrace

DSC_0100-2
There are literally thousands of gardens in the UK, a testament to the Englishman’s love of gardening. The Leven’s Hall and Gardens is also nice one to visit enroute to the Lake District.

17DSC_0045
The Topiary Gardens

17DSC_0056-2
17DSC_0130

Travel Bucket List: Spanish Food

Ok, you must be wondering what Spanish food has to do with a travel bucket list. Spain does have many places worthy of being added to your bucket list, such as the Alhambra, but over and above, I love Spanish food.

breakfast
A satisfying breakfast with Churros, toast with cheese and ham and scrambled eggs (don’t the eggs look lovely?)

Spanish food appeals to me much for a few reasons: it is tasty, varied, and it can be so darn cheap. I’ll explain the cheap part in a moment. Spain is one of the countries with the most Michelin starred restaurants, so, without a doubt, you know Spaniards have good taste. The variety of Spanish food is best exemplified by their Tapas. The number of different Tapas I have seen in a typical restaurant menu, or ready-made and put on display, are no less than 20. Tapas are like the Spanish equivalent of dim sum: small portioned, creative and refined.

Tapas are relatively cheap – it allows you to sample many different dishes without breaking the bank. I was quite surprised, while in a Tapas bar – El Majuelo in Salamanca, to see locals having just one Tapas dish and a drink for a meal. The Tapas were generally 3 to 5 Euros. That was perhaps the cheapest meal I have seen happening in Western Europe, and one of the best meals i’ve had.

A03DSC_0321
Cheese with mushroom. It tasted like foie gras

A03DSC_0320
Rice with black pudding. I’m no fan of pig’s blood but this tasted so good, a bit like sweet glutinous rice dessert

A03DSC_0322
Scallop

While in Spain, i took the opportunity to try a 3 Michelin star restaurant as well – Arzak. The amuse bouche were very interesting indeed. The mains, other than being a little too small in terms of portion, can’t be faulted. The service was perfect. The price? well, naturally there’s no small price to pay to get 3 star treatment. Ultimately, I think I probably won’t go to another 3 star restaurant. I like my meals to be a repeatable experience – things you can eat everyday, like fried bee hoon or curry chicken.

10348691_10152431524168726_8223969887999220333_o
Amuse bouche served on a soda can

10403731_10152431524273726_4790417423662312796_o
I don’t know what was in this small bottle but it was GOOD

10453077_10152431524153726_3260664414434964062_o
Pigeon

10475980_10152431524143726_2108429022180624475_o
Beef served on top of an iPad (really)

1501655_10152431525278726_7404780879889357936_o
Dessert

Paella is the dish that is most identified as being Spanish. The eye-opener Paella I had was at A Curtidoria, Santiago de Compostela. It took a while to prepare, which was a good sign. The taste and texture floored us. To Asians, the price will undoubtedly feel steep (over 30 Euros) for what is essentially cooked rice sprinkled with seafood, but it was so good it was every bit worth it (sorry, no photo to show on this one). Forget about those paella prepared in a huge pan (which, by the way, i don’t recall seeing in Spain), those are mostly a gimmick (how can rice that is left cooking on the stove for so long taste good). Forget also about Paella sold at restaurants targeted at tourists near tourist attractions, these are likely to be factory-produced frozen meals. Go for the real thing.

While we’re on the topic of Paella, which is mostly based on seafood, Spaniards know more than a thing or two about seafood. Botafumeiro in Barcelona is a seafood restaurant patronized by such luminaries as former US president Bill Clinton. Be prepared to shell out quite a bit for the meal, but it doesn’t disappoint.

1512839_10202420459177724_1515733876003847816_n
Seafood platter at Botafumeiro

Anyway, remember i said Spanish food can be very cheap? Here are some examples:

caltronc
A four course meal including a drink (beer) was 11 euros (about S$17.50), at Cal Tronc, Besalu. I kid you not – their website still advertises this price.

10300708_10202343564895415_7519920364377109836_n
Snacks – 2 pastry items, a coffee and a beer (with free potato chips) came up to 6.8 Euros (about S$11).

Travel Bucket List: Romanian Castles and Monasteries

Probably the first thing that comes to mind for anyone who knows something about Romanian Castles is Dracula, the novel by Bram Stoker about the vampire Count Dracula who lives in a castle somewhere in Romania. Due to the commercial interest that an association with the fictional vampire attracts, many a castles have laid claim to being the original inspiration of the vampire castle, the most successful of which is Bran Castle (probably still the only one that cashes in on this exploit).

07DSC_0110
Bran Castle is a beautiful castle with a distinctive flat-facade observation tower which i think sets it apart from any other castle. Whether or not it was the Dracula Castle (which nobody really knows) is beside the point, this Castle should be in your bucket list. Few castles blend together its building blocks as coherently and aesthetically well as this one, both inside and out. It is actually smaller than it looks, and despite being mostly empty inside, it is still a delightful walk through Bran Castle.

07DSC_0039
Bran Castle courtyard

06DSC_0015

There are so many castles in Western Europe that i suspect few people will think of Romania if they wanted to see an impressive castle. Think again. Peles Castle makes even Versailles pale in comparison. As we toured the castle, we were told that it was built by Romania’s German rulers, who were invited to rule over them (quite interesting right?). They certainly had good taste. The castle is spectacular, and you will regret it if you didn’t purchase the permit for photo taking inside (sold separately from the admission ticket). I really love the vegetation around here – it is as close to fairy tale depiction as i have ever seen.

06DSC_0062
Look at all that wood carving!

06DSC_0036
Peles Castle Garden – such natural beauty

06DSC_0224
The beautiful stream flowing down one side of the road leading to Peles Garden

I found out about Barsana Monastery through Google Images. My wife absolutely loved this place. This is a beautiful complex with a very well tended garden ground. While we were there, we saw a nun working in the garden, the sight of which conveyed a tremendous sense of calm and tranquillity. My underexposed photo doesn’t do justice to this place and i suggest you see more of this beautiful place from a search engine.

03DSC_0205

Barsana is located in the Maramures county, one of the most beautiful region i have seen in Europe. The cover photo you see on the top (someone commented that it looks like a scene from The Hobbit) was taken in Maramures. I had the pleasure of staying in a Romanian home while in Maramures, at Sapanta (famous for the Merry Cemetery). If you can, hurry to this place while it is still relatively unspoilt.

03DSC_0252
Maramures landscape

03DSC_0101
One of the tombs with a very graphic drawing in the Merry Cemetery

03DSC_0132
Old ladies chatting (gossiping?) outside a souvenir shop

03DSC_0077
The room with decoration done since more than a hundred years ago for hosting special occassions in a Romanian home

Travel Bucket List: Provence

A10DSC_0118

Think Provence, think Lavender. Well, Provence is much more than that, but Provence is probably the place most associated with Lavender. The chief aim of my trip there June last year was to catch a glimpse of the fabled Lavender fields.

The Lavenders only start to bloom from late June, which made me rather anxious, since I may have been there too early. True enough, it was rather difficult to find blooming lavender fields. We were overjoyed when we finally found one near Saignon, one of the popular Provencal villages, which provided a nice backdrop to the lavender field.

A10DSC_0109
Lavender field at Saignon

Finding the Lavender depends on trip research (Saignon being mentioned in various references), and, unfortunately, it is even more dependent on chance. No one can tell you for sure where you can find a blooming Lavender field, since they seem to be grown in batches and each batch blooms at a different time. I imagine this is so that there can be a continuous supply of Lavender. If you’re there during the peak season, some time between early to the middle of July, it is probably easier to find blooming Lavender fields. Otherwise, be prepared to have to drive around a bit to find one.

Since the Lavender fields are privately owned, you’re not actually supposed to just walk into it without permission. Well, I did so because there was no sign stating it (at least not one in a language i could understand), and, the temptation to walk into the field to snap photos was simply irresistible. After a while, someone across the road waved at us and we quickly got off the field. I must say they were very polite.

Itinerary
There are endless possibilities when it comes to organising an itinerary for Provence. Mine is tailored to meet two main goals – to see the Lavender fields and to experience the market. Most people concur that the Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is one of the best. I think it was excellent. The location of the market, being on an island surrounded by the Sorgue river, made it very atmospheric. As the market only operates within a short span of 3 hours, from 9am to noon, you really need to get there early. I bought fruit confit from here and i must say, the French does it best.

A08DSC_0176
Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

A08DSC_0164
The Sorgue river

Besides L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, i also chose to visit St Remy de Provence (well known as the place where Picasso lived for some time, though i was not there for Picasso), Les Baux de Provence (unique town with nice castle ruin), Saignon (nice for strolling, and Lavender fields can be found here), Roussillon (famous for Ochre), Gordes (picturesque, though i only just drove past) and Abbaye de Senanque (famous for the view with Lavender fields surrounding it). I did visit a few other villages as well, but the above mentioned are places where i would recommend visiting. I also went to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to grab some wine, and i visited Avignon on a previous trip.

A10DSC_0079
Picturesque corner in Saignon

A11DSC_0059
The Abbaye de Senanque looks nice even without blooming Lavenders

A08DSC_0291
Les Baux de Provence

10469287_10152443310813726_5317270729912844010_o
Ochres of Roussillon

Accomodation
I suspect the majority of people don’t know this, that most of what Provence is famous for is in the region called the Luberon. This is where the lavender fields and villages perched on hill tops are located. Due to the popularity and limited availability, staying in the Luberon is very costly, especially when most of the accommodation available are the boutique bed and breakfast type. Yes, it’s great to stay in one of these to get a feel of what it is like to live in a Provencal house. But, if you’re on a tight budget, you can stay just outside the Luberon, since all of the Luberon are accessible within reasonably short driving distance.

A10DSC_0023
Typical Provencal estate in the Luberon

What i did was, i stayed at Avignon (city just outside the Luberon) the first night, then a B&B near Les Baux de Provence the second night (one of the cheaper ones), and another B&B at Apt (one of the largest towns in the Luberon) the third night. You will usually find cheaper accommodation in the city and larger towns than in the touristy villages. Some people may place higher priority on location over cost though, so it really depends on personal preference. In any case, don’t expect cheap accommodation in summer in this extremely popular holiday region.

A10DSC_0046
Village on a hill (can’t remember which one)

10275324_10152443310753726_1592369356396267340_o
Gordes

Food
Well, French cuisine in Provence can’t really be bad. Still, it pays to do prior research to get an idea of what kind of food you can try, and how much you might expect to pay. As with the jostling with other tourists you will expect to encounter during sightseeing, you will have the same competition for food, so it is wise to do advance booking if you want to eat at popular restaurants.

Travel Bucket List: Sintra

A03DSC_0058
Pena National Palace

This is going to be the start of a series of travel articles written in retrospect. I wanted to start with this piece on Sintra, since it is a place well worth travelling to and it was one place where i felt I wasn’t able to extract sufficient information from the internet when I did my research, so I thought I really should help fellow travelers.

Sintra has enough attractions to fill about 2 days. I spent only one day there, focusing on the 3 attractions that no one should miss – the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The main obstacle one encounters when visiting Sintra is the slopes. While driving up to the Pena National Palace, I saw people making their way up the same road on foot. Don’t do that! You waste much precious time, while also sapping the energy that should be spent on the real sightseeing. You could at least take a bus. Another pitfall to avoid is visiting on a weekend or public holiday. I took that advice and went on a Monday, so I can’t tell you how congested it can be on a weekend or public holiday when local visitors are likely to be present also, but I suggest you don’t try to find out either.

Itinerary
Here’s the suggested one day itinerary (assuming you visit Sintra by car and you’re physically fit enough to jog 5km or 3 miles): start with the Moorish Castle, proceed to Pena National Palace, go for lunch, then finish off with Quinta da Regaleira.

A03DSC_0018
The Moorish Castle

Parking
The Moorish Castle and Pena National Palace are located along the same road (Estrada da Pena). There are limited parking spaces for either one of them. You can see the location of the parking lots using Google Street View. Many cars are parked along the road side and not in officially marked lots (which are very few in numbers). That was probably a busy day captured on Street View. If you traverse up that road in Street View, you’ll notice that the road becomes narrow once you get past the entrance to the Moorish Castle, and since this is a one way road, if you miss the last available parking lot, you will have to do a big loop to get back, so do go slow once you start seeing cars parked on the side. It probably means you should take the next available space. For the Pena National Palace, there is a parking area on the right hand side before reaching the entrance of the palace and another one on the left after the sharp bend near the entrance. The parking situation for Sintra town itself and Quinta da Regaleira are similarly difficult (so by all means, avoid weekends and public holidays). Be prepared to be a little creative in finding your parking lot!

A03DSC_0161
Pena Park

Lunch
The best bet for finding food is in Sintra town itself. As usual, i did prior research and decided on Restaurante Regional de Sintra, which was excellent. The meal hours in Portugal and Spain work very well for travellers – lunch hours are until 4pm. That was how i was able to cram two attractions in the first half of the day, with allowance for the usual disorientation when going about in unfamiliar places.

A03DSC_0196
The Waterfall Lake at Quinta da Regaleira

Strategy for covering the attractions
Buy a combo ticket at the ticket booth at the Moorish Castle (as recommended by other travelers). The combo ticket will save you some money and possibly some time at the Pena National Palace where there may be a queue for tickets since it is the most popular attraction in Sintra. It is also possible to buy the tickets online and save even more, if you’re certain of your date of visit.

Visiting the Moorish Castle is quite straight forward. Once you get into the ground, everything that can be explored is within your field of view at the entrance. If you’re not afraid of heights, take the path on the left, where you can climb to the highest point of the castle ruin. It should take you no more than an hour to cover the entire place.

The Pena National Palace ground (including the surrounding Pena Park) is huge. Once you get past the main entrance, there is a slope to climb to get to the palace. Electric trams are available (at a price of course) to take you up there if you don’t wish to do it on foot. Making your way back to the main entrance after visiting the palace isn’t as easy as it seems – i got lost trying to do so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The route took me through Pena Park, which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was quite a walk, but every bit worthwhile. I would suggest making it a point to walk through at least parts of Pena Park despite the risk of getting lost inside the park. It is otherworldly and not quite like what you find in the gardens of British Manors or French Castles.

A03DSC_0242
A beautiful corner in Quinta da Regaleira

You may be exhausted after doing both the Moorish Castle and Pena National Park, but believe me, the mysterious beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is more than enough to keep you going. Nothing quite compares with this quaint estate. It is an adult’s playground, with many secret passages and tunnels. The Initiation Well is undoubtedly the most well known feature of the park. To be honest, you’d want to spend more time here than my one day itinerary allows. If you did proper planning and are properly equipped (i think walking poles will help a lot), you should still be able to spend a good 2 to 3 hours here.

A03DSC_0210
The Initiation Well

Nordic Norway

BDSC_0166

The origins of the name Norway is believed to have come from words that literally mean “north way”, as anyone might have guessed, and Norway certainly lives up to that. If you look at the map, Norway wraps around Sweden and Finland towards the north, as if deliberately denying them access to the northern coast. Naturally then, the northernmost part of continental Europe lies in Norway, at Nordkapp.

This “small” country (ranks 213/241 in terms of population density), lays claim to quite a few other things besides being “north”. They have the most number of fjords, and also the longest fjord – Sognefjord, as well as the largest glacier – Jostedalsbreen, in mainland Europe (both of them also rank second in the world). More importantly, they top the list of countries for the Human Development Index and they have the 2nd highest GDP per capita in the world. They are also the third happiest country in the world (all top 4 spots are held by the Scandinavian countries). A visit to Norway gives you some insight as to how they achieved these.

They don’t work long hours. Many of the private hotel receptions don’t open until 3pm, and most shops are closed by 5pm. When they work, they generate a lot of income simply by demanding a lot in return for what is offered! However, as noted that despite being one of the most expensive places on earth, they are actually cheap considering their high income and short working hours. Their inflation rate – at around 2.4% in 2010, is low as well. You could say that their wealth has to be attributed to the ownership of rich petroleum natural resources, which is true to some extent since they are 5th in terms of production per capita. However, without good governance, natural resources are useless.

As examined in this article, economic policies were singled out as the key to Norwegian economic success. Equally important are factors such as education, equality, culture and opportunity as pointed out in the same article, which i can attest to. You’ll be surprised by the abundance of book shops, and you will also find decent libraries in every major city/town. I was taken aback by how much they trusted each other and how honest they were. I couldn’t agree more with what the article says that their culture is one which “instills that people should do their duty and deliver the goods”. They demonstrated the tremendous gain in efficiency achieved if everyone did their job proper – the end result is that everyone works fewer hours.

CDSC_0289

They are truly blessed, with such pristine water said to contribute to long life, and wonderful landscapes of fjords, snow capped mountains and waterfalls. Every house has a view! How could they not be happy people? Deservingly i must say.

How to plan a Europe trip

map-europe-countries

Here’s how i go about planning a Europe trip:

1. Decide places to visit
2. Check connections availability and travel time
3. Book!


Decide places to visit

  • You have to have some idea of the places that may be of interest to you to begin with. Most people probably think of the major European cities they are familiar with, and that’s not a bad way to start. Do look up wikipedia/wikitravel/tripadvisor to check if the attractions of those places are enough to warrant a visit. As a general rule, places with a higher sense of historical significance have more to offer. If you have no idea at all, look up the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, they usually don’t disappoint (however, these usually do not coincide with the major cities).
  • Plot the places you have selected on a map of Europe and see if you can join up the dots to form a logical itinerary. Scale down if you have checked and found out that the travelling time to go between the places are too long. As a general rule, i try not to spend more than 5 hours travelling per day (except on an overnight train), otherwise you might end up just getting from point to point instead of sightseeing. On a long drive, i would arrange for a short visit midway before reaching the destination.

Check connections availability and travel time

  • The modes of transport are to fly, take a train or drive. Fly when you have to cover a very long distance (it is usually cheaper and faster than taking a train that covers the same distance). Drive when it’s not expensive to rent a car (this is the preferred mode of transport because it can take you to the doorstep of any place and it is least tiring since you don’t have to carry your luggage around). Taking a train could be cheap if you book in advance, and the good thing is it takes you right into the city centre.
  • It is cheap to rent a car in Germany, which also happens to be relatively central in continental Europe, which makes Germany a good place to begin and end your trip. You can usually return the car to a different city from the one from which you picked up the car. Nothing beats having a car right up to the point before you fly home.
  • Check for flights using comparison sites such as skyscanner.net. My preference is to find out the cheapest flight using such a site, then proceed to book with the airline website directly.
  • I have never failed to find information in English on how to get around, such as finding the cheapest way to get to/from the airport, the cheapest way to utilise the metro etc. so don’t worry
  • Develop confidence in knowing how to get from point to point by studying maps beforehand. I keep screen captures of the locations of hotels, restaurants and places of interest, especially in relation to the nearest metro station on my phone. It helps even more when you use streetview to “recce” a place, to find a restaurant or car park for example.

Book

  • Do it top down – secure your flight to/from Europe first, then the connections between places on your itinerary, and lastly the hotels (the least to have to worry about)
  • A lot of places/events of interest (e.g. museums, UNESCO heritage sites) require you to book way in advance because they can take in a limited number of visitors per day, so do remember to check.
  • Hotel booking sites are aplenty. I normally go with Agoda or booking.com, occasionally venere.com (sometimes cheaper for the non-refundable option). I avoid those sites that award points or some form of credit for the bookings. Most of the time, you are allowed to cancel the booking even up to the day before you’re supposed to arrive at the hotel. Take advantage of this to secure hotel vacancies before you do further research for better alternatives, or convert the cancellable bookings into non-refundable ones (cheaper) along the way once you’re sure you’ll be there. If you have a rental car, remember to check for availability of parking at or near the hotel.

Heaven and Hell

Europeans

If you’ve come into contact with Europeans, you’d probably have a chuckle over what’s written on this plaque, found in a Swiss hotel, which is quite apt in capturing the stereotypical qualities of Europeans. Although, i would think the French are equally good lovers as the Italians and vice versa the Italians are equally good cooks as the French. Maybe there is a connection between being good as lovers and being good cooks.

It’s always fascinating to me that, within just an hour or two of cross border travel in Europe, the characteristics of the people encountered can be drastically different. The food, landscape and architecture are very different as well. Such diversity makes Europe the top holiday destination for me, always.