Travel bucket list – Montenegro

I am about to embark on a 15 days Okinawa + Taiwan trip, and i have yet to blog about the Europe trip which happened almost a year ago! I thought i should do one blog entry before i go, and Montenegro is probably the most memorable among the places i have visited. The other-worldly feature photo you see above is that of Lake Skadar. Yes, absolutely breathtaking. Continue reading Travel bucket list – Montenegro

Renting a car in Europe

This posting is long overdue. I’ve written about car rental in Japan, Korea and Thailand, but i have done car rental in Europe more times than elsewhere combined.

Fine

Driving in Europe is more demanding, and like it or not, there is a very good chance you will get fined in Europe. In fact, i have just received a notification via registered mail on a traffic offence committed in Rome nearly a year ago (there was a separate email sent by the car rental office one month after the rental). Basically, there’s no way you can escape paying the fine. Continue reading Renting a car in Europe

Laundry art

I’ve just gotten back from my month long Europe trip and there is much to write about, and I will start with this one.

I can’t explain the reason exactly, but I found it artful seeing laundry hung outside the house. You don’t find them all over Europe, only in the more sunny southern parts.

Naples, over a busy alley

Continue reading Laundry art

#onemontheuropetrip Italy part 1

We’ve been in Italy for only 3 days, but it feels as if it’s been 3 weeks. Just so much to see and experience.

It’s my third time in Rome, so i avoided most of the must-see attractions, except the Coliseum and Trevi fountain. Went to the Baths of Caracalla instead.

This section of the Baths of Caracalla is called Frigidarium, which is also the name of my favourite Gelato place in Rome.
The grounds around the Baths of Caracalla is pure serenity

Continue reading #onemontheuropetrip Italy part 1

#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.

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The Abbey Ruins

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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.

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One of the most beautiful flowers i have seen, in the Bodnant Garden
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Laburnum Arch
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Bodnant Hall and Lily Terrace

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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.

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The Topiary Gardens

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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.

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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.

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Cheese with mushroom. It tasted like foie gras

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

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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.

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Amuse bouche served on a soda can

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

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Pigeon

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Beef served on top of an iPad (really)

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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.

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Seafood platter at Botafumeiro

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Bran Castle courtyard

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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.

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Look at all that wood carving!

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Peles Castle Garden – such natural beauty

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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.

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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.

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Maramures landscape

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

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Old ladies chatting (gossiping?) outside a souvenir shop

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

Travel Bucket List: Provence

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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.

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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.

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Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

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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.

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Picturesque corner in Saignon

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The Abbaye de Senanque looks nice even without blooming Lavenders

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Les Baux de Provence

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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.

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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.

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

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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.