Sunday, 16 November 2014

Europe Trip - BARCELONA, Spain

Spain!! Here we come!! We arrived at Barcelona Airport in the afternoon, took the RENFE (high speed rail) to downtown Barcelona, alighting at Passeig de Gracia interchange station. Our apartment was located about 15 to 20 mins away from the station. It was drizzling but no choice, got to get there quick. The streets of Barcelona were very happening. There were cafes and restaurants everywhere along Passeig de Gracia. Barcelona was a shopping paradise so we were just in time for its summer sale. I saw Mango & Zara outlets along the way, couldn't wait to throw my heavy luggage aside and start shopping. 

Our apartment was a 6 people accommodation unit, therefore it had enough room space for the 5 of us. After settling down, we unpacked some of our worn clothings and quickly put to wash in the washing machine. We felt so at home. There was a dining area, a living room, 2 bedrooms, a balcony and a small kitchen. Nice and perfect. The kitchen consisted of a conventional oven, an electric stove, a microwave, a dishwasher, a refrigerator and of course plates and utensils. Just a small little perfect home stay for our vacation here.

After putting the clothes out to dry, we set off to roam the surrounding places and also to settle dinner. We knew there was an attraction nearby, the Arc de Triomf, so we proceeded in that direction. Weather was perfect too. Soon enough, we saw the attraction within our sight. It was WOW!! This arch was built in 1888 as the main access gate for the Barcelona World Fair back then. Walk through it and it would led you to a long walkway towards the Ciutadella Park. 

We were hungry after a long day of travelling and walking, so we decided to comb this area another day. We had dinner at a local Spanish restaurant, ordered the famous Paella and a pizza. Spanish pizza did not taste as good as the Italian ones. Italian pizzas were the best!! We ordered a Squid Ink and a Chicken Paella. The Paella dishes were similar to a dish back home, where we would call it "Mui Fan". Basically rice with gravy and ingredients. Well at least it's rice, our parents were quite alright with the food this time round. 

We visited the supermarket after dinner to take a look at the local varieties. The supermarket was huge, but one thing to note, no plastic bags were given when you purchased your stuffs. Each bag would cost you 0.3 euros. We were lucky because there were 5 of us, meaning that there were 5 pairs of hands to bring it back. The supermarket was only a 3 minute walk from our apartment. Not a problem for us. We called it a day and spent some time relaxing in our apartment before nightfall. 

Day 2 of our self made itinery brought us to the Sagrada Familia, the largest Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona. This church was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, therefore we must at least set our feet in there for once. We took a morning walk there, looking at the buildings of Barcelona. I realized that the buildings here were pretty unique. They had a old Gothic feel in them and it felt like they were a thousand years old, dated back to Count Dracula era. 

We had not bought the tickets online because our lawyer brother told us that we could get our tickets there without having to queue for hours. Well, upon arriving, we saw that the queue was fantastically long. We spent about 1.5 hours of queuing and there was a designated time of entry stated on your ticket. This was probably to ease the crowd within the building itself. There were still ample time before entry so we went for lunch at a nearby eating place. The Sagrada Familia was a magnificent structure. The architecture and art works of the building was astonishing! The building was still under construction since 1882. The construction had been ongoing for almost 200 plus years!! Can you imagine? 200 years to build something in Singapore was way way not acceptable. Who would want to oversee the whole process? The Sagrada Familia was expected to complete construction in 2025~2028. The stonework of the building was also astounding, especially the Art Nouveau period style of decoration on the exterior of the building. 

We managed to make our way into the building without much pushing. The interior walls of the building were also amazing. It had the kind of artwork you would not find in any other churches. The kind of feel the moment you entered the building was beyond description. The marvellous artwork and design were simply out of this world. We just stood and went into a daze while staring on the interior walls of the Sagrada Familia. 

We spent about an hour plus walking around the church and off we went to another atraction, the Casa Mila and Casa Balto. Both of them were located along Passeig De Gracia. When we reached Casa Mila, it was under-going some restorative works and the exterior of the building was covered up. It felt a little turned off seeing those blocked outs, so we decided to move on to Casa Balto instead. We walked and shopped along the way because we were walking along the shopping district. Summer sales were everywhere! 

When Casa Balto were upon us, the queue was also crazy. We checked out the entrance fees and it was quite pricey stated. The exterior of the building looked unique. The building did not have any structures that were straight, all of them were curvy.

It was not a very large building to cover, so we decided to give it a missed, and to spent the time shopping instead. I bought some clothes from Mango and Zara. Loved it! We decided to head back when our legs told us it couldn't go any further. We prepared our own dinner that evening with pastas and pizzas from the supermarket. 

Day 3 of our itinery brought us to a walk around Barcelona city. We headed back to Arc de Triomf and through the long promenade to the Ciutadella Park. Graffitis were everywhere in the park and this attracted me. Spanish people were really artistic!

We walked through the park and headed into the Gothic Quarter. Our walk for today got to end at Montjuic, therefore we would need to cut through many places on our way there. We stopped by a local cafe in the Gothic Quarter to try out Churros. My Lawyer brother recommended to us that it was very very nice to eat, especially churros with hot chocolate. True enough, he didn't lie. Thumbs up for the hot chocolate! Good!

We continued our walk through La Rambla, stopping by shopping and munching on local snacks. Then we had lunch at a local restaurant with free wifi. Most of the restaurants would provide free wifi when you dined in. Great opportunity for us to rest our legs before heading to Montjuic too.

We were full and had built up enough energy for us to continue the walk. We were led by our Lawyer brother on this day. The walk all the way to Montjuic was impressive. It was a freaking long walk! We made it there at last... Montjuic is a hill in Barcelona. We took the Funicular de Montjuic to reach to the top of the hill, plus a steep walk to the Stadium. Extremely great workout for our legs. We went to the Olympics Stadium compound and its surroundings. It was a beautiful vast of empty land. The place was built in 1927 ready for its International Expo in 1929. And the management was bidding to host the 1936 Olympics which they lost it to Berlin. It was left vacant until 1992 where it finally hosted the Olympic Games. It went through a renovation in 1989 in preparation for the games. The stadium was supposed to be open for public but when we were there, it was closed, and there were some events going on inside. 

The area around the stadium was very pleasant. Though under the scorching sun, we managed to cover much of the primises before heading down to the Spanish Village. We went past the National Art Museum of Catalunya, seeing that it was also another impressive building. From afar, it looked like a castle to me. 

We went to the entrance of the building and saw that it was overlooking the city centre of Barcelona. The view was splendid from the top.

We descended slowly down the hill and continued our walk to the Spanish Village. Every section of descend portrayed a different view of the place. It was so beautiful. Nice and pleasant place to go! I had to move downwards to capture the full view of the art museum and here the picture below showed it all.

As we headed downhill, we saw a huge Harley Davidson's event along the promenade as we headed towards Placa de Espanya. It was the Harley Village. There were two rows of tentage displays and sales of Harley stuffs. The people hanging around really had the kind of Harley looks. The rugged wear and the boots. It was quite fasinating for me because I could not imagine people to  dress up just for this event under the searing sun. It was a hot and sunny afternoon. 

There were also a mass display of Harley bikes. And they were huge!! It was a beautiful sight. All of them were aligned in a proper manner. Even the public had their orderly manner of attitude. They would try to squeeze in as many bikes as possible in the parking area. Be sure to look out for the two tall Venetian towers at the end of the road. It served as an entrance to the avenue of fairs held inside the promenade.

After strolling around the Harley Village, we decided to take a break to rest our legs before heading to the Spanish Village. Most of the food the big Harley guys ate were meat. I saw most stalls selling meat, big meats. You would be shocked with the kind of meat they digested. 

Finally I bought my bites from this stall below. At least the meat weren't huge. It was very tasty and savoury. The spices used to marinate it were unique. It just tasted so delicious. The guy was actually smiling when I took him but he was too shy to look into the camera. 

At last we were on our way to the Spanish Village - Poble Espanyol. It was a Spanish architectural museum. We did not go in because there was a long queue outside and we were also quite tired after all that walking. It was a large place inside, comprised of restaurants, shops, streets, houses, parks and theatres. Should have gone in. Having regrets now!!

We ended our day at the Arenas de Barcelona. It used to be a large exhibition hall but  had became an enormous shopping mall now. We went for some shopping, settled our dinner there and took the Metro back to our apartment. 

Day 4 of the itinery brought us to the street explorations of the Gothic Quarters of Barcelona. We took a slow walk down the streets after breakfast at home. We found churros along the way, and it was cheap, we bought it. We were heading towards the Barcelona Cathedral. Heard that it was an impressive Gothic architecture, so we were not oing to miss it. The buildings of Barcelona were unique in many ways. It was beautiful in a way with the Gothic feel. I loved every sight of it.

Here we arrived at the Cathedral. It was a jaw-dropping moment, Wow... I felt like I was back to Castle Age. The outlook was majestic and ancient. It was built in the 15th centuries. The Cathedral would be a perfect match if the day was dark with some bats hovering over the building - Batman Movie. There were dress code requirements too, of course no arms and legs exposed.

As I stepped into the Cathedral, it was dark and dim, with poor lighting some candles flickering light. There was a mass in the far front of the Cathedral, but entry was restricted. I took a walk round the interior and was amazed with those fasinating sculptures. I guessed that there were bats living in the interior of this Cathedral. 

After that, we went to the flea market that was just outside the Cathedral. It was a retro market. The stuffs that the Spanish people were selling dated back to my great grandparents' generation. It was indeed a great experience. 

We visited the Picasso Museum later on, proposed by my brother. Since we were already here, so we decided to take a look. The best thing was that entry was free. I could say that I am not an artistic or cultural person, and knew nuts about art, neither appreciated it. It was a boring walk indeed. Pictures and drawings which I could not decipher at all. Entry was free on every first Sunday of the month, else 14 euros per pax.

We spent the rest of the day combing the Gothic Quarter. Not too bad to explore Barcelona on foot for the past few days. Guessed we had shed 1~2 kgs or weight. Fruits were cheap and we had fruits that were expensive back home, eg. apricots, nectarines, plums, peaches, etc.

Our Barcelona experience had come to an end. We were leaving for Paris the next day so keep reading... ... :)


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Europe Trip - ROME, Italy

This was my first time to Europe, and all thanks to my younger brother that because he was studying in London, all of us had to fly over to attend his once-in-a-lifetime graduation ceremony as a Lawyer. We travelled to 4 places and our first destination was Rome, Italy. We departed Singapore on Friday, 27 June and arrived in Rome on 28 June. Noted that the time difference was about 6 hours behind. We had a long flight journey and I had never taken such a long flight before. Well, it wasn't as bad as I had thought. I would probably consider far places as my holiday destinations from now. 

We arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome at about 6:20pm. It was also called Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport (Aeroporto Leonardo Da Vinci in Italian). We took the public bus from the airport to Termini Station in downtown Rome. Note that in Rome, there were no lifts or escalators in all Metro stations except the main interchange stations. Good Luck!! Because our hotel accommoadation was located near the Termini Station, we walked there pulling our luggages along. It was late at night, and the streets didn't feel safe. There were lots of loafers and troublemakers along the streets as you walked. We quickly increased our pace and tried not to glance at them. I stayed at Casa Nostra Guesthouse with my mom. My 2 brothers and dad stayed at another guesthouse located 10 minutes away, under the same management. It was summer season and most of the lodging accommodations were full. It was a time where tourists from all over the world flocked to Europe. 

The guesthouse was pretty nice and decent, and breakfast was provided. We had Croissants every morning, Italian delicacies. I don't really eat Croissants back home because it was expensive. Now after this trip, I am sicked of it. I guessed I would not touch Croissants for the next couple of months. 

We even managed to "steal" a few of it, packed it into our bags and brought it out. It was delicious and fresh. Nice!! 

We set off to the Colossum the next day. It was Day 1 of our self-made itinery. The Colosseum was located near the guesthouse and we took a slow morning walk there. The weather was hot, and because it was summer, night was short and day was long. It was still not as hot as Singapore. After crossing a couple of streets, we could see the Colosseum from afar, it was a spectacular sight.

We were so excited when we saw the Colosseum. It was our very first time and lots of curiosities were in us. We were like urging one another to quicken our pace. The view got better as we approached the magnificent structure. Of course we snapped tons of pictures of this structure. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Been there and done that!

Queues into the Colosseum were very long! Luckily we were early and we spent about 30~45 minutes of waiting before we got our hands on the tickets.

Finally, we were setting foot on this one of the wonders of the world. It felt so WOW!! We were squeezing our way into the structure, it was so great that we stood dazing at the first viewing point, spending some time looking at the marvellous architecture of the building.

Then we started to walk, snapping lots of pictures as we walked along. There were some parts of the Colosseum that were undergoing restorative works that had deteriorated over thousand years. It was basically a very large amphitheatre lying in the heart of the Roman city. This structure was built and completed in year 80 (imagine it was year 2014 now), and was used to host gladiatorial shows and events during the Roman ruling. We spent about 3 hours in the building before making our way our to the next attraction. 

There was an arch located outside the Colosseum. It was the Arch of Constantine. The arch was built to celebrate the victory among the Roman societies back then. 

We went next to the Roman Forum. It was the ruins of the ancient Roman government buildings dated back in the Roman era. We bought tickets for both attractions at the Colosseum counter because they were located nearby. The Roman Forum was indeed a very huge place. We spent a day visiting these two majestic places. 

We had been walking for the whole day and it really worn us out. We had a short break at a nearby eating place, Bar Circo Massimo, to grab some food and drinks. Italian pizzas were delicious. The crusts were thin and crispy. Alcohols were cheap too especially beer. My two brothers were drinking beers like water. Since weather was hot, beers were refreshing. 

After getting enough rest, we started to proceed back to our hotels. We took a slow walk round the other side of the attractions. We walked past the Roman Forum, the Trajan Forum and finally the Colosseum. 

After a night of rest, our Day 2 intinery brought us to the Baths of Caracalla in the morning. It was the largest Roman public bath ever built, consiting of cold baths,tepid baths, hot baths, steam baths and open-air baths. What was left behind today were the ruins of the bath complex. You would be amazed with the kind of architecture the ancient Romans had. 

It was built between Year 211 and 224, with concrete and stones, similar to the structure of the Colosseum. The interior was very large and we spent the whole morning there. The crowd at the Baths of Caracalla was not as packed as compared to the Colosseum or the Roman Forum. This place had very little tourists, maybe because it was out of the way and inconvenient. It was a place worth visiting. The kind of experience one got to feel at a foreign historical place, understanding the history and how on earth these ancient people constructed these huge structures, could not be bought anywhere.

After that, we took the metro to Barberini Station to visit the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. Our lawyer brother did not follow us in our morning excursion so we met up with him at the station. We had lunch at a local Italian restaurant. Finally we had a taste of local Italian food. We had been eating flour for breakfast and lunch yesterday. It felt like it was bread all the way. We would termed it: "Why diam diam jia loti??" Lunch was good at last. Italian cuisines were not their cup of tea for my parents. They had funny looks on their face when the food arrived at their table. But for the kids, we loved it! 

We spent the afternoon touring around this area. It was the shopping district where luxury brands were located, as well as small local shops. We took lots of pictures in this area, walked and zig-zagging around until I did not know what was I. Just walked and be lost!! My dad always needed to know where he was on the map. And we always got to stop and wait for him to catch up. Without realizing after walking past several streets, we saw a majestic building in front of us, it was the Pantheon. We had reached the Pantheon. 

It was very crowded. Indeed, it was impressive from the outside. We made our way in among the crowd, took a walk around the church and glanced at it with admiration. You would just sit and admire the whole monument inside. It was a church, a really very massive church. I had never seen such an enormous church in my life until now. I am not a very religious person towards any specific culture, so I just prayed a little wherever I was for health and safety. 

We continued our walk on the streets before heading back to our hotel to end the day. We were all tired but we enjoyed the experience. Water was ample everywhere as there were spring taps along the streets and parks. Italy's water was safe to drink. There were street performances everywhere too. You would also realized that there were many talented people around us yet to be discovered. Most came from poor familes, earning a living through decent living, while some resorted to pickpocketing. There were also small eats and lots of souvenir shops along the way. 

We were heading to the Catacombs of St Callixtus on Day 3 of our itinery. Had you ever been to a catacombs before? Well sad to say, I had never! We took the public bus there but we were not sure of where to alight. Not to worry because you were not the only one. There would be people always taking this bus to the Catacombs, mainly tourists. Just follow the crowd. The bus journey departing from Lateranol Terminal took about 20 minutes, costing 1.50 euros per trip. The metros and bus were of the same pricing based on per trip fixed at 1.50 euros. Luckily our hotel were near the bus terminal. 

The Catacombs was a sacred place and proper dress code were necessary. No photography was allowed inside the catacombs and noise levels must be kept low. Respect the dead! No one was allowed to roam around on the inside on their own. All visits to the interior of the Catacombs were on guided tours. We followed an English tour of course. 

There was a briefing introduction before entering the Catacombs. The Catacombs were almost 18 levels below ground level, therefore it was natural coolness inside. There were lots of burial grounds inside and based on the guide, most of them were stolen before the Catacombs was discovered. The picture below was taken inside the Catacombs, which was not allowed. I took them secretly when my brothers blocked me off from the view of the guide. 

It was the crypt of Saint Cecilia, popular patron saint of music, with a slit on her throat. She had been there for at least five centuries. This was the only clearer photo captured in the dark. The rest of them were dark and blurry. The whole tour of the Catacombs were impressive on how these people managed to have such a place beneath the ground. Every level had high ceiling. Only level 1 and 2 were opened for the public. Level 3 and 4 were burial grounds for the Popes, therefore entry was forbidden. The guided tour lasted for about 45 minutes. 

We took a walk around to see what was available around the compound. There were nothing much around so we decided to make our way back. We had lunch at a small eating place opposite the Catacombs. The bread was fantastic. I loved the bread! It was crispy with melted cheese in between it. 

We took the bus back to the terminal stop. I was pickpocketed during this journey back. Damn freaking pissed! Those pickpocket idiots were really skillful. My mom was standing right beside me and my sling bag was between me and her. And it was zipped back too!! Damnit!! Of course it was a hassle after that, calling up banks and going to the police station to file the report. Bad encounter! Remember not to bring too much cash out, and be sure to keep them out of sight.

To enjoy the trip well, I got to recover from this incident fast if not it would spoil the rest of the holiday. After filing the police report, we headed back to the shopping streets. There were too many small alleys that we could not cover yesterday, so we continued the shopping today. We visited the Basilica of St Mary of Angels and Martyrs, walked past a few impressive buildings and ended the day well enough by preparing dinner for all, Pesto Pasta with Salad. 

We were heading to the Vatican City the next day. It was the last day of our Rome trip. We bought our museum tickets online back home before proceeding there. The queues were exceptionally long during Summer. So we paid a little more with the online tickets to save time. Vatican City is the smallest recognized independent state in the world housed within the city of Rome. The large prominent plaza was known as St Peter's Square, where people gathered for mass convention with the Pope. The tall standing structure in the center of the plaza is the Egytian obelisk erected in 1586. Can you imagine ? 

We made our way to the museum after snapping a few photos at the plaza ground. Note that the entrance into Vatican Museum is located outside of the city, right side of the compound. We cut the long queues and finally we were in. The Museum was huge, and there were many different areas emphasizing on different aspects of their Vatican culture. Be sure to grab a map at the entrance or else you would be repeating your walks around the building and missed out on the side doors leading to other areas. 

The interior decorations of the Vatican Museum were simply remarkable. The most impressive part of the museum were the ceilings of the walkways. You will be amazed with the breath-taking carving designs on the ceilings. You would just keep your eyes stucked on the ceiling walls admiring it. There were also lots of sculpture carvings and drawings displayed from all over the world. The displays in the Vatican Museum were those that you would not see it in any other museums. 

There were not many eating places in the Vatican Museum and it was always full. We spent almost the whole day there admiring the splendid art inside, thou we were not that culturistic or artistic. But because, the amount of time and effort spent on those works were truely unimaginable. To us, we would think that: "Wow, they were so free!" Visiting the Vatican Museum was truely an eye opener for us. A little city with an unexpectable culture and displays situated inside. Comparing to Rome city, the maintenance of Vatican was far better off. Rome city was a little more dilapidated. 

Well, that's all for Rome, Italy. We were departing for Barcelona, Spain, the very next morning.