Monday, November 22, 2010

europe - part four (moscow & berlin)

MOSCOW: Known to the locals as Москва́, this is the capital city of the Russian Federation. I planned and planned this trip, I mean I had the visa readied before I left Perth which seemed like an eon ago and had a Russian friend recommend me places to stay and places to visit... but yet nothing else seemed to be finalised till a few days beforehand. All the places that were probably better for my bank budget looked like they were a little further away from the city centre, so I decided to splurge (as a birthday treat to myself) and stayed in a small boutique hotel smack bang in the heart of the city. I'm so grateful I made that choice because with most of the touristy spots in the city centre, my inability to speak any Russian except for 'thank-you', 'yes' and 'no', plus my tendency to just get lost, well let's just say staying downtown was a very good thing. I was lucky to have seen the city as it started to snow, and boy did it look pretty!

At the Kremlin, on top of the Ivan tower as it starts to snow.
The amazing collection of gems and other baubles at the Diamond Fund.
The metro stations... each one is different and they all look like ballrooms with some serious soviet designs on them.

BERLIN: The capital of Germany has gone through so much in the past century and the history of just the last 60 years is enough to make your head spin. The city is full of life and has got tonnes of very creative building designs. There was so much to see and so little time... well gotta make sure I still have things to see for my next visit.

Catching up with my friends who I met in Munich.
The East Berlin pedestrian traffic lights.
The locals call the tall TV tower the 'disco ball asparagus'
Christmas markets opened!!!

Finally managed to upload pics from Munich:

And here are the pics from Moscow & Berlin:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

europe - part three (münchen & brücklas)

After the short trip to Pisa, I made it back to München (Munich) and spent another five days in the city...

My München highlights:
- Attending Michaela's graduation & getting to meet her lovely German relatives. Michaela's graduation pics:
- Neuschwanstein (aka fairy tale castle)... the castle is truly magnificent. The brilliant weather also helped made the trip unforgettable
- Auto Bahn... Germany's the only country in the world that has unlimited speed limits on their freeways... Dave drove at 210kmh (and could have gone even faster had it not been for the other cars in front)
- Spotted Oliver Kahn (famous German football goalkeeper) at Nyphemburg Castle walking his dog
- Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site... the most intense and reflective birthday I have ever had
- Spending my birthday in München with my friends Michaela and Dave.

I spent a day in Brücklas, a little village in Bayern close to the border of the Czech Republic, with Rain and Alex. Rain is a friend from my HK days and it was really fantastic being able to spend time with her and see the area she has been living in for the past year and a half. I got to check out the Schnapps Museum and the county's huge minerals collection. I knew we were definitely very far away from the big city because the house was heated by woodfire, and there were piles and piles of chopped wood along the side of the house, and the next door neighbour had horses, and you could smell pigs and cows too. It felt like I was in a totally different part of the world and it was marvelous.

NB: I haven't been able to upload the rest of my European photos... hopefully will be able to do so soon.

europe - part three (pisa)

When I was preparing for this world trip, I knew that I would be catching up with my friend Michaela who lives in Munich. In fact the original plan was to travel through Europe together for some time. Anyhow in the end, that plan wasn’t hatchable, so we had to scrap it. Instead, the two of us decided that we would take a side trip from Munich for a couple of days. The destination of choice (and budget) was Pisa, Italy. So I travelled over to Munich from Amsterdam, and Michaela from her holidays in the US, we repacked our backpacks and headed to the airport early the next morning.

I had a preconception that Pisa was a big place with the Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente) and all… but as it turns out, it’s actually a pretty small town, and everyone recommended us to check out the sights of other nearby towns.

On the bus heading to the train station Michaela mentioned that the Leaning Tower should be nearby, I spotted a group of tourists clumped around a corner of a building and thought it looked a little odd and made a comment to Michaela about how funny looking this looked… I was mesmerized by the expressions on the tourists’ faces… two seconds later Michaela busted out laughing and pointed in the other direction and low and behold the Leaning Tower was right there. And comments like this went throughout the trip, the two of us were constantly saying to each other, ‘Where’s …? It should be here somewhere.’ And the minute we made the comment, we would either discover that what we were looking for was right there, or we had walked right past it and needed to back track. The absurdity of the situation left us in hysterics.

After checking-in to our hotel, we swiftly headed to the train station and jumped on the train to Florence (Firenze). When we arrived, the weather was pretty miserable so we decided to hop on a bus tour and take in the sights of the city before heading back to Pisa for the night. We got to see quite a bit of the city at dusk and the highlights for me was meeting David at Piazzo Michelangelo (a statue larger than I had originally thought) and Ponte Vecchio (a bridge with houses on it). I will be back in Florence at end of the month so will update more later.

Early the next morning, we set off for Cinque Terre, five ancient but still functioning fishing villages built right next to the Mediterranean coast. I had heard lots of stories about how amazing the place was and that it was a place that might no longer be intact in thirty years time. Due to the rain from previous days, we discovered upon arriving at our first town that some of the connecting paths to the villages were closed, so we ended up hiking up a viewpoint and took in the breathtaking landscape. The weather turned out to be sunny and it made the day magical. In the end, we visited four of the five villages and discovered just how beautiful they really were for ourselves. Cinque Terre is definitely a place I would recommend everyone to visit at least once (if you don’t know where it is… google it!)

In Pisa, we did see the Leaning Tower up close and personal, and got to try out the local Tuscan foods (I even tried rabbit) and wines. The short trip was definitely very memorable. Thank you Michaela for organizing the trip!

Quirks I discovered about travelling to Pisa:
- Wear a Stanford t-shirt, and you will have people staring at you and even start up a conversation with you (example: Michaela… and no that wasn’t her alma mater)
- Talk about the book Eat, Pray, Love and there’s bound to be somebody who has read it and happy to have a book club style discussion with you
- Pisa has an American naval base near the city

Pics from trip:
Pisa - part one: (from my camera... hopefully will be able to upload part two soon as it was on another camera)

Monday, November 08, 2010

europe - part two (amsterdam)

I've discovered that without internet I am feeling rather helpless when travelling especially here in Europe. I use the net to help me find out about air fares, train timetables, city guides, check emails, facebook, and upload my pics into online albums. I'm currently in Amsterdam, sitting in a food hall using a friend's mini computer and sucking the life out of the WiFi connection here.

Amsterdam is a small yet historically and culturally rich city. I made a new friend on the flight over and the next day we embarked on a walking tour and familiarised ourselves with the fascinating city. It has been great catching up with my friend Fiona from Perth who just moved over to play a season of professional hockey (the originaly field hockey not the ice variety). The Dutch really love their hockey! I was treated to watching a game on the weekend and it was terrific seeing everyone get involved, from the young children to the seniors.

Fiona and I managed to join Museum Nacht (Museum Night), an annual event where all the museums in Amsterdam stay open on the first Saturday night of November from 7pm to 2am, and has lots of live performances and drinks etc. We went all out and were out and about visiting museums from just after 7pm until almost 2am we visited seven museums! It was such a fun and memorable experience... there were opportunities to be involved with interactive art ie creating stop motion film strip, measuring your height and labelling it with your name and date on a wall amongst everyone else's name and date (the effect is a massive black strip across the entire wall).

Two most memorable museums I visited:
- Anne Frank Huis, a intense and moving museum showcasing the life of a young girl who lived in hiding during the Nazis movement in WWII.
- FOAM, a photography museum that exhibited thought provoking images advocating social justice and life as a migrant.

Foods I have tried:
- Broodje kroket (croquette sandwich)... the croquette here is the Dutch answer to an Aussie meat pie, it is a crispy, crusty potato-based gravy ball full of gooey yummy gravy, and maybe meat
- Fried mussels... deliciously fried fresh from the seafood stall accompanied by mayonnaise (the seafood here is really fresh and good... so jealous)
- Chips with mayo (served in a paper cone)... that's how the Dutch eat their chips... I was slightly addicted
- Broodje haring (sandwich of raw herring with chopped onions and dill pickles)... not as strong tasting as I had anticipated and was pleasantly surprised
- as well as their pancakes (pannekoeken), olliebollen (a type of doughnut), and cheese tasting at the street markets...

Endnote: I really love the variety of food here and I love the city, the buildings and canals are amazing (fact: Amsterdam has more canals than Venice)... tomorrow I head over to Munich...

Saturday, November 06, 2010

europe - part one

I arrived safe and sound in London after my flight from Dallas was delayed almost five hours. This is my third time in the city and the first time to have a week to enjoy it. Over the week, I have caught up with many of my friends from high school (I can not believe how many of them are living in London these days!) I have also visited many museums and touristy places. I will be back in the English capital after my month around parts of Europe. But so far my top 3 things to do in London apart from catching up with friends are:
- Changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
- The Monument... Go up to the top of this historical site for a fabulous view of the city
- Victoria & Albert Museum... A brilliant collection of art both new and old... And the building itself is beautiful

Anyway, the rest of my European tour is as follows:
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Munich, Germany
Pisa, Italy
Munich, Germany
Marktredwitz, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Moscow, Russia
Berlin, Germany
Prague, Czech Republic
Vienna, Austria
Venice, Italy
Florence, Italy
Barcelona, Spain
Dublin, Ireland
Then a couple more days in London before heading to Hong Kong.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

monterrey - part two

I can't believe that my three weeks of Monterrey has come to an end. Unfortunately my Spanish is still rather pathetic. But I have to thoroughly enjoyed my time here. I was told before I came over that there wasn't any thing to do in Monterrey... I managed to find plenty of places to visit and tonnes of new foods for me to taste.

Places I visited that I recommend checking out:
- Macroplaza in the city centre
- Museo del Noreste (MUNE)
- Museo de Desierto, Saltillo
- Las Grutas de Garcia... grotto full of stalactites and stalagmites
- Cola del Caballo
- a Lucha Libre fight

Things to eat:
- taco mañaneros... breakfast tacos
- mole... chicken in mole sauce (which has got fruits, nuts and chocolate in it)
- limonada... the limeade is simply divine
- everything covered in chillies

I also managed to head down to Mexico City (the locals call it Mexico DF) for a couple days with some friends. I was able to squeeze in a trip to check out the Teotihuacan pyramids, meander through the city centre, went to the Plaza Garibaldi which is where the mariachi bands all hang out, and Six Flags. We stayed at a poxy hotel where the first night I got no sleep due to the music blasting across the street (the next night we insisted on moving to another room). All in all, I got a taste of life in Mexican and I really loved it. The country is full of rich culture, each region has it's own distinct personality, it's fascinating history, the variety of food (I reckon I have gained quite a few kilos on this trip). I can't believe how quickly the time has passed by. Thank you Mexico for sharing your beautiful country with me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

monterrey - part one

It has been eleven years since I have been in a fully Spanish speaking community. My Spanish skills (or the little that I had once had) has pretty much gone to shreds. I entered Monterrey, Mexico, with hardly any ability to communicate with my host family. The poor family spent the first couple of days lamenting over the face that I had forgotten my Spanish, and that I once was able to speak with them well. (In fact, I know it was a miracle that I was able to communicate with them when I was in Argentina because the next semester when I was back at university I wondered how on earth I managed to get away with so little Spanish) Anyway, a few days later, I am now using my maimed Spanish and feeling a little more confident talking to people.

A little bit of background about Monterrey... it is the capital city of Nueva Leon, the north eastern state of Mexico. The city is famous for its natural resources... it is rich is iron, steel, cement, etc. It is a city surrounded by mountains (hence the name). And the climate is very desert like... it's supposed to be autumn now, but the weather still is in it's high 20s up to the mid 30s.

Things I have been discovering about Mexico:
- the Mexicans love their chillies
- the Mexicans do not like being associated with the US, but they have tonnes of borrowed words from the English language...
- apart from borrowed words, they also have lots of different words from the Spanish spoken in Argentina and the Spanish I have learnt at uni