Querido Portugal | Visiting Minho

Hello World. It’s been almost twenty days since we returned from a trip to sunny Portugal! We were so excited when our friends from the Minho region invited us to spend some time with their families. Two years ago, I had visited the North of Portugal with my mother. It was a beautiful trip albeit a very touristy one. This time round, I wanted to experience real Portuguese lifestyle. Of all the regions I have visited in Portugal, the North is by far the most historic and traditional one. If you’re looking to soak up the sun and relax by the pool/beach, the Algarve region in the south will seduce you. However if you’re looking for history, culture and tradition, the North it is!
 
Cabeceiras de Basto | Pedraça
 

Our friends live in Cabeceiras de Basto and Pedraça. Both counties are famous for their vineyards, linen, meats and natural beauty! June is a dazzling month for nature in the north. It’s the end of spring and break of summer. It’s cool enough for the sunflowers but too hot for the roses. The lush green and florals blend beautifully with the thousands of terraced sloping vineyards. 

I also must say, it’s the people that make a place, and the kindness of the people in Minho really knows no bounds. I knew the Portuguese were famous for their hospitality but honestly I was really not prepared to feel like I was visiting my family right at the onset. An average Portuguese salary is between 480 to 600 euros, so nearly three times less than the French or English salary. But they are so generous!! People we barely knew would pay for our meals in restaurants, welcome us into their homes, offer us food (the best food), homemade wine, let us have the best rooms with comfortable beds while they slept on the floor. We were so moved. It’s an amazing feeling to finally understand the meaning of a minha casa é a tua casa. I don’t think I could ever repay the hospitality and love that I felt in this fortnight. My biggest hope is that the entire Portuguese nation comes out of this damned economic crisis, because the Portuguese, they definitely deserve better!

Dinner for 17 :)

Other than the fantastic scenery, Cabeceiras also boasts of an amazing cathedral aka Mosteiro de S. Miguel de Refojos. Legend has it that Cabeceiras de Basto (Basto meaning *enough*) got it name from Hermigio Romarigues who protected the monastery and the town from the powerful Moors. After the fall of the Visigoth empire at the hands of the Moors, the invaders marched towards the monastery, however Romarigues vowed “Até ali, por S. Miguel, até ali, basto eu!” (Until now, Saint Miguel, until the next time, I am enough!). And sure enough, the Moors attacked the vulnerable monastery three times but fell miserably thanks to the mighty sword of Romarigues.

Courtesy: Flybasto
Today the Monastery boasts of important architectural and cultural value to the region, but it needs the attention of benefactors to help restore its exteriors and interiors. Atleast what we understood from our guide was that the people of Cabeceiras are trying to get the attention of UNESCO to fund the restoration work. We witnessed an amazing feat by approx 3000 child volunteers. You can see in the photo above, they all came together to give the monastery a “hug”. It’s was such a beautiful initiative to save a monument that’s filled with so much history and continues to be an important part of daily lives! UNESCO people, if you’re ever reading this, you have some work on your hands!
Mosteiro de S. Miguel de Refojos
Baroque interiors of the monastery.

 

Povoa de Varzim

Since 138 BC, Povoa de Varzim has remained an important fishing port in Northern Portugal. It’s also a well-known beach resort and even though it’s by the cool Atlantic ocean, there are many tourists who come by to enjoy the soft sands and sunny skies. I will never forget this place because here’s where I realized Sushi is not meant for me. Our friends and I went to a beachfront Sushi restaurant. The prices were amazing. All you can eat for ten euros! And sure enough, since we never find sushi at that price in France, we ate of sushi quota of the entire year in one meal. That night my body exploded. I never realized until that day that I could scare people off by just using their bathrooms but yeah, that happened. Lesson of the story: stick to local cuisine while travelling + don’t overeat even if the food is free. 

Cultural scenes depicted with traditional coloured tiles.

Portuguese people are really gifted with ceramic tile work. I spoke more in detail about Azulejos here. The tile work on display in Povoa de Varzim was a real treat. The traditional blue and white colours of the tiles synced well with the colours of the sea and the sky. Honestly, it’s such a pleasure to find that associations still invest in their artists, who in turn create such amazing art and it’s free to admire of course!

More Azulejos | Portuguese Tiles

 

Guimarães

There is a sign in this town that says “Aqui nasceu Portugal”, which means Portugal was born here. During the 12th century, the Portuguese sovereigns were grouped in this region, including Afonso I, the first Portuguese king. This eventually led to the official creation of Portuguese identity and the Portuguese language. The historical center of Guimarães (comprising of the medieval castle, the Palace of the Dukes of Bragança, etc) is a UNESCO heritage site. Today you can find a very vibrant city, steeped in history and filled with artists, museums, great restaurants, art galleries, and souvenir shops. No guesses why it was named European Culture Capital two years ago. 
Church of Senhor dos Passos, Guimarães.
Archer at the Ducal Palace
To immerse yourself into Portuguese history, you must visit the Paço do Duques de Bragança or Palace of the Dukes of Bragança. It’s a few metres away from the medieval castle and chapel. The castle is in ruins, so venture only of you like rubble. The chapel is really sober and you can visit if you like to see tombstones beneath your feet. The fee to enter the Palace is really minimal (about 5 euros) and really worth it! The castle was built between 1420 and 1422 by the first Duke of the Bragança House, Afonso I. The palace was inhabited only in the 15th century and was eventually abandoned and consequently ruined. In the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to political backing, the palace underwent an integral reconstitution, including the interior deco (furniture et al). Today it’s one of Portugal’s most visited monuments.

The thing that strikes you at first is the the gigantic size and details of the tapestries in nearly every grand salon. And secondly, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you’ll immediately be transported to a Westeros-like world. You can find grand salons with low chandeliers, tables and plates for giants, warfare items like swords, lances, spears and pole arms. To be honest, the entire decor looked authentic to me. However, according to the Palace’s website, most of the interior decoration is a replica and not necessarily medieval either. Due to time constraints and financial burdens to find exclusive medieval furniture, the commission decided to use replicas of different time periods. According to them, the replicas have the same “artistic merit and documentary value”. Well to be honest, if you’re not a medieval art specialist, the visit will not disappoint you.

Indo-Portuguese “artifacts” at the Palace.
Rua Santa Maria and Town Square
Charming bougainvillea!
Adding to the historical ambiance of Guimarães are her young and old artists. You’ll see them plonked on the cobblestone streets, sketching away. Sometimes they’re in large groups or sometimes alone. Seems like this city fits perfectly in history books and sketchbooks. 
 
Braga
Braga is the capital of Minho. This ancient city is important for Christians due to it’s strong links with the Church, dating back to the 3rd century. 
Bom Jésus de Monte Courtesy: Wikicommons
Situated high on a mountain in Braga, the Bom Jesus de Monte church is an impressive architectural gem. Other than a Christian shrine, the church is also world famous for it’s baroque architecture inside out. The staircase leading up to the church is an important point of interest. We mustered the courage to climb up to the church from the foot of the mountain, via the stairs. Took us a good half an hour. The view from the top is what makes it all worth it. If you’re a believer, then the effort also adds to the sanctity of the experience. There are 14 mini chapels depicting the stations of the cross and water fountains to ease your climb. Apparently there are pilgrims who go all the way up on their knees!
The Church, the gardens and the view of Braga = Spectacular!
Sanctuary of Sameiro
O Sameiro is a sanctuary a few minutes drive away from Bom Jésus de Monte. It’s famous because the last Pope, i.e John Paul II visited it in 1982 and it’s generally the next stop for pilgrims after Fatima. The interior decor of the church wasn’t very attractive. Outside, you find that the architect clearly played on the size of the structure to impress people rather than details. Most importantly, the view from here is the best in Braga. We just had to sit down and admire the spectacle at our feet. Also a good time to reflect on your speck of an existence in the larger scheme of things. 
 
Viana do Castelo
Locals devoted time and effort to create these religious floats with tiny grains and flower petals!
Viana de Castelo is a real treat for varied interests. On one hand, it seems like a très chic côte d’azur and on the other hand it holds onto a prized medieval centre. You know immediately that this is a “richer” region in the North mainly because of its historical port, naval construction, tourism, gold artisans, religiosity, etc. This city has something for everyone. Especially if you’re looking for the bolas de berlim, then you’ve come to the right place! OMG these desserts are just amazing, so fantastic that I will dedicate a separate post just for them. 
The Marina. Great for long walks on a sunny day.
Yacht beauties.
Vianense architecture.
Another historic square is the Praça da Republica. Nearly all the cafés, historical buildings and souvenir shops are grouped here. It’s also a great place to purchase Portuguese filigree jewellery. 
Santuario de Santa Luzia
This dominant shrine can be seen from almost every place in the Lima valley. The Basilica of Santa Luzia reminded me of another important church I had seen somewhere. I couldn’t place my finger on it until I read the plaque. The church was modelled after the Sacré coeur in Paris. Contrary to its appearance, the church dates back to the early 1900s. With the exception of an ornate altar, chandeliers and stained-glass windows, the interiors are almost bare. But it’s worth climbing up the hill or driving by car to appreciate the views of the valley and see the River Lima greet the Atlantic. 
Our hosts were very kind to take us to the Basilica in the morning and again at night. Just in front of the monument is a great viewpoint. The city’s personality is completely different at different times of the day and hence a photographer’s or chronicler’s delight. In the morning you see the calm Atlantic and the dreamy Lima valley below. In the evening, you see a vibrant black and gold phoenix come to life. True to its golden heritage, it seems like someone melted tons of gold and poured it into the Vianense arteries. 
 
Adeus Minho! 

Valentine’s day


Since Monsieur S. is miles away, I decided why not take my mom for a nice Valentine’s day treat. We have a new Honda active bike and it’s super zippy for the Goan roads. We rode all the way to Panjim, had a lovely Goan lunch at Anoshka’s. So a typical Goan lunch includes the staple rice, curry and friend fish. I ordered a beef dish to taste as well. After lunch, we rode across the Mandovi bridge towards the little town of Reis Magos to visit the Reis Magos Fort.
This was my first time ever visiting the Reis Magos Fort. It has recently been renovated with the gracious help of The Helen Hamlyn Trust. It’s a shame that our Indian multi-millionaires couldn’t care less for art and architecture. The Reis Magos fort is Goa’s oldest fort. It was built between 1551-1554 by the Portuguese rulers. My mother last saw the fort in ruins and she was moved to see the new shining monument. I would recommend Goans and tourists to visit the place, not only for its history but also for the breathtaking views of the Arabian Sea.
The fort is also a museum and there is a permanent Mario Miranda exhibition in some halls. Moreover there are lecture halls that you can rent out for lectures, book releases etc. You can also rent the place for your wedding (which I frankly think will be the photo op of the century!)
It’s essential to spend some time around the monument to get a sense of the ocean and it’s importance to Reis Magos. It’s a shame that so many hotels and private colonies/clubs have cropped up around this fishing town and the waters are slowly being polluted. I wouldn’t recommend the area for swimming, just walks on the beach here. 

In the evenings, you’ll see fishermen, pulling their little boats to shore. Sometimes you find the odd trawler coming in with a catch. You can get a good bargain for a few kilos of fresh fish :)

The star of the village is of course the Reis Magos church. Built shortly after the completion of the fort, the church really comes to it full glory in the beginning of January. Every 6th of January, the town celebrates the Feast of the Three Kings. I sincerely wish they would keep the place open during the year for worshippers and admirers alike to get a gist of the interiors. According the the Goa Tourism website, the church holds the tombstones of two former Goan viceroys. One of them being Dom Luis de Ataide, known for his legendary defense skills. You can read more here in Portuguese if this character interests you.

The final sunset/dusk light on the way back from a tiring but eventful day.

In the Alps: La Clusaz and Cheese and Crêpes

The French Alps! The food here is just so amazing and fatty. I love it. French people in the Alps are so kind and generous! This farmer just welcomed us into his cheesemaking kingdom. And the next minute we’re discovering the cheese making process for free from a very cute cheesemaker. This holiday just took a new turn  
Get a load of this caramel salted butter crêpe. Ahh! Not good for the heart, but so good for the soul!!

Gibraltar’s most famous resident.

It’s the Barbary Macaque! During WWII, there was a hue and cry when the population of the macaque was reduced to only 7 individuals! Winston Churchill, ordered that more macaques be brought in from Africa IMMEDIATELY. You know why? Legend has it that if the barbary macaques disappear from the island, Gibraltar will no longer remain a British Territory and Spain will rightfully take over. Because as you can see below, Gibraltar is rightfully a Spanish region but the British came along and never left. So if the macaques go, so will the British! ha!
Well a trip to Gibraltar shouldn’t be on your priority list. If you’re not interested in seeing the replenished number of monkeys and buying cheap cigarettes and booze, you could give this a pass!

Retrospect: Magical Madrid

I haven’t uploaded my Spain pictures because a) there are too many of them and b) the quality isn’t too great since I didn’t have my DSLR camera when I was prancing around Madrid :'( However I know you are kind and will overlook the quality of my photos and rather search for the story behind them (while keeping your fingers crossed that I will go back to Espana and make better ones) :)

Madrid has a lot of charm. I went there during the summer with my mum and the city was almost deserted because the temperature drives people indoors or to other cooler parts of Spain. We however, braved the 45°+ temperatures and discovered the beautiful sights in the capital city.
Madrid is an architectural delight and for lovers of different renaissance-baroque styles, like me, should definitely put Madrid on their agenda!
There are beautiful streets and parks and restaurants to wander into.
The Plaza Mayor is a must visit. You can sit there for hours and watch the hundreds of tourists, lunching, buy postcards, artists selling their masterpieces, children creating life-size ephemeral bubbles, your mum and you taking pictures and sitting down to enjoy some delicious Spanish fruit.
Churches are not few in Madrid and their intricate decorations on ceilings, walls and statues are  to lust after. The interiors of the churches provide a well appreciated respite from the scorching July heat.
The most breathtaking monument according to me. The Royal Palace. Sadly you’re not allowed to photograph indoors. I recommend it for all people who love chandeliers, wallpaper with royal motifs, luxurious furniture and décor.
There are 2 colours that greet you everywhere in Madrid: Yellow :)
and a bright cherry Red :)

Besides the above sights, Madrid has many things to offer, including world class museums, parks, restaurants and cultural activities. I wasn’t too happy with the admission system at the museums. I felt that there was a bias towards European students who had the same age as foreign (non-EU) students. I think art should be made free to admire. In spite of this little problem, my trip to Spain brings back nothing but great memories. I can’t wait to go back and discover some other colourful regions :)

Ghent

Managed to finally organize my Ghent photos from the begininning of the year. Ghent was the last stop on my Belgium tour. This is a port town which also has a huge student community. I was there very briefly, I couchsurfed at the home of two lovely Belgian girls. I couldn’t see the city in depth because the weather was horrible, it was freezing and if it didn’t rain, there was fog. Thus not too many photos. Tip: Do not choose early spring to visit Belgium, unless you travel sans camera. 


The first thing you notice about Ghent is the nouveau art structures all over the city. Sometimes right on the pavement, sometimes on buildings, sometimes in places you least expect to find art!

Another prominent landmark where you don’t look for art is the Railway station. That’s right! At Gent-Sint-Pieters station, you must look up (and also pay attention to your luggage). There are beautiful murals depicting the life of the city all over the ceiling.
To escape the chilly weather, you can visit the Saint Nicholas’ Church in the heart of the city. Construction of the church began in the early 13th century and continued till the end of the 15th century. Try and see here how the cathedral looks from a 360° angle. 
        You have to love the religious statues wielding the little objects painted in gold. 
 The decor and the choir stand is so pretty. 
The Angels were all singing out of tune,
And hoarse with having little else to do,
Excepting to wind up the sun and moon
Or curb a runaway young star or two.

~Lord Byron
Architecture in Ghent ressembles that of Brussels and other cities. You have to admire the effort taken by the government to preserve and restore the buildings dating back to the middle ages!
You can’t get tired of the zig zag Belgian façades! 
And the charming streets built alongside canals..

Finding decorated bicycles can brighten up anybody’s rainy day in Ghent!

Market, Bruges

Fruits and Vegetables are some of my favourite things to photographs. My camera always captures natural colours best.  I was thrilled to find a market set up right in the centre of Bruges (on a wednesday!) selling cheese, meats and every delicious pre-spring fruit. This is also the place to indulge in the infamous French Freedom Belgian Fries. You can buy other foods for a fraction of the price the restaurants make you pay in the centre. 
My goal is to take photographs that look so good, that it makes you want to reach out and grab the fruit :) not sure if I’ve reached there yet. But I’m trying.

In Bruges!

Let’s rewind (again) to the beginning of the month when I was in Belgium for the winter holidays. Bruges is about an hour away from Brussels. The weather was terrible during the week A. Ruiz and I spent in Belgium. However there was one day when the sun came out and that was on the day we spent in Bruges. We stayed at St. Christopher Bauhaus which is a great (and reasonable) hotel situated very close to the centre.
Bruges is really my kind of place. It has really old architecture, great cafés, bookstores, antique stores and there is nothing disturbingly modern about it. We didn’t know much about the city and so we spent our one night and two days wandering about the quaint neighbourhoods and taking pictures of the Bruges’ treasures, big, small, edible, non edible, sensible, non sensible, etc.

 
In Bruges, you love the little iron lamps and iron birds on doors.
 
In Bruges, you love the criss crossed buildings and the town square.
You of course love the castle and the canals, the houses by the canals, the windows on the houses by the canals. In Bruges. 
In Bruges, you can sit in a café and enjoy a Viennese chocolate, you can find French books in old bookstores. You can buy cream filled delights and eat them over Le Rouge et Le Noirby one of your favourite authors, Stendhal 

Horses! That’s one of the main reason you fell in love with Bruges. Horses that are friendly, horses that are busy, horses that are tired, horses that couldn’t care less about you. But handsome horses all the same. In Bruges.

In Bruges’ shops, you will find the nicest of things. A curious dog, an antique weighing machine, a hundred jars of tea and your favourite antique, a chandelier!

Ah yes, the colour Red! Your favourite colour to see. You love to see it on the doors, windows and post boxes in Bruges.

Door knobs, keyholes, knockers, lamps, shadows, wreaths and all the little marvels that go unnoticed. But not in Bruges.
I still think about the city. In the remote corners of my minds, I still dream about horse carriages, castles, canals, narrow cobblestone streets and houses with scarlet or sea shade doors. And I know that place is not a dream. It’s only a few hours away, safe and sound. Awaiting for me to return. Beautiful Bruges.

Street leading to the centre square.

Street lamps outside the town hall.

     The market place.

One of the many charming horse drawn carriages. 

    

Antwerp

Antwerp is hardly an hour away from Brussels. It’s worth spending a day here since the city has so much to offer culturally. When I got off the train in Antwerp, I was blown away by the sheer magnificence of the Centraal Station. It is often called the “Railway Cathedral” and was even voted as Europe’s most beautiful station. Undoubtedly, this is my most favourite place to miss a train.
 
 
The station was built between 1895 and 1905 by Bruges architect Delascencerie. The interiors of the old dome building are lavish and intricate. Twenty types of marble and stone were used during the construction of this marvel. One felt like a princess. At a train station. 
You will find a beautiful lamp post in front of the station. Take some time to admire the ironwork and lovely wood carvings. 
 
You will pass pretty nothings on your way to the city centre. Everything is worth a picture.
 
If you know me personally, you know I have a penchant for old world charm. And nothing is more synonymous with antique glamour than a chandelier. A chandelier can brighten my day without even being lit up.  
The city centre at last! Antwerp is a major shopping hub. People from the Netherlands and all over Belgium come to shop here as well. Don’t forget to tilt your head upwards and admire the grandiose architectural framework that now houses every major clothing brand in the world. 
The Stadsfeestzaal: basically means Hall of Festivities. This luxurious Neo-classical monument was originally built in the beginning of the 20th century. After a fire destroyed the building in 2000, it was renovated and reopened in 2007. Today it serves as an upscale shopping center.
 

If you’re a fan of the good life, this is the place to see and be seen. Check out the floating Laurent Perrier champagne bar, which stands in one corner of the structure! Pretty impressive to dine in a champagne glass I suppose!
  I enjoyed just getting lost in Antwerp and appreciating the intricate bells, grilles, wall clocks and frescoes that dress up the city.  

One can never tire of the over fed pigeons and the freckled kids who never tire feeding them. 

The force of Belgium! :D Strangely enough, I didn’t try my first waffle in the capital city but right here in Antwerp. Très Délicieux. 

The buildings all over Belgium have one trait in common. They all have a criss crossed design on their façade. I asked my host in Ghent, what the reason was behind this and she said it was a very practical reason. It’s meant to stand out but also to keep the snow from accumulating on the rooftop.


Another striking monument in Antwerp is the Cathedral of Our Lady. The cathedral contains many works of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The cathedral charges a very small fee to enter and then you are free to admire these chefs-d’oeuvre for as long as you want. 

The interiors of the cathedral are stunning. Napoleon compared the cathedral to Mechlin lace (an intricate bobbin lace produced in the city of Mechelen, about 20 minutes from Antwerp).
 
The Cathedral exhibits Rubens’ paintings frequently. We were lucky enough to visit when they displayed religious paintings of other Flemish painters alongside Rubens.

 

I miss beautiful Antwerp, it’s compact historical center and losing myself in the medieval streets lined with a mosaic of doors, windows and other illusive charms. :)

Hello Belgium.

The French have way too many holidays. I’m not complaining. I just wish I had enough money to make the best of them. This winter vacation (Feb 19 to March 6) I decided to head to Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. But I was low on funds (since I’m in a relationship and I’m constantly buying stuff for the both of us) and ended up going just to Belgium. So I decided if I was going to see just one country I might as well see it entirely. So a girlfriend and I spent the whole of last week going through
  • Brussels
  • Antwerpen
  • Bruges
  • Ghent

Belgium is a great country and the people are really friendly and not to mention multilingual. Any given Belgian will forcibly speak a minimum of 4 languages! namely French, English, Dutch and Flemmish! Wow! Sadly though with the exception of Bruges, I didn’t find the other cities in Belgium too appealing, I just liked them in bits and pieces. The weather definitely played a major role here. The only day the sun ever came out was when we were in Bruges. The rest of the time, the weather was horrible. I advise against visiting Belgium in February. The cold was biting, there wasn’t a single day when the temperatures rose above 0°c and no amount of hot chocolate and hot wine could make you feel any better :(

 
When we first arrived in Brussels, we were greeted by protests by the Congolese Diaspora in the city. The protestors were really peaceful but one could see that the Belgian Police force didn’t take any chances. I found that the beefed up security was a huge exaggeration on the part of the European authorities. The people had taken to the street to protest again the various atrocities that are currently taking place in the DR of Congo. Peace.

The St. Michel cathedral in Brussels is worth a quick visit. I loved how they had little oil lamps instead of candles here. Or were they candles which had melted? Still pretty.

My most favourite place is Brussels is the main town square or Grand Place. The square is surrounded by beautiful old buildings and even though the weather was gloomy/pathetic, there were just enough tourists and lights and noise to create a lively and welcoming atmosphere in the main square.

 
I had to touch up some of the photos, mostly add some brightness to them because there really was no sun in the city at all. I recommend just standing in the middle of the square and just be for a few minutes. You will soon find the crowds and the noises being drowned out and all you can hear are the buildings. Each one of the ornate beauties has a story to tell. You can choose to listen to the Guild houses standing magnificently in a row, or to the Gothic Town hall who witnessed the death of it’s architect who noticed too late the asymmetry of his creation and hence leaped to his death! Or you can just wait there till you figure out why Joseph Conrad called this square a White Sepulchre.
 
I love the quirky restaurants they have all over Brussels. The also have tons of flea markets and you can get some great bargains on boho jewellery and stuff.
 
Sweet nothings around Brussels :)
 
The Palace was breathtaking and all the roads and quarters surrounding it have really beautiful intricate decor on walls, fountains, etc. My favourite has to be this sleepy lion who can be found on the right side of the palace walls. I think the palace is now used only for official purposes and hence is off limits to the common public. 
 
Of course no trip to Belgium is complete without succumbing to the rich and numerous types of Belgian Chocolate. After picking enough for the Chéri and his family, we made sure we bough enough for us girls too! I was curious to know why there are so many representation of a little peeing boy all over Brussels. You can find him in the form of chocolate, on t-shirts but mostly you find little statuettes of him all over town. Our host finally told us that there are many legends about “Manneken Pis” (yup that’s his name). But the most famous one is actually quite funny. When a certain “foreign invader” marched into Brussels, Manneken Pis was upset and to show his patriotism, he climbed atop a tree and peed in contempt on the foreign soldiers who were marching below :D

This was the first time I was travelling with someone and it was actually quite fun. I did miss certain liberties one has while travelling alone but I was glad to have the company and the conversation while we sat in various restaurants, eateries and bistros in Brussels :)  
Finally some of the other amazing foods we tried in the city. Yes what you see in some pictures is indeed Spaghetti Bolognese and Lasagna. What can I say, you can take the Italophile out of Italy but you cannot take Italy out of the Italophile :D Do NOT miss the amazing fries at the various friteries all over the place, they’re dripping with oil and calories and other unhealthy nonsense, but they are oh so amazing! 

Holland: Small country, big heart.

Holland is a nice country but when I’m here, I’m not really as adventurous as I would be in let’s say Italy or Spain, etc. I have an annoyingly large number of family members living here and somehow that downs the fun. Because I’m automatically drowned into the myriad of problems they have created for themselves (which personally I don’t give a sh*t about!) 
This was my second visit to Holland and once again a major part of my stay was in Rotterdam. I tried to make the most of it.

Puma the lovely orange cat was a constant companion. He never sat still for a picture but he was always very friendly and liked cuddling up to me. 


 

One is always thrilled to explore with camera in hand. And happy to see a few flowers that survived the bitter winter!

 
 

Winter in Holland is always a delight. Snow is literally everywhere. The entire place is so fresh and clean. You can actually taste the pure air! 

 


 

 I love how the snow fell on ground and created hundreds of white fluffy cushions!


 

 

The adorable winter birds! Holland is never short of ducks, geese, swans and strange black birds that swim in lakes. All the best thing of all they belong to everybody! 


 

 
I tried to capture the Christmas spirit where I was but I wasn’t really feeling it and these were the only four pictures I took of the decorations I came across.

When one is in a foreign country, one must try the foods and try to make them as well. Hence one goes to the produce market in Rijnhaven. 


 
You’re blown away by how nice vegetables and fruits can look in photos!
 


 
You meet a Moroccan fish seller who’s happy to converse with you in French and pose for a photo too!

DEN HAGUE

 
Den Hague is a pretty little city close to Rotterdam. And it’s worth a day trip if you’re looking for a smaller version of Amsterdam. The city has many lovely restaurants, good architecture, antique shops, and bookstores! It’s an old city so I enjoyed walking around, passing quaint streets and shopping there too.
 
 
 

ROTTERDAM
Rotterdam is an open air museum of modern architecture. Since I was staying here most of the time, I was forced to appreciate the various styles of architecture. I actually found myself enjoying the experience. The Dutch have a lot of imagination and clearly enough money to make it a reality. Rotterdam boasts of the Erasmus bridge (Erasmusbrug) which cost an estimated 75 million euros in 1995. The port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe and one of the busiest in the world. There will always be a thousand boats standing still at a certain point in the city. It’s a beautiful sight to take in.

 
 
 
 
 

Mi dispiace ancora non parlano italiano!

Happy New Year 2011!!! So far so good. I haven’t kept my hopes too high this year because I learnt a good lesson from being overly enthusiastic about 2010. I divided Christmas break between friends and family in Italy and Holland respectively. Although now I curse myself for spending less time with the former. I had a miserable time with my family in Holland and I broke some ties which I never hope to mend again. That’s a subject we will dwell on another time. Let’s go to Roma now! My feel good city. I’ve been here for the third time this year and I can safely say I haven’t had enough. Everything is so romantic and though many people might not agree, I think Rome is the world’s best place :) Magnificent architecture, excellent food, gorgeous Carabinieri (Italian police wink wink), loving people and of course cats!
 
 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
If you’re interested in military artifacts, head to Altare della Patria or the Victor Emanuele Monument.  

  

At the magnificent Piazza Navona!


                                                     
 

I love you Roma. Yours truly. The Bohemian Teacher x

Sovereignty of the Swan: Geneva

I know I already posted about my trip to Geneva, Switzerland here. I just had some spare photos left and I couldn’t bear the thought of never sharing them. Like I said Geneva is a very peaceful charming place but it is also very expensive and chic! The people are quite friendly and the city boasts of a multi-cultural atmosphere! There aren’t too many attractions in the town. However one of the really impressive things in Geneva is the Jet d’eau, which is the name for the largest water fountain in Europe. If you love nature and swans in particular, you should go to Geneva. You’ll be blown away! :)

Last of Autumn in Amiens.

Bad news. Autumn is over, finito :'( I was happy I managed to chronicle the season as much as I possibly could in the last two months, but I still feel I didn’t have enough time to really see all of it’s shades. But the ever charming city of Amiens can still charm you, even on the cloudiest, greyest and foggiest of days (like today). It has so much charisma, that it reminded of my stint in colourful Burano, Venice.
In Amiens, you can find cobwebs laden with diamonds. 
Amiens has so many colourful windows, it’s perennially spring. 
On the most cloudy day, nothing is more awe-inspiring than the big grand cathedral!
Amiens keeps a secret. But if you scout long enough, you will get the blues!
You will be baffled by the strange man that stands in the middle of the river all year long!

People entering and leaving such colourful doors, must never be unhappy!

Aimless wanderer can always find the pretty nothings!

Autumn hurriedly packed her suitcase and left,
she didn’t care about me nor the lovers nor the bereft.
On the way she dropped some precious belongings, 
we want to halver the last of her, yet we have no right;
Lady Winter watches our funny plight, quietly musing.
 Soon our knuckles will turn pale and she will delight.
Soon every inch and every breath will turn too ice.
Then Lady Winter will try to be nice.

Roma=Amor, My Eternal City.

After the really sober Renaissance architecture of Florence, I was eager to experience Rome. Rome with it’s sheer Baroque magnificence is undoubtedly one of the most stunning cities in the world. Baroque comes from the Portuguese word “barocco” which means “irregular pearl”. In Italian it means “grotesque”. This is a very dynamic, detailed and complex architecture. Primarily, it was funded by the Roman Catholic church who wanted to show their religious superiority and also win back the masses who had joined the Protestant movement. The main goal of Baroque art and architecture is to dazzle the spectator and boy was I dazzled! I am also such a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn and after watching my favourite film Roman Holiday (over hundred times), I have always hoped for that special moment in my life when I would be in Rome and run into my Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps. Ya, so that did not happen. I was at the Spanish Steps of course and all I ran into was hordes of tourists and Indian con artists. Yes, Indian salesmen who bugger the hell out of you to buy their little souvenirs. That story comes later. I’m going to put up my pictures from 2 trips to Italy (May and July) together (Well because it just makes sense to not repeat the similar post).
While in Rome, I stayed at Camping Tiber which is a beautiful place and really cheap. The downside is that it’s really far away from the city (an hour minimum). However they do organise a shuttle every half an hour to get you to the local metrostop and then it takes you 20 minutes to get to the city. I would recommend the place since it was so much cleaner and inexpensive as compared to the hotels right in the centre!
So Roma, beautiful Roma! You have had the strangest impact on me! I have never been to a place which has never made me want to leave! (My dad always said I’m the cat on a hot tin roof, I have to keep moving). But Rome was different, I guess it’s because there is so much to the city! It’s full of magical chaos. Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, everyone you talk to is so unique and full of life! I had planned to stay here just 4 days but I decided I should make it a week, in order to really nurture my electrifying Roman affair :)

I love the red hues everywhere in Rome.
Roma is such a huge city and it’s impossible to fit everything in a week! So I returned a second time and I still did not see all of it. I will keep going back (next trip December 2010 woohoo!) to finish discovering eternal infinite Rome! I never had a single bad experience here (as everyone predicted I would). The city is infamous for pickpockets and beggars. Really? In that case which town isn’t? I took care of my belongings on the metro and trains like I would do in Paris or Bombay or anywhere else. It’s common sense! I hate it when guidebooks and websites berate any place. How dangerous an area is, always runs parallel to how stupid you are! (If you’re going to get pissed drunk and then decide to ride the metro, si signore, you will get pickpocketed or worse mugged! anywhere in the world)
So below are some places I have visited among countless others and which I found to be spectacular. There are tons of others lying in my hard drive but I don’t want this post to get any lengthier than it already is. So ladies, gentlemen and unicorns, I present to you the itinerary of a single bohemian girl in Rome
Fontana di Trevi
Rome’s most famous fountain was the first on my to-do list. I had to really hunt for it and then finally as I found the path, I could hear the water gushing forcefully from quite a distance. I held my breath as it magically appeared on my right and had to gasp! This is beyond doubt, one of the most remarkable pieces of Italian Architecture ever! It has so much life, it’s as if the carved horses are riding towards you through the waters of the fountain! 
I sat here a long while and watched so many tourists just throw away their coins (Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder, you would ensure another trip to Rome). I was sure I was going back to Rome so I gave my self the pleasure of people watching and then amused myself when they would repeat the same process all over again just to get a good photo. Each day, 3000 euros are thrown into fountain! Where does all that money go?
PANTHEON
A few minutes away (just follow the multitudes of tourists), you will find the Pantheon. Another magnificent structure, except for the part that was being refurbished. I got talked into taking the audio tour (costs 3.50 euros) and I don’t regret it because I learnt so much about the building! I had no idea that the Pantheon is 2000 years old and it’s the most intact of monuments on earth dating back to this period. This is an active church and tomb of many important Italians such as the First King of Unified Italy, Vittorio Emmanuele II and his successor King Umberto I.
According to me, the most important tomb has to be the one of the Italian painter Raphael (as you enter on your left). Before he died he had ordered a statue of Mother Mary and after his death it was placed on his burial ground. There is a verse engraved on his tomb that fascinated me. This inscription was a gift from Pope Gregorio XVI who disentombed the body to verify if it was Raphaels’. It was indeed the body of the illustrious painter. The verse reads in bold letters “Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die.”
The most interesting part about the Pantheon is the dome/obelisk and the floor. Until a few years ago, the dome was the largest in the world! and the floor is equally fascinating. The dome of the Pantheon has a wide opening in the middle and is never shut even when it rains. When rain water pours onto the ground, it is immediately absorbed by the porous floor which carries the water away through complex drainage systems beneath the ground (dating 2000 years as well!).
PIAZZA NAVONA
This spectacular plaza incarnates Italian life. When I was here, the weather was at its best, the sky was the bluest you will find during spring. Piazza Navona is alive with so many artists and musicians all over and they are so friendly and allow you to take pictures. There are many restaurants here but if you’re travelling on a budget, you’d want to skip these tourist traps. For reasonably priced food, head to the nearby Campo di Fiori (a crowded flower and fruit market) that has great restaurants all around and the feel is very bohemian, easy going. I love the artists enjoying their afternoon break with wine, the couple sharing a cigarette, the hungry bohemian girl devouring the amazing Pizza Piccante with tomato, mozarella and hot salami! yum!
At Piazza Navona, don’t forget to sit on the steps of the beautiful church of Saint Agnes in Agony (The church contains the skull of Saint Agnes who was beheaded at the Piazza because she refused to marry the son of the Prefect Sempronius. Since Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, she was forced into brothels and then sentenced to be burnt at stake. The wood on which she stood, refused to light up and hence an officer had to draw his sword and behead her :'( yes, the story gave me the chills too) and admire the breathtaking Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain designed by the infamous/demi-God Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, dedicated to four major Rivers of the world, namely the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Plate.)
The Wondrous COLOSSEUM
I am not a huge fan of ruins. You need to have a fantastic imagination when you’re visiting ruins and I can’t really boast having a good one. But the Colosseum/Flavian Amphitheatre has fascinated me every since I studied about it in sixth grade. Irregardless of how you feel about it’s history, this precious vestige of Ancient Rome is going to take your breath away! And if you’re an Audrey Hepburn fan like me, there are no words to describing the joy you feel as you head there by the same road she took in Roman Holiday :)
The monument is 1500 years old, it is capable of seating 50,000 people and it was used for gladiatorial battles, public announcements and also as a market place. You can buy a dual ticket to enter the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. 
FORO ROMANO
If ruins are your thing, you should head to the Roman Forum. This valley comprises of fragments of Ancient Rome’s marketplace, government buildings, temples, etc. Most of the buildings date back to 600 BC and one is surprised to find so many intact! 
ALTARE DELLA PATRIA
Altar of the Fatherland/Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II/ Il Vittoriano are all names used for this gargantuan monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first King of a Unified Italy. It is a fairly recent structure built in pure white marble and completed in 1935. Most Italians are not too happy with this brazen white monument (which can be spotted from most parts of the city) that doesn’t blend in with the neighbouring ruins. I personally loved it! The views of Rome from here are fantastic. In the modern day, to find such an intricately built structure is so rare and this was a real treat for me!
P.S. It is very important to be respectful in the premises of the monument. It is after all a shrine and the guards will come and tell you to behave yourself if they find the need to. At the entrance you will find the (gorgeous) guards protecting the statue of the Goddess of Rome, the Tomb of the Unknown soldier and the Eternal Flame
Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli
If you’re feel energetic enough, climb the 122 steps on the left side of Altare della Patria and you will reach the majestic Basilica of Saint Mary/The Altar of Heaven. This is my most favorite church in the world. It’s constructed in a Romanesque/Gothic style and unlike it’s subdued exteriors, the interior of the church is over whelming! Never in my life have I seen so many chandeliers, so much gold, so much detail, so much glitz in one single church! 
San Pietro In Vincoli
Most of the famous Italian art and architecture is locked away in museums and you’re expected to pay big bucks to get a glimpse of it. San Pietro in Vincoli has free entry and it houses one of Italy’s most well known symbols and very few people even know of. The church of Saint Peter in Chains is home to the actual chains of Saint Peter and Michaelangelo’s very own statue of Moses!! 
Just outside the church you can always catch a beautiful sunset with the Vittorio Emanuele monument in the distance of course!
TRASTÉVERE
If you’re looking for romantic Old Rome, musicians singing Volare and other Dean Martin favourites, charming worn out colours, then you should head to the Trastévere neighbourhood of Rome. It’s also famous for it’s cheap restaurants but honestly, I didn’t find a single one! Italian restaurants will try to fleece tourists for every single service. I had the smallest serving of Carbunara in Trastévere and I was charged for using the napkin, using the cutlery, drinking the tap water and thank goodness I didn’t eat the bread and wine they “offered” at the beginning of the meal!
The neighbourhood is tiny, has many excellent gelatarias to satisfy your need for gelato (/Italy’s answer to mouth orgasms!) and all the roads with their walls decorated with graffiti and creepers will meet at the main Piazza. 
Rome and this neighbourhood in particular is filled with Indian salesmen. I hate to say this but most Indian men are/could be disgusting. Bad enough I get stared at in India. Now when I come to Rome, I have to face these morons again (who act like they’ve never seen an Indian woman with a camera before!) And it’s not a decent stare, it’s more like leering, undressing you with their eyes kind of look which makes me physically ill! If there was a genocide of “gawking Indian men”, I would be the first to support this long needed extermination!
Capuchin Crypt
If you’re in the mood for an unusual tourist attraction, head to the Capuchin Crypt. It’s free to enter but you’re expected to donate a euro for upkeep. Basically this is a church decorated with the bones of 4000 Capuchin monks who died between 1530 to 1870. The entire place gave me the jitters. I was amazed how all the decorations, the chandeliers, the crosses, the lamps, the incense holders and even the tiny vials were all made from the bones of Capuchin Friars! They have skeletons in upright and resting positions all wearing the habit of the monks. This was quite an experience and I’m sure as hell never doing it again! Photographing the rooms is forbidden and you can get more information at the monks’ website. 
Gianicolo Hill
To get the best bird’s eye view of Rome, head to Gianicolo Hill. I loved catching the sunset here. Rome is a big city and you will surely not see everything in one trip. But standing on top of it, the tired traveller has a sense of accomplishment that atleast he had a fleeting glance of every steeple and dome in magical, endless Rome. 
Largo di Torre Argentina
This is my most favourite places in the city and I go here every time I visit Rome. Read why.

The ruins of Pompey’s Theater can be found at the square of Torre Argentina. But that’s not what draws me here every time. The ruins are home to the homeless cats of Rome and I looooooooove cats. There is a cat shelter called Roman Cats at the square and the felines here are so beautiful and friendly, it makes your heart melt. It if forbidden to feed the cats. They have specific meal times, they have been vaccinated, bathed and all they want is a little attention. I lost track of the time I spent here. My favorite was this magnificent but very feeble black cat whose ear was bitten off and fur was falling out but I didn’t mind cuddling him. I could see he was old and with great difficulty he crawled up to me. Some French tourists kept telling me he was “malade” and I shouldn’t touch him. I have known cats all my life and I know when one is ill. (Silly, paranoid, ridiculous) French tourists! Have they not heard what Charles Dickens said? “What greater gift is there, than the love of a cat?” The black cat and me sat together on the steps and together we admired the impressive Pompey’s theater laid out before us. This was his regal playground which he didn’t mind sharing with me. I sat with him till the red sun went down on Rome that day. He had sat on my lap all the while and for once during my entire trip I felt as if I had a friend, someone who would just let me be. Two months later, I was in Rome again and with a heavy heart, I went in search of him. I looked for a long time among the ruins and all his furry friends. I knew he wouldn’t be there. I teared up a little. But soon with all the purrs and mewing around, I could sense a wild spirit at play in his old kingdom. That “malade” yet magnificent black cat owned this beautiful theater where we, the humans were nothing but silly comedians trying to impress a cat audience!

Amsterdam Revisited

Amsterdam is one of my most favourite cities in the world. There’s so many interesting things to discover and the city can boast of some world class museums! I’m so happy I have family there so I can visit any time I want! My mum and me visited together in July and I’ve taken these pics on my iphone, so the quality isn’t the best. I miss the vibrant feel of this city and I’m thrilled to have an invitation for christmas from my uncle! yay.

♫ Bella bella ♫ Toscana!

As the Eurostar train pulled out of Venice’s Santa Lucia Station, there was one passenger who was so sad to leave Venice and at the same time so thrilled to arrive at the next destination. Tuscany! I knew I would love the Tuscan region even before I got there. I was planning to visit Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Lucca and San Gimigniano. My first stop was Florence of course. A friend recommended that I stay at Hostel Archi Rossi, which was really reasonable and close to the train station and right in the centre of everything. I would recommend all to stay here because they organise free walking tours, the staff are friendly, the rooms are so huge and clean and they have internet and serve a huge free breakfast! The area around Santa Maria Novella Train Station is a bit sketchy and I wouldn’t recommend wandering here at night. The first thing I noticed about this area was the throng of Indian and African men. And they were not being too decent. I did hear a lot of whistles as I passed by but TIP: I  never make eye contact, always keep my back upright, shoulders straight, put on my “don’t mess with me” face and walk briskly. After travelling alone I’ve realized hooligans always look for easy targets i.e. women who CAN BE victimised. 
One my first day here, I had no map or itinerary. So I decided to follow the multitudes of tourists outside my hostel Sure enough, all crowds lead to Duomo, which is undoubtedly Florence’s most important landmarks! This is a 13th century cathedral and the dome is one of the biggest in the world.
I think it’s just stunning and it was the second thing I love among the only two things I love about Florence. From afar it looks like a little doll’s house but as you draw near, you can see the various shades of green and white and pink so beautifully pieced together and you wonder if this gigantic structure is actually made of marble or just cardboard! 
Most people are well dressed in Florence and it has an aristocratic air about it. The city is a buzz with cafés and leather markets, beautiful building and ofcourse Gelatarias! Some exciting ice cream flavours can be found in Florence. I recommened the mascarpone and fragole mix! Don’t be shy to indulge! ;)
I am really glad I joined the walking tour or else I would never have heard the most charming love story of Florence. It involves the above bridge. King Cosimo lived on the left bank of the River Arno and the love of his life lived in the Pitti Palace on the opposite side. In order to stay connected to her, the King buys up her palace and builds a bridge to connect his residence to hers. Now the strange thing is that the bridge is in the form of a long corridor which runs through people’s houses and shops! It has stood the test of time (nine centuries!) and coincidentally this was the only bridge that survived the German bombing during World War 2. Sigh!
Many people speak highly of Florence but I was a little disappointed with the city. For art lovers, this is definitely the meeting point but since I am no connoisseur of the arts, I was a bit underwhelmed. I love the region of Toscana and I feel there are certain other cities one should not miss out! 
Florence and Italy has so many vintage cars, I was overjoyed at the sight!

So here is the first and best thing I love about Florence! It’s the bird eye view of the city from Piazza Michaelangelo. You can take the bus (number 12 or 13) next to the railway station that head’s up the hill and trust me, you will never regret it. If I ever return to Firenze, it will be only to take in this view. Try and get there before sunset so you can witness the panorama of the sun’s rays dancing against the steeples and yellow buildings of Florence! Then wait for the streetlights and bulbs to light up in every house in the city. Mesmerising! 
These are scarves from the Hermes museum in the town of Lucca. Lucca is a charming little town nestled in the Tuscan hills and you can fit a trip to Pisa and Lucca in a single day. 
PISA
It was easter day when I went to Pisa. The transport system in Italy keeps up with the French one during holidays. So nothing really functions. Fortunately there were a few trains going to Pisa and I was happy to make it in time for mass at the Pisa church. I’m not too religious but I did it for my mom who had called early in the morning to wish me. To see the leaning tower was among the important things to do before I die. So I was h-appy! It is quite a sight and scientists are still trying to figure out why it’s leaning. Most say, there used to be a branch of the River Arno running through the area and now the water has turned the sand soggy and hence is slowing sinking!
I didn’t spend much time in Pisa because I wanted to fit in the town of Lucca as well. I should have stayed longer because Pisa was really beautiful and I’m pretty sure I would want to go back again to discover more of this really clean and magnificent city!
LUCCA
Lucca is 40 minutes away from Pisa by train. The train passes through lush countryside and even though it was pouring, the place just mesmerized me! I went in search of the Tuscan sun and instead I found a beautiful mist in the hills! Lucca was quite deserted. There was lots of greenery and the most interesting thing about the city was that it was walled with a garden on top of it. So you actually cover the entire city while walking on top of it. Lucca was devoid of tourists and there were so many charming streets to explore. I couldn’t do much because of the rain, I guess May is not the best time for everyone :(
SIENA
I made a huge mistake taking the train to Siena. Because you need to take another bus from the train station to get to the city of Siena and this “centro-bus” will have you waiting a long while! There are direct buses from Florence-Siena and back, which is recommended! Plus Siena train station is not user-friendly and you need to descend two levels underground to get on the “centro-bus” and purchase your ticket before getting on because you can’t buy one from the conductor!

Once you’re in Siena, you’re in another world entirely! I spent an entire day here and had such an amazing time exploring this hill station and appreciating it’s sky high Renaissance buildings. Again! I wish I had more time to explore the place entirely but I could only fit in the main sites.

Il Campo is one of the most famous squares in the world. Each year the commune organises the Palio, a world famous horse racing competition where all neighbourhoods are called in to compete! 

Restaurants in Siena weren’t so expensive and I given tried some of that famous Chianti wine which I warn you is as strong as Prosaic! :D I later relished my Tiramisu and Biscotte gelato in the drizzle. I did not use a map in Siena and I wouldn’t recommend buying one. Just wandering around those quiet unfamiliar streets was pleasurable to the senses! At every turn, something phenomenal awaited me. 

The Duomo/Church of Siena, has the most beautiful façade of any church I have ever seen in Italy! I stayed there for a long time with my arms folded and my head taking in the miniature carvings and intricate details of the monument! One should also visit the Church of Saint Catherine which has a lot of importance for Catholics since it holds the actual head of Saint Catherina of Siena! 

I loved every thing about Siena and I felt that it reflected the Tuscan region more than any other city I visited here. There was many tourists but not an annoyingly high number. I took the bus from Siena (SITA company) back to Firenze. The bus gives you a chance to admire the countryside and as I was leaving Siena, the Tuscan sun slowly came out to bid me farewell and the sky turned into an extraordinary shade of blue which I have never seen again in my life. I tried my level best to capture it on my camera but in my mind’s eye, it’s still the most distinctive, inimitable shade of blue ever created. Beautiful beautiful Toscana, how I miss your exceptional beauty!