Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

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“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” – Rosalia de Castro

So all these time I thought Holland and Netherlands are two different countries. Today, I was made aware that Holland makes up two provinces which together make up the region (Noord Holland and Zuid Holland), out of twelve provinces in the country of Netherlands. The name Holland is also frequently used to informally refer to the whole of the country of the Netherland. Due to the maritime and economic power of these provinces in the 17th century, the Netherlands became known worldwide as Holland. This led to a widespread recognition of “Holland” all over the world, especially in Europe where it began to be used as a synonym for what we now know as the Netherlands. Thus, a single region overshadowed the entire Dutch Empire.

To make matters even more confusing the inhabitants of the Netherlands are called Dutch, the use of “Holland” oftentimes a substitute for “Netherlands”. To be clear, the Netherlands are commonly called Holland in English and are not two names for the same country. Most of us have heard someone referring to the Netherlands as “Holland,” and some of us have even done it ourselves. But some Dutch might be offended if you call their country Holland: It’s much like calling the United States of America “Washington” or Great Britain “England.”

When the word Holland comes to mind there’s always a clear picture of green green grass of hope, herd of patched cows of black and white. Tulips, clogs, cheese, chocolates, and of course windmills. Growing up in front of the TV in the eighties Holland for me tends to be associated with a particular image that Birch Tree milk powder commercial a lady on a traditional dress (klederdracht) milking the cows on the greenery country side and all that The stereotypical image of Holland.

A short drive away from Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans, a Dutch village dotted with windmills and cottages. This historic village offers a preserved glimpse of what it was like to live in the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the village’s characteristic houses are now museums, gift shops or workshops while others are still used as private residences. Some of the Zaanse Schans’ remaining windmills are also open to the public and functional. The windmills produced all sorts of items from paint, mustard, oil, etc., we visited a cheese farm where there’s various sampling of cheese to taste. In one of the workshop, we had the opportunity to watch wooden clog-making which is actually interesting because I don’t think it’s a foot healthy choice to go around but in the olden days I guess we don’t have many options but in our modern world, most clogs include design features that cause foot pain and problems as some research indicates that the loads on hip and knee joints are significantly higher in people who wear conventional footwear than in those who walk barefoot.

Anyways, I was happy to be here. I’ve come a long way from that kid in front of the TV watching that milk commercial to seeing the iconic part of the Dutch landscape – windmills!

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“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” – John Green, The Fault in our Stars

We then moved on to Netherlands’ capital – Amsterdam referred to as the Jerusalem of the North due to its large Jewish population. The Jews from Spain and French Protestants found a safe haven here centuries ago. The name Amsterdam is derived from the city’s origins: it grew around a dam in the river Amstel. Locals referred to as Amsterdammer but the slang term is ‘Mokummer’ derived from the Hebrew ‘makom,’ which means ‘place.’ The city has more canals (165) than Venice and they have a large number of houseboats (2.500) and moreover they have a million bikes for 700,000 inhabitants, which make the city bicycle capital of Europe.

The official, native language is Dutch, but most people in Amsterdam also speak quite a bit of English. Dutch were the first Europeans to discover Australia and New Zealand in the 17th century. Australia was then named “New Holland”. New Zealand was named after the province of Zeeland .Tasmania was named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (1603-1659). Heineken and Gin was invented in the Netherlands and the latter was first sold as a medicine in the late 16th century.

It’s common knowledge that prostitution and drugs are legal in Amsterdam as the Dutch feel that it’s going to happen anyway  better to legalize and control it than to let it fester underground. Not all café are the same in this city so you better mind where you are going as ‘coffee shop’ is a place where you can legally buy soft drugs (marijuana or hashish), space cakes, coffee, tea, and sometimes freshly-squeezed juices and sandwiches and A ‘coffee house’ (koffie huis) is the same thing, minus the soft drugs and space cake.

Our local tour guide was a Filipino and he showed us around town by foot. He discussed that Amsterdam has the most museums in the world per square kilometer, i.e. total of 51 with the famous Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank house included. Amsterdam has beautiful churches and synagogues but most of them are no longer in service or no longer used as a place of worship, but now serve as concert venues, museums or even nightclubs or some churches held mass during Christmas day only.

We also explored Amsterdam’s underbelly Red Light District with our local guide or as the Dutch like to say it “De Wallen”, which literally means The Walls. It’s the oldest area in Amsterdam and the most famous prostitution area in the world. Amsterdam was founded around the year 1200 and soon after this the Red Light District was build.  In early days the Dutch build walls to protect the city against strangers. In later days, around 1850, these protective walls were broken down, since they became useless. He guided us through narrow cobblestone streets above wide canals and the ‘red light district’ of the city. I think this is one of the most vibrant and picturesque parts of Amsterdam being a liberal society.  A lot of people live and work in the Red Light District, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, museums, coffee shops, Chinatown, an old church, an arcade game room, restaurants, bars, clubs and smart shops are located in one place.

We went for a canal cruise inboard a glass-dome motor to have a good view of the city. You can see many narrow buildings; flanked gabled housed and charming houseboats line almost every canal.  You will see them with gardens on decks and roofs, with cushy upholstered chairs on deck, with tables and chairs for al fresco. We then visited a diamond factory called Gassan Diamond Factory for a tour where one can see how they are cut and allowed to see them up close and see more of the finished items for sale and much discounted price.

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“NOT I – NOT ANYONE else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.” – Walt Whitman

By default Belgium is a purveyor of waffles, chocolates and beer but having experienced Brussels there is actually more to this country than Godiva and Stella Artois.

Brussels is the largest city of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union (‘de facto’ means it is a reality, a fact of life, even if not approved in law). As per my research I was amazed to find out that the Belgians are innovators of lottery (to raise money for the poor), electronic ID cards, electronic passports complying with the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, La Redoute i.e. first casino. Also, they invented oil painting, the saxophone; they had the first printed newspaper, the first plastic and the peace sign. Apart from Brussels sprout their world contributions are comic strip Tintin, The Smurf, Jean-Claude Van Damme and 2 Unlimited whom scored 16 charts.

A country without Government or had no official government and being run by a caretaker government. The name of the euro currency and the design of the € symbol were proposed by Belgians,  the first modern health resort was opened in Belgium in the 18th century,  the oldest shopping arcades, the Galeries St Hubert was opened in 1847. They have the lowest proportion of McDonald’s in the developed world. Voting and Education is compulsory and the latter is one of the highest in the world. Also, there are more castles per square kilometre in Belgium than in any other country.

The Atomium

We visited this landmark building in Brussels originally constructed for Expo ’58 for the 1958 Brussels World’s fair called The Atomium. It is a stainless steel clad spheres that are connected so that the whole forms shaped of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. In the 1950s, the atom was at the centre of attention as the almost inexhaustible symbol of energy and modernity. The building embodied the boldness of a time wanting to confront the fate of humanity with the scientific discoveries; the trust in the scientific progress gave the brand image to the World Fair. The idea was centred on an optimistic modernity intended to make people forget World War II.

Manneken Pis

After the Atomium we headed directly to the town to have a peek of the famed child statue known as Manneken Pis (Dutch for ‘little pee man’ or ‘Petit Julien’ in French) It’s a 61 centimetre (24-inch) bronze fountain sculpture of a naked boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. The statue was located in a little street with lots of souvenirs shops. Our tour manager told us the many legends of this little tyke that survived nearly 400 years of ordeals as it has been stolen, looted by invaders, hidden during war bombing raids but remains Belgium’s best-dressed lad with a wardrobe of more than 800 costumes including outfits giving nods to: Santa Claus, African farmer and ‘urinates’ milk, Hungarian hussar, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 2006

According to legends…

…He was a little boy who tried to douse a fire in the city with the only weapon he had at hand, A young boy who was awoken by a fire and was able to put out the fire with his urine, in the end this helped stop the king’s castle from burning down…

… A wealthy merchant who, during a visit to the city with his family, had his beloved young son go missing. The merchant hastily formed a search party that scoured all corners of the city until the boy was found happily urinating in a small garden. The merchant, as a gift of gratitude to the locals who helped out during the search, had the fountain built.

… In the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held its ground for some time, so the attackers conceived of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Julianske happened to be spying on them as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.

…Another famous legend is that the statue commemorates Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, a two-year-old lord who in 1142 had troops battling armies of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen. It is said that the little two-year-old lord was placed in a basket hung in a tree to encourage the troops to fight for him. From there, he urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle

La Grand-Place

 After shopping for chocolates we hanged out for some time in this the central square of Brussels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Grote Markt. Considered as “One of the most beautiful town squares in Europe” This cobbled rectangular market square displayed row of shops and emblematic structure that is woollen together to form an overall look of a striking middle-age town square. I was struck by the charisma of the market square with its beautiful setting not just by the shops but also the guild houses dominated by the gothic tower of the town hall pointing skywards. The square dates back 12th century and it exemplifies the vitality of this important political and commercial centre. Town hall always reminded of those periodic movies where people would gather in a mob with pitch forks and torches to lynch someone without due process of law, to witness public execution or basically to have a chance to stone someone to death… yep, too much brave Heart…

Our tour manager mentioned that in this very spot, the famous Biennial Flower Carpet unfurled every two years for the past 40 years when Belgians cover this square with almost a million of begonias. This large-scale short-term floral art is a gathering of artisans, architects, designers, urban planners and home-furnishing enthusiasts to hand craft the graphic and scented celebration to the glories of Belgian horticulture. Belgians are expert begonia growers. 90% of the world’s begonia production is grown in Belgium. Only 3% of this total production stays in Belgium, with a massive 97% exported. Wow! I want to witness this event maybe in my next travel.

 

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“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” -Thomas Jefferson

Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice but it happened to me, what a blessing being in Paris once again, I just can’t get enough of this marvellous city.

We arrived in the afternoon and a sophisticated French lady with a bag of Chanel boarded our tour bus and started talking about Paris. The drive started along Champs Elysee and halted at Arc de Triomphe where our chic travel guide discussed about the monument. The drive continues to Avenue of Paradise, Place de la Concorde, Louvre Museum and its famous Glass Pyramid and the Opera house. When we passed by this broad LV shop people in our bus stared in awe of the long queue and our cultured escort made this remark ‘They are done and they know it!’ clearly she’s not a fan.  This tour introduced me to Galleries La Fayette, Mona Lisa, Moulin Rouge to Montmartre, and a scenic river cruise to see Paris after dark.

This trip bombarded me with signature labels, no thanks!  To our tour manager who kept promoting Monte Blanc for pen, Rolex for watches, Rimowa for luggage’s, and  Prada for wallets and bags like he is a stock holder of these high end brands. In each city he knows where he should bring us for those bits and pieces of signature items. In Paris, he introduced us to Galleries La Fayette to shop without pressing for time. The tourist tax refund will urge you to splurge but it does not mean that all tax will be refunded but currently, TVA rate of most goods is 19.6% in France, but tax refund rate is normally 12%. Friends who know you are going to Europe will asked you to buy Prada for a cheaper price and you can keep the tax refund for yourself.

Galleries La Fayette

Galleries La Fayette dated back to 1895, when Albert Kahn rented a shop in Paris at the corner of Chaussée-d’Antin and rue Lafayette to sell gloves, ribbons, veils, and other goods. The shop was small, but sales were good. Now it’s an upmarket French department store located on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement of Paris and a billion euro company. If Paris is the capital of French fashion, Les Galleries Lafayette Boulevard Haussmann is its window displays, this mall is not just a mall you see everywhere, they didn’t received about 100,000 visitors a day just because of their products deluxe, shoppers come from all around the world to admire the décor and the ambience produced by this mall empire . The department spreads over three floors and proposes the best and most original collections from around the world both from top designers. My friend bought her Prada bag here and I was forced to buy Havaianas espadrilles just for the heck of it.

Mona Lisa

We have 2 days to ditch our tour group and go to wherever we felt like going. We decided to go back to the Louvre and see this enigmatic facial expression of the woman in the painting that is priceless and cannot be insured – The Mona Lisa, which was the result of a spelling error. The original name of the painting was Monna Lisa. Monna in Italian is a short form of Madonna, meaning ‘My Lady’.

This most popular and talked about art piece in the world, painted by the most celebrated painter, Leonardo Da Vinci where people flocked in huge numbers to its home in the Louvre has a room of its own. It is protected in a climate controlled environment and encased in bullet proof glass. The room was built exclusively for the painting for a whopping over seven million dollars. An x-ray image taken of the Mona Lisa in the laboratories of the Louvre, suggests that when Leonard Da Vinci first sketched out his portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife in 1503 she did not smile at all. The smile, in other words, emerged as he reworked the painting over several years.

As a kid a kept hearing her name in history books, songs, TV, movies, etc. I’m so curious why one very old painting of an eyebrow-less lady whose eyes look a bit skewed with a smirk on her face can be that legendary.  When I finally came face to face with it, I somehow reckoned what’s the fuss all about.  Everything about the painting was richly worked and the rest I leave to the expert.

Moulin Rouge to Montmartre

Yeah I saw the movie and now I want to experience the champagne while watching can-can dance that originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans from this famous cabaret across Europe. So face palm when our benevolent tour guide said he can no longer secure the tickets for us to gain Entry in Moulin Rounge boo hoo!

So we are back with the tour group as we start our walk at Moulin Rouge, and slowly climb our way through back alleys and secluded gardens all the way to Sacre Coeur cathedral. The walking tour takes you to the nooks and crannies of the most bohemian, artistic district of Paris, the center of good-living in Paris and once the home and the artistic muse to Renoir, Picasso, Edith Piaf and others.

A hill in the north of Paris, France – Montmartre is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district. The other, older, church on the hill is Saint Pierre de Montmartre, at which the Jesuit order of priests was founded. Topped by the Sacre Coeur Basilica, Montmartre is the highest Paris hill and became famous in late 1800’s with the arrival of artists such as Renoir, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, built in 1147, is the oldest church in Paris. It was the church of the powerful Montmartre Abbey until the revolution in 1790. We made use of the cable car up the hill to the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre and found our way to a group of cultural restaurant converge in one area on the top of that hill and had a very hearty dinner.

Montmartre to Seine River Cruise

The walked down from Montmartre at twilight was such a delight; heaps of shops were finally opened for business like the day has just begun. It was such an active area of Paris. We passed by Moulin Rouge bar and saw the long queue so we rode our tour bus to join the River Seine cruise instead.  The boat was big and you don’t have to be confined in your seat for the rest of tour, you can walk around or outside to have a better view of the city of lights. The Seine flows through Paris, the capital city of France where according to history this is where the ashes of Joan of Arc were scattered at Rouen. It’s a relaxing way to see the city and major sights from water-level and sighting those beautiful old bridges on the river but the highlight of the show was the Eiffel itself.  The French did not content themselves to just light up the Eiffel Tower at night; they had to make it sparkle on the hour by the hour starting at 8pm every night. Bright white flashes sparkle all up and down the tower from top to bottom, making it sizzle like a sparkler. This show of gaudiness continues for five minutes and then shuts off, waiting for another hour to arrive and will last up to 1am and I can’t believe I missed this in my first visit, duh! If you didn’t get star struck by Eiffel tower wait til you see it illuminating at night. I can’t find the words to describe the awesomeness but this quote from Moulin Rouge should suffice—“A magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment. It will be: Spectacular, Spectacular! No words in the vernacular can describe this great event you’ll be dumb with wonderment!’

 

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To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.” ― Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography

From Titisee to Paris we spent few hours at a city in Alsace, France named Colmar. We rode a small guided city tour train that lasted up to 40 minutes that gives you a better view of this old town’s stunningly beautiful, well preserved renaissance charm. The train ride are comfortable and with comments in many languages with a lot of information about history, main famous people and architecture. There’s something about this town that makes me want to sing and reminded me of that first song and opening number, “Belle” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Its cobblestone streets and walkways, flower-lined canals, sidewalk cafes, and numerous half-timbered houses It’s like I’m in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast but in real life and I kid you not. All of Colmar’s attractions are concentrated in its old town that you can get around on foot with no difficulty. There’s La petite Venice (Little Venice) to explore with small canals reminiscent of Venice, Italy.

We ate at a local outdoor cafe that our tour manager recommended and it’s a must to eat crepes here in Colmar and so we tried and it seems all French people enjoy crepes and cider and they are everywhere like you feel it’s a weekend and people are enjoying their sip of coffee, chatting with friends and just being outdoors.

Our tour manager mentioned that Colmar is the best place to be during Christmas, he mentioned that one day he would want to spend the holiday season here. I can’t just imagine how wonderful the ambiance would be… this Old town illuminated with Christmas decors soothing aura of light over the centre of Colmar like Hollywood tinsel town but with historic setting based on old age tradition and heritage. It’s more than magical … being in a fairy tale and not just in an ordinary day… but being in a fairy tale on a Christmas day!

Capture

Just outside in the north entrance of Colmar stands a  12-meter high replica of the Statue of Liberty. It was sculpted to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of the sculptor Auguste Batholdi, who was born in Colmar and created the “Liberty lightening the world”. As a homage to the “father of the statue of liberty” the city of Colmar placed this replica.  It is intended to honor the most prestigious artist of Colmar and pay tribute to the work of art which is probably the most famous in the world. This statue is also another link with the United States, already symbolized since 1986 by the signature of a twinning agreement between Colmar and the university town of Princeton, not far from New York.

 

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“Breakfast in Switzerland…lunch in Germany…dinner in France…Life’s a beach but touring Europe is way better!” – Me

This is day 8 of the tour and indeed we are all over Europe. We have been for the last days as we slept in different hotels every night since we’ve landed in Milan. After that buffet breakfast in our hotel in Lucerne where I find them no different from all the other hotels we’ve been as they served the same egg, ham, bacon, cereal, etc. but every day we still ate them anyway,  we head on to Titisee, Germany.

Baden-Württemberg, south-western part of Germany is where you will find Titisee. A country side with a very scenic view. All in one place you will see the lake and the forest that gives a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere. Titisee named from Roman Emperor Titus, he is best known for completing the Colosseum and for his generosity in relieving the suffering caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius of Pompeii in AD 79. In addition to his accolades, he also conquered Jerusalem during his reign.

In Titisee it’s impossible not to catch the Black Forest or ‘Schwarzwald’ in German.  It got its name named from its dark, slightly sinister canopy of evergreens. Indeed it was a sunny day when we’re  there but looking at that forest somehow doesn’t make the sun lights able to penetrate and pierce thru those thick dark pine trees and the darkness of the sun-blocking dense coniferous trees is worthy of its name. This woodland is the setting of countless Grimm Brothers fairy tales i.e. this is where Hansel and Gretel encountered the wicked witch and where Red Riding Hood trailed to her grandma’s house.

The touristy village of Titisee is home of the cuckoo clock most of the shops sell them here and a  variety of branded watches, jewelleries, wallets and accessories as well. They also had a market going on in this place where you can purchase fresh fruits, flavour beers, and wines.  We all had lunch in Hochfirst where the waitresses wore traditional German dress called dirndl. The ambiance at the restaurant was amazing as they offered a panoramic view of the backdrop of the adjacent Black Forest and the Lake. At mealtime they first served a small bowl of vegetable soup which I quite like because I like salty, then fries, and rice with the main course of pork knuckle. I would have loved it more with spicy vinegar but their dip was not that bad.

The star attraction was the dessert – the black forest cake with Ice wine – The cake is named not directly after the Black Forest but rather from the specialty liquor of this region, known as Schwarzwälder Kirsch (wasser) and distilled from tart cherries. Black Forest cake consists of several layers of chocolate cake, with whipped cream and cherries between each layer then the cake is decorated with additional whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings. The Ice wine was too goooood! Ultra-rich, super sweet dessert wine, a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. It was discovered by a German winemaker who was away from his vineyard during harvest and when he returned all of his grapes had been frozen on the vine. Undeterred he carried out the unorthodox harvest as usual and proceeded to press his frozen grapes for fermentation. The result, the first eiswein.

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“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfilment.” – Hilaire Belloc

On the way to Lucerne we had a quick stop at Brunig Pass that is halfway between Lucerne and Interlaken. We had a group tour photo in the highway and the village of Lungern, Canton of Obwalden is our backdrop. This municipality of Switzerland has the best beautiful scenery of the mountains parted by the emerald green waters of Brunig lake. I could simply be lost for days in this holiday region of Lungern-Schönbüel and won’t feel panic as the beautiful nature will pacify all the bad feeling as this is haven for mountaineers, walkers, water sports enthusiast and winter skiers.

Lightning never strike in the same place twice but I felt nothing can steal my thunder when we reached Lucerne was just here Sept 2011  and I’m feeling more blessed than happy being in this gorgeous town again. There was no major change in this old town it still embodies the picture perfect, storybook idea of a Swiss town. (see: My Stroll in Lucerne, Switzerland)

As part of the tour we walked around the busy streets and headed for the Lion Monument that is dedicated to the 42 members of the Swiss Guard who were assigned to protect Louis the XVI, Maria Antoinette and their family at the Royal Palace during the French Revolution of 1792.

We fed a bevy of swans swimming in the Lucerne lake near the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) and nearby had a peek of the Restaurant Bodu where I had my mouth watering French cuisine Sunday lunch once.

There was time for snacks and so we just pick this random coffee shop and chat our extra time away while others in our group tour are busy shopping Rolex watches in some prestigious shop recommended by our tour manager where he has connections and can get discounts – Envious!

It was nice to see again this beautiful small city, a car free zone and small enough to be explored by foot.