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Distractions

13Horacio Cruz would be beaming with pride if he were here to see all of this. His daughter – once but a small – time overachieving girl in a third world public school, now an independent woman discovering the splendors of Europe. I bet even those rich, corpulent sponsors I had at Lions Club couldn’t have come up with this. Me and my friends are heading off to Cap d’Ail to complete our gallivanting across the French Riviera. The weather is perfect as expected, with the sun glimmering over cyan waters and the Riviera’s trademark coastline necklaced by stunning beaches.12From Nice, Cap d’Ail is approximately a 30 minute journey if you aboard Bus 100. Its surrounding large glass windows provide a great yet brief view of the fantastic scenery. Like that binocular toy I had as a child, only every slide in the reel was nice and I didn’t have to aim it towards anything bright. I personally enjoyed the short ride while of course taking occasional pictures of cliffside ocean views whenever the bus stopped on a red light. The sun kept flooding over me on and off as we veered through ribbons of concrete – and it felt good beyond words. Needless to say, staying in Europe has given me a newfound love and appreciation for direct exposure to sunlight. This 25 degree weather is a warm welcome compared to London’s gloomy skies and cold drafts.

We arrived on schedule and the first thing I notice is the small roadside tourist office. This commune in South France is far from flashy but I could tell it was a great secret escape compared to the usual French Riviera destinations overrun by yapping tourists. Quiet and verdant with copious amounts of fresh air with hints of ocean – I needed this. I looked back at my high school friend Ricky who was just coming out from the tiny office as he waved for us to come along. I flashed a smile and half ran towards him.2016-03-9--01-00-32

During my last visit here, I did not have the time to see Cap d’Ail. Last year, I merely thrived on sightseeing because arriving in February made it too cold for a dip. But not this time. August was perfect swimming weather and the sun loomed over all things with such fury I could almost imagine it making sizzling sounds.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the correct pronunciation was Kap Dai– quite easy on the tongue and rather fun to say out loud. The two known beaches in the area are both open to public: Marquet and Mala Plage; the latter unanimously known to locals as better than the former. However, our limited stay meant having only time for the best, so we headed straight for Mala Plage with a silent pledge to see Marquet Beach the following year.

But my thoughts of once again splaying under the sun was interrupted by a not so pleasant surprise: the beach access involved a descent of literally a hundred steps. It was not impossible for us but if you have heart failure you just might die halfway or on your way back up. But you know – silver linings. The place itself was nothing short of magnificent, as Mala Plage was tucked in a bay at the foot of rocky slopes. Every downwards turn led to a promising view which excited the traveler in me thirsty for some sand and sea. The leg pain was worth it.2016-03-9--00-56-15Armed with a white and pink striped beach towel and a lotion that promised ultimate sun protection, I embraced the ambiance and scouted for a square foot of sand nobody wanted. The sun was still baking everything it can reach and I felt its vengeance as I sat on the sand. The cool ocean breeze was a welcome relief and it was so soothing I had to close my eyes for a moment. When I did open them I noticed I was facing towards the rocky slopes that looked very much like the limestone formations in Palawan. Not as beautiful but just as good to the eyes.2016-30-8--19-10-55Ocean waves playfully crashed on the mountain side, making calm swishing sounds. Nearby, children were trying to make sand castles while some women were perfecting their tan by going topless. Freedom to all bosoms, budding and pendulous alike. It’s funny how the same thing considered a norm in this part of the world elicits condemnation where I come from. Everything is relative – even normal changes from place to place.

The water felt great as I went in for a few laps and the waves were gentle, rolling one after the other. I like how the water wraps around my head while I swim. For those brief moments, the outside world is out of earshot and it’s as if the water is lulling me away. At least for as long as I can hold my breath.2016-03-9--00-58-11Floating over the waters of Cap d’Ail, I imagine my stress stir away with every stroke from my arms, wishing I could let go of my tragedies just as easily. The seawater was making trickling sounds against my ears and as I gaze upon the blue sky I was blessed with today, one thing was on my mind. If heaven is real I hope you are seeing this right now Pa, because at least I can find comfort in the fact that in a way, you are with me. Perfection has been out of my reach since you’ve left and all I know is that these damn pictures would look so much better if I had them with you.

I stirred into motion and shot myself upright for a mouthful of air. Distant chatter once again, merry laughter and happy squeals nearby. To my right a train was making noise as it passed over by Mala Plage. The spell is broken and reality has unwillingly restored itself. I wave towards my friends who are already back ashore, gathering around for another round of Monopoly. I muster another smile and make my way back. Already feeling ready for more.

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A To Do List in The World’s Most Beautiful Island

2016-12-7--17-38-05It’s hard to believe that despite being hailed as the world’s most beautiful island two years in a row, Palawan is still relatively an underrated and underappreciated travel destination. Its low profile may not remain for very long, but Palawan had always deserved this recognition even before travel magazines have directed the spotlight to these islands. For Filipinos like me, it’s a paradise of sheer perfection – the only difference is that now the entire world knows the secret.

Palawan is amongst the 7,107 islands of the Philippines – the count itself curiously depending on the tides. It’s one of those places where words are particularly useless because of its outstanding natural wonders. Aside from the pellucid waters and immaculate seascapes, travelers can expect to see mantels of forests and mangroves, abundant flora and fauna, stunning coral reefs and limestone cliffs. Animal lovers will rave with the presence of indigenous species like the mouse deer and the surprisingly cute Pangolin. Palawan is nothing short of breathtaking, more so now that it has been declared home to one of the modern World’s Seven Wonders.2016-12-7--19-33-26As with the rest of the world, my heart has long been captivated by Palawan. Still by far the best travel escapade of my life, my last vacation was hard to forget and I am but left with memory snippets to last me until my much anticipated return. From one wanderer to another, here is a short to- do list for you in case you are traveling to this beautiful island destination. Whether you are just planning your next trip or already in the middle of that spontaneously booked flight, be sure to add some of these to your itinerary and the only regret you will have is needing to leave at the end of it all.

Frolic on White Sand Beaches

9With Palawan’s pristine beaches, how can one resist just lying on the sand to get that perfect tan while enjoying a spectacular beachfront view? The white sand beaches and the crystal clear waters that define this place has truly led it to stand out from the rest of the world. So go ahead and make sure you have enough downtime at the beach.

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Island hopping

2016-12-7--21-39-21There are neighboring islands with virgin beaches to see and beach bars that need to be explored so do not miss out on this one. From Puerto Princesa City, island hopping tours are everywhere and there are several packages to choose from. Every island is unique and having a local travel guide helps you appreciate certain details and tailor the trip to your liking. Riding the boats in between destinations is a great way to see the vast ocean and scout the towering limestone cliffs scattered all over the region.

Accomplish a Gastronomical Feat

2016-12-7--18-08-31Seafood could not be any fresher in this part of the world. Needless to say, I particularly binged on seafood and fruits for the entire duration of my stay that I always had a food baby going on – and I’d gladly do it all over again. Palawan is home to seriously fresh and delicious food so make it a mission to try the best dishes of the island. From the exciting array of grilled seafood to the simple joys of cucumber salad – the only real question would be what to best pair that cold bottle of beer with.

See One of the World’s Seven Wonders

10On top of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park has also recently been celebrated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Underground River is mesmerizing and gives you a chance to see parts of the world you have never seen before. The rock formations inside are astonishing and every shape and form I saw attested to the amazing power of nature.

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A few of the rock formations inside the Underground River. The image on the upper left is often called the fish due to its shape and the location of its “eye”. The left lower image brings The Nativity to mind – truly amazing!

Viajera Travel Tip: There is not much light inside the cave, so if you want pictures of the rock formations you need to bring a decent camera. My camera phone was rendered useless but luckily, my bridge camera was there to the rescue!

Get Busy Snorkeling and Explore the Ocean Floor

2016-12-7--22-54-08Palawan is a diver’s paradise for obvious reasons and the ocean floor here is truly one of a kind. I am not trained in proper deep sea diving but luckily the oceans here are so blessed with marine life that you can see colorful fish even from only a couple of feet off the shore. All you need are a snorkel and diving shoes to protect yourself from sharp stones or corals and you’re all set. I also bought small pieces of bread to lure the fish and get to fed them by hand. You can easily spend hours enjoying the ocean so be sure to top up on that sunblock!

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Fish feeding frenzy.

Viajera Travel Tip: Ask the locals where the best spots are for snorkeling and viewing coral reefs. You can hire a motorised banca to bring you there and you can explore the ocean floor as much as you want. There are overwhelmingly gigantic coral reef formations that you can only see if you go out a little bit into the ocean.

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Kayak

There are lagoons in Palawan best explored while kayaking so be ready for some paddle action. The kayak boats are available as rentals and from there you can roam around the lagoons and explore hidden corners. As it was my first time to kayak, controlling it was a challenge and eventually lead to arguments with the person I was paddling with. But when you get the hang of it, it is quite a serene water activity. The quiet motion of slicing across teal waters, the exceptional blue sky and the sounds of nature humming in the background all lead to a sense of tranquil. There was even a man floating around in a small boat selling ice cream so I could not have been any happier.

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Jump Off a Cliff

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Certified Ugong Rock Zipline survivor.

Adrenaline junkies rejoice because aside from all the water adventures, you can actually jump off a cliff here – while attached to a zipline of course. There are a number of places to do this, but one point of interest would be Ugong Rock Adventures, named after their rock boulders that reverberate upon percussion. Aside from their zipline, you also get to challenge upper body strength with spelunking.

Make New Friends

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Random encounters

Traveling brings about the imminence of meeting people from all walks of life. Incredibly, they also come with stories that would enrich these moments even more. Knowing someone new is one of travel’s best rewards whether or not you get to see them again. Chances are, you will keep something with you from those simple conversations. One of my treasured moments in Palawan was hiring a car with six Europeans on the way to El Nido. They did not speak much English but when they hooked their iPod to the car’s stereo, there was just an unspoken sense of understanding and we ended up singing to their playlist. To this day, I am following David Gray on Spotify because of them.

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Spur-of-the-moment beach buddy. Don’t limit yourself to human friends – they don’t call dogs man’s best friend for nothing.

So about that trip you were planning to the world’s best island, I can tell you that there is really nothing to wait for. This life is wasted on those who keep waiting for the “right” time – so book that flight already. And to those like me, who cannot wait to be in the middle of their next getaway, may your waiting time be short and your travel days as long as ever. In the truest and sincerest sense of the word, bon voyage. And someday if the universe permits, I hope to see you in Palawan.16

Continue reading A To Do List in The World’s Most Beautiful Island

Five Stunning Towns to See On Your Day Trips from Nice

nice5The most awaited season of the year has arrived – British Summer Time! Although not totally safe from the clutches of harsh English weather, at the very least we can now wear happy summer outfits on levels in which the weather allows and bare legs without worry. Admittedly it is a fantastic time to travel across Europe to get a year’s dose of that much needed sunlight.

When speaking of summer destinations, Nice, France is a perfect choice for any traveler hungry for some sun and sea. The French Riviera gravitates tourists from all over the world with its infamous beaches and seaside promenades – myself included. My last adventure to Cote d’ Azur ended with a promise of returning the following year – and yes, my tickets are already booked! I am not exaggerating when I say that Nice has the bluest waters and skies I have laid my eyes upon and it is something I would gladly come back to.

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Promenade du Paillon

However, there is more to Nice than sunbathing, gelato frenzy and lazy afternoons riddled with mojitos. It is a good starting point for day trips to fill up on art, culture and history. Why not widen your horizons and discover the charming neighboring towns of South France? Here are a couple of day trip ideas from Nice that I have personally done during my last visit to Cote d’ Azur. Getting to these towns are not complicated and most of all won’t hurt the bank. If you’re in Nice, you definitely have to drop by at least one of them – life is too short to pass on these stunning places!

Menton2Menton
Travel time: 4o minutes
Getting there: Bus 100, Bus 110 (Express). Alternatively, you can take the a train from Nice Ville to Menton
Travel Cost: €1.50 for the bus and €3.90 for the train

If there is a place in Cote d’ Azure that best showcases its beauty before the place got engineered into greatness, it would be Menton. Some call it the hidden pearl of the French Riviera because it has not basked in fame like other communes in Southern France. Well, not yet at least. This seaside town is nothing short of beautiful from the relaxed vibe, the array of dulcet homes, old docking port to the pastel hues of Old Town Menton.

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Pretty corners of Menton. Every February, a Lemon Festival is held in town so be sure to join the party if you’re around this time of year.

My first memory of the place was seeing a man and his dog briefly stopping by the communal drinking fountain for a drink. My friend later on explained that there are numerous drinking fountains across the towns of South France, most of which were built from the time of the Romans – although some are more decorative than functional. Just keep an eye for the “eau potable” sign.

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Viajera Travel Tip: Cross the borders and head off to Italy! Menton is the last city before crossing over to Italian borders. Why not go straight to Ventimiglia for some extra sightseeing and get yourself some authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.

Vence 1Vence
Travel time: 60 minutes
Getting there: Bus 400 (Vence) / Bus 94 (Halte Routière de l’Ara)
Travel Cost: €1.50

A medieval town over the hilltops surrounded by rivers and springs, Vence is the best place to appreciate nature while contemplating history and art at the same time. Come and adore pillars and vestiges dating back to the Roman era, including the Cathedral Notre Dame de la Nativité which was built from the 4th century. The stone walls and alleyways are silent witnesses to the changing times; of ideas that sprung from creative minds through the years.

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Cathedral Notre Dame de la Nativite
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La fontaine. Vence is often called the City of water because it is surrounded with rivers and springs. This is one of the town’s fountains.

Viajera Tip: Meet a Michelin – Star Chef! Satisfy your hunger for good food and art at Les Bacchanales. Situated at 247 avenue de Provence, Vence this day trip is almost incomplete without a taste of Chef Christophe Dufau’s cooking. His menu changes every week and as an advocate of locally sourced ingredients, his dishes clearly reflect the best seasonal products in this part of the world. His passion is contagious, perhaps a personification of the inspiring beauty of Vence.

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Saint Paul de Vence 1Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Travel time: 60 minutes
Getting there: Bus 400 (Vence)
Travel Cost: €1.50

Saint-Paul-de-Vence is an exceptional village in Provence with its strategic location seemingly built to create inspiration among artists and poets. Walk among its cobbled streets and you will understand how the place became a hub for artists, poets and writers. Maybe it’s the way the sun strikes the village or probably the breathtaking views all too abundant to the place, but Saint-Paul-de-Vence cradled artists into greatness like no other place on Earth. Artistic presence is so strong that you can feel it being celebrated in the open – air galleries, museums and even to the quaint shops around the village.

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The undeniable charm of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

BSR1Briel Sur Roya
Travel time: 60 minutes
Getting there: Board a train from Nice Pont Michel to Breil – sur – Roya
Travel Cost: €7- €8

This town will entice nature lovers with the heavily forested Roya Valley and sparkling lake formed by a hydro – electric dam. It is a quick getaway for being one with nature and maybe a picnic while enjoying the lakeside view. The narrow streets and restored ancient houses add to the town’s charm and there is a church from the 17th century still standing up to this day.

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grasse 4Grasse
Travel time: 60 – 90 minutes
Getting there: Take Bus 500 from Nice Albert 1er going to Grasse – Gare Routière. Alternatively, you can take a train from Nice Ville to Grasse.
Travel Cost: €1.50 for the bus, €8 – €12 via train

When one talks about going to Grasse, France, topics about perfumes and perfumeries inevitably ensue. The world’s perfume capital lives up to its name with perfumeries like Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard offering free guided tours for a closer look on how perfume is made from raw materials. It’s a fantastic chance to put your olfactory skills to the test and maybe hoard perfume straight from the manufacturers.

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Viajera Travel Tip: Fill out the visitor’s form in Fragonard and receive their brochure via post for free. Not only will you get fantastic gift ideas at factory price, they also send out free samples!

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My Fragonard freebies! Merci Fragonard!

Continue reading Five Stunning Towns to See On Your Day Trips from Nice

Photographs from Portugal: Picture Perfect Travel Tales

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It reminded me of home. If I had to confine how I felt about Portugal in five words, maybe that would be it. The cab we rode into had seen better days, and as it drove into the rough highway while attempting to illegally overtake another car I can’t help but half smile. To my right a familiar landscape of dilapidated buildings intertwined with what I presume were electric cables rose from the ground. From this side of town, Lisbon seemed more like the Philippines than a place somewhere in Europe. But five minutes into the journey and the similarities dissipated, and I began to see the unique beauty of the place.

Determined to explore the sights and wonders of Portugal, we set afoot on Lisbon on that not so warm November day. Getting around the city was not difficult and we walked around most of the time to maximize the chance of seeing everything, but we also took the bus and train fairly often to save time. It’s still hard for me to explain but somehow, Lisbon proved to be one of the most photographic places I have visited. Something about how it survived through the years made it standout from the other cities I’ve been. It was not even about how the city looked, it was the vibe it exuded. Portugal showed me that not all beautiful things are shiny and new and that to an extent, there is beauty in ruin.

I hope this post allows you to take a glance of Portugal through our photographs, from the food we ate to the many things we saw and discovered in no particular order. May it be a visual experience, a window from which we can share our happiness from this trip. Fragments of time frozen in a frame, a welcome reminder of how at times, this city had me at a loss for words.

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Fountain at Rossio Square. Photo by Kenneth Cerbo.
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A lovely close up. Photo by Kenneth Cerbo
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Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a memorial for the maritime explorers. All those lessons from my high school history class came rushing back to me  and the realization that I was standing in a place where all those travel expeditions came from was surreal.

 

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Portugal’s trams. Old and creaking, I was almost always sure it would fall apart mid – journey. It took extra skills to remain upright once inside but a good rule of thumb would be to hang on for dear life. But seriously, Lisbon would be incomplete without these ancient machines.
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Belem Tower
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A city embellished with tiles. Portugal made me look at tiles from a new perspective. Be sure to drop by the Tile Museum!
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When in Lisbon, don’t forget to look down at the patterned cobbled streets.
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Find yourself a miradouros and marvel at Lisboa.
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City lights

 

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They say real delicious food comes from humble places and not from those fancy overpriced Michelin restaurants serving bite sized meals. In a sense, that is true as the best food I’ve had so far were straightforward and simple, and in this case, served on a plain tin plate. We ordered two more of this Chili Garlic Shrimp from Ramiro’s-it was just that good. The shrimps were succulent and tasty and the garlic chili oil just got me hooked. Definitely worth the queue.
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No shortage of delicious food in Portugal. This crab roe made my heart skip a beat.
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To this day, I cannot believe that the best sandwich I’ve had came from Lisbon. They called it tostas, and at the time I though I was ordering two slices of bread warmed in a toaster. But this is no ordinary toast because it puts all other toasts and sandwiches to shame. My personal favorite was the Chicken Tostas topped with Chopped almonds. There’s your perfect excuse to go brunching in Portugal.
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Cabo Da Roca in Sintra had a shocking view of the Atlantic Ocean. The waves were crashing against the cliffs in almost a protest, with foams of white forming along the rocky shoreline. The enormous cliffs together with the vast ocean made me feel like I was along the final frontier of something. You stand there and you just feel small surrounded by all this beauty.
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Almost freezing to death was not in my itinerary while in Portugal but that was what happened anyway. The fairy tale palace was yellow on one side, pink on the other and dreamily located on top of a mountain. I don’t know if places like these required damsels in distress but I was in some sort of distress in my thin summery jumpsuit while cold mountain winds blasted me left and right in such high velocity. So for the record, DO NOT wear your lovely summer outfits to Portugal on the month of November even if the BBC weather app says it’s going to be 22 degrees. Especially if you’re looking at going around Sintra’s beautiful castles and palaces.

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The Cliffs and Lighthouse of Cabo Da Roca in Sintra, Portugal.
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Much of the travel experience would be about the person you are with. And Portugal was such a lovely experience with my friends around. Between, eating, laughing, getting lost and jaywalking in another country, you realize how blessed you are to have them to share this moment with. These people are not just friends – they are family you chose for yourself and in the end they chose you. Kristine is my flatmate and she has to be one of the kindest persons on Earth. At some point we just clicked, and we didn’t need to explain things to each other, we were just there for one another. Sometimes I like to think she adopted me as a sister – an older sister. Haha.
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If there was a person who taught me how annoying it can be to have a brother, it would be Kenneth. But he is adorable, and he always makes me laugh so in the end we always let him get away with all the teasing and name calling. He’s one of the few adopted family I have and I am proud of how we have each other’s backs while living overseas and all. Travels with him are always fun, and Portugal was so much more memorable because I had him around. If I had to name people who accepted me as I am, mood swings and all, Kenneth and Kristine would be among them for sure. Picture taken in Lourdes, Portugal.

I was born with a way with words. I knew from the beginning that I felt a certain ease in weaving words together and maybe creating something beautiful. Needless to say, I am not one to run out of adjectives. But I guess there are times when pictures tell a better story. And for those moments we were rendered speechless, for those times our words were simply not enough – we are lucky we have pictures to say it all for us. Looking at all these, nostalgia simply overtook me and I learned that there’s something else travel gives a person aside from gaining perspective. It gives you something to look back to – a pleasant memory to make you smile, a period in time you can always recall and happily “travel” back to.

Authentic French Bistro Experience Like No Other at Le Gai Moulin

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A couple of years ago, Paris would have been a distant dream to someone like me. It was a dream so impossible that if I had to categorize, it would probably fall alongside those aspirations that were destined to remain just that – just dreams. But life is funny like that and when I became a nurse in London, Paris was suddenly one of the easiest place I could go to. Just like that, the City of Lights was a mere train ride away – not to mention all those pastry, cheese and wine waiting for me to taste.

Aside from the usual sights that tourists flock incessantly, it is hard to miss the abundance of good food around Paris. Their passion for fine dining is clear with the bounty of bistros and ristorantes established in just about every corner of the city. For this reason, deciding where to eat could prove problematic at some level but I was determined to leave Paris with the remnants of a proper French meal. And thus my quest for an authentic french cuisine experience led me to Le Gai Moulin Bistro.

The city is well known in its own right, however I find that the only thing not mightily overrated about Paris is the flourishing culinary scene. The quality of the food reflected the fact that truly, good food not only nourishes the body but the soul as well. A random bistro across the train station served me one of the best french fries I have had – crisp on the outside, light and fluffy in the middle and without a glimmer of unnecessary grease.

Le Gai Moulin is one of those restaurants fairly centrally located but for some reason, hoards of tourists aren’t exactly throwing themselves at the door. This bistro seems to be one of the well – kept secrets of the locals – allowing only an occasional table or two to be occupied by lost tourists. And truly, finding it was one of the best things that happened to me in Paris. The first thing that drew me in is the fact that it was one of the first gay restaurants in the city; up and running with pride since 1981. They offer hearty, authentic French food with a homey feel from the heart of Le Marais which is an established gay district in Paris. Whether you are a tourist on the lookout for an authentic Parisian meal or plain and simple just after an unpretentiously satisfying dinner, look no further than Le Gai Moulin Bistro.

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We arrived in time for lunch and with growling stomachs. The butter croissant I ate that morning was not holding up anymore, luckily we came in with a reservation and were seated immediately. The rustic wooden exterior was surprisingly low profile that I almost missed the place when we reached Rue Saint – Merri. Needless to say, place was packed, the air filled with the enticing smell of food and aimless chatter of hungry diners. The interiors were simple and far from posh, a stone wall painted white and decorated with some paintings and artsy boards – some of them might have been from an era some twenty something years ago.

We ordered a three course menu available for lunch which was reasonably priced at €15.50.You also have the option of having only a main course (€11.50) or going for a starter and a main priced at €13.50. It was good value for money, considering other restaurants in Paris would easily charge €20 for a three course meal.

Most set menus make me feel like I’m being forced to order out from the cheapest items from the main menu. But this was not the case in Le Gai Moulin as there was a fair selection of items and the variety was well thought of as well. For starters, we ordered Baked Eggs and Foie Gras and Burgundy Snails (can’t miss out on Escargot!).

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Top view of that lovely Escargot.

The escargot arrived promptly with the tools to accomplish the task of wiggling them out of their shells. It was served in a vibrant green sauce that was savory but not overpowering. The snails were soft and had a clean fresh taste. To be honest they were gone too soon from our plates.

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Six Burgundy Snails

The Baked Eggs with Foie Gras was my personal favorite and I had a moment after my first bite. It was such a party to the tastebuds that I felt bad for all entire of human race eating anything else at that very second. The creamy, salty, tart taste of Foie Gras complemented the eggy goodness underneath. Polishing that combination over bread is now officially my favorite thing to do. This made me realise how humble ingredients like eggs can succumb to greatness when combined with the right stuff.

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My little chunk of heavenly Foie Gras.

The selection for the mains were just as good as the starters but the carnivores in us won that day so we decided to order Grilled Rump Steak with Bearnaise Sauce and Fries and Pork Wellington with Salad and Fries. The Grilled Rump Steak was cooked to a good medium rare and had a good charred exterior holding all the flavour in. The meat was tender, came with a strong smoked taste and was incredibly juicy.

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A juicy slab of Rump Steak with a side of French Fries and Bearnaise Sauce

The Pork Wellington comprised of a portion of pork tenderloin cloaked in a curry coconut milk sauce dusted off with some paprika. I started by slicing the medallion of pork in half – revealing how evenly it was cooked all throughout. I swept a piece of pork against the sauce before popping it in my mouth and I was just taken aback at how good the sauce was. It was so good and balanced that it made me wonder where I’ve been all my life. After that I pretty much dipped everything on it from my fries to the salad.

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Pork Wellington at Le Gai Moulin Bistro

As a sweet finish we ordered the Creme Caramel and Raspberry Puree on top of Fresh Yoghurt. The Creme Caramel was encased under crystallized sugar that you had to crack to get into. It was reminiscent of my childhood Leche Flan back home, although the ones I’ve had were richer in flavour and had slightly better texture. The Raspberry Yoghurt was good for cleansing the palate after a good meal if you did not fancy anything too sugary. All in all a pleasant way to end such a delicious meal!

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Creme Caramel
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Raspberry Puree topped over Fresh Greek Yoghurt

Chances are, you have once daydreamed of walking around Paris and said to yourself those were the dreams you saved for the impossible. Chances are, you have seen people take pictures with the Eiffel Tower as background and so you told yourself, well good for them. But if the odds swerve in your favor and in a turn of events, you find yourself in Paris standing beneath that rusty old tower for real – then good for you. Because now, you can head over to Rue Saint – Merri for your very own French gastronomic experience at Le Gai Moulin. Where chances are, you are going to love it as much as I did.

Top Ten Moments a Traveler Must Have in Budapest

Dubbed as the Paris of the East, Budapest is one of Europe’s highly acclaimed cities for its beauty and charm. In truth, no words can amount to the appeal of Budapest. It’s like a gift that came in a wonderful package; a place complete with rich history, stunning views and a regal ambiance all tied up with a romantic atmosphere. My trip to Budapest left me wanting more – a sign of a truly worthwhile escape. And as a traveler, that is all I can ask for – to find a place so captivating that one forgets the longing for home. And so, here are my top ten recommendations should you find yourself in the middle of this wondrous city. Give in to the temptation and play Budapest by George Ezra on full blast and prepare to fall in love with Hungary’s picture perfect capital.

1. Have a moment at the Szechenyi Chain Bridge

7Budapest is parted by the River Danube into Buda and Pest. The capital is connected by bridges, the most famous of which is the Szechenyi Chain Bridge. One of the city’s infamous landmarks, this was the first permanent bridge to cross the Danube and was an engineering wonder during the time of its construction. Call me a hopeless romantic, but it stirred emotions up in me and Budapest is just not the same without it. Tourists flock the area to capture the perfect moment and you might need to wait a while to get your own without a hoard of tourists behind you. But I assure you the waiting is all worth it. Made of cast iron and created with intricate detail, this is an important part of Budapest you should never miss.

2.  Enjoy a night stroll to the Hungarian Parliament

2016-20-11-13-11-17The world’s third largest parliament building is stunning at day, however it truly is a magnificent display of architecture at night. Unfortunately, it was a cold winter evening when we decided to visit and I could not feel my toes and fingers. The freezing cold did not stop me from appreciating the view though. The guards were staring at us with puzzled faces as we shivered our way into selfies and GoPro moments. They must have thought we were losing our minds marveling at the Parliament as patches of icy snow fell upon us but hey – what’s life without a little adventure?! Go for it.

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3. Explore the Danube Promenade

I might be wrong, but I think that the romantic ambiance of Budapest is partly owed to the fact that they have the Danube River right in the middle of their city. As simple as this sounds, merely walking alongside the Danube is a great way to enjoy the place. Shops overlooking the river and other landmarks such as the Elizabeth Bridge are easily found around the promenade.

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Along the banks of the Danube.

4. Afternoon coffee and cake with a view.

2016-20-11-13-25-26During our winter stay, a cup of coffee with cherry liqueur was not only welcome – it was necessary. Take a quick break from your tour and don’t forget to find a cozy coffee place to rewarm your toes.

We found a gem perched along riverbank, a quiet coffee shop with such creatively themed interiors called Marvelosa. Although we were happy to occupy a table on the first level, I suggest cozying up on a table upstairs next to a window. You can never go wrong with a warm cuppa and a picturesque view. Cheers to caffeine with shots of alcohol!

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From top image: Marvelosa’s cake of the day – a sponge cake with rich goat’s cheese. And the usual steamy cappuccino for the cold traveler.

 5. Pay tribute in Shoes on the Danube

2016-20-11-14-16-20Brace yourself for a time travel inducing experience by paying tribute to the fallen at Shoes on the Danube Bank. A stunning and truly unique memorial, the display showcases pairs of shoes left behind by victims of the Holocaust who were stripped naked and shot point blank while facing the river. Their shoes were the only reminder of what they were – a sad and painfully dark era in human history.

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6. Hop on the Castle Hill Funicular

Looking for a place with an awesome overview of Budapest? Look no further and fall in line for a quick ride to the Castle Hill Funicular or Siklo as the locals call it. It saves you the time of trekking to and from the Castle Hill while treating you to an unparalleled overview. Once you reach the top, discover the wonders of Castle Hill and don’t forget to snap some Instagram worthy photos.

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The Castle Hill Funicular

 

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Quick shot while descending from Castle Hill.
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Breathtaking view of Budapest from here!
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Castle Hill

7. Climb the steps to Gellert Hill.

Gellert Hill offers one of the best ways to see the city’s structures. Although we were not able to climb all the way to the summit due to problems with visibility, we were lucky enough to have reached the St. Gellert Monument. The view from this level is already amazing and I can only imagine the view from the all the way up the hill. For zero Hugarian Forints, you can have a bird’s eye view of the city while mapping out your next destination.

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Before climbing the steep steps to Gellert Hill
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View from the hill

8. Go get yourself some Palinka.

Hungary is of no exception to having local spirits and when in Budapest, you have to sample a drink or two of their Palinka. It’s a fruit brandy with a minimum alcohol content 37.5%. When asked for a recommendation, our friendly waiter suggested Palinka with glee. Together with a side comment that we should consider it a “liquid coat” for such a cold winter day. I had a Raspberry Palinka with 48% alcohol and boy – it kept me warm until the next day. Cheers!

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Cheers to travel tales! And 48% alcohol content!!

9. Bath like a local: The Szechenyi

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Budapest is known as a city of baths for a reason and the experience is all null and void without braving one of the largest public baths in the world. So forget your sense of personal space and keep all your germ phobia at bay – this is something you HAVE to do. The experience was one of a kind and it’s more of a social activity than one related to hygiene. It’s like a pub, only there were no drinks and everyone was already half naked. I absolutely loved it!!!! Put your sexy swim wear on, imbibe the ultimate Hungarian adventure and dive into the Szechenyi experience. Definitely the best way to chill out in Budapest.

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10. Climb the Cupola in St. Stephen’s Basilica.

26In every European city I visit, I always make it a point to see the nearest Basilica or Cathedral. St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika) is the largest church in Hungary and dedicated to their first king. The place was a massive and stunning place of worship. Having missed the summit of Gellert Hill, we couldn’t pass on climbing the Cupola for yet another outstanding view. And indeed that view from the Cupola is something you have to see for yourself.

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Budapest is a city that reminds you why travel is such an interesting part of life. It’s beauty and culture would never be known to us without the pleasure of travel and exploration. So the next time you think of a holiday, consider booking a flight to this charming, romantic city. Take it from this woman who cannot help but long for her next Palinka long after her return flight has landed in London.

Beyond the Ruins: A Roman Travel Discovery

2016-19-11-18-03-15Rome, Italy – I could hear the clacking of my heels against the cobbled streets as we walked along the via supposedly headed towards the Colosseum. At least I think this is where the Canadian stranger with the white tank top pointed to. We were running out of daylight and as we hurled ourselves down the avenue, all of a sudden there it was to my right – the Colosseum in all its grandeur! It came within sight without a warning and it left me with a gaping mouth and a face embezzled with admiration. It was… Marvelous. On one side, the sun was setting on the horizon and its rays dramatically loomed over the famous landmark. Fantastic.

Rome is one of the most famous cities in the world both of today and ancient times. I have heard of this city without conscious efforts of knowing more about it, I have answered it on my short quizzes as a student and in travel magazines, it is described time and time again as a one of Europe’s greatest destinations. It’s Rome.

A trip to the Eternal City is an oath I made to myself so when the opportunity came to go with a friend, I was quick to go on a booking spree online. Going around Europe from London is easy and relatively cheap especially with travel game changers like EasyJet and Airbnb.

We stayed in a newly renovated studio type flat with reasonable space and agreeable interiors. Paolo, our excellent host, met us immediately and welcomed us alongside a jovial orientation about house rules and access to public transport. After handing each of us a map of the city, he bid us farewell and wished us luck in our Roman adventure.

It was a pleasant afternoon and with the Colosseum being of walking distance from us (the real question was which direction), we could not think of a better place to start. If you are expecting Rome to be a city of glamour, then I assure you this is not the case. Heading towards the city centre, I cannot help but notice the dilapidated walls, dark mysterious alleyways and street filth that no one is bothering to conceal. And I liked it – I am a fan of the unpretentious. As we gazed upon the mighty Colosseum I suddenly understood why people traveled to Rome – it’s not because of what the city has to offer in the present, it’s because of what was left behind.

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Dusk came too soon as the season was not really in our favour with its late sunrise and early sunsets. We were tired but not exhausted and even if we were, Erika and I were not the type to just retreat into our flat just because we were losing sunlight. So even though the map indicated that Fontana de Trevi was on the other side of the city, we chose to get lost and locate it by foot. After passing by trinket shops and consuming moundfuls of gelato, guided by our very wrinkled tourist map, we finally arrived at the infamous Fontana de Trevi. And for every night we spent in Rome, we found ourselves dwelling upon its magic – a coin ready at hand for a quick toss. Wishfully thinking that maybe the Roman Gods may smile upon us and grant us a wish.

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Vatican

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Vatican City

Visiting Rome would be a waste without stepping upon the holy land that is Vatican City. In a gentle and inexplicable way, being in Vatican reminds us of  life forces that are more important and far stronger than oneself.

Having done my research on how to see the Pope as closely as possible without being arrested, we managed to secure such great seats at St. Peter’s Square. I find Pope Francis admirable because of his simple ways and his ability to live by example, and this is my one shot at seeing him up close. My heart sang when his Holiness waved at us from a meter away carried by a white open car. No gold capes or drapes, not even the usual Pope headgear. Just pure humility enough to shame the entire of planet Earth.

After the mass, we toured the Vatican Museums and climbed St. Peter’s Basilica. I have to admit I have never prayed so much in a four day period. But in all honesty, it felt good. It felt right. It was a unique moment of surrender – an unloading of modern life’s burdens that I have never found anywhere else. At the end of the tour we entered a truly marvelous work of art which is the Sistine Chapel. I guarantee you that few things in life will render you speechless like Michelangelo’s obra maestra that is the Sistine’s ceiling.

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Vatican Museum
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Stolen shot from The Sistine

Daytrips

Italy is a country with a long list of  good cities to travel to. And from Rome, you can choose from a number of daytrips to neighbouring scenic cities like Naples, Pompeii, Florence and Pisa. Map at hand and a train schedule we heavily depended on, we boarded for Florence and Pisa and we were not disappointed with our choices. Here’s a tip or three to make this work: Book your tickets in advance and get the fast trains, secondly, grab the earliest trains for a head start and finally book an open return or late ticket back to Rome to make room for delays.

Florence

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Firenze

To say that Florence was a beautiful city is indeed insufficient. It’s picturesque, it’s artistic and home to painfully talented artists on a mission to create something sophisticated out of blank canvasses and sticks. It’s so beautiful you can almost feel emotions bleeding out of the vias and the pontes.

Famous points of interests include Florence Cathedral, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza del Duomo and Fountain of Neptune among others. Firenze is also home to the original statue of David by Michelangelo – a creation that I can only describe as tangible perfection.

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Statue of David

Pisa

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Leaning Tower of Pisa

My friends who have been to Pisa gave me a fair warning that there was not much to see aside from the iconic leaning tower. Honestly, it was not as big as I had in mind and there were more tourists in Pisa than Florence during our trip. It was fun because everyone was doing their best to capture the perfect picture. Backs were being broken and friendships were being questioned. Small as the place may be, Pisa had the perfect vibe for lazy afternoons over coffee and tiramisu. Irresistibly so, we gave in to alfresco dining and capped the evening with cocktails.

An unexpected (mis)adventure!

On our last night in Rome, we took the train back to our flat very much looking forward to a quiet night. Maybe it was the fact that I just came from the Vatican and I chose to believe in the good of other people, or maybe I was tired from all that walking and I just had no guards left to raise, but that night on the metro, two gypsies managed to lift my passport out of my bag.

I realised they took my pouch the moment they did because they artistically squeezed into the Metro with us then simultaneously disembarked just in time for the doors to close. I am from the Philippines – land of pickpockets. I just knew.

With a panic stricken face I stared at Erika with horror – I will be stranded here for a long time unless I solve this crisis.

I will never forget the station’s name – they got off at Barberini. Acting upon instinct I cried and got off the next station on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I did not even realise I was walking out of the station until Erika screamed at me and asked where I was going.

I sat down and breathed – and I remember thinking to myself how much it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t think and I couldn’t for the life of me collect myself no matter how hard I tried. And then a male member of staff passed by and I raised my head as if on cue. I asked for help and they called Barberini Station and gave a description of my pouch.

“Rosa?” He said.

“Uh pink yes!!” I said with all the hope in my heart.

They found it. The gypsies ditched it by the lift because it was basically worthless to them. All my cards were safe and my passport was returned after half an hour of emotional turmoil. Somewhere along the subways of Rome on the night of November 18th 2015 I was hugging a Roman soldier dressed in fatigues because he found my passport after two gypsies stole it from me – his long armalite rifle swaying back and forth as it hung over his shoulder. Needless to say – how’s that for a miracle story?

From the Colossuem to the romantic Piazza Navona, to the Pantheon up to the ruins that were once forums where the wise discussed relevant matters – Rome is truly an unforgettable city. There is a reason why the world still marvels upon those ancient ruins long after they were reduced to pieces. The words we have today are in debt to their Roman origins, deep inside we swoon over their capability to dream big and to challenge what’s possible and we wish we could parallel that. We look back and admire Ancient Rome because we subconsciously feel like idiots compared to them. And so I left Rome with this at heart: aim high and aim for the divine, for in this lifetime you do not need to prove greatness multitude of times – the Romans have assured us that it only needs to be done once if you do it right. And for as long as we are encased in these wasting physical bodies intolerant to time – ambition is our only shot into immortality.

If you do find yourself planning a trip to Rome, do yourself a favour and take my advice. Walk instead of getting on those hop-on hop-off buses. Get lost in the city and imbibe the culture as long as you can. Binge on gelato and feast on authentic pasta dishes. Have a long conversation with an Italian and see how passion is in every fiber of their being from their accent to their gestures. Fear not about being lost – it’s proverbially still the best way to find yourself. And also, keep your bags near – unless you want to have a good cry in the middle of the Roman metro like I did.

 

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