Philippines

9-28 October 2015

Roughly 7 days in Manila. Arrived more than an hour late to my mom’s surprise dinner party in Quezon City. A few hours trying to get a taxi at the airport, settling in at the rented airbnb place in Makati, and a few more hours sitting in traffic to get there was worth it.

1 day in Batangas to see a bee farm. Learned a lot there, and a model for what you can do with just 1 hectare of land.

5 days in Tablas. Trekking up hills to see the farms. Homecooked food and hospitality at a friend’s home. Lengthy tricycle rides and catching fish by hand. I was ready to excuse myself from travelling to Romblon island because of the choppy waters, but the weather made it impossible to travel.

2 days in Davao. More farms. More treks up hill. Fresh, organic fruits.

5 more days in Manila. To shop, to rest, to see the doctors for health checkups, to see more of the family. Fort Bonifacio is not a very convenient place as I thought it would be.

A whirlwind of activities. Never enough time.

Folkestone

29 Aug – 4 Sep 2015

A few days to do nothing, we booked with Mulberry cottages to stay at Albion Villas. We walked almost every day along the sea, ate at the seafood market and almost every good restaurant in the area. Rocksalt, Papa’s fish and chips, Googies, Tipsy Pigeon, The smokehouse, The Ship Inn at Sandgate.

In the late afternoons, we’d sit in front of the window to read and gaze out the window with a book in hand, or a glass of wine, or a takeaway dinner.

Cinque Terre and Tuscany

9-16 May, 2015

9 May. I travelled alone to Manarola, and had the apartment by my lonesome for a night before friends arrived. I had been anxious before the trip, but quickly relaxed into the monotony of the jouney.

La Coste apartmentI checked in to the apartment (Le Coste via booking.com). Secured the place and headed to the cafe opposite the station for a lunch of lasagna al pesto. Service was slow, food was just ok, wine was borderline ok. I walked about the town, bought wine, water, cheese and biscuits and made myself at home. Dinner was stuffed mussels that I had been dreaming about since I first set foot in Manarola years ago – but I was made to sit in a not so good table as I was alone. The mussels were good but not as I remembered, and loud music was blaring from the top of the hills attracting the younger crowds. The years seemed to have changed cinque terre. Manarola

I settled with a glass of wine in the apartment’s terrace and chatted with the husband online as I watched the day trippers leave and the town slowly fall asleep.

10 May. Started the morning off with a long walk to the top of the hills. Had tea and biscuits and cheese and lounged at the terrace people watching. And then it was off to the station to meet my friends. Turns out the steep hills is a bit too much for those with heavy luggage. It was a good thing this apartment in only halfway up the hill.

They settled in and we tried to catch up on stories. I booked us in the restaurant up the hill as they do their laundry all the while downplaying how steep a climb it would be before we reach the restaurant.

We walked to the seaside, taking in the views of the town and the Italian riviera. No loud music blaring tonight, and it was a nice walk down the hill. We headed up hill with plenty of time to spare, and plenty of time to rest between walks.

Trattoria al BillyTrattoria al Billy was well worth the trek. Booking is necessary, and book well in advance if you want to get a seat on the terrace. We had the mixed antipasto di mare – 12 plates of seafood antipasti – and it was wonderful. We had seafood pasta next. And the staff were showing other guests how fresh the fish are by taking the fish to the table. You also have to love seafood to eat here. We went back to the seafront to see Manarola at night. it was a more peaceful walk with less people about. Fireflies have started coming out. I would have loved to take a beer and sit out here and watch it get darker. Manarola

11 May. Tea and biscuits at the apartment. Breakfast at the cafe. Bought our cinque terre pass al treno and off we went to the first town, Riomaggiore. We had fritto misto – fried anchovies and calamari in a paper cone – on the way up. And then took the train again to the farthest town – Monterosso. This is the town to stay in if you wanted a beachfront. Plenty of tourists, but it’s a big place. Plenty of pickpockets here too. It is beautiful, but it’s the town that doesn’t look like the rest of cinque terre. We had lunch a bit farther in – a big pot of risotto di mare.

VernazzaWe went to Vernazza next, the most beautiful of the 5 towns, they say. Nearing the station, a group of youngsters crowded around us as we were near the door, seeming in a hurry to get off. Another man shouted to watch our bags – must have been pickpockets. Vernazza is indeed beautiful, but it’s hard to appreciate when it’s overcrowded. We did not spend a lot of time here. Last of the towns was Corniglia. We were only planning to take a photo at the station as I know it’s a steep climb up. But we found out there was a shuttle that regularly takes people up and down from the station (until 6:30pm I think). So we boarded the shuttle and got off at the sleepy town. We’ve enjoyed our time here, less tourists, quaint shops, and they offer aperitivo (cocktails and light tapas) at the bar opposite the church. Dinner was back at the apartment, with takeaway pizza, fried anchovies, wine and leftover pasta from trattoria al billy. Manarola station12 May. Checked out at 10, had a big breakfast at the cafe opposite the station and took the train to La Spezia at noon. The lift at La Spezia was a funny experience – you had to press the button all the time as the lift goes up/down, else it stops. Train to Pisa, then changed again for Firenze. I could only imagine how tiring it is for my friends who had to drag heavy luggage up and down the stairs, but I know my back would not be able to bear that. Rang the agency where we’re renting the apartment at Florence and took a taxi. Found the apartment (Porta Rossa Halldis suite) and waited for a full 30mins before our agent got there 😦 It is a big and beautiful apartment, but it had a poky, tiny bathroom. And I really hate it when self-catering apartments don’t think about the little things – not enough toiletries nor loo rolls, not providing dishwashing liquids, coffee filters, bin liners. I should also remember to ask about access to wifi routers as it conked out on us and we had no access to the hallway where it was located. Dinner was at Buca Mario after getting turned away at our first choice. There was a line of tourists at the restaurant when we got there just before it opened. It looked a bit touristy, but the bistecca alla fiorentina was why we’re here and it did not disappoint. We ordered the mains straightaway, and it was a huge chunk of steak. We were near the river and Ponte Vecchio. And the grocery was just across the bridge (turn left after crossing the bridge). We shopped for water and breakfast there. 13 May. I booked us on a coach tour of Siena and San Gimignano the night before via Viator. We had a quick breakfast at McDonald’s, shameful I know, but it was the nearest place to the bus stop. Coach wasn’t very full. Tour guide had a sleepy voice, that we practically were half asleep on the way to Siena. The walking tour in Siena was really good. I got to find out more how the locals lived, their history and how the bi-annual Palio features in their daily lives. We had the town’s specialty, Pici pasta, for lunch. And bought home almond cookies from Il Magnifico, touted as the town’s best bakery. San Gimignano was less crowded than I remembered it. And I still have not had enough time to explore it as before. Dinner was back at home for some take away pasta from the grocery and leftover steak. 14 May. Breakfast at the apartment and we’re off to Firenze SM Novella station, about 10 mins walk away. Bought tickets to Pisa S Rossore (NOT Pisa Centrale) and it’s a short walk from there to Torre di Pisa and the duomo. There isn’t any fee to pay if you just walk around the grounds, we opted not to go up the tower as it costs a lot and there is bound to be much waiting time. We’ve taken the obligatory photos and walked towards Pisa Centrale to see a bit more of the town. Lunch was a simple pasta along the way. Pisa towerI was buying tickets from the machine and my travel mates were looking at the train times. Not a very busy station, but I always have my guard up against pickpockets when I’m appearing distracted. One of my friends hurriedly called me over to them and warned me that a man had been eyeing us individually. We headed for a shop at the station as we looked for our platform, and the guy along with another companion was following us. We can’t find our platforms, so we headed for the customer info office and stayed there for a bit. At the platform for Lucca, we found the men who had been following us. We boarded the train and stayed in the car with the most people. One of the men boarded the train and walked up the aisle as if looking for someone and I tried to stare him down so he’s aware we know he’s been following us. He got off and boarded the train again at the last minute with his companion. We ended up heading for Lucca but didn’t leave the station. My friends were already terrified at this point and are only likely to have a miserable time. So we bought our train tickets back to Florence and called it a day. Ponte Vecchio

Carlo arrived from Prague and Racky and I headed out towards the duomo in search of flowers for Gemma’s birthday.

15 May. A slow relaxing day as we try to recover and celebrate Gemma’s birthday. pizza for lunch at the apartment.  And a lovely dinner at Golden View Open Bar Ristorante. We didn’t get to sit by the windows as we only booked the day before and it was a busy night, but we still could see much of the river and the food was good.

We stayed up till late talking and I had to say my goodbyes as I have to sneak out early in the morning to catch my flight.

Florence

16 May. 0500 start for me as I shower and finish packing. Left soon after 6am to walk to the station and catch the Terravision bus to Pisa airport. A more relaxing flight back as I checked in my backpack and did not have to compete for overhead space.

Giethoorn, Overijssel, Netherlands

3-6 April, 2015

Friday. It was our first time to fly from LCY, but in spite of it being only 20mins away, the 3 hour delay (via Cityjet) is not something we’re keen to repeat again.

Arrived at Schiphol eventually, rested for a while, and bought train tickets from the machines as we left the Arrivals area. We got off at Zwolle, bought some food, and took a taxi to Dwarsgracht (Euro95, Steenwijk station would be nearer – but we did not get on the direct train and you had to call a taxi from Steenwijk as there will be none waiting at the station – train times from www.ns.nl).

We reached Dwarsgracht around 9pm, thankful that our friends are already there as it was a bit hard to find. 4 footbridges across the canals and we were at the cottage.

Al wasn’t feeling well since the flight and almost immediately went to bed. The rest of us had light dinner, cleaned up and chatted for a while.

Saturday. In the first morning, I had a chance to finally get a good look where we are. We had a thatched cottage (rented from airbnb) surrounded with canals on both sides. 2 bedrooms in the loft with quite spacious living areas downstairs. Separate toilet and baths. Small, but well-equipped kitchen area (I am glad they provided us with the basics – lots of toilet rolls, towels, kitchen linens, plates, glasses, cutleries, and even coffee, tea and sugar as there was no grocery nearby). We only had the sounds of birds to wake us up in the morning. Tranquil surroundings. And hardly any crime in this area.

Dwarsgracht

We had cakes and coffee at De Otterskooi (no hot food for breakfast), walking distance from the cottage, and rented a boat to get around (Euro15/hour, Euro60 for the whole weekend). It is possible to drive here, but it is more scenic on the canals. It was a small boat, enough for 4, though I’ve seen more people on it. Travels around 5km per hour, very slow, and very quiet. The staff explains the routes (we were given a map) and how to use the boat. We were told the battery lasts 6-7 hours, but we noticed it was slowing down after around 2 hours.

Canals of Giethoorn

We had a very tranquil, but very cold morning exploring the canals, taking the long way around to Giethoorn. We reached Giethoorn, found a place to moor (look for wooden planks with metal rings to tie your boat into, no ‘Prive’ sign, and preferrably with a way to charge your boat). Settled into a cafe to defrost ourselves, and explored Giethoorn on foot (maps available from the tourist info office for a few euros).

Giethoorn

Dinner was back at De Otterskoi after returning the boat for the night and an hour’s rest back at the cottage. We had seafood served with loads and loads of different veggie side dishes – it was amazing – only problem was how to finish it all.

Sunday. Opted for breakfast at the cottage. And headed to the restaurant to get our boat. Tried a different route into Giethoorn and moored in the northern part. The sun was out and so was everyone else. There were traffic in the canals and footbridges and the restaurant were almost full.

Giethoorn

Giethoorn

Returned the boat around 6pm and had dinner again at the restaurant.

Monday. We had prebooked our taxi the night before and promptly left the property before 10am. Boarded the train from Steenwijk to Schiphol. Lunch at the airport, seen our friends off and stored our luggages.

Bought tickets (at the bookstore before the Arrivals 4 exit) and proceeded outside where the bus was waiting to take us to Keukenhof (30mins away). This place would have been amazing if the tulips were all out. But we were there a week too early. I couldn’t work out how to plan when to arrive when plants are involved (like the sakuras in Japan). Anyway, there were plenty of tulips in the indoor pavilions – outside, they were just starting to open but no fields of tulips in sight.

Keukenhof, Lisse

Canterbury and Chilham, Kent

31 January – 2 February, 2015.

Hired a car. fumbled with the all-electronic controls and no touch GPS screen. Europcar’s free upgrade is not so free at all!

Early Saturday morning drive to Canterbury. I am still amazed with old churches. Lunch at the Old Weaver’s Restaurant and was toasty near the electric fireplace. This place would probably come alive in summer with all the river punters.

Easily found the cottage in Chilham. And was in time for snow shower as we moved our stuff from the car. Such a picture perfect village!

Dinner at the nearby pub, White Horse Inn. Quite busy on a saturday night. Tried to wait for the music to start, but were already exhausted. We had a bit of fun starting the fire back at the house.It was a freezing night and the small logs supplied were only enough to make a relatively small fire, not really as toasty as we’d like. Slept in front of the fireplace. We are now convinced we need at least a stove if not an open fireplace in our home.

Next day, tried the tea rooms walked around the village and ogled at the beautiful old homes, drove to Ashford in search of a cash machine. Drove back to Chilham in search of better firewood, but found the shop closed. Dinner at the Woolpack Inn with it’s larger inglenook fireplace. It was a peaceful walk back to the cottage.

Another chilly night to spend in front of the fire. Bliss, if only for a short while.

Orion's cottage

Cyprus

21-27 December, 2014

Noon easyjet flight from Gatwick to Larnaca. 4.5H in air. slightly delayed. arrived before 8pm at Larnaka. Dinner was sausage pasties and iced tea at the airport while waiting for the Kapnos shuttle to get us to Nicosia. Shuttle was packed. a trio of teens conversed too loudly and took selfies with not a care in the world, they soon attracted the ire of the local passengers. Someone shouted at them, in greek, but they had no clue people were trying to tell them off. Kapnos shuttle doesn’t go as far as far as the old town. So we took a taxi (there are people willing to share), which took around 15mins plus 5 mins walk to the hotel because the traffic was bad.

Settled in at Centrum Hotel. (reminder to self: we need to relearn to make a habit of checking the hotel room first). The old town is buzzing as it’s a Saturday night. It feels like a university town, the bars filled with young people out for coffee or a beer. Nicosia is so close to the Turkish borders, but people don’t shun alcohol here. We settled with a glass of wine and a beer in a bar with their seats and tables strewn in the streets, the bar itself was trying to find space inside the building that looks more of a ruin – i find places like these really charming. It was still a bit warm, I was comfortable seated near a heater with a light jacket on. Groups hang out with their coffee and shared beers, quietly conversing. We were easily the oldest people here, and I was wondering where the older people are in this time of the night.

Monday. We walked from our end of Ledras street to the Turkish border. We had lunch at Pieto cafe, another example of the atmospheric bars and cafes around the town, the cafe is in a narrow alleyway between buildings, strewn with old tables and chairs. Their version of mulled wine is a bit too strong for me so early in the day, but would have been really welcome on a chilly night.

Pieto cafe, Nicosia
Pieto cafe, Nicosia

At the border, you can fill out a form or get a stamp on the passport. No fees. Though I think this place can get quite busy in the high seasons.

We made our way to Büyük Han, the rooms of the old inn were either empty or filled with wares for sale. There is a cafe tucked in the corner. Children with their playful shouts and bird whistles fill the air, which made me think at first if we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a school or a slum. Upstairs, a loom was being built. Blankets hanging out to dry. Vintage shelves and knick knacks gather dust in the hallways, and I am amazed the kids running around have not knocked them down yet. It still feels like a ruin, not completely revived and the locals still quite unsure if they could use it as they see fit.

Büyük Han, North Nicosia
Büyük Han, North Nicosia

We’ve roamed the streets, making our way to Selimiye Mosque and the Bandabuliya (Old Market).

around Selimiye Mosque, North Nicosia
Selimiye Mosque, North Nicosia

Tuesday. Time to pack and make our way to Lernaca. I had forgotten about the bad traffic in the city, and we failed to catch our shuttle back to Larnaka airport in time after taking a leisurely lunch. The shuttle do not run regularly, we were supposed to catch the 12:30 shuttle, but waited out for the 14:15 one.

We were back at Larnaka airport to pick up our hired car. I booked with Europcar in advance, they did not try to sell us any additional insurances, but service was quite slow. We had a light green Nissan Tiida, a slightly bigger car than I expected, but was glad it handles roughly the same as the cars I am used to.

I drove us to our hotel in Larnaka, thankful for the low season, the not so busy streets and the relatively short distance from the airport. it has been a while since I last drove. Hotel Opera is quite a lovely place, immaculate and simply decorated. We had a balcony, with only a view into the side streets below – I did ask for a quiet room and the street fronting the church can get busy. No breakfast, but they had cakes and coffee and tea out all day which more than makes up for the lack of meal options. Free guarded parking right beside the hotel. A few minutes walk to the seaside and the array of restaurants there.

We’ve walked along the seaside, looking for dinner and somewhere to book for Christmas lunch and dinner (just to make sure we’re not going hungry on christmas day). Popular Militzi’s is busy for lunch so we booked for christmas dinner there.

Larnaka seaside
Larnaka seaside

We found today’s dinner at a quiet and ancient-looking bar fronting the seaside. The place is old, cobwebs in the windows, old gas lamps on the walls. I don’t think the decor was done on purpose, it just looked like it hasn’t changed for decades. The owner, well ahead in his years, hobbled to us and said hello. he made his way to straight for the door and closed it (felt a bit like the start of a horror story as we sat and watched him in silence). But he sat down and starts to make conversation, he was only trying to keep out the cold. A friend of his arrived soon after and he started telling him we were pinoys and our conversations centred on that. the few filipinos they knew were domestic helpers, struggling to make a living in cyprus, and he promptly rang his filipino friend and we spoke with her briefly. they were still amazed to meet filipinos who travel and not eking out a living trying to feed their families back home.

Wednesday. We’ve made a breakfast of the cakes and coffee at the hotel and set off for the village of Lefkara at the base of Troödos Mountains.

IMG_0216
Lefkara

Lefkara is a picturesque village – mostly cobbled streets, houses made of stones, a number of crumbling, abandoned houses. It is quiet at this time of the year when there are hardly any tourists about. We’ve passed by the village hotel and found it closed for the season. Found the sign to the Timios Stavros Church and made our way there, inching my way in the impossibly narrow streets, and parked there.

Lunch was at the first open restaurant we found, the Adamos Tavern – empty of customers, but filled with curiosities. Vines stuffed with rice and meat, homemade meatballs, iced tea and local wine. It was a satisfying meal, though I’d rather have a share of the wine too if i weren’t driving. Al was observing the husband and wife owners – the husband lounging around whilst the wife busies herself with seemingly countless things to do around the restaurant.

We asked the tavern owners which lace shops are open and we were pointed to Rouvis and told to go straight there and not to enter any other lace shops. Lefkara is known for it’s lace and silver. Legend has it that Da Vinci visited and purchased lace for Milan’s Duomo. This is where the venetians learned lace making from before they set up shop in Burano. I had resolved to buy lace here after admiring the little I’ve seen in Venice and the simple curtains around Germany and elsewhere.

We saw a woman tatting lace in the sun and she had managed to make small talk and convince us to go into her shop. It was hard to refuse, despite the early warning from the tavern. I did like her work, and purchased a cotton runner and found out more about the dying art of lace making and the state of the village.

At Rouvis, I did not look too much at the silver, as I had no plans of buying. So we went to look at the lace. Mrs. Rouvis herself had shown us how the work was done and gave us pointers on spotting machine-made and hand-made lace. I am astounded at the quality of their work. They have very intricate designs based on Da Vinci’s river patterns. I had only planned on getting linen napkins of varying designs as they were expensive. They were truly a work of art and ones that I hope will last for more than a generation. Mr. Rouvis soon joined in, and we were shown more and more beautiful pieces and the history behind them. We had a rare white linen placemats and a runner made by Mrs Rouvis’ mother who passed away a decade ago. We were also shown a very complicated design made by probably, the town’s most skilled lace maker, her works were intended to be framed. We were shown how the designs were made, the various patterns woven into various combinations.

Lefkara lace
Lefkara lace from Rouvis

Christmas day. Most of the restaurants along Larnaka’s seaside are open. So we’re staying in town for the day. Lunch was moussaka and meatballs at the cafe beside Militzi’s watching the comings and goings of families out for their christmas lunch. We’ve strolled the seaside and mostly spent a very lazy day.

Christmas day, Finikoudes beach, Larnaka
Larnaka seaside

Dinner was at the popular Militzi’s. I had pork roasted on a spit. The serving was huge. And with a greek salad and the accompanying huge potatoes, i can only manage to finish half of it. It was good though, but I think their food is meant to be shared. Or taken home to feed a family. I would be thoroughly happy if I had a quarter of the serving and steamed rice and vinegar. Service, as with anywhere in Larnaca, is bad, so don’t expect much.

Friday. Larnaka is still a pretty much small town. Most of the restaurants and shops here are family-owned. But you can still avail of Movenpick, KFC, McDonalds and TGI Fridays if you are so inclined. The beach is not exactly pretty. Today we’re drive off to Ayia Napa.

Ayia Napa, is a resort town, more resembling Ibiza in the heights of summer as it is favoured by young people out to party. Big 5 star hotels line the beach, but there is no one stirring inside. We stopped at Makronissos beach to see the ancient tombs. A few locals are out for a picnic in the beach. The tombs, roughly fenced off, resembles a construction site more than a tourist spot. But the beach here are more beautiful, fine white sands, deep blue waters, limestone cliffs.

We headed off to Nissi beach to find any place open. The taverna in front of the Nissi beach resort was open, all other shops closed. Food is twice more expensive here. Nissi beach is beautiful, a few more people here as the hotel looks partly open.

Nissi Beach, Ayia Napa
Nissi Beach, Ayia Napa

After lunch, we headed off to Agioi Anargyroi, a small church on top of a cliff. Steps from there lead down to a rocky shore. This is not a place to swim, but it’s worth your while standing near the bottom, close enough not to get too wet nor get dragged into sea by the waves – and hear the sea roar.

Agioi Anargyroi, Ayia Napa
Agioi Anargyroi

Dinner was back at Larnaca at To Sieradiko towards the seaside. We had a meze and probably the only time in Cyprus that I had thoroughly enjoyed my meal. The restaurant was lovely, reusing a lot of gas lamps fitted with filament bulbs. lots of curiosities dotted around and a real fire, where we would be content eating by the hearth, if only they’d allow.

Saturday. Not much left to do, and we practically still have a full day. We checked out at noon and had a leisurely lunch. We drove to the Salt lakes to see the flamingoes. There isn’t a lot of them today and they were too far off from the shore. So we sat around for a bit, wondering how we can entice them with biscuits if we can manage to throw them far enough.

We drive off to see the Hala Sultan Tekke, a beautiful mosque on the west bank of the lake.

We’ve run out of places to see now so headed off to the airport to return the car and catch the flight back home. The airport was quiet, though our flight was still full. We had several delays and only reached Stratford at 3am.