My London Loves

A sunny Summer’s Saturday in London is precious purchase when you live on a landmass oft-swept in mad maritime climate. Here’s a visual representation of one of my favourite Saturdays, from when I lived in London aeons ago:

1) There’s nothing that quite comes close to spending a couple of leisurely hours of brunch with one of my closest friends – someone whose creative spirit and sense of joie de vivre always seems to stimulate me. I strongly recommend the Huevos Rancheros at Giraffe, with fried egg, chorizo, black beans, avocado and jack cheese to line your stomach for the rest of the day.

DaysOutJune2012 001
Huevos Rancheros for Brunch at Giraffe restaurant on South Bank, Waterloo

2) A stroll along Southbank especially when its sunny, is always a lovely treat. We had to stop by the second-hand bookstalls in front of the National Theatre, of course and spotted prints of old maps and some lovely old editions of books.

DaysOutJune2012 002

3) One of the things I love so much about Southbank is that it is full of surprises. We were treated to a display of the Red Arrows spurting Britain’s glorious colours.

DaysOutJune2012 005

4) The sun was feeling a bit shy that morning, so occasionally the grey vista of London’s skyline exposed itself to us. We walked to Temple station where I bade my friend farewell and decided to go exploring on my own. I wasn’t far from the Templar church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code so went in search of it. I came across the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.

DaysOutJune2012 008.jpg

5) And found myself on Fleet Street, which was the established collective name for British broadsheets for about four hundred years until the 1980s when their headquarters began to shift to cheaper locations around London.

 

6) While taking photographs I spotted the easy-to-miss alleyway entrance to the Templar church’s courtyard

DaysOutJune2012 012

7) Unfortunately it was closed for a private event. I’ll definitely come back again though.

 

8) I then caught a bus back past the Strand to Trafalgar square and the National gallery

DaysOutJune2012 027
Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.

DaysOutJune2012 032
‘Powerless structures, Fig 101’ by Elmgreen and Dragset

10) I remember the first time I walked into this particular room in the gallery and saw my first living, breathing Van Gogh painting. It was sunflowers.  Over time though, I grew to fall in love with these two little fellas below:

Two crabs VVgogh
Two Crabs by Vincent Van Gogh

11) And my first Monet – the Waterlilies. I couldn’t believe that I could walk into this gallery any day for free and sit in front of the actual paintings of Great Masters, meditating on how close I was to them, although separated from them in life by centuries.

12) I strongly recommend taking the free tours offered at museums.  I decided to go on the 2.30pm one where you are taken around the gallery for an hour, learning about 4-5 key paintings in the collection. Here’s a little about the National gallery –

  • Built in 1838
  • Contains only Western European paintings from the mid-13th to early 20th century – all modern paintings (ie 20th century onwards) are housed at the Tate.
  • has a collection of about 2300 paintings on display at one time.
  • Sainsbury wing (newest wing) opened in 1991 to house the early Renaissance collection

Here are a few tid-bits from the tour for your reading pleasure:

Why was Caravaggio considered so avant-garde for his time?

We looked at the example of The Supper at Emmaus, painted in 1601. Unlike paintings at the time, Caravaggio put the two disciples in this painting in tattered rags, dressing them like peasants instead of in regal robes. Jesus himself was portrayed without a beard, appearing almost effeminate. The open arms showing broad gestures and emotion were too controversial for Caravaggio’s critics and gained their dislike. But, the most surprising element of all was the artist’s ability to structure the perspective of the painting so that the viewer felt like a participant in the painting.

What’s Michaelangelo’s style doing in every other Italian painting?

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was drawn from original designs by Michaelangelo. Art historians know this only after discovering the drawings in archives. This is how they came to realise that, at a time when Michaelangelo and Raphael were the most sought after artists in Rome, Michaelangelo was probably producing drawings for a number of great artist’s works, without getting the credit for it. There are certain giveaways, like the muscular nature of the figures and the sometimes odd perspectives of the figures and how they are laid out in the picture. For example, Lazarus in this picture, if he stood up, would be abnormally taller than anyone else in the picture because of the extended length of his legs and torso.

How did the French painter Claude (Gellee, not Monet) make it big in Rome?

Claude came to Rome, like so many other artists, to make his name. But, he first began as a chef to earn a living while he built up his career. Over time, he became known for his landscapes and seascapes. At the time, pictures of landscapes and seascapes weren’t valued above historical pictures, which required a certain amount of learning and education plus understanding of the world from the artist. It was believed that any fool could paint a landscape. Claude couldn’t paint figures well, but he kept on doing them so that he could convert his land/sea scapes into historical paintings by including figures from biblical stories and myths in them. His paintings became so prized in their time that fakes were reproduced at an incredible rate. Claude began keeping a diary of his drawings so that, if asked, he could confirm whether he had actually painted something or not. Turner and Gainsborough learned about elements of light in painting from studying Claude’s paintings.

Why does England have so many Canalettos in the country?

There were so many brilliant artists in Venice at the time that Canaletto decided to specialise in order to make a living out of his art. He painted scenes of festivals and big events in Venice to sell to a particular audience: young, English gentlemen who were completing their Grand Tour in Venice, to round up their university education.

So, there you have it, a few of the things that makes one of my favourite London weekends.

June 2012

Advertisements

Eating out in #Seminyak #Bali

Eating out in Bali was such a pleasure.  I’ve said before in an earlier post that Bali was one of my favourite travel destinations and the food there helped make that happen.  Either we were very lucky or it actually is very difficult to find bad food in Bali.  We stayed in Seminyak so the first part of this post is going to be about the restaurants, cafes and eateries I visited in and around our hotel.  First off, if you’re on a budget, you’ll love this.  A #warung is a small family-owned business like a cafe or a small shop that serves stuff including food.  Sometimes these look really spare, with a few dishes on display and some formica benches and tables inside a poky hole.  Don’t be afraid to eat here – the food is good, local and cheap.  Just observe and go to the ones you see locals frequenting, or ask your hotel for the popular ones in the area.  Language might be a barrier, but that’s why the food is on display – just point to the dishes that appeal.

Some warungs are better established and have turned themselves into larger restaurants.  The most popular one in Seminyak is ‘Warung Ocha’ and we kept going back to try different things because the food was so tasty (and yes, cheap).  They also had the most incredible smoothies – aromatic and flavourful.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 452
Front entrance of Warung Ocha
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 810
Noodle dish with egg, chicken and fresh veggies plus a green tea, mint and coriander smoothie

‘The Dusty Cafe’ is a lovely continental cafe if you’re a lover of all things cold coffee or frappe-related, as I am.  The music is chilled out and lounge-y, and they make very tasty crepes.  I ordered the ‘Deep Playa’ which had ham, mozzarella and mushroom shallot sauce in a savoury wheat crepe (for about INR 350), and a frappe.  It’s air-conditioned, which is great if you need to escape the afternoon heat and just read or hang out somewhere quiet.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 454
A cold coffee
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 467
The ‘Dusty Playa’ crepe
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 464
The Dusty Cafe interior & decor

Absolutely-without-a-doubt my favourite eatery and chill-out place for breakfast and lunch was ‘The Shelter’ cafe.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 795
Cool interiors of the Shelter cafe on the first floor of a building in a side street

We found it at the tail-end of our holiday but made sure to return anyway.  They kept running out of ingredients, that’s how popular they were.  For breakfast we tried Nalu bowls which were basically homemade granola, yoghurt, juice and fruit combinations of your choice, topped with bananas and served in a large half-coconut shell with a spoon.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 797
Shelter cafe Breakfast: sourdough bread, two eggs, spinach, bacon, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns and avocado with toast
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 801
Nalu bowls with coconut flakes and granola

The smoothies were out of this world.  I tried a Green monster: spinach, cucumber, green apple, coriander, parsley, ginger, lemon, which was a great boost of superfoods to my system. The Shelter Booster was also amazing: papaya, banana, almond butter, coconut oil, flax seeds, honey, soy milk,  cinnamon, honey and ice. Great filler for breakfast!

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 814
Shelter booster smoothie

This sandwich is called the ‘Noah’s ark’ and has roast chicken,bacon, lettuce, danish ham, cheese, aioli and some sort of chutney on freshly made sourdough bread (about INR 315 and worth every paise).

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 816

The lighting at Bo & Bun was all low lights and candlelight, with tables pouring onto the street.  The restaurant was stylish, modern interiors and a little more up-market than some of the other restaurants around. It’s more of a meat-lovers place with lip-smacking pork ribs on offer.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 824

Pork ribs with messy, tangy, sticky BBQ sauce and chips.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 465

This was the tasting platter of Vietnamese spring rolls and other bite-sized items we had as a started.  It was tasty but m-eh.  Yes, our expectations were quite high of Bali restaurants in Seminyak by the time we found this place.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 461

Ok, I did have a sushi craving that needed to be sated.  It happens sometimes and lucky for me,  Sushimi Japanese restaurant, the sushi place on our street, had some tempting weekly offers.  I splurged here.  What can I say, except #sushirocks !

 

‘Fat Gajah’ is a noodle and dumplings restaurant in Seminyak with a low key atmosphere that just about crosses the line into fine dining.  We ordered the Curried Beef noodles which consisted of beef tenderloin, beef floss, crisp beef jerky, bok choy and shiitake mushroom.  We also ordered a filet of something called ‘butter fish’ which had a refined flavour and texture I’d never encountered before.  It was off the specials board, so you may not find it on the menu.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 825
Curried beef noodles
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 829
Filet of Butter fish

Eating experiences:

Lunch at the Tea gardens in Tegalalang.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 574

A gorgeous all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and traditional dance at a hotel one evening

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 499

People go on and on about eating ‘Babi Guling’ or roast suckling pig so we went to a lovely, restful restaurant with a maze of greenery and tables dotted here and there, surrounded in water features that tinkled brightly in the background.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 839

Seemed like a popular tourist stop but we spotted a few locals here too.   In fact, they were visiting with large families so we were hopeful about the food.  The restaurant was called the ‘Dirty Duck Diner’ or ‘Bebek Bengil.’ I passed on the suckling pig and chose a crispy duck creation instead, which turned out to be the house specialty. It was good.  Ask your hotel or local taxi driver for names of the best restaurant that offers the best roasts in your area.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 959
Crispy duck at the Dirty Duck Diner in Ubud

There are plenty of shack-like places lining the beaches where you can get a local beer and just chill for ages without worrying about someone asking you to leave.  But, I’d recommend trying a shack where you’ll get a wide variety of gorgeous flavours and combinations of fruit and aromatic smoothies, blended with ginger, herbs, lime and fruit.

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 419
Enter a caption

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 964

Pics from Phone 2014-2015 672
The coffee plantation we visited presented us with different samples of coffee and tea including vanilla tea which was surprisingly soothing

 

On Ubud high street, we came across a relaxing, open restaurant where we drank our body weight in coconut water to avoid dehydration and ate some spare ribs with rice to fill up our tummies.  Great selection of drinks and if you are lucky enough to get one of the tables overlooking the street, its great for people-watching.

 

Visited in March 2015

Plum and poppy seed #Strudel in #Innsbruck

My brother and I drove from deep southern Bavaria to Innsbruck for a day out and to have a spot of lunch with a friend, at the popular ski resort of Innsbruck in #Austria.  It was late summer, so we also got to enjoy the city’s other attractions on offer.

July2011inGermany etc 194
The city of Innsbruck behind me in the valley below, and the Alps in the background

I was surprised at just how much character this picturesque capital of Tyrol had, nestled deep in an Alpen valley.  My favourite attraction was the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), in the old town.  The photo below doesn’t quite do it justice.  It has over 2000 gilded copper tiles and was built in 1500 to commemorate Emperor Maxmilian the First’s, marriage to Bianca Sforza (Italian noblewoman and daughter of the Duke of Milan).  There are wall murals and impressive reliefs line the bottom edges.  It’s pretty extraordinary and each tile glowed radiantly as a sunbeam caught it, shining out from behind a cloud. We walked around the Old town and got soaked in its medieval charm.

July2011inGermany etc 162
Posing in front of The Golden Roof

I loved visiting the Jesuit church, which was built in the mid 1600s and is decorated with paintings and memorials dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.  It’s also a part of the working University for Jesuit teaching.  I remember my uncle, who is a Jesuit himself, telling me about his visit to Innsbruck over fifty years ago when he was there as a student.  It felt a little uncanny walking around the church, knowing that my uncle had once spent a brief time living there himself.  If you find yourself at this church, there’s a chapel inside dedicated to the ‘Lightbringer of the Far East’ or St. Francis Xavier, a well-known name in Goa.

July2011inGermany etc 181
St. Francis Xavier’s memorial chapel altar

We took the funicular or ‘Hungerburgbahn’ to visit the Bergiselschanze ski jumping facility, which goes upto 860metres above ground, rising above the valley and providing stunning views across Innsbruck city against the background of the surrounding Alps.  There’s a beer garden on the top, where you can relax with a Weissbeer (white beer) and take in the views in a relaxed atmosphere.  Just don’t attempt this if you’ve got vertigo! An additional reason to go up is to see late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s fabulous UFO-like station halfway up the mountain.  It’s typical of her well-executed style entered around organic curves.

July2011inGermany etc 210
Station stop by Zaha Hadid, on the ski jump station

We couldn’t walk past ‘Cafe Kroll’ without grabbing a strudel (okay, two) and it is honestly the best strudel I’ve had to date.  I ordered the ‘Plaume und Mohn’ which is German for Plum and Poppyseed.  We also split a rather staid and traditional Apple strudel with coffee.  Heaven!

July2011inGermany etc 222
Apple strudel with a dollop of cream at Cafe Kroll
July2011inGermany etc 221
Plum and poppy seed strudel at Cafe Kroll

#innsbruck #austria #cafekroll #zahahadid #apfelstrudel

Visited in 2011

Falling in love with #Florence

Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 254
Amber Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo with traditional biscotti, at Il Latini restaurant

After Venice, Florence is one of the top five cities that I absolutely love, love, love. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the city that I love. The gentle light that spreads over the city bathing it in a soft yellow glow every morning and at the Golden Hour in the evenings? The first view of the stunning Duomo as you stroll round the street corner and see it for the first time? The sweet stickiness of a cornetto filled with jam that wedges itself into every molar in your mouth?

Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 314
Golden Hour at Firenze’s Il Duomo

It helps that before setting off for a long weekend (3 nights) there with my brother, I went online to check out what we absolutely had to see and do. A friend of a friend happened to be renting out the decrepit one bedroom flat she’d inherited from her grandmother, located in the heart of Florence, complete with framed vintage pictures of horse-riders and their racing horses. The rent was just right and besides the double bed, we were told there was an extendable sofa-bed. Their neighbour, who didn’t speak a word of English, gave us the key and pointed to the bed in the bedroom, the coffee in the kitchen and the switch for what I presumed was the hot water in the oddly shaped bathroom, and then left. The bathroom was narrow and had the odd shape of a coffin – wide at one end and tapering into a narrow end at the other. It was papered with dull 70s design wall paper from floor to ceiling. The bathtub was clean enough and as long as there was hot water coming out of the small hand-held shower head attached to the tap, I didn’t care. We were in Florence.  I didn’t plan on staying in much.

We woke up early our first morning and wandered out in search of a café for breakfast. A rather dark, poky, empty one hidden in the recesses of an alleyway caught our attention. Caffeine and one ham croissant later, we walked down a street that turned straight into the imposing, stunning façade of the Duomo, the most popular sight to see in the city that’s world famous for its architecture and art.

Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 297
First view of the Duomo complex

The 13th century Gothic style church with Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome has become the most iconic structure in Florence immediately associated with this great, vast city nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I have to admit, that a first sight of the church façade integrating white, pink and green marble together, is pretty jaw-dropping. The interior is imposing and beautiful, though stark by comparison. Vasari’s famous frescoes of The Last Judgement are a 16th century addition that definitely liven up the interior.

The Il Duomo di Firenze complex consists of the Baptistry and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), along with the church. If we’d had more time in the city, we might have joined the long lines to get to the top of the campanile. But we didn’t, so we didn’t. As it is, we had to stand for about twenty minutes in line, early in the morning, to get into the church!  I can only imagine how long the lines got later on as more tourists strolled in from their late breakfasts.

Don’t miss seeing the East doors of the Baptistry. The panels are in gold and represent the Gates of Paradise. This is one of my favourite things to see in the city.  The scenes come alive in exquisite detail, with faces coming out of the panels in vivid scenes embossed on stretches of gold. You won’t be the only one queuing up for a selfie with the door.

My brother had downloaded a DK Eyewitness app on his phone, that indicated all the eateries in whichever area we were walking in, as well as their reviews and starred-rating. That’s how we came across the arched doorway of ‘Il Latini’ one evening for dinner. Sure, it was supposed to be a popular tourist haunt, but one that everyone assured we would love. It had lots of rooms inside and we were led to an available two-person table.

We ordered a la carte and in all, must have been there for 3 hours eating primi piatti, secondi piatti, dessert and the staff gave everyone a dessert wine and a plate of biscotti for free. We had no idea about the portion size when we ordered and asked for whatever was most popular. We ended up labouring through getting hunk after hunk of meat brought to us on a platter. True, it was succulent and tasty, but our bodies would take months to digest all of it! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.  But, vegetarians, be advised.  This is NOT the place for you. This isn’t the place for a quick meal either. We thought we’d be done in an hour and a half tops. Nope! If you visit here, be prepared to slow yourself down to Tuscan time. It’s got a great communal atmosphere. You’ll find yourself chatting with others under the dried hams hanging from the ceiling, and laughing at the waiters who seem determined to make you eat as much as you can manage. Chalk it down to them wanting you to have the true experience of eating at a Tuscan family table, and you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy yourself at ‘Il Latini.’

The next morning, we decided to head to the world class, world famous Uffizi museum.  It’s where Western classical artists go to have a religious experience.  To get tickets at the Uffizi, without waiting in line for close to an hour, pre-book them online and join the much shorter queue which should take you inside within ten minutes. Yes, there is a LOT to see and I was struck by the rather modern 15th century renderings of some of the lesser known Italian artists using vivid colours in the style of Titian but combining them with modernist designs – favouring fine geometric design though picking romantic style subjects and scenes.

I didn’t know that Botticelli’s iconic ‘The Birth of Venus’ was in the Uffizi and was thrilled to see it centered in one of the museum’s vast rooms. This museum, of course, is THE place for fans of all the great Italian renaissance artists from Bellini and Piero della Francesco to Titian and Mantegna. I quite enjoyed Caravaggio’s Medusa which isn’t easy to spot, as it’s placed in a small room on your way out.   After a couple of hours (hardcore fans will need a full day at least) of walking through corridor after corridor of greats (including Leonardo da Vinci, by the way) we got out, had a quick lunch and then kept on sight-seeing.

birthofvenus
Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’

Which brings me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. There are lots of churches you could visit in the city, but there’s only one that contains the grandest tombs of the infamous Medici family in the apse of the chapel – multi-coloured marbles and imposing grandiosity in one of the best ever examples of Pietra Dura style.

medicitombs
Medici tombs – Pietra Dura style in San Lorenzo’s chapel

Then, there’s the Laurentian library designed by Michelangelo, in the church cloister. The library is an interesting study in the Mannerist architectural style that was popular in Italy at one time, both in its painting and its famous buildings. The red and white terracotta floor of the Reading room is supposed to demonstrate the principles of geometry. The library was built to house the Medici’s private collection of manuscripts and printed books, collected over centuries and was supposed to establish them as an academically-inclined, scholarly and educated family to extend their status beyond the power-hungry image they were known for.

laurentianLibrary
Laurentian Library – San Lorenzo church

If, after wandering around the city, you feel the need for a bit of space and greenery, stroll through the romantic Boboli gardens, which is littered with sculptures, walkways, grottoes and has a wide, landscaped terrace with a fantastic view over the city that’s great for scenic photographs.

Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 310
Panoramic views of Florence from Boboli gardens

The Ponte Vecchio is an arch bridge over the River Arno, known for having shops built along it in typical pre-medieval city style. If it wasn’t for the 1666 great fire of London, there might still be shops lining London bridge as well. We tried to find out how to gain access to the Vasari corridor, which is an aerial walkway built by the famous architect Vasari for the powerful Medici family so that they could walk safely from their Palazzo Pitti to their Palazzo Vecchio without the threat of assassination in the open street. It’s only open at certain times and through timed guided group tours, I read online at the time. Thanks to limited time, we gave up on that, but got to walk directly under it instead.

Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 234
On the Ponte Vecchio

Not far from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the city’s historical centre, is the Galileo Museum. I have to admit that I’m a fan of this guy ever since I learned that he was asked by the Inquisition to recant his scientific claim based on observation and evidence, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of adhering to the religious view that the earth was the centre of the universe. He stuck to his view, inspite of being threatened, and was under house arrest until his death. The museum has Galileo’s main telescopes on display and a variety of other instruments both used by him and from the Medici’s vast collection of astronomic instruments. There’s also a great display of the prevailing theories and how the instruments work.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the Piazza della Signoria is probably the best square I’ve seen in all the cities I’ve been to. It’s an L-shaped ‘square’ (?!) in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the political hub of Florence. Among the most famous statues there are ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello and ‘David’ (a copy, but…still) by Michaelangelo. There’s a gorgeous fountain of Neptune…. Then there’s the rather odd Loggia dei Lanzi, that seems rather out of place with the rest of the area but makes for a very interesting little corner of the Piazza with Cellini’s ‘Perseus holding up the head of Medusa’ and ‘The Rape of the Women of Sabine’ by some guy called Giambologna. It’s like a parade of the grotesque on display in the tucked-away corner of a prominent place.

sept-2010-papa-visit-incl-xmas-2010-and-florence-2011-172.jpg
The Rape of the Sabine Women – Loggia di Lanzi
Sept 2010 Papa visit incl Xmas 2010 and Florence 2011 176
Perseus holding up the head of Medusa

What I love so much about this Piazza is probably the great location for people-watching and the fact that it connects so many significant structures together in one place. The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the town hall, the Uffizi and the Loggia. Then, there’s the fountain of Neptune in the centre of the L-shape. It’s not a massive fountain, like Rome’s impressive Trevi, which almost, sort of, arches across the street corner where its wedged in. But, I do love the theme of the Roman god Neptune and his nymphs coming out of the water and looking down and over the people in the street as they walk past. It’s just cool.

Now, let’s be honest. We’re in Florence, in Italy. So the chance of coming across bad gelato isn’t that high anyway. However, there are some gelaterias that are better known than others and the locals swarm there, swearing by the creamy texture of the ice-cream. The Vivoli gelateria in Santa Croce, is just one such place on a not-so-easy-to-find side street. It is narrow inside and a popular tourist and back-packer hang-out, with ice-cream lickers pouring out onto the sidewalks and just lounging in the side street happily licking away at one flavourful scoop before ordering seconds. Personally, I think locals choose their favourites based on their favourite flavours, which are exotic and even extreme, like the Cheesecake flavor or the radical stinky Gorgonzola (yes, you read it right!) flavor. And no, I didn’t try either!

vivoli-long
Tempting choices at Vivoli’s ice cream bar.

All I can say is, extreme gelato aside, I cannot wait to get back to that city for a longer visit someday!

Note: These are just a few of the highlights from my trip in 2011.

My (long-ish) list of what to see/do in #Singapore

For decades, I’d never been able to muster up any excitement to travel to #SouthEastAsia.  When the option to visit a cousin who’d moved to Singapore came up, and I asked a few people about it, the overall consensus seemed to be, ‘It’s known for its Financial district and it’s too sterile and boring.  You’ll think so too.’  I went anyway and maybe it was the lower expectation I had, but my first time there was a blast!  I’ve been to Singapore three times in all since then, and each time has been more wonderful than the last. Here are some of my best memories and recommendations from each trip:

First trip: 2009

  • We posed for photos by the Merlion with a grand backdrop of the 1928 Neo-classical style Fullerton Hotel in the background.
  • We also had a night-time river ride down Singapore river and back. The financial district was all lit up like London’s Canary Wharf and made for a garish nightscape along the river.  But some might think otherwise and really love it.
  • If you like theme parks, visit Sentosa island. We loved the Aquarium!
Singapore & Goa 09-10 1015
The Aquarium on Sentosa island
  • We had our first experience of Korean BBQ at Red Pig restaurant on Amoy street which, unfortunately, is now closed down. It was so much fun watching the chef grill our meats on the hot grill at our table itself.  Great recommendation, glad you took us there Pinaki B 🙂
Singapore 2009
Korean BBQ at the Red Pig
  • We visited the National Museum, where audio guides were included in the price of our ticket. The museum was deceptively larger than we realized, but also very interesting as it described the development of Singapore from pre-historic origins right through colonial times and into modern Singapore. The displays are vibrant and informative and the audio guide is quite comprehensive about each object it describes.
  • We went to Raffles hotel to sample its famous signature drink, ‘The Singapore Sling’, at The Writer’s Bar and the manager kindly offered to take our photograph. He even directed us to the inner room where framed writings of Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham are hanging on the wall. They were early customers at Raffles when it was just a bungalow with guest rooms started by a couple of Armenian brothers who were hoteliers and businessmen.
  • We sampled some mall food courts, which served cheap but tasty, quality eats from across South East Asia
  • We shopped for souvenirs in China Town and had relaxing cups of chai in Little India, after devouring Fish Head curry, one of Singapore’s signature dishes.
  • Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade is great for night-time walks and the Esplanade had lots of night-time entertainment options in its ticketed arena – it’s a lovely place to catch a show if that’s your thing.

Second trip: 2015

  • Marina Bay Sands hotel and a handful of cafes in their retail space with a skylight lightening things up – that feel of being outdoors even though its grey and overcast outside.
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 1379
Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Science Museum next to it
  • My first sight of Singapore’s latest tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, with the zany, metallic flowers reaching into the sky. Quite stunning! It’s the first view you get if walking from Marina Bay Sands hotel on the walkway towards the flowers and you can get some gorgeous pics of the flowers from the height where you are!  Thanks to Patty B for taking me there 😀
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 1393
Gardens by the Bay
  • The Asian Civilisations museum had some eye-opening displays that I just loved and if I’d had time, I would have visited the Peranakan museum too
  • Changi Prison and museum was three bus rides away from where my cousin lived, but it was a lovely day out for us both as we walked around the small, free museum with displays about the history of what happened in the little village outside the city, and how people coped when the prison was set up by the Japanese to incarcerate WWII Prisoners of War. There isn’t much else around the area, so plan for lunch or a snack in the museum’s restaurant to keep you going.
  • Sri Mariamman temple and the Buddha Tooth Relic temple – I loved them both and took lots of photographs of the stunning visual details and architecture. Both located in Chinatown area.
  • Had amazing seafood at a popular restaurant (the name of which I can’t recall) while in search of chilli crab but had to settle for chilli crayfish instead, which was just as good I think.  Kudos to locals Ronnie and Gloria for knowing we’d have a great time here!
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 1166
Garlic prawns at the seafood restaurant
  • La Pau Sat is one of my favourite spaces in the city, especially when the lunch crowd arrives. Great for people-watching, especially those not glued to their phones. There’s a system of leaving your stuff on the table to ‘book’ seats and going in search of the stall (from over 100) that serves what you want to eat. I couldn’t believe that people were happily leaving their valuables behind to book their seats. When I asked someone about it, they said that no one would dare steal here. Hmmmm. This system wouldn’t work in any place I’ve been to in India.
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 1187
La Pau Sat in the Financial district
  • Had my first Coldstone Creamery icecream ever – knarly concept.  Thanks for the intro, Lisa A!
  • Loved the Singapore Art Museum – they were having an open exhibition of contemporary art by local students and artists and it was pretty interesting innovative stuff including installations and sculpture.

Third trip: 2016

  • Din Tai Fung has the best dim sum and noodle-soups around and because it’s a chain, you can find one across the city, and probably even abroad as its starting to go global. And if you have the chance, book a table at Paradise Dynasty restaurant. Try the soupy dimsum, which is a specialty there. Thanks for taking me ther, Bobby K!
Pics from Phone 2014-2015 1222
Xiao Long Bao (soupy dimsum) from Paradise Dynasty restaurant
  • I went nuts buying poetry books from local poets at Kinokuniya here. The Japanese bookstore is one of the best brands to be exported across Asia. My first Kinokuniya encounter was in Dubai mall and Singapore has a couple of stores in different malls. They’re great for a sheer variety of books but also for local reads. Very pricey though!
London Pips and Singapore 2016 004
Singaporean poets from Kinokuniya bookstore

My next trip?

Next time, I’ll visit some of the independent bookstores, more independent cafes, the Chinese Heritage center, see Little India again, visit the Botanic gardens and the Peranakan museum. I’m not sure what it is about the city, but the cultural heritage is so rich and the city has made great strides in putting it on display so that visitors can learn and enjoy the variety, encouraging open spaces as creative hubs so that contemporary modern mixes well with the old. It’s an interesting city with inarguably lots to see and something for everyone. It’s the kind of place I wouldn’t mind staying for a year. Yup, that should give me enough time to really get into the feel of the place and explore it properly.

Fruity liqueur Jenevers in Rubens’ Antwerp

Antwerp was a city of many firsts for me: my first Rubens, the first time I tried fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, my first Red Light district.

One warm, summer evening, when we were both living in England, my brother asked me if I wanted to tag along with him and two of his university friends, Steven and Hans-Georg, on a road trip from the East Mid-lands region in England to Antwerp, in Belgium, for a couple of nights. I was 21.  I put clean underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, one change of clothes and a hairbrush into a small bag and threw it into the car with the rest of the stuff. We drove across border control onto the ferry at Dover and at some point, many many hours later, were parking in Antwerp. I probably would never have visited the gorgeous city if it wasn’t for local Belgian Steven wanting to see his girlfriend, who worked at the Sofitel hotel in Antwerp.

My memories of my time spent in that city are few, but distinct. I remember being in awe inside the hallowed, deeply Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which has four large Rubens paintings inside it. I only learned much later that Rubens, the famous 17th century Baroque artist, lived in Antwerp and had his home here. Now, if I ever returned, I’d visit his house and amble through his gardens.

antwerp-pics
A triptych of Rubens paintings inside the Cathedral of Our Lady

We didn’t visit any museums or such, being poor university students (I was an undergrad and they were post-grads) we preferred to see what we could for free and save up for a nice meal and drink somewhere before we spent the night somewhere warm and cosy. Steven’s girlfriend was able to get us a couple of rooms for an overnight stay.  I do remember enjoying my first taste of fries parcelled up in a brown paper cone with dollops of mayonnaise on top to dip into.  That was my first experience of a ‘fritkot’ (takeaway fries shop).

Not far from the cathedral was the town hall and an impressive statue of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier who supposedly ripped the hand off of a giant that was tormenting the locals here and threw it at him.

antwerpjenever
Berry, plum, cherry, peach and lemon jenevers

I do remember strolling along some canals and insisting on visiting the red light area after drinking lots of fruity Jenevers and getting quite ‘happy’ on them.

I’d never seen anything like it before. Sandwiched in between the usual dimly lit residential streets was Antwerp’s red light district. Prostitution is legal in Belgium, which means that the woman have access to some protection and can exercise their rights if they dare to. But nothing quite prepared me for the reality of streets lined with box windows, where young girls – some probably still teenagers – were dancing and twirling in said windows and men were cruising down the street in their cars, yowling at the girls. It brought a whole new meaning to the word window-shopping. I had been the one who insisted, so the guys kind of formed a protective cocoon around me as we walked down the street. Almost at the end of the street, when we were in the clear, the guys broke away and walked ahead. Just then, a curvy dark skinned woman reached out for me from a doorway, wrapped her hand around my wrist as I walked past and tried to pull me towards her muttering something with a smile on her face. I pulled away and ran towards the guys. I thought it was ironic that walking down the street I thought I might be accosted by men, but it was a woman reaching out for me that had scared me.

Still, if you do visit Antwerp, the Red Light district is something to behold because of how organized it is. However, don’t be fooled by its glitzy lights in the windows. They’re still covering up the sheen of sixteen year old girls wearing tired old faces.

A Glass of Madeira, my dear

Winston Churchill painted here, Margaret Thatcher honeymooned at the Savoy here but what this little- explored, Portuguese island of volcanic origin is internationally
renowned for is its wine.

churchill_madeira_ok12517184_664x373
Winston Churchill painting in Funchal, Madeira

Welcome to Madeira, with a population of 250,000 and a land area almost double the size of Mumbai. In the winter months, the mild weather of this idyllic island creates the senior citizen’s Shangri-la. It’s the perfect haunt for those in search of a tropical island paradise that isn’t noisy or too hot and still covered in lush green foliage. But there is something here for wine connoisseurs of every age with an interest in the origins of Madeira wine.

madeira-wine
Vintage Madeira wine

IN VINO VERITAS
The unique wine-making techniques that create the flavours of Madeira wine can be traced back to the 16th century but were developed more accidentally than by intention. Back then, early wine traders on the island would head over to India, China and Japan where early European communities and their military were prime customers for their products. The story goes that one shipment passed the equator and was returned to the capital city of Funchal unsold. Thinking the shipment was spoiled, the ship’s captain instructed his crew to throw the entire load overboard but the sailors decided to sample a bottle and found it was still of very good quality and indeed had improved greatly during the voyage. For many years, it was believed that the swaying motion of the ships matured the wine in a unique way. For decades, casks of wine were sent on return sea voyages from Funchal to far-flung countries. These bottles were called Vinhao da roda to indicate wine that had been on a round trip, and were in great demand from the European colonies. Each load of wine was named after the ship it journeyed with. It was only in the 1800s that the secret of Madeira wine was discovered. The changing temperature of a ship’s hold as it moved to and from the equator on its voyages, was reproduced inside a building. Now known as an Estufa, wine is stored within this building and heated in different compartments at varying temperatures within different time periods.

reid-palace-hotel
Book a table for afternoon tea at Reid Palace hotel in Funchal

BONAPARTE’S BARRELS
The ship carrying Napoleon to exile in St Helena docked at Funchal in 1815 and history has it that the British consul on Madeira persuaded the famous prisoner to take on board a pipe (equal to 418 litres) of 1792 vintage Madeira wine. When he arrived at St Helena, Napoleon’s barrels of wine were found to be too young, so remained unopened. They were still unopened at his death and were reclaimed by the British consul in 1822 and sold to the Blandys, who put it into demijohns in 1840. When Sir Winston Churchill visited Madeira in 1950, the story goes that an authentic demijohn of Napoleon’s Madeira was opened for him. Apparently, he was so touched by the gesture that he personally poured a glass for each guest at the table, pointing out that the wine was vintaged when Marie Antoinette was still alive.

DIFFERENT HIGH
The first vines were brought over by Jesuits when the early settlers began to populate the island, and the plants loved the rich volcanic soil. Madeira island has one of the longest grape harvests in Europe because of the different altitudes where the grapes grow. The lower slopes are harvested for sweet grapes from the end of August, then again in October or November, when Muscatel grapes ripen. The upper slopes produce the Sercial vines, which grow up to altitudes of around 700 metres above sea level and are the last grapes to ripen, producing a drier wine. Visitors to Madeira in autumn will see trucks laden with fruit filling the roads on their way to the wine producers. Visit the Wine Festival in Estreito de Camara de Lobos in September to see the foot-pressing techniques used to persuade juice out of the grapes, careful not to crush the pips or stems of the grapes as they add a bitter taste to the juice. The juice is then placed in huge vats, wooden ones for better quality, spirit is added to fortify it and it is gently heated to equatorial temperatures, then cooled in a process that can take months. Madeira wine is the only kind that can be left open to the air resulting in an improvement in its taste. The wine that finally emerges is categorized into one of four types. Malmsey is a dark, brown, sweet wine usually drunk after meals. Boal is lighter and less sweet, more popular as a dessert wine. Verdelho is a medium dry that turns a beautiful golden colour and can be served either as an aperitif or a dessert wine. Sercial is the driest of the four and usually drunk as an aperitif.

funicular
View over Funchal from the funicular

FLAVOURS OF FUNCHAL
Visit the Madeiran Wine Institute, a yellow and red
building designed by British consul Henry Veitch
who gave Napoleon the Madeira wine. It houses a
small wine museum where photographs of wine production
on the island and pieces of old wine-making
equipment are on display. The 45-minute tour at the
Old Blandy Wine Lodge is more informative. It is
housed in the remains of a 16th-century convent
which today forms the headquarters of the Madeira
Wine Company, a merger of the four largest Madeira
wine families on the island: Blandy, Miles, Leacock
and Cossart Gordon. Guided tours start off in the
vintage cellar where barrel upon barrel of fragrant
maturing wine can be found and end in a winetasting.
A great start for any Madeira wine virgin.
Prices stretch from as low as $23 for a three-year-old
bottle of Madeira wine to about $950 for a bottle of 1908 Boal.

GETTING THERE | Fly to Funchal airport from Portugal or
any other major European city
_ STAY AT | Many luxury resorts offer package deals from
$100 a night upwards. If you want to stay in the room George
Bernard Shaw occupied in 1925, ask for number 770 at the
Reid’s Palace luxury hotel. A 7-day package is $320 a night
_ FOOD | Try the swordfish at any restaurant with a good
selection of seafood. Have a coffee at the Golden Gate
Grand Café on Avenida Arriga for a 19th century atmosphere
and watch the world go by from the terrace. For a bit of
celeb-spotting, try afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace or visit their
cocktail bar one evening
_ GIFTS | Madeira is known for its embroidery besides wine
_ WHAT TO SEE | Cabo Girao is one of the highest cliffs in
Europe at 589 metres above sea level. Take the funicular up
to Monte Palace Tropical gardens and take a traditional
touristy toboggan ride down the Monte
_ BEST SEASON TO VISIT | It is warm throughout the year
with showers occasionally. Visit during the wine festival in
September or for fireworks on New Year’s eve

(First published 25th December, 2010, TimesCrest edition)