Archive for July, 2010
Not Hilton… FORTUNATELY… but we were not just pecked on the cheek by Paris, but given some unforgettable tongue along with it. Left with a deep impression of the place, Paris was almost like a unique combination of all the cities we’d seen… like fun Amsterdam, picturesque Lucerne, architecturally sound Venice (and some Italian flamboyance as well) and historic Munich all rolled into one.
As soon as we hit Paris, and checking into the Ibis Hotel at Port D’Orleans, we were taken on a bus tour of the city, so that Anna could briefly show us the areas we could head to on our free & easy 2nd day in Paris. Our targets were places like the Louvre, of course, and Notre Dame. We also did our research on where to eat (yums) and drink of course. *Muahahahhahahaha* (in French)
I would, at this point in time, love to post a pic of us and the Eiffel Tower… BUT I seem to have a problem rotating all the vertically-oriented pictures (Argh)… and ummm… the Eiffel Tower is meant to be taken in that orientation anyway… Oops! But do log on to www.facebook.com/jackandrai for a glimpse at some of those photos.
So after our bus tour… we dressed up and headed out to paint the town red! Decked in our suits, and Jack’s wife a nice evening dress (Duh), we headed to the Champs-Elysses area for food. Being the main shopping district… we couldn’t resist buying a pair of Ray-Bans each… as they were going at pretty good prices!
The restaurant was ‘Le Chiberta’ which was opened as part of the Guy Savoy group of restaurants… food was fabulous *drool*. To be honest, I really didn’t wait to find out what exactly I was eating… I just dug in as soon as the dishes came and wasn’t disappointed. It was a wine-paired degustation menu that we had, and definitely worth the money.
And of course, after a nice dinner… we decided to head to one of the bars in Paris… known as THE place to be seen… Hotel Costes. I’ve always been a Hotel Costes fan only because of the CD compilations done by DJ Stephane Pompougnac. Go check it out, some really chic ear-candy in those compilations. So had to visit this place. It was small, lush and cosy… a combination of a restaurant, situated in a big courtyard, and the bar which was a smaller room indoors.
The next day was gonna be a day of history… an exchange of culture and knowledge… Singaporeans absorbing French art, architecture and history. After a quick visit to a perfumerie… I only have one word… ‘Louvre’… and I’m not talking about windows here. I can safely say… I spent 5 hours in the Louvre… and still didn’t finish viewing what it had to offer. I saw Spanish art, French art, English art, Greek sculptures, Roman sculptures and many exhibitions from various ancient civilisations. IT’s HUUUUUUGE!
We really had to fight through a big crowd inside the Louvre itself…
To see this!
It sure was a lot smaller than we expected… but such a crowd came to see Da Vinci’s very famous Mona Lisa… I wonder if it’s the original.. or maybe the original is hidden in a secure safe somewhere…. hmmmmm…. feeling very Ocean’s Eleven… =P
A short walk from the Louvre is the Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris). This is a huge cathedral of Gothic architecture… and took between 1160 and 1345 AD to fully complete… a 195 year work of pure art.
After a good 7 hours of walking around the streets of Paris… we rested our weary feet for a while before heading out to dinner! This time we chose a tapas-style place called ‘Pinxo’.
Ummm… we finished dessert before I could snap a photo of it =P
What’s a dinner night without a drink!?! So we adjourned to Buddha Bar, anther nice chillout lounge with a 2 storey Buddha sitting up against the wall. Dim lighting and a comfy, intimate atmosphere made for a nice night to round our stay in Paris. Even met a waitress there, who was working in Singapore for 6 months before moving back! Anyone know a French girl named Stephanie who did events for a while?
The next day was our trip back to London… sigh the end of our 9D Contiki European Magic tour…
But there was one thing we desperately needed when we reached London… and that was a taste of Asian food!!!! Hahahahahhaa….. we ate at a Cantonese place in Chinatown, where we had some pretty damn awesome Roast Duck… man these English/Scottish ducks rock! Nice, juicy and fatty… *Yummmmmmm*
Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed our chronicles of our Contiki 9D European Magic Tour… as much as we had fun running around doing our thing in Europe. Thanks Contiki Holidays, for an itinerary that gave us a good glimpse of Europe, and some time to run around by ourselves.. as well as a fun tour group of people from so many backgrounds. And a big shout to Anna and Thierry for being a very efficient pair, who gave us lots of insight into every destination… and safely got us from place to place. Jack & Rai signing off, till the next entry!!!!!! Lots of things happening for us… will update soon!
Picking up from day 6, after 2 nights in Venezia, our Contiki European Magic coach (has a nice ring to it huh? like a magic bus) began the travel to Switzerland… more specifically, a lil’ town called ‘Lucerne’. According to schedule, we were to go visit Mt. Stanserhorn on our way there.
The drive from Italy to Switzerland was yet another scenic journey. Switzerland is a land decorated with mountain tops, hills and huge lakes and valleys. Being in the coach was an experience altogether, as we tried to snap pictures while on the go… camera in hand to make sure we didn’t miss any sights!
Our journey up the approximately 1900m Stanserhorn, located in Canton Nidwalden, was divided in 2 parts; the first half of the journey was by a vintage funicular, which was opened in 1893.
Our pretty Swiss Stanserhorn Funicular driver. =)
We then transferred to a modern cable car which took us right to the peak of Mt. Stanserhorn, where there was a cafe, a viewpoint and a short (but steep) walk to the summit! We were amazed by the number of grandmas and grandpas who were strolling slowly to the summit… some armed with walking aids even! Damn on man!
Trudging up the trail to the summit…
Some guys getting ready to hang-glide off the top of Mt Stanserhorn! Woo hoo!
The summit!!! Conquered by Jack & Rai… forget the bit that we took transport up the mountain ya? =p
Pretty Mt. Stanserhorn… Sigh…
Next stop, was Lucerne… we kinda enjoyed our visit to the mountain summit… cos the weather was HOT! Italy and Switzerland were rather dry and hot, characteristic of summer… but the summit was nice and cool!
Lucerne is a small town in Central Switzerland… I wouldn’t say there’s much to do there… but it’s nice as a really chill city. Our first stop was at a watch centre… where we were informed that the branded watches were apparently much cheaper there. But our line of sight went straight to the corner where they sold Victorinox Swiss Army knives! We each bought one for ourselves… mine has a Ranger hand-grip with 23 functions! Most importantly a corkscrew! =P
We took a short walk around the city centre, and crossed the Chapel Bridge, before settling own for some cheese and bread.
I call this next artistic photo… “Sitting Ducks”
Time for fooooood…. I couldn’t wait for my cheeeeeeese… 6 different types of cheese… and bread. Yums.
We met up a sort while later, and joined our tour group where Anna took us to her favorite monument.. which was tucked away in a little park just near the city centre.
The monument was very beautiful indeed… it was carved into a cliff face… and depicted a wounded lion, covering a shield, dying from a mortal wound inflicted by a spear in the back. It is meant to honor the Swiss Guards who were killed during the French Revolution in 1792. Writer Mark Twain described the sculpture as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”
After checking into our guesthouse, we had a quick bite of dinner, and headed back into the city to hit the bars this time. More specifically, to celebrate Anna’s birthday… at a delightful sports bar called ‘Anfield’… (yes in Switzerland). Beer!!!
Great night out with our tourmates… went back to the hotel to hit the sack… and prep for our next and final destination (violins play)… the delightful Paris!
Finally we met Italy, taking our Contiki coach at dawn… out of Germany and into land of pizza, pasta and some really slick-looking men… and I meant ’slick’ not ’sleek’ cos I was left wondering what gel some of these Italian men use! Our first stop was Verona, just to do a little bit of sightseeing.
Upon reaching the city centre, one of the first things we saw, which was hard to miss, was a huge Roman amphitheatre which was built in 30 AD, well known for being a big venue for opera back in the day.
But most importantly, for all the die-hard Shakespearean romantics out there, we were brought to the famous balcony where Juliet pined for Romeo. The play was based on a couple in Verona… and the balcony we saw apparently belonged to the house of the Capulets. It was really quite interesting to see hordes of people taking photos of a balcony… whilst others left love notes on the walls of the walkway leading to the small garden area where the balcony was situated.
A night at our motel just off the Venice Islands, and the next morning we were off to Venezia! Venice completely blew us away, especially me… which I’ll get to in a short while. We first had to hop a little ride on the ‘Venezia People Mover’… I prefer to call it a ferry =p, for a half-hour ride to the Venice Islands itself.
Landing at the pier in San Marco, one of the first sights to behold is one of the main palaces in Venice itself, Palazzo Ducale di Venezia… which was the palace in which the Doge resided. This was when I started feeling a sense of deja vu… why I wondered… not because I was the Doge of Venice in my past life… but because I had climbed this very palace in a hugely popular PS3 game called ‘Assassin’s Creed 2′!
I have killed several archers on these balconies… and climbed some of the highest towers in the game… and that was when i gained a new appreciation for the programmers of the game… simply cos they recreated the buildings to such detail it felt like I had really been there before. I think Jack heard enough of me saying ‘I’ve been here before!’, ‘I’ve climbed this tower!’, ‘I swam across this river!’ throughout the day.
The artistry with which the buildings in Venice are built is absolutely unreal. The Doge’s Palace is mainly gothic in design, and recognisable in an instant. Carvings and sculptures adorn the palace, and the number of people in the courtyard area justifies what a huge attraction this is… not to mention the 150m queue to get in.
I could go on and on… but all the reminiscing and ‘wow’-ing we were doing led us to our first stop to grab an authentic cuppa of Italian coffee! What a pick-me-up!
Then it was more walkabout time, as Anna told us to just ditch our maps, walk around, get lost and come back to the meeting point. And we did just that, journeying aimlessly through the narrow streets, turns and corners, it was really gorgeous architecture, canals and rivers throughout. Our cameras were kept entirely busy… and it’s really nothing like beholding the visual treat that Venice is. We finally met Venezia.
Us being lost tourists… this was the part where we had really wandered way off the main area of San Marco… but yet there were still so many things to see.
We were fortunate to stumble upon a church which was more of a conservation project, as most of the churches there are still in use as places of worship… so one must be appropriately dressed (No shorts and sleeveless tops), and no photography was allowed. The church we wandered into was more of a museum, so we snapped as much as we could while inside.
After much walking, our tired feet took us back to our meeting point, where Anna brought us to a glass-moulding demonstration, from the guys who make the original Murano glass art pieces. These pieces ranged anything from 50-2000 Euros… some even more, and depending on the detail and size of the piece, can take a day to months to make!
Our demonstrator made this male horse glass piece in a matter of minutes… take a good look at the pic and you’ll know for sure that the horse is male! =P
Okay enough of being on our feet! A good 5-6hrs we had spent walking around Venice… so now who can leave Venice without hopping onto a gondola… glass of sparkling wine in hand, and sail the canals? And our group did just that, we took up one of the optional activities in our itinerary and were whisked away on a gondola!
Our tourmates, Yoko from Japan and Mary from USA.
Us with Lermy, from Australia! And some sparkling wine =)
Our gondolier! Only thing is he didn’t sing… well, we didn’t either! =P
After the gondola ride, we did more walking and had some time to grab dinner too! Stumbled upon this really nice restaurant called ‘lineadombra’ which had a great view too. Not to mention fabulous food… *grin*
After some raw fish, an entire seabass baked in sea salt, a bottle of white wine, a shot of Limoncello and a shot of Grappa… we enjoyed our food so much that we were this close to being late to meet our tour group at the meeting point in San Marco! Let’s just say it was 8pm… our meeting was at 8.15pm and we were a half hour’s walk away. So the Maths wasn’t right… BUT thank god for boat-taxis! I must commend the very helpful staff at lineadombra who helped to serve the food really quickly, whilst explaining what exactly we were eating and drinking… and helped us call a boat-taxi and held the boat while we were getting on it. Excellent service from Simone and gang, a big ‘Grazi!’ to them.
We reached our meeting point, literally, on the dot… and started our journey back to our motel off the islands. The walking around sure burnt a number of calories… or kilocalories, but memories of the architecture, scenes, artistry and history of Venice were etched in our heads… definitely a must-see for those who appreciate that kind of beauty. Better hurry though, we heard Venice is sinking 1 ft every 10 years… so don’t procrastinate on this one.
In the meantime, I was itching to go back and play the Venice portion of Assassin’s Creed 2 once more… reliving my days as Ezio. (Slash, stab!)
Next stop… Lucerne, Switzerland!
“Wir fahren mit dem Caravan
Nach Munich auf der Autobahn
Auf Wiedersehen, A’dieu Goodbye
Wir fahren heute vort!”
Okay, so knowing a German nursery rhyme wasn’t going to help me much when we reached Deutschland… and that i learnt, by the way, in German class back in secondary school. Considering the last time I spoke German was 16 years ago… I had equipped with me the bare minimum to help me say a hearty ‘HALLO!’ to any German person i saw… especially Heidi Klum types. (Damn you, Seal!) And we had Jack too, who was non-German speaking… sooooo Anna, our tour manager, taught us some simple words to use in the name of courtesy… the most important being ‘Thank you!’ said with a resounding ‘Danke Schon’. (note the ‘o’ is supposed to have 2 dots on top). I could just string together an ‘Entschuldigung’ (Excuse me) and a ‘Wie geht’s’ (How are you)… but most importantly… ‘BIER’ (beer, duh) would be the word of our next 2 days in Germany!
This time around, managed to overcome some jetlag to say a bit awake to take some scenic photos of our drive there from Holland.
Our next stop was the very scenic Rhine Valley… home of some of the best Riesling wines in Germany, Birkenstock and 1L Steins (German beer mugs). Our hotel was a humble, cosy home-like Winzerhaus.
Now when I say Rhine Valley was scenic… I meant it was REALLY a treat for the eyes… consideration for a retirement home, maybe? Quiet, chill and full of wine… need I say more? We were informed that the vineyards of the area were situated on some of the steepest mountain slopes in the world, a range of mountains with the River Rhine running through it.
Had a bit of time to meet up with my brother and sister-in-law too, who drove down from Frankfurt to say hi (Thanks Bro!).
Ahh the lovely sweet grapes of the Rhine, which eventually ended up in my first glass of Riesling… which the bartender filled to the brim, by the way, and got handsomely tipped for that too. =) yummmmmmm…
So after food, wine and Schnapps, we were more than ready to hit our cosy lil’ beds in Winzerhaus, to get some rest before a big day heading to Munich!
At the break of dawn, we drove out to a town called St. Goar first, to get some insight into one of Germany’s biggest Stein makers, who specialise in producing German beer mugs for everyone… highly durable ones at that, so that a burly beer toast will not result in shattered glass on and in your hands (Yow!).
Jack managed to purchase himself a Stein that had a piece of the Berlin Wall attached to it! Limited edition… and (hopefully) valuable in years to come. From there, it was a bit of Birkenstock shopping, in the home of the brand itself… and I’m proud to say I invested in my first pair of Birkenstocks, cos they were at least 20-30 bucks cheaper than they are in Singapore, so thought, well why not? My feet are Birkenstock virgins no more! Was looking forward to wearing them when we walked around Munich.
But to my surprise, we went one up. Upon reaching Munich, first thing on the itinerary was a bike tour around Munich, with ‘Mike’s Bikes’!
Our guide, James, an Aussie chap, took us around some of the monuments in Munich itself, of historic significance, and explained to us a fair bit about the political significance of some of these places, some stories originating from the times of Hitler’s rule.
Naturally, all that cycling was gonna make us thirsty… so as we cycled through ‘English Garden, which was a HUGE park, we ended up at the local beer garden, where I had my first encounter with the legendary 1L glass of beer. Okay 1.5L eventually cos one of the girls on the tour donated half a glass to me =P
The 3 hr bike tour (and beer session) ended around 8pm, and with that came the time to appreciate some German culture. We headed straight to Hofbrauhaus… which was the local beer hall… no its not a pub, bar or nightclub.. it was a BEER HALL. A huge area, littered with big benches, sturdy tables, a band playing traditional German folk music, pork knuckles, sauerkraut and 1L Steins of beer. Jack & Rai were finally home.
Here, we got to know some of our mates on tour better. What better way to bond than over a few litres of beer! Say hi to Chris and Steve from New York, New York!
And Jack, and his wifey, with some random German folk. =)
An interesting fact we took back about the beer hall was that apparently, during Hitler’s rule, the hall was used as a meeting place for the Nazis. So the ceilings were actually painted with swastikas at that time. Hofbrauhaus had the place repainted but apparently one can still spot the remnants of the swastika under the paint.
After 3L of beer, the camera got retired into my pocket (for obvious reasons), and we carried on the beer halltoasting and partying till the wee hours of morning… barely remembering that we had a 745am call-time to board the bus to start making our way to Venezia, commonly known as Venice. Stay tuned to this blog to find out why I had a near spiritual experience of deja vu in Venice. Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland!
Woo hoo! What a ride so far… present location, just off Venice in our lil’ motel. Thought I’d share an update about what’s been going on… but there’s too much to talk about! So shall start with our first trip from London to Amsterdam… en route with our Contiki 9D European Magic tour. Started off in London, bright and early in the morning (Daytime is from 6am to 9pm by the way). Literally starting our trip about 6hrs after we landed… reporting for our tour at 645am at Royal National London Hotel.
Hopped on the contiki bus, where we met our helpful tour manager Anna, and our driver, Thierry. Anna’s been with Contiki for a good 11 years already… and Thierry is a pleasant Belgian chap who introduced me to Duvel beer (YUM!)
So from there, us and the bus headed out to hop a ferry headin’ to Amsterdam, from a port right next to the white cliffs of Dover.
A short bus ride from the port of Calais, and we finally reached our first destination… Amsterdam (or ‘The ‘Damage’ as it is nicknamed, for obvious reasons). Amsterdam is such a quirky town, so full of life and loads of fun! Got a newfound respect for the Dutch, cos they take ‘liberal’ to a whole new level. Art, coffeeshops, food, street markets… Amsterdam has a vibrance that is exciting yet still retains its history and charm.
They still have hooks on the roof of the buildings there… ‘cos the houses and apartments are so narrow, that they need to use a pulley system to hoist furniture into apartments on the 2nd floor and above.
Deciding to culturally engage ourselves, we visited places like the Van Gogh museum and the Floating Flower Market. Made a quick stop at H&M as well. SALE! =P
While some members in our group went for an optional liquid buffet canal cruise in the evening, we opted to take the time to walk around on our own and sample what Amsterdam had to offer… a vibrant nightlife, friendly people and a really unique red-light district =p It was amazing the number of people you can see on a Monday in this town, just tourists, Dutch people… a town that is pretty much alive after dark. If it weren’t for the fact that we were pretty jetlagged, being our first day there, we would have gone out to party up a bit more on Monday night! Cos it sure seemed like a lot of people were doing just that!
That’s one of the elements we enjoyed on our Contiki trip, that there are optional things on offer that you can do that you can pay for, but if you choose not to join, it gives you your own free time to run around wherever you wish to! So it becomes a guided, yet flexible tour.
Of course, another exciting element of this trip was making friends with lots of people from Australia, US, Puerto Rico, Canada. Haven’t met them all yet, but slowly getting to know our tour-mates.
The cool part about Amsterdam is that we stayed on the outskirts of the main city centre, but it was so easy to hop a tram into the main part of town and once you’re there… it’s literally a casual stroll to any of the many sights you’d like to see… if not, there is still an effective and inexpensive tram system.
So after a night there, we got ready in the morning to leave pretty little Amsterdam, and head off to our next destination in the Rhine Valley in Germany. Doei Amsterdam… I shall return… *wipes tears*