Last June, I had the opportunity to return to Paris. This getaway was different from the last time because I had lesser control of the itinerary for this one. Also, the main objective in Paris this time around was touching less on social sciences and intimate moments but more on social gatherings and reunions. And speaking of reunions, I really had quite a handful – so much that it was fun to bring together my friends from different backgrounds in 1 setting.
A quick ‘La Vie Parisienne’
During the first day, I finally met Juli, one of my long-time online friends (and 1 of 3 online friends who come from France). How amazing it is to finally speak in person but you never expected that your humor together is way better than what you already have as good online friends. We had a quick but meaningful and tasty lunch in the Champs-Élysées area. Hopefully, even with our busy schedules, we will manage to meet again and perhaps explore the gastronomic scene of the French capital.
I caught up with the rest of my friends to sum up our afternoon at the Café de l’homme, which has arguably one of the best views of the Eiffel tower from the Trocadero side. If we had more time, we would have spent the sunset over drinks in that place. We ended up eating Lyonnaise cuisine at the second arrondissement and with me are my closest clique in Malta as well as Jiggy, one of my close friends from high school who I haven’t seen for 8 years. He also brought with him a friend who was another online friend which I only got to know more during this stay in Paris. I’m not usually fond of bringing together in one venue friends who I got connected to from different backgrounds because I believe this might cause awkwardness especially to friends who are shy and reserved and it could also make some friends “out of place” or feel “unattended”. Fortunately, they all got along and with the arrival of one of our friends from the UK later that night, we just felt too comfortable with Paris as if we were living there. We capped the night with some tasty macaroons and hot coffee. Fantastique!
…Where the Magic Happens…
We spent most of the following day in one of the happiest places on Earth – Disneyland! Well, I might sound too old for this but this was something I was quietly but surely looking forward to. It’s been 11 years since I’ve been to Disney park and this was only my second time to one. I’m not an über fan of Disney but I have to admit that I grew up with it and have liked it, since the 2D movies in the 90’s all the way to the half-real, half-CGI effects that Disney currently offers us to adaptations of previous movies. Another reason was that I just really needed a different objective to this travel and that means that I just wanted to chill and not think about itineraries and what to do next. This place was certainly one of the best options to just spend the day. If you’re looking for a breezy time in summer, Paris is definitely not the best option. The Seine river runs through the city but it’s located hundreds of miles from the coast so it was definitely quite humid when we went there. However, the rides were quite amusing and we had a lovely time in the park just enjoying each other’s company and taking tons of photos and just acting like we’re kids again. The fireworks display after sundown was the highlight and I must say, I got a little bit emotional. Jajaja. It wouldn’t be too much to ask to have a fairy tale life, right? 😛
…Mirrors and the Arts
The following day, we visited the Château de Versailles, the historical place of residences of the then French monarchy. The complex was actually huge and the exterior was lavishly designed. It’s all golden the moment you approach the entrances. The gates, the plate designs on the exterior of the palaces – they mesh well with the material used in the frames of those buildings. But the awe doesn’t end there! Once you step into the main palace and pass through the individual chambers, you will immerse into the ambiance of how it was to live like a French royal. The walls and ceilings are painted in detail, romanticizing the military victories and lifestyle of the French monarchy in all aspects of paintings. Finally, as we approached the last halls of the palace, we finally saw the grandness of the hall of mirrors. Gold statues, bold paintings on the ceiling, and glorious chandeliers dropping from them – there was this air of elegance surrounding the hall that it seems like we spent most of our time in the palace solely in that room. Before we left the complex, we took a rest at Angelina café to indulge in our craving for sweets and refreshment after a humid day.
And finally, on the last day of our trip, we spent most of our time within and around the 8th arrondissement. This is where the Alexandre Bridge and most of the world-renowned museums (i.e. Louvre, Orsay) are located. We just wanted to have a relaxed time and the weather was quite rainy that day, which explained why it was really humid the days preceding it. At the Alexander bridge, I posed for some photos, especially as I wanted to remake some scenes in the music video of one of my favorite songs (Princessa’s “I Won’t Forget You”). We proceeded to the museums of Orsay and ultimately to Louvre, where indeed, I was really impressed by the display of countless of artwork, depicting humanity’s way of life, primarily through the eyes of western civilization and history. The key takeaway from this segment of the trip though is my almost impossible selfie with Mona Lisa. Jaja. Man, that was one of the most difficult shots to take!
Ultimately, it was a relaxing trip! It was not my usual “I-need-to-be-in-control” kind of trip but sometimes, it’s quite refreshing to just let your companions do the thinking and what you need to do is just to sit back and relax. Contrary to mainstream popularity, Paris is not my favorite city. But in recent years, I really made quite nice memories over there and hopefully, I will have another chance to visit and make some more great times there.
At last, summer has arrived! Having lived most of my life in a tropical country, I never got so excited for my first travel to an island in a long time. I’m sure that I’m fond of summer and going to the beach (sometimes), but with Mediterranean waters still cooler than the beaches we had in the Philippines, I have come to terms into going to the beach less frequently than before. Perhaps it was being exposed to the colder seasons for long which eventually drove me to plan for my first summer getaway this year. Shall I go and take a pill once again in Ibiza? Will I revisit the historical forts and turquoise waters on the coves of Menorca? Is it a cool idea to relax while listening to the sound of waves smashing on the coastal rocks of Sardinia? Shall I spend a weekend of paradise on any of the Greek islands? Well, I decided to go a little off-path – I chose to spend quality time in the Cíes islands.
The islands are located southwest off the coast of the Spanish region of Galicia. Although planning a trip there requires more planning than usual (i.e. application of permits from the Galician council, reserving slots to ride the ferries from Pontevedra province and back, travel time), it’s a fulfilling getaway especially for travelers like me who take it up one more notch to enjoy biodiversity and mini-trekking all while enjoying time in the beach. The islands are considered a national park due to its isolated location and because it houses arguably the largest colony of seagulls in the world. Due to this status, entry to the islands are highly regulated and this meant a less crowded, relaxing and peaceful atmosphere for me and my compañero.
Towards the western sections of the 2 main islands, Monteagudo and do Faro, we managed to do a relaxed pace of hiking to 2 ends – towards the lighthouse of Cíes and to the Alto de Principe (Prince’s Peak) on the other end. What consumed most of our time was us just chatting all the way to the peaks that we even didn’t recognize that we already spent a lot of energy as well as performing documentation on the magnificent views, wildlife and trippy poses we did along the way. This was certainly the reason why we ended up running, excessively sweating and panting all the way to the port to catch our trip back to Vigo. Jaja.
And finally, a getaway to the islands would not be complete without time spent on the beach. The sandbar connecting the islands of Monteagudo and do Faro stretches for several kilometers and are one, if not the most beautiful beaches that I ever went to. With fine golden and soft sands extending towards the dark blue Atlantic waters, one manages to see stretches of turquoise water from the shore until the shade of blue water turns darker further to the sea. The sandbar is curved inwards to the 2 islands, thereby naturally protecting it from the Atlantic currents. Although the water was still cold even if it’s already June (at least it was very cold to me), we managed to enjoy our chilly dip while we bask under the heat of the sun. It was reminiscent of those times when I used to go to the beaches when I lived in Cebu. My place was just a 5 minute drive to the coast and it was always a pleasant time to spend at least a day inside a cottage and spending time with family and friends while eating and swimming in the warm waters.
I would definitely want to go back to those islands and perhaps spend a longer time to just chill and relax – just like how it used to be in the tropics.
It has been almost 2 years since the last time I spent a long holiday in Bavaria, where my cousins live. Although the last one was one of the memorable trips I had (partly due to the shenanigans while we got semi-drunk during the Christmas holidays and partly due to the wonderful “family time” we had both in Franconia and when we visited the Neuschwanstein Castle and crossed to Austria), this more recent visit was quite exciting in itself – it was my first time attending a German and Lutheran wedding (as one of my cousins got married) and this time, I will visit them during spring, when the weather is way brighter and we could do more outdoor activities.
During my stay, we managed to visit 3 places which definitely tapped my huge interest in history and nature.
Geisa, Hesse – An Iron Wall Down Towards German Reunification
After my cousin’s wedding, I was left at my uncle and aunt’s home and they decided to spend the next few days with me. The first trip we did was to travel an hour and a half towards the Point Alpha Border Museum in Geisa, in the Rhon region of south-central Germany. It’s been around 28 years since West and East Germany reunited to become the modern-day Federal Republic of Germany. While we are currently enjoying watching the formidable football teams within the Bundesliga (immediately, this popped first in my mind as I am writing this post while the 2018 FIFA World Cup is taking place), and while we enjoy the schnitzels, bratwursts and beers during our visit to the German cities, as a great lover of history, it was important to me to know German modern history from encyclopedias but at the same time, important for me how to at least partly remember the developments right after 1945, how German society was split between the opposing sides of the Cold War and how certain historical figures and the countless civilians risked their lives for the promise of freedom and a better life and eventually, to once again unite an inspiring and power nationality that we see today as contemporary Germany.
Amidst the warm summer heat, the museum retained a few hundred meters of the fence that separated East and West Germany from the Baltic Sea to their border with Czech Republic. It was definitely a thick one, and even harder to climb. And with the observer towers built in the area, one could just imagine the perils there were when one attempted to cross to the western side. We culminated our visit with a family stroll along with our baby Australian shepherd, Joey. Heading towards the car, there was this feeling of renewed appreciation of our freedom. A lot of people live a happy life today due to the sacrifices and hopes of people before us. The freedom that we just enjoy today for free was the freedom that many of them had hoped for themselves and the generations to come… and some of them even had to pay a price for them. Even if I’m not German, I still felt that air at that moment. For in the Philippines, there had been many of colonizers, and even up to this day, I can’t fathom the sacrifices that heroes in the past had to make in order to give the rest of us the hope of freedom.
A Fresh Taste of the Franconian Countryside
The next day, my “parents here in Europe” decided to take me to one of the hills in Poppenhausen in the neighboring region of Hesse. My uncle and aunt usually bring Joey to the countryside to do some hiking and camping. Although I’ve known that Germany is quite flat, with most of the mountainous terrain in the Alpine region towards its borders with Austria and Switzerland, it was incredible to view the vast plains from the top of the hills. We spent an entire afternoon hiking along a relatively easy route winding to the top of the hills and beneath a good shade of trees. Finally, we relaxed and ate lunch in a restaurant by the lake.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber – a Glimpse of Medieval Germany
Would you like to buy at Christmas shops open in summer? How about seeing locals dressed in medieval attires as farmers and soldiers and marching through the streets of the town? Or how about enjoying the cool breeze and sunny weather of spring (all before it gets so hot) while drinking your favorite beer in a cozy biergarten? Then, you would find all of these in the Middle Franconian town of Rothenburg ob ter Tauber. The town is quite special due to its retention of medieval architecture on most of its buildings, particularly the ones surrounding the main square, the Marktplatz. The locals really showed their warm hospitality especially and even encouraged me to march with them in one of the parades. I wish I had more time but definitely, we made the best out of the time that we had there.
So I’d like to end this post by saying a huge “danke schön” to my relatives in Schweinfurt for always making me feel like family. Whether it be my cousins in wherever city we end up meeting (and getting drunk in) or my uncle and aunt who always make me feel that I belong (along with their friends and the secretly hospitable character of their German friends and the Germans in general), I always feel that even though I miss my family so much, their presence and proximity constantly remind me that the World is too small nowadays to feel homesick. I’m sure we still have unopened chapters in our experiences together. In fact, my uncle already mentioned to me the places which we will go to the next time I visit them. ‘Til the next time, Germany! xoxo
“The fading light of day lingers on your sleeping face”…
Every Saturdays eleven years ago, I used to sit down in front of the television of my parent’s living room and wait for my favorite show, the MTV Asia Hitlist. The show used to run down the top 20 most famous songs in Southeast Asia every week. I was quite a different kid than the rest of my contemporaries. While most of the Filipino kids those days were mostly influenced by the local music played in the radio, I was heavily influenced by a mix of American and European pop and rock music; up to this day, these genres (with the addition of Latin music), became my staple of music – heavily influencing what I need to listen to motivate me on a daily basis as well as the themes to which most of my personal songwriting revolves around.
Going back to that show, in the summer of 1999, it was the first time I saw the music video of Princessa’s “I Won’t Forget You”. It was amusing just as the song itself was beautiful to me – what the VJ referred to as a new artist who hails from Spain, and with her signature hairdo which she used a band to keep her hair intact, the beat of her song meant more than what the lyrics meant to me at that time. Of course, now, every line to that song makes a lot of sense about how I see relationships nowadays; but another aspect of the song which still brings me nostalgic feelings up to this day is the music video. The plot was that she appeared in an indoor studio with her band and in it, there were interlocking scenes of her going out of the studio and skating through cities which she used to go to when she was with her lover – Paris, London, Rome and Venice. Nineteen years ago, I told myself I would visit those cities. 2 months ago, I finally went to one of them – Venice.
Two Decades in the Making
I didn’t have much preparations for this trip. All I felt was that it finally was the right time to fulfill that distant dream when I was a kid. It was indeed almost 2 decades in the making! A year ago, after one of my hiking excursions in Malta, one of my friends and I agreed to go together on a mini trip to Venice, being that we haven’t been to the city and she also loves the Italian cities. However, she wasn’t able to make it with me this time and so, another counter was added to my solo travels. I was able to book a flight from Malta to Treviso airport last winter. The rest – the budget, booking a hotel, searching for specific things to see and food to eat were all planned a few days before. Should I feel bothered? As a perfectionist, yes. I haven’t traveled solo for quite some time so there were jitters – not because of anything in particular, except for just making everything about the trip as detailed and productive. On the other hand, I told myself, “come on, this is definitely an nth time for you to go out there and enjoy!” I told myself, the least I could just do there is to make an impression of the music video of one of my all-time favorite songs. So finally, it was time to go. Woohoo!
Less on the Streets and More on the Canals
Although Venice is arguably one of the most visited places on Earth, it is quite a unique travel destination. For one, it is a group of islands which survived centuries of inundation and constant battles with the sea for it to stay afloat. Being dubbed as the “floating city”, its main artery of navigation is not through its narrow streets but through its wide and complex network of canals. In medieval times, the once-powerful city-state of Venice was headquartered on these islands and it set out from the Adriatic Sea to spread its influence to and trade with outposts as far-flung as Crimea (Chersonesos) and Cyprus.
These waterways have been the heart of the Venetian way of life, so much that boats which transport the government officials of Venice at that time, the Venetians to their work and engagement in trade, and the once-powerful navy to foreign conquests, all started and passed through these canals. It is particular to note that to appreciate the cityscape of Venice, one has to focus more on the infrastructure designs along these canals instead of the main streets. It is said that in medieval times, the most influential people in the Venetian society acquire the lots exposed to the canals and as the waterways are the “highways” during those times, it is almost mandatory for the elite to construct the grandest designs of their houses’ facade.
Campos vs. Piazzas
In most places, when people try to meet at a specific place, they usually just exchange coordinates or a specific street name. In Venice, when you do the same, it is most likely that you end up not meeting at all. This sounds strange or funny but indeed, a number of Venice’s districts have street names that are also used in the other districts. A better way of meeting up, as devised by the Venetians, was to indicate a landmark (e.g. in front of the Basilica di San Marco) or to meet in campos (e.g. Campo San Polo). In most Latin-based languages, campo is used to refer to countryside or fields. One would wonder why they use such a term in a small and crowded place like Venice (let alone that it’s quite unusual to have a field in a small island). But indeed, when the Venetians name a square as a campo instead of a piazza, it is most likely that in the past, regardless of how small the lot is, they would utilize the “campo” to plant their crops.
Moving on from campos to piazzas, the most important piazza and definitely a must-see while in Venice, is the Piazza San Marco. Located on the southern end of the left bank of the Grand Canal, the Piazza San Marco is the historical, cultural, spiritual and political center of Venice since the medieval times. The piazza houses numerous and valuable works of art that Italian (and Venetian) medieval artists have endowed the world with. One of them is the Basilica di San Marco (Basilica of St. Mark). One of the four evangelists of the Christian faith, St. Mark has historically been the most revered persons of Venice. This is also evident in the lion symbol which is depicted in flags, squares, facades and towers all across the city. The basilica has a free entrance and although you would have to queue for around 30-45 minutes during peak hours of peak days, the intricate artistic designs on the interior and the solemnity of the place amidst a very touristy feel of the piazza make the wait definitely worth it.
Afternoons in Venice can Still be Romantic Even for Solo Travelers
While it’s a known fact that Venice rivals Paris as a destination for romantic getaways, there is quite a good space for solo travelers as well and I can personally testify to that. 😛 During my first day there, the midday heat was quite strong and finding a restaurant to eat lunch could be a challenge especially in the northern district of Cannaregio and the area between the Grand Canal and the Piazza San Marco. It was pleasant to find this restaurant called Al Corner, where I bared the midday heat through a glass of aperol spritz and a plate of ravioli cacio i pepe alla carbonara profumati al tartufo (cheese and pepper ravioli with truffle-flavored carbonara). By the way, aperol spritz is a signature drink in Venice. A secret that I would like to share is that Venice is the only Italian city which considers aperol spritz as a wine/local drink rather than a cocktail. For this reason, this drink is very cheap compared to anywhere that I have drank it (in Venice, I only paid an average of 4 euros for 1 glass while in Malta, I would have paid around 7 euros). To be fair, the spritz I tasted in Venice were the second best of its kind (after the ones I drank in Strasbourg… well, perhaps, there were other factors why I preferred its taste there), but given that this spritz is way cheaper in Venice, I think I’ve drank more glasses here.
Sunsets can be really picturesque in Venice, as one could either enjoy the sun as it sets beyond the towering buildings along the Grand Canal (while eating his favorite gelato), watch it set from the area along the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and enjoy the sky turn from yellow-orange to vermillion to crimson before turning dark, or ride along the canals via the classic gondolas. I decided to do all these! After all, it’s not everyday that I could enjoy sunsets in Venice, right?
Finally, we talk about evenings in Venice. Despite being a classical city, Venice is not lacking a pleasant nightlife and some memorable experiences for travelers. If you’re in your late teens to early 20’s and you really need some hardcore partying, you can cross the opposite side in the mainland where modern clubs are located. However, the old town itself is where the University of Venice is located and in the southern districts, a solo traveler like me could definitely eat local Venetian cuisine and a few glasses of local wine or spritz and the next thing you know, you’re already conversing with a fellow traveler or if you’re luckier, with a local too (Venetians are quite good in their level of English). In this case, I would gladly recommend Hosteria Osottoosopra on your first evening in lovely Venice.
And thus, my Venetian experience ended by quoting the first line of the song which inspired me to go there – “the fading light of day lingers on your sleeping face.”
There’s definitely a lot of things to be grateful for in the past thirty years. The mere opportunity to have lived here on earth with what I have is already a blessing. To have a loving and accepting family; real, enduring and supportive friends; having lived through the trials and success; and all the fond memories that I had in the past thirty years were worth celebrating.
A personal promise
Ever since I moved to Europe two years ago, I have made a promise to myself that if I’m not in the Philippines, I will spend my birthdays in Spain. Spain has always been very close to my heart – the history, the people who I’ve crossed paths with, the language and culture, the food… and we all have that feeling of affinity to a place, where we feel just comfortable and at peace. And for me, what a way to celebrate my past thirty years of existence and welcome the next chapter of my life in this place – the place which I call home away from home.
…a home away from home…
It’s always a great feeling when you go to a place you love and you reconnect with people who you have made great memories with. When I was in Argentina last year, I met a couple from Valencia who were very warm and patient with my Spanish. In just one day, we all got along so well (along with our other Argentine and Brazilian friends who we met during our trip at Perrito Moreno) and eventually, we stayed in touch via social media. Who would have thought that we would have another chance to meet each other? Finally, we managed to meet again in Valencia, where we ate and drank the night out Argentine style (it was awesome to relive our first encounter during that night!). It would be lovely to do more adventures with their warmth and hospitality in the future. ¡Eso espero!
Next stop, I managed to reconnect with my beloved Barcelona. This city always calms my heart and my mind – reminiscing the beautiful experiences I had in the city in the past, reconnecting with people I’ve been close to and just taking time to casually stroll through the some of the districts (I’d never get tired crisscrossing the narrow alleys of the Gothic quarter especially when it gives me that melancholic, dreamy vibe to it in the afternoon). I just can’t get enough of this beauty and can’t wait to be there in two months!
Of course, for a lover of cityscapes, Madrid is an essential itinerary. One might notice how I gravitate towards going to busy cities. But the thing is, I always consider myself as an introvert who lives in an extroverted world. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, as much as I’d like walking through the narrow alleys and the bristling walkways, I have a contentment in solitude among the crowd – it humbles me, that in spite of the self-consciousness and self-gratification we have for ourselves, we are just but miniatures in this universe.
Madrileños also have this distinct balance of being overtly warm and cautiously cool. Every time I visit Madrid, I just need that dose of belongingness with 2 of my closest friends. Forget any language barriers! No matter how deep English or Castilian could be, we manage to meet in between and have a preposterous but therapeutic laugh about ourselves and silly ideas. I hope when our hairs turn grey (actually mine have already started to turn grey since I was 16 jaja), we would still end up on one the terrazas along Gran Vía, overlooking the sunset and just drinking our cervezas or jugos.
By the way, it’s always interesting how I feel like a citizen in this city. While it’s a given (a known fact) that my friends have adopted me already and considered me as a local, it’s so casual how acquaintances don’t even have a clue that I’m traveling or from somewhere else (…well, apart from others thinking I come from Mexico or Colombia… or Peru) but instead, I always have this impression that I just come from there (this better be a great foretelling for me ;).
This year, my birthday fell on the Semana Santa (Holy Week celebration of the Christian faith). And as Spain was a former bastion of Catholicism, the expectation for festivities in the country is really high. I used to celebrate this week with my family back in Cebu and as solemn as it had been (even as solemn as when we were young, we ought not to play outdoors from Good Friday until Easter Sunday as the Lord had died and anyone who gets injured during those days might risk not having their wounds healed… jajaja), until last year when I spent the Semana Santa at my friend’s place in Cartagena, I always expected populous Philippines to celebrate it the grandest. Now, it appears to me that Spain still holds that crown (pun intended).
I actually had slight concerns about spending my Semana Santa in Andalusia. I’ve always heard from friends that the region boasts the biggest, grandest and most flamboyant celebrations of the Holy Week in the whole country. For the most part, I stayed in Seville (and stayed within the Triana – Magdalena triangle) where most of the processions occur. While it’s true that it was really crowded, and already quite warm for spring time, I enjoyed witnessing the solemnity of the celebration. Afterwards, especially after the evening processions, the area near Alameda de Hercules became full of young adults and festivities. For me, that was a perfect way to spend time after the solemnities – tapas and drinks, meeting with friends, meeting new friends, music and dancing (especially loved the traditional and Latin sounds ‘coz they suit the ambiance really well).
For me, overall, the Sevillanos are really the warmest people in Spain. While I love all my people in Spain, there’s a dramatic element to the warmness of these people. I see the way actors in Latin-american telenovelas articulate their words and their feelings with the Sevillanos. My friends here tell me stories like how my friends in Colombia told me theirs. In one of the days, I went to flamenco classes to just be in touch with the basics of playing the cajón (the box-shaped percussion used during flamenco shows) and dancing the flamenco. It was fun how my instructor Eva showed us how to dance and play along the rhythm and just let out that inner “duende” or soul that the Andalusians evoke when they perform flamenco.
During my birthday, I went to the historically important city of Granada. In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs Isabel I of Castilla and Fernando II of Aragon finally completed the Spanish Reconquest of Iberia (sans Portugal) from the Moors by taking Granada. During the same year, Spain also acquired land in the vastly undiscovered New World (courtesy of Christopher Columbus) and thus, the Siglo de Oro (the Spanish Golden Age) began. This has a profound meaning for me, for this visit represented the culmination of my struggles and achieved goals during my first thirty years on earth as well as the unraveling of a hopefully new personal golden age. During this visit, it was impressive to note how a Moorish stronghold five centuries ago was gradually converted into a completely Andalusian city whose cathedrals and forts showcased a fusion of Catholic and Moorish architectural design. While witnessing the holy week procession in Albaicín, I was able to view the Alhambra from the opposite hill with a snow-capped Sierra Nevada on the background. Later on, the crew at Loft restaurant surprised me (like I was shookt that they knew it was my birthday!) by delivering some desserts with a non-extinguishable flaming candle to my table. I felt humbled by the hospitality of the Granadinos. 🙂
And finally, on Good Friday, I went to El Rocío in Huelva province to visit the largest nature park in the southern Iberian peninsula, the Doñana National Park. Together with my Sevillano friends, we did our afternoon horse back riding with Rafael and his team of well-trained Spanish horses. The smoothness of the ride, the calm and slightly-windy weather, the laughter and small chats we had, all while the sun was descending, were a perfect culmination of the past thirty years of my life.
I could only thank the Guy above but it will never be enough for all the learning, the gifts, the blessings, the love and the acceptance that I have received from everyone and everything around me.
And did I just mention above that the journey to the next chapter of my life has already begun? Well, most people feel more empowered and sufficiently confident about their capabilities when they turn 30 – that they are grown men and women, that they have more control in their lives. While I agree to those, and I must say that I feel more empowered, sufficiently trusting (as I’ve always been) to my capabilities, I still believe that I have a lot to improve about myself and learn from this life and the people and things around me. And I’m sure that while I will gradually learn new things especially from my next journeys, the chapters for the future are left unwritten. So as I hold my pen to write these new chapters, would you like to get your own pen and maybe co-write some sections with me? We’ll soon find out…
Starting off with a somewhat-emotional introduction…
Ok, so for those lads and ladies who eventually made it to this post, I want to ask a general question about life. Have you ever had that goal… that special thing in your life which you have dreamed of ever since you were a child? And you promised yourself that one day, you will realize that dream and you will never lose your sight from that target. But life has its own way of setting your path into reality (in many people’s lives, their path is what life served them in a cold plate). Many people become contented with the path life paved for them. And that is alright – after all, life is about being content with what you have. But going back to my previous question – have you ever had this insatiable ambition and fought so hard to reach it that even when life gave you lemons, you still squeezed the lemons hard enough to turn them into the apple that you’ve always wanted?
If your answer is a yes, you may proceed in reading this post.
Before I begin my first article (and since I really haven’t shared much about my personal experiences yet), my name is Edward. When I was 5 years old, my dad brought me to a local bookstore and asked me to choose a book that I could take home. I eventually picked an atlas. Yes, I know it sounds preposterous – a boy that young would like to read a big and heavy book full of landmasses and filled with information about different countries? Would he even read them in detail? Soon enough, he would trade that book for a sports ball or some awesome toys like robots. Indeed, I was too in love with that book that I never traded it for an awesome remote-controlled car. Instead, I looked at the world map in such detail and thorough that even up to this day, I could draw you a map showing where countries are located and how they share borders. So much detail that I could name you the capital of each country in a few seconds and can even locate them almost precisely in a map. The point here is that I am so in love with geography and history that even up to this day, if I find a financially sustainable career out of it, I would pack my bags from the corporate world and live the rest of my life with that career.
A couple of decades later, when my career in finance (particularly accounting and auditing) kick-started and I was able to save enough money, I kept on looking back at my childhood dream of being able to go to my favorite places – to appreciate the architecture and make-up of those places the way I saw them in the encyclopedias that I used to read during my elementary and secondary years; to establish great and lasting connection with people from those places and exchange fruitful conversations about history, language and their way of life; and to immerse myself and reflect on my life as I stay in those places. It was indeed a struggle! It was not easy to move on with the path that life has paved for you and trying to overrule it and pave your own. I’m just fortunate to be able to do so and fast forward to 2 years, I am here writing this post.
Now, when it comes to personal experiences, I usually prefer keeping my life story to myself. But in recent months, after all the traveling that I have done and as I shared my experiences with a number of my close friends, there have been some of them who have seen this passion in me and suggested that I should make a blog about some of my travels. After a third friend recommended me to do it, and after some introspection, I finally got the boldness to do so. I may not be able to do this as frequently as more than one article every month, but here I am, ready to share an excerpt of my life to all of you. I’m not quite sure how this will end up but I hope it continue to have a positive impact for you and me – for me, that I have a positive outlet in sharing to you how I appreciate the beauty in this world from my perspective and for you, that hopefully, these articles resonate with your life and interest and that in whatever positive means, these articles would inspire more people to live their lives to the fullest and reach their dreams (to live them).
So what about Norway?
So for my first post, why Norway? Indeed, I have been to 28 other countries before I went to Norway. Apart from my belief that I should keep most of my past trips as personal as possible (and even this first trip to Norway, I will retain a huge portion of it as personal as I should), I felt that the central theme of my blog is to successfully reach dreams. For me, dreams are often hard to achieve. They have this magical element to them that distances them from reality. But when one finally reaches his dreams, there’s that feeling of elation – a feeling that would make one want to cry for joy (believe me, before reaching this dream four years ago, I could never understand it when someone cries after winning something in a contest). But indeed, achieving the seemingly impossible can be too much to handle for a person and for me, I have experienced that myself. I would like to share this to people so that you may continue to burn that desire of fulfilling your dreams. And when you finally reach it, please let me know how that “tears of joy” moment came to be for you.
Norway is a country whose area covers more than 385,000 square kilometers, a constitutional monarchy with citizens of currently more than 5.3 million and is mostly located on the western side of the Scandinavian peninsula. With a rich history that spans thousands of years, through the Viking Age, the birth of the current Norwegian monarchy and ultimately, becoming the modern and financially developed state that it is now, I just have a stupefying appreciation on the gifts that it offers to the world – in summer, one can enjoy the scenic views of the cliffs, the fjords and the architectural design of the southern cities such as Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, among others. And in winter, once can enjoy activities such as skiing, glacier caving, dog sledding and of course, witnessing the magic of the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis in the northern towns such as Tromsø.
Indeed, I was hopeful that one day, I will get to see those lights dancing in the sky with my own eyes. Last year, I met a French guy during my stay in Luxembourg and ever since, we made a few travels together in different parts of northern France and the low countries (I used to think that it would be hard for me to ever have a lasting bond with French people due to the language barrier and the somewhat differing opinions on the warmness of the French people, but boy, did I just found the opposite!). We eventually became travel buddies and as winter set in, we decided to do such a trip together (after more than six months of not seeing each other in person, we decided to try to meet more frequently as possible).
Preparing for a trip is always like preparing for final examinations…
Let me tell you a sweet secret here. For those who really haven’t done traveling before or for those who are not too confident about doing one, the beautiful experience you get when you travel is as hard as it is to prepare for it. Many bloggers would give you tips like there is a key to a successful traveling for idiots. But with every successful story, there is always a beautiful struggle that comes along with it. It was quite ambitious for me and my partner to set the trip. We went to Tromsø from the 16th to the 20th of February and around that time, it’s quite hectic for people working in the financial sector. And when we decided to push through the trip in late December, it only allowed us a few weeks to organize everything as smoothly as possible.
First, we had to book tickets separately as we fly from different countries (I come from Malta where I currently reside and he flies from Belgium). For a destination that’s very in demand during winter, it is highly recommended to plan the flights way ahead as the plane tickets could really get very expensive. This goes the same for the accommodation that you prefer. We eventually stayed at one of the most reasonable yet comfortable hotels in the city center. Everything was really reachable from our “headquarters”.
Then, there’s planning for which activities you wanted to do. Five days seem to be a long time but as you travel with someone, it is quite important that you do itineraries a little less squeezed than what you could do when you travel alone. We eventually opted to explore the town, do some dog sledding adventure and chase the northern lights (I almost forgot to say that in Norway, it is also a cool experience to try the different beers that they brew… yes, they’re also quite pricey but eh, it’s still something that deserves to be tried).
As I’m an enthusiast about keeping quality documentation (i.e. photos and videos) from my travels, we brought our own high-resolution camera and tripod. Tripods are extremely useful to capture the rapid movements of the northern lights and since we’re trying to capture images in the pitch-dark night, the flash properties of a camera work well when the camera is attached to the stable support of a tripod.
Apart from these material preparations, the only thing left is to prepare your overall being into the trip. I was quite anxious before we went there because I sometimes have the tendency to want to control as much aspect of my travels as possible. Of course, everything settled perfectly up to the day of departure and the trip went well overall, but before that I was looking out at these three things:
(1) our health and clothing – I mean, we really didn’t do a lot of strenuous activities apart from walking for hours and being exposed to extreme cold for hours. By the way, as Tromsø is located further north to the arctic and as February is still winter time, expect that the temperature could go as low as -25 degrees Celsius, especially at night. Yes, chasing the northern lights would be a beautiful sacrifice because after you endure the extreme cold (granted you brought the right winter apparel), you will also see one of the most mystifying phenomenon in the universe. So, in this case, we just really brought the appropriate coats, scarfs, earmuffs, bonnets and boots for the occasion and we made sure we sleep and eat well so that we had the best immune system heading to the trip.
(2) the weather forecast – note well that the northern lights is best seen when the sky is clear. This usually happens from February onward. Now, I highlighted usually because weather patterns could be extremely erratic in the Arctic. I remembered getting anxious because no one could really guarantee that the skies are clear when you have your northern lights tour. A week prior to the trip, I had to call the heavens to change the forecast to clear as it showed that it would be snowing on the day of the tour.
(3) solar flare intensity – for those who have no idea how the northern lights come to be, here’s a quick explanation. The sun regularly emits plasma into outer space like pimples from the face, and some of this eventually reach the outer atmosphere of our planet. As the material collides with the Earth’s magnetic field, a process called ionization causes this material to lose its energy and emits light in the sky of differing complexity and color. Some astronomic organizations forecast solar flare intensity (with 1 as the weakest and 6 as the strongest) and with an intensity of 3 or 4, one can see the Aurora with his naked eyes.
There’s really not much that you can do about numbers 2 and 3. I mean, if you have booked your tickets way before your trip and these two factors suddenly change, there’s really no guarantee that you could exactly witness the lights. Just keep your hopes up and of course, when you travel to a destination, go there to enjoy the place and culture; the phenomenon (e.g. the northern lights) comes as a silver lining. Nobody wishes for an unfavorable scenario but if it happens, at least you would still get the most out of your trip even if Aurora will not show herself to you.
the Paris of the North
With more than 60,000 inhabitants, Tromsø is one of the largest towns in the Arctic. But if one expects to see only a fishing village with not much going on, one would be surprised to see a town center that actually has impressive architecture taking influence from both the Norwegian culture coming from the south of the country and the Sami culture coming from the northern Scandinavian interior. When visitors first came in to Tromsø, they dubbed it as the “Paris of the North” due to some of its infrastructure standing out in terms of design. Tromsø houses the only Norwegian cathedral made out of wood – the Tromsø cathedral, which stands right in the heart of the city. Crossing the Tromsøbrua (Tromsø bridge), on the opposite side of the town, one will find the pyramid-shaped Ishavskatedralen (Arctic cathedral), which, along with the Tromsø cathedral, are the 2 northernmost cathedrals in the world. We actually spent most of our time exploring the town by walking as it gave us more time to witness the views from different angles.
The heart of Tromsø is located in an island surrounded by bigger islands on the west and the Norwegian mainland on the east. This makes for an easily spectacular view of the entire area from above. The Fjellheisen is a cable car system which brings one to the top of the town on the mainland side. We went up there and it just took our breaths away – so much that we went there not just during the day but even during the chilly night. We loved taking in every second of it just being awed by the view.
Apart from these, the city also hosts the northernmost aquarium, the Polaria, where we saw some bearded seals being fed after they played. We also went to the old town where we appreciated the different shopping stores, restaurants and museums that lines the main streets. As we visited during winter, the sun set around 3 to 4 PM, and as the weather was very cooperative the whole time, sunsets emitted colors of golden yellow to pink that were very nostalgic to behold (I love viewing and basking in sunsets).
…by the way, allow me to introduce you to our new friends…
During our third day in Tromsø, we took a tour to do the dog sledding. A very comfortable coach took us to Camp Tamok, which was 1.5 hours drive from the city. For my buddy, he almost slept the entire duration of the trip but for me, it was a great time to enjoy the scenic views. As we passed through the coastal road of a fjord system, we witnessed the sun rising through the waterways with snow-covered mountains in the background, small towns dotting the icy coastline, people fishing (I never imagined anyone could do that in the harshest cold), steam coming out of frozen water as the sun’s rays made contact with them, among others. We even witnessed rocks that have ice forming like stalactites and stalagmites on their surfaces. How incredible was that!
We finally made it to the camp, where we wore thicker winter apparel (Yes, it was still -25 degrees celsius even in a sunny morning)! We met the dogs who took us into the interior for the adventure. For dogs as strong and resilient like those winter dogs, they were also as charming and super-friendly to humans. As my buddy and I love dogs so much, we cuddled and played with them before, during and after the sledding. How I just loved those attention-seekers (insert heart emoji here)!
When we did the sledding, people are formed into couples. One drives while the other rides, but with each having a chance to swap places midway. I used to imagine that sledding is just a no-brainer – that I don’t need to exert much effort except to hold a selfie stick and take some photos and videos. But boy, every step of the way, both driver and passenger have to control the sled as precisely as possible. jaja. So it was one thing to capture the best photos and clips of the journey, and it was another to stay balanced and focus. Otherwise, the sled could overturn, especially on uneven ground. Eventually, my buddy drove 90 percent of the time, so I could just sit back and take most of the documentation.
We finally ended the experience with hot chocolate (and a lot!); their local signature of hot cod and meat soup, a twist of the skrei soup (that was really terrific!); and a sweet local tart made by the village people / all within a warm traditional Tromsøværing cottage to culminate our dog sledding experience.
Our common denominator – Gastronomy!
When we first planned the trip to Tromsø, I instantly told my companion to be in charge of selecting the places to eat. First, I’m too appreciative of food that I am not so good in distinguishing which is quality or just ordinary food. Second, it’s been our ritual that when we travel together, I take care of the activities and sightseeing while he takes care of the gastronomy. In the latter aspect, Tromsø delivered.
For such a small city, we never find it lacking in food and drinks, although we found the latter quite pricey. During our first night, we explored the central square to find a small eatery that offers arguably the best baked potato and veal in town. We ate dinner outside in the square, where we also witnessed a faint episode of the northern lights while having a great night view of the harbor. Later that night, we headed for drinks at Argenturet. As we both appreciate a chill ambiance and since we have a common interest in beer, we returned to the bar several times during our stay. In one of those times, we even met three Norwegians who spent time with us describing the beers that are common and the best in the region. They are teachers who visited the city for a convention and they actually came from different regions. What amazes me is that the people don’t have problems communicating in English and they’re quite warm and welcoming, considering how cold the temperature is in that side of the world.
In one of our nights there, we also went to a local version of a tapería, where it gave us a Spanish feel of a dinner while enjoying local “tapas”. The highlight in that meal was their reindeer meat. Apologies as these animals are quite cute to think of eating them, but we took some out of curiosity… and they actually tasted great! There’s this tenderness in the meat and while the taste is distinct, there’s a sweetness in it.
In another night, we went to one of the signature restaurants in the city, Bardus. my companion didn’t get enough of the reindeer that he took the restaurant’s specialty. I took the plate of bacon and cod with omelette and we were really satisfied with how the locals were proud that we loved the meals they prepared.
A beautiful chase, indeed…
…and finally, it was our time to experience the number one activity we went there for – chasing the northern lights!
It was really exciting to see the lights after anticipating for such a long time. It was a mixed feeling of nervousness and excitement. Nervousness because for traveling that far (especially for me that I traveled one way for 12 hours, layover included), there was literally no room for any unfortunate event (i.e. if the solar flare was too low that the photos wouldn’t look great or if the sky becomes cloudy, or worse, if it snowed). On the other hand, there was excitement because we never knew how the lights will look like in person. Will they dance rapidly? In what colors will they appear? What could be the formations that they take shape in? Definitely, I felt these two emotions while we traveled from the city center to Kvaløya (“Whale Island” in Norwegian).
When we arrived in the first viewing point, it was too early for the lights to appear. The guide told us that usually, they appear a couple of hours after 7 PM. So we waited a bit for them to appear, while the temperature was already hovering around -20 degrees Celsius. In such condition, we felt like a few minutes already seemed like hours have passed. Finally, when we are about to decide to just wait inside the shuttle, Aurora finally appeared in a faint streak. They seemed to resemble like party beams, only that they emit fainter light. At that point, it wasn’t that impressive; but after about 30 more minutes, the streaks became more apparent, and we were already delighted by the view of it. Just a few more exposure to the extreme cold and we’ll finally see the lights!
Indeed, within a quarter of an hour, the lights were in full display. At this point, I was thinking more of taking photos rather than enjoying the view. I saw the lights in motion and they were actually very quick. My concern was that, if we just stare at them, there’s a chance that we might not even take photos (something we could still see in the future at our homes) as they vanish in space. So, with the help of our awesome guide who happens to come from Indonesia (this was crucial because as I come from the Philippines, there was a closeness we shared right on the spot and that allowed me to gain leverage to ask her to take beautiful photos of us with the northern lights). Jejeje Up to this day, I still remember how we had fun, felt awe and enjoyed each other’s company while the Aurora was elegantly dancing and proudly revealing herself in as much colors as she could manifest herself in.
We eventually moved to another viewing spot to see the lights in another angle and as the night progressed, we had to endure the harsh exposure to the cold. This time, the guide told us that it was between -25 to -30 degrees Celsius. I’m very certain that we wore and prepared our clothing for a -20 degrees Celsius temperature but 10 degrees lower? Oh my goodness! Jaja If it wasn’t for the lights, we would have just stayed in the shuttle. But the guide and the driver told us not to miss it. And when we stepped out of the shuttle once more, OH MY GOD!!! It was almost like New Year’s Eve! It was such a beauty – a sight to behold and definitely, I will remember the lights’ movements in detail forever. This time, we took more time to savor the moment and just indulge ourselves with the magnificent view above us. We seem to forget that it was chilly, that we just stare at the lights without even moving to create warmth. Although the lights danced rapidly, it danced for us for a long time. And we even managed to capture it in our camera. It was literally a magical experience for us.
We eventually headed back home and served with hot chocolates and cookies in the shuttle, realizing that we managed to live in that dream while we were awake, until we dozed off for the night.
…and the rest was history
By the time I composed this post, it has been more than a month since we returned from Tromsø. However, the order and depth of the experience has lingered in my mind with crisp. It feels like the entire trip just happened yesterday.
We are just very grateful that everything went well almost perfectly according to plan – the activities, the weather, the photos, our mood and the people we encountered throughout the journey. Because of this trip, my buddy and I really got closer and more comfortable with each other. Truly, we have been very proud sharing some of our experiences to everyone who resonates with these kinds of milestones.
Overall, our short but well-spent time in Tromsø was filled with unforgettable adventures and experiences which we will definitely treasure for a lifetime.
Hey everyone! First of all, I’d like to welcome you to my personal blog, where you will be able to read some of my travel stories. People who know me personally would say that I’ve been a social science enthusiast since I was a child and to live that enthusiasm as an adult has made me feel immensely blessed.
My humble blog is not your typical travel blog – I didn’t have much preparation setting this up nor do I have the instruments and marketing to make this as a commercial blog. I was motivated to create this blog after three of my friends separately recommended that I set up one as I’ve been traveling around the world with much passion, knowledge and excitement. I would say that I’m still private about my experience, let alone my travel experiences. But this might be the right time to share some of my moments with the rest of the world… to show its beauty through my lens, my perspective and through the incidental experiences and lessons I have learned along my travel routes.
From here, I don’t know how this blog would eventually become. Would it last a year? Maybe a couple more? I used to write a lot when I was more introverted but would I be inspired enough to frequently write new posts? Only time will tell and I will keep it as it is. What I know is that, with this medium of expression, perhaps I would be able to draw in readers who share an authentic passion about the world – the history of civilizations, empires and modern states; the diversity in languages, culture and cuisine; and perhaps, friendships and connections derived from a common interest in these things and in travel.
For now, I hope you will have a pleasant time in my blog. I’ll stay in touch more with all of you soon.
“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert