Europe travel · Travel

Germany travel- Berlin the bold


Despite being Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, to me, evokes a kind of tough, scrappy, brutish image, both from its past as a divided city during the Cold War and its contemporary image as a inexpensive, start-up paradise. I found this to kind of true when I visited it, as it was old in some parts, but I also found it attractive and more modern than Rome or Paris. As with London and Paris, Berlin was my first-ever stop in its country.

After getting off my budget flight from Rome, I took the airport bus to the station near my “pension,” their word for a cheap kind of inn, which in this case was a set of rooms inside a low-rise apartment. The building was dark at night, had no elevator, and had graffiti painted on the walls of its driveway. Not exactly the most ideal place to stay in. But it was close to the subway, being between two stations, and further up the street, a supermarket with a separate alcohol store next door (perhaps due to local rules). On one of the nights I went there, a group of punks (mohawks, black jackets and all) were hanging out with a couple of pitbulls in the parking lot, which did give me a little bit of trepidation but nothing happened. But yet, the neighborhood was attractive, with a wide expanse of lawn and a neat row of trees separating the block buildings from the sidewalk and main road. It was only the next day I realized there was a distinctive tower with a dome (TV Tower) at the far end of the main road. The neighborhood also had a lot of small businesses like cheap eateries, alcohol stores and clothes stores.

The first place I visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city’s most famous attraction, the Wall exists as a few preserved sections, as it was mostly torn down. The Memorial is right in the midst of a neighborhood built over where the wall stood. As such, the Memorial stretches along several blocks where parks, preserved wall sections with a watchtower, and a small oval church commemorate the wall. Near the end, there is a museum from which you could get a good view of the wall from the top. The setting was so serene, in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the wall which bisected Berlin into an open Western part and the Eastern, Communist section from where people tried to flee to the West. Some of them lost their lives doing so, which is also commemorated. I also visited another more artistic part of the Wall two days later.

I later made my way to the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament that was in a grand, gray building. More specifically, I went to the top of the building, a dome from where you could get good views of the surroundings. It was then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, which was smaller than I’d imagined. There were horse carts, street musicians, and even an Iranian protest against their country’s regime going on. I walked to Gendarmenmarkt, where three magnificent buildings – the 18th century Konzerthaus Berlin (Concert Hall) and two 17th century churches (the French and German churches) are lined up in a row. I finished off the day by going to Potsdamer Platz, a confusing mall complex spread across several buildings and basements. The coolest part was Sony Plaza, a circular entertainment building covered by a neon-coloured roof made up of blades that resembled a propeller.

The subway was old, but retro and clean in a charming way, not so much creaky and antique like Paris’, cramped like London’s or dark and dirty like Rome’s. But it was a little confusing (see the system map) because there are so many lines, divided into surface and underground trains- U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

  

Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Eternal City at last

Rome is called the “Eternal City” and just a couple of days wandering around was enough to make me understand exactly why. Whether it was walking inside the largely intact 2,000-year-old Colosseum, going up the neighboring Palatine Hill, or going from the young, almost 300-year-old Spanish Steps to the Pantheon to the Castel Sant’Angelo, ancient Rome exists in an impressive and timeless state everywhere.

But it wasn’t “love” at first sight when I arrived in Rome. Rome actually wasn’t my first stop in Italy (it was Milan, which also was a very interesting city), but as the capital and the country’s most famous city, I’m writing about it following my previous posts on London and Paris. My initial thoughts when first stepping foot in the city was slight trepidation and dismay, the former at the notorious reputation I’d read of regarding pickpockets and thieves, and the latter at how dark and shoddy the subway was. When I got out at my subway stop and headed up the exit stairs with my luggage, imagine my shock when a guy at my side grabbed it while two of his friends walked right behind me. But when I looked at him, he said I’m just helping and true to his word, he let go when we reached the top. I don’t think I looked too helpless, especially with my slight carry-on luggage, so maybe some Italians are really helpful.

And when I reached the place I was staying at, a bedroom in an lowrise apartment that was clearly only for visitors, I was taken aback at the elevator – a slim metallic cage in which the inside and the mechanism were fully visible, probably something that was older than my parents.

While I did visit all the great attractions listed above like the Colosseum and Pantheon, as well as the Vatican, I’ll start off with a less famous but still prestigious attraction – the Archbasilica of St John Lateran.

That same evening after I arrived, I headed out to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran. I had never heard about it until I spotted it on Googlemaps near where I was staying (just one subway stop away), but yet it is the cathedral church of Rome, and so basically the Pope’s cathedral. The archbasilica’s lofty status derived from it being the oldest church in the West, having been built in the 4th century AD, and the ecumenical mother church of the Roman Catholic faith.

The archbasilica (the first of the four highest-ranking Catholic churches or basilicas, including the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica) was different from almost every church I’ve ever seen. It stood proudly on a grassy mound at the end of a driveway from the street almost as if it was a mansion on an estate. But the host of lifelike stone popes standing vigilantly on the top of its imposing stone facade made it clear it was a house of God.

Inside, the vast hall featured ornate marble statues, gold engravings and resplendent painted Biblical scenes on the walls. Every altar, every hall and every cloister was richly decorated. In addition, six popes are actually entombed inside the church. I visited a lot of cathedrals during my Europe trip – Milan Cathedral, Notre Dame, St Peter’s; but I never got tired of walking inside them, and the archbasilica was no different. When I came back out, it was fitting that there was a brilliant burst of cloud in the blue sky that looked as if it emanated from the church. Walking away from the archbasilica towards the street with the cars brought me back to the present, but the stately Roman umbrella pine trees and the stone Porta San Giovanni wall, part of the city’s 1700-year-old Aurelian Walls, that stretched across the street with arches to allow cars to go through were a steadfast reminder that this was a city where the past exists in a formidable form.

  

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Paris at last

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Usually I write about my travel in sequential order but I’ve decided to skip ahead to the next city on my Euro trip last year and continue doing so, and then go back to the beginning. London was my first stop so it was natural that the next big city was Paris, which was just a short cross-channel Eurostar trip away.

Paris is a city that obviously doesn’t need an introduction, being featured, written about and pictured in so many movies, books and photos. I was never one of those people who dreamed of going to Paris, especially as I’ve never been a romantic person, but I figured if I was going to Europe, I might as well come here. And I would be very glad I did.

After getting off the Eurostar train in Paris, where we had a most inauspicious start by having to go through an alternate exit due to precautions taken after station staff found a piece of unattended luggage, my mother and I got to our hotel by subway, as in London. Initially, the “antiquity” of the Paris subway was a little underwhelming, with the rickety old carriages and the doors that had to be pulled open with a handle and the somewhat dim platforms.

The first full day started with a trip to the Louvre, of course, and ended with a view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower from on high. The Louvre is one of the world’s most famous museums, and when we got out of the subway station, passed these elegant old buildings, and walked through the dark entrance of one of these buildings to see IM Pei’s glittering pyramid in the centre of the Louvre’s inner courtyard, it really hit home that we were in Paris.
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But before we could enjoy the museum, I had to brave the hustlers and pickpockets which I read so much about and had come to fear. After a brief search to buy a Museum Pass, during which I avoided people pretending to seek donations (the web is full of warnings about people seeking donations from hapless tourists while their accomplices try to take your wallet), we lined up in the courtyard for about half an hour before entering the pyramid and descending to the basement entrance.

I didn’t realize it at first but the Louvre is huge, housed in a former royal palace with three different wings in different directions (according to Wikipedia, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum). After figuring out the map, we chose one wing and set off. The museum is big but it was packed with tourists and predictably, there were scrums around the most famous exhibits like the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace (marble statue of the winged goddess Nike) and of course, the Mona Lisa, where after much moving around and maneuvering in the dense crowd (no pushing or jostling though), I managed to get up close to the fabled painting.

Those two exhibits were very decent, but there were so many great pieces of exhibits including the massive Babylonian marble lions, Greek statues, and paintings of French kings and Napoleon. We were there for only three hours, but I really could have spent a couple of more hours as we only saw about one half of the museum. Of the three wings, we saw two of them and probably not even most of them.
The only complaints I had were that all the exhibit captions were in French, which for a world-class museum was a big stunning to me. Obviously, it was deliberate because it’s the French. Also, the toilets are few and inadequate – for instance, a couple of the washrooms only had one toilet and they are far apart. While my mother had lunch, I had to walk through something like 10 rooms to get a vacant washroom and by the time I returned, she had finished. Yes, I know the building is old, and the exhibits are old, but surely the authorities should be able to install some modern washrooms.

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From there, we went on to Île de la Cité, an islet located on the Seine that is the center of Paris. This was Paris as I had imagined, with the rows of elegant townhouses, magnificent old buildings, Notre Dame cathedral, and the streetside bakeries selling baguettes and crepes. But of course, it was also a very heavily touristed place. First, we went to St Chappelle, a royal 13th century Gothic chapel fitted with the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen. There is a smaller hall from which you went on to the larger sanctuary whose upper walls were filled with fantastic multicoloured stained glass windows featuring scenes from the New Testament. The effect was like being in a hall with resplendent purple and blue ceilings.

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Notre Dame was next, with its imposing Gothic structure fronted by two towers, and the famous stone gargoyles perched on its roof and above its windows. There was some impressive sculpted artwork in its front – midway, a row of stone statues of bishops stood sentry across the entire front facade while the three curved entrances had countless stone bishops sculpted along the sides and top. The cathedral is massive and it was an interesting experience to walk in the cavernous inside and view the stained glass windows, the sculpted scenes of Christ rising, and even the stone coffins of two bishops at the back. I was starting to enjoy Paris, even its old subway system, which now seemed kind of cool.

Finally, for the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower. The building is considered a monstrosity by some due to its somewhat unattractive appearance, but that is exactly why it provides the best views of Paris. Because if you go up the Eiffel Tower, which is another great place to view the city, you will see the Montparnasse Tower itself. As it is, when you can see the neat triangular grids of the uniform townhouses and famous landmarks like the Louvre, Notre Dame and even Montmartre hill, Paris is amazing.
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Winged Victory of Samothrace
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St Chappelle and its beautiful stained windows
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Notre Dame, above, and its famed gargoyles, below
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Louvre again below

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Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

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The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.
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The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
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The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.
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The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
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Old and the new
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Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
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It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
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This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
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Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked

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Uncategorized

Britain’s post-Brexit pondering

It’s been over two weeks since Brexit happened in the UK and political events have become even more uncertain. Financial instability and widespread shock happened in the UK and worldwide, but rather than calm down, the UK’s domestic politics has become more unstable with the Prime Minister David Cameron stepping down, the ruling party set to choose a new leader and hence PM, notorious UKIP leader (and pro-Brexit advocate) Nigel Farage resigning, and the opposition Labour Party trying to get in on the fun by attempting to force out its leader Jeremy Corbyn. All this while the actual exit from the EU remains in limbo with some still hoping or praying it wouldn’t actually happen. It’s fair to say all this political drama has overshadowed the practical ramifications of Brexit.

For me, it was very disappointing. I wanted the UK to stay in the EU, so I was saddened by the referendum’s result. I support the UK in the EU, not for economic reasons but because of what the EU represents. I see it as a continental body that represents a bold vision of uniting multiple nations in various ways and actually doing that. Whereas the United Nations is just a gathering of countries and assorted multilateral organizations, the EU actually is a body of nations that cooperate and act as one in various ways, from law to education to freedom of movement. Yes, it has a lot of problems, from bureaucratic excess to increasing powers that limit individual nations’ sovereignty and policies, and the way how the issue of the waves of Syrian immigrants was handled was not very efficient, with Germany offering open arms while other nations closer to the EU’s boundaries were reluctant and badly overstretched. But in a world of still significant tensions, the idea of a continent of nations united in various ways and speaking with a united voice on important issues is necessary. With the US being the world’s sole superpower and rising giant like China, not to mention Russia, acting like a belligerent bully, it is imperative that Europe still have a great role on the world stage.

Of course, I am not a citizen of an EU nation nor do I live and work there. On a personal basis, my sole experience of the EU was traveling across parts of Western Europe last year and being able to cross boundaries without showing my passport and using a single currency, the euro, across different countries. But it was seeing the blue EU flag flying alongside the national flags in official buildings in France and Italy that really reinforced the idea of European unity.

And I think that’s where the Remain campaign went wrong in the UK. Rather than emphasize the idea and vision of the EU as well as border-less travel and work, they focused mainly on economic benefits in terms of trade and single-market access. For a lot of lower-income and older British who are undergoing tough times, that is a hard sell if the economy already seems terrible to them. Then again, the UK has also had a lukewarm relationship with the EU, for instance, they still retain their own currency (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and they are not part of the Schengen Zone, which encompasses much of the EU and enables borderless travel. When it comes to foreign policy, the UK has tended to operate independently from the EU and its main core countries Germany and France.

I also don’t want to fall into the trap of labeling British Brexit supporters as poor, uneducated idiots who all didn’t even know what they wanted (admittedly some of them really didn’t and thus deserve to be criticized). Even though the UK is supposedly a wealthy, developed country, it has its fair share of economic inequality and poverty, with parts of the country neglected and underdeveloped. It is also well-known that London is heavily, disproportionately supported in terms of government funding and other resources, so other parts of the nation are not as well funded and thus not prospering. Therefore it stands that some of those who voted for Brexit do have legitimate grievances with their government and with the EU, and they should not be universally derided.

However, will they still be as resolute in accepting the consequences of what they accomplished? Will those who voted to stay in Europe accept it as well? Will the UK be able to handle the consequences, economically and politically, not to mention stay intact given the rumblings from Scotland about leaving? All this means that UK politics will be very interesting for at least the rest of the year.

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Chambery, a small town in Southern France near the Alps. The flag on the left is Savoy, the region. 

Uncategorized

2015 in review

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at what happened and then look forward to the new year. For me, it was a bittersweet year as I decided to leave Beijing, but I also finally went to Europe to travel.

I actually started off the year by going back to Taiwan to get minor foot surgery, which went alright but meant I had to take it easy for the first few months. Even now, I have to be careful as I still get minor aches now and then, and I have not done any real hiking in over a year.
I then decided to end my time in Beijing, quit my job there, and leave. It was a relatively easy decision to make, but it had been months in the making. I felt a lot of disappointment, not just because of leaving but because I had slowly realized that my previous sentiments about the country had been wrong and foolish, and as a result, my attitude shifted 180 degrees. It’s something I cannot full explain because it’s like you have a belief in something for a long time but then, it’s exposed as fake and there’s an emptiness in its place. And you can’t even blame other people because you were the one misleading yourself.
It’s only now that I sometimes get a slight feeling of nostalgia for my time in Beijing, which is a different world from Taiwan, despite being only a three-hour flight away and the similar cultural characteristics and language. Of course, the ongoing recurrent bouts of bad smog that Beijing and a lot of Northern China have been getting this month have made me relieved I am not there.

With regards to traveling, I took a couple of decent weekend trips while I was still in Beijing, to see the Yunggang Grottoes in Datong and to visit Jinan, the capital of Shandong. I went to Myanmar and then Western Europe after returning to Taiwan.
Myanmar was a decent experience though it was tough visiting there during one of the hottest months of the year.
The “Eurotrip” was undoubtedly the highlight, mostly because I hadn’t expected to be so fascinated by all the places I went to. While I’ve always wanted to visit England, I’d also thought that Europe wasn’t so exotic or interesting (I mean I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and the Colosseum so many times in movies, shows and photos) and was too old-world in a staid way. Well, I was very much wrong! I still think about Paris and Rome with fondness and I certainly hope I can return to the Old Continent in future.

Writing-wise, I still write about football, mainly about Arsenal, though I didn’t get to write much about travel. I wrote this piece about Datong and another one about Milan.

It’d be foolish to just focus on one’s own issues and not be aware of things going on in the world. As much as I liked traveling to Europe, there are countless other less fortunate souls who also went to Europe but for much more desperate reasons. The refugee crisis is itself the result of continued instability and conflict in parts of the Middle East and Africa, especially Libya and Syria. There needs to be both help for the refugees and action taken to dampen the conflict in those parts. In this part of Asia, there is less of that but China’s growing arrogance and militarization in the South China Sea make this a possible area of conflict. Taiwan’s next presidential and legislative elections will happen in a few weeks and a big change is expected, with a more pro-Taiwan opposition party expected to win. Knowing China and the CCP, they will not take this quietly so who knows how much noise and sabre-rattling will happen.

Regardless, I am kind of glad 2016 is approaching very soon and I hope things will turn out to be better than this year.

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Going to Europe let me see sights like the Eiffel Tower, above, and wander the streets of Rome, below.
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Before my Europe trip, I went to Myanmar, a weird mix of Southeast Asia and Britain, a result of the country having been a British colony up till the mid-20th century.
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I took two weekend trips earlier in the year in China, one to Datong to see the Yunggang Grottoes, below, and another to Jinan, the photo below the following photo.
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On my last day in Beijing, I got one final bitter taste of China life when I was stuck inside my plane to Taipei for over two hours due to takeoff delays and heavy rain. The flight had already been delayed twice for two hours before boarding, so my flight was delayed by over four hours.
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Sometimes Beijing can be beautiful. I don’t know if I’ll ever see these sights below, taken in January.
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Of course, Taipei can also be very attractive.
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Travel

Overview of a first-time Europe trip

For many years, I often had to say to people when talking about travelling, “I’ve never been to Europe.” Well, I no longer need to say that because I finally did go to Europe.

Specifically, I went to the UK, France, Italy, and Germany in October. My destinations were mostly cities – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin – since those are among the most famous places in Europe, plus I like cities, not to mention my lack of familiarity with Europe and my wonky foot meant I couldn’t really do any hiking. I stayed a few full days each in most of the cities so it was not one of those whirlwind, 10-day, 8-city kind of trip. Actually the trip was a little over 3 weeks but it did feel too short. Originally I was planning a shorter and less ambitious trip but then my mother asked to come along (we went to London and Paris, then she went back first) so I extended it and decided to go to Italy.

It was a real eye-opener and I left with a positive impression, that Europe, or at least those countries I went to, despite all the news about struggling economies and old societies, is still very much a beautiful, modern and advanced continent. It was easy to see and feel the history all around, especially in cities like Paris and Rome, which was integrated with modernity in a way that was charming and different from cities in China or Taiwan. The sights were beautiful, the food was great, people were courteous in general, the service was good, despite expectations about supposed French haughtiness which were proven wrong. On the other hand, what was not so charming was the lack of toilets in places like the Louvre or the old subway in Rome. I also had strong concerns about pickpocketers and scammers, which I read a lot of worrying accounts about. I had a few encounters with the latter, but luckily I was unscathed. I should also say it was good to have gone to Paris before the terrorist attack last week, as some things may never be the same security-wise in the short term, with even other countries like Belgium affected.

In short, I found Paris to be the most beautiful city, Rome the most historic and impressive, and London the most modern. Germany was good though I was a little disappointed by certain aspects of society (surly service staff, people walking into you etc). However, I liked each country I went to, and could have easily spent more time in each of them.

I may have missed out on Spain, and Northern and Eastern Europe, but hopefully I will get there another time.

The itinerary
I started off in London, where we stayed for a few days and did a daytrip to Cambridge. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris, stayed for a few days, then moved on to Chambery, a town near the Alps in southern France, by train, stayed one full day, and crossed into Italy by train. I stayed in Milan for two full days, then went to Rome, again by train. After three full days, I flew from Rome to Berlin, stayed for two days, which I admit is too short for that city, then took the train to Frankfurt, stayed one full day, then flew back to Asia.

The highlights

England
London
-I’ve been to a few good museums but the British Museum was pretty impressive, the first of many great museums I’d visit in Europe. It features famous objects like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece, and a Egyptian gallery, plus it’s got a cool African section.
-Tower Bridge was attractive, with the Tower of London on one side, while crossing the bridge provides nice views of the river Thames, HMS Belfast, moored lower down the Thames, and London’s weird towers like the Shard and Skygarden.
-Westminster Parliament with neighboring Westminster Abbey were both large, grand buildings
-Trafalgar Square was much livelier than I expected, and the National Art Gallery, which is at the square, was full of nice paintings.
-I’m an Arsenal fan so Emirates Stadium was a great place to visit. As a bonus, it is near one of the oldest and most attractive subway stations I’ve ever seen – red-brick Holloway Road station.
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France
Paris
-The Louvre was great (I only saw about one-third of the exhibits).
-St. Chapelle doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside, it has the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
-Looking down across Paris from the Montparnasse Tower (it’s much less busier and actually lets you see the Eiffel Tower)
-The Champs-Élysées by itself is not so spectacular but walking on it to reach the Arc de Triomphe was really cool, especially as the avenue becomes more busier the nearer you get to the Arc.
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Italy

Rome
-The Colosseum is magnificent, but the neighboring Forum ruins are more interesting and the neighboring (all three are right next to each other) Palatine Hill lets you have a good view of the Forum.
-The Piazza Navone is a large, beautiful square surrounded by attractive buildings, restaurants and a large church. It is in the middle of a historic district with the Pantheon just east of it.
-The Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angel’s Castle) is a round Roman imperial fortress that overlooks the river Tiber and the Vatican.
-Vatican Museums feature so much great art that it was almost too much for me to take in. There were impressive sculptures of Roman emperors, huge masterpieces and fantastic painted ceilings, such as the Sistine Chapel’s painted by the great Michelangelo.
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Milan
-Milan’s main attraction, the massive Duomo cathedral, is an impressive sight both inside and outside and on top. The cathedral is next to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an open-air luxury mall which is strikingly beautiful.
-Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) is a formidable 15th century castle that serves as a museum. It’s actually a collection of mini-museums ranging from art to furniture and also features Michelangelo’s last project, an unfinished sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
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Germany

Berlin
-German historical museum is only two floors but is full of interesting exhibits and paintings that range from the Middle Ages to German reunification. It also has World War II items such as Nazi posters and newspapers about the Allied victory.
-Gendermenmarkt is a square flanked by the three awesome old buildings – the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and the French and German churches.
-Berlin Cathedral is one of the most attractive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Its green dome-shaped roofs make it different from all the tall, stern, rectangular cathedrals you see all over Europe.
-East Side Gallery is an over 1km-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is covered with crazy and beautiful graffiti “masterpieces.”
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Frankfurt
-Romer is a historic square that features distinctive picturesque traditional wooden buildings.
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Uncategorized

Stay strong Paris

As many people will have known by now, Paris experienced a terrible tragedy Friday night when it was hit by several simultaneous attacks. Over 120 people were killed by gunmen and suicide bombers in various locations including a concert hall, restaurants and outside a football stadium.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this and French President Francois Hollande also said it was committed by the Islamic fundamentalist group. If true, it would be a scary step up for IS (also known as Daesh and before as ISIS) who have been waging war across parts of Iraq and Syria for over a year now. That they can coordinate attacks in a large European city is very worrying. It was just a few weeks ago that the group claimed it had brought down a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai region. In a public notice sent out, IS claimed that France was their main Western target because it had insulted their Prophet and had taken part in recent air attacks against IS in Syria.

It was a big shock to wake up in the morning and suddenly read about such a huge terror attack in such a major international city, especially one that I had just visited less than a month ago. I was only there for less than a week but the city made a big impression on me.
All we can do now is pray or spare a thought for Paris and the victims and keep in mind there are some terrible conflicts going on around the world, especially the evil that is IS/ISIS/Daesh.

Stay strong, Paris
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Africa · Books · China · Travel

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.

Books · China

Random links- Vietnam IT scene, Asian books, Indian soccer, and sleep

By now many of us have heard of Flappy Bird, the simple bird game for smartphones that became a sensation before being pulled off of app stores by its creator, who claimed the game’s popularity and the revenue it generated had made his life a nightmare. Flappy Bird’s creator is Vietnamese, and his government is intent on having more similar successes. Well not exactly, but Vietnam is trying to create its own Silicon Valley. It’s still in the budding stages though there are some interested youngsters who seem willing to be involved. Of course, the article raises at the end the not-so-insignificant fact the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime, just like China, which makes it kind of difficult to imagine facilitating enormous creativity. It’ll be interesting to see how this project turns out.

There have been some interesting books recently, such as from Indian authors. Even then, China is not surprisingly the main subject for one of these books. A Great Clamour is Pankaj Mishraj’s book about trying to understand the rise of China from a societal point of view and includes accounts of his travels to neighboring countries. Mishraj’s main mode of analyzing modern China is based on talking to moderate critics, those who don’t hesitate to call out the government but aren’t radicalized enough to be considered dissidents or put in prison. Punjabi Parmesar focuses on Europe from an Indian perspective, though the China connection is still present with the author, an Indian journalist, being a former China correspondent and her previous book being about China. From the reviews, the book doesn’t seem to be very admiring or complimentary of Europe, but blunt and critical as the following quote from the book shows:
Europe for a lot of people is like a picture postcard for holidays and I think Europe is great at holidays. However, it is in great danger of becoming an ossified museum — a place which is very pretty, has cobble stones, beautiful cafes and museums but in itself is turning into a museum.”

The Asian Review of Books, which I sometimes write for, always has a good list of book review links, in addition to its own book reviews, regularly such as this about China and Japan books.

India and football (soccer) are two things that don’t go together at all. And from this BBC article, it seems it’ll stay that way for a while despite the efforts of Pune FC and the fledgling league it plays in. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. India is crazy over cricket, and is a strong though inconsistent force on the global stage.  Which is more than can be said for China and any international team sport.

And finally, sleeping too little is harmful for us, especially our brains, but so is sleeping too much! Luckily the latter is defined as 10 hours, so I think I’m good. The article has some interesting info, specifically about how our brain cleanses itself during sleep, flushing toxins away from brain cells (the idea of toxins in our brains does sound a little ghastly, now that I think about it).