Friday, December 11, 2009

Alhambra - Missed Opportunity

A very common fountain found around the Alhambra

One of the 13 towers of the Alhambra

Ruins inside the Alhambra


The Alhambra, a Unesco Heritage site, is Spain's most visited attraction. One has to book 3 months in advance for a ticket to the palaces or be at the gate by 8 am to line up for a last minute ticket.

The pictures I took over a Christmas holiday trip in 2006 did not amount to much. I didn't have advance booking and only got into Granada by bus from Malaga after 10:00 am. I was limited to walking around looking at the palaces from the outside.

The Alhambra is actually a fortress with 13 towers, not just one palace. Within the fortress, are the 3 Nasrid palaces (the Nasrid was the last Moorish dynasty in Granada). In one of these palaces is the famous Court of the Lions (Patio de Leones). The other palaces are the Palacio de Generalife (also Moorish) and the Palacio de Carlos V, built after the Spanish conquest of 1492. The gardens inside the fortress feature a lot of fountains like the first photo.

Seeing the famous Islamic architecture and design work of the Nasrid palaces up close and personal would have been just brilliant. Next time for sure.

A walking tour of the Albayzin however saved the day. On the other side of the River Darro from the Alhambra is Albayzin, another UNESCO Heritage site. The Albayzin is a well preserved Moorish town with steep and winding, narrow streets, mosques, baths and medieval houses (some even showing dates on the wall). The Albayzin remains the Moorish/Jewish quarter of the city today. It definitely felt special.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alcazaba of Malaga

View of the Alcazaba from Hotel Maestranza

Section of the Castle Wall

Courtyard Interior

Ramparts overlooking amphitheatre and downtown

2nd century Roman amphitheatre

After 600 years since the Spanish Reconquest, Moorish heritage is still very evident in Malaga. The most visible and imposing is Alcazaba (or sometimes called Alcazar), the fortress of the governors of Granada, started in the 8th century.

The castle overlooks the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and the Cathedral, with a great view of the old town below on one side, and the castle of Gibralfaro and Malagueta on the other. The Alcazaba may not be as grand as the Alhambra but it is one of the best preserved Arabic citadels, with the interior pretty much intact.

Below one of the ramparts is a 2nd century Roman amphitheatre. It's smallish as amphitheatres go, but says a lot about the age of the city.

Only the remnants of the walls remain at Gibralfaro on the next hill. Gibralfaro (in Arabic, rock of the lighthouse) was the scene of the surrender of the citizens of Malaga, after a 3 month siege by Ferdinand and Isabella in the remaining days of the Moorish empire in Spain.

Alcazaba (and Gibralfaro) are well worth the climb and the hike. They make Malaga far more interesting destination than just for soaking up warmth in the winter.


I was scheduled to leave on New Year's Day (Jan 1st), at 8:00 am for Frankfurt. When I got to the airport, the lights at the Spanair counter were dimmed. The agent said the flight was delayed. When pressed for more information, the agent simply said the pilot did not show up, nowhere to be found.

A replacement pilot had to be flown in from Mallorca. Spanair rebooked me on Iberia instead. I should've known. New Year's Eve and too much tinto make pilot disappear. What a way to start the year, 2007!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On the Malagueta

View of Malaga Harbour, from Gibralfaro

Malaga Cathedral, Plaza del Obispo

Ayuntamiento de Malaga, from the Alcazaba

Corrida next to Hotel Maestranza

Picasso's Birthplace, Plaza de la Merced

Moorish Night Market

Picasso and Antonio Banderas share the same hometown. They are the more recognizable citizens of Malaga in the Costa del Sol of Spain in romantic Andalusia.

A city of about half a million, it is a vacation destination and a major commercial port. Founded in the 8th century BC by Phoenicians, it was an important center of Moorish Spain, a couple of hours from the grand capitals of Cordoba and Granada.

With lots of spare time over Christmas holidays in 2006, I decided to fly to Malaga after the obligatory family Christmas festivities. I stayed at Hotel Maestranza, a few blocks from the Malagueta. Malagueta is the district to the east of the harbour and the city center.

The beach is nothing to rave about, but it has ambience and leisurely air. What is a beach without ambience? And one can always boast that it is on Costa del Sol.

Sunny weather with temperature averaging 17c in January, makes Malaga a very desirable winter destination for me. In addition, it has a rich cultural and historical heritage, a combination of the Moorish and the Catholic, so there's lots to do and see. Malaga is relatively inexpensive compared to other European destinations.

For sure, a return visit is on my to do list even just to practice my Spanish.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

3 Posadas and a Finca

Courtyard, Casona de Salitre, Paipa

Thermal Pool, Casona de Salitre, Paipa

Bedroom, Posada San Antonio, Villa de Leyva

Lounge, Posada de San Antonio, Villa de Leyva

Bedroom, Spa Hotel Getsemane, Villa de Leyva

Lobby, Spa Hotel Getsemane, Villa de Leyva

Hallway, San Luis de Acuenga, Punta Larga

Suite, San Luis de Acuenga, Punta Larga

Traveling on business has its hazards.

For me, traveling within Boyaca (Colombia) this summer 2009, meant sleeping in a different hotel room and bed every other day, almost. However, visiting 15 hotels, checking in and out of 12 of them was the job. There were times of dislocation, not knowing whether I was supposed to pack or unpack, and confusion as to which day or town it was.

In Colombia, hotels came under a variety of names: hosteria, hospederia basically mean the same, hotel; posada, meson and casona could be inn, villa or guesthouse; and finca is a farm (with a large house.) The pleasure of doing the work I do is finding out some neat and interesting places to stay.

As for what to do or see in Boyaca, please check Trip Advisor, A Privileged Place in Colombia.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Other Side of Papua New Guinea

Most people think of Papua New Guinea in terms of National Geographic photo layouts of the highland provinces. Until I had the privilege of visiting friends in Alotau, Milne Bay in February 2008, I thought the same. Milne Bay province is on the south eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, with some of the remotest island communities in the world. In contrast to the interior of the island, Milne Bay serves as a reminder that the second biggest island in the world, is in the South Pacific - beaches, fishing and diving, coconuts and palm trees, tropical heat and flip flops.

Alotau, the capital of the province, is a quiet, frontier town spreading out from Alotau Bay, up to the hills. The first photo (of the hauswin) was taken from my friends' house, which sits nicely on a hill overlooking the bay. I spent many hours just enjoying the breeze and contemplating nothing. Life as it was meant to be. In town, there's a church street, where on a Sunday, choirs from the different churches can be heard from all directions. At the Catholic church, one can attend mass al fresco. How civilized.

Samarai is the name of a group of islands and the island itself which was the capital of Milne Bay until 1969. We spent the night in Oba, a hamlet of maybe 6 houses, a dozen residents, on Sidea, an island in Samarai. No tv, radio, no cellphone, no internet, a deserted beach, very lush hillsides. For dinner, freshly caught red emperor fish and smoked tuna. It was a perfect place to unwind, listening to the waves and staring at the starriest night I've seen.

The abandoned buildings in the photo are the remnants of the once bustling town of Samarai. Currently being restored, they are a time capsule of early 20th century Samarai, like a Somerset Maugham or Jack London novel of the South Pacific The church on Kwato island is as impressive from out on sea, like a bird in flight. Charles Abel founded the congregation, Kwato Church, over a hundred years ago and contributed greatly to the education and training of the islanders.

Follow the link to my review of Milne Bay in Trip Advisor: That South Pacific Feeling

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recorriendo Boyaca

After spending 2 months in Colombia this summer 2009, I came to appreciate what Colombia is all about. Mind you, I was only in one department, Boyaca, 2+ hours away from Bogota, in the Andina region. First, I felt very safe, on the road, on the streets, and in the country side. Secondly, the people were genuinely gracious, hospitable and welcoming. One has to be there to believe it.

As a way of thanking the good people of Boyaca I worked with, I put this short video together to the music of Pedro Nel Martinez, a native Boyacense (I was told). The string instrument is called a "tiple". There's more to write about Boyaca, Colombia but for now enjoy my little video.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Huli of Tari Valley

The Huli have lived in Tari valley in the Southern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea for a at least a couple of thousand years. They remained isolated and "undiscovered" until the 1930's when an Australian patrol stumbled into the valley. Life had not changed much until the 1980's.

An airstrip now links Tari to Port Moresby, and a gravel highway connects the valley to Mt. Hagen and the north coast. In addition, coke, ramen noodles, tinned corned beef and sardines, lotto have been incorporated into the local life.

The Huli wigmen are iconic representatives of the people of the valley. They are a congregation of men, who remain celibate until they give up their vocation to marry. Sounds familiar, if you happen to be Catholic priest.

Most local folks have given up their traditional life, and tend to be out and about in the village, much like we would in a mall. The photos were taken in a school for wigmen and a typical Huli family compound that are preserved for posterity and tourists, like me.

Visit my review of Tari in Trip Advisor, National Geographic Moments.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Valley of the Clouds

Tari is in the Southern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. So far, it has been the most fascinating place I have visited. It will be one of my most memorable. Last year (2008), I decided to take a trip to Papua New Guinea and visit my long time friends, Zen and Morris. A trip to their corner of the world was something I had thought about for several years. Seeing there's not much to see or do in Port Moresby, Zen suggested a trip to the Southern Highlands.

In the mid '70s, Barbet Schroeder, a French film maker, came out with a hippy-dippy, art house film, La Vallee (Obscured by the Clouds), with sound track by Pink Floyd. After I saw the film, the imagery embedded itself in my mind. As I got off the Air Niugini flight at Tari airstrip, I was awestruck by the scenery - the valley of the clouds. Maybe not the exact location but Tari was perpetually shrouded in thick, heavy clouds, ringed by a lush, bluish mountain range.

Tari Valley is on the gravel highway between Mendi, the provincial capital and Mt. Hagen in the Northern Highlands province. At the airport, a guide and representative of Trans Niugini Tours picked me up in an Australian Oka for a 40 minute drive to Ambua Lodge. At 2100 metres, Ambua Lodge commands a fantastic view of the valley and the mountain range, often "obscured by the clouds." It was the most peaceful hotel I've ever stayed. Only the plop plop of the night rain on the thatched roofing, the rustling of trees, the gentle murmur of the mountain stream and occasional bird calling amounted to "noise."

From Ambua Lodge, Tari Gap was about 1.5 hour trip. On the way, peeking through the thick foliage, was Ambua Mountain, (yellow mountain) sacred to the Huli people. The Gap is literally a wide opening in the mountain range with sub-alpine vegetation and Mt. Gilawe (2nd highest in Papua New Guinea) in the distance. The quietness of the place gives it an almost reverent feel. In the late 1930's, the first white men came through the Gap, stumbled into the valley, and "discovered" the Huli, the people of the valley. Today, Tari Gap serves as a pass through the mountain range connecting the southern highlands to the north coast of the island.

I had more to discover. More on Tari next post. A link to my review in Trip Advisor, National Geographic Moments.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Child's Heart Sings

Traveling always has its surprises. One day in February 2008, I made a pleasand discovery in the quiet, rural town of Loboc, on Bohol island. The small town of musically inclined (and gifted) residents prides itself on the Loboc Children's Choir, comprised of 9-13 year olds at the principal elementary school. Founded in 1980 to perform in school and community events, the LCC has become more than just a school choir.

In 2003, LCC received the gold medal in the youth category at the "Europe and It's Song" Festival in Barcelona, Spain. At that same festival, they also received the Festival Cup (Grand Prize) besting 12 other (adult )choirs. The town's 300 year old church is the choir's "concert hall." However, they have performed in venues and events in Europe, Asia, and the Philippines. as well as prisons, hospitals, and senior's homes.

I didn't see the choir perform (it was a school day), but picked up their CD, "And A Child Heart Sings" before getting on one of the floating restaurants. Their repertoire consists primarily of classical and religious music, with international folk and children songs thrown in. The angelic sound of the Loboc Children's Choir makes Bohol a bit more special.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Alona Beach

The photos above were taken on Panglao Island.The island is connected by 2 bridges to the main island of Bohol Province in the Visayas, south central Philippines. Alona (Kew White) Beach is the most popular. The island is a National Integrated Protected Areas Systems of the Philippines, and listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site. Panglao is very rural (mostly fisher folks and farmers), and home to some urbanites from Manila (artists I heard), ex-pats and their family, or retired beach lovers. What is there to do? Sun, surf, diving, and more diving.

First photo on top is the shopping center on the main highway circling the island. Directly across is the entrance to Kew White Beach. The next photo is one of the many "side streets" off the highway leading down to the beach. Table and chairs belong to the beach restaurant/bar of the Isis Bungalows, where I stayed, with a very mediterranean building. The restaurant specializes in Thai cuisine, with a Thai chef.

Finally, the photo of the two guys was from another island they call, "Virgin" island (not the real name), because it's off limits for habitation or overnight stay. So, it's still virgin in that respect . A few interesting things I found out about these two. Larry in the red shorts lives on another island, and is a welder by trade. He comes to visit his parents a few months out of the year, and works as a diving/boating guide. His cousin, wearing a sarong (lava lava, lap lap or wrap around skirt) with long braided hair, sells gold jewellery, sea pearls on the island or wherever he finds tourists. I learned from Larry, that he is Christian-Muslim, a mixture of Visayan and Badjao, while his cousin, is pure Badjao.

Badjaos? They're known as sea gypsies, sea nomads or "man of the seas". Their communities are built on stilts in the water. They're found in the southern tip of the Philippines, in Sulu Province, Borneo and Celebes. Larry's father as a matter of fact is a Malaysian Badjao, a Muslim, who married a Visayan (Filipino) Christian.

My Trip Advisor Review: Isis Bungalows

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

An Island So Round

(Photo courtesy of Isis Bungalows, Panglao, Bohol)

"How can an island be so round?" asked Maui, a friend in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on seeing the photo I sent around. Balicasag island looks pretty impressive and awe inspiring from the air. Unfortunately, most people do not get too appreciate the beauty of this island (including myself) except for the photographer who snapped this photo. I didn't realize this was the same island I had visited in February until after I got back home. While reviewing the website for Isis Bungalows, the place I stayed at in Panglao, (Bohol, Philippines), I noticed this photo.

On Balicasag island, a big section off the beach is a marine sanctuary, a popular destination for divers and snorkellers who come to Panglao, Bohol. The tour starts at 6:00 am when the guide/boatman takes off from Alona Beach in Panglao. The first stop is an area where the flotilla of bancas of different sizes (paraus with double outriggers) slow down for dolphin watching. After that, on to Balicasag. The bancas stop their motor just outside of the reef, roped off with bouys. The reef is just under 3 feet of water but beyond, the water drops dramatically to a few hundred feet.

Too bad Larry the guide didn't let me go on the island when I asked. His response was, with a strange look, "What do you want to do there? There's nothing to see on the island!"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Vienna's Ring Road

Vienna's Ring Road, as the name suggests, goes around the inner city (Innerstadt). It is a semircular road which begins and ends on the Danube Canal (Donaucanal), divided into sections with different names. It can get awfully confusing. After a few times in the city, I finally figured out that all these names, e.g. Openring, Burgring, Schottenring etc., are one and the same road.

In April 2009, I stayed at a small hotel off Lerchenfelderstrasse, near the Vokstheatre on Museumstrasse. Next block over is the Burgring. The first photo shows the shortcut I took to get to Vokstheatre metro station. It is a former monastery with huge wooden gates, that close at 9:00 pm (I discovered late one evening.) It houses a Kandinsky museum, and a couple of chi chi cafes. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to check out the museum nor the cafes.

My point of reference was the Museum Quartier (second photo), a complex of 4 museums of modern and contemporary art, including one for Gustave Klimt. The courtyard of the MQ is becoming to be Vienna's meeting place, with cafes and a fountain. At night, it's the place to chill out for young people..

From the MQ, one can just walk across the Volksgarten to the Museum of Natural History and the Hofsburg Palace. In the palace, one can visit the Spanish Riding School. One side of the MQ, leads out to Mariahilferstrasse, a popular shopping street in Vienna, with many of the same chain stores one finds in a mall.

Further on the Ring road, on Openring, is Naschmarkt (third photo), where vendors sell fresh produce and exotic foods complemented by cafes and ethnic restaurants. A few blocks away is the Opera and Karlplatz. Coming out of the Karlplatz metro station, one is greeted with a view of a church with minaret-like towers, Karlkirche. If you keep going along the ring road, you'll get to the Stadt Park. At the Vienna Konzerthaus in the Stadt Park, I had the opportunity of listening to a Strauss concert for 30 Euros.

On the opposite direction, on the Ring road are the government buildings: City Hall, the Palace of Justice and the Austrian Parliament. If I have one more time to visit Vienna, my to do list consists of two things: the Spanish Riding School to check out the Lipizzaner horses, and Mozart's Requiem concert at Karlskirche (only on Saturdays I believe.)

A map of Vienna in Trip Advisor.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Memorable Bench

The park bench in the photo is a memorable one. Behind the bench is the Danube canal. In front across the road, Schuttelstrasse, was the apartment building of a family friend I visited a few years ago.

From the living room window, one can see the street that leads to Hundertvasserhaus. The unique apartment building was designed by Friedensriech Hundertvasser to counter anything ugly going up on its site. The building features undulating floors, roof with grass on top, trees inside the apartments, branches sticking out windows that do not match. It is a cultural landmark, one of the most visited buildings in Vienna.

From the kitchen windown of the apartment, on the other side of the apartment, is the city park that leads to the Prater. The year round amusement park features the world's largest wooden ferris wheel. The view in the photo is from inside a carriage of the ferris wheel.

On September 11, 2001, at 3:00 pm I was sitting on this bench by the Danube canal. I was to meet Ruby, the family friend, at her apartment. Fifteen minutes later, I heard someone calling me from the bus stop on the other side of the road. It was Ruby and her assistant, saying something about an airplane that crashed into the World Trade Center.

In the apartment, she turned on the tv. My first reaction was, "Ah, this is a tv movie!" As we listened to the reporters, another airplane came into view, like a mosquito coming closer to the other tower. I said, "It must be one of those news helicopters." Of course it wasn't.

As we watched, we saw people jumping out of the windows. We wondered how people on the top floors were going to escape the raging inferno. Suddenly, the first building started to buckle and collapsed straight down. By then, Ruby was already in hysterics. I could only say, "This is so neat, so clean. How can that happen?" I was thinking a skyscraper like that wouldn't topple on account of fire. Then the next one came down the same way.

That was how I learned about the tragedy of September 11, European time. I didn't read about the "conspiracy theory" until 2 years ago. I guess I had the same questions back then.

It was nice to go down memory lane, one day during Easter week of this year. Ruby had moved since. Schuttelstrasse remains the same, a quiet street with the Danube canal in front and the city park to the Prater behind.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Most Livable City"

In the 2009 Mercer Report on Quality of Living of cities, Vienna takes the #1 spot. Why it took so long for them to recognize that is beyond me. I reached the same conclusion on my first visit to Vienna almost 15 years ago. At least, they agree with me now.

Enroute to Toronto from Kiev, I stopped in Vienna for a week in April this year. It was my 5th time there, my 2nd time during Easter week, not by design but due to scheduling. This time I had a whole week to explore and chill out. My past trips were weekend getaways or brief stopovers while in that part of the world. (The cozy airport, VIE, happens to be a hub from/to eastern Europe and beyond.)

The city remains the same as in previous times: charming, civil, cultural, cosmopolitan, efficient, uncomplicated, upbeat combining quaint, grand, clean and safe in one adjective. Although there seems to be a lot more tourists, I don't think it has grown in size. It is as civilized as it can get especially when it comes to your wallet. You get more bang for your euro than in other European capitals.

I stayed off downtown at a no name pension near Volkstheatre, about 25 minutes from Stefansplatz, the city center. Except for one time when visiting a family friend, I generally book at Penzion Sacher, a favourite apartment hotel on Rotenturmstrasse, with a great view of Stefansdom, day or night. Yes, operated by a branch of the famous family name as in Hotel Sacher and Sacher torte. (The Sacher family no longer owns Hotel Sacher nor have proprietary rights over the name of the famous cake.)

Staying away from Stefansplatz had its blessings. The downtown core seems to be undergoing a major facelift. The cobblestones on the streets radiating from the Cathedral were getting ripped up, replaced with rectangular concrete blocks. On the Graben, a popular pedestrian mall, construction crew, material and equipment share the landscape with cafes, bistros, espressos, gelatos and hot dog stands. The pictures explain the scene.

I wondered if this is Vienna's version of the stimulus package or Boston's "big dig". But in a place where bitte is the most commonly uttered word, it wasn't so bad going around construction barriers. Just a few bitte this and bitte that.

p.s. I discovered "bitte" in Austria is more than just "please". It can have 1001 uses, all polite.