A Quick Stop in Amsterdam

My flight Nice-Manila via KLM  the other day had me stopping over in Amsterdam for five hours. Instead of sitting bored at Schiphol airport, I decided to take the train to the city for few hours of sightseeing.

Now I would like to share with you how to see Amsterdam in 3 hours, for only 13.20 euros.

From the airport, I bought a return train ticket to Amsterdam Centraal at 7,60euros.  The 20-minute ride took me to the center of the city where I could have just walked around easily, but I opted to buy a tram ticket (2.60euros) hoping that I could get farther and see more. Realizing that most of the interesting sights can be seen by foot, I got out at the Dam Stop and started walking along the canal with my backpack and camera.

At midday, I was getting hungry but didn’t feel like splurging on a meal so I bought a hotdog sandwich in Dam Square which came  with a large selection of sauces and add-ons, like toasted bacon, salad and I thought, for just 3 euros, it was a giveaway!

I continued exploring the little alleys until I reached the zone of sex shops, hemp seed shops, all sounding seedy and suspicious but actually teeming with tourists of all sexes, taking shots of the gadgets on display.

Two hours to my flight, I went back to the train station and conditioned myself for the marathon run I was about to do at the airport in search of my gate!

Now I am contented to have seen Amsterdam again which  I first visited  ten years ago,  had my memory cards filled with photos of bikes, of people, of shop facades, but most of all, I got the walking exercise I needed before my 12-hour journey to Manila.

 Photos of Amsterdam

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The neo-gothic Magna Plaza Shopping Centre. The former main post office building was transformed into a shopping centre in 1992.

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The Singel canal which encircled the city in the Middle Ages is now the inner-most canal in Amsterdam’s semicircular ring of canals.

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Statue of Multatuli on a square over the Singel canal in Amsterdam

According to Wikipedia, Multatuli (from Latin multa tuli, “I have suffered much”), is the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (2 March 1820 – 19 February 1887), who was a Dutch writer famous for his satirical novel, Max Havelaar (1860) in which he denounced the abuses of colonialism in the colony of the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia).

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Very conspicuous atop building facades are these protruding structures fitted with pulleys and hooks. They are for transporting furnitures into or out of the narrow building as moving them through the stairs are almost impossible.

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Damrak Avenue

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At Dam Square, this looks like a protest against the brutal killing of animals just to take their fur

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They were doing some renovation works infront of the Central Station and this art  board is just a portion of a long one used to cover the messy building work.

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Another “renovation works” cover along Damrak Avenue

The bikes of Amsterdam

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How to park your bike in Amsterdam

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Amsterdam Centraal Station in the background

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What to do in Amsterdam

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A lunch stop in Bra

The first time I heard of a town named Bra was two years ago when H and I went on a driving holiday in Piemonte, Italy to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We made jests at each other then:  what if we decide to live there?  Our mails will look like this: – Mr and Mrs H….piazza Bra, Bra, Italy.  Imagine the jokes we would be subjected to.  “Is it the birthplace of the corset?”…”Could you send me a size 34?”…

Two years later, last week to be exact, we found ourselves stopping in this town for lunch.  It was H’s birthday and we were on our way to the Langhe and Roero Valley for a two-day romantic journey to the capital of food and wine of Italia. We wanted to take our time, enjoy the scenery and drive at our own pace.  It was getting near lunchtime and our destination is still an hour away so we decided to stop at the next big town on the map, and that is Bra.

We made the right choice.  Italy never ever failed to overwhelm us,  but we were still utterly awed by Bra’s glorious beauty.  There are grandiose Baroque-style churches every few meters, the old elegant buildings exquisitely painted with trompe l’oeils portraying religious themes and shops oozing with their old charm despite their aging facade.  It’s like walking through an open museum! 

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The historic town of Bra

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Palazzo Communale or Municipio (Italian for Town Hall)

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A beautiful but poignant bronze sculpture in the Piazza

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The dome of Chiesa Santa Chiara

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The interior of Chiesa di Sant’Antonino

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Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angeli

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Campanile della Confraternita della Santissima Trinità (Belltower of the Church of the Holy Trinity)

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Santa Daria’s statue at the facade of the Church of the Holy Trinity

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Caffe Converso, a patisserie and bar founded in 1902

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A bakery

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A sweet shop

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Everytime you go for a meal in Italy, you are always served with bread or grissini or a combination of both.  This is great especially when you are already starving and your food is still being prepared by the chef.  Make sure to leave at least half of it to accompany your main dish.  But if worse comes to worst that you have really pigged it all out, no worries, you can always ask the waiter for some more.

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Grissini or Italian bread sticks.  They are so crispy and the sesame seeds on them makes you crave for more.  They come free, already served on the table ready for the hungry diner.

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Petto al Pollo alla Piastra 
I still can’t believe it!  That this whole plate of breast chicken and beans, sooo good they just melt in your mouth, and with sublime olive oil -garlic-herb taste just costs 6-euros!  In France, it would have cost at least 10euros!

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She could have been one of the mannequins! She is as slim as these fashion dummies!

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Another figure-conscious, but she obviously went too far..

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What I love about Italy is that, everybody is so darn fashionable…even in small towns and villages!

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Even the men!

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Death notices are a typical sight in public walls and bulletin boards in Italy

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Bra is the seat of the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986.  It is a global movement with 100,000 members in 132 countries.  It strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine produced in ways that respect the local ecosystem.  Slowfood began in Italy in 1986 to protest against the opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  In Pollenzo, just outside of Bra, is the Università degli Studi delle Scienze Gastronomiche (University of Gastronomic Sciences), which attracts students from Italy and nearly 50 other nations.

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This is the headquarters of the Slow Food movement (SFM), using the snail as its official logo.

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Still the HQ of the SFM, seen from the back.

A Caravaning Life

Barely have I unpacked my backpack after that quick sightseeing trip of Monaco with my cousin etc.. that I had to pick it up again for few days of village hopping with our English friends – a couple who works/lives/travels (all at the same time) with their motorized caravan.  How do they do it?  Well, they took on early retirement, sold their house, bought a house-to-let, a motorized caravan, then went on travelling around Europe picking small jobs along the way to keep some money coming in.

Now, now, that is exactly the life H and I are aiming for.   We must have been nomads in our past life that our feet ache if we stop travelling.  Anyway, we do need a motorized caravan and we have been searching on eBay for ages looking for the perfect transporter that will take us all over Europe on the cheap.

 Anyway,  let me share with you the places near us where we acted again as tour guides!  That’s the catch of living in this beautiful region.  It’s always holiday time!

FONTAN, France

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SAORGE, France

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AIROLE, Italy

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The Baroque church of Airole

OLIVETTA SAN MICHELE, Italy

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Senor Giovanni telling us the story of this olive tree behind him.  It is called “The Tree of Love”;  couples making love standing inside the hollow trunk of the tree!

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The Baroque church of San-Michele

DOLCEACQUA, Italy

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This scene was painted by Claude Monet in 1884, calling it “A Jewel of Lightness”

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Stopping for an apperitivo

PIGNA, Italy

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CASTELVITTORIO, Italy

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The hilltop cemetery of Castelvittorio

A cruise stop in Monaco

We seem to be visiting Monaco fairly regularly lately.  It’s not the desire to brush elbows with the well-heeled and famous nor the photo opportunities we get out of parked Rolls Royces and Bugattis.  It is simply playing tour guide to family who are coming to Europe for the first time.   Last month it was my sister and her family who insisted that I must show them all of Monaco and its famous Casino.  Last week, it was my cousin, her husband and some friends, who clamoured for the same.   But what made last week’s visit interesting was twofold.  First,I have not seen my cousin for 35 years.  Second, she is coming via a cruise ship!

Monaco was one of the ports of call of their 12-day Grand Mediterranean cruise holiday and they are staying for only few hours so we had to squeeze sightseeing, casino visit, lunch and intermittent photographic stops fairly tightly.  They came out of the ship at 11am and had to be back by 6pm, ready for the departure time of 7pm.

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The 3,070-person capacity, Ruby Princess, docked at Port Hercules in Monaco

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This spectacular floating hotel could easily fit ten conventional hotels!

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This ship is 2.5 times heavier than the Titanic!

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A stop in Monaco is not complete without seeing the Casino de Montecarlo.  Our visitors wanted to get inside the gaming rooms but on a Cruise Ship Day like that day (there was a second cruiser moored in the port), one is bound to queue up alongside thousands of passengers!  They gave it a miss!

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If you cannot play at the Casino de Montecarlo, next door is the smaller casino of the chic Cafe de Paris.

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While our visitors were away, H and I busied ourselves into sharing a bowl of ice cream at the equally Belle Epoque-style Cafe de Paris

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For all its complicated styling, this ice cream costs 16euros and the glass of beer above is 7euros.  But what the heck,  it’s the experience that counts.

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After seeing off our guests, we got lost looking for our carpark.  “Why do we have to go through the train station?” I asked H.  Answer:  because our carpark is somewhere attached to this station.  It is called Parking de la Gare.

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Inside the train station lounge, while cooling off after an hour of walking, climbing, descending through stairs and elevators and wending our way through “No Pedestrian Walking”  signs, I saw this woman looking towards the port through the glass window. What an atmospheric silhouette.

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It’s my turn to look down.

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Now, this is cool!  An office window  displaying notices of airplanes for sale!   John Travolta could easily sell his private plane in Monaco when he wants to upgrade it.

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If your budget is only 3million euros, you could opt for a 5-seater helicopter!

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We finally found our car and wound our way out of the Principality.  Driving towards the motorway, we noticed the Ruby Princess slowly  leaving the port.  We looked at our watch and indeed, it left at exactly 7pm, the scheduled departure time.  We parked on the side of the road and took photos of the ship sailing away.

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A “harbor pilot” (the small boat) sailing away from the cruise ship.  Their role is to guide big ships so they can safely get out of the harbour.

Postscript:

Our guests were not able to get inside the Casino de Montecarlo because it was packed with tourists.
Lesson of the story:
If there are cruise ships docking in the port of Monaco, you have to be in the Casino steps before 2pm so you are assured to get there first, otherwise, you will have to queue up alongside other cruise tourists and you won’t be able to appreciate the going-ons in the games room if it’s too crowded.

Fact: One of the 2 cruise ships that day, the Ruby Princess, has a 3,700 person capacity. Everyone would be racing to see the famous casino so even if only 1,000 people get in from 2pm-5pm, imagine how much the casino earns just for entrance in 3 hours – 10,000 euros!