In the Land of Ice and Fire

Before there was earth or sky or anything green, there was only the abyss of Ginnungagap. This darkness and silence lay between Muspelheim, the land of fire and Niflheim, the land of ice. Frost from Niflheim and the flames of Muspelheim blew towards each other and when they met at Ginnungagap, the fire melted the ice and the drops formed the giant Ymir. Ymir was a hermaphrodite who could reproduce asexually. More giants were born from his sweat.

As the ice continued to melt, a cow, Audhumbla, emerged from it. She nourished Ymir and nourished herself by licking the ice which uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor who married Bestla, the daughter of a giant. Their half-god, half-giant children were Odin (who became chief of the Aesir gods), Vili, and VeOdin and his brothers slew Ymir and created the world from his corpse.

The sons of Bor made the sky from Ymir’s skull, and four dwarves corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth. They tossed Ymir’s brains in the sky and they became the clouds. His blood became the oceans, his skin and muscles became the soil, his hair became vegetation, and Bor’s sons placed the sparks and embers that blew out of Muspelheim in Ginnungagap to light the heaven above and the earth beneath. They created the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.

This is the Norse creation myth.

Iceland is a land of legends – a place of extreme geological contrasts, a land of ice and fire. It is home to glaciers and some of the most active volcanoes. Long summer days fade into dark winters. Although reachable with cheap flights from its neighbouring countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the prices in Iceland are enough to deter a lot of tourists. Iceland is expensive. Though the standard of living is high, it remains one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. This isolation and the extreme nature have shaped Icelandic culture through the centuries, creating a resilient nation that values family bonds, tradition, and a strong bond with nature.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to have found a long lost connection – a childhood friend from a summer in Philippines almost 10 years ago. He remembered me and my family quite well and when I asked if he could host me for a couple of nights, he accepted.

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Me & J, after 9+ years, on Esjan

Flying to Keflavik on a clear day, it is impossible to miss Mt. Esja (or Esjan as the locals call it). Esjan is actually a mountain range, located 10km north of Reykjavik. Icelanders have a special bond with this mountain, and as a friend said, it is only when they see it that the feeling of ‘home’ finally kicks in.

It was only fitting to spend my first afternoon in Reykjavik hiking up Esjan. There is an extensive network of hiking trails and a bunch of Reykjavíkians go up there everyday. We didn’t get very high up though as the setting sun beat us to it. There was an aurora forecast for that night, and on our descent, we passed by people who were still making their way up.

Around 10pm, we drove to Seltjarnarnes, which, at the western end of Reykjavik is not Reykjavik at all due to some politics. It was so windy and cold. We parked our car by the road and waited for the aurora to be visible, but gave up after half an hour because we were so hungry. We decided to go home and finish the night with Berliner Luft and karaoke, because if there is one thing all Filipinos share no matter where, it is their inherent need to sing.

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The wasteland outside of Reykjavik

On my second day we drove the famous tourist route, the Golden Circle. At only 300km and passing through major sites without much walking, you can think of it as a hors d’oeuvre. It is what people who don’t have much time to explore the country will most likely see.

The landscape is incredible. The miles of wasteland will make you feel like you are on a different planet. Sometimes only the vacation homes punctuating the landscape will remind you otherwise.

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Kerið

We drove counterclockwise from the normal route and our first stop was Kerið crater, just one of the volcanic craters in Iceland’s south. There is an oval lake in it and you can walk around the rim and go down and walk the small circle in it. It’s a short stop where you can stretch your legs a bit. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Like a lot of places in Iceland, they now charge an ‘upkeep fee’ (400 ISK, September 2017).

We drove on to Haukadalur, home to the most famous sights in Iceland: the geysers. I have never seen one before and it really was amazing. The biggest geysers are Strokkur and Geysir (where the word ‘geyser’ comes from). The Great Geysir was the first geyser described on a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. Its eruptions have been infrequent. Only 50m away is the smaller Strokkur, which draws the tourist crowds. It is one of the few natural geysers to erupt frequenty (every 5-10 minutes).

Since we were exploring the area, we missed two eruptions but were lucky to have been standing right by it for the big eruption. Everyone went silent when the pool started getting wavier and then a big bubble formed and in a split second shot up. I was so caught up in the moment, looking up at the steam that rose high up until reality started raining down on us onlookers. Some tried to run away. Luckily I had my rain jacket on and all I could do was crouch down to keep my camera dry. I was drenched, and it was a cold day. J and I had a good laugh and decided we had seen enough geysers for the day.

We drove 10km ahead to Gullfoss ‘Golden Falls’, which got its name from the golden hue on its waters during sunset. It is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, hence the crowd. As you first approach the falls, the edge is obscured and it looks as though the river simply vanishes into the earth.

There are short trails for walking where you can learn a bit more about Gullfoss. Back in the 20th century, there were some people who wanted to use the falls to generate electricity. It was indirectly rented by its owners to foreign investors. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one of its owners, though uneducated, sought the help of a lawyer and brought the matter to court. She threatened to throw herself down the waterfall if they didn’t preserve its condition. Eventually, one of her family members sold Gullfoss and the surrounding area to the Icelandic government.

We drove on to Þingvellir National Park, a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian plates diverge 2.5 cm a year. We arrived in what I think is the most beautiful time of the day: just before sunset. Seeing the landscape of Þingvellir basked in golden light was breathtaking. Even J2 who had been to the place countless times could not help take a picture.

A few kilometers away is the Silfra fissure where you can stare in awe at the clarity of glacier water. Overall, the Golden Circle is touristy, but it does cover sights you cannot miss. The most valuable insight I got from this trip is that I would definitely skip the tour bus and explore it at my own pace.

I spent the next two days hiking and exploring more of Iceland’s diverse offerings. I did an easy hike to a hot river where we had to pass a bridge over boiling water, and make our way through the mist to be rewarded with one of the most relaxing hiking bonuses ever.

Since it was not that late yet, we decided to drive further south to Vik where the scenery made for a very exciting roadtrip. We passed by majestic waterfalls and glimpsed distant glaciers. Guest houses, cottages and small wooden churches periodically dotted the landscape. Unfortunately for us, when night completely fell  in Vik, there was no cheap place to stay. We briefly contemplated sleeping in the car but the lack of toilet and the fact that I have a pea-sized bladder in that cold and windy night made us drive back to Reykjavik.

It was not for naught as I got to see the Northern Lights and the road was well worth the trip. Returning to Reykjavik meant we were back to mile 0, and so we decided to drive north the next day.

I was up for more hiking and picked Glymurfoss because it was only a 40-minute drive away. J had spent 15 years in Iceland and had not once been to Glymur. We had a change of roles and I guided him through Hvalfjörður. Until 1998, people getting to the town of Borgarnes from Reykjavik had to make a 62-km detour on the fjord. The opening of Hvalfjardargongin tunnel cut travel time by an hour and the Hvalfjörður has become quiet.

The fjord itself is beautiful and the hike up to Glymur was by far the best I had done. There was so much variety of landscape – even rivers to cross. Not counting the part where we got lost on our way down, it was a mighty fun hike.

I spent my last day hunting for kitsch in downtown Reykjavik. The weather had gone absolutely sour, and the rain battered our car as J and J2 drove me back to Keflavik. I had grown quite dear to them in my sojourn. We were strangers when they picked me up only five days before. We said our goodbyes, and I got myself a big bottle of Brennivín for when the winter blues hit.

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Here’s to the Viking spirit and the day I come back!

 

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The Grand Budapest Adventure

If you go from Moscow to Budapest, you will think you are in Paris.

There are some things in life that people who have visited a place seem to forget to mention when you ask them about it – that the Czech Republic has a different currency – and that Budapest comes from the merging of the cities of Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River, and that locals hate it when you call their city Budapest when it is in fact ‘boo-dah-pesht’.

Budapest is a city of contrast. It has good public transport infrastructure but very old trains and rickety trams, grand art nouveau buildings co-existing with communist-era housing estates, and you can get romantic cobblestone streets reeking of piss. There is so much to love and yet so much to hate in Hungary’s proud capital, and whether it’s for the right or wrong reasons is entirely up to you.

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Vintage Trams ❤

Budapest’s airport is located about 20km from the city center and on the bus ride on that summer morning of well above 30° C, the remnants of years behind the Iron Curtain was still very noticeable.

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I had been a notoriously poor planner for this trip as pointed out by my friend who I hadn’t met until that morning in the airport despite living in the same city for over a month already. I had been handicapped from chronic lack of internet connectivity and free time. My friend Himeel arranged our Airbnb but he was arriving later so we decided to check in ahead and drop our bags.

We had rented a small one-bedroom flat located right across the splendid Nyugati Railway Station but I had had no contact with the host and could barely remember the listing Himeel had shared.

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Beautiful building beside our beautiful building

We managed to go through the main door and were about to call our host when he rang us. He told us to wait and we did but not for long as a man appeared through the main door. We introduced ourselves, he explained how the keys worked, crammed ourselves in the ancient elevator and led us to the flat we had rented that looked nowhere near any of the 3 listings I remember Himeel and I discussing when we were booking.

It was disappointingly small and dark but these things do happen, right? As it seemed already cleaned, we started to unpack, and then I started having second thoughts. Himeel had sent me a screenshot saying the flat still had to be cleaned and that we could drop our bags but the place wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Our host simply put on the new sheets and was about to leave us when his phone rang.

Surprise, surprise! What are the odds that we had a male host and were two ladies, and he was a male host and were expecting two ladies as well? In Budapest, where Airbnb is a big source of income and is regulated, quite common actually. There had been a mix up and after some apologies and laughter, our sweet lady who worked as a hostess for Airbnb renters led us to our much-better, newly-renovated flat with designer lighting.

We headed off to the river for a glimpse of the grand Hungarian Parliament. It was such a hot day that it was hard to focus on anything. To be honest, I had less than four hours of sleep and had grown unaccustomed to the heat that the day went by in a kind of stupor.

Budapest, which is still ‘the cheap city’ to Western Europeans, has a big art scene and it’s discernible from the beautiful street art scattered throughout the city, though this is most evident in District VII. Yes, in Budapest they name the districts with numbers and yes, District XIII does exist.

Having heard good reviews and recommendations for SANDEMANs (free tours) guides, we met up with Himeel by the fountain where the tour was to start but found the tour guide we had too awkward that we ended up being rude for being more interested in each other than at her and decided to separate from the group. I had’t met Himeel in over a year and so starting out with a guided tour was not very well-thought of. We crossed over Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge connecting Buda with Pest.

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge

It was too hot outside to do much that we skipped climbing up Buda for another day and headed out to one of the city’s main attractions: the thermal baths. Budapest sits on a patchwork of over 100 thermal springs, and the city has made good use of all of them. Since we like extravagance and were lured by the possibility to play chess while relaxing in the water, we opted for the Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. What better way to relax after the end of such a hot summer day?

We did not get to play chess though. We asked the lifeguards and they looked so clueless about it. We assume it is a matter of bringing your own chess pieces. Needless to say, my friends felt betrayed by the advertisement.

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Széchenyi Baths

The next day was just as hot but windy, and so we went for a boat tour on the Danube where this priceless picture was taken (the things yadayadanada does for Instagram):

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The Moment the Wind Toppled my Beer ©Katja Camrath, 2017

The boat tour gave us the much-needed history lesson we escaped the day before. Budapest is one of the 4 national capitals along the Danube, Europe’s second longest river.

It has a long history starting out as a Celtic settlement fortified by the Romans, given up to the Huns until the horse-riding Magyars came in 896 AD and after a century of raiding Catholic Europe, decided that Catholicism was the key to survival in Europe. St. Stephen founded the Kingdom of Hungary in January 1, 1001.

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Buda Castle

Buda was its most important royal seat until the Mongol invasion left it devastated. Under Matthias Corvinus, it was the first country to adopt the Renaissance outside of Italy. However, he later moved the capital to Vienna after defeating the Habsburgs.

Buda and Pest fell to the Ottoman Empire for almost 150 years – and the Turks left behind many thermal baths – before the Habsburg Empire conquered it. It became relatively autonomous afterwards and in 1873, the cities of Buda, Pest, and Obuda were merged to create Budapest. Budapest aimed at rivalling Vienna and the Millenium in 1896 (1000 years since the arrival of the Magyars) saw ambitious large-scale projects like the magnificent Parliament and the Millenium Metro, the third oldest underground railway in the world. At the end of World War II, Hungary attempted to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the Allies and was in retaliation occupied by Nazi forces.

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Hungarian Parliament

The city slowly recovered after the war and was the showpiece for Hungary’s more pragmatic Communist policies. After an uprising that installed a reform-oriented government, Moscow interfered and installed János Kádár who ruled for 30 years until the 1989 change of system that saw the country’s rebirth into a more progressive nation.

The city is an architectural treasure trove of baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau. Most of the buildings were built at the end of the 19th century, in Budapest’s ‘golden age’. A stroll along Andrássy Avenue is recommended for admiring the turn-of-the-century buildings.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

There is so much to do and see in Budapest that three days didn’t even feel enough. One can easily spend a whole day in Buda alone. It’s a city I’m sure I will revisit. I went about this trip with that thought – no rush, just soak in the atmosphere. Admittedly, it wasn’t all rainbows and stars. I was subject to my first racist attack which I will talk about in detail in another post.

But to those who have had Budapest on their list for far too long – go. It’s worth it.

The Colours of Spring

While many other European cities started blooming at the beginning of March, Warsaw slept under its grey blanket a little longer, and it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that it finally grew out of the dull winter mood.

Warsaw is an ugly city. It’s a mess of stark contrasting communist blocks and modern steel and glass high-rises. The center is the place to be, and at times it seems like it’s the only place where anything is happening. Despite the sizeable expat community, it is still very homogeneous, and generally, you will get the impression that service is foreign to the Poles.

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Under the Bridge, Służew

But come spring, and suddenly the city is so much better. The first greens remind you that it isn’t such a dreary city – there are plenty of green areas – it just really sucks in winter (which is half the year), when all is bare and the communist era buildings stick out of the cityscape. When Warsaw finally wakes up from a winter-induced dullness, it’s beautiful.

April began with the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit cheekily called “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”. It’s set on its new pavilion by the Vistula and managed to lure me there because it’s free. It’s a small exhibit and rather lacklustre. It deals with the origins of the siren in Warsaw’s crest (already in use in the 1400s), the mythology surrounding it, sexuality, and the siren’s relevance to the city.

A highlight of the exhibit is “Him” by Danish duet Elmgreen & Dragset which depicts the Copenhagen Little Mermaid as a man. The exhibit runs until June 18 if you are interested. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you’re at the Copernicus Science Center or the Warsaw University Library which are right across, it’s worth a stop. The museum cafe is decent and there’s an outdoor platform where you can sit on beach chairs and chill.

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Promenade along the Vistula

With the warm days coming up, it’s worth noting that Warsaw is really embracing the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). They’re building hang out spots on the promenade along the river, and by the looks of it, it should be completely ready by summer. If you prefer a wilder side, the untamed beaches of the Praga side of the banks of the Vistula is the perfect place to relax, and it comes with a view of the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

To celebrate the colours of spring, a Holi event took place at Castle Square in the Old Town and being the kid that I am, I eagerly dragged my friend along. It was a small crowd but it was fun, colourful, and messy – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny day.

Warmer days also mean eating out and lazing around in the park which means – food truck season!

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April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…

 

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Of course all happy days must have a dash of sadness… mine was because I learned the random palm in the middle of an intersection in Warsaw is not real. And I was so impressed by it.

That Midpoint on the Map: Cuenca

Who would have known that a random place you find on a map and are determined to explore could lead to a short fairytale?

I went to Spain with three major cities pinned on my map: Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. The journey from Valencia to Madrid seemed best to break somewhere in between so I started looking for more places to visit, almost setting the unexceptional town of Minglanilla as a destination out of curiosity, having lived in a town named after it in Cebu for the first 17 years of my life.

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The vast fields of interior Spain

Eventually, I found the sizeable city of Cuenca on the map. It was almost equidistant from Valencia and Spain, and once I saw the images of the gorge, I was determined to go. There was no way I would not find a cheap way to get to Madrid from Valencia without involving a stop at Cuenca.

Leaving Valencia early in the morning, the train made its way through rugged landscapes and vast empty lands I would not have known existed in Spain if I had only spent my time in its densely populated cities. It was a beautiful ride that kept me wondering just why there were stops in the middle of nowhere, where for miles upon miles, even the sight of a single house was a rarity.

Walking out of the bus station, I headed for the tourist information center, and received a map marked with the next tourist information point as she didn’t speak English. After quite a short walk through the lower town – the dull new part of the city, I tried to learn as much as I could at the English info point before continuing along the riverbank.

Founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, Cuenca, then known as Kunka, was built to defend a strategic hilltop between two gorges dug by the Júcar and Huécar rivers. The Old City of Cuenca sprawls along the ridge, forming a formidable, uneven wall with small windows and occasional archways.

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Cuenca, Spain

A little further along the river, the scenery changes dramatically. The gentle slope turns into a dramatic gorge spanned by the 40-meter high wood and iron Puente de San Pablo.

St. Paul’s Bridge was built to connect the Convent of St. Paul with the Old Town. (The convent was abandoned in 1975 and turned into a state-run luxury hotel.)

The original 16th century bridge collapsed and a new bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and supported upon the remains of the old bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century. The Puente de San Pablo is undoubtedly the best way to approach to the Old Town.

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Entering the Old Town via the Puente de San Pablo

It’s a beautiful view, overlooking the gorge and the Hanging Houses (Casas Colgadas). In the past, the eastern border of the Old City was full of these houses. Today however, only a few remain, the most well-known  of which is a group of 3 houses with wooden balconies. These 3 houses are the icons of Cuenca and the lure for tourists. Their exact origins cannot be determined but there is proof of their existence as early as the 15th century. Surprisingly, they currently house a museum for abstract art.

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The iconic Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) of Cuenca

Though the hanging houses are not as awe-inspiring as the brochures would like you to think, Cuenca is a definitely worth a visit. It is the classic Spanish town that travellers search for – historical, colourful, and beautiful.

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The medieval architecture is amazing, and walking along the deserted and narrow streets of the Old Town, gazing up at old ‘high-rises’, and having a spontaneous siesta under the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon in Spain, looking down at the quiet of little-known Cuenca, I could only contemplate how much I had happened in such a short time.

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With the weather changing fast and dark clouds looming ominously behind me, I decided I had seen enough and headed down the other side of the city. The houses along this gorge seemed taller, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like to live on the top floors, and if they had installed lifts by now.

I got back to Plaza Mayor in the middle of the Old Town. It is wide at the top and tapers down to the Town Hall but has no arcades to protect people from sun or rain. Apart from that, it is your typical Spanish plaza complete with a cathedral, colourful houses, cafés, and a fountain. I walked over to the fountain and splashed my face with cold water. It had been a hot and humid day.

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Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral (left)

Refreshed and with renewed energy, I slowly made my way down the maze of narrow streets back to the lower town, until the rain chased me and I had to stand under someone’s doorway to wait it out, but it didn’t stop, and I had to walk under the rain to make it in time for the bus to Madrid. It was hard to imagine it had just been such a fine day in Cuenca. Even harder to imagine, it was only my 3rd day in Spain.

La Tomatina: The World’s Biggest Food Fight

Picture yourself standing on a narrow street lined with white-walled houses, in a small Spanish town in the middle of nowhere. Now add 45,000 people from all around the world, high-pressure hoses shooting out water at random intervals, and over 145,000kg of tomato. The product is an enormous mess called La Tomatina.

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On the last Wednesday of August every year, the small town of Buñol, 40km from Valencia, becomes overrun with tourists seeking to partake in its enormous tomato fight.

No one is really sure how this Buñol tradition started- a popular theory is that in 1944 or 1945, angry townspeople rioted and threw tomatoes at members of the city council during a town celebration. Whatever did happen, people enjoyed it so much that it was repeated yearly after that.

As word of La Tomatina came out (thanks especially to the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), the event got bigger and bigger that in 2013, the city council decided to charge entrance fees and to limit the number of participants.

Who wouldn’t put participating in a massive tomato fight in their bucket list? 

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Traditionally, the tomato fight officially starts when someone retrieves the chunk of ham at the top of a greased pole. While this is happening, they’ll start prepping you up and hosing the crowd with cold water.

The La Tomatina crowd is a wild bunch from all around the world and you’ll find people in the quirkiest outifits. There are men dressed in religious habits, a whole Just Married entourage, crossdressers complete with blonde wigs, #DicksOutForHarambe, and of course the crazy Japanese bunch.

We all know Japanese people don’t go for ‘moderate’. As far as these folks are concerned, it is either all out or none at all. There were men dressed in sumo clothes, a man with a lab gown get-up that was completely tomato-proof, ladies in tomato mascots, a group in karate outfits, and people in wetsuits.

As fun as it sounds, the absence of teamwork and strategy and the presence of drunk people mean that the chances of someone retrieving the ham are next to none. So, whether or not the ham is retrieved, the tomato fight officially starts at 11am on the dot with a canon fired to signal the coming of the first of six delivery trucks carrying the tomatoes.

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The mayhem begins when people submerged in waste-deep tomatoes start throwing them out to the crowd. The trucks then stop a minute or two at its designated unloading point to dump its entire load on the street. Caught too close to the water hoses as I was, the tomato fight ensued in a blur of plops and poofs and desperate attempts to hide behind the palm and avoid the water. My goggles came in handy after all.

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The fight lasts exactly an hour and another canon is fired to mark its end. It was only at the end, when the crowd had loosened a little that I realised the full extent of La Tomatina. There are some events look exactly like in the photo, and post tomato-fight La Tomatina is one of them.

With a little more space and no more risk of getting hit on the nose by a tomato projectile, the cameras start coming out to capture the tomato sauce lake the people are all on. I have never seen that much tomato in my life and I doubt anyone ever will. In some areas, it was ankle-deep flowing rivers of tomato sauce! The locals had installed tarpaulins up to the third storey of their homes for easier cleanup, and looking up, you’d find yourself wondering how the tomatoes managed to end up so high.

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Feeling like a pasta.

I got an awful tan line, got dirty, stinky, and spent. The march back up from the town plaza to the parking lot felt like a mass exodus of zombies covered in tomatoes, and with the sun shining- we became sundried tomatoes desperately trying to somewhat clean ourselves up. It’s a smell I will never forget. At one point, I wanted to cry because I just wanted to shower and be clean, and with thousands of people wanting a shower, there were not enough hoses around.

It was an exhilarating experience that would awaken the inner child in anyone.

I was so exhausted that when I got back in the bus, I quickly fell asleep and didn’t even realise when the bus left and only woke up when we were already in Valencia. It was certainly one heck of a day and an experience for me and so many others.

And to those worried about food waste: the tomatoes for La Tomatina are actually grown for the purpose of the festival- they are of inferior taste and come extremely cheap from Extremadura.

 

 

The Dwarves of Wrocław

Poland’s 4th largest city has just started popping up on tourist radars, and with its designation as European Capital of Culture this year, the tourism figures are rising.

What few non-locals know is that Wrocław is home to a sizeable population of gnomes. That’s right, the city is home to hundreds of dwarves. They first appeared in 2005 and the population has been continuously increasing that people lost track of their exact numbers some years ago. Back in 2014, there were over 300 of them spread out across the city. Some are begging for attention while others are inconspicuously hidden. Each one is unique, has its own name, profession, and story.

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The start-up guy

It seems like a tourist gimmick but it in fact started out as a commemoration to the Orange Alternative movement in the 80’s. The Orange Alternative was a Polish anti-communist underground movement that opposed the totalitarian government through peaceful protests, some of which were painting graffiti of dwarves over anti-government slogans, and running around the city dressed as dwarves.

The movement culminated in ‘The Revolution of Dwarves’ on June 1, 1988, when more than 10,000 people wearing orange dwarf hats marched through the center of Wrocław.

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Dwarves outside the Philharmonic
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Birthday dwarf-spotting

 

Today, the dwarves have become such a quintessential part of Wrocław that they’ve made an app for pinpointing them. Dwarf spotting is a fun alternative to traditional tourist sightseeing, and since there are always more dwarves arriving, you’ll find even locals smile and welcome another one they didn’t know before.

 

A Night (Half Marathon) in Rostock

Sometimes we end up doing quite stupid things on hindsight – ‘Well everything worked out fine’ – and last Saturday was exactly that.

I couldn’t get a day off for what was to be my second half marathon so I was (literally) up on my legs from 6:00 – 15:00. Just the night before, I was silently bothered to read the mail from the race organiser when I really should have been sleeping. That’s when I learned that the Rostock Half Marathon was not the breeze I was assuming it to be. The starting line was not that easy to reach on public transport, apparently. I had my bus from Berlin to Rostock booked at 16:00 and I would get there by 18:50  to make the run at 19:55. The optimist me said this was doable, everyone else said I should really have a Plan B.

A little negative influence later and my lack of real interest in the run, I thought I really wouldn’t make it. However, Saturday noon I decided to try my luck with BlaBlaCar. Within 2 hours, I got myself a ride who agreed to pick me up at Brandenburg Gate, and by the time I finished work at 15:00, it was a mad dash to find my driver. Stupidity aside, I learned what a Panzer was that afternoon as I met my driver in front of the Soviet Memorial.

I had never been to Rostock and did not do any research. I had no idea where to be dropped off and the man did not speak any English so I ended up bleeding out my German sentences. Just as things finally lightened up and I thought I could make it before 18:00, our car got stuck in Autobahn traffic, halfway along Berlin and Rostock, and there was nothing for me to do but nap.

After those agonising 20 minutes, the man just raced on the Autobahn. We must have driven over 200kph for the rest of the journey. So yes, I made it to Rostock just minutes before 18:00, and was asked to get off by the light and walk the final 200m to the port. I always thought my friend’s ramblings about his flying BlaBlaCar driver to Stuttgart was a joke but my first ride proved there was a fine line between that and reality.

Surely, you can’t be that stupid.

-BlaBla driver who wanted to get me to my destination at 18:00 when I didn’t even know where my destination was

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I managed to meet up with my friends Gaurav and Emilie to take the last ferry to the starting line and save me all the trouble of finding the place on public transport, only to learn that the great Omar was still nowhere near us. He had left Berlin 2 hrs before I did, but ended up stopping a little too many times along the way that it ended up becoming a 4 hour drive for him.

I had not eaten anything apart from my sandwich at 11am, and starving, I ended up eating most of Gaurav’s protein bar which he had procured for the run. I hate protein bars. They look like earth and if I know better, I’d say they taste like earth, but I must say if I didn’t have that protein bar, I’d have given up halfway through.

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On the 18:15 ferry to the starting point

I’ve learned a while ago that when it comes to certain people (especially Omar), worrying is pointless. The guy has this totally chill aura and always makes it. He showed up for his first half marathon five minutes before the start.

The weather was glum. It was windy and drizzled a bit, and it was very grey. Thankfully, the drizzling stopped by the time our run started and it stayed dry the whole evening. I would have said ‘all is well‘ except for the route.

My first half marathon, the Isle of Skye Half Marathon, had been a hilly challenge and I spent a good ten minutes walking. The Rostock Half Marathon was a kinder version of Skye. Instead of the hill at the starting point, it was a downhill run through the Warnow Tunnel leading to an agonising first climb. Only, after a loop around, you go through the downhill-uphill tunnel experience again.

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Despite the unwarranted ascents, badly-placed turns and poor crossings , the route kept me entertained – lots of greenery and even a bit of trail running. I had no music on for the whole run as my phone was running low and I had to save battery. To add insult to injury, my companions left me by the 3km mark. I managed to catch up to Omar by 8km and then refreshed by isotonic, sped on to leave him, banana in hand.

The sunset was beautiful that day and the wind nice and cool. It was cute how people had drawn with coloured chalks on the asphalt, listing names of people they were cheering for. There was even a quote that made me smile.

‘Lächle, du machst das freiwillig.’

Smile, you are doing that out of choice. 

By 18km, I was ready to stop any minute. I was not tracking my time and was always running behind the 4:00hr marathon pacer despite my best efforts. I was on the edge. I felt like I was really pushing myself to speed up but in reality, I was just barely keeping up with my pace. Luckily, I met 2 locals who suggested we run the last 3km together. They were also ready to stop but didn’t. They’d done the course before so they knew exactly what was up at the end.

The last 3km were agonizing, and the final steps to the finish line was awful. The ascent made me feel like crying. To make matters worse, they put two arches before the actual finish line. I was ready to stop by the first arch after the gruelling uphill climb but was cheered on by my running companions. ‘Almost there,’ he said for the third time.

We pushed through to the end without stopping and I made the finish line after 2:01:47.

What’s the best thing about running in Germany?

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Beer at the finish line.