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.
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.
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.
Warsaw 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!
April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Paella Valenciana cooking
Tarpaulins on houses
Walking towards the plaça
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Long regarded as Poland’s hidden gem, Wrocław (pronounced vrotts-swaff) celebrates 2016 as the European Capital of Culture.
Wrocław, on the Oder River, is Poland’s 4th largest city. Throughout its history, it has been passed between different countries and has known different names. This diverse history manifests in Wrocław’s unique blend of architectural styles.
The city was first recorded as Vratislavia after a Bohemian stronghold founded by Vratislaus I. It was conquered by a Duke of Poland and in the 12th century was named one of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Poland.
Fearing Mongol invasion, the city was abandoned and burned for strategic reasons. Wrocław Castle was defended and never captured. After the Mongol invasion, the town was populated by German settlers who gradually became the dominant ethnic group. The Germanized name ‘Breslau‘ started appearing on records.
Breslau was then incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia. It became part of the Kingdom of Hungary, became Protestant, and was later ruled by the Catholic Austrian House of Habsburg. The city supported the Bohemian Revolt to retain religious freedom and in the ensuing Thirty Years’ War was occupied by Saxon and Swedish troops. It chose to stay Protestant.
The Austrian emperor brought in the Counter-Reformation by encouraging Catholic orders to settle in the city. These orders erected buildings that would shape the city’s appearance until 1945.
During the War of the Austrian Succession, the Kingdom of Prussia annexed the city. The Unification of Germany in 1871 turned Breslau into Germany’s 6th-largest city.
In 1944, Hitler declared Breslau a fortress that had to be defended at all costs. For most of the war, fighting did not affect Breslau. Later on, refugees from bombed out German cities and even further east swelled the population to nearly a million. 70 years ago, Breslau was left a ruin after a savage 3-month siege by Soviet Forces that ended with the German garrison’s surrender on May 6, 1945. Two days later, World War II ended.
In the aftermath of the war, Breslau’s German inhabitants fled or were forcibly expelled and the city was transferred to Poland and officially renamed Wrocław.
Today, Wrocław is a global city and university town, with some 20% of the population listed as students. This adds a youthful streak to the city and has resulted in a blooming cultural and nightlife scene. Add to that the city council’s seriousness in revitalising the whole place and bring back its pre-war heyday, and you’ve got a remarkable social and economic revival.
Wrocław Central Station
Wrocław is also very safe, and you will find young women just sitting in the park at midnight, completely at ease. Possibly the only bummer here is the bus driver that doesn’t stop for a group of youngsters waiting 15 minutes for the 2am bus only to see it whoosh by without even slowing down and making the hard choice of waiting half an hour for the next one or walking 25 minutes home. Tragic story.
A Day in Wrocław
We started off to see Rynek, Wrocław’s medieval Market Square. It is one of Europe’s largest markets, an urban ensemble with two diagonally contiguous areas: the Salt Market and the square in front of St. Elisabeth’s Church.
The buildings around are a mixture of baroque, classical, renaissance & gothic styles. Each property has a traditional name, usually from the coat of arms on the facade or from its history. The area was damaged during World War II and restored to how it looked during the late 18th century.
Rynek is one of the most charming and colourful squares I have seen in Europe.
Usually the most touristy places are dotted with restaurants that serve mediocre food at exorbitant prices. You’ll be glad to know this is not the case in Wrocław.
We had lunch at Pod Gryfami, right on the edge of the Old Town Square (Rynek). Pod Gryfami which means ‘Under the Griffins’ is a ground floor café in a 14th century townhouse. Seemingly small from its narrow Market Square entrance, it extends far back to include a glass-roofed courtyard and below ground to private dining rooms in the cellar. It is worth a trip down to the toilet to see just how big the place really is.
After cooling off with a beer, we took the tram to Centennial Hall, an early landmark of reinforced concrete architecture.
In March 1813 in Breslau, King Frederik III of Prussia called upon the Prussian and German people to rise up against Napoleon’s occupation. In October, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig. The opening of the hall was part of the celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of that battle, hence the name. The hall is still used for sporting events and concerts and can hold 10,000 people.
Next to the Centennial Hall and encircled by the Wrocław Pergola is the Multimedia Fountain, one of the largest operating fountains in Europe. It is unimpressive by day but we managed to put it to good use on such a hot day as we joined locals in cooling off by soaking our feet in the water.
Just outside the Pergola is the Japanese Garden, which feels a world away from the city. Apparently there is an entrance fee of 4 złoty, but we went in for free.
The Dwarves of Wrocław
A little known fact about Wrocław is that it is home to a significant gnome population. Some of them are begging for attention but most of them are quite well out of view.
Nobody knows exactly how many of them are in the city- the count stopped years ago and there are always new ones popping up. Each one has its own unique name and profession. You might think the gnomes are a tourist gimmick, but they are in fact a tribute to the Orange Alternative Movement – a surrealist local art community that staged anti-communist protests in the 80’s… one of which was to dress up like gnomes and run around the city. Gnome-spotting is a fun alternative to traditional sightseeing.
Wrocław and the Oder River
As the sun started to set, we made our way to Ostrów Tumski,the oldest part of Wrocław. Cathedral Island, once an island on the Oder River, is a peaceful sanctuary removed from the noise of the city and home to several churches and seminaries. It is connected to Sand Island by Tumski Bridge, a steel bridge dating back to 1889. It’s a popular place for lovers and the bridge is full of love locks.
If you’re a romantic, it’s worth strolling along Cathedral Island’s deserted cobblestone streets dimly lit by oil lamps at night.
Wrocław is one of only 2 cities in Europe that still employs a lamplighter.
We walked along the banks of the Oder River to Wrocław University’s main building, made sure we had a dinner place after 11pm and bought tickets for an evening Oder River cruise. It was a strange affair – no ticket counter and lights until we stepped down the stairs to the boat and the captain came out and switched on the lights.
We were rather wary, seeing how dated the boat looked and thought there was just us around. (Insert thoughts on getting murdered). Since we had half an hour to spare, we went to grab some drinks and by the time we returned, 10 minutes before the 10pm departure, the boat was packed.
It was a nice leisurely 50-minute cruise in the darkness.There was little commentary and they were mostly in Polish. Surprisingly towards the end, they played Jambalaya by The Carpenters. That was completely out of place. Well you know what they say: most often it’s not the place but the company that makes all the difference.
We had dinner at Kurna Chata, a cosy restaurant just a block away from Wrocław University. They serve traditional Polish food of the kind only a grandmother could perfect. Although we were forewarned that they wouldn’t have much available by the time we came as they close at 24:00, I am glad we pushed through.
They still had their soups and fried dumplings, and considering we were the night’s last customers, were still treated very well. The place is small and cosy, prices rock bottom, and the food ahmazing! I definitely recommend the dumpling with beetroot.
With our dumpling babies, we decided to burn off some calories and walk around Słodowa Park. Since it was Saturday night, the place was full of students drinking or just chilling outside, enjoying the mild summer evening.
We finished the night and welcomed my 20th year with a beer by the Oder river. I will be spending most of it in Poland. Na zdrowie!
Unfortunately for us, by the time we were ready to go home, that’s when the bus decided it didn’t want to stop so we had to walk the 2.5 km home. It was a pleasant walk along the river, passing by the National Museum in Wrocław and Grunwaldzki Bridge. If only we weren’t so tired already. Anyways, once again, na zdrowie!
Windmills are so iconic of the Dutch landscape that it’s the first thing most people associate with the country. In the 17th century, some 19,000 windmills dotted the Dutch landscape. To date, there are about 1,200 windmills still in existence, the oldest of which goes back to before 1451. A spontaneous day trip brought us about half an hour away from Amsterdam to Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood of the city of Zaandam. Someone wanted to see her windmills, and see her windmills she did.
Zaanse Schans is an open air conservation area and museum, an idyllic recreation of a Dutch village from the late 19th century. Most of the buildings were transported here from elsewhere in the Netherlands and meticulously recreated. It definitely doesn’t feel authentic and is completely touristy – it fittingly receives almost 2 million visitors a year.
It was a hot summer day in Holland but thankfully because the area is huge and has so much open space, it didn’t feel crowded. The restaurants though were another story.
Zaanse Schans houses 8 iconic windmills, each with its own quirky name (The Cat, The Young Sheep, The Houseman, The Crowned Poelenburg, The Ox, The Cloverleaf The Seeker, The Spotted Hen). The place also showcases the traditional architecture of the area: green wooden homes.
Since Zaanse Schans is a village where people actually live in, it’s not possible to visit the houses. You can however pay to enter the windmills which are kept in working condition. There is also a museum in the area, the Zaans Museum which showcases the heritage of the Zaan region.
Dutch Windmill Trivia
Windmills were used for turning any raw material that needed pounding, mauling, shredding, hacking or mixing into a tradeable product. The Zaanstreek paper mills, for instance, were renowned throughout the world for their good quality paper. In fact, the American Declaration of Independence was printed on sheets produced there. There were mustard mills, hemp mills, grain mills, snuff mills, cocoa mills, oil mills, chalk mills, paint mills and saw mills.
The architecture of the Dutch mills is extremely varied.