A Weekend in Athens

Athens, the mother of Western Civilization, patron of the arts and eloquence is the ultimate weekend destination regardless of season (and the seemingly endless woes of the Greek economy).

It had been a childhood dream to visit Athens and to see the city I had heard so much about in history and literature class. I was fortunate enough to have had literature teachers who extensively discussed Greek mythology and painted vivid images in my mind. But these days, people don’t just come to Athens for the ancient ruins. Contemporary Athens has a lot more to offer as I’ve found out.

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❊Day 1, Friday❊

Considering I arrived in Athens at midnight, I opted for a late start, soaked as much sunshine over breakfast from my hostel’s rooftop terrace, and proceeded to hunt for a disposable camera. My first day in Athens greeted me with the news that the metro was closed for the day as the union was striking for their right to strike. I decided to make it a walking day and wandered around Athens’ oldest neighbourhood, Plaka, which extends from the slopes of the Acropolis to very touristy bazaars and restaurants. Despite this, it is perhaps the most picturesque neighbourhood in Athens.

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The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Athens were the orange trees. They are unmissable. I would go so far as to say that every street in Athens is lined with orange trees. I learned that they are very hardy trees, need little water, survive in very cold and very hot temperatures, and don’t shed their leaves. The bright oranges contrasted on the green leaves is a welcome sight in winter and in the summer, their citrus scent waft in the air.

One of Athens’ charms are the small Byzantine-era churches all over the city. The Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea stands in one of the many squares, completely out of place from its surrounding buildings, and is particularly beautiful. Churches are still places of worship so there is no entrance fee, however, do respect that most of them prohibit the use of cameras.

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Panaghia Kapnikarea

EU students have free access to virtually all museums and archeaological sites in Athens and I took advantage of that. I stumbled upon Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora. Very little remains of these sites and you only need a few minutes to wander around, leaving you with plenty of time to see the Ancient Agora. It was the bustling economic and public heart of the ancient city. Noteworthy sites are the (reconstructed) Stoa and the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved temple in Athens.

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Temple of Hephaestus

I managed to have enough time to see the National Archaeological Museum, which is considered one of the greatest museums in the world. Dedicate at least an hour to browse through the exhibition in winter (part of the collection is closed off). Among the most notable displays are the golden death mask of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king in Homer’s Iliad, and a sculpture of Apollo Omphalos whose perfect buttocks deserve a minute or two of silent admiration.

Afterwards, I headed down to trendy Psiri for coffee and people watching. When I pointed at something and asked the waitress what it was, I didn’t fully comprehend her answer. ‘It’s the same pastry as baklava inside.’ Lo and behold, I found myself with a bowl-shaped puff pastry with exactly a baklava inside of it, but with an additional scoop of white chocolate on top and a chocolate drizzle all around. I couldn’t even eat half of it, nor will I be able to eat a baklava for the rest of this year.

With renewed energy, I walked uphill to my new Airbnb in Kolonaki to rest before and wait for my friend’s arrival. Greeks typically dine around 10pm and many restaurants stay open well past midnight on any given day. Of course, this was a struggle for me as I usually eat dinner early. I somehow made it and we headed out for dinner only to have the heavens poor down on us after just a few steps outside. Yet we strode on, armed with umbrellas, and picked a random restaurant where I feasted on a sumptuous seafood platter. I was a bit hyped after dinner and decided to go to Drunk Sinatra, one of the city’s many bars. By the time we left, it was raining so hard and there was no sign of it stopping. As much as I love cities with uneven terrain, I must say it was a very big disadvantage to have to walk uphill when all the rainwater is flowing downhill. Needless to say, I had to put my boots above the heater.

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Day 2, Saturday

Kolonaki (lit. Little Column) is an upmarket neighbourhood on the slopes of Lycabettus Hill named after the 2-meter column that stood in the square before any of the buildings were built. Chic cafes and restaurants dot the area, as well trendy boutiques and pedestrian streets lined with luxury brands.

We started the day with a healthy and hearty breakfast at IT to prepare for an informative free walking tour of Athens. The food was excellent quality and I can definitely get used to having Greek coffee. Greek coffee (Turks would argue it’s Turkish coffee) is unfiltered and even though it is served like an espresso, it is not meant to be drunk standing up. Drinking coffee is, for the Greeks, meant to be a relaxing experience – so sit back and relax while you wait for the coffee grounds to settle in your cup. You can only drink up to a certain point though or you’ll be choking on the coffee grounds at the bottom.

We had time to spare after breakfast and decided to explore the neighbourhood, peeking inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Dionysius with its intricate mosaics and woodwork. We continued towards the National Library of Greece, where we soaked in the periodic sunshine and warmth while waiting for our tour to begin. The forecast has been extremely unreliable so far, and we walked around with umbrellas since most of our sources proclaimed there would be showers the whole day. (It drizzled, alright. In the evening!)

So we waited a few minutes until our tour guide George arrived. Gradually, the other tourists started to show up. We were gathered there, on a marble sidewalk at the foot of the steps of the marvellous National Library building when one of the ladies, who had just arrived and was approaching George to introduce herself, stepped on the dead rat nobody but me seemed to have noticed beforehand. It was already decomposing and the lady almost puked. The next arrival also stepped on it, and another one, before George finally took note of this miserable creature and moved away.

Tour guide George gave us a crash course on the history of Athens before officially starting the tour. Athens is a paradoxically young city – thousands of years of history did not stop its inhabitants from leaving, and by the time newly-established Greek Kingdom officially named it the capital, it was only a town of modest size built around the foot of the Acropolis.

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Athens from the foot of Lycabettus Hill, Edward Dodwell, 1819

Yes, Athens was a city of less than 10,000 people when its first king, Otto (from Bavaria) made it his capital. Most of the buildings in Athens today date back no earlier than the 20th century. Ironically, Athens missed the Greek-inspired European Renaissance and it was only in the period between 1830-1910 that some of the greatest buildings in the city were built, most of which were privately-funded. The immediate need for housing from the 1950s-1970s saw the destruction of many of those neoclassical buildings and the construction of large cement apartment blocks, which explains why Athens today is hodgepodge of concrete blocks littered with satellite dishes, antennas, and air conditioning systems. On the ground, it is an endless maze of broken narrow sidewalks with slabs of marble inserted randomly. Sturdy footwear is a must here, and there will be a lot of walking since most sights in Athens are within walking distance of each other.

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The majestic Academy of Athens whose symmetry makes you forget the surrounding mess

Further on is Syntagma Square, the central square of Athens. The Old Royal Palace (now the Parliament of Athens) perches over it and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A ceremonial division of the Presidential Guard, the Evzones, bid watch to the tomb and every strike of the hour means the Changing of the Guards. The Evzones have retained their traditional uniform – including their pompomed shoes which weigh 3kg each and the ceremonial movements which will certainly make you laugh. A grander affair, the official Changing of the Guards, happens on Sundays at 11am.

A few steps away is the National Garden. A stroll through the garden reveals the ruins of an old aqueduct from the Roman period, destroyed by one of the barbaric invasions that plagued Greece after the Roman Empire started to dissolve.

In our open-air classroom, we received an intensive lesson on the Battle of Marathon and its significance on the West. Had the Athenians not defeated the Persians at Marathon, Europe would have taken a very different course. We run marathons today to commemorate the courageous Athenians and how one man ran the forty or so kilometres back to turbulent Athens to announce to his fellow citizens the news of ‘Nike’ (Victory).

“The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.

J.S. Mill

A few meters away is the Panathenaic Stadium, built in marble by an Athenian Roman senator. It could hold 50,000 people but was abandoned and forgotten after the rise of Christianity in the 4th century. It was excavated in 1869, and refurbished for the first modern Olympics in 1896. It remains the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. A few steps away is the Zappeion, a beautiful yellow building for events. The trees around are home to parakeets, descendants of escaped imported birds from the 1800s. You might not see them, but they sure know how to make themselves heard.

Just across the street from the Zappeion is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, framed by Hadrian’s Arch. It was Hadrian who completed the colossal temple which took more than 6 centuries to build. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a Barbarian invasion a mere 100 years after its completion and the building materials were used to supply other construction in the city and only 16 of the original 104 columns remain.

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Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus with Hadrian’s Arch in the foreground

Greece has had a turbulent history, and a building across the street still bears fresh scars from the Greek Civil War. For those of you who, like me, were not taught the details in school, the Cold War started in Greece, and it was because of the United Kingdom who supported Nazi-sympathisers, let them retain power, and aided them in overthrowing the Greek Resistance, all because Churchill feared the resistance was too communist. History is full of dirty secrets, and the UK certainly has a lot it would want to bury.

The tour ended at the Southeastern Gate of the Acropolis Archaeological Site. One of the perks of off-season travel is that there are not so much tourists around. Of course this has a downside in that most places have shorter operating hours. Since we had more than two hours before closing, we decided to check out the Acropolis which we were planning to see on Sunday.

The Acropolis has two entrances, the main one on the west, and the side entrance on the southeast. In summer and especially when cruise ships dock at Piraeus, the main entrance often gets very crowded as this is where tour groups enter and you may have to wait half an hour to get in. The southeast entrance is actually the better one, as it gives you the opportunity to see more on the way up to the Acropolis. Since it is far from the parking lot, there is usually no line to get a ticket.

On the way up, you will pass by the Theater of Dionysus, considered the birthplace of theater, and one of the few ruins where they allow people to sit (in some parts, anyway). Olive trees line the path on the hike up the hill, and you get beautiful views of Athens and the sea beyond.

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Theater of Dionysus

I had dreamt of seeing this place for such a long time, and finally, there I was, realising it, almost casually. It always fascinates me how you can see so many pictures of a place and still feel so amazed when you finally see it with your own eyes. The Acropolis might be a ruin, but it is a glorious one.

As the weather started to change, we walked downhill to Plaka, exploring Anafiotika along the way. There are numerous cafes with seating arranged on the steps of the neighbourhood, and on this chilly winter afternoon, they were packed. There was one cafe with a roaring fireplace beckoning me in.

We had a coffee and snack break at Quick Pitta (a pleasant discovery) to refuel before shopping. Plaka was getting more and more crowded and when we reached Monastiraki, we realised the weekend was in full swing. We wandered around aimlessly, enjoyed the views of a lit up Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus, and stopped by for some ouzo (traditional Greek anise-flavoured liquor). The server looked at me and asked in disbelief ‘Are you sure?’ and I explained that I had never tried it and wanted to. He shared a look with the bartender and alarm bells started ringing in my head. What was I getting myself into? Fortunately, following his instruction of nuts first and then ouzo, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I didn’t like it nor dislike it. It was drinkable, and it warmed me up.

I felt hyped at getting my Greek experience and convinced my friend to go up to the hill with the Observatory. Athens is a safe city, and some teenagers were hanging out on the hill. After countless attempts at shooting with very low shutter speed without a tripod, we decided to head off for my fish dinner.

I have read rave reviews of a seafood restaurant called Atlantikos, and when even George recommended it, I just couldn’t pass it up. It might not have been anything special for my vegetarian friend, but I am now in the group of Atlantikos devotees. The restaurant is so unassuming that even with Google maps, we almost missed it. It is located in a small and shabby alley in a quiet part of bustling Monastiraki. We had to ask one of the workers if the place was indeed Atlantikos as the view from the street was not very welcoming: inside looked dark and empty. I cannot even imagine my poor judgement now, but it was admittedly a relief to climb upstairs and see that there were a lot of diners.

I am an island girl and I know my seafood, especially whether it’s fresh or not. In Atlantikos, I had the best fish ever and I don’t know where else in Athens you can get such quality for such price. There was a lovely Greek couple seated on the table next to us and we had a nice conversation while I fought to finish my fish. I tell you, when in Athens and in need of seafood, Atlantikos is a must! I too have rave reviews about this place.

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My beautiful sea bass

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❊Day 3, Sunday❊

We started the third day the Greek way – with a small breakfast and Greek coffee to give us energy to climb Mt. Lycabettus, created by Athena herself according to legend when she dropped a limestone mountain she was carrying for the Acropolis.

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Looking out to the sea from the top of Mt. Lycabettus

A funicular runs up the hill (€5 one way, €7 return) but we opted to take the short hike. The hill is a beautiful wooded area with well-maintained trails and is popular with locals and their dogs. There is an open-air amphitheater which has housed names such as Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, and Radiohead to name a few. There is also a snack bar and a restaurant, both of which have views of Athens.

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St. George’s Church

On the peak of the hill is the stunning whitewashed Church of St. George. The church is over a hundred years old, worn-down, and a serene refuge from the strong winds that batter the hill. The view from the top is beautiful even on a cloudy day, and I can only imagine how sunset would look in the summer, when the temperature is higher and the sea a vivid blue. We had coffee and I absorbed as much heat as I could while listening to the wind batter our glass shack. I have a fascination with gritty cities which may explain how I was quickly enamoured by Athens. I can’t believe I was there only last weekend.

We had some time afterwards to see the Acropolis Museum but I opted not to and instead walked aimlessly around. In cities like Athens, grand public buildings sprout out amongst the dilapidated proof that all is not well. I just had enough time to catch the bus back to the airport for my 17:30 flight.

In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.

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Ah, if only life was a journey not restricted to paved roads.

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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.

With love, TO

Cultured and cosmopolitan yet relaxed and liveable, the New York City of Canada is a vibrant sprawling city.

Two decades ago, Canadians might have laughed at the idea of visiting the provincial capital for fun, but these days, with a population of almost 3 million in the city alone, with more than half born outside of Canada, it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

With a visit limited to 10 days, I travelled Canada on the fast lane. My first day was already endless bus rides in suburban Montreal, my second – endless food and endless drinking in the city, that by the time we got to our hotel room at 3am, we all passed out knowing we had to be up by 5am.

And so the alarm went off and we dashed through the dawn. We arrived in Downtown Toronto at noon and made our way along Dundas Street, hungry and desperately craving a root beer shake (uh-huh). Most places were packed and since I do occasionally live the hipster lifestyle, we opted for Bare Burger: free-range, grass-fed, organic.

A vegan, a carnivore, a dietitian and a glutton sit at a table.

My Toronto trip was just one of the many moments I found myself somewhere with not even a skeleton of a plan. The only comfort was I dragged my best friend with me and we had a place to squat. It’s amazing how many people I went to school with in Philippines have immigrated to Canada.

So what would stereotypical Asians do when they reunite after so many years?

Go karaoke and get drunk. Then realize you skipped dinner.

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View of Downtown Toronto from Centre Island

Toronto is crowded, dense, and spread out. With a little research and proper planning, it’s easy to spend a couple of days just exploring the city. There is something for everyone. Here are my highlights for a short trip in Ontario’s capital:

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The CN Tower  and the Entertainment District

An icon of the Toronto skyline, the CN Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world from 1975-2007, and though it no longer is, it still relieves tourists of as much cash as possible. On a clear day, it’ll give you a good bearing of the city’s layout and its neighbourhoods, and you may even see as far as Niagara.

The CN Tower is located in the Entertainment District which is also home to Ripley’s (Canada’s largest indoor aquarium), Rogers Centre (for baseball and NFL fans), theatres, performing arts centres, and nightclubs.

A Visit to the Royal Ontario Museum & Art Gallery of Ontario

The main entrance of the ROM (Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal) might be a hot topic for debate, but Canada’s largest museum of world cultures and natural history is somewhere you can easily spend 3 hours in. From dinosaurs to the birth of present-day Canada, the exhibits are well-organised and there are plenty of helpful guides to assist you.

Another one of the city’s cultural highlights is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). It is one of the largest art galleries in North America. There are five floors, two for art and the other three for exhibits.

Tip: The AGO is free on Wednesdays from 18:00-20:30. 

A Trip to the Toronto Islands

When the sun is up, Torontonians set sail for a small chain of islands on Lake Ontario that can easily be reached by City of Toronto ferries operating at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at the foot of Bay St. The islands are home to parkland, yacht clubs, an airport, a children’s amusement park, car-free residential areas, swimming beaches (including a clothing optional one). There are plenty of picnic spots and quiet nooks to escape the bustle of urban life.

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A Stop at Nathan Phillips Square

You just can’t miss this square when in Toronto. Located in front of Toronto City Hall, this is where the now-iconic 3D Toronto sign is. The square is the site of a weekly farmer’s market, art displays, concerts, and public demos. In the winter, the reflecting pool is converted into an ice rink.

Chilling at the City Parks

Toronto has a lot of parks. Even when in Downtown Toronto, you’re only a couple of minutes away from the many parks along Lake Ontario. HTO Park has a beach by the boardwalk. Toronto Music Garden is a waterfront garden co-designed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that hosts summertime concerts. Its landscape is areflection of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. It’s perfect for chilling on mild afternoons to try to get your mind off the frentic city life.

Though drinking in public is illegal in Toronto, they’re reversing this law starting July 1. Yay to Toronto!

Walking the Busy Streets

What better way to explore a city than on foot?

The city’s multi-ethnic identity is reflected in its neighbourhoods. From busy city center to historic Old Town to trendy West Side and hippy East Side, to the Boho charm of West Queen West, Kensington Market, and cheap Chinatown – it’s a city for everyone.

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Into the Sunset

 

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.

Reflections on a Year Past

I started 2016 with so much energy and the impulsiveness I’ve always had. As a response, Berlin gave us a ball of light in an entirely overcast sky for a sunrise on January 1.

It was at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made the change I was always planning on but was always afraid to do. It was painful then, but the pain stayed there. I was free. It was the year that proved what I always say: I’m too many people at once, sometimes I don’t know who I am.

IMG_017211111.jpgI spent so much time, money, and energy traveling. There were times when I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. I met all sorts of people, engaged in countless conversations that impacted me so much, and collected so many stories. I realised I can talk and that there are people who want to listen, and that the quieter you are, the more you can hear.

I worked on rediscovering what it meant to be ‘family’ –as Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what means to be family.” I spent my entire Christmas break traveling to meet family. It was a bit of a challenge that they were scattered all over the place.

I learned to do weekend breaks– having spent the previous year with barely any weekend free from work. I traveled to places I’d never heard of before, and learned to make do with whatever was at hand.

I woke one February morning to the news of the Brussels Bombings. I breakfasted in silence with the strangest feeling. By some stroke of fate, my extremely delayed flight left the airport 6 hours before that attack.

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World Pillow Fight Day in Berlin

In a fit of jealousy, stubbornness, and possessiveness, I started running again. Every initial step was a battle against the voices in my head, against memories of the darkest summer I spent. I signed up for my first half marathon: the Isle of Skye Half Marathon.

I met the dreaded ToiToi – Germany’s portable public toilets, enjoyed work and the diversity of the people I was with. When summer was in full heat, I had my first swim in a Berlin lake, did the Rostock Half Marathon, and enjoyed the outdoors and the endless events that made up Berlin’s summer spirit.

One Sunday I visited a Gurdwara for the first time and received insights on something I knew very little about. I learned that Sikhism is more tradition, a way of life, than religion.

 

I remembered my roots, realised how much two and a half years can change a person, and caught up on old relations. It was a pleasant surprise that although we all go through so many different experiences and we are constantly changing, some things are fundamentally the same.

I moved to a new city in a new country, made new friends, and lived a new life. I had my fair share of grief and tears, faced my selfishness and learned that I didn’t have to explain all my actions. I shuddered at the indifference I discovered– at how cold and cruel the human heart can be. There are people in your life who are worthy of an explanation– and among them, people who don’t listen. As the saying goes, there are people who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Rolling with the times

It was the year I first smoked weed, shisha, drank a little too much a few times too many, yet it was the year I was fittest. I felt young. I regressed and did things I had missed out on in my strange childhood.

It was life on the fast lane that on the day I typed the words, it was true.

You know the girl you once thought you knew? Well, she’s not here anymore. 

 

 

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.

How To: Travel Cheap

It’s easy to get tricked by the glamour of photographs that we find on the internet. They’re the glossed over versions of everyday things.

Like a lot of people out there, I’m very selective of the images I post, and a lot of people see beauty in them without knowing the circumstances behind them.

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I have received a lot of ‘you’re so lucky’ or ‘rich girl’ comments, sometimes even the degrading, ‘it’s nice to have a rich boyfriend’. I have paid for all of my trips since I got my first job when I was 18. I work for them, make do with missing out on a few luxuries, and save up for them. Traveling is much cheaper if you know your way around things. As I’ve been dealing with budgeting for trips and planning for trips since I was 16, I’ve picked up on skills to stretch every buck.

So for those of you trying to fit a trip on a budget, here are just a few useful tips.

  1. CouchSurf

Way back in 1999, some guy found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have a place to stay…so he hacked into the database for the University of Iceland and randomly e-mailed 1,500 of its students. He eventually received over 50 offers to accommodate him. On his return flight to Boston, he conceived the idea of Couchsurfing: to ‘surf’ on couches as a guest in somebody’s home, host travellers, meet members, or join events.

It’s a huge community and a great opportunity to meet locals and fellow travellers while saving on accommodation and I have met some great people on it. But it is not without its faults. There have been instances where people have used it as a hook-up site, and the web has quite a collection of couchsurfing horror stories, and I have had some bad experiences myself (but that’s for a different post).

2. Google Flights is your best friend.

Searching for airfares has been a lot easier ever since google launched Flights. You can opt for alerts on when the prices for a specific flight drops or starts increasing, see which airport has cheaper flights to your destination (if the distance is not huge, then sometimes it’s cheaper to take a train or bus to that airport and fly from there).

3. Rethink the single journey ticket and the Sightseeing Bus.

Almost all metros in the world will offer day tickets, multi-journey/multi-day tickets, weekend tickets and group tickets. Some already pay off after the second journey, so if you plan to explore the city on your own, consider opting for the multi-journey ones. Most cities also offer City Passes which can be a good deal if you want to visit a lot of museums and sights with entrance fees. They also have the option of including transport in it.

Ditch the Sightseeing Bus. The hop-on/hop-off at major tourist sites may be a lure, but do you really just want to sightsee? You can get a day pass for public transit and get to the same sights for less. Berlin’s bus 100 and 200 for instance, pass through almost all the major tourist points of interest in the city for less than €8,00 – all forms of public transport within zones AB included! They also depart more frequently!

4. Choose where you eat.

Avoid restaurants right at/close to major tourist sights, or restaurants with ‘tourist menus’ a.k.a. those flashy pictures of the dishes served plastered outside their walls. They are almost always tourist traps – absurdly overpriced and won’t really give you the ‘local’ flavours. Walk a few blocks away, and you’re more likely to find a good meal at a lesser price.

The rule of thumb is to eat where the locals eat.

5. Ditch the hotel.

Hotels are great for hassle-free stays but when your budget’s tight, you could still end up in a bad one.

If you’re young and looking to meet people, opt for a hostel. You can still go for a single room if you need a place to cocoon, but the atmosphere will be more social. Most hostels also organise activities or tours that cater to young travellers.

Also, for the uninitiated: AirBnb is awesome. Take my word on this one. It’s an online platform for renting holiday homes – rooms, flats, or entire houses. A lot of the listings have flexible check-in and check-out. Accommodations range from basic to luxurious, and they have the added bonus of a kitchen. Sure the site’s really being used to make money now, but you can still come across hosts who will really make you feel like a guest in their home.

If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s €27 off your first booking. You’re welcome!

6. Exploit your discounts.

Airlines, trains, and buses sometimes offer ‘youth discounts’ or discounted fares to travellers between the ages of 18-25. If you’re in possession of an ISIC (International Student ID Card), you’ll also get reduced admission on a lot of tourist attractions and be eligible for reduced fares. For a minimal yearly fee, becoming a Hostelling International (HI) or Youth Hostel Association (YHA) member will also give you discounts on accommodation and fares.

7. Find the right data pack. 

Try not to rely on mobile data when you are charged more for roaming. There are plenty of hotspots around. If you are staying over a week and think you will need a constant connection, check out what data packs they offer for tourists – they might cost you less than your home network’s roaming tariff.

My Vodafone gives me the same tariff anywhere in the EU for just €15/month.

8. Buy water from the supermarket.

The 500mL water that cost €2,70 at Starbucks might sell for €1,20 in the supermarket. The 1,5L might cost as low as €0,30.

9. Timing is key.

Prices can be much lower when you book just at the right time – not too early nor too late. Accommodation websites such as agoda.com and Booking.com will have early bird deals that offer free or flexible cancellations or discounted rates.

Airlines, especially budget ones, provide real bargains if you know when to book. Airfares are most likely to drop real low on Wednesday nights. Weekend flights are usually more expensive, the earliest ones and the latest ones are usually the cheapest. Clearing your search history might sometimes get your search engine to reveal lower prices.

Rail passes go on sale. Trains also sell discount fares if you book early enough.

An overnight bus means you don’t need accommodation for that night. You can find a locker to leave your stuff so you can explore a place while waiting for check-in time.

If you’re not too bothered by the weather, you might also want to consider traveling off-season.

10. Join the free walking tour.

In a number of cities, you’ll find non-profit companies organising free walking tours. These tours are on a donation basis, and you’re absolutely free to give whatever you want. I usually find myself giving more than I thought I’d be saving – but that’s because most tour guides I’ve met had so much passion that it was hard not to fall in love with a place.