Mabuhay Tropical Paradise!

Mabuhay Philippines! Hello translates into mabuhay in Filipino and it is also my favourite word in that language. Not that I know many mind I just love the sound of it.

As Europe is getting colder my thoughts run back to warmer climates and to our tropical adventures in the land of 7107 islands. To sum it up in one word would be to say it is fascinating, but you cannot stick to one word when describing the Philippines. The country is as diverse as the islands it encompasses, true it is absolutely beautiful and full of wonderful discoveries in whichever direction you end up doing your island hopping, although at times and in certain places it can be a bit overwhelming, but you can avoid that if you stay away from big cities like Manila and Cebu City. The people are generally very friendly, especially in Palawan. Sometimes they will try to rip you off but that’s one of the “perks” of a tourist. Travelling in the Philippines is very cheap, cheaper than in China.

We went there for the Chinese New Year, an untraditional choice I know but when you have got -15 – 20C on a fine February day in Beijing and the bitter cold makes you literally run from place to place, just admiring the crazy New Year fireworks is celebration enough.  So off we went to the country of sun, crystal clear water and paradise islands.

Practical Stuff
First of all about the visa. Most of the “Western world” enjoys visa-free access for 21 days. We coming from the “black list” countries need to acquire a visa. But don’t worry it usually goes very easy.

Now about the travel guide. The best researched book on the Philippines is the “Philippines Travel Guide by Jens Peters“. He has been travelling to the Philippines more than 60 times in the course of 10 years. The book is very comprehensive.

How we acquired this book has a funny story attached to itself. In China it is not easy to buy foreign-language books, they have a limited assortment. Of course there is the wonderful invention of the 20th century – Amazon. But even they didn’t carry this book. So I found Jens Peters’ e-mail and wrote him. And he replied very promptly and gave the contact of a distributor in the Asia and through them we got the book delivered to our first hotel in Manila on the day of our arrival. It involved some coordination but in the end everything worked out fine.

Before you embark on your adventures don’t forget to stock up on sunscreen, sunburn cream (if it gets to it) and mosquito repellent. All of these you can purchase in the Philippines, usually big shopping malls have everything you need, although for sunscreen the choice was limited and we were left with the only option of SPF 50 – which might explain our lack of golden holiday tan. For the sunburn cream I can recommend a local Philippine made aloe and herbal treatment. It comes in plastic tubes and the liquidish gel is brown.

When to Go
Having a tropical climate, the Philippines enjoys an average temperature of 25C throughout the year and two well-expressed seasons – dry (January to June) and wet (July to December). We were there in February and the weather was perfect.

Where to Go
Oh, this is a tough question, with 7107 islands to choose it is not easy. However only about 2000 islands are inhabited, in addition only about 500 are larger than 1 square kilometer. So that should ease up your choice a bit. We did 4 islands in 12 days and that was pretty tight-packed but amazing nonetheless. Later I will blog about the specific islands we visited to reveal the wonderful secrets hidden in each of them.

If you check country-issued travel warnings you will hear frequently about Mindanao and Sulu regions in the south. They keep having recurring violent outbreaks so if you plan to go there check the timing.

Travelling in the Philippines involves a bit of coordination. It is not exactly hassle-free to navigate between the huge network of buses, ships and planes. Flying is cheap, given that you book in a good time of course, and the cabin crew is super cheerful, sometimes they will even sing for you and organize different games. If you choose to fly don’t forget that in addition to your flight ticket you need to purchase a travel tax coupon (in 2010 it costed PHP 200 for local flights and PHP 750 for international).

What to Eat
Filipino food is absolutely delicious. It varies from region to region so make sure you taste the local dishes wherever you travel. One main dish is a national standard – Adobo and it tastes heavenly with meat and veggies cooked in vinegar, pepper and garlic. This was sure our favourite along with fresh supply of exotic fruits. The mangos… oh I can still taste them!

For a juice try kalamansi! Kalamansi are local tiny lemons and the juice made from them is super refreshing and tasty!!! For beer lovers San Miguel is the best local offer.

Local Currency
It is called Philippine Peso (PHP). EUR 1 = PHP 60. You can pay with international credit cards in many big cities, however if you intend to travel to smaller islands it is a good idea to carry cash.

Language
The official language is Filipino, which carries some Spanish influence. The majority of people speak English. Here is a selection of words that might come handy while you travel:

Mabuhay – hello
Paalam, bye – goodbye
Kumusta – how are you?
Mabuti – well
Salamat – thank you
Oo – yes
Hindi – no
Magkano – how much?
Saan – where?
Mura – cheap
Mahal – expensive

Local Attractions
Another word that will quickly enter your local dictionary is jeepney (pictured in the above left corner). Once inherited from the US military after WWII, this is a peculiar form of transport, very colourful, very loud and very omnipresent. One would even talk about a certain jeepney fashion, when the hundreds of noisy vehicles hit the streets of Manila’s catwalk, each trying to outbeat the other with colours, designs, insignia and the number of passengers they manage to cram all over the vehicle. Some will consider a ride in a jeepney an absolute adventure if you are not falling out of course, others a complete nerve-wrecking experience. Whatever the case is, jeepneys are an inseparable part of Filipino daily life. When riding a jeepney it is generally advised to try to keep your belongings as close to you as possible. The best seat is in the front next to the driver where you get some kind of safety and privacy.

Taxis provide yet another spur of adrenalin – besides the crazy and chaotic traffic, it is a matter of choosing the right taxis and not getting ripped off as a result. All the taxis are said to have A/C and meters, now make sure that you have the meter turned on, otherwise you will end up paying multiple times the price. The going rate in 2010 was PHP 30 as a fixed charge and PHP 2.50 for every 300 m thereafter. When you land in Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport make sure you get to the departure hall and take a metered taxi (white ones) from there as it will be much cheaper than going with the airport couponed taxis (yellow ones). We didn’t know this of course and ended up paying EUR 12 for a ride (the taxi meter was running like on a horse track) that otherwise should have been max EUR 3.

Another thing you will notice quickly in Manila and other big cities is the presence of police, safety guards etc. heavily armed everywhere – airport, big shopping malls, hotels, restaurants.

So much for the general intro, now the islands are waiting for us :)

An Escape to Dyrehaven // Deer Forest

Copenhagen. A beautiful Saturday. Sunshine (and the kind weather forecast people even promised all week of it. Yeeeeey!). And of course wonderful family. The plan is made. We are going to Dyrehaven to do some deer watching. Imagine, hundreds of Bambis and Bambi families running around in a huge forest and all you need to do is drive 15 km up north from Copenhagen to posh Klampenborg.

You admire Germans for their efficiency and sense of time, however you gotta admire Danes for their laid-back, peaceful selves and their immense sense of coziness. Just visit this park and you will witness it. Fresh air, 11 square km of beautiful nature, small lakes, a hunting castle and more than 2000 deer running free and all these comes at absolutely no cost to you, well except the transportation to the grounds of course…

Formerly the park was a royal hunting ground, presently it is a public area and a wonderful place for strolling, biking, horse-riding and picnicking. In the middle of the park, sitting atop the highest hill is the royal hunting lodge – Eremitagen – built in 1736 for Christian VI. The lodge is impressive, but it is off-limits to the public. Enter the park through one of many sighnature red gates, the most popular is the Klampenborg gate, close to the S-tog station.

I will let you enjoy the scenery now. The practical info as to how and when to go to Dyrehaven you can find in the end of the post.

(Photos © Andreas Eriksen)

Here comes the sun... in all its colourful glory!

Eremitagen

Hello there, strangers :)

A good old traditional family - women in the back, men on guard

Our family :)

Preparing an ambush

The white one was pretty aggressive

One of the many winding paths

Curious spectators eyeing each other

The Øresund coastline just across the park

When: 24/7 in any season. Here is what the mother nature has in store for you:
Spring – Little Bambis are born
Summer – hawthorn forest in bloom, which is supposed to be a very picturesque sight in itself.
Autumn – the famous Hubertus Hunt - a traditional race on horses to pursue a fox, well nowadays only a fox tail pinned to the shoulder of the lead rider. It is organized every first Sunday of November.
Winter – skiing

How: 15 min S-tog ride to Klampenborg Station from the Copenhagen Center and a few minutes of walking from there.

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The Charming City of Eau de Cologne

Who hasn’t heard about Eau de Cologne! Yes, exactly this is the birthplace of the famous fragrance.

Cologne or Köln to go local I characterized as sweet and charming. It was my very first impression and happy to confirm it lingered on. It is a small city with around 1 mln inhabitants and here again the city is divided into old and new and is spread on the banks of all-mighty Rhine. Well rivers follow in our traces… They also make cities charming and romantic with promenades and gorgeous views, given that there is anything to see of course. In case of Cologne the Deutz promenade offers stunning views of the old city and the cathedral so don’t miss your chance of a romantic stroll.

Our introduction to the city started with friendly Cologne-Bonn Airport, which even boasts an in-house supermarket. I don’t think I have encountered that one before. It was in November that we travelled to Cologne and the Christmas spirit was already prevalent, even in the airport. So I guess that made our arrival extra welcoming :)

One thing that Germans can be proud of is their superb public transportation system. 15 minutes S-Bahn ride from the airport and you will find yourself in the city center. Take S13 direction Horrem Bf and get off at Köln Hbf – Cologne Central Train Station. How handy! Before coming to the handiness though I had to admire the cuteness of trains and train tracks. They were so low that you just wanted to jump down and hug the trains. Crazy thought I know…

Cologne Cathedral & Churches

What else is there? Well they have this huge Cathedral – Kölner Dom – in the middle of the city. You walk and walk and pretty much always end up there. All the roads lead to Dom… It is truly magnificent to say the least. Reminded me of St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague, but on a much grander scale. Each of its spires is 157 m long and when your gaze follows the cathedral and wanders up up up… you feel dizzy and mesmerized by the breathtaking scope of it. Inside is no less grandeur, with mosaic windows and beautiful halls. No wonder it took more than 6 centuries to complete the cathedral (1248-1880). In of the rooms you can also find the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings. Finished admiring the inside, then it’s time to climb up approximately 530 steps of a very spiral staircase of the right spiky tower. It will leave you most certainly breathless, but I promise you the view that will follow is well worth the sweating. The ticket costs only 3 EUR and 1.5 for students. For times and more info visit the Dom web page. At first you will reach a big platform, where upon our arrival crazy teenagers were skateboarding. Nice choice of venue what can I say??? But don’t give up yet this is not the end of your journey. Just a little more effort and a couple of more dizzying steps and there you are at the top of the world, even if the world in this case is constrained by beautiful Cologne. Don’t rush outside because you will miss a strange looking thing with a sword stuck in. Our initial reaction – what on the earth is Excalibur doing in here? but it was a mechanic lever Watch out for the gargoyles. Don’t rush outside because you will miss a strange looking stone-metal thing. Our initial reaction – what on earth is Excalibur doing in here? But that was the fatigue talking after climbing all those stairs. Turned out to be some kind of mechanical lever for bells. Now buy your unique top-of-the-Dom postcard, quickly run outside and take in the 360 degree view over Cologne. Don’t be surprised when you find the walls covered in nonsensical scribbles of proud visitors. I guess it is a universal stupidity that makes people turn historical relics into their walls of fame. Oh and watch out for the lovely gargoyles. They are everywhere :)

As if the Dom wasn’t big enough, the city boasts also 12 Romanesque Churches all standing within the old city. Together with the Dom they earned Cologne the reputation of “Rome of the North”.

Cultural Offers

Right next to the Dom is the Ludwig Museum of modern art. For art lovers this is an absolute must. They have wonderful works of Pop Art, Abstract and Surrealism and the third largest Picasso collection in the world. The reception and guards are very friendly and the ticket costs 10 EUR. You can also get a very useful audio guide for additional 3 EUR, bringing your perception of the painting beyond the oil on the canvas :) No just kidding. The galleries are light and airy and the collection is to be envied. You can easily spent a few hours and even a whole day there, however at 18:00 the insistent but friendly guards will push you out.

Another cultural wonder of Cologne is the Philharmonic Concert House. No, we didn’t go there, we didn’t even see the building we just managed to walk on it. Literally… The Cologne people decided to put the concert house underground in the space between the Dom and Rhine. Don’t ask me why? No idea, but the concept is still cutting-edge. During concerts guards stand on the square above the concert house and close off the space for pedestrians because the roof is so thin the footsteps echo off. A little impractical if you ask me.

The Scent of Cologne

So much about Cologne’s artsy scene, now let’s get back to the perfume business.

“I have discovered a scent that reminds me of a spring morning in Italy, of mountain narcissus, orange blossom just after the rain. It gives me great refreshment, strengthens my senses and imagination.”
Giovanni Maria Farina

The original and world-famous Eau de Cologne was developed and launched in 1709 by Giovanni Maria Farina. In the same year Farina established the Farina House, which is today the world’s oldest fragrance company. The famous house still stands intact, the secret of the perfume is guarded heavily and transferred from generation to generation and the fragrance is still available in the store. 4 ml flacon costs 4 EUR, and 30 ml spray will set you back 26 EUR. To book a tour at the Farina Fragrance Museum call in advance, admission is 5 EUR.

As with anything unique there has got to be copies. This concept is not new and is not Chinese-only, although they certainly are the masters of copying. In Cologne you will find another house called No. 4711 selling 4711 Original Eau de Cologne. This is yet another famous perfume brand from Cologne. The history of this house is quite interesting and turbulent. It was established a century after the Farina’s. If you are interested in the history you can find some details here.

Staying on the romantic note there is a special place in Cologne that stands a humble witness to thousands of love proclamations. It is the Hohenzollern Bridge connecting the two banks of Rhine and bringing you from Deutz district right into the Altstadt. The love bridge is heavily armed with thousands of padlocks of different shapes and colours but mostly the same content – the cute Hans+Greta=<3. First time I saw this concept of attaching padlocks to bridges in Riga, and ever since then love padlocks keep following me. But here in Cologne it has gone to an extreme and very soon they will have to dedicate another bridge to this loving cause. The idea is that you attach the love lock to the bridge and throw the key into the river to safeguard your love forever. In Cologne such a lock with your initials / message costs around 40 EUR, but a hardware store and a felt-tip pen will do the job much cheaper. Good for the Schnäppchenjäger.

During one of our walks in the city we discovered an Armenian surname on a carpet storefront. Of course that made us very curious and despite the after hours and the store being closed the lights were still on and we could see the owner was still hard at work. So we took a chance and knocked on the door. The owner was very friendly, who ended up not being Armenian, but Persian, although I still think he might have some Armenian ancestry in him with the surname Taherian you never know. He had an amazing carpet collection and of course Tufenkian pieces. We found our perfect carpet, that was a little over 12,000 EUR but you gotta set some target, huh? :) If you are ever in town and in need of exquisite carpets make sure to pay him a visit.

Places to Eat & Drink

Are you hungry yet? After all this running around you must be starving and thirsty. Fancy a beer, or local Kölsch? It is tasty but according to my husband it comes in kid-size glasses – 0.2l. Of course he has Danish standards to compare to :) Don’t worry friendly waiters won’t leave your glass unattended for long.

Brauhaus Sion  – for a true German meal head to this old beerhouse. Food is amazing here, try the schweinshaxe (pork knuckle) and be prepared to consume a lot of meat.

Ständige Vertretung – it was the favourite dining place of politicians. Try the German pizza – Flammkuchen, a very thin pizza without tomato. Tastes absolutely delicious!

For the sweet-toothed don’t pass a chance to indulge on nougat bretzels from Merzenich bakery that are spread around the city.

This turned out to be a rather long post. It was sure nice to reminisce about our adventures though. If you are ever in the neighbourhood enjoy the friendly city, but be careful not to slip anything about their eternal rival Düsseldorf. The same is true for Düsseldorf, if you order a beer there and call it Kölsch the friendliness of your hosts will be lost forever!

Happy travels und bis bald :)

 
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Berlin – Köpenick

Ich liebe Berlin! A sentence well-well used and meant. I too represent those millions of people. One of the reasons of this love is the wonderful people I met and befriended in Berlin mostly through my German classes at Volkshochschule. This Köpenick adventure I made with Valeria, an ever-smiling and amazing Veronian, who joined our class to refresh her German and who now shows absolute resistance to talking Deutsch with me. Hope this public shaming will open up your mouth ;)

Valeria stayed in Berlin for just a month but we managed to run around Berlin in search of crazy adventures in the freezing months of February-March. I miss you Vale… baci!!!!!!!!

Köpenick, meaning “place on a river”, is a quaint town on the outskirts of Berlin and is part of a bigger region by the same name. To get there take the S3 direction Erkner and get off at Station Köpenick.

Having escaped the convergence of tourists, it is a wonderful destination if you want to spend a relaxing afternoon and leave the buzz of the big city behind. Altstadt Köpenick is particularly charming. Don’t forget to visit the City Hall and the famous local – der Hauptmann von Köpenick – whose statue greets you by the door.  He was an unemployed cobbler, who plotted to rob the City treasury in 1906. Der Hauptmann succeeded of course – disguised as an army captain he ordered a group of soldiers to march with him to the treasury and guard him while he conducted his unusual business. The City Hall houses a small exhibition dedicated to this ingenious thief, lesser known by his real name Wilhelm Voigt. Today you can relive his brave act every June during the Köpenicker summer festival.

The old city, the peaceful rivers and lakes, the charming palace, Schloss Köpenick, and the 18th century fishing village on Kietz street, with beautifully restored houses, will leave you in a dreamy state of mind. As my lovely husband put it “for suburbian tranquility in Berlin, seek to Köpenick” :)

Ring rrring, it’s the phone!

Your plan is to stay long in Germany? Or at least a few weeks? To avoid paying high roaming charges, get a local mobile number. Our fist choice when we arrived in Berlin was O2, one of the biggest operators. They have a tariff plan called O2-o with Airbag, with which your phone bill cannot exceed 50 EUR no matter how much you talk. That was nice. But expensive nonetheless (15 cent/min). Besides to get a post-paid sim card with O2 you need to have lived in Germany for a certain time to be approved for a contract or you can make a side turn and find a local to sign up for you with his/her ID.

Later we found a cheaper and hassle-free operator – FONIC, with nicer rates:

9 cents per minute /SMS to all German mobile- and landlines, as well as to landlines in many European countries and USA. You can also turn on the Internet for a flatrate of 9,95 EUR/calendar month.

There is no binding contract. You just order your card online and enjoy the cheap talking. They even have an automatic refill or SMS refill option when your balance drops under 4 €. So you can link your FONIC account with your bank account and they will automatically withdraw money and refill your account with 10, 20, 30 or 40 EUR as you wish. This feature can be deactivated and activated back any time. In FONIC terms the “airbag” is called “Kostenschuzt” and keeps your bill from exceeding 40 EUR per month.

For your laptop Fonic also offers a USB Internet connection for max 25 EUR/month.

Stay on the line :)

Floating Berlin

There are many ways to explore Berlin. While the on foot option is the “cheapest” one, well not counting the expense of tired feet and slightly used shoes, Berlin from a watery perspective is no less charming.

Through the heart of the city runs Spree, stretching approximately 400 km. On the banks of it are nestled many of the Berlin highlights, so naturally a cruise across the river is a nice chance to admire the city. Which we did on a beautiful April day, when the sun was shining bright and the sky was deep blue. As it proved later such days would be a rare occurrence in the summer. We – Berliners – were left to the mercy of never-ending rain, grey sky and cold temperatures. The sun was too shy perhaps…

There are a few cruise operators in Berlin, we went with Stern und Kreisschiffahrt. They offer various tours from a basic one-hour journey covering the highlights (9 EUR) to whole day cruises through Berlin (24,50 EUR). Here are the links to the tours we did:

Besides Spree, there are tons of small and big lakes scattered in and around the city. A lake in German is called “der See” (pay careful attention to the article, as there is also die See – sea. Well what can you do this language is so full of tiny little tricks and traps). Now if you look at a Berlin map, it is full of Seen. Wannsee, Tegeler See, Weissensee, Schlachtensee, Grosser Müggelsee and tens of other Seen. Take your pick and enjoy the idyllic nature. Most of them are conveniently reachable by the wonderful Bahn service.

Many of the lakes are also good for swimming with or without swimsuit, check the beach first to avoid sudden shocks. Berlin and Germany in general have a strong naturistic culture. Ever came across the term FKK – Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture)? Here is a website that lists all the FKK beaches in Germany. Scroll and take a bath.

As if lakes are not enough saunas too support FKK :) Besides they are mostly mixed gender. Of course you can choose to keep your attire on but that might be judged as weird by your fellow sauna-peers.

One of the uniquely crazy yet adorable things about Berlin is the Strandbar (beach bars) that spring up like mushrooms in every possible or impossible locations. People like to put up beach chairs, pour some sand and enjoy the life in the middle of all the hustle. A selection of these can be found here if you are lucky and the sun is smiling at you that is. Join the bandwagon fun :)

Hejsa Mermaid City :)

Finally we are back to Copenhagen with the intent of living here for some time at least. It took us long time to move back to our capital but we are here now and it feels hyggelig mostly. Two years to be exact and thousands of kilometers in between. Our journey first took us to China for a fantastic year of adventures. Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, Chengdu and beyond – but more about this later. We got some insider tips to share on the Middle Kingdom so don’t miss your chance. Then it was a year in Germany, in cosmo Berlin, a city that words are lacking to describe, maybe because being a Berliner is a special feeling, resembling a strong addiction, you can never get it out of your system and you shouldn’t try because it is amazing! It was a year of learning German, meeting fantastic people and indulging in the city.

Saying tschüs to Berlin and closing the door to our cozy apartment in Prenzlauer Berg was super hard. Now we are in Copenhagen, or København as the Danes call it. And luckily it is not too far away from Berlin. I was just considering to rename my blog, but the Berlin nostalgia is still very very prevalent. My heart can’t allow it yet. Anyway the first few days in Copenhagen were full of bureaucracy, getting registered, different state offices, stamps and cards. Stressful of course but the strong sense of Danish hygge is there to lift your spirits. Today we got our first taste of it since our move. It was a DHL relay run, an occasion to get together with some friends, BBQ, share stories and socialize. This country is built on such moments! So another point on the globe and more stories to tell. Stay in touch!