April 9, 2011

The Flavour of Italy – Part 1, Milan


I always thought of Italy as being the root of all things tasty (pizza, pasta, gelato… just to name a few) and as having some of the best humoured people in the World. On my very first visit to Italy, I quickly discovered that I was right, and that Italy had something that every person on Earth desired… good food! I am sure this is the reason for why everyone you meet in Italy is in high spirits and easy going. One taste of that hot, melting pizza and your troubles just disappear. Okay so maybe I am making a lot of generalisations here, and I am sure there are a few grouchy Italians here and there, but to be honest, I was on such a high after every meal that I didn’t really notice! So while there are many things to do and see in this wonderful country, the underlying activity is ‘eating’ or ‘tasting’ or ‘sipping’ J So in order to enjoy Italy, every activity you do must involve food in some way. I will do my best to recommend the ‘dish’ that best serves the activity.


Milano

Amazing city, if you are organised you can see it all in a matter of hours. However, it is best enjoyed at a slower pace, over two days. Especially during the warmer season, where you can sit in Duomo Square enjoying the atmosphere.


Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)

This Cathedral is the most famous monument in Milan. It is located right in the city centre, where Fashion Week is held and where many go to enjoy shopping and dining.




I spent half a day sitting in the sun, watching people come and go, eating lunch and enjoying the Fashion Week parades.

Best Enjoyed With: Gelato

More info here


Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle)

One of the biggest citadels in Europe, although to be honest it wasn’t as impressive as Castles I’ve seen elsewhere. However, Michelangelo’s last sculpture resides here inside one of the three main museums

(among other impressive works), so it was a worthwhile visit.

The audio tour takes 2-3 hours (depending on your
pace), and the inside of the Castle can only be viewed via a pre-booked reservation. So if you forego both, your visit will take less than 10 minutes.

I highly recommend a stroll around the Castle and
surrounding Sempione Park. Be warned, it is also where a dodgy weekend Carnival has set up camp. So if rebellious teens and strange carnies aren’t your cup of tea, then avoid like the plague.

On the other side of the park is the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) but unless you are a fan of war history and Napoleon Bonaparte, you can probably give this a miss.

Best Enjoyed With: Hot Minestrone Soup

More info here


Villa Reale of Milan, Civica Galleria D'Arte Modern

Built between 1790 and 1798, this was the official residence in Milan for Napoleon Bonaparte and the Field Marshall Radetzky. The City Collection of Modern Art is housed inside and it is known today as the CIVICA GALLERIA D'ARTE MODERNA. Although it is a little off the beat and track, it is definitely worth a visit.



It is right around the corner from the Natural Museum (which you should skip unless you have kids!) I made the mistake of going in and couldn’t wait to get out! Arg… And on top of that, all of the signs were in Italian…)



So back to the Villa – it is around the corner from the Museum, free entry and can be seen in under 45 mins.

Best Enjoyed With: Cold Drink (famous iced chocolate or iced tea)

More info here




Milano vs Napoli Football Match

I am not normally the one to go watch a game LIVE (even though I do enjoy the sport, and even used to play it competitively as a teen). Opportunities to watch a live game never really presented themselves before. So when a group of work colleagues suggested we watch the Milan vs. Napoli match, I couldn’t resist! It was raining, and freezing cold, but the atmosphere was definitely worth it. I was rugged up and well prepared, although next time I will consider avoiding any liquids before the second half – the last thing you want to do is to visit the toilet. Hundreds of people line up and try to do their business as quickly as possible so as not to miss the game. Which means less than hygienic conditions. AND men/women rush towards what’s available, and in some cases don’t even bother closing the door! Suffering dehydration for a couple of hours is definitely the better option.

Best Enjoyed with: Coffee / Espresso (in the 2nd half to avoid the toilet!)


For more pictures of Milan, check out my picasa web album here. Otherwise, happy traveling and stay tuned for Part 2, my visit to Roma!

June 19, 2010

J'adore Paris!

I love Paris.

I could pretty much stop there, for if I was to really say all there was to say about this amazing city, then I would need an entire blog and a YouTube Channel. And even then it wouldn't do it justice because you would be missing two of the most important prerequisites for Paris – taste and smell. But more on that later…

In preparation for my first visit in April, I didn't think that I had to do that much research. Paris to me meant the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa, Baguettes and Louis Vuitton... After discussions with friends who had actually visited, however, I was shocked to discover that this city had more depth and culture than its cinematic stereotype suggested. I was confronted with long lists of recommended 'things to see, do and eat'. But before I take you through that list, let’s get a few stereotypes out of the way:

1. Paris is not expensive!

From my days as a Uni student exploring the possibility of traveling to Paris, friends and travel agents alike would warn me about the ‘cost.’ Paris was always the place to visit when your pockets fattened a little. So for all those who gave me that advice, shame on you! Paris is actually affordable if you are comparing apples to apples. And let me define affordable – the same travel budget allocated for a holiday to the UK or USA (be that 2 star or 5 star) will get you the same thing in Paris. So if you have a 2 star budget and want a 5 star holiday, you might want to consider a developing nation (Africa or Asia), otherwise Paris is as good an option as any. Some solid examples:


Meals: a good meal in a nice café, including a beverage and entrée, was less than 25 Euros. If you want something super fancy, expect to pay 80 Euros, if you want super casual, there are a ton of good quality options for 15 Euros or less. So compared to a 20 Euro club sandwich in Dublin, Paris is a bargain!

Attractions: Entry fees are extremely reasonable, but there are a lot of things to see so it all adds up. There are also a lot of attractions that are free to the public.

Accommodation: while pricey in some parts, hotel rates are similar to hotels of the same standard elsewhere. Location is key – if you want to be in the centre, be prepared to pay a little more. Otherwise there are some chic options a little further out of the city centre.


Transport
: I am quite sure that Taxis are the reason for Paris’ infamous reputation for being ‘expensive.’ A 20 Euro trip in a cab costs 1.75 on the train. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work it out, but Taxis are extremely overpriced and overrated. Most things are within walking distance, and those which aren’t are easily accessible by bus or train.

What Rain?

Maybe it was the time of year that I visited, but I only saw a few drops of rain on the last day. Most days were actually very sunny and pleasant (which I am told is rare for Paris). However, I think it comes with timing – like any holiday, plan for the season and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Parisians are Patient, Polite & Personable

I was warned about Parisians from friends and colleagues, some of whom are actually French themselves! Everything from ‘snobbish’ to ‘cold’ and ‘arrogant’ were words used to describe the French (and Parisians in particular). Let me clear this up right here, right now. NONSENSE. They are amongst the friendliest people I have ever met, and in fact, I would even go as far as to say in my top 5 (people of Vanuatu top that list…) Where on earth did this stereotype develop? I’ve read several travel reviews which confirm this negativity, and on closer inspection I think I have discovered the reasons:

(a) Parisians (or the French in general) love their country and are extremely patriotic. This means they are extremely protective of their culture and language. What on earth is wrong with that? Why should they be deemed arrogant just because they love their nation? So a word of advice – if you are in Paris and expect someone to speak to you in English, when you don’t even so much as make an attempt to speak their language, then you deserve the snobbery that comes your way. My French is poor to say the least, but my attempt to communicate was enough. I must have asked over 30 people for assistance over the course of my 5 day trip, and not one of them refused to help. They were extremely helpful, polite and considerate. As a matter of fact, those who could see me struggle with the language actually responded in English (or Arabic if they were Algerian/Moroccan). So if you don’t intend on investing in a French travel dictionary, either rely solely on a map, or travel to an English speaking nation and spare yourself the frustration.


(b) the French have a very sarcastic wit and some people don’t appreciate this type of humour, so keep this in mind when meeting new friends. And don’t take things personally – nodding and smiling when in doubt works wonders.

c)
The whole political issue of disallowing religious icons, and Muslim women being told not to wear the veil in certain occupations... Now this is a tough one, because I definitely do not condone such discriminatory policies. However, I can absolutely see where it comes from. Paris is a beckon for many cultures and religions, and across every race there are those who represent it well, and those who represent it poorly. So without going into a lot of detail, there are a lot of people in Paris whose misconduct and bad behavior is staining their religion’s image. So shame on them for giving Islam a bad name, and pity on the French for not looking beyond their walls for representations other than that in their city. I think that is all I want to say about that (Forest Gump moment)


4. Romance is Reality
Everything about Paris is romantic. Even the pigeons seem to be in love. And as such, single people stick out like sore thumbs (or maybe this is my imagination because I was alone a lot of the time)… In any case, if you are a single female and do not want to be ‘approached,’ wear a wedding ring or something… flattery is one thing, but being stalked is another. And I personally did not appreciate either, so take precautions if you feel the same way.

Ok so with those stereotypes out of the way, we can get to the juicy stuff. Things to see, do and eat!


Things to See

The Louvre – it is only natural that I would start with the world’s most famous museum, and not just because I’m a history buff, or because I like anything shaped like a pyramid. The Louvre is the mother of all museums, and yet when I got there I was sorely disappointed. Its reputation was a lot bigger than the real thing. Don’t get me wrong, the place is huge and you could spend 2-3 days inside, but so is the mall back home. I wanted something … more!

Once inside the fancy glass pyramid, you’ll notice chaotic crowds of people, rushing in and out of multiple points of entry. It took me a while to realize that I had to buy my ticket from one end, go ask questions and get my map from the other end, then choose a door based on what I wanted to see first. There is no chronological (or logical) path to follow, so I kind of felt a little dazed and overwhelmed by the whole experience.

I was up to my eyeballs in Italian and French art, and when I found an escape, I was confronted with even more Italian and French art… there are of course rooms dedicated to Greek, Egyptian and English works, but after seeing one naked statue after another, origin doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. One thing is for sure, over the centuries Europeans have portrayed life in three ways: with nudity, with war, with Christ (and in many cases with a combination of all three!) And I am quite sure that this is the reason the Mona Lisa is so famous – she’s the only one fully clothed in the Louvre! As a matter of fact, the Mona Lisa (as small as the painting was), was NOT a disappointment. She was most certainly a work of art and worth the wait to see.

I took a dozen photos of course, including one of the crowd that stood in wait. The Louvre might consider changing the cranky female guard who yelled at me for taking a picture of the crowd. Apparently such behavior is not acceptable in France. In any case she was the only rude person I met in Paris – quite an accomplishment for a woman of her maturity.

Needless to say the whole Louvre experience was intense, especially since I made it my mission to see everything in 7 hours (which I successfully did). Thank goodness for that Richelieu café on level 1! That French onion soup worked wonders….


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The Eiffel Tower – my very first glance of the Tower was at around 11.30pm. After a long day of work and dinner with colleagues, the only sensible thing to do was to get into a cab and go sightseeing (naturally). Once I saw the sparkling lights in the distance, I knew I had made the right decision. Who needs sleep when something so magnificent awaits!

The cabby smiled proudly as I gasped from the back seat. It was an odd feeling – I had seen the Tower many times before on TV, online and in photos, and yet it wasn’t the same. It completely blew me away. So much so that I decided to go back during the day and see Paris from the top.

I even chose the ‘stairs’ option, which probably isn’t sensible if you aren’t dressed in gym gear – the 704 stairs to the second level took me 25 mins roughly (including time to stop and take some shots). On the bright side, there were no queues and the ticket was ¼ the cost of the ‘elevator’ option. Also note that once you reach the second level, you need to buy another ticket, wait in line and take the elevator the rest of the way up. Stairs + Waiting time = 1.5 hours

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Arc Triumph – on the day I arrived (Sunday 25th April) there was some sort of parade taking place at the Arc, which I’m guessing was for Anzac Day… But then again April 25th 1792 also marks the day the Guillotine was first used! Whatever the occasion, parades on sunny Sunday afternoons usually go down well.

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Notre Dame – my ‘luck’ with Paris (as many called it) ran out at the Notre Dame. So far I had come across great people, food and weather. The Notre Dame was on the top of my list (admittingly because of my love for the Disney Cartoon), so I was convinced that I would be free to explore the church and converse with the Hunchback about politics and religion. The closest I got was a couple of pictures after midnight. A couple of colleagues and I decided to head over for a night visit after a work function on the Seine. We hobbled all the way to the Notre Dame (high heels and cobble-stoned paths are not a good combination) and of course it was closed. If someone from the French Tourism Board is reading this, here’s some advice – gothic churches might actually be better to view at night… maybe… it adds to the gothicness! The journey was not a complete waste, we ended up in a cozy little place across the road for coffee and ice cream.

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Sacre Couer Montmartre – I didn’t actually know what to expect, but as soon as I saw the masses of people making their way up the giant hill to the Church, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I’m sure I saw this in a movie once, something to do with pilgrims… and that’s exactly what it felt like. The journey past the souvenir shops, up the grassy hill and up the stairs was actually more satisfying than the Church itself.

The characters we saw along the way were very entertaining – from souvenir-salesmen to buskers dancing and singing for the crowd, I think the Sacre Cour serves more as a social market place than as a place of prayer. Once we actually walked inside the Church it was definitely a place of worship. Tourists were permitted to walk silently around the edges of the Church and watch the locals pray and chant. The architecture was beautiful, but for those who aren’t religious it might not be worth the hike.

video video

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Versailles – the 2 hour trip from Paris to Versailles is painless enough if you have a good book or phone app. In any case it is definitely worth the trip. If you hate queues, then go super early; I was there at noon and by that stage the lines were so long that it took me 2 hours just to get inside to buy a ticket. I opted for the guided tour option, which was absolutely the right choice for someone who knew only the basic history about Versailles and wanted to hear more from an expert. I also prefer a tour guide who can interact and answer questions – headsets are not my cup of tea. Then again, if you prefer to tour the Palace solo, headsets are the perfect option. In any case the guided tour also gets you access into areas not otherwise included in the standard ticket. I saw Louis XIV’s private quarters, including where he slept, played, ate and relieved himself. In all its grandeur, the Palace is considered a shadow of its former glory (due to the pillaging done during the Revolution). All I can say is, if this is what it looks like after the Revolution, I cannot begin to imagine what it looked like beforehand! If I was a poor, starving Frenchman I guess such opulence would bother me too….

In any case a lot was recovered over the years, and many artworks are now in the Louvre. Bed chambers were also restored to resemble what they looked like previously. The main highlights, however, were the Theatre, Hall of Mirrors, Royal Chapel and the Gardens. Save for the Hall of Mirrors, the others can only be entered with purchase of an additional ticket. In total it will end up costing close to 30-35 Euro but well worth it if you spend the day.

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Things to Do

Seine Cruise – I’ve done river and harbour cruises to death (in various parts of the world), and so I’m not really much of a fan. I would much rather walk along the street and see the city at my own pace. This cruise was more of a work function, so it served a completely different purpose. Nevertheless it was a nice chance to see the beauty of the Seine at night, with strategically placed lighting on every bridge and building that lined the river.

The mini Statute of Liberty was also a nice surprise… Only worth the effort if you plan on doing a lunch or dinner cruise (that way you hit two birds with one stone).

Shopping – I didn’t have time to go on a shopping spree, which probably worked out for the best. Coming home debt free is liberating! But I did have time to see the odd store here and there, mostly along the Champs Elysees. This street, while massively popular and not without its charms, did not live up to its reputation. Apart from some very funky cafes and extravagant designer stores, what was so special about it? Where were all the fashionistas and street mimes? Where were the tall waiters in penguin suits? I seriously need to cut down my intake of Hollywood movies, which have completely falsified the reality of this street. Champs Elysees… nice street, good coffee, see it from the backseat of a cab if time is short.


Things to Eat

This is where your sense of taste and smell are important. Cuisine takes on a whole new meaning in Paris – it isn’t something one does to Live, it is something one lives to do! Great food, interesting surroundings and good friends are a powerful combination, and the French have perfected the dining experience by leveraging all three factors. Food is an art form and treated as such, both in execution and presentation. Surroundings enhance the dining experience, which is why many tables and chairs point towards the street; you can view the busy walkway without shame. In fact, staring at passers-by is encouraged and culturally acceptable. All you need is a couple of friends and you could spend half the day sitting in a café chatting and enjoying the scenery. And if you are short on company, the chairs are placed so close together that you’ll never feel alone. Someone is always inches away from you, and crowded walkways could keep you entertained for hours. Here are a few places which were the most memorable:

Angelina’s – the minute you walk inside you are hit with the aroma of chocolate and sweet bread. Heavenly smells and sights made my mouth water – I didn’t know where to begin! Croissants and fruit pastries, custard tarts and assorted biscuits, chocolate éclairs and creamy cheesecakes, handmade chocolates and coloured macaroons... it was sensory overload! Now keeping in mind that I was lactose intolerant, many of these deserts were a no-go. I had a tough decision to make – 1 hour of pleasurable dining for 2 days of sickness and pain... was it worth it? While I was contemplating my self-destruction, a friend offered me a pill, used to counteract the effects of milk on lactose intolerant individuals such as myself. I was always hesitant to use these things (side effects and what have you), but the glow of goodness was too strong to deny. I popped the pill and gorged on hot chocolate, whipped cream, Mont Blanc (house speciality) and buttery bread. I think I was trying to compensate for years lost to this horrid intolerance. In any case, the pill reduced the severity of the reaction, but didn’t eliminate it completely. It was worth it.

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Derrière – a restaurant named after one’s backside will probably serve food which tastes similar. It was a wacky, hippy joint whose novelty was in the fact that it resembled a house, with different seating options and table tennis right in between the lounge room and kitchen. People didn’t seem to mind getting hit by our misguided ping pong balls, nor did the waiter care when we cringed at the steroid asparagus trunks that were served as our entrée. Then again, it was probably a better choice than the bowl of cow parts that my colleagues ordered. And so after a fine meal our bill came with a box of lollies and a postcard of a naked man. Safe to say that I have put the experience behind me.

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Buddha Bar – this chain of restaurants is popular for its trendy setting, alternative music and apparently good food. Apart from a mocktail and a couple of pictures infront of the giant Buddha, I wasn’t overly impressed. Good company compensates for a lot of shortcomings, so thanks for a great night – you know who you are...

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Le Maroc – after my trip to Morocco a few months ago, Moroccan food was the last thing I wanted. But aside from my bias towards couscous, it was actually a very good choice. Food was tasty, seating was comfortable, tea was amazing. If you feel like something a bit different and oriental, but don’t actually want to travel to the far east to get it, then Le Maroc is the place for you.

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Random French Restaurant – this was 100% traditional French dining. As such I dared not change anything from the menu, I chose something which had ingredients suitable for me. I watched in horror as my colleagues made the fatal mistake of requesting ‘alterations.’ Perhaps this was why our food took 2 hours to be served? In a restaurant that holds 15 people, it was either that, or the Chef was taking a nap. In any case the food was delicious, and seating was tight but quaint, but the underground cellar was something straight out of a horror movie! One minute I’m biting into my lamp chop, the next minute I see a corpulent man rising up from the floorboards! Check please!

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Léon de Bruxelles – you will either love or hate this chain of mussel restaurants. With a menu of over 30 different dishes, it should be a beacon for seafood lovers. However I had mixed feelings about this place because while I love mussels, the way it was served was odd. It was as though someone had finally figured out how to turn a ‘fine’ food into ‘fast food’. You could order a ‘mussel meal’ which consisted of a plate of mussels, chips and a beverage. In other words, this was the French version of Macdonalds.

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Georges – this was 100% modern French dining. Definitely my favourite restaurant in Paris (from the ones I tried), and worth every Euro. Located at the Centre Georges Pompidou's top floor, you get a fantastic view of the city and can enjoy the outdoor terrace if the weather permits. The service was fabulous and our waiter was surprisingly friendly and genuine. I say ‘surprisingly’ because French waiters (from my experience) are typically rude and grumpy, to both French and non French diners alike. So please note that when I said Parisians were polite, this did not include waiters. Breaking the ice with some flattery and a smile will mean getting your food served on time and without hassle. So if you want a good dining experience (from start to finish) and menu price is of no consequence, then this is the place for you.

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I hope I've provided enough food for thought! Enjoy Paris :)