Eurotrip Day 72 – 76: Amsterdam

The Netherlands reminded me a lot of Singapore. It is one of the most successful countries in Europe. Not easy, given that its neighbours, France and Germany, are important powers with huge economies. But for a small country, The Netherlands has managed extremely well. Per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world (Singapore is a pretty rich country too; when purchasing power is taken into account, we rank within the top 5 countries in the world, beating Japan, South Korea, North America and almost every other European economy). Prices are relatively low in its capital city, Amsterdam, especially when compared with exorbitant Paris. The country is very clean by European standards. Things work efficiently. And Dutch corporations are important players in the world economy – the airline KLM, the banking giant ING and the conglomerate Unilever all hail from the Netherlands.

Income disparity in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, press freedom is one of the highest, democracy works like magic with hardly any problems like those seen in other industrialised countries, and it has an education system the envy of the world.

Income taxes are above 50% too, by the way. Make no mistake, this is a welfare state, Northern European style.

New Dutch Living

Dutch people themselves identify more closely with Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden than Central European countries like Germany and Austria or Western European ones like Belgium and France.

They are very conscious about their environment and aware of world issues. This is definitely not an ignorant and passive population. 

Especially my couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Oscar is the most intelligent and talented person I have met thus far. I used to have a classmate who routinely topped our class in every subject, but Oscar’s still smarter. He has an active social life and doesn’t study a lot, but seems to remember every single thing he reads. He knows so much about the world and stuff around him – like what era a certain building dates from based on its architectural style. He can play many musical instruments, and most impressively, he has an incredible capacity for languages, being able to converse in Dutch, English, Spanish, French, German, Russian and Bulgarian.  This guy is definitely talented, and his enthusiasm for languages rubbed off on me a little as well.

Cycling

Cliches of the Netherlands: windmills, bicycles and tulips. All true, but none more so than bicycles. There are so many bicycles in Amsterdam, its crazy. All kinds of bikes, parked in every possible place. Everyone has at least one bike in this country and most have two or three (Oscar has 5, by the way). The Dutch use huge locks to secure their bicycles, and because of the sheer number of bicycles and the ingrained cycling culture, safety and theft is not as huge a problem as expected.

It’s a country built for cycling. The Netherlands is as flat as a pancake, with hardly any hills or slopes. It is even flatter than Singapore. The landscape just stretches on and on, and that makes it eminently cycle-friendly. There are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, and bikes are given priority in traffic situations. Cars are respectful of bike traffic, and despite the potential for chaos, bicycles, cars, motorised bikes, pedestrians and trams seem to coexist very well on Amsterdam’s narrow streets.

Dutch bikes have lots of different designs. This cute little fact alone will tell you how central a bike is to Dutch commuting: there exists a kind of ‘pram-bike’, with a little barrow-like structure with a wheel attached to the front of the bike, so that mum can bring her kids along on a bike trip.

Another City That’s Prettiest In The World

Like Porto and Paris, Amsterdam is a breathtaking city. All the European cities are so pretty, I can’t help but fall in love with each one of them. Amsterdam is big but not too large, and crowded but not overwhelming. It's the fifth-most visited city in Europe and naturally filled with tourists, but even so it is surprisingly easy to find quiet picture-perfect streets beside tree-lined canals. The old city is so large, and there are so many old buildings and old canals, that even the massive amounts of tourists can’t be everywhere. Many buildings date from the 17th century, and are perfectly preserved, and I was filled with a sense of wonder as I explored the hundreds of streets on bike, each turn revealing a new picturesque canal.

The Ugliness of Tourism

Amsterdam’s tourism office tries to make as much money as possible out of each tourist. They charge 2.50 euros (S$5) for a city map. A visitor from a foreign country isn’t treated as a guest by the city’s tourism bureau, but as a cash cow presenting an opportunity to be milked of as much money as possible.

Some tourists are just plain ignorant, no doubts about that, but I take the view that treating tourists like cash cows just brings bad-quality tourists to your city. What most tourism bureaus want, I suppose, are discerning, high-income individuals with an appreciation for local customs and an appetite for the new and unfamiliar. They’d like tourists who take the time to enjoy a city, understand its people and go off the beaten track to discover the little gems and treasures that make a destination special. No one likes busloads of tour groups who snap photos, make tactless remarks and buy 4 for $1 Eiffel Tower keychains. Unfortunately, the latter is the overwhelming truth of mass tourism nowadays, and Amsterdam isn’t doing much to help by making tourists buy a S$5 city map and having a visitor centre that gives one the impression of a over-bureaucratized public hospital waiting room, complete with rude service, long waiting times and a completely unnecessary queue system with flashing neon numbers.

Man-made Beauty

Amsterdam, and the rest of The Netherlands, is pretty much all man-made. There’s not much of a choice, really, because the country is low-lying and facing a constant battle with the elements, including a turbulent relationship with water. But its quite beautiful. The interplay of light shining through gloomy clouds, shimmering canals and narrow, historic houses would captive anyone’s imagination.

I spent a lot of time with Oscar during my stay in Amsterdam. We cycled through pretty neighbourhoods, dodging traffic, and I got an excellent crash course into why foreigners should think twice before biking along a main road in Amsterdam. We even did a cycling trip to Haarlem, a town near Amsterdam, and it turned out to be on the same day as a music festival, so I got to witness the spectacle of what seemed like the entire country’s under-25 population doing crazy stuff to weird music, paying exorbitant prices for small portions of grub, paying for a chance to relieve oneself in the bathroom (I used the one in Delifrance instead; yes, Delifrances start appearing once you travel Eastwards from France), and purchasing and drinking so much beer that the ground turned incredibly muddy from all that spilled beer.

Too Planned

I don’t like the weather in the Netherlands, but then again, I might just have been unlucky. Still, it reminded me a lot of England. A depressing and cloud-laden sky. Now my favorite kind of sky is a clear blue one, even in sweltering Singapore.

Besides the weather, I found the ‘suburbs’ of Amsterdam depressing. This doesn’t only apply to the areas surrounding Amsterdam, but to all the parts of the country that weren’t built before the 20th century. Perhaps this great weather of theirs inspired them to conjure up equally unappealing buildings, looking extremely dull and resembling parts of a hospital complex. I really don’t know how to describe it, but my heart sank at the sight of those buildings (and there are quite a few, once you get out of the city centre). They looked like they belonged behind the Iron Curtain, and they all looked Orwellian, unimaginative and nothing more than functional architecture.

Eurotrip: A Tug

They like to play silly tunes at Giant to entertain shoppers. I don’t know whose idea it is, but turn off the radio anytime, I say. Imagine how ridiculous it is when the latest R&B trash bursts from the speakers when you’re frantically trying to pick out the freshest prawns with your hand wrapped in a transparent plastic bag while fending off other jostling shoppers at the same time.

The songs played change frequently, a playlist in flux according to the season and occasion. Hence, as we enter the month of August, the theme is now National Day. Songs of which are typically cheesy and repetitive, but hearing them, I felt a familiar sense of belonging wash over me, only to be replaced by a sense of nostalgia and sadness at leaving so soon.

It’s easy to say that we have no sense of identity, being a small and young nation. Are we first Singaporeans or ethnic Chinese? Are we first a city, or a country? Are we Southeast Asians first, or the descendants of Northeast Asians? Are we immigrants first, or are we natives? Singaporeans have a complex relationship with the place they live in, one that is constantly undergoing redefinition and reinterpretation.

While backpacking on my own, I was sometimes forced to confront these issues. Is my identity Singaporean or Chinese? Do I identify more with people of other races living in Singapore, or with other Chinese living in Taiwan and China? Do I like Singapore as a country, or as a city? Am I happy and proud when I see Singaporeans overseas, or do I want to find a hole to burrow into? Do I like Singaporeans, or do I hate them? Why am I even thinking this way?

I don’t know if my generation and I will ever find the answers to these questions, but I appreciate what I will miss when I am abroad - comfort and support from family and friends. Homesickness is impossible to stave off, I know, and I have experienced it before. What is the best way to adapt to it? Force yourself to pretend that it never existed and hope it eventually disappears, or confront it head-on and recreate a bubble of Singapura in a land far away?

Its a different feeling this time, because I don’t know for sure how long I’ll be gone for, and when I will next step foot in Singapore again. Might be soon, might not be so soon.

I felt a tug.

Eurotrip: The End of the Trip

During the final few days of the trip, when I was in my last destination, Abu Dhabi, I eagerly anticipated returning home. By then, after 3 straights months on the road, I was getting sick of travel and longing for the comfort of home.

The last day in Abu Dhabi, I was supposed to wake up early to go to the sixth largest mosque in the world, the Sheik Zayed Mosque, but when my mobile phone alarm sounded early in the morning, I felt so drained and just content to keep sleeping that I just pressed the button and continued sleeping.

I still love travelling, but going home’s great. I couldn’t wait to return home, to see familiar faces, hear familiar lingo and eat familiar food once again.

My heart raced when it approached the time to board the plane. Taking Singapore Airlines direct back from Abu Dhabi to Singapore was the right choice, even though it cost me $550 for the single trip. I kept thinking about wonderful images of home, of seeing my family and friends again. I couldn’t wait.

And it was great flying on Singapore Airlines. Though I was originally supposed to fly on AirAsia, I changed my ticket to SIA in the end because the latter cancelled their flights to Abu Dhabi “to stave off bankruptcy” as their customer service representative stated in the email. I don’t really believe it has anything to do with bankruptcy, but whatever. It was nice to fly back with Singapore Airlines. Hearing the air stewards and stewardesses speak in that distinctive Singaporean-accented English was like music in my ears. I liked the flight not because it was comfortable, but mostly because it reminded me that I was going home.

“And to all Singaporeans, welcome home”

That statement sounded in the cabin broadcast as we touched down at Changi. It resonated strongly with me. After 3 months in a foreign land, I was returning home at last.

What did I learn from this trip?

Of course, I’m now much more international in my outlook and receptive to new encounters and experiences. But in a world where far too many experiences get labelled as “awesome”, “great” and “fantastic” and looked back on in rose-tinted glasses, I’ll be honest - its hard to pinpoint exactly how this trip has changed me. Maybe it has, in many little ways and in many different aspects, but it certainly wasn’t life-changing. But I’m glad I went ahead with it, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

P.S. I am still updating this blog with travel stories from the trip. Watch my posts below.

Eurotrip Day 95 – 96: Abu Dhabi

Like Dubai, but with worse shopping malls

The capital city of the United Arab Emirates has more in similar with Dubai than it has differences.

And so, its a city that I hate as well.

I hate the wide ten-lane roads built for cars.

I hate their excessive use of water to hydrate all those plants in their lush parks and gardens.

I hate the disconnect between the rich, minority Arabs and the poor, majority Indian foreign workers.

I hate the sweltering desert heat and that distinctive, slightly charred smell in the air (is it so hot that even the sidewalk is smoldering?)

I hate it that they have almost zero public transportation.

I hate their dull fast food and staid, expensive restaurants.

According to CNN, this is the richest city in the world. Abu Dhabi’s oil reserves are estimated to last till way beyond the year 2100. In other words, they can continue building garish glass skyscrapers, ten-lane roads and meaningless theme parks like “Ferrari World”, fill the desert with hundreds of water-sucking fountains and import thousands of foreign workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippine archipelago to construct all this grandeur. 

What are we going to do with so much money?

I mean, there’s only so many ten-lane roads and skyscrapers they can build.

So…

Here comes the prestige projects like yes, Ferrari World. Saadiyat Island is their latest mind-blowing, opulent project. The island is going to be called Cultural City, and will feature a bunch of museums and cultural institutions. I really don’t understand this love of building self-contained but otherwise disconnected and disparate mini-cities. To me, its just poor urban planning. 

The entire project will cost billions and feature more reclaimed waterfronts, more spewing fountains, more parks that look almost tropical-like in their lushness, and of course, more shopping malls. Emirati-style, of course, which means its likely to be populated with luxury brands for the conspicuous consumption of the rich locals, and staffed to the brim with Indian security guards and Filipino store assistants.

Oh no, Dubai is overtaking us

The UAE is really more of a federation than a country. When I was in Abu Dhabi, which owns over 10% of the world’s known oil reserves, I read of foreign workers in another emirate, Sharjah, suffering electricity cuts to their dormitories and flats. Yeah, you heard it right, electricity cuts in a country that has too much oil.

And of course, everyone has heard of that famous episode when Dubai finished building the tallest building in the world and suddenly found themselves in trouble of defaulting on the international market. Their rich neighbour Abu Dhabi steps in with a guarantee, and suddenly, the name of the tallest building is changed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa. Khalifa, of course, is the name of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Everyone thinks that the capital of the UAE is Dubai, of course (its actually Abu Dhabi). The name "Abu Dhabi" just doesn't have the same cachet to it. It seems like they are in the middle of a spending spree to reassert their wealth and status. CNN has its Middle East headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and they are keen in transforming themselves into a “hub of hubs”. Yeah, they want to be a business hub, financial hub, cultural hub, artistic hub, hub of the Middle East, aviation hub, shipping hub… Oh man, that actually sounds a lot like Singapore, yeah?

In response to Dubai’s 7-star Burj Al-Arab hotel, Abu Dhabi built the Palace of the Emirates, also a 7-star hotel. What does it mean to be a 7-star hotel? I'd always thought that the number of stars were capped at 5. The Palace of the Emirates was ridiculously opulent and lavish. It had a long driveway, huge spacious lobbies in which you feel slightly afraid to move around in fear that you are dirtying their polished marble floors, and a ratio of what felt like 10 staff members to every guest. They also have a private beach, numerous swimming pools and a butler for every room. The ultimate winner? A gold bar vending machine in the lobby, where you can feed all your spare thousand-dollar notes into and watch a real gold bar pop out. Just the perfect souveniour for those folks back home.

Good Old Expat Life

I stayed with an expat in Abu Dhabi, Florent from France. He’s a pretty cool guy, and I got to see expat life through his eyes. Abu Dhabi isn’t the most interesting city, but Florent seems to like it a lot. Alright, I’m going to lay off my attacks on the city for a bit. The weather may be sweltering but at least its good enough to go to the beach everyday. It seldom rains, and there are always clear blue skies stretching overhead, a rarity in cloudy Singapore.

Another plus is there's also lots of beach activities and desert activities around Abu Dhabi. Florent and his French friends in Abu Dhabi seem to enjoy these a lot on weekends. And on weekdays, they meet each other frequently after work, and hang out in hotel bars (sadly, the only place where you can drink legally in the UAE) or have dinner together.

The best part of the expat lifestyle? Florent gets an apartment and a car with the job. This apartment is no ordinary flat – its located on the top floor of a sixteen-storey building, with fine views of the corniche and the sea. It has three toilets, a huge living room and plenty of rooms. By the way, Florent is only 23 years old - he graduated from university the previous year, and is living alone in Abu Dhabi. If such a young, inexperienced guy already gets these perks, I can’t imagine what life must be like for a middle-aged expat.

Well, I guess they need to offer people attractive remuneration packages to get them to come to a place like Abu Dhabi.

Eurotrip Day 60 – 66: Paris

This is the result of not blogging for too long -- you end up forgetting what you want to write.

In Paris, I stayed with 4 couchsurfing hosts. The last one was rather memorable. Arthur and his best friend Patrick, both in their early 20s, one studying and one just started working. They live in a flat in the Chinatown of Paris, on the 17th floor. Its huge by Parisian standards, and also conveniently located near the metro. I’d say Chinatown and in general, the outskirts of the city near the Peripherique highway that runs around it is the best place to live in Paris if you want to keep rent in check and not have to squeeze into the size of a shoebox like the flat of my third couchsurfing host, Charly.

Chinatown in Paris is not what I expected at all. I thought I’d see a jumble of bright neon signs with moving lights of all colours, signboards lining the streets, buildings squeezed against one another and lots of Chinese words. But Chinatown in Paris defies conventional stereotypes. For one, it has a large population of Vietnamese. A really significant proportion of East Asians in Paris are Vietnamese, and this is reflected in the type of food sold in the restaurants. Arthur and I had lunch twice in Chinatown, and we had pho on the first time and bo bun (a kind of dried noodle with sauce; tasty) on the second time.

Interesting things I learnt about France:

(from Arthur and Patrick) Everyone pees everywhere. They don’t care if its public or private property. When you’ve been drinking and the floodgates are loose, anywhere is a loo. The result is that Paris, while still beautiful, can sometimes smell like a gigantic cesspool of urine.

(from Patrick) French people feel a deep resentment towards the police. Its definitely not a sense of respect as in Japan, nor nonchalance or security or a misplaced sense of guilt. In Patrick’s words (and this view was concurred by Arthur), they think the policemen have ‘small balls at home’ and make up for that by throwing their weight around in public.

Going out and drinking in bars/clubbing is too expensive. Most people have parties at home (each guest brings some alcohol) or just gather in the park (they officially close at sunset, but typically French: just climb over the gates, like how they blatantly climb over the turnstiles in the metro stations in front of the staff manning the information counter), sit on the grass, enjoy the classic River Seine view and drink and smoke marijuana and smoke cigarettes.

In Europe, almost all young people smoke cigarettes. They either do it regularly or have tried it before. Its a much higher percentage than in Singapore. And the number of people who smoke marijuana is astonishing too. When the police catches you smoking marijuana, they simply throw the joint away and warn you not to do it again.

[to be continued]

Eurotrip Day 67 – 71: Belgium

It's always interesting to compare your experience travelling in a country to your impressions before coming. So I’ll do that for Belgium too.

Before coming to Belgium:

1) Expensive

2) Small

3) Capital of European Union

4) Boring

And that was about it. Does anyone really have any impressions about Belgium in the first place? It's so tiny (yeah, I know, it's still bigger than Singapore...) and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the news about it except for the name of its capital in front of any story about the European Union. It always goes like this “BRUSSELS – Ministers from the European Union met to discuss…”. So my impression was, Belgium = Brussels = European Union.

The World Meets Here

The European Union does indeed have a significant influence on Brussels. From the interactive exhibits at the excellent tourism office, I learned that Brussels now has more ugly office buildings thanks to its status as headquarters of the EU. But Brussels has also become an important city for conventions and meetings. It is also the capital of NATO, and it's home to many foreign companies as well. Business tourism is an important component of the economy in Belgium. Also, the second-highest number of lobbyists in the world are based in Brussels, after Washington, D.C. And as I found out from the Belvue Museum, a very tiny museum on the country’s history, Societe Generale, the multinational company that sounds French, is actually from Belgium. So is Stella Artois and a lot of good chocolate. Belgium has the sixth-highest standard of living in the world. A country of just 11 million - roughly the same number of people as Portugal, but with much greater economic, political and cultural influence. Oh, and did I mention Belgium gave the world french fries? Yes, they are not from France, but Belgium (several conflicting explanations regarding this). I’ve been eating so much fries here in their country for origin; they are relatively cheap for Western European standards, and are the freshest and tastiest frites I’ve ever had in my life. Can’t imagine going back to McDonalds fries anymore. I’ve particularly enjoyed fries from a shop next to Bourse that opens till 1am everyday. The portions are huge, the prices reasonable (2.50 euros for a large serving with sauce, 1.80 euros without sauce) and the fries just the way I like it – sufficiently soft and not too hard, oozing with goodness. The fries at a random kebab place near plaza Flagey were great too, proving that even the cheap night-time fast-food takeaway places have decent standards too.

Tons of people from all over in Brussels. Brussels is definitely international in its outlook, and more so than Paris. Because Belgium is a small country, it has no choice but to embrace the world, while France sometimes seems to resist it. Brussels has one of the largest African neighbourhoods in Europe. I explored a little of the African quarter, and saw grocery shops with produce from the continent, travel agencies advertising flights to Africa, and lots of shops selling international calling cards.

It's hard to find a typically Belgian restaurant in Brussels, because there are just too many Chinese restaurants, African eateries and Greek/Turkish kebab/pita/falafel fast food places. Turkish kebab places are where everyone goes after a night out in town. Hearty, greasy food, perfect after all that alcohol. And they taste good too. Mmmmm. I’m a little addicted to them, I confess.

Bar Culture in Belgium

Belgium is one of the countries with a great beer tradition. Germany too, of course. But Germany is so much bigger, and Belgium is so small, yet you have such a strong tradition of brewing independent beers. There are thousands of beers from Belgium alone. My first couchsurfing host, Mathijs, comes from a city of 50,000 people and they brew their own beer there as well, a cherry-flavoured one.

Belgium is dotted with tons of bars. Mathijs estimated that his hometown alone has at least a couple hundred of them. That’s for a population of 50,000. Does Singapore, with its population now hovering at 5 million, have even twice that number of bars? Now it becomes evident why Belgium is considered one of the great beer countries.

The beer is good in Belgium, and so are the bars. I’ve been to an American-style live jazz bar, a bar with over 2,000 beers, a rock music bar, and walked past countless more I wish I had the time and money to try. Modern bars, old-fashioned bars, bars resembling cafes, cafes resembling bars, a bar beneath a railway station with funky graffiti design, gay bars, straight bars, bars where people listen to free live music with no cover charge, bars where people talk, bars where they don't play music, bars in the middle of parks, bars in the basement of buildings, bars with ample terrace seating and bars with beer you can get nowhere else in the world.

An example of the latter was drinking a Mort Subite Lambic in the Mort Subite, one of Brussels’ famous old bars. It's beautifully old-fashioned on the inside, a throwback to an earlier era of romance, and the beer is delicious. Really. Delicious. I hardly ever say that about beers, but this one, brewed especially for this monument of a bar, is great. It's not exactly very strong and has a unique slightly lemon-influenced taste. OK, I admit I do not know how to describe beers. Just take my word for it: it's good. If I had more money, I would go bar-hopping in Brussels (and Antwerp after that), soak up as much atmosphere and try as many beers as possible.

Anything But Boring

Brussels is anything but boring. I know it brings to mind brussel sprouts and the European Union, both of which couldn’t interest a three-year old, but Brussels is definitely happening. Besides the thousands of bars, you have lots of hip clubs as well as the usual gamut of Irish pubs that seem to be found everywhere. Good graffiti on the streets, but not too much that its overpowering. And best of all, a vibrant street life.

On the first of May, I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert at a small plaza near the heart of the city. A half-black, half-white group was playing some tribal-rock African music, and half the crowd was going crazy. Beer was flowing like there’s no tomorrow, and people were dancing, throwing their hands in the air, waving around shirts, clapping along, shouting and hugging. The atmosphere was good, and best of all, it was free.

Outside Brussels

Brussels is amazing, but most travellers don’t actually spend much time in this city. They concentrate on cities with far more to offer the tourist, like Antwerp and Bruges, both of which I took side trips to.

Antwerp is a favourite of mine. It's prosperous and expensive. Very prosperous, in fact. Although the sidewalks are not clean, there are tons of upscale shops around. It is the capital of fashion in Belgium, and there were many small, independent boutiques selling designer clothes at unachievable and unbelievable prices. Many high street chain shops too, for the common-folk who don’t want to spend S$70 and above on a T-shirt.

Antwerp definitely has more nice, old buildings than Brussels. But one thing I like about both cities is that they aren’t overly gentrified and touristy. Sure, they are touristy no doubt, but they’re still very much vibrant, living, breathing cities. Relics from the past stand side-by-side with modern concrete buildings. Small shopping malls and luxurious old-fashioned galleries alike dot the city centres. Bars and cafes full of character, packed with locals and some tourists.

Bruges is not my favourite. Its Disneyland Belgium. This city is beautiful, with its canals and medieval buildings. But its too touristy. Every shop seems to be selling postcards or chocolates. Every restaurant seems to be selling tourist-oriented overpriced food. Every bar seems to be purpose-built for one of those ‘Belgian beer tours’. And Bruges reminded me a lot of the UK. The architecture is very, very similar.

[to be continued]

Eurotrip Day 58 – 59: Sunny Skies Continue

Life is great when the skies are sunny. It’s been like that for as long as I’ve left the UK, and even in Paris, just across the English Channel, the great weather continues.

There's been perhaps less than 5 instances of rain in the past 40 days. The rest of the time, it's warm, sunny and nice. One of the things travelling makes you aware of is the weather. Because you’re out all day, you’re at the mercy of the skies. If it rains, you're pretty much sloshing through water in cold, damp conditions. You’ll want to head indoors to museums and shopping malls. But when the sun is shining and it's no longer freezing, you'll want to head outdoors. I treasure sunlight. I love it. I don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the gigantic (and I’m sure equally terrific, just that I’m not in the museum mood at all) Louvre for the entire day while everyone else is lying on the grass under the sunshine. I want to be out there, on the lawn, with a bottle of orange juice, a sandwich and some pain au chocolats, eating, relaxing and enjoying the gorgeous Parisian spring.

I’ve been doing that so much that it's in danger of becoming a routine. If you’ve been reading my blog, I guess you’ve noticed that I’ve somehow managed to spend 1 week in Paris hopping from park to park and enjoying the sunshine in places off-the-beaten-track where locals outnumber tourists.

And enjoying it too, I must add. Which is why I continued doing that for the past two days.

My 2nd couchsurfing stay in Paris was great. I crashed with an Australian guy who gave up his life back in Perth to go around Europe for a year. He has a nice apartment in a cheap neighbourhood, but one evening he locked himself out by mistake and in retrospect, I guess this turned out to be one of the more memorable couchsurfing experiences because we went around all worried and considered all possible scenarios (including breaking into his house) before finally managing to contact the landlady to give us the spare key.

Another memorable experience through couchsurfing: my third host in Paris brought me to his friend’s in the suburbs one night and we somehow ended up entering the mansion of a Saudi Arabian prince that was still under construction. We climbed up the scaffolding and clamoured up huge piles of sand, and, drink in hand, gazed at the stars from what felt like the top of the world.

Besides getting a lot of sun, I’ve also enjoyed sunset walks by the River Seine and each time, I’m always amazed. Paris is too beautiful. Ahhhhhhh… I’m not even done with this city yet (1 more week to go) but already I’m thinking when I can come back again.

Eurotrip Day 56 – 58: Perfect Days

A succession of perfect days.
Days when the skies are clear and sun is shining.
Days when sunshine stretches long into the evening.
Days when I feel happy and reinvigorated.
Days when I’m at peace with the world.
Days when I feel like I can live like this forever.
Days when I don’t want to leave.
Days when I’m in Paris.

I’m sitting on the grass in the cool shade of trees, writing this note and listening to some soul music.

There’s a pond in front of me. Its water is light green, calm and reflective. A duck is frolicking in the water. Bushes stand at the edge of the pond, backed by tall man-made stone landscaping.

A red cable bridge connects one end of the pond to the other.

Many people are around me, but there's plenty of space for everyone. Some people are lying on the grass. Some are walking on the path. Some are sitting on the benches. Some come as individuals, others come as groups, talking, strolling, resting, eating, drinking, smoking, relaxing.

I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember in Paris. The weather has been just perfect every single day for the past week, and I’m taking advantage of it. Visiting parks, lazing around, lying on the grass, listening to music, getting some sun and also getting some shut-eye.

The parks I’ve visited: Promenade Plantee, Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Bois de Boulogne, Parc Montsouris, and now, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. And countless other leafy spots around the city, small gardens, the banks of the Seine, the expansive grounds around and opposite the Eiffel Tower. Enjoying the luxury of time, and relaxing to my heart’s content in each of them. Not so much travelling anymore, but rejuvenation and relaxation.

Paris is just wonderful.

All the negative stereotypes I’ve clung to have vanished, totally. I’m at peace with this city. I love Paris. I could live here. I now know why there is such a romantic, charming, beautiful image associated with the word “Paris”. It is indeed a beautiful name for an equally beautiful city.

A stroll down the River Seine at sunset. Drooping willows hang over the river. Eiffel Tower against a backdrop of orange and blue.

The tulips and many other flowers I can’t name, in full bloom, in parks all over. People sitting on the grass, or lazing on the deck chairs.

Sunshine and blue skies. Warm temperatures and soft breezes.

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous city.

But this city isn’t only about beauty, serenity and romance. Like any other metropolis, it's rough, dirty and haphazard at times.

Youth selling contraband Marlboros in the shadow of the elevated tracks of the metro at Barbes Rochechouart.

Buskers hopping from train to train on the metro, playing their instruments, and earning a living from goodwill.

Gypsies trying to trick tourists into a scam, their opening line: "you speak English?" I always avoid making eye contact with them.

Lots of people hawking keychains with miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower accosting you in the vicinity of the world’s most famous landmark.

The RER stations underground, smelling like a public toilet that hasn’t been cleaned for weeks, and at times resembling one too, with weird damp patches dripping water, and a maze of connecting tunnels littered with all sorts of trash.

Homeless people, sleeping wherever they can, in makeshift beds of blankets and cardboard, picking out whatever valuable trash they can find from rubbish bins.

And also:

A stylish young woman, in sunglasses, scarf and coat, sweeping past, baguette clutched in one hand, answering a mobile phone in another.

An old man, wearing a beret, shuffling slowly across the street.

A businessman with a copy of the Le Monde newspaper rolled neatly in his coat pocket, looking as anonymous as any other businessman.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists, recognisable by their clothes and foreign faces. Constantly hearing English everywhere I go, spoken and answered.

Youth skateboarding or biking along the dedicated cycling lanes.

The Velib bike rental system with kiosks all around the city.

The distinctive Parisian buildings, off-white in colour and topped with blue rooftops, with their tiny balconies hanging outside the windows.

Cafes, with their tiny tables and chairs placed along the sides of the sidewalks, charging whatever exorbitant prices they can get away with.

My favourite beer, Kronenbourg.

People jumping over turnstiles, entering buses through back doors and finding all sorts of innovative ways to avoid paying the expensive fare for public transport.

A crucial lack of public toilets. Fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Quick, a local chain, requiring you to input a code on your receipt to be able to use the washroom.

Random markets popping up in neighbourhoods, with vendors hawking anything from cheap books to socks to antiques to fruits and vegetables.

Makeshift stands selling bouquets of fresh flowers on the corner of the street.

And more…

That’s Paris. Charming and beguiling, disordered and beautiful at the same time. A great city.

Eurotrip Day 52 – 55: All Stereotypes Overturned

Before: Parisians are rude.
After: They’re not.

Before: Paris is dirty.
After: It’s not that dirty.

Before: Paris is over-rated.
After: It’s not.

Before: The French are arrogant and hate speaking English.
After: Not true.

Before: Paris is expensive.

After: …

Ok… yes, it is VERY expensive. Got me on that one. That’s my only complaint of Paris – its too expensive for my tiny backpacker budget! More so than London. But other than the price, I like Paris. I really do.

Here's a chronology of what happened in the past 4 days, briefly:

13 Apr: Arrived in Paris, met Thierry, went for dinner with his classmates and a drink in a pub afterwards

14 Apr: Promenade Plantee (deserves a whole post on its own; very good urban renewal initiative). Strolled along the River Seine. Very beautiful. Notre Dame (just another church, but with 10x more tourists). Saw the Louvre from the outside – it's HUGE, I mean, I knew it was going to be large, but nothing prepared me for the scale of it. Visited the Jardin des Tuileries – it's well-maintained and beautiful garden with flowers in bloom and people resting on deck chairs facing the fountain. I joined them for a while and just sat there listening to music.

Champs de Elysee. One of the most famous streets in the world. Looks a lot like Orchard Road actually. Not as exclusive as I thought, it most certainly pales in comparison to Ginza in Tokyo on the ‘unaffordability’ and poshness level. Arc de Triomphe.

Impression of Paris: Beautiful. Very, very large city, and I made the mistake of trying to tackle it all on foot. It feels like the entire city is filled with huge landmarks, some of which I can’t pinpoint. Stately-looking palace-like buildings and such.

15 Apr: Eiffel Tower. Ugh, its not as good as expected. Nowhere near breathtaking. And the park behind it is pretty crappy as well. Walked to the front of it, crossed the river and sat down on the bench relaxing, listening to music and trying my best to like it. I love Paris, but the Eiffel Tower is looking pretty ugly at this point in time…

16 Apr: The other half of Promenade Plantee. As I said, beautiful, and I’ll need another post to cover it all. I came to the end of Promenade Plantee but couldn’t find the metro station. Thankfully, a friendly born-and-raised-in-Paris old man brought me all the way to the station. French people are very friendly after all!

Parc de Bercy. Paris is ridiculously beautiful. How did the French perfect the art of building good parks and planning cities so well? This is just a small park off the tourist track, but it's tranquil, quiet and gorgeous. Groups of young Parisians (comprising different races, I was heartened to see) sat on the grass, talking and eating. Couples were kissing and rolling over each other.

Opera station. All the huge brands for shopping, like H&M, Zara, etc. Galeries Lafayette, a famous department store, is very, very opulent. Like the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney – a very classy shopping centre. Nice view from the terrace on the top floor. Somehow walked towards Gare Saint-Lazare, one of the train stations in Paris, and the shops became visibly cheaper, and the streets more bustling. Enterprising young people were selling bouquets of fresh, lovely flowers to passers-by.

I spent a long time walking to the Eiffel Tower. Saw a nice church along the way. Yeah, many churches so far, but this one was quite beautiful, though I know I’ll probably forget it in a few days’ time. Sunset by the River Seine, with orange sky and Eiffel Tower in background, river and willows in foreground. Stunning. I love Paris. And the Eiffel Tower is just breathtaking at sunset. I took many, many photos of the same thing.

I sat down with a good view of Eiffel Tower, ate a crepe from a street stand and braved the cold. The Eiffel Tower is positively glowing at night, shimmering with brilliance… I left only when the sky got almost completely dark at 9:30pm.

---

Well, Paris is immensely beautiful. I love the parks, the River Seine, the architecture, the stylishly-dressed people, the dense network of metro trains (with buskers hopping on and off), the gorgeous weather, and did I mention the parks… they’re just superb…

Some people come to Paris and never leave. I understand that perfectly now.

Eurotrip Day 52 – 53: Paris

Arrived in Paris and met my couchsurfing host Thierry. Went to an Italian restaurant with him and his friends, and found out a little about Paris.

One thing I found out about Paris is that its unbelievably expensive. More so than London and Tokyo in my impression. Not sure about New York anymore, my visit was too long ago. It's a good thing I’m not heading to Switzerland or Norway on this trip.

We had a drink on the first night in an English pub and it cost 4.50 euros a pint after applying the student discount. Well, still cheaper than alcohol in Singapore, but feels overpriced to me especially after being in the Iberian Peninsula for 1 month, where drinks are very cheap. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how much it costs in the UK.

On my first morning in Paris, I realised I was in the most beautiful major city in the world (the word major is very important, because I think Porto’s still the most beautiful small city). I strolled along Promenade Plantee from Thierry’s House to Bastille and had a very enjoyable Parisian time. Promenade Plantee is an old disused elevated railway line that has been converted, like a similar project in Manhattan, into a linear park running along Avenue Daumesnil. It was beautiful. The park was very well landscaped, and trees and plants were flowering. It was very spring-like but the park was rather quiet because it was off the tourist track, and it was the middle of a a working day.

I also really liked the Velib bike system, the well-maintained leafy streets and tons of rubbish bins around.

I loved it all, and thought that Paris was probably one of the most well-planned cities around.

Eurotrip Day 52: Hello France

Left Joao’s house in style on a taxi (5 euros), my first taxi ride alone on the entire trip (I took it before in UK and actually also in Porto, but both times I was sharing with others). Partly because it’d require a long walk/change of metro and train to get there, so the taxi was more convenient, faster, and not much more expensive either. Well, and also Portugal’s probably the only place in Western Europe I can afford to take a taxi in on such a tight budget...

My impression of France before visiting: mostly negative. Let me write my preconceptions here before I actually visit:

1) French people are snobbish, arrogant and rude. They like to ignore strangers who ask them for directions. Especially if you ask in English.

2) Paris is expensive. Very expensive.

3) There are lots of tourists in Paris. 45 million tourists visit Paris each year, making it the most-visited place in the entire world.

4) Paris is over-rated. I expect that its probably beautiful, but I don’t think its going to blow me away or anything.

5) I can’t speak French, and no one’s going to be happy talking to me in English. Help!

6) The people in the service industry like waiters and people manning counters are extraordinarily rude. And you’re supposed to tip the waiters still. Ugh.

7) Paris is a dirty city with a lot of dog poo on the pavements. Must be careful when walking down the streets lest I step into one of them and prompt sniggers by the French behind my back.

8) I really want to see the Eiffel Tower. It's probably the attraction I want to visit most in Europe. It's like a symbol of travel, of a foreign land… one of those places I must see before I die…

9) To me, the ranking of major world cities goes like this: 1) New York, 2) London, 3) Tokyo, 4) Paris, 5) Beijing. Paris is somehow still a very important city despite France’s declining status on the global stage. Diverse, cosmopolitan and crowded. Everyone wants to go to Paris. Me too.

10) Arts and cultural capital of the world. People are elegant and fashionable when they’re not being rude to you.

As you can see, almost my entire impression of Paris is negative (and heavily influenced by stereotype too, I must say). Even before I’ve set foot there. It's strange how this image is rooted in my mind. Especially that whole impression of how the people are rude and cold towards non-French speaking tourists.

Haha, so why did I decide to visit Paris? Well, ask me that again. I could have spent an entire month in Portugal instead of two weeks, but then that’d mean forgoing France (specifically Paris, because I didn't decide on going anywhere else in France). But you know what? I have to see Paris. I don’t like making lists of must-see places, but in my opinion, you could come to Europe and not see London, but Paris is one place you can't miss.

Okay, and two weeks in Paris alone? Well, it's a major world city, as I’ve explained. It's population is 12 million. It's huge. It’s one of those cities you can apparently never get bored of. And I want to give myself enough time to distill and understand this unique city and culture, and hopefully leave with a positive impression. I’d want to go to other parts of France too, of course, but the only way to get there cheaply is to book in advance, and the website of the French national railway doesn’t accept Singapore credit cards. And I’ll be spending too much money and time. Need to return to my beloved Singapore soon. Too bad then. Its Paris for 2 weeks.

I'm excited to see what it looks like, and I hope my negative preconceptions don't turn out to be true.

Eurotrip Day 51: I Don’t Want To Leave

Portugal is my favourite country so far. Ok, so I’ve only been to 3 countries in Europe, and because the UK pretty much sucked in winter, the only other competitor is Spain, but still… I really loved it here in Portugal. It ranks together with Japan as my #1 favourite country.

Bright sunshine again. So many places I haven’t seen yet. But it was my last day in Portugal and I knew where I wanted to be – the beach.

And off I went, in T-shirt, shorts and slippers…

Spent the whole day lying on the sand, getting some sun, having coffee on the beach-facing terrace, sitting on benches along the boardwalk, getting more sun, listening to music, and doing nothing. It feels so refreshing to do nothing… not even reading a book, but just listening to music.

And somehow time flew past. Before I knew it, it began to get a little windy and chilly, and it was time to head back.

Dinner was very memorable. Joao did bacalhau (it was 1 of the 1000s of ways to cook codfish, but I forgot what it was already) and invited his friend Nuno over and we had a very nice meal and a great session afterwards watching stupid youtube videos and drinking beer…

And then it was all over. Last day in Portugal, last night in Portugal. The next day I’d be heading to Paris, a land of apparently-arrogant French people, cold weather and exorbitant prices. I felt a little sad to be saying goodbye to Portugal, but you know what? I’ll definitely be back again. That I’m sure of.

Eurotrip Day 50: Oriente, Lisbon

Had already covered all the main tourist sights, so it was suggested that I head to the Oriente district. This is the newest district of Lisbon, a planned, landscaped area that came up for the 1998 World Expo (yeah, I know, its 12 years ago, they don’t really build many new things in Europe). I don’t usually like such types of places (think similar planned new cities like Putrajaya in Malaysia), which always strikes me as being built for cars, with wide roads, buildings very far apart and architecture that can at best be labelled ‘interesting’.

The design of the shopping mall and train station was nice, but I felt that the rest of the place was pretty ugly. Despite that, I enjoyed myself. Finished reading a book I started sometime ago on a succession of random benches along the sun-drenched waterfront and, when it got too hot for me, I headed indoors to enjoy an ice-cream cone at a live music bar and a BK King-sized Coca-Cola at the foodcourt of the shopping mall.

They put up flags of countries which participated in the ‘98 world EXPO, but Singapore’s was missing. Asian Financial Crisis that year maybe?

Anyway, I did something bad today: I had a buffet lunch. Its one of my vices, always tempted by the large portions and varieties at buffets, then regretting afterwards, but still somehow finding myself in a buffet restaurant constantly. This was an Asian buffet featuring lots of Chinese food. The food was okay I guess, and for 8 euros it was a bargain, but I was so stuffed afterwards that my stomach hurt for an hour.

Hence, my dinner only consisted of one banana. And then went for drinks with Joao and his friends in town before going back to sleep. I quite like this culture of going for drinks at night actually. If only it were cheaper to drink back home…

Eurotrip Day 48: Lisbon on a Friday

Said bye to Nuno and his wonderful family, then took the train to Belem. Was going to meet my next couchsurfing host later at the station, but first I had 3-4 hours to kill.

Belem’s one of the districts of interest to tourists in Lisbon. It’s next to the waterfront, and consists of several grand monuments like large fountains, a big monastery, museums, and a cultural arts centre. Weather was terribly hot (yes, I’m complaining this time) and I felt like I was sweltering under the Singapore sun. Didn’t really care about the multitude of tourist attractions there, and they didn’t seem very good anyway, so I just walked about a bit, and then went into Pasteis de Belem.

This is one of the most famous places to eat in the world. I've known that Portuguese egg tarts exist and are delicious for as long as I can remember. Portugal’s most endearing image in the minds of people worldwide is the humble egg tart. And the original shop? Pasteis de Belem. I remembered watching it on the Lonely Planet travel series on the travel channel, so naturally I had to give it a try.

It’s really big inside. They all say that on the reviews, and yeah, its true. Not maze-like though, that would be an exaggeration. But the entrance of the shop, though big, doesn’t even prepare you for how many tables there are in the interior. Its just a single pastry shop, but it looked like it had more seats than an average food court in a shopping mall. Nice retro atmosphere inside, and the egg tarts (0.90 euros each) were pretty good. I had to exercise some self-restraint to stop myself from ordering more than 2 of them.

Sat by the side of the river for a while, looking at the 25th April Bridge (lookalike to Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco) and wished I was at the beach.

That night, my couchsurfing host Joao and his housemate Ivo (both went to the same school, and have just started working as engineers, at the same company too lol) invited some friends over for dinner. It was a great dinner, and I liked the concept of having such dinner parties a lot. Its great to cook something and invite friends over to your place to eat, drink and make merry.

After dinner, we took the subway to the city centre for some drinks. Bairro Alto, the nightlife district of Lisbon, was extremely crowded. It looked very different from the day – I think I prefer it at night. The narrow cobblestoned streets in Bairro Alto were almost fully packed, with all kinds of people hanging out, drink after drink in their hands and chilling the night away. How packed was it? Almost like the interior of any city-bound MRT train in Singapore on a weekday at 8am. Seriously. I met a lot of new people that night and tried different exotic drinks as well (I liked this strawberry drink which is pronounced something like modegaskhor). Alcohol, friends, music and old streets make for a surprisingly good combination. The weather was heating up, so it wasn’t very cold, and everyone was just hanging out outside the bars, making the interior seem empty by comparison. It was kinda strange in a familiar way how everyone seemed to be bumping into friends all over (small city) and also how much English was being spoken. A profound sense of tiredness hit me once I got on the bus and I fell asleep on the way back. An African guy from Guinea sat beside me and tried to talk to me, but I was really too tired. I could only remember him saying that they speak Portuguese and Creole in Guinea, and then I just zonked out after that…

Eurotrip Day 46-47: On Holiday

If there’s one thing I dreamed of a lot during this trip, it was the beach. I didn’t like the cold, and since leaving the UK I’ve been thinking of just having another vacation with a bunch of friends in a great beach somewhere where I’d rent out an apartment for at least a fortnight, and go to the beach to laze till the sun sets, returning to cook dinner, then going out again to drink and party till late. Rinse and repeat, that’s my idea of a perfect vacation. And the weather should ideally be hot, not overly, preferably 20-30 degrees, with clear, blue skies. The beach has to be clean, with fine sand, clear waters and not too crowded. And please, let there be shops nearby as well, good facilities at the beach like toilets and water fountains, and plenty of cafes and bars nearby to chill out. Now, that’s my dream of a perfect vacation.

It’ll never happen, because once I go back to Singapore I’ll start complaining about the hot weather, and almost all the beaches in the immediate vicinity are dirty and strewn with rubbish. Don’t really fancy lounging in the water with empty cans and pieces of plastic floating about.

But you know what? I found my dream vacation in Lisbon, at least for two days. Once I saw the beach, I changed my entire opinion of Lisbon. Its one of those cities with such a high quality of life, like Sydney in Australia. Laid-back, relaxed and brimming with beach culture. There’s beautiful beaches and forested hills right next to the city, and really, this must be one of the best places to live in the world.

Just head out westwards from the city and there’s an entire string of beaches along the coast, all in close proximity to the suburban train line, on which trains run frequently.

For two glorious days I went to the beach and lost track of time doing nothing. Ahh.

The first day, it was the beach at Estoril and Cascais. At one point Nuno even drove me to the westernmost point of continental Europe (this one’s for real, unlike the Southernmost point of continental Asia in Sentosa which is really a joke because Singapore’s an island). It reminded me a lot of Australia, with cliffs plunging into the water and strong winds. We also went to Sintra, which I don’t really have an impression of actually, because it was just a brief stop. Then at night we headed out into the city with his cousin to some really cool bars, although nothing much was going on since it was a Wednesday night. The venues were interesting enough (one was like someone’s house, with different deco for different rooms, and the other was a clown school by day that’s perched on the side of one of Lisbon’s hills and offers a good view of the Golden Gate-like bridge spanning the river) but we felt a little bored because we wanted to listen to some live music.

Second day I walked to Carcavelos beach, which was awesome as well. Then at night we drove to the beach with Nuno’s friends and just sat on the sand drinking under the stars to the sound of guitar music and lapping waves. I enjoyed myself, and thought how nice it would be to spend the rest of my life doing this everyday.

Eurotrip Day 45: Lisbon, At Last

If I had to pick a city that I looked forward to the most on this trip, it would be Lisbon. From what I read about it, it's beautiful, affordable and emanates a kind of ethereal magic that makes you want to stay forever. So I planned to spend an entire week here, allowing myself ample time to get seduced by the charms of the old winding streets and the Portuguese sunshine.

Boarded the high-speed intercity train for Lisbon. 15 euros, or S$30, for the two hour journey. Arrived and walked about 2km to a nearby station, passing by city landmarks along the way, to board the suburban train service to Oeiras, where my couchsurfing host Nuno lives.

Met Nuno at Oeiras station and he drove me to his house to put down my bags. Really cool guy, but more on him later. Went back to the city again on the train and explored the city centre for a bit.

Lisbon’s very, very tough to explore. There are so many streets and lanes that even the map doesn’t label all of them. Add to the fact that this city is built on seven hills – yes, sounds romantic and dreamy, but really, you can’t tell that its 7 hills at all, its just one huge metropolis with lots of steep streets and worst of all, its so confusing that you never know if you’re on the right one.

I must admit that Lisbon’s not what I expected. I guess my expectations for Lisbon was for the kind of city that Porto is. Not overly big, with a compact downtown and set against a dramatic natural backdrop of hills and a river. Pretty disappointed to find that Lisbon seemed filled with expensive restaurants, and a sprawling urban core that wasn’t really attractive at all, and lots of not-very-nice concrete buildings and towers around. Yes, there are nice historic buildings in the old part of town, but they don’t seem to have any unique architectural style, and look like buildings from any other generic Western European city, with grandoise government buildings, churches and plenty of museums, some bordering on obscure subjects. Filled with tourists too, I must add.

Didn’t eat anything proper the whole day save for some pastries (okay, its partly because of my newly-launched austerity drive; every few days, I realise I’ve been spending too much and try to cut down in a frenzied attempt to stay within my backpacker's budget). I was also pretty irritated that one of the pastelerias actually served me something that resembled over-baked plain dough. Wasn’t in the best of moods and was glad when I took the train back to Oeiras, leaving this city for the suburbs.

My couchsurfing host’s a 23-year old musician. He plays the drums, and his job consists of rehearsals and performances with his two bands and sometimes teaching drum lessons. He’s got some pretty interesting views and am glad I met him. That night we went to the park with his friend and cousin and hung out for a bit.

Eurotrip Day 44: Life’s A Beach

Didn’t study the train timetable the night before, so woke up and realised the next service to Figueria da Foz, a nearby beach town, was only 2 hours later. Climbed the hill to the university again and this time, found the main university square, and wandered around for a bit, seeing some lecture theatres (pleasantly retro) and then descending through the ancient maze of streets.

About this ancient maze of streets – they’re pretty dirty, but really atmospheric. This part of town was cobblestoned and hilly, and the streets just made no sense on a map. Some houses looked like college fraternity houses, with party banners and assorted cool stuff hanging outside, and others were simply student flats I guess. The walls were all vandalised with graffiti, and though I don’t understand Portuguese, some of it looked pretty fascinating though not of top street art quality like those I’ve sometimes seen besides the railroads in Spain.

Figueria da Foz was the WIDEST beach I’ve ever seen in my life. On one side was the town, and then on the other was the Atlantic Ocean, and separating them was what almost looked like a desert. Really. There were boardwalks leading from the esplanade to the beach, and these were very long, but even they only led to halfway down the beach, and to cover the remaining distance, you'd have to trek across a long stretch of sand to finally get to the water. I couldn’t believe how a beach could have so much sand. And it didn’t matter whether it was high or low tide (I was there from 2pm to 10pm) – there’s still a huge lot of sand.

The thing about beach resorts that puzzles me is, why are they always so similar? The presence of a good beach always seems to inspire condominium towers and overpriced seafood restaurants. Figueria da Foz was no different; a generic beach town with a casino, hotels and holiday apartments. No soul except for tourism.

You can’t deny the appeal of the beach though. Had a nice time there just soaking up the warmth of the sun and walked up and down the entire length of this huge beach. Then struggled internally for a bit to decide whether I should catch the 8pm or 10pm train back to Coimbra – if it was the former, I’d miss the sunset and the latter, a little too late and cold after the sun has set. Oh, the decisions you have to make while on holiday! In the end I settled for the last train back at half past ten.

My first time seeing the sun set onto a perfectly straight horizon. There were no large cargo ships, tall buildings, islands in the distance or a visible faraway land to block the view. The horizon was completely flat. Went into one of those overpriced restaurants and ordered the cheapest item on the menu, a 4-euro meal which turned out to be a terrible version of a chicken chop. Sat facing the sea and watched as the sun set, its red ball of light easing into the waters beneath. Beautiful, but not breathtaking. The sky did not turn pink or become swathed in layers of crimson and orange, or whatever writers use to describe sunsets. But there was a perfect gradient of blue from to orange where the sun had just gone down. It grew gradually darker, and very soon, it was pitch black.

Walked out of the restaurant, bracing the cold, and looked up into the sky. Stars blinked overhead. Strolled onto the boardwalk towards the sea and felt as though I was entering a magical world. As I got further and further away from the bright lights of the restaurants on the promenade, the stars seemed to shine brighter than ever, and more of them became visible, stretching on and on in the clear dark sky. Enchanting. My imagination raced and for a while I felt as though I was in a magical land of wizards and witches, of fantasies and dreams.

Eurotrip Day 43: Aveiro and Coimbra

Felt a little sad as I left the Brazilians and went to the train station. After 2 weeks in Spain not couchsurfing, it felt good to be doing it again. 

Bought a ticket to Aveiro, a small town that has been dubbed “the Venice of Portugal”. The website where I saw this stated that it was an exaggeration, and so I didn’t really have high hopes, and well, it turned out to be a big exaggeration anyway. But Portuguese towns are extraordinarily well-maintained. This small town has a free municipal bike-rental service, a nice tourist information centre that stores luggage for free, and pretty clean streets. I wonder if all these are reasons contributing to the heavy debt burden of Portugal – for such a small country with a tiny economy (50th largest in the world), it seems like it can hardly afford all these – modern trains, advanced metro systems, clean streets, a strong police presence and well-developed tourist infrastructure.

Aveiro is pleasant enough, but definitely not great. Cycled around for a few minutes and saw the entire town (yes, its really small), then sat down at a bench in a quiet corner by the canal under the clear sunny sky (really a very regular feature in the Iberian Peninsula) and toyed around with my iPod while watching several boats of tourists shuttled around in the canals in Venetian-looking boats.

After spending a grand total of 2 hours in Aveiro, I hopped onto the next regional train for Coimbra. Walked up a series of steep roads across much of town and was actually feeling sweaty and uncomfortable, a sensation I don’t really get a lot on this trip because it has been so cold. Checked into the youth hostel and shouted ‘hooray’ in my heart when I saw how empty it was at this time of the year, at the end of Easter Break, when all the Americans and Europeans return to continue with what’s left of their semester. I hate staying in packed hostels – too noisy, kitchens always full, and you feel terribly self-aware and inconsiderate rummaging through your stuff (better still, inadvertently clang the keys to open the locker or rustle plastic bags) at night or early in the morning to get something – even though I’m not very loud, and some people may be sleeping so soundly they have not heard anything, I still feel like I’m disturbing them, and I don’t like that feeling.

Walked around town and explored the university, but there wasn’t much to see. As university towns go, Coimbra isn’t the best I’ve seen. The view from the top of the hill was good, but nothing fantastic really, and the architecture, while unique, was nothing to call home about either.

The worst thing of all was that it was so empty and deserted. I thought it would be great to visit Coimbra when all the students were still in their hometowns on Easter Sunday, but it turned out to be a really bad idea. The shops were all closed, and the town was devoid of life except for the occasional tourist.

I couldn’t even find any pasteleria open except the few on the square near the railway station that were obviously terribly pricey, so I ended up buying a frozen pizza from the supermarket to heat up for dinner.

Eurotrip Day 39-42: Porto, Portugal

I LOVE Portugal.

Yeah I know, I liked Spain, but I think I may like Portugal even more :)

Arrived in Porto, Portugal’s 2nd largest city, at 5am in the morning after taking an overnight bus from Madrid. Walked around dazed and cold for a bit before finding the house of my couchsurfing host.

Lucas is an Erasmus (some acronym that means exchange programme, usually only for EU students) student from Brazil studying in Porto for a semester, and he lives with two other guys and two girls in a charmingly well-furnished apartment. Despite my arriving at 6am, we talked a lot, and I never did go back to sleep until that afternoon.

I went to the supermarket to buy some groceries, and immediately noticed a significant difference in prices between Spain and Portugal. Portugal’s cheaper by about 30%, I’d say, and although it still works out to being expensive by Singaporean standards, it isn’t that bad for an EU country. Then I cooked some pasta and Lucas made some rice and beans, which is apparently a staple of Brazilian food. I had some, but it was too salty for me – Brazilians definitely have salty tastebuds because his housemates pronounced the rice and beans just nice, and not too salty, even though the taste of salt was very strong to me.

Had a nice afternoon nap and woke up at 6pm eager to see the city. Porto is very, very beautiful. Its one of my favourite cities so far. The baroque architecture is so different from the Spanish style, and the buildings aren’t painted in artificial hues (think Clarke Quay) and restored to the extent that they look almost new. In contrast, they are positively run-down, dirty and needing a new coat of paint, with some windows even broken, their glass smashed and still waiting to be repaired. Young kids and old people wander in and out of the doors on houses lining the streets, retro-looking signboards from the earlier part of the century hang off shophouses, and colourful clothes flutter in laundry lines on the balconies. Its even more pleasant to wander the streets here than in Spain. Everything looks more authentic, and there’s a noticeable lack of souveniour shops. Even in the riverside area, where tourists congregate in expensive waterfront bars, its amazingly easy to get back into the true soul of the city. Just a few steps away and I was transported into a maze of old and narrow winding streets, filled with the laughter and chatter of the locals.

Best of all, Portugal (or at least Porto), is so cheap. Everything is cheaper than Spain, except chocolate and processed breads from supermarkets. But then, I don’t need such budget food anymore when I can have an espresso and a couple of buns or pastries in a lovely cafe for less than 2 euros. That was how I spent my time when my feet were tired, poking into the most ramshackled and cheapest-looking cafes I could find, being surprised by the retro-looking tiled walls and marble-top tables, pointing at some appetising-looking pastries and ordering a cafe in my terrible Portugese, enjoying the quintessential Western European past-time of people-watching, coffee-drinking and pastry-eating, and not feeling like I just bankrupted my tiny budget.

Porto is hilly and has a very pretty river, the Duoro, that runs through its southern end. Several bridges span the river, but the definite highlight is the Ponte D. Luis, a wonderful metal arch bridge that was designed by one of the guys who worked on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I walked across the bridge at sunset on the first evening, and was awestruck by the beauty of it all. Porto is not a grand city, but it is extremely, extremely beautiful. I nearly cried when I looked at the view – baroque architecture fronting the Porto side of the silt-filled green river and distinctive large Port wine cellars on the other side, people strolling about having a good time, church spires rising in the distance… here I am, so far away from Singapore, in what felt like an undiscovered corner of Europe, and I’ve just found the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen in my life.

The weather wasn’t excellent throughout the four days I was here. Cloudy and rainy weather alternated with clear and sunny skies. Still, to me, Porto took on a magical look under the heavy cloud-laden skies, the very type of weather that would cause London to look gloomy and dreary. A city has to be very captivating to be able to look good in the rain, and Porto pulls off that look perfectly.

On the second day, I went to the beach. It isn’t the best beach I’ve seen, but still a great beach nonetheless. Locals were out having a good time on the boardwalk (its still too cold to swim or tan), drinking an espresso to the sound of the waves, and older people were engaged in a game of poker on plastic tables and chairs brought out and placed on the boardwalk.

Porto is a well-maintained city. The municipal facilities aren’t lacking, and are sometimes quite well thought-of. Benches at the plazas (okay, one thing Spain does better is that it has many more plazas and benches around), nice boardwalk at the beach that hugged the coast, modern tourist information centres, an excellent bus service, relatively clean streets for European standards, and the gem of it all, the most advanced and best metro system I’ve ever seen.

Porto’s metro, which I used to get around when walking would be too far, is new, clean, modern, fast and efficient. I didn’t expect to find such a good system in a city as small as Porto (less than a million people in the city proper, 1.5 million in the metropolitan area). The trains ran on the ground, like trams, for the most part, only disappearing underground into tunnels in the city area. Its hard to describe just how high-tech and modern it is, and I enjoyed riding it a lot. Its affordable as well, at just 0.95 euros for one hour of trips. So technically you could take it, stop and sightsee for a while, and then ride it again, using the same credit hour. This is a system that relies heavily on honesty – there are no ticket barriers in place and nothing to stop one from entering the train without paying, just the occasional conductor conducting random checks. How it works is that one is supposed to validate one’s card on readers placed around the station.

The Brazilians took me to a Brazilian dinner gathering on Thursday night at their friends’ house and it was fantastic. They made some creamy fish-and-potato dish, served with rice and salad, which I enjoyed a lot. Though I was lost in translation most of the time, the atmosphere was convivial and joyful, and everyone was having a great time. The Brazilians were very bonded, and it reminded me of Singaporean students banding together when studying overseas. Its inevitable, I guess, though one should definitely be as open-minded as possible and make friends from all over the world.

I probably learnt more about Brazil these few days than Portugal, as a result of staying with the Brazilians. They told me so much about Brazil, and made me really want to go there. Apparently, Brazil is terribly diverse – the people there came from all parts of the world, and there is no “typical” Brazilian. Really, the more I travel, the more I think Singaporeans can’t really call Singapore diverse. London and New York were way more cosmopolitan and international in its mix of peoples, and now that I’ve heard about Brazil, I am even more amazed. People came to Brazil from all parts of the world, Europe, the Middle East, Asia… and after decades of intermarriage and assimilation they have a proud unique national identity to call their own. All the Brazilians I’ve met have such interesting heritage – for example, Lucas is part-Italian, part-Portuguese and part-African.

There is a source of noticeable pride amongst the Brazilian students that Brazil is emerging as one of the great economies of the 21st century, and that they are going to host the Olympic Games soon. Portugal, their former colonial master, is noticeably dwarfed, being so much smaller. They told me that they don’t get any news about Portugal in Brazil, but everyday, there is some news about Brazil in the Portugese media. Brazilian music is rather popular in Portugal as well, them sharing the same language and all.

How many cities do you know in Brazil? Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, and maybe the capital, Brasilia. That’s all I knew about Brazil, but I found out so much more these few days. Brazil has many old cities with baroque architecture and old churches, as well as amazing beaches and natural scenery. The only caveat is that its expensive to travel around Brazil – although the cost of living is low, transportation is expensive because there are no low cost carriers or an extensive train system, only long-distance buses and conventional airlines.

They also tried to dispel the myth of crime and violence in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, a few days after the successful Olympics bid was announced, mafia in the favaela shot down a police helicopter. But apparently violence is mostly confined to Rio de Janeiro, and in the other cities and towns you can get around without much problem as long as you aren't stupid and constantly hang your expensive camera from your wrist as you walk. But also be careful of taking overnight highway buses – on some remote and deserted stretches of road, the mafia might stop the bus and rob everyone onboard.

Despite this, Brazilians are one of the most passionate and happiest people around. What really defines Brazil, based on my impression during the few days interacting with these bunch of people, is their happiness and zest for life. They seem to spend all their waking hours laughing, drinking and partying. They talk very fast, very loudly, and seem to be making jokes and laughing about everything all the time. They listen to decidedly upbeat music that just makes you want to dance, and have little capacity for nostalgia and introspection. This is an extremely outgoing people, always curious about foreigners, eager to make new friends, and also, very, very, very friendly. I had a great time getting to know this bunch of people and am glad that I stayed with them!

On my third day in Porto, I went to the nearby town of Braga, the “religious capital” of Portugal. The usual wonderful baroque architecture. I stayed for the Semanta Santa parade at night, to commemorate Good Friday. It was solemn and silent, and actually I didn’t really like it that much. Pretty boring procession of figures and people, without music most of the time. Felt almost like a funeral, but it didn’t put me in a sad, sombre mood, which I suppose was the intention. The whole town was out to see this procession – there were people crowded on the balconies above street level, and the entire length of the parade was lined with people, both locals and tourists. It was kind of cute seeing parents along the streets waving to their kids walking in the parade.

After the ceremony, I got back to Porto past midnight, and went to join Lucas and friends for an Erasmus rock party in a tiny shopping arcade that had closed for the day and was converted into a party venue by night. Not as exciting as the squat party in London, but still pretty cool, and Europe seems to have lots of great party venues, held in unconventional places. You’d never have something like that in Singapore. It was, as usual, smoke-filled with people dancing, talking and drinking. Met the Italian guy who was supposed to host me in Lisboa – we had already arranged to meet a couple of times before, but always ended up missing each other so this time we finally met.

Last day in Porto, and I went to the Port wine cellars. The free tour and cellars were unremarkable, and just as you’d expect it to be. But the best part was tasting the wine – it was really good! I wish I could have more of it!

Left the cellars and strolled along the riverfront and up to the old town. Had tripas a la moda (or something like that, can’t remember, its a famous Porto dish of tripe, beans and rice) at a family restaurant. Grandmother was helping to tend to the place, father and mother were cooking and serving, and the young boy was watching TV. The food was nice and hearty, but I still preferred Singaporean cuisine :) They served wine in a clay jug that was reminiscent of the kind used in the past, like during The Last Supper or something. Was a bargain for only 4 euros for the tripe dish, 2.5 for the wine and 1 for the bread.

Porto is my favourite city so far in all of Europe! I don’t know if its because of the architecture, the prices, the company, or a combination of all :)

Eurotrip Day 37: Toledo, Total Tourist Trap

Spanish buses are horrible. In fact, all European buses are terrible. The best bus I’ve taken resembles a school bus, apparently, it's just one small step ahead of the public bus. Europe should learn from Malaysia how to make long-distance coach travel better.

Anyway, I was in a bus from Madrid to Toledo which I didn’t enjoy because I was sweating and feeling so stuffy. There wasn’t any ventilation, and the air-conditioning (yeah, it was hot in the bus even though it was 20 degrees outside) was not turned on either.

But it wasn’t a long trip and we got to Toledo in just 45 minutes. Lovely view as I walked up the slope to the old town, which really occupies a strategic position, on a hilltop peninsula carved out by the flow of the river around it, which wraps around the old town on three steep sides.

Edinburgh has a competitor: Toledo. I don’t know which dumb travel guide I read the following passage from: "Toledo is an often overlooked gem by visitors to Madrid”. Toledo is anything but overlooked. It seemed like the only people in the Old Town were tourists, and there were tons of them. It doesn’t matter if it's a great town, but really, it's now an empty, hollow shell – a 100% tourist trap. Expensive restaurants with English menus stand side-by-side with ubiquitous medieval-castle-themed shops selling armour and swords. Does this bring to mind Edinburgh and its proliferating Tartan souveniour stores? Toledo has lots of shops hawking shields, knifes, swords, armours, “traditional handcrafted lace” and things that a local probably wouldn’t be caught dead buying.

The town is somewhat attractive, I guess. Architecturally, it is the closest to an old town in the UK that I've seen so far in Spain. The buildings resemble the architecture of those in the UK, and the weather was pretty cloudy and gloomy the entire day too, just like the UK (okay, bad example, I know). But at the same time it was distinctively Spanish, and on the spectrum it definitely lay closer towards Spain than England/Scotland. Lots of old cathedrals and synagogues, but really, I’ve had enough of churches already. And lots of obvious tourist trap attractions scattered around, like some museum commemorating medieval times or knight armour or whatever.

Add to that the gloomy weather, and I soon began to feel bad. I realised I was truly homesick for the first time on the trip. Being a backpacker on a budget sucks sometimes. I would really, really love to have a bowl of laksa instead of terrible Spanish processed food, overpriced cafe food or that same pasta dish that I keep making in the hostels. Sat on a bench in a city park overlooking the emerald-green river and houses on the hill on the opposite bank. It was a good view, but I wasn’t in the mood for it. I felt like I had seen so many amazing things already on this trip, and Toledo simply failed to excite me. I just sat there for a while, thinking about Singapore, how nice it would be to stop travelling for a while, and I confess I felt rather melancholic.

Then suddenly the mood was gone. I had somehow cheered myself up, without even attempting to do so. And then the sun appeared from behind the clouds for a moment, and everything seemed fine and nice again. Really. It was almost magical. From that point on, I never thought about wanting to be back in Singapore, and enjoyed the rest of my brief stop in Toledo walking along the road running by the side of the hill, taking in the good view of the riverbank. This was definitely not one of the oft-visited parts of the town, and it was nice to get away from fellow tourists. How strange it is that as a tourist, you'd often want to see less of your fellow travellers as possible. Sometimes, this is true especially true for people from own your country. I have a feeling that every Singaporean dreads staying in the same hostel or hotel as another Singaporean group, particularly in a land as foreign in Europe. This isn’t unique to Singapore, by the way, Daniel told me that he doesn’t really like meeting Spanish people outside of Spain as well.

Back in Madrid, I was much happier. Spent a great evening doing nothing but walking down the shopping streets. Usually while travelling, shopping is a big attraction for me, but the length of this trip meant that the excitement of shopping in a foreign land had already died down. Still, I was really enjoying myself just walking down the streets, people-watching, window-shopping, and admiring Spanish architecture once again (I also saw a very hideous building at one point). At some point, I walked into one of those upscale residential districts (didn’t look particularly expensive, but you can tell by the type of shops and the extremely good location) with lovely bars, cafes and bookstores full of character lining the streets.