Saturday, 14 July 2012

Prochain Arrêt: Belgique / Volgende Halte: België *

May 29, 2012. Woke up at 3 a.m. for my flight to Belgium. Yes, that's how inconvenient Ryanair flights can be. But then again, you get what you pay for. The flight cost me 19 euros so I really could not complain. While waiting at the airport, I came across a group of Filipino overseas workers. They actually work in Belgium (some in Norway) and they just went sight-seeing in Rome. They found out I was travelling alone and invited me to join them so we could all be seated together at the plane (yes, it was a first-come-first-served seating arrangement). They were awesome. I absolutely hate waiting at the airport but that morning at the Rome Ciampino airport was an exception. Nelly and Jece were hilarious and they spoke Cebuano, my native tongue. It's really interesting how, when put together in a foreign land, we Filipinos just easily cross that threshold from being total strangers to that level of comfort where we treat each other like blood relatives.

We were probably the noisiest group in the airport, laughing so hard as we shared our misadventures. I forgot how I was so sleep-deprived in the first place. My kababayans even offered me a ride from the airport to downtown Brussels. And for that I could only thank them profusely with words. It is indeed heartwarming when you experience kindness from strangers. And that, I guess, was the highlight of my trip to Belgium. What's more, friends of a friend were willing to host me in Brussels and show me around even if they had never met me before. I am very grateful to have met such generous people. Thank you Tita Conching and Ate Anabelle!

So, what did I know about Belgium? Yeah here I go again. But I did this mental exercise for every country I was visiting and I always found that my knowledge about Europe and its history is rather...sparse, unfortunately. I knew about Belgian chocolates and waffles, and that Belgium colonized Rwanda and caused an ethnic divide between the Tutsi's and the Hutu's. C'est dommage. But actually going to Belgium had made me learn more important historical events in world history. Belgium is beautiful and picturesque, no doubt about it, especially Bruges. You'll find out why soon although, of course, these pictures can never do justice to any of the countries I've visted.

* There are two main languages spoken in Belgium. I thought I should perhaps be sensitive to this fact (as seen in the title of this post) since apparently for years there has been a growing discord between the French and the Flemish communities. When you go to Belgium, you will see that almost all the public signs/warnings are written in both languages (even in billboards).

In downtown Brussels, I got a glimpse of the Brussels Stock Exchange.

Then, Tita Conching took me to the Grand Place de Bruxelles or Grot Markt van Brussel. Behind me is the Hôtel de ville de Bruxelles famous for its Gothic architecture... and probably something else that I don't know about.

These are "guildhalls" and, as you can see on the facade, it's amazing how they were built with statues which symbolized (or is significant to) the trade of each guild. So, for the House of Bakers (rightmost), that's the bust of the patron saint of bakers, holding a baguette. Just kidding. Seriously, though, that's the patron saint.

Tita Conching insisted on taking a photo of me with every building at the Grand Place. I really couldn't say no especially when most of the time in my backpacking trip I really did not have anyone to do that.

Like all the other buildings in Brussels, this has two names: Maison du Roi (French for House of the King), while the other one is not necessarily the Flemish equivalent for King's House, but rather, Broodhuis (Flemish for Breadhouse). I'm sure there's an explanation for this.

We stayed long enough such that I was able to capture this belfry of the Hôtel de Ville just before it got really dark.

They say that the Grand Place is more beautiful at night.

        We started walking on a street lined with perhaps nothing else but chocolateries.

 So I read this one NYT article, and this chocolate connoisseur said: "You have chocolate for tourists, and chocolate for Belgians." Antaray.

There are few things that I've declared borderline cute and bizarre. This happened to be one of them. I was curious about this chocolate statue which I could see almost everywhere.

See what I mean. A wingless cherub who's eating a waffle while taking a piss. Très cute. This dude happens to be famous, apparently, but for what?

So, that tiny bronze statue behind me is the famous Manneken Pis (or the Peeing Boy). Tita Conching told me that there are all sorts of stories to explain why this peeing boy is a significant part of Brussels' culture. According to this official Brussels government website: "One story tells of a tourist father who lost his son in the city and after receiving help from villagers to find the boy, he gifted this statue to them. Another, more daring, tale is one where the boy was a spy during a siege of the city. He literally put out a ploy to bomb the city by urinating on the explosives." I would go for the second story, of course.

Hello Diabetes, I mean, Belgian waffles! But seriously, how do you eat something with all that whipped cream?

Almost all of these restaurants served mussels.

Les Galeries Royales Saint Hubert: shopping paradise for the rich, shortcut passage for tourists like me.

The following day, I went to see Bruges. Of course, I did not know that it's actually a famous tourist attraction. I relied on Tita Conching's advice on where to go, and she was right. It was lovely and it was nice indeed to get away from the city and stroll along the Minneswater Lake.

Bruges is the capital of West Flanders of the Flemish region of Belgium.

Ok, can anyone tell me what those trees are called? I want one. On a side note, those "step-gables" create that signature look of Flemish houses.

Be careful not to hit the swans!

I was coaxing these two swans to do that heart shaped thing with their necks. I guess, "Here kitty, kitty, show me some love" didn't work.

This tower was so tall I almost fell off the bridge trying to make it fit in the photo. Well not really, I just stepped on some other tourist's foot as I moved backwards. The Église Notre-Dame de Bruges (Dutch: Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) is one of the world's tallest towers made of brick.

I'm curious whether the residents ever worried about mosquitos.

Walking along Mariastraat.

I liked walking around Bruges because it was not that crowded. I took a break and sat somewhere in the courtyard of the Church of Our Lady admiring these stone tablets attached to the wall.

When I first saw this, I thought maybe they have an art festival going on. It's a bit out of place, but it did make me curious. The description read something like this: "It represents a crashed Beechcraft Bonanza. A fanatic built his own airplane but because of poor construction, it quickly crashed. The spectator is a disaster tourist, causing a congestion due to the curiosity factor in the heart of Bruges (Yves Obin)."

These guys actually played really good music.

I was surprised to see a museum of Salvador Dali in Bruges. I don't claim to know a lot of artists/painters and I really suck at art history, but I know about this guy because there was this one time my French teacher was talking about a famous French poet Paul Éluard, who was married to a woman named Gala. But they got divorced and Gala met Dali. And boom! The rest of the story can probably be seen in Dali's paintings.

At the Markt de Bruges (Grand Place de Bruges), I could see the similarities of their guild halls to those in Brussels. The red one is the post office.

It was a busy day at the marketplace.

I know what you're thinking. Those saucissons are really expensive. Why else would I take this picture?

So I got a bit lost at some point. Tired of walking, I had wanted to sit on that bench next to them. But I didn't really want to ruin their moment. That may look like a frown, but anyone can tell she must be très contente avec sa vie.

An hour before my train back to Brussels, I tried to take a quick nap. Except for a few couples here and there, it was pretty quiet. Everything was perfect until my alarm rang.

When I went back to Brussels, Ate Annabelle was waiting for me at the train station. She had a car and she drove me to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. (This is only one section of a mural painting that spans an entire circular wall at the museum).

The Butte du Lion is this large cone-shaped (and man-made) hill raised on the battlefield of Waterloo to commemorate the location where William II of the Netherlands was killed.

Ate Annabelle! Hidlaw na ak ha im. May-ada pa ak damo nga pictures naton didi. Anay, bangin ma-post ko hira unina. Pagpasensyahan mo na. Damo gad nga salamat.  

This was the only time in my backpacking tour where I wasn't either commuting or walking. I was able to really see downtown Brussels without worrying about getting lost.

Brussels is also famous for the Atomium. One can see a 360-degree panoramic view at the highest sphere.

We were greeted by this set of giant letters at the Atomium.

Did you know that Belgium actually has a copyright law on the reproduction of the images of the Atomium? It states that I should type this somewhere in my blog: © - SABAM 2010 - photographer's name. I really find it absurd.

That's the the Arch de Triomphe of Brussels at the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

The Palais du Justice looming in the distance.

At my gracious host's residence in Brussels. Thank you very much for having me. I really wish I can come back to visit. Until then, I wish you all the best. (With Tita Conching and her daughter Rhea and her son Ryan)

My hosts were incredibly generous with their time and effort in showing me around Brussels. After dinner, it was already around 10:30 p.m. They insisted that we go to Leuven, a Flemish region near Brussels. And while I could not have said no to that, I was really worried that my hosts were exhausted themselves and to think that they still had work the next day. They really went out of their way to make this trip truly unforgettable for me. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our trip to Lueven because we got stuck in Brussels traffic - which I honestly think was for the better. Again, thank you very much, Tita Conching and Ate Annabelle. It's memorable not so much because of the beautiful places I've seen but because I, a total stranger to you, have experienced your generosity.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Prossima Fermata: Italia

I remember how I got so excited planning my itinerary in Italy to the extent that I forgot about my research papers. (You know how it works, you open one tab, then another, until you have 50 tabs open and your computer crashes and all the promising leads for your research paper just went poof, and then they're all gone).

But, when I landed in Milan, my excitement was dwindling. Exhaustion took over. The night before I slept in Porto's airport. And sleeping in airports is never fun, especially when you're alone. And the sad thing is, I didn't actually have to. I was being careless and I misread my boarding pass such that I arrived (1 a.m.) way too early for my flight to Milan (9 a.m.) - yes, 8 hours early and I could not go back to my hostel anymore. To make things worse, my flight was delayed for another 2.5 hours. I just really wanted to punch myself in the face then. As a first-time solo backpacker, I made so many blunders and bloopers in every country that I visited. I'm sorry I just had to whine about it. I feel much better now, thank you.

Anyway, Italy was all worth it. I wish I could've spent more than four days there. There was so much more that I wanted to visit in Italy but given scarce resources, I only got to visit Milano, Firenze, Napoli, and Roma.


My friends had told me that there was nothing to see or do in Milan. I planned on following their advice but since I missed the earliest train to Firenze, I had 2 hours to walk around and see the Duomo di Milano. Unsurprisingly, as I was exploring the area, there was always a fellow Filipino within a 50-meter radius.

In Milan, even the malls and not just the churches exhibit grand architecture.

I was waiting for my platform number to appear on the screen. It usually turns up 15-30 mins before departure but less than 5 mins was left and I still could not see it. I almost missed my train because it turns out I was looking at the wrong column. What happened next was the sprint of a lifetime.

I arrived at my hostel in Firenze at about half past 10 p.m. I was starving and tired. They say Firenze is really awesome at night but I did not bother wandering anymore. Good thing a nearby restaurant was still open. That night, I devoured a huge plate of pasta and drank red wine.

This is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.

These are the bronze doors of the Battistero (baptistry) of San Giovanni. I was wondering why people were so crowded at this area. Apparently, the Baptistry is famous for its doors with its sculptures. Michelangelo called these doors the "the Gates of Paradise".

At the Piazza del Duomo, I envied how kids just... go for it, you know, without hesitation.

By the River Arno, I sat down and.. almost had a heatstroke.


Buongiorno, signore! I'm sorry for sneaking behind you just like that. Nice bridge, by the way.


I've never seen anything like this before. At first I thought it was a cycling competition for physically handicapped people. But apparently they weren't and this is what they call "low rider recumbent cycling."

Okay, let's talk museums. I was walking around what is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance famous for its painters and inventors like who else but Leonardo Da Vinci. I couldn't go to all of them so I decided to choose one. And I chose this because Galileo is my favorite scientist.

Galileo was excommunicated and died as an outcast because he was able to prove that the earth moves within a heliocentric system which was contrary to the Church's teachings. It took a hundred years or more before the Church finally believed his discovery. God bless the outcasts. (Anyway, that huge model of the universe is actually the Ptolemaic geocentric system that Galileo rejected.)

Maybe with the help of youtube, I can build my own telescope.

Apart from the telescopes and globes, there were other collections of medical tools and apparatuses. I snapped a photo of this one just because I found it amusing.
It's a weighing scale.

Then, I had to say goodbye to Firenze and move on to Napoli.

To be honest, I really didn't know what to do in Napoli. I chose to book a hostel in Napoli for the silly reason that I might as well have a glimpse of the Mediterranean sea while I was in Italy. Anyway, when I arrived, the hostel gave me a brochure of what to do in Naples and I could not believe it when I read that I was just 30 mins away from the Pompeii site.


What's really amazing with the Pompeii site is that it's like a humongous open-air museum and tourists can touch these relics at the Necropoli which survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius's eruption about 2000 years ago.

Speaking of the devil, hello Mt. Vesuvius! (at the Tempio di Giove)

Walking for 6 hours around the site under the glaring sun without sunblock is the perfect recipe for skin cancer (knock on wood). So I was so happy to see trees in this part of the site as I was searching for the Anfiteatro.

I like to keep my distance. And since Pompeii is a huge site, there were ways to avoid other tourists. I would be walking aimlessly and my innate ADHD tendencies would lead the way (at Via del Vesuvio).

At the Quadriportico dei Teatri.

I was wondering why there were tiny vineyards within the walls of Pompeii. Perhaps to supplement government income from tourism revenues? I don't know. Look at those earthen jars. What would a person with OCD do?

I was really enjoying my solitary walk around the Necropoli. An hour would pass and I would not see another tourist. Felt like Pompeii was my secret garden.
That's Porta Nocera, by the way.


At the Teatro Grande of Pompeii. Obviously, it has been reconstructed.

At the Temple of Apollo.


More earthenware and an unfinished scuplture of a man locked away from tourists.

The Basilica at Pompeii.

Goodbye, Pompeii. Thank you, not for the sunburn, but for the moments of solitude and a glimpse of what was once a magnificent and wealthy city 
during the ancient Roman civilization.

Rome was just an hour and half away from Naples via TrenItalia's high speed trains which were running at 300kph. When I arrived at the Vatican, I realized that it was Pentecost Sunday, which explained the seats outside St. Peter's Basilica and that platform where the Pope was seated.

Seeing this statue reminded me of several jokes that Filipinos make involving St. Peter. I especially like the Bisaya versions, of course.

At St. Peter's Square, I began counting how many statues were perched on the Apostolic Palace, when my ADHD kicked in.


The Arch of Constantine near the Palatine Hill.

The Colosseum at night.


The Pantheon was originally built for the purpose of worshipping the ancient Roman gods.


But now, the Pantheon has been used as a Roman Catholic church.

This is the site of the famous Trevi Fountain. No, I did not make a wish. That's probably why it did not stop raining until after five hours.

I decided to go to the Vatican Museum and endure the incredibly big crowd. Later on, I was twisting my neck to see Michaelangelo's paintings at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. No cameras were allowed inside that part of the museum.

I kept seeing this image of a staircase inside the Vatican Museum while researching about attractions in Rome. I couldn't actually find it so I had to ask one of the personnel. He didn't understand me until I said, "You have a beautiful spiral staircase somewhere, right?"


Ciao, Vatican Museum!


Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. At this point, I was debating with myself whether I should go to the Villa Borghese or not. My heart said yes, but my feet said no.

Ruins of the House of Augustus at the Palatine Hill. Okay, I have to admit that on my last day in Italy, I think I have had enough of ruins. I think the lesson learned there is to not visit ruins sites for three consecutive days.

NEXT STOP: Belgium