04
May
19

Norway: Lovely But Rainy Bergen


Bergen is Norway’s second largest city and the west coast’s largest port.  It is also one of Scandinavia’s busiest stopover for cruise ships. When we chose Bergen as our point of entry to Europe for our family summer trip we did not check much on its weather. Summer to us simply means sunny days and longer daytime.  We were in for a shock as we have just landed in one of the most rain-stricken cities in the world where it rains more or less 250 days a year! Nevertheless, in between downpours, we still enjoyed roaming around the city, visiting its beautiful sights.

 

Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf

DSC_1224The old Hanseatic Wharf features colorful wooden houses and it was once a center of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire.

 

 

DSC_1236It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

 

 

FullSizeRender22Before a huge downpour we were able to get some photos in front of the famed wooden buildings.

 

 

DSC_1232The whole stretch is lined up with restaurants and boutique shops.  One just need to be very careful buying stuff here because the prices are really outrageous.  If we did not have the urgent need of buying our daughter’s coat (we wrongly assumed Bergen summer as hot &  humid instead of rainy and cold), we could have bought elsewhere.

 

 

 

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Here are more photos we took in front of the iconic wooden buildings.

 

 

 

FullSizeRender31The other side of the wharf gave us a different view of the colorful wooden buildings.

 

 

DSC_0022The buildings appeared more beautiful from afar with the mountain backdrop.

 

 

bergen1We needed to patiently wait for the rain to stop and the sun to come out even for just a few minutes to have a good snapshot. It did not continuously rain after all!

 

 

 

 

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Here are more snapshots of the wharf area and the houses high above Mount Floyen.

 

 

 

DSC_0021Finally, after being disheartened because of the rain, I was all smiles after that fulfilling photo shoot at the other side of the wharf when the sun came out for a short moment.

 

 

FullSizeRender32Here are some more photos we took as we were leaving the wharf area.

 

 

DSC_1235Indeed the area is dotted with impressive buildings.

Fløyen Mountain

DSC_1220Just a few blocks from the western section of the Hanseatic Wharf is the….

 

 

FullSizeRenderw….Floibanen Funicular lower station that takes you to a stunning view-point at Mount Fløyen. Aside from the panoramic views, there are also hiking trails. Although it was not in our original plan, we suddenly decided to go for the funicular ride, one of the most iconic attractions of Norway.

 

 

FullSizeRenderq 2Shown here is one of the cars that goes up and down the mountain.  We waited until everyone has disembarked and it was our turn for that thrilling ride to the top of Mount Floyen.

 

 

FullSizeRenderu 2The tracks going up the mountain.

 

 

 

 

There is a tiny building at the top that houses the Fløistuen Shop and Fløistuen Café close to the upper station of Fløibanen funicular. Souvenirs, gifts and useful artifacts are the main attraction of the Fløistuen shop. One can enjoy a hot cup of coffee or cocoa with freshly baked pastry or hot soup.

 

 

CSC_0027The views from the mountain top were really breathtaking.  Shown here is the Hanseatic Wharf and the surrounding areas.

 

 

DSC_0025Also seen from above is Lake Lille Lungegardsvannet in the city center’s public park.

 

 

DSC_0029Our climb to the top was indeed worth it.  The city views were simple amazing.

 

 

FullSizeRendert

A climb up Mount Floyen is a must when in Bergen especially in summer.

 

 

Market Square

DSC_1238At the southeast end of the city’s beautiful main harbor is Bergen’s Market Square.

 

 

FullSizeRender33Its busy quays are where local fishermen land their catches each morning and along with the 700-year old Fish Market, it’s a fascinating spectacle for early risers.

 

 

 

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This is also where the city’s best restaurants purchase their seafood daily; be sure to make note of the catch of the day, so you can sample it at lunch and dinner.

 

 

IMG_0982That’s exactly what we did.  We tried a restaurant just around the square and everything was impressive.

 

 

CSC_0013First, the high ceiling and cozy atmosphere.

 

 

DSC_0001Next was the impeccable interior.

 

 

DSC_0006Finally, the sumptuous fusion of Asian and Western food.

 

 

DSC_0009We would never miss the Norwegian salmon, saving the best for last!

 

 

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Here are more photos that show buildings near Market Square.

 

 

Central Train Station & Surrounding Areas

FullSizeRender 2The Bergen train station is 15-20 minutes walk from the Hanseatic Wharf. I took this panoramic photo of the train station facade at around 11p.m.

 

 

IMG_0984There are only two platforms so only a maximum of two trains can be in the station at any given time.  The capital city of Oslo can be reached by train from Bergen in 7 hours.

 

 

 

IMG_0790We were staying at a hotel adjacent to the train station so most of the time we would pass through it coming from and going to our hotel.

 

DSC_1218 2We basically just walked around Bergen all the time we were there.  Above is one of the streets we took going to the wharf.

 

 

FullSizeRender 3The train station is spotless and airy.

 

 

FullSizeRender5We enjoyed our proximity to the train station where we can people-watch or get the food and drinks we need from the reasonably-priced convenience store inside it.

 

 

IMG_0990Adjacent to the train station is the Zander K Hotel, Bergen’s most modern hotel, where we stayed. Above is the hotel lobby and the Foodbar where the buffet breakfast is served.

 

 

Dobbelt-romThe rooms were contemporary and minimalist in design.  I definitely liked the rooms and the hotel facilities but I was not impressed with the service though.  We had two bad experiences:  one was the ridiculously long check-in process considering we just came from an overnight transatlantic flight and then we were told the requested crib was already in the room but we arrived inside with no crib.

 

IMG_0805Here are more photos around the train station area.  Shown here are shops along the railroad and main street as we walked from the train station to the Bryggen.

 

 

FullSizeRender1This is the Bergen light rail transit.

 

 

Getting In and Out of Bergen

We took an inaugural Norwegian Air flight from T.F Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island (U.S.) to Bergen, Norway. It utilized the Boeing 737-MAX 8 instead of the Dreamliners that are used in other routes like New York JFK to Oslo that we took before. I was not impressed with the ground crew in Providence but the best thing is that it is way less crowded and closer to us than New York JFK or Boston Logan.  Check-in, security & immigration checks were done in less than thirty minutes! Awesome airport experience!

 

 

Here is a short clip of our approach to Bergen flying over quaint villages settled between spectacular fjords. Bergen is said to be rainy because it is surrounded by seven mountains.

 

 

FullSizeRender 4 2Our return flight was cancelled so we were re-routed to Copenhagen the next day where we took a flight to New York JFK two days after. Meanwhile, we were housed in Clarion Airport Hotel in Bergen for the night.

 

 

 

Dinner and breakfast were great in the hotel’s only dining option, Kitchen & Table.

 

 

FullSizeRendere 2The sunset was spectacular.

 

 

 

FullSizeRender(30)The beds were ultra-comfy.

Until we meet again, BERGEN! Probably, when we have the chance to go to Lofoten Islands to experience the Northern Lights, we can drop by Bergen, again!

 

 

 

 

29
Apr
19

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay Overnight Cruise


Ha Long Bay is one of the eight UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites in Vietnam. It was our main destination when we visited Vietnam for the first time.  To reach Ha Long Bay, we passed through the capital city of Hanoi as our initial gateway to the mind-blowing group of about 1,600 limestone islets. We spent overnight in Hanoi in a charming hotel and with the help of the hotel staff we arranged an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay.

DSC_0408The following day we were picked up at our Hanoi hotel by the tour bus that would take us to Bai Chay port in around three hours for the 150 km trip. The tour company that we chose was Halong Phoenix Cruiser.

 

DSC_0417We waited at the Bai Chay port departure area until we were told to take a small boat that would take us to the cruise boat.

 

 

CSC_0410My wife and I were more than ready for our first cruise together in this side of the world.

 

 

DSC_0416Here she is, our awesome, English-speaking tour guide, Trần Hồng Hạnh. Let the cruise begin!

 

DAY 1

DSC_0425 2The small boat took us to the area where small wooden boats were docked on the bay.

 

 

DSC_0430We reached the wooden boat that would be our home for the next two days.

 

DSC_0461The wooden boat’s main deck was designed to have a hallway around the private rooms and common areas. There were no private balconies.

 

 

DSC_0434This was our room with a private bathroom.  I believe all the rooms were similarly designed only differing in sizes.

 

 

DSC_0432Shown here is the dining area…..

 

 

DSC_0455…with the must-have bar!

 

 

DSC_0473We spent some time in the bow of the boat and took some snapshots.

 

 

DSC_0476Can you see in the background the thumb up islet?

 

DSC_0471Going up one level higher…

 

DSC_0479…..is the relaxation area that has a a few dining tables and some lounge chairs.

 

 

To An Island On Kayak

DSC_0376Around mid-afternoon, we were all dropped off in a kayak station and we were released to the kayaks in pairs.

 

 

CSC_0396 2Our mission was to row to a nearby island.  For kayaking first timers like us we had a hard time making a straight and smooth sail and the nearby was too far away! However, it was  an absolute fun to try kayaking for the first time! We did not need to drop those paddles as they ‘re worth $20!

 

 

DSC_0377Finally, we reached the correct island after five years! Ha ha! We got off from the kayak and were told to take a short rest after which we were free to do whatever we wanted: climb up the island for a stunning view of Ha Long Bay,  swim and laze on the beach or simply just relax at the resting area sipping a drink being sold at small stores lining up the area.

 

 

DSC_0382We decided to hike just halfway to the mountaintop to get this view.

 

 

DSC_0378Even in a gloomy weather the view of the towering karst islands far beyond as our eyes could see were so overwhelming.

 

 

DSC_0391After spending some time at the high viewing point we decided to descend back to the beachfront where we just watched the crowd at the beach and sipped some cold drinks. Then it was time to go back to the boat and refresh ourselves.

 

 

Dinner

DSC_0454Still reeling from the constant circling of our kayak, we finally diverted our attention to our dinner being served at the dining area starting with healthy salads.

 

 

DSC_0505_2One of seafood was uniquely set and we had a wide selection of beer too.  I chose Singapore’s Tiger beer.

 

 

DSC_0504_2One of the main dishes served was the hearty, deep-fried, breaded meat.

 

 

DSC_0457Exotic fruits like rambutans were also served.

 

 

DSC_0501Suddenly, it was evening!  After dinner we spent some time at the upper level of the boat having some drinks and then we called it a night.  Overall we had a very relaxing and peaceful sleep only awakened twice by some noise probably by flying creatures around the area.

 

 

DAY 2

DSC_0512_2Wakey, wakey! It is the second cruise day! After spending time at the tiny bathroom, we proceeded to the dining area to see an exciting breakfast waiting for us. Just as we discovered in Hanoi two days earlier, the venerable Vietnamese “pho” is available even during breakfast.

A Majestic Cave

DSC_0518_2After a relaxed breakfast, the boat sailed farther south passing mysterious fog-covered karst islands.

 

 

DSC_0588We arrived at our destination after around thirty minutes. We had to get off the boat and follow a wooden walkway to the entrance of…..

 

 

DSC_0527_2….Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises)!

 

 

DSC_0539_2 2We climb around 100 steps and got inside through a narrow entrance leading…..

 

 

 

DSC_0541_2 2…to what looked like its main lobby.  To the right side is the narrow flight of stairs that took us deep inside the chambers of the cave.

 

 

DSC_0559The massive cave is well-lighted with different colors.  This is what they call a light show inside the cave.

 

 

DSC_0556_2The interior can be eerie at times but mostly I was in awe.

 

 

DSC_0555_2The lights definitely helped create a better visual effect inside the cave compared with no lights at all.

 

 

DSC_0567I have disliked caves before but this experience changed my mindset about caves wherein inside this breathtaking natural phenomenon pathways were clearly marked and lighted and the place was not …..

 

 

DSC_0558_2…….claustrophobic. You can see how this is one heck of a majestic cave with a 30-meter high ceiling and 500-meter long passage.

 

 

DSC_0569The cave covers a staggering 10,000 square meters of which its larger cavern can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

 

 

DSC_0563It was an amazing experience touring the cave which is just one of the caves in Ha Long Bay but is considered the largest and the most beautiful.  Thanks to the lights too!

 

 

 

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As we exited the cave chambers, we were taken back to the same area where we entered the cave.  It was a high viewing point overlooking the bay.

 

 

DSC_0590_2As we walked back to the boat we noticed some small boats selling food and all.

 

 

Lunch and A Cooking Lesson

DSC_0599_2As soon as we were back in the wooden boat, we were ushered to the dining are where our tour guide and one of the boat staff prepared us for the next exciting activity. We would be making Vietnamese spring rolls that would be a part of our lunch menu.

 

DSC_0596_2We were provided the steps and the list of ingredients.

 

 

DSC_0593The ingredients were already prepared and we just had to mix them.

 

 

DSC_0598Here’s the final mixture of the ingredients before wrapping and making them into tiny spring rolls.

 

 

 

 

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Everyone enjoyed the activity as the mixture were wrapped before deep- frying them.

 

 

Back to the Mainland

DSC_0613After lunch, the boat sailed for the mainland.

 

 

DSC_0633_2 2We did not have any other activities anymore except to immerse for the last time in the amazing scenery around the bay.

 

 

DSC_0614_2We passed by the kissing rooster and hen islets.

 

 

DSC_0625Certainly, my wife and I enjoyed the short cruise. There were other cruise options spending more nights on the bay with added activities like beach BBQ, visiting fishing villages and more but our schedule only allowed us to take the 2 days/1 night cruise which was already enough to see the bay.

 

 

DSC_0609_2This was my last shot of Ha Long Bay that I took as we neared the mainland. Tạm biệt (goodbye) Ha Long for now!

 

 

DSC_0637_2It was mostly overcast days and at short times it was raining when we were in Ha Long Bay.  It was summertime but during the season lasting from May to September, one can expect some rainy days and even typhoons. The best times to visit is during the months of April and May (spring) & September and October (fall).

Even in a not-so-good weather, Ha Long Bay indeed impressed me primarily due to the overwhelming and sheer abundance of those spectacular limestone islands. I love nature and the place was a sight to behold at any angle and at any time of the day. I am not sure though about the emerald water which appeared a bit murky if it clears up on sunny days. Also I have shockingly noticed a number of times plastic garbage floating in the “protected” area. Maybe irresponsible visitors, maybe not. I hope the proper authorities have already done something about it when we come back during its best season.

03
Mar
19

Italy: Giotto’s Campanile in Florence


CSC_0790The Piazza del Duomo is one of the most interesting places to visit in Florence and it is just a few minutes walk from the Florence central train station.

 

 

DSC_0792Florence’s main cathedral, the bell tower (campanile) and the Baptistery of St. John are all in the Piazza del Duomo.


 

 

DSC_0746Florence’s Duomo is the second longest church in Italy after St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

 

 

 

CSC_0755Ordinarily called Il Duomo di Firenze, this cathedral’s officially called The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower).

 

CSC_0751Standing right next to the basilica is the bell tower which is one of the great showcases of Florentine Gothic architecture designed by Giotto di Bondone or simply Giotto.

 

 

DSC_0745When you are in Piazza del Duomo, you probably would, at one time, need to decide whether to go up the Dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore or Giotto’s Campanile or do both or skip both.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0786My wife and I decided to go up Giotto’s Campanile instead. The tower would take us to a vantage point with a breathtaking view of the nearby cathedral’s dome towering over the city and the harbor.

 

 

 

We already bought the ticket to go up the campanile until we realized there was no elevator and we have to climb up 414 steps to the top of the bell tower!  We were not prepared but we did it anyway!

 

 

CSC_0761At the first of. five levels of the tower we got a view of the Baptistry of Florence, a religious building dedicated to its patron saint, John the Baptist. It was originally believed to be a Roman temple dedicated to Mars.

 

 

CSC_0766Halfway through our ascent we had this view of the dome, which dominates the cathedral exterior, and was engineered by Filippo Brunellesch.

 

 

 

DSC_0769We took from above snapshots of the place voted many times as the best city to live in……

 

 

DSC_0764….and the views were truly breathtaking.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0785Finally we reached the top of the bell tower and the cathedral dome (slightly higher than the campanile) is gloriously dominating the Florentine skyline.

 

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My wife and I took turns taking our photos with the dome. Unless one has a selfie stick, it’s rather difficult to take a selfie due to the narrow walkway at the top of the bell tower.

 

 

CSC_0759Going down the bell tower was definitely easier than climbing up.  When we reached the ground we explored the other side of the basilica.

 

 

DSC_0787We also checked the bronze door panels of the baptistery by Ghiberti.

 

 

DSC_0788It is said that when Michaelangelo first saw them, he supposedly exclaimed, “Oh door worthy of heaven!”

 

 

 

DSC_0791We walked away from Piazza del Duomo feeling awed and exhausted.

 

 

DSC_0793As we looked back I believe we made the right decision to climb up the campanile instead of the cathedral’s dome if we had to choose only one option.

 

 

28
Feb
19

Cambodia: Angkor Archaeological Park


My wife and I wanted to maximize our short trip to the Philippines so we wanted to visit a nearby Asian country that both of us have never been to. Cambodia, in particular Siem Reap, became the unanimous choice. The primary reason for our trip to Siem Reap would be to visit the World Heritage Angkor Archaeological Park that includes the world-famous Angkot Wat Temple, the world’s largest religious building.

 

Angkor Wat Sunrise Experience

I have read from some first time visitors to Angkor Wat that the sunrise tour is overrated but after experiencing it I’d say it is not. It’s a different experience as we allotted one morning to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for the tour. We were picked up at our hotel at 5:00 a.m. by our designated driver. If one has already bought a ticket for the day,  the pickup time would be 30 minutes later depending on the sunrise timing. Take note that the ticket counters open at 5:00 a.m. and one needs to be personally present in the ticket line for a photo ID to be taken. The ticket that costs $37 for a full day validity will have the photo in it to be checked at entrances so it is non-transferable.

20190127_055957At 5:30 a.m. we were already at the pond located at the northern side of the complex facing Angkor Wat temple. There is another pond at the southern side but it’s not the best spot to watch sunrise. The sky was starting to emit a reddish-gray color.  It was quite a walk in total darkness from the parking area to the temple wall and finally to the pond. Our cellphones’ flashlights were a great help and we just followed throngs of early risers also going to the same spot where we were headed.

For the sunrise tour I do not recommend hiring a tour guide unless you go for the temple tour right after the sunrise. Whether you came in via a private car or via a tuktuk (local tricycle), the driver will tell you what to do once you arrive at the drop-off point. We took an offer from our resort for a private car and a chauffeur for the whole day tour for $75 so we did not have any problem with the transportation to and from the hotel starting from the sunrise tour up to the other temple tours.

 

20190128_163421The entire pond was surrounded by tourists  facing the temple and we got the best view in the middle part as we were among those who came in early.

 

 

20190127_070154A few minutes past 6 a.m., the sun slowly crept up behind the temple towers.

 

 

 

 

20190127_070214Some visitors were actually not interested in the initial sighting of the sun and they were busy walking around in front of the temple.

 

 

 

20190127_090034I left my position for the past 45 minutes and moved back and a bit to the left. I  got this shot of the crowd who were previously behind us with the sun entirely hidden behind one of the temple towers.

 

20190127_071050A few more steps to the left the sun became visible again.

 

20190127_082438My wife and I took a selfie with the sunrise and part of the crowd as background.

 

 

20190127_073029As the sun was already way up high…..

 

 

20190127_071253….we took shots around the pond.  Shown here is what remains of the sunrise crowd where we positioned ourselves earlier.

 

20190127_071441Walking toward the temple, we saw some lilies in the eastern part of the pond.

 

 

20190127_071544They’re beautiful lilies.

 

 

20190127_071943Some were still busy making snapshots of the sunrise in and around the pond as we prepared to leave for breakfast at our hotel and come back later for the temple tour.

 

 

Angkor Wat Temple Tour

20190127_130209After a sumptuous breakfast and a few minutes rest at our hotel we headed back to the Angkor Wat complex. As you can see above the complex is surrounded by a man-made moat. Measuring 190 meters the moat forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km x 1.3km around the temple complex. Entry is only via a causeway in the western side.

 

20190127_104815After exiting the causeway we entered the temple outer wall still a few minutes walk away to the main temple.

 

20190127_130142We mostly stayed in the western side of the outer wall and inside the right hand tower there is a statue of the 8-arm Hindu god Vishnu measuring 3.25m in height and hewn from a single block of sandstone.

 

 

20190127_130121Right after we went through the Vishnu statue our tour guide took our photo inside the outer wall’s main entrance 235m-wide foyer richly decorated with carvings and sculptures. Yes we hired a tour guide whom we met near the parking area and we’re glad we did! I suggest a tour guide for $15-20 depending on one’s desired duration of the tour, otherwise the temple tour will just be a meaningless tour of stones and carvings.  Also the tour guide knows the exact location where one can have the best snapshots in and around the temple.

 

 

 

20190127_130024Exiting the outer wall we came to the nearly 500-m walkway lined with balustrades leading to the temple main entrance. Three of the five towers are visible from here. The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia.  It is a source of intense national pride that the temple with its towers is even depicted in the national flag.

 

20190127_100835As suggested by the tour guide we quickly turned a bit to the left and stopped at one of the two libraries  for a quick photo with the temple towers in the background.

 

 

 

20190127_104658Finally we reached the temple main entrance!  See, the tour guide could also act as your willing photographer so it is more than worthy to pay for one.

 

 

20190127_104201Looking back from the temple main entrance we saw again the pond at the northern side of the temple, a popular spot to watch the sunrise. Quite a number of tourists were still wanting to take the mirror view of the temple.

 

angkor1After climbing a few steps up at the entrance and coming around the outside of the central temple complex, our tour guide showed us something incredible.

 

 

20190127_102004It is the very impressive 800m-long series of intricate and astonishing carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology.  It was simply overwhelming even if he just discussed a part of the entire stretch.

 

 

20190127_104855Angkor Wat is famous too for having more than 3000 enchanting heavenly nymphs carved into its walls.

 

 

20190127_211006At close quarters we were truly amazed at the temple’s fascinating decorative flourishes.

 

20190127_102212Our tour guide then led us to this area of the temple’s first level just for a photo and we obliged.

 

 

20190127_165808No further details were given about the area so we moved on.

 

 

20190127_165612It was time to go up the second level of the temple.

 

 

20190127_102908As we turned around clockwise past the first tower in the second level we saw the line going up to the upper or third level of the temple open to a limited number per day.

 

 

20190127_102947As our tour guide explained there is nothing to be seen by climbing up the upper level except the view of the temple grounds so we decided to skip it to save some time. Also as shown above, the stairs to the upper level are immensely steep. Entrance is only via the second tower.

 

 

 

20190127_124933Then it was time to take a snapshot with the third tower…….

 

 

20190127_125751….and of the young locals dressed Cambodian-style.

 

 

20190127_211053Another photo suggested by the tour guide with the fourth and first tower officially ending our tour of the area.  All the four towers surrounding the main tower are located at the corners of the second and third storeys and each one is topped with symbolic lotus-bud towers.

 

 

20190127_103739As we descended back to the first storey we walked pass through another area that has the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas used to house hundreds of Buddha images but many of these were removed or stolen, leaving just the handful displayed today.

 

 

20190127_210752Walking back to the western outer wall entrance, the temple in all its grandeur can be seen with all its  five towers. Indeed, Angkor Wat is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius – an awe-inspiring temple that is stunning for both its grand scale and its incredible detail.

 

20190127_101158Before leaving the temple courtyards one can check out the area next to the northern pool where one can find places to eat and small kiosks selling souvenirs.

 

 

20190127_101311These paintings by a local are sold at prices that you can haggle.

 

 

20190127_101340One of my favorite paintings was the one depicting the faces at the Bayon temple which would be our next destination.

 

 

 

20190127_074317As we exited the outer temple wall we came back to the temporary causeway and we started walking back to the parking lot for our next tour to the Bayon Temple. The original causeway made of sandstone located at the other side just a few meters away is being repaired so the government has acquired a temporary one from Canada shown above.

 

 

Bayon

20190129_014706A short drive to the north of Angkor Wat is the ancient city of Angkor Thom, with our main destination, the Bayon, as its centerpiece showcase.  The western entrance of Angkor Thom is a very interesting gate. One side is lined up with statues of the gods and the other side with demons.

 

20190129_014728On the left side are the gods…..

 

 

20190129_014651….and on the right side are the demons.

 

 

 

20190129_014630Our chauffeur dropped us at the start of the statues and we took a short walk passing through gate where he would be waiting. Shown above is our photo taken near the gate.

 

 

20190129_014040A short distance from the gate is the Bayon Temple. From afar the Bayon appears as a great pile of rubble but only as you make your way up to the third level, it starts to fascinate. Our chauffeur dropped us at the western entrance and he told us he would meet us at the eastern entrance.

 

 

20190129_014053The first level of the temple wall has intricate carvings and  incredible posts. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia.

 

 

 

20190127_165305The second level are adorned with less impressive bas-reliefs.

 

20190129_014508We finally went up to the third and circular level.

 

 

20190129_014148This is where you can find the Bayon’s most distinctive feature of 54 Gothic towers each adorned with 4 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara (a total of 216 faces). They jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

 

 

 

20190129_014229This was the most crowded area of the temple. We spent some time here looking at the faces on the stones.

 

 

 

20190129_014535The Bayon is sometimes called the “faces temple”.

 

 

20190129_014521We crossed the center of the third level and found more impressive and intricate carvings.

 

20190129_014111We climbed down a series of steep steps to the  second level…..

 

 

20190129_014551…..and then to the first level.

 

 

 

20190129_014617If Angkor Wat is the grand showcase of the classical style of Khmer architecture, Bayon is the most striking expression of the baroque style.

Sarai Resort & Spa

The presence of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and an Aman resort right in  the middle of Angkor shows that the hotel business is flourishing and very competitive in the area.  With our budget limited to boutique hotels, I picked Sarai Resort and Spa as our base in Siem Reap, roughly 7 km away from Angkor Wat.

20190129_011047The backdrop of the front desk of the Sarai.

 

 

 

 

20190127_130242A photo of the resort lobby taken from the first floor.  To the left is the pool area and to the right is the entrance and the restaurant area.

 

20190129_011351We were given room 101 at the end of a hallway giving us more privacy but it is the farthest distance from the elevator that we did not mind at all.

 

 

20190127_130426Taken from the hotel lobby with the tiny stunning pool.

 

20190127_084151Although I loved the pool I was not in the mood to dip in it early in the morning so I understood why there was nobody there too.

 

 

20190129_011439This was taken at the other end of the pool.

 

 

20190127_083925A perfect spot to have a pool shot.

 

 

20190127_083844This view of the pool was actually the deciding factor why I chose this resort.

 

20190129_011224Our room had a view of the beautiful pool.

 

 

20190127_084942I believe all the other rooms too especially the lofts have stunning pool views too!

 

 

 

 

20190126_234129Our room met our expectations.  Aside from that tiny window area with a pool view, we had a king-sized bed, a separate tub & toilet area and a sofa.

 

 

20190127_000956One thing I noticed was the Moorish design prevalent all over the resort even in the bathtubs and room windows.

 

 

 

20190127_081333The resort’s amazing complimentary breakfast is worthy of a mention and the service is extraordinary. The staff were extra pleasant and attentive.

 

 

20190129_011530Breads and cakes and pies.

 

 

20190129_011542With a Korean owner mixed with the local influence, even the choices for spices amused me.

 

 

20190129_011628Fruits and vegetables.

 

 

20190129_011653To top it all there was a wide variety of hot food choices and the coffee was at par with our favorite Vietnamese coffee.

 

 

Getting Into Siem Reap

It was a good thing a Philippine budget airline, Cebu Pacific,  offers cheap & direct flights four times a week from the Philippine capital of Manila to Siem Reap.  Although the schedule is not the best one because the flight departs at 6:55 p.m. and arrives in Siem Reap three hours before midnight certainly making you lose a whole day, we still took it instead of taking non-direct flights that would waste our time at airports. I noticed as I was searching flights online that direct flights to Siem Reap are also available mostly from nearby Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Vietnamese cities.

20190127_122322We landed in a very nice airport in Siem Reap that would put some U.S. airports to shame.

 

 

IMG_0177 2The immigration lines were a bit long because there was a flight from China that arrived with us but we were out in less than 30 minutes.

 

 

 

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It was good to see Malaysian and Singaporean influences in the airport dining options too.  Cambodia’s ASEAN co-members have truly invested heavily in the country in addition to the hotel scene.

 

More On Cambodia

tuktukThis is Cambodia’s version of the tuktuk (tricycle) that is also famous in Thailand.  It is an inexpensive mode of transportation if you don’t mind riding along unpaved roads that are too dusty.

 

moneySome Cambodian notes.

To end I want to share a little piece of history told to us by our chauffeur. Siem Reap has an interesting meaning.  It means “Thailand defeated”.  Siem Reap was conquered successfully by the Siamese (Thais) in the 18th century and was under Thai rule for more than 100 years being part of the Angkor empire until the Khmer took it back from the Thais and renamed it to Siem Reap when the Thais were expelled from the land.  When Thais visit the place, they do not call it Siem Reap but another name, “Siammarat” meaning Thai’s territory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16
Feb
19

Aruba: One Happy Island


Endowed with an all year round warm, hurricane-free weather with average temperature in the 80s, any time of the year is always a perfect time to visit Aruba and laze around its stunning beaches.  The island, which is one of the three Dutch Caribbean islands together with Curacao and Bonaire, has a tagline “One Happy Island“. Yes, everywhere you go you can feel the happy vibe in one of the most celebrated tropical islands in the world.

DSC_0620 However, its geographical location positions it far from the U.S. mainland. Compared with Bermuda, for example, which we frequently visit because it is just less than two hours flight from New York’s JFK and Boston’s Logan airports, Aruba is almost a five-hour flight from those two airports. Still we decided to visit Aruba for the first time as we would be using our timeshare points and the airfares going there from Boston were at an all-time low ($110 or 11,000 miles plus tax, one-way on Delta Airlines). Coming back to the U.S. from Aruba, the fare is always ridiculously higher.

 

 

20180818_180551At Aruba’s tiny airport our arrival experience was indeed a very happy one: short immigration lines and efficient officers. The line to get pass through customs was a bit long though but was fast moving.  Just across the street from the arrival area were the rental car companies where we got our car and drove away to our resort.

 

Baby Beach, Aruba’s Gem

Before we get drowned in the many happy details of our Aruba experience, I will start with our best experience in Aruba, the remote Baby Beach in a little town called San Nicolas, a 30-minute drive south from Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad.

20181214_200354After passing by the pastel-colored houses of San Nicolas……

 

 

img_8809….and an eerie, large swath of land filled with cactus,…..

 

 

img_8813….we finally reached the entrance to the stunning Baby Beach.

 

 

20180821_090337It was still mid-morning so the beach was almost empty and the views were gorgeous and relaxing.

 

 

 

DSC_0611There were only less than five people in and around the beach excluding workers of the only establishment there.

 

 

DSC_0583The early morning drive was worth the effort to reach a beach that was almost to ourselves.

 

 

DSC_0587Before we dipped in the shallow and calm turquoise waters, we took some time to have family snapshots.

 

 

DSC_0584Our best Aruba experience: the secluded and beautiful Baby Beach.

 

 

LRM_EXPORT_20180822_111610Shown here is the One Happy Island sign on the beach right next to the only restaurant in the area that also houses locker rooms and bathrooms.

 

 

DSC_0597Then it was time to spend some moments in the immaculate beach.

 

 

DSC_0594This is the northern view taken from the center of the beach.

 

 

DSC_0599This is the southern side of the beach that leads to one end of the rocky wall protecting the shore from the big waves of the Caribbean Sea.

 

 

DSC_0608The stretch of a wall or rocks is the main reason why the beach is so calm and the waves almost non-existing that makes the place perfect for toddlers and babies, thus the name Baby Beach.

 

 

DSC_0606This is certainly one of the best beaches we have been to.

 

 

 

DSC_0613Wildlife abounds in the beach area too.

 

 

DSC_0618And I could not wait to lie down on the beach too!

 

 

DSC_0615As we were leaving the area, covered beach chairs (the colored ones above) have started to be setup along the shore. Since the beach shore faces west, it is also an excellent place to watch sunset if driving back to Oranjestad in the evening is not an issue.

 

 

Holiday Inn Resort in Palm Beach

20180819_072823For most of our days in Aruba we based ourselves in the massive Holiday Inn Resort in Palm Beach area. It is one of the resorts in Aruba where we could utilize our timeshare points.  There is always quite a long check-in line anytime of the day in this resort but because of our status with the Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) we were able to use a priority lane, thank God! We were given a room with partial sea view as shown above.

 

 

DSC_0496A few steps from the resort lobby is the beach dotted with hundreds of palm trees, thus the name Palm Beach.

 

 

DSC_0497Again, our IHG status gave us the benefit to reserve a beach hut solely for our own use during our entire stay that nobody else could use.  So we chose one that was directly in front of the beach.

 

 

20180820_092959It is an advantage to be at the beach early in the morning between 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. as the beach is not very crowded yet.

 

 

DSC_0503 2Some are still doing the morning beach walk.

 

 

 

20180820_082838Early in the morning kids can already start enjoying the beach’s calm and clear waters…..

 

 

DSC_0511….and the white powdery sand on the beach.

 

 

DSC_0505 2One can also do the early morning dip.

 

 

DSC_0524It is truly rewarding to be at the beach early.

 

 

 

DSC_0521 2It is also a perfect time to just sit back and relax on the beach enjoying the views and the morning breeze……

 

DSC_0514….and spend some time with family.

 

 

DSC_0527Retreating from the beachfront and venturing farther to the middle of the resort we found a beautiful scenery.

 

 

DSC_0532 2The resort’s main pool area with the swaying palm trees rising high up to the blue, spotless sky!

 

 

DSC_0547This is the center of Palm Beach!

 

20180820_090150My daughters enjoyed the kids’ pool.

 

 

Sunset in Palm Beach

DSC_0446With our dedicated beach front hut we were always ensured of stunning sunsets as long as we’re staying in the resort.

 

 

DSC_0442 2Sunsets in Palm Beach are to die for.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0444With the resort beach directly facing west, we have the sun setting in front of us as we lounged on the resort’s beach chairs or be simply on the beach.

 

 

DSC_0456My wife and two daughters at sunset.

 

 

20180818_190520Just a random couple on the beach during sunset.

 

 

DSC_0467Here are some of the few sunset shots I took.

 

 

 

DSC_0469There are some tours offering sunset cruises.

 

 

20180818_190605The sun vanishing halfway through the horizon.

 

 

 

DSC_0473 copyAnd another happy day has just ended in Aruba.

 

 

DSC_0495 3The resort turned on its magical evening spell as the sun set on the horizon.

 

 

Around Palm Beach Area

DSC_0537The Palm Beach area is the most touristy of all the Aruba beach areas.

 

 

DSC_0539It has lots of shopping malls…..

 

 

DSC_0536…and souvenir shops…..

 

 

DSC_0535….restaurants, convenience stores and many more. Knowing the area, we tried to avoid it unless necessary to refrain from paying prices higher than anywhere else. We just drove 5-10 mins away from the area if we wanted cheaper groceries and other stuff.

 

 

 

Arashi Beach

DSC_0544Arashi Beach is also another great place to watch the sunset.  We drove around 10 minutes from Palm Beach to Arashi Beach.

 

 

 

DSC_0542Arashi Beach is actually a public beach mostly frequented by locals.  Beach huts and chairs are available for use on a first come, first serve basis.

 

 

DSC_0543It is only a short stretch of beach but it gets pretty crowded especially in the afternoon going into sunset.

 

 

DSC_0545Before sunset, one can actually visit the California Lighthouse a few minutes drive up a hill near Arashi Beach.  One can also watch sunset from the lighthouse area. We ran out of time and we decided to stay on the beach for the sunset.

 

 

Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort

20180820_210818On our last days in Aruba we moved to Divi Village Golf and Beach Resort, one of the few resorts where we can use our timeshare points at very shockingly low rates. We vowed to be back at any Divi Resorts using our timeshare points after the experience.

 

 

20180820_210511I booked a studio unit.

 

 

20180820_194908It has one queen size bed and another queen size pull-out sofa just enough for my wife and me and our two daughters.

 

 

20180820_194720It was a very nice place for a few days stay near the beach.

 

 

20180820_210454The resort offered unlimited punch rum as welcome drinks redeemable everywhere there is a bar or a restaurant.

 

 

 

IMG-364eb0a07a73d8430fc0c0674bc95d64-VThe best thing for us was the fully-equipped kitchen that we heavily utilized during our stay as the package I took was not an all-inclusive one as I wanted to cook our own food.

 

 

20181214_200151The resort is actually huge and shown above is just one of the pool areas near our unit which was also walking distance from the resort lobby.

 

 

Sunset at Divi Beach

DSC_0576Just a few minutes walk from the resort across the street is Divi Beach (and farther to the right is Eagle Beach).

 

 

DSC_0549The sunsets there were amazing too but still the ones we experienced in Palm Beach were the best for us.

 

 

DSC_0552The area is not crowded during sunset.

 

 

DSC_0560Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful and relaxing place for the family to watch sunset.

 

 

DSC_0565My daughters loved the place too!

 

 

DSC_0566Indeed all of Aruba’s stretch of white sand beaches are all facing west so whatever beach you are in you’ll surely experience a unique sunset.

 

 

Our Food Experience in Aruba

20180820_174838The food experience in Aruba is not something we begged for more but the best thing that got my discriminating palate’s attention was the Aruba-made ginger extra hot sauce we had inside Super Food.

 

 

 

20180820_164204Speaking of Super Food, it is a huge supermarket in Oranjestad just a few minutes drive from Divi Village.

 

 

20180820_164319Since we decided to cook our food on our last days when we were in Divi Village, we came here to buy  something we could cook.

 

20180820_204455One of them is the marinated pork belly that tasted so good.

 

 

20180915_150305On one occasion when we were not munching on KFC or McDonald’s we tried a restaurant inside Holiday Inn Resort called Sea Breeze.

 

 

20180915_150403They were offering a reasonably-priced steak + lobster combo for dinner that sounded so irresistible.

 

 

20180915_150332We also had the fried fish topped with fried plantains.

 

 

20180819_201729The best Aruban-Caribbean bouillabaisse experience we ever had was probably this magnificent broth chock-full with fresh seafood in Sea Breeze.

 

 

Conclusion

img_8785Aruba’s beaches rank among the best in the world, no doubt about that.  The place has tropical weather all year round with no dangers of hurricanes. Its people, fluent in English, Spanish and Dutch, are very friendly and exude a lot of happiness. There is no reason why one cannot fall in love with Aruba.

 

 

DSC_0621Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad is also an attraction.  However, traffic is not the best in the city center especially on those one-lane areas. Parking is a big headache too if you are not familiar with the city’s layout.  We even had difficulty finding a parking area to take the above shot at the Ike Cohen Monument, dedicated to all those who contributed to the development of the tourism and hospitality industry in the island. We parked farther from the monument and my wife and I alternated going to the site as our daughters slept in the car.

Despite the cons I have listed above, we vowed to visit the place at least once every two years. Aruba is one of the more interesting islands in the whole of the Caribbean.

 

26
Aug
18

Italy: Roaming ‘Round Rome


Coming from Italy’s stunning north where we stopped for a few days in the usually frequented cities by travelers like Venice, Pisa and Florence, we disembarked from our late afternoon train ride from Florence in Rome’s central train station. Just as we stepped outside the train station, the area was reeking of urine smell worthy of a vomit.  I then realized we were entering the real, current Rome beneath the old glory of the powerful center of the great Roman Empire. Aside from that smelly experience, I enjoyed Rome with all those classic sights and great food. Here are the places we visited.

 

THE COLOSSEUM

DSC_2284Located in the center of the city of Roma and east of the Roman Forum is the Colosseum which is the largest amphitheatre ever built. We stayed the whole afternoon until after sunset to get snapshots taken during different times of the day.

 

 

COLOSSEUMHalfway circling the compound counterclockwise past the entrance to the Roman Forum we chanced upon a hill overlooking the colosseum.  And this jump shot was made.

 

 

CSC_2350We rested, hydrated ourselves, people-watched and circled the colosseum compound trying to find the best vantage point for the sunset shot.

 

CSC_2383We finally settled on a hilly area outside of the colosseum compound but just right across the street.

 

 

DSC_2403Sunset came and I waited for that moment after sunset that the blue hue of the sky would be very prominent in photos. Amid the blue sky the lighted colosseum appeared majestic.

 

 

CSC_2455 2Just the street below separated me and the colosseum.

 

 

DSC_2413One last round and one last shot of the colosseum and we called it a day.

 

 

THE PANTHEON

CSC_0889Part of Rome’s historic center is the Pantheon with its dome still considered as the world’s  largest unreinforced concrete dome.

 

 

DSC_0874As you can see on the left side of the photo there is the circular part of which above it is the dome which is not seen from ground level.

 

 

DSC_0875This is the dome taken from inside. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 142 feet or 43 m.

 

 

CSC_0881The Pantheon was originally built as a Roman temple.

 

 

DSC_0882 It is now a church.

 

 

DSC_2446For me, the Pantheon is more beautiful at night (I love night photography).

 

 

DSC_2449 2There are still a lot of people in front of the Pantheon taking photos in the evening and you just have to get the right timing to get solo photos when there is no one around you.

 

 

DSC_2441The small piazza in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda.

 

 

DSC_2451The piazza is surrounded by restaurants and bars that are very much alive until late.

 

 

THE ROMAN FORUM & PALATINE HILL

DSC_2286Just next to the Colosseum, is the Roman Forum which was the political, administrative and religious center of  ancient Rome.

 

 

DSC_2421Foro (Forum)  was the name that the Romans gave to the central square of the urban settlement. There were a lot of temples inside the forum but not all were dedicated for the gods but to people too.  The Romans believed that by building a temple and dedicating it to themselves they became deity.

 

 

DSC_2422Shown here is what remains of the Tempio dei Castori.

 

 

THE TREVI FOUNTAIN

CSC_0840Good for us that our lodging was just a few steps away that every morning and every night we would pass by the famous Trevi Fountain. It is always crowded so it is rather difficult too to get a good snapshot of yourself with everyone wanting that photo memoir.

 

 

DSC_2470The Trevi Fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome dating back to ancient Roman times, since the construction of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in 19 B.C. that provided water to the Roman baths and the fountains of central Rome. As you can see, in the centre of the fountain is a statue of Oceanus, standing under a triumphal arch. His chariot is being pulled by two sea horses, one wild and one docile, representing the opposing moods of the sea.

 

 

 

THE SPANISH STEPS

CSC_0848 2From our hotel we just walked for less than thirty minutes to another famous place in Rome, the Spanish Steps, which are a series of 135 steps from its base at the Piazza di Spagna to the top where a church is located. Again it was almost a perfect shot with only one person on the side of the stairs I was sitting on.

 

 

II VITTORIANO

DSC_0926Il Vittoriano is located in Piazza Venezia and was only built between 1885 – 1925 to honor Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy.

 

 

DSC_2432Dubbed “The Wedding Cake” for its gleaning white marble and tiered levels, this large altar was built. Replete with stairs, columns, fountains and sculptures, it was controversial because it destroyed the area of the Capitoline Hill and dominates the skyline.

 

DSC_2431Nevertheless, it lies at the heart of Rome and is a focal point of the city.

 

 

ST. PETER’S SQUARE AND BASILICA

DSC_0960We arrived in St. Peter’s Square in the morning of our last day in Rome.  The line going inside St. Peter’s Basilica, one of Catholic’s holiest site, was expectedly long but it moved fast.

 

 

DSC_0942 2Before lining up we checked the square grounds and took photos like this.

 

 

CSC_0996That is St. Peter’s Basilica from afar near the entrance to the square. The dome designed by Michelangelo was inspired by the Pantheon and the Duomo of Florence.

 

 

DSC_0994Looking up close to the columns lining up around the square.

 

 

DSC_0972Entering the basilica, we were stunned by the magnificence of the structure and intricate details of the interior.

 

 

DSC_0979People, probably not all of them Catholics, were all over the inside of the basilica most of them looking up.

 

 

DSC_0976 2Moving closer to the altar we found something very weird and eerie.  That dark brown thingie jutting upwards. The basilica was actually built on top of the burial site of Peter the Apostle of which the dark brown thingie marks.

 

 

DSC_0981Moving past the dark brown thingie we moved closer to the altar.

 

 

DSC_0967After a while, we decided to leave the basilica.

 

 

PIAZZA NAVONA

CSC_0905Piazza Navona is part of Rome’s historic center together with the Pantheon, a few blocks away.

 

 

CSC_0908Piazza Navona is the place that has the three Bernini fountains.

 

 

DSC_0896A closer look at one of the fountains.

 

 

DSC_0918At the plaza center is a stretch of art works and souvenirs for sale.

 

 

DSC_2457Day and night, the restaurants and bars are filled with mostly tourists. I have been warned that it is not practical to dine in this area as food and drinks are overly priced. One night as we were leaving Piazza Navona, we walked back three blocks toward Pantheon and we found a good restaurant where we tasted, what else but Italian food.

 

 

PIAZZA DEL POPOLO

DSC_0864Piazza del Popolo is a large urban square in the center of Rome. The name in modern Italian literally means “People’s Square”, but historically it derives from the  poplars after which the church of  Santa Maria del Popolo in the northeast corner of the piazza, takes its name.

 

 

CSC_0863The entrance of the Tridente from Piazza del Popolo, defined by the “twin” churches of Santa Maria in Montesano (left, built 1662-75) and Santa Maria dei Miracoli (right, built 1675-79). The Via del Corso exits between the two churches which we came from coming in to the piazza.

 

 

 

DSC_0859An Egyptian obelisk of Ramesses II from Heliopolis stands in the center of the piazza.

 

 

 

A DINING EXPERIENCE 

DSC_0919We skipped Piazza Navona area for dining as we were advised and walked a few blocks going to the Pantheon. We passed by this tiny restaurant offering, what else but Italian food.  We decided to try it.

 

DSC_0921 2

An Italian rose wine was paired with…..

 

 

DSC_0925…lasagna and…

 

 

DSC_0924….spaghetti in tomato sauce.  We enjoyed the great, inexpensive food.

 

 

MORE AROUND ROME

DSC_0844As we roamed around the city we passed by colorful alleys…

 

DSC_0858…tricycles….

 

 

DSC_0853 2…more alleys….

 

 

DSC_2263….restaurants with alfresco dining…..

 

 

DSC_0891….guards of government buildings….

 

 

DSC_2462…..more alleys at night…..

 

 

DSC_0856….Manila-named places…..

 

 

DSC_0843…and more authentic local ristorante.

 

 

WHERE WE STAYED

We stayed in Cenci Bed & Breakfast just a few steps from the Trevi. Fountain A very reasonably-priced bed and breakfast with very accommodating owner and pleasant staff.  The website is http://www.cencibedandbreakfast.it/#home.

 

 

camere-cencibb-28camere-cencibb-10Included in the room rates is a light breakfast in a tiny dining area.  Juices, coffee, breads, boiled eggs, pastries and fresh fruits are offered. My stay in this place has been one of my most cost effective travel experiences ever. We were out all day and a part of the night when we were not sleeping so we did not need a luxurious and expensive hotel in Rome.  Yes I am a frugal traveler.

 

DSC_0942 2Bye for now Rome!

 

25
Jul
18

Latvia: Riga, Baltics’ Liveliest Place


Riga, the capital of Latvia is the largest of the three Baltic capital cities and it is considered the party place in the Baltics. Its airport is the largest and busiest in the Baltics offering more direct flights to the rest of Europe than Tallinn, Estonia or Vilnius, Lithuania, the two other Baltic capital cities. Riga was our second Baltic and fourth European city destination during our summer escapade. We have already explored earlier the beautiful cities of Bergen, Helsinki and Tallinn.

FullSizeRenderj

 

 

 

Entering Riga

FullSizeRenderOn a clear sunny day, we took a one hour Air Baltic flight from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Lavia.  I was seated next to a South African guy who would be taking a transit flight in Riga from Tallinn to Budapest where he is based. Indeed, Riga has more direct flights to more European cities compared to Tallinn, just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, Finland and to Vilnius, Lithuania which is a lesser active city.

 

 

FullSizeRendereWe touched down in Riga International Airport, one of the three international airports in Latvia.

 

 

FullSizeRendercThe airport’s rather tiny and the hallways are narrow but it looked new, organized and easy to navigate probably due to recent renovation works.

 

 

IMG_1655Welcome to Riga!

 

 

IMG_1662The city center, specifically the Old Town of Riga, is less than 20 minutes away by taxi from the airport. The airport taxi service is centralized and you have to buy a coupon near the final exit door before you can board a taxi.  It is an efficient service they offer. Drivers were nice and helpful too.  You can opt to take the train to the city center but I believe the taxi is the more convenient option that is why we took it.

 

IMG_1663From the airport we chanced upon classic train coaches plying the suburban areas near the capital city. They looked very Soviet-styled.

 

 

 

Where We Stayed

It is the usual balance of our desired location (Old Town in this case) and reasonable cost when choosing our lodging in Riga. We also took into consideration that we had two babies so every place that we must visit should be within walking distance from the hotel. The Rixwell Centra Hotel inside the Old Town was our perfect choice.  It truly did not disappoint.

IMG_1668This is part of the hotel lobby and just right outside are the restaurants, bars and shops.

 

 

IMG_1681As I usually do when traveling, I did try to send a request for a room upgrade to the hotel manager. We were given a top floor, corner suite. How generous of them!

 

 

IMG_1682It was indeed a spacious suite where my toddler could run around forever.

 

 

IMG_1684Just as we went inside the room,  the views out of the windows took our breath away.

 

 

riga2The red roofs of most of the surrounding buildings truly impressed in us the Old City aura.

 

 

riga1Churches and all.

 

IMG_1764The views are even more beautiful at sunset.

 

 

IMG_1765As shown in this photo taken at sunset, just below us across the street are tons of restaurants and bars starting to come alive at twilight.  Some are even open until 7 a.m. so one of the disadvantages of a room in a lower floor in this area is the noise coming from the bars that open until the next morning even with double glazed windows.  We were located in the highest floor so the noise was almost a non-concern.

 

 

Roaming Around Riga

The Old Town & Historic Center

FullSizeRendervThe beautiful Riga Town Hall Square was a just a few minutes walk from our hotel.

 

 

FullSizeRenderIt was almost 10 p.m. and it was still a good time to take photos.  Indeed it’s summertime!

 

 

DSC_0157

 

 

 

DSC_0175Riga’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0163Beautiful buildings and lots of restaurants, shops and bars are everywhere.

 

 

DSC_0167Medieval churches are greatly preserved too.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderWhether at sunset….

 

 

FullSizeRenders….or on a clear, sunny mid-day Riga’s Old Town is beautiful.

 

 

FullSizeRenderbThis was taken just a block from our hotel of which the church tower accentuates the aerial Old Town view as seen high above from our top floor hotel room.

 

 

IMG_1927It was not hard to fall in love with Riga after all.

 

 

If you are a party–goer, you would love it more there.  Watch this video of a mobile bar.

 

 

The Parks

FullSizeRenderkWhile on our way from the Old Town to the Art Nouveau area of Riga outside the Old Town, we cut across beautiful parks and one of them was in Bastion Hill.

 

 

IMG_1789It’s a place of beautiful, blooming flowers and….

 

 

 

DSC_0210….people suntanning or having picnics.

 

 

IMG_1787Bridge love locks abound too…..

 

 

IMG_1888…..and a lock can be solitary too.

 

 

IMG_1791The area covered parts of Bastejkalna and Kārļa Ulmaņa piemineklis parks.  The greens are amazing and in good weather there are a lot of activities that can be done inside the park like kayaking.

 

 

IMG_1889There is actually a boat tour that starts from this park using a large ferry that goes around the Old Town but we skipped it.  I thought it was wonderful to see the Old City from afar.

 

 

FullSizeRenderqWe also encountered a bunch of students rehearsing for a show.

 

 

IMG_1800A walk in the park can be an opportunity to taste a Latvian ice cream…..

 

 

IMG_1794….well the best gourmet ice cream from Latvia.

 

 

 

IMG_1877As we crossed the street from the parks we came into an area where there were a lot of flowers on display.

 

 

IMG_1879Yes beautifully arranged, real flowers.

 

 

IMG_1876A pyramid.

 

 

IMG_1912And the #SingInRiga group singing competition. Ironically, when we went inside the competition hall, the Israeli group was singing!

 

 

FullSizeRenderoWe then came to another park called Kronwalda Park.  It has the monkey statue in a spacesuit.

 

 

IMG_2360The statue is dedicated to animals that participated in exploration of outer space and it was made by artist Denis Prasolov.  It was worth a group-fie.

 

 

The Art Nouveau Area

DSC_0199From the park we finally entered the Art Nouveau area of Riga. This Baltic capital city has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world!

 

 

DSC_0197Our first grand stop was at the Museum of Art Nouveau.

 

 

IMG_1845This is the famous staircase inside the Museum of Art Nouveau leading up to its tower.

 

The following are the snapshots taken in the area of the decorative new arts applied to buildings that was popular in the late 1800s until early 1900s.

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Immeuble_art_nouveau_(Riga)_(7568195240)

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DSC_0191DSC_0194

 

 

Food in Riga

27072320_10215402361640817_1509631548771949073_nOur breakfast moments in Riga were well-taken cared of by our hotel.  This is the first and only hotel where I have stayed that offers complimentary, unlimited champagne during breakfast. We had our other meals in low-key restaurants and fast-food chains.  However, in every trip we take, we make sure to taste the local gourmet offerings.

 

 

20245581_10213782249699031_4327947262718295568_nThe closest we had to experiencing local cuisine was our dinner spent in an awesome place called Garden Restaurant just a few blocks away from our hotel.

 

 

20246017_10213782253579128_4103698983856419920_nThis is where I initially drank the famous local drink, black balsam, that the restaurant was giving complimentary.

 

 

20245476_10213782252939112_9059758374257878717_nMy wife just took a sip of  her black balsam so I finished the two glasses.  It was flavorful, strong and a bit sweet.  I liked it!

 

 

20155727_10213782250579053_7463809804359393260_nWe ordered calamari as our starter.

 

19989682_10213782251459075_9197408986896938830_nThe traditional Latvian bread was served too.

 

 

20228964_10213782250899061_1280012536784584324_nWe ordered the pork knuckle thinking it would be similar to the crispy skin variant of the Philippines only to find out it is somewhat similar to the German version.  It was juicy though and it tasted unexpectedly good.

 

 

20246520_10213782252539102_6395466902400332454_nI am a fish lover so wherever I am I would try to order fish.  The restaurant was only offering a fried Dorado so we ordered it.

 

 

20229281_10213782249859035_1599356938223628368_nThe black balsam was sort of an appetizer drink for me and so my favorite red was the main drink. We enjoyed our dining time in this place and we were glad at least we have tasted a bit of the local cuisine.

 

In another occasion when we were in the Art Nouveau area of Riga we dined in a place called Alberta just across the Museum of Art Nouveau.

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We had beef stroganoff…..

IMG_1857…and Asian-stlye dumplings.

 

 

LEAVING RIGA

The hotel gave us two breakfast bags as we informed the front desk the evening before that we are leaving for the airport on our last day early in the morning. The driver that they arranged to pick us up was prompt, helpful and pleasant too.

IMG_1657From Riga, we took our flight back to Bergen, Norway on the way to the U.S. I was seated next to a couple of guys who smelled alcohol looking like they just got out of a bar and had a long night taking Stolichnaya shots.  Riga party fever indeed!  If I was twenty years younger I could probably have done the same thing.

 

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Ardievas, Riga!




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