Togi Explorer

My Travel Adventure

One Summer Day in Paris

The Louvre, Paris

In a pavement café nearby a man scribbles on a notepad, his cigarette jutting out precariously from his pursed lips as he breathes out smoke through his nostrils. With one arm dangling at the back of his chair, he holds his gaze on passersby as if prowling for inspiration. Not far away, a young couple canoodles on a park bench backdropped by the Eiffel Tower, oblivious of the street artist sketching away their fervid affection. I sip on a Bordeaux, wondering if I’ve just caught the ghosts of Hemingway and Picasso.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

It is early July, and the buttery aroma of warm croissants rolls on the soft summer breeze. The bistro’s terrace buzzes with multilingual tete-a-tetes. I instinctively reach into my duffel bag to fish out my camera and snap photographs of the chicly dressed locals and tourists. I have nothing else planned for the day but to wander around and get lost in the romantic city. It is true, Paris induces a trance-like obedience in its visitors, making them slow down, listen to the street jazz musicians and appreciate the details of centuries-old monuments. And there’s nothing better than enjoying a leisurely walk all day without having to run back to the hotel every so often to grab a change of shoes, a pair of sunglasses or perhaps a book. My customized leather duffel bag from Cleora comfortably fits everything that I need for the day: cameras, maps, on-the-go cosmetics, water bottle and extra shirts and shoes for the Instagram poses by the Louvre. Throw in the fact that it is stylish, photogenic and easy to carry around, I might have just found the perfect travel partner.

Cleora is the latest local brand to specialize in high-quality and personalized cowhide leather bags, fashion leather items and corporate giveaways. Cleora is not exactly a newbie to the industry, as it is the sister company of Lordman Leather Craft, a Marikina-based supplier of top-notch leather gun holsters throughout the country for over 40 years. Check out their sample designs on Instagram (@cleaorafashionhouse) or you may reach them at 09055266765, 09423518027 and 09498675003.

Piaza Navona, Rome

Coloseo, Rome

Venice, Romance

a quiet canal in Venice

a quiet canal in Venice

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

elegant gondolas

elegant gondolas

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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All I want is to find my hotel, unburden my shoulders of a hefty backpack and jump face-forward to the bed, but instead I linger in Piazza San Marco far too long. It doesn’t help that I arrive in Venice at sunset, when its skyline of Gothic towers, spires and domes glow golden above the Adriatic Sea. Pastel skies, warm streetlights and marble buildings of bright colors reflect in the still waters of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers break into an aria as they pull their oars with a gentle splash, their gondolas bobbing up and down as vaporettis (water taxi) glide by. A blatant reminder of my solitude, couples hold hands as they listen to serenading violins. There’s really no competition. For romance, Venice has the perfect ambiance.

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

Timeworn cobblestones lead me on through a tangle of alleyways and bridges, and at the point of desperation when I realize I am nowhere near my hotel, I duck into a tiny gelato store where the gentle-faced owner gives me a confusing direction full of hand gestures. I nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. The sight of other baffled tourists, who can’t figure out where “take a left, then go straight” went wrong, somehow consoles me. Apparently, getting lost is part of the deal when visiting this love-infested city.

yours truly :)

yours truly 🙂

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one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Venice is not a typical Italian city. It is a vast agglomeration of roughly 120 islands linked together by a mind-bending 409 bridges and countless pedestrian conduits that can disorient even the best sense of direction yet lead to a multitude of backstreet gems, such as Renaissance opera houses and museums, quaint restaurants and hidden gardens. There are no cars and motorcycles to honk strolling lovers to the sidewalk, and the only way to get around is either by foot or by boat. I let my eyes survey the marble façade of the Santa Maria Della Salute and the nearby palaces, moving across their lacelike stonework and Baroque swirls inch by inch. The city is nothing less than a vast aquatic gallery of elegant architecture, an urban maze of a museum that reminds everyone of its glorious past. Enriched by trade and cultural contacts with the East and the Mediterranean, Venice had seen opulence in the Middle Ages. Not only was the city an important port and commercial center, it was also celebrated for its music and painting, exquisite glasswares and magnificent palaces and churches.

Today a city for lovers, Venice wasn’t born out of romance. According to tradition it was founded in 421 AD, when the Celtic people called the Veneto fled to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon to escape the violent Barbarian invasions, which lasted until the sixth century. The settlers took advantage of their vast waterways and deep channels and started maritime trading with Egypt, Syria, Southeast Asia, Iran and China. Soon, they formed a loose federation and elected their first doge (duke) to assert their independence from the Byzantine Empire. By the Middle Ages, Venice flourished as a port and trading center and became one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Eventually, their wooden pile dwellings were replaced with brick houses, splendid palaces and Gothic churches. Venice became so powerful that it remained intact and unscathed despite the attacks of 15 kingdoms, which tried to suppress it from expanding towards the mainland. Its glory, however, did not last very long. By the end of the 15th century, the Americas were discovered and became the new trading port, triggering the commercial and political decline of the Venetian Republic. Furthermore, the recurring bubonic plague decimated its population. In the 18th century, it became politically irrelevant that Emperor Napoleon dissolved it and handed it over to Austria. Venice, however, did not prosper under Austria, and when the Prussians defeated the Austrians, Venice was allowed to join the new nation of Italy.

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endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

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With a cappuccino in hand, I wind my way back to Piazza San Marco early morning the following day. The square is empty, save for the early-rising pigeons scattered on the patterned stone paving and a grumpy waiter setting out tables and chairs at a nearby café. Laid out in the ninth century as a gathering place for the Venetians, the sprawling piazza is bordered by historic buildings. As if by instinct, I walk toward the Basilica di San Marco on the eastern end of the square. Glinting in the sunlight, its pinnacles, domes and intricate mosaics and arches instantly draw attention. A hodgepodge of different architectural styles- Gothic, Byzantine and Islamic, the basilica was built in 1071 to shelter the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which were stolen by two Venetian merchants from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. A stone’s throw away from the basilica is its campanile, (bell tower) soaring 99 meters into the sky. Originally built in the ninth century, the imposing landmark was reconstructed in 1912 after the original tower collapsed in 1902. The other dominant building in Piazza San Marco is the 14th century Doge’s Palace, which for centuries was the seat of government, the palace of justice and the Doge’s (duke) residence. Stepping back to admire the massive structure, I realize that its entire width is embellished with splendid patterns, perforations and Gothic arches, making it appear light and lacy. It is said that from these arches, the Doge would watch public executions in the piazza and announce death sentences.

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Doge's Palace

Doge’s Palace

It is a hot summer day and by noon, the square is thick with smooching couples and tourists inspecting its marvels. Every square foot of sitting space is crowded with young people licking overpriced gelatos and making peace signs for photographs. Licking an overpriced gelato myself, I recognize plenty of Asian faces around, particularly Chinese. Most are tourists and some are residents, most likely descendants of the Chinese merchants who once traded in the Venetian shores. After basking in the piazza’s old world atmosphere, I stuff my map inside my bag and decide to get lost. Walking through labyrinthine alleyways, climbing bridge after bridge, I stumble upon the Chiesa di San Moise, an 8th century Baroque style church dedicated to Moses. Like other medieval churches, Chiesa di San Moise is heavily embellished with carved patterns and sculptures from its roof down to its entrance doors. Not far from the church, a crowd queues up for a gondola ride. Priced at 100 Euros for a 40-minute ride, the gondola experience is quite heavy to the pocket, but thankfully, a group invites me to split the cost with them. I say yes in a heartbeat. Soon, we are gliding past other gondolas filled with affectionate couples. Quietly, we stare at endless boutiques and gargoyle-bedecked buildings that line both sides of the canal. Just before we progress to the Grand Canal, we sail under the infamous Bridge of Sighs, which was named such because of the prisoners’ sighs of grief and remorse.It was through this Baroque bridge, which connects the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the penitentiary across, that criminals in the past would catch their last glimpse of the outside world before they were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Shortly, the Grand Canal welcomes us with a chaotic procession of watercrafts swerving across the rush hour traffic and spilling newly arrived tourists to the wharfs. I strain my eyes to catch glimpse of the tapestries, chandeliers and frescoed ceilings through the windows of ornate buildings that fringe the waterway. One can only imagine the city’s grandeur during its golden years. Then, cargo vessels from different parts of the world unloaded gold, silk, spices, metal and textiles by the Rialto Bridge, which briefly blocks the sunlight as we drift by underneath. Built in 1588, the dignified Rialto Bridge connects the districts of San Polo and San Marco across the Grand Canal. It has always been the busiest crossing in Venice, now usually thronged by tourists instead of multicultural merchants during the city’s heyday. Complementing the dramatic ambiance, the sweet sound of accordion resonates from serene side canals, where colorful reflections dance beneath stately palaces and wooden bridges. Fishing boats of gaudy colors float steadily in front of crumbling buildings, seemingly frozen in time like still-life paintings. The magnificence of Venice is undeniable especially when viewed from the water.

the Chiesa di San Moise,

the Chiesa di San Moise

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

Truth be told, Venice has become exhaustingly crowded these days. During summer months, an average of 80,000 tourists a day throngs its narrow canals and alleyways, profoundly altering its economic flow. Businesses like restaurants and supermarkets now charge tourist rates even to locals and property owners have increasingly converted apartments and residences into hotels, skyrocketing the cost of permanent housing. As a result, the locals’ population has plummeted to an alarming 50,000 in the recent years and if the trend continues, the city may soon lose all of its full-time residents and become a mere Disneyland-like tourist attraction. One can only hope for an intervention that could save it from eventual demise. After all, a city as unique, visually satisfying and historically rich as Venice has to be experienced by travel enthusiasts at least once in their lives.

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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Fez: A City Lost in Time

the old medina of Fez

the old medina of Fez

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

the 9th century medina

the 9th century medina

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

one of the 300+ mosques

one of the 300+ mosques

Pigeons scatter skyward as a wailing call to prayer blares like an air-raid siren from a nearby minaret. From the roof terrace I watch the fading sun as it bathes the decaying city, its fortifications and the crumbling ruins of the ancient people’s tombs above a hill in blood-red light. Soon, the adhan (call to prayer) from all 365 mosques resonates throughout the city, echoing the same ghostly chant but with different tempos like an unrehearsed orchestra, drowning the squawks of the chickens, the incessant banging from the brass cookware shops and the shrieks of the hawkers.

At first it is disarming, but nothing can quite prepare me, or anyone, for the impact of Fes el-Bali, the ancient high-walled medina (old city) of Fez. With over 10,000 spiraling cobblestone streets and alleyways, which are too narrow for the tiniest car to get through, the city has turned the map in my hand into a squiggly-lined nonsense. A tight jumble of centuries-old riads (traditional Moroccan houses) stands shoulder-to-shoulder with elaborately tiled mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools). A head-spinning mixture of odors wafts along the tiny passages- freshly baked bread from wood-stoked ovens, sizzling kebabs, the stench of animal excrement and urine, cumin, overripe fruits, scented oils. I close my eyes to absorb the sweltering madness when a deep, loud voice penetrates my ears. “BALEK!” (“Watch out!”). A bearded man in white djellaba (long, hooded garment with full sleeves) gestures at me to stand aside and give way to him and his donkey!

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the old medina

Ruins of the ancient tombs

Ruins of the ancient tombs

narrow streets inside the medina

narrow streets inside the medina

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

Fez was the capital city of Morocco in Northern Africa until 1925, and it still remains as the country’s cultural, intellectual and religious heart. Its labyrinthine medina, Fes el-Bali, was established in the early 9th century, around the same time when Islam arrived in Morocco. The medina flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and most of its buildings and architectural gems are from this period. It was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981 and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.

Walking through the Bab Boujeloud, the monumental blue gate at the entrance of the medina, I don’t have difficulty imagining that I’ve traveled a thousand years back until I see cellular phones glued to the ears of biblical looking, mule-riding men. “What do you want, my friend? We have good leather, not from China!” Touters instantly throw themselves at tourists even from afar. “Are you Malaysian? Indonesian? Ah, Japanese! Such good people! Come, take a look inside!” Perky stall keepers beckon to me with their standard spiels for Asian-looking tourists. Haven’t they heard of the Philippines? Deep into the frantic maze of souks, merchants are more assumptive, oftentimes bordering on aggressive. Here, mounds upon piles of leather jackets, silk caftans, bloody chunks of camel meat, poultry, olives, dates, potions, strange herbs and spices my nose cannot distinguish and trinkets of various descriptions are displayed for the passing customers. Chatters of bargaining ripple throughout the medina. “No obligation to buy! Come in, have some tea!” I regretfully take heed and at first sip, a salesman has me firmly by the arm. And before I can come up with a lame excuse such as “I lost my wallet”, I find myself drowning in a pile of Berber carpets made of camel wool. The golden rule here is, never accept the first quote. Negotiation is a huge part of the Moroccan trade and prices always depend on one’s haggling skills. You must also understand that the Moroccans are supreme salesmen and if you’re as firm as a jellyfish, you’ll end up spending all your dirhams on a rug you don’t even like.

The Bab Boujeloud gate

The Bab Boujeloud gate

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

narrow passages inside the medina

narrow passages inside the medina

Moroxxan handicrafts

Moroxxan handicrafts

The heart of the medina and its most important site is the Al-Qaraouiyine Mosque and University. The mosque was established in 859 by Fatima el Fihria, a wealthy Tunisian woman refugee. Each of Morocco’s dynasties expanded and decorated it until it has settled to its current dazzling mold. One of the largest in North Africa, the mosque can accommodate up to 22,000 people at prayer. It eventually became an important learning center, well before the universities of Oxford, Bologna and Cambridge were founded, and served as a legitimate seat of scientific and religious knowledge. It is now considered as the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.

Al Qaraouiyine University

Al Qaraouiyine University

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

the-al-qaraouiyine-mosque

A strong and unmistakable waft of feces and animal skin tells me I have reached the heart of the leather district. There are three leather tanneries in the medina, all of them dating back to the Middle Ages. A teenage boy offers to guide me to the oldest of the tanneries, the Chouara Tannery, for a few dirhams. He says his “father works there”. I suspect all would-be guides in the area say the same thing. Here, the stomach-churning process of turning hides (animal skin) into durable leather has hardly been updated. The tanners begin by manually pulling hair off the animal skin. The reeking hides are then soaked in pigeon droppings and cow urine, which apparently removes the fat and remaining hair. Later on, they are kneaded for hours with bare feet until softened and then dipped in limestone vats filled with colorful dyes. After happily explaining the process, the salesman at the viewing deck invites me to check out his leather bags, which he is certain my mother would love. Yet another sales pitch!

Chouara Tannery

Chouara Tannery

The medina is one interesting place to lose oneself in and work up a big appetite along the way. Soon, my famished stomach takes me back to the blue gate where I find a strip of inexpensive restaurants offering traditional dishes. Moroccan cuisine abounds with aromatic but subtle spices and interesting flavor combinations. Think sweet and velvety dates paired with tart olives stirred into a tagine (earthenware pot where meat is cooked) of succulent lamb. Lamb is always a good choice, and I’m in no mood for adventurous items in the menu such as camel burger and goat’s head meat. Exhausted from all the walking, I find myself a quiet spot in a restaurant’s second floor veranda. Here, I peacefully try to make sense of the chaos below.

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Getting There:

There are no direct flights from Manila to Morocco in North Africa, but Qatar Airways has flights to Marrakech and Casablanca from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. From Marrakech or Casablanca, you can either take another flight or ride the train or bus to Fez.

yours truly

yours truly

 

 

The Glory That Is Rome

 

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Tiber River

the Tiber River

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Vatican City

Vatican City

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The arena crackles with tension. A gladiator grips his sword with both hands and plunges the blade in a downward thrust, aiming the glistening tip at his opponent’s chest. Evading death, the opponent quickly rolls to the side and swings his sword in a wide arc, slicing the former’s stomach open to send him crashing to the dust, growling in agony. With leers of hungry monsters etched upon their faces, spectators cheer maniacally as blood sprays across the ground. The victorious warrior strides across to tower over his rival and with a lusty roar, pierces him through his eye, shattering his skull as the weapon penetrates into his brain.

Images of carnage flood my mind as I walk into the Colosseum’s underground tunnels and chambers. Trapped in the sweltering heat, the stale waft of the earth mingles with the stench of urine and decay. This is where slaves, vicious animals, convicts and gladiators awaited their slaughter more than a thousand years ago.

Bloodshed meant glory and power for the ancient Romans. Their predilection to war and extreme violence allowed them to build a massive empire, which controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and much of northwestern Europe during its peak. For centuries they embarked on imperial expansion, demolishing towns and gathering slaves who were forced to fight in gladiatorial games, or fed to lions and bears for public entertainment.

Where I queue up impatiently outside the Roman Colosseum on a hot July afternoon, centuries ago in 80 AD, the common public would clamor and wait similarly to witness the gruesome contests. Built by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans, the amphitheater functioned as a center of entertainment, with spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, public executions and sea battle reenactments, where the arena floor was flooded with water from an underground river. The late afternoon sun crawls behind the upper arch windows, casting shadows on the seats where bloodthirsty crowds of up to 80,000 used to holler. It is said that in the hundred days of savagery to inaugurate the Colosseum, over 10,000 people and 5,000 wild animals perished. The brutal games persisted for centuries until Emperor Honorius banned it in 404 AD, following the protest of an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, who was immediately stoned to death by the angry spectators. The advent of Christianity eventually changed the demeanor of the Romans, making them less antagonistic and warlike.

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Coloseum

the Coloseum

The Coloseum

the Coloseum

Traveling Through Time

“Constantine,” I mumble as I pass by the ancient triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of Christians during his reign, “Are there more gory stories in that pile of rubble?” With a crumpled map in hand, I walk toward the ruins of the Roman Forum. Broken columns and skeletons of long-vanished temples stand precariously on the grass. Mutilated statues prop themselves against barren pedestals. Located between two hills, the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments was the social, political and commercial hub of the great Roman Empire. The Forum was originally a marshy area which the early Romans reclaimed following the alliance between King Romulus of the Palatine Hill and Titus Tatius of the Capitoline Hill, and eventually developed to include marketplaces, shrines, government offices and memorials. Kicking dust on the flagstone-paved walkway, I stroll along the length of Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, which was once the route of triumphal military parades and imperial processions. A stone’s throw away is the medieval Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda grafted onto and above the Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Emperors were routinely deified after their death but when Christianity proliferated, pagan temples were either demolished or converted to churches and basilicas. Walking past the remains of other temples dedicated to Roman gods, I find a group of tourist crowding the empty pedestals of the House of the Vestal Virgins, taking photos of the jumbled block of marbles where the sacred fire burned for centuries. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, priestesses of the goddess Vesta carefully chosen from patrician families. These women were among the most venerated citizens of ancient Rome and were believed to have special powers, such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals by simply touching them. Sweat drips from my brow as I climb the summit of the Palatine Hill, where I find the ruins of the Domus Augustana, the private section of the imperial palace where the emperors resided. Resting my back against a crumbling brick wall, I gaze out to admire the panorama of roofs and domes, clear-cut against the blood-red sunset.

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

On Holy Ground

Fueled with a hefty slice of sidewalk pizza the following morning, I dodge through an army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and rosaries. Pilgrims armed with large crucifixes and banners spill from a fleet of tour buses. At eight the streets around Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome, are already in full swing. After standing in seemingly endless security check queues, I hold my breath as I enter the massive metal doors of the Saint Peter’s Basilica, but nothing can quite prepare me the showpieces inside. Built in the early 16th century over the tomb of St. Peter, Basilica Papale di San Pietro is among the largest churches in the world and is considered the finest example of Renaissance architecture. It should be, as it was worked on by just about every great architect and artist of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries: Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Peruzzi, Maderno, Sangallo, Donatello and Bernini. Not far from the entrance, hordes of tourists pause contemplatively near an unmistakable marble carving. At last I see Michaelangelo’s Pieta with my own eyes! The haunting sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. It sits behind a bulletproof acrylic glass after it was vandalized with an axe many years ago. My eyes instinctively survey the basilica’s nave, moving across its lavishly decorated walls and columns inch by inch. Decorated in mosaic, a colossal dome created by the great Michaelangelo soars 119 meters above the ground, supported by four stone pillars representing the relics of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew and St. Veronica, whose statues adorn the niches designed by Lorenzo Bernini. Directly beneath the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, the basilica’s centerpiece. The 30-meter tall dark bronze canopy was also designed and sculpted by Bernini to shelter the papal altar and mark the spot where St. Peter was buried. Every inch of the vast interior exhibits some of the finest Renaissance masterpieces, including funerary monuments of popes whose tombs lay within the basilica.

Vatican City

Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Bernini's baldachin

Bernini’s baldachin

Michaelangelo's dome

Michaelangelo’s dome

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's dome and Bernini's Baldachin at St. Peter's Basilica

Michaelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s Baldachin at St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's Pieta

Michaelangelo’s Pieta

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

 

At the nearby Vatican Museums, I push my way through crowds of sweat-soaked tourists to see some of the world’s most treasured relics and masterpieces collected by the Popes over the centuries. Exhibits, which run along about 9 miles of halls and galleries, include classical sculptures, Etruscan bronzes, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and modern paintings and even Egyptian mummies. The vast complex of museums was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and expanded by the succeeding pontiffs as the collections grew. Craning my neck from gallery to gallery, I try to absorb as much art as I can. Besides the Sistene Chapel, the most popular rooms inside the Vatican Museums are, without doubt, Raphael’s Rooms. The chambers are famous for their frescoed walls and ceilings, painted by Raphael himself who was commissioned by Popes Julius II and Leo X. In one of the rooms, everyone’s eyes are glued on a masterpiece called The School of Athens as a tour guide enumerates some whimsical details about it. The painting is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from different periods and places. What’s amusing about it is that Raphael painted the faces of himself and his colleagues Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante and Michaelangelo in there. After basking in its magnificence, I feel warmed up and ready for the Sistene Chapel.

inside the Vatican Museum

ancient sculptures at  the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

Raphael's Room

Raphael’s Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael's Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael’s Room

School of Athens, Raphael's masterpiece

School of Athens, Raphael’s masterpiece

“SILENZIO!” The guard’s deep, terrifying voice resonates throughout the sacred room, causing a hush to fall over hundreds of excited mouths. I squeeze myself between awestruck tourists, my eyes dashing upon every inch of the breathtaking art on the walls and vaulted ceiling. The challenge is deciding where to stand to take it all in. A remnant from the glorious era of Renaissance, the Sistene Chapel is home to two of the world’s most celebrated artworks: Michaelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his Giudizio Universale or The Last Judgment (1535-1541). This is also the place where the conclave gathers to elect a new pope. Racking my brains, I try to identify which biblical events are depicted on the ceiling frescoes, which glow rich and vibrant in the low light. In this heady series of paintings, Michaelangelo interpreted nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the creation of the earth, creation of Man, the fall of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. On the altar wall below, Michaelangelo painted a chilling interpretation of the Last Judgment. The painting shows Jesus Christ, who stands in the center, passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are snatched out of their graves. The saved are able to enter the gates of heaven while the damned are thrown to the fires of hell. One disturbing part of the masterpiece, as one tour guide quietly points out, is that Michaelangelo painted himself as a soul on his way to eternal damnation.

Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Discovering the Ancient City

Wandering through the ancient streets, I scrunch up the baffling map and stuff it in my pocket. My sense of adventure tells me that every corner of this once-mighty empire has a hidden surprise- a naked statue of a mystical god, an Egyptian obelisk, an unknown fountain chipped from pale stone or an excavation revealing the remains from antiquity. As I walk further away from Vatican City, an imposing cylindrical building looms into view, towering over the Tiber River. A horse-drawn open carriage passes by, the click-clack of the horse’s hooves making monotonous beats on the pavement. Lavished with precious marbles and statues of angels, the Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a monumental tomb for himself and his family. According to legend, the name “Castel Sant’ Angelo” dates back to the day when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw Archangel Michael on top of the mausoleum, wiping blood from this sword. The succeeding emperors eventually used the mausoleum as a defensive bastion during the barbarian invasions, and when it was passed on to the hands of the pontiffs, Pope Boniface IX turned it into a papal residence, fortress and prison. An underground passage is said to connect it to the Vatican.

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

wandering through the narrow streets

wandering through the narrow streets

Following a labyrinthine alley not far from the castle, I come across a bustling piazza (square), cocooned by old buildings of orange, lemon yellow and peach and bedecked with fine statues with a distinct, familiar style. The garlicky aromas of pizza and pasta roll on the soft summer breeze as nearby open-air restaurants call out for customers. Perhaps nothing is more quintessential Roman than Piazza Navona, which was built on the site where the Stadium of Domitian once stood. The piazza’s centerpiece is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a 17th century fountain adorned with a towering obelisk and four giant Bernini sculptures representing the great rivers of Ganges, Nile, Danube and Plate. Directly opposite the baroque fountain is the Church of Sant’ Agnes in Agose, built in the 17th century by an acclaimed Italian architect, Francesco Borromini. Once the performance space of jugglers, acrobats and mock naval battle actors, the square maintains its lively atmosphere with a continuous festival of painters, caricaturists and street performers. I find myself a quiet corner in a café. Piazza Navona is the perfect place to have a gelato break after a long, exhausting walk.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

Strolling past countless piazzas and heavily statued churches and fountains, I find an ancient-looking temple tucked between modern apartment buildings and restaurants. Supported by thick granite Corinthian columns, the Pantheon has survived unscathed for almost 2,000 years, though according to stories its marble facing and gilded bronze roof tiles were stripped off and used to embellish St. Peter’s Basilica centuries ago. Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself as a tribute to the planetary gods, the semicircular temple has a coffered 43-meter dome with a central opening that lets the sunlight in. Tourists flood continually through the massive bronze doors and shuffle about, their flag-carrying tour guides beckoning them to the gravesite of Raphael, a celebrated Italian architect and painter who requested to be buried inside the building. The Pantheon has been functioning as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs since the 7th Century.

the Pantheon

the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I disappear among the hundreds of tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain. Among the hordes are different groups of people- young lovers canoodling and basking in the romance of the ancient edifice, friends giggling and posing for selfies, families with parents keeping a hawk eye on their toddlers. Excited, I shoulder my way to the center to behold the baroque fountain I have seen countless times in movies. The famous Trevi Fountain dates back to the ancient times when the 22-kilometer aqueduct, named Aqua Virgo or Virgin Waters to honor the young girl who discovered the water source, was built in 19 BC to provide water to the hot baths and the fountains of central Rome. Embedded into the façade of Pallazo Poli, the fountain is embellished with a handful of fine sculptures. In the center is the statue of Oceanus, the Roman God of the Sea, standing under a triumphal arch. Two sea horses, one wild and one docile to represent the opposing moods of the sea, are pulling his shell chariot. Leading them are two Tritons, one whistling on a shell as if to announce their arrival. I am interrupted from my contemplation by an affectionate couple who wants their photo taken, and I happily oblige. Behind them are people throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Legend says that tossing a coin will guarantee your return to Rome, and if you toss a second coin, you will fall in love with an Italian. I sit on a cold stone bench for hours and wait for the crowds to vanish into the early evening shadows before grabbing a few coins from my pocket. While a couple of days may be enough to peek into the main attractions and the Roman way of life, I certainly wouldn’t mind returning to a historic city that has been perfecting beauty and the arts since the ancient times.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

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fountain near the Spanish Steps

fountain near the Spanish Steps

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when in Rome, eat like a Roman (or a Gladiator)

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you can’t go wrong with Pasta when you are in Italy

Top 5 Things To Do In Paris

Paris at night

Paris at night

Musee du Louvre at night

Musee du Louvre at night

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

sidewalk bookstore

sidewalk bookstore

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

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a street musician

a street musician

1.) See the Eiffel Tower at night

Ditching my backpack at a graffiti-covered hostel with cracked front door glass, I rush out to catch a Metro to the Eiffel Tower. To see the iconic landmark, especially at night, has to be anyone’s first order of business in the City of Lights. As I step out of the carriage, the streets are in full swing. Chicly dressed tourists saunter on the sidewalk. Brasseries are filled with men and women deep in wine and conversation. Then I see it, a wondrous vision bathed in ethereal, golden light. The Eiffel Tower soars a thousand feet into the sky, looking like a sparkling rocket of iron lacework. I pause to admire its imposing presence. How on earth did I get lucky?

It is hard to imagine that Parisians were initially against it. In 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Engineer Gustave Alexandre Eiffel completed this elegant, 320-meter tall signature skyscraper as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair. It was publicly denounced as useless and monstrous by a group of artists and intellectuals, and was already scheduled for demolition in 1909 until the government saw its potential as a transmitter of telegraph and converted it into a grand science laboratory for radio communications and weather research. Over the years, research and innovations conducted at the Eiffel Tower have brought dramatic payoffs, saving it from becoming a pile of scrap. During World War I, for instance, the French Army used the tower to intercept the German communications, which led to the arrest of a notorious spy. Today, the Eiffel Tower attracts around seven million visitors each year, making it the most visited paid for attraction in the world.

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your truly :)

your truly 🙂

2.) Douse yourself in art at the Louvre Museum

The grandeur of Musee du Louvre is impossible to ignore. Lining up to enter the massive glass pyramid at the center of the courtyard, I let my eyes survey the palace buildings around the museum, moving across its ornate walls and intricately carved pediments inch by inch. Set into the stone facade high above the ground are statues of angels and noted French scholars, looking like stalwart guardians of the palace, which was originally built as a fortress by King Philippe-Auguste in 1190. In the 16th century, it was reconstructed into a royal residence, and was expanded many times to become the astounding palace that it is today. When King Louis XIV moved his household to Chateau Versailles in the 17th century, the Louvre became a grand museum that exhibited the royal collection and artifacts.

My predicament is that an entire day seems insufficient for the staggering collection inside the museum. Besides masterpieces from neighboring countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Louvre also houses artworks from Africa and the Middle East. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in the 18th century, he demanded art pieces from the countries he conquered. Acclaimed paintings, Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, each piece silently tells a story of the bygone era’s opulence and tragedy.

With strained eyes and aching feet, I follow the signs pointing to the mysterious lady who attracts nearly 10 million visitors each year. Deep into the endless labyrinth of paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” sits behind a bulletproof glass, flanked by guards. She is lovely; her enigmatic smile fades and reappears, depending on my viewpoint. She is much smaller than everyone thinks she is, only 21 by 30 inches, but inarguably the most famous among the 35,000 artworks displayed inside the world’s largest museum. I would pay much more to see her in solitude, but with a crowd constantly battling for a good photo with her, I know it is one hopeless wish.

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Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo's masterpiece inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo’s masterpiece inside the Louvre

yours truly :)

yours truly 🙂

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3.) Climb the bell tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Without blinking an eye, I try to figure out which biblical events are depicted by the intricate carvings on the three large portals of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I only recognize two: the resurrection of Jesus and the coronation of the Virgin Mary. The angry-looking gargoyles perched atop the bell towers seem displeased at my ignorance. At the center of the façade, a large rose forms a halo around the sculpture of the Holy Mother, who carries the baby Jesus and is flanked by two angels. I join the queue at the entrance, stealing glances at the statues of Israelite kings carved right above the portals.

Soaring 223 feet into the sky, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, a style that originated in France during the Middle Ages and is characterized by pointed arcs, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. The construction of the edifice began in 1163, under the reign of Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. The grand Cathedral has played host to many religious ceremonies and historical events, such as the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804, the wedding of King Henry IV to Margaret of Valois in 1572 and the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920.

Inside, I stroll along the pews, oftentimes pausing to admire the curves and contours of the vaulted ceilings and the elaborate carvings of the Stations of the Cross. In a rainbow burst of colors, the stained glass windows above filter the sunshine through images of Jesus, the Apostles, saints and martyrs.

Puffing heavy breaths as I climb up the tower, I somehow keep a lookout for a hunchbacked man moping in a dark corner near the 300-year old bell. The Cathedral’s imposing towers became legend because of 19th century novelist Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1829 with the intent of saving the gothic church from neglect and demolition. Of course, there is no monstrous man at the tower, just statues of grimacing demons and chimeras staring out into the city, petrified over time. Expecting a nice bird’s eye view of the city, I am not disappointed. The tower perhaps has the best view of Paris, and I can clearly see the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

yours truly

yours truly

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

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view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

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4.) Indulge in some royal scandal at Chateau Versailles

“King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Therese were actually first cousins,” says a tour guide in her thick French accent, eliciting gasps of shock from a group of Asians. I run my fingers on the pink marble walls of the Grand Trianon, an elegantly proportioned single-storey mansion located near the main palace of Versailles. Outside, geometrically arranged beds of orange and purple flowers nod and sway in the light breeze. “King Louis XIV housed one of his mistresses, Madame de Montespan, here at the Grand Trianon. Rumor has it that he also had an affair with his brother’s wife!” the guide continues, raising a finger across her lips.

For the French peasants in the 17th and 18th century, the Chateau Versailles was an offensive display of opulence and power. In 1661, King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a grand palace and gardens, with the intent of creating a place where his court could live under his watchful eye. So costly it nearly wiped out the treasury of France, the apartments of the palace are lavished with countless paintings and sculptures, velvet draperies, carpets, gilded bronze, chandeliers and large mirrors, which were staggeringly expensive back then. The Chateau Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682, when King Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre, until 1789, when the royal family was forced to return to central Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution. Three generations of self-glorifying kings lived here: Louis XIV, XV and XVI, each spinning their own brand of scandals that fueled the public hatred, which eventually led to the decapitation of the youngest Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Chateau Versailles

Chateau Versailles

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

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Chateau Versailles

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Chateau Versailles

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

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ornate walls and ceiling inside the Chateau Versailles

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chapel inside the Versailles Palace

chapel inside the Versailles Palace

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

royal portraits

royal portraits

the Grand Trianon

the Grand Trianon

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Grand Trianon

Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

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Versailles gardens

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outside the Versailles Palace

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5.) Retrace the steps of Hemingway and Picasso in Montmarte

Deftly moving the bow across the strings, a grizzly old violinist in a dirty beret serenades strollers on a crowded street in Montmartre. Tourists munching on overpriced crepes line the staircase that reaches up to the sparkling white Basilica of Sacre Couer, whose domes curve like women’s breasts pointing to the sky. I make my way up the hill to find Place du Tertre, a small square frequented by Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway during the decadent years of Post WWI Paris.

Montmartre is a large hill on the outskirts of Paris known for the white-domed basilica on its summit and as a nightclub district. At the beginning of the twentieth century, flocks of artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso had studios here because of the low rent and the congenial atmosphere. The neighborhood also fueled the creative fires of expatriate writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, who was so enamored with Paris he wrote a few books about it.

Today, artists are banished to outdoor sheds because of skyrocketing rent. Art studios have been replaced with gaudy nightclubs, souvenir stores and sex shops that sell unimaginable things. Past a street of pimps who discreetly invite passersby for a “boom boom”, I find the legendary Moulin Rouge, a cabaret known for its extravagant circus-like shows and overflowing champagne. Here, courtesans in exotic feathered costumes popularized the can-can dance, a high-energy dance that involves high kicks, jump splits and cartwheels. The Moulin Rouge eventually became a symbol of Paris’ exciting nightlife during its most glorious years, when arts and festivities combined and life was all about beauty and pleasure.

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

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OTHER PLACES TO SEE IN PARIS:

St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

St Chapelle's gate

St Chapelle’s gate

Arc De Triomphe

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Musee d’Orsay

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D’Orsay

outside Musee D'Orsay

outside Musee D’Orsay

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

 

a Claude Monet painting

a Claude Monet painting

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Claude Monet’s

Claude Monet's painting

Claude Monet’s painting

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Roadtrip to Sahara

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

hilltop villages

hilltop villages

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Innumerable stars scatter across the heavens like diamond dust on a blanket of total blackness. Some are dull, merely flickering into existence, but many are brilliant enough to illuminate the dark, moonless night. Occasionally across the quiet panorama, a meteor plummets; usually faint, glimpsed only from the eye’s periphery, gone before it registers in my brain. Suddenly, from the campfire in the middle of the desert echoes the deep and melodious plucking of the ginbri and the clashing of the qarqaba, blending with the soulful voices of our Africans guides. For a moment I am whisked away from reality by a magic carpet, which takes me on a whirlwind ride over the gigantic dunes of the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara, which is Arabic for “the greatest desert”, is indeed the world’s largest hot desert, covering 9 million square kilometers, or about 31% of Africa. It covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. The desert is one of the driest and hottest spots in the world, with temperature soaring as high as 58 degrees Celsius. Practically uninhabitable, although there is a small group of livestock-raising nomads called the Tuareg who lives on its outer edges.

Day 1

As the sweltering madness of Marrakech begins to wear me out, I hop into a van with ten other backpackers from different continents and set off for the Sahara. Tapping our fingers to the African beats on the radio, we drive through dusty roads that snake from imperial Marrakech to rusty red hillside villages that camouflage the mountains. The scenery mutates at every bend; one moment cliffs, the next vast landscape peppered with bald acacia trees and date palms. Quintessential Africa. Some twelve kilometers from Marrakech we reach the beginning of the Atlas Mountain chain, where we drive past biblical-looking Berbers pulling on the lead of their donkeys and tending to their sheep. Some are perched on the roadside, surrounded by shelves of tagines and brightly colored plates for sale. The Berbers, I find out, are the indigenous North Africans who were forced to move to the Atlas Mountains during the Arab invasion in the 7th century. Occasionally we pull over at roadside cliffs a thousand meters above the ground to stretch our legs and to oooh and aaah at the breathtaking sceneries.

Berber villages

Berber villages

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

The sun is hammering its fiery red fists on our head when we arrive in Ouarzazate, where we find a crumbling walled village that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. And I am right, our guide Youssef confirms that the ancient village of Ait-Benhaddou, which layers its way up a hillside, indeed backdropped the popular TV show and a string of movies including Gladiator, Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Sweat is pouring from my head down into my eyes as I climb up the streets to the granary on the hilltop, but the view of the palmeraie, the stony desert that stretches out to infinity and the russet mud house village below is a breathtaking novelty (at least for me). Recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site and a striking example of Southern Moroccan architecture, Ait-Benhaddou is massive fortification which has six kasbahs (citadels)and around fifty ksours (mud houses), all built using local organic materials and covered with thick red mud plaster. It is believed that the village was founded in 757 AD when merchants from Sudan and the imperial cities of Morocco used the site as a trading post. The locals took advantage of the bustle along the trade route and earned a living by offering food and shelter to travelling merchants. The presence of valuable goods such as gold and spices attracted bandits, so high defensive walls were also built around the village. Today, only six families remain in Ait-Benhaddou as most of its inhabitants have moved to the modern town across the river.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

the granary at Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Youssef then takes us to a house where his friend Ahmed delightfully receives us with sweet Moroccan mint tea, poured high above our cups in a streaming waterfall. “We call this the Berber whiskey,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. I suddenly remember those aggressive merchants in Marrakesh, who try to hook their prospective customers with tea and sweet talk. Is Ahmed going to sell us rugs? Caftans? Or maybe there is no motive at all, just genuine hospitality. After a cheerful banter with the group, Ahmed asks his daughter to show us how to spin combed wool into yarn, which they use to weave carpets. I knew it! Halfway through our tea, brightly colored carpets made of camel and sheep wools come flying onto the floor. Ahmed spreads carpet after carpet for our perusal. “No obligation to buy. Just take a look,” he says. To be fair, the carpets have a topnotch quality- thick fibers, closely knitted and intricate designs. “Sometimes it takes almost a year to finish one,” he continues. There are two problems though: First, we’re all stringent “carry-on only” backpackers and second, the carpets are too expensive. I’d certainly feel terrible haggling for a gorgeous carpet, which took his poor daughter eight months to finish. So we politely decline, walk away before any on us succumb to his insistence and disappear into a roadside hostel to spend the night.

having tea with a Berber family

having tea with a Berber family

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a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

Day 2

Early morning the following day, we are zig-zagging on the road and zooming past red adobe towns strewn with goats, sheep and donkeys. Vast farmlands dotted with pomegranate trees and olive groves roll up into red and mauve barren hills. Despite the wind whipping up clouds of dust that gets into my eyes, I do not dare blink and miss a roadside scenery. Soon, massive orange limestone cliffs push out of the ground toward the sky, engulfing us in every direction. Gravity-defying boulders stack up threateningly on the hillside, looking like they’ll crumble on us anytime. Arriving at Todra Gorge has me gawking in awe, with half my body out the window to make sure I absorb the details of this grand visual symphony. At the foot of the towering rock walls is the Todra River, which has now dried up a little and is crowded with partially submerged children trying to escape the blistering summer heat. It is said that the river and the harsh weather conditions have sculpted the rock walls into the landscape over time. Walking along the gorge, I see a man in a fedora bursting out of a crevice on a horse (cue in the Indiana Jones music). Some locals here actually offer horseback riding activities to reenact the adventures of Indiana Jones.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

After soaking up on the glorious scenery, we drive a few more hours along a rugged terrain, which eventually smoothens out into fine sand. Then we see it! Wavering above the scorching desert horizon, as if yearning for rain, are the golden-orange peaks of the gigantic dunes, flawless and velvety against the brilliant blue sky. Finally, we have arrived at the legendary Sahara Desert! The Sahara Desert represents those exotic places that I only heard of from my father’s car stereo or read about in encyclopedias when I was a child, so actually seeing it is beyond surreal.

It is too hot to do anything other than sit in the shade and stare into the distance as we wait for the camels to take us to our camp. The wind sculpts Zen waves in the dunes, erasing bird and human footprints. We excitedly swath our heads with thick and colorful tagelmust (turbans), which the Tuaregs use to protect themselves from the blasts of biting sand during the day and for warmth when the temperature plunges at night. Soon, our Bedouin guides beckon us to hop on the camels, whose legs splay out in the sand like cars with flat tires. Our camel procession starts barely an hour before dusk when the sun, round and full like a giant yolk about to be pricked, casts a gorgeous pattern of dark shadows and golden highlights on the sand. Up and down the towering dunes we go, gripping on to the handlebars for our lives while trying to comprehend the size of the magnificent desert, which rolls out as far as the eyes can see.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

The deep blue sky fades into soft mauve when we arrive at the campsite. Expecting only shabby tents to shelter us for the night, we are surprised to find large tents draped in lush fabrics and fully decked out with king-size beds, mattresses, Berber carpets, toilets and bathrooms. Shortly, we are served with chobbes (round Moroccan bread) and a piping hot buffet of couscous, vegetable salad and beef tagine. Chatter ceases and a gratified silence descends as we eat hungrily to the last morsel. Hardly do we know that the day is far from over. The Sahara may be breathtaking by day but by night, it is out of this world. A phenomenal blanket of stars bedecks the heavens and the Milky Way sweeps its arc across the center. Soon, our guides, who coax us to sing and clap with them, serenade us with their anthems. We gather around a bonfire and let the hypnotic beats of African music chase the silence away.

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

vegetable couscous for dinner

vegetable couscous for dinner

Getting There:

For arranged tours to Sahara Desert, please visit www.discovermorocco-tours.com.

 

Sweet Escape To Siargao

(Published in Manila Bullettin on July 10, 2016 http://www.mb.com.ph/on-cloud-9/ )

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

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Sugba Lagoon

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Guyam Island

As I clamber over the jagged cliff, my legs shake uncontrollably. The Magpupungko tide pool’s depth and clarity are far from scary, but the thought of a potential injury makes my heart thump like a trapped wild animal, desperate to escape. What if I miscalculate my jump and slam my head on the steep rock wall before plummeting into the water? I watch children before me leap off the rocks effortlessly and splash into the lucent water below. Children! I am in fear of a disaster that has never occurred beyond the realm of my annoyingly creative imagination. “Go on, jump!” a boy with sun-bleached hair prods, trying to stifle his laughter at my awkward position. Don’t you dare be a wimp and embarrass yourself in front of the children, my subconscious berates me. The cool summer breeze feels like needles upon my bare skin. I shut my eyes, gather my breath to murmur a pathetic prayer and plunge into the pool.

Magpupungko Tide Pool

Magpupungko Tide Pool

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tida Flats

Kissed by the sun and sculpted by the massive barreling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the small, teardrop-shaped island of Siargao stands brave-faced just off the coast of Surigao Del Norte, a province in the northernmost part of Mindanao. Siargao is considered the surfing Mecca of the country, with waves averaging 7 feet during the last quarter of the year, attracting surfers from all over the world. But there’s more to the island than adrenalin-inducing waves. It is also blessed with postcard-perfect beaches, enchanting lagoons, caves, lush coral reefs, bizarre rock formations and expansive mangrove reserves.

Towards the end of the two-hour boat ride from the town of General Luna, we catch sight of broccoli-shaped limestone hills and gray bluffs sprouting with lush plant life. They sit mirrored amid the stillness of the clear emerald waters. We are at Sugba Lagoon in the town of Del Carmen on the western part of Siargao. I ask the boatman why the place is called Sugba, which means “to barbeque” in Visayan. “This used to be a hideaway of fisher folks. Here, they’d gather to grill their catch and have a few drinks,” he says. Our chatter is interrupted by a startling cry above the forest canopy on the opposite bank. “That’s the resident White-Breasted Eagle!” the boatman blurts out excitedly. The majestic bird circles against the clear blue skies with measured wing flaps before landing on a high branch and, as we watch, it dawns on us that it is building a nest.

A two-story wooden house, which was built by the local government to cater to visitors, rises up from the placid waters. Besides the lady caretaker, whom we ask to grill the meat and fish we bought at the public market earlier, there is no one at the house when we arrive. My friends and I rush to the second floor veranda to admire the gorgeous vista of the lagoon from a higher vantage point. “Can we spend the rest of the day here?” someone in the group asks, completely enamored with the scenery. Without thinking twice, we cancel our plan to visit other islands in the afternoon. I check out the empty hall behind the glass sliding doors. Here, guests can spend the night if they wish to. The hall has large glass windows that extend to the floor, flaunting a view of the lagoon on both sides.

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

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lunch in Sugba Lagoon

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snorkeling in Sugba Lagoon

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We snorkel to our hearts’ content and swim with the stingless Spotted Jelly, which can only be seen during the summer months. Before sunset, we head back to General Luna, where we rent a motorbike to explore the island’s nightlife. Our grumbling tummies lead us to Mama’s Grill, a rustic and unassuming open-air eatery, which according to locals and tourists has the best barbeque in the island. After an hour of waiting in a long line, we find out what the fuss is about. The impeccable balance of the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth grilled meat and its sweet, spicy sauce is indeed to-die-for. We could’ve driven past the restaurant, but the horde of customers outside, mostly foreign tourists, is impossible to miss.

Mama's Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted :)

Mama’s Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted 🙂

Siargao Island’s motto is pretty simple and straightforward: Eat, Surf, Sleep, Repeat. Travelers from all over the world come here to surf, only to be smitten with the island’s charm. Many have decided to stay indefinitely when they discovered that there’s more to Siargao than enormous waves. Among them is Pal Martenson, a Swedish man who owns Villa Solaria, the lovely 2000 sq. meter resort where we are staying. Pal recalls how he fell in love with the island and its people when he visited two and a half years ago. “The people here are friendly and beautiful and they take care of each other,” he says fondly. When the property was offered to him two years ago, he knew he’d regret for the rest of his life if he passed it up.

Welcoming guests in a lush garden setting, Villa Solaria is a three-minute motorcycle ride to Cloud 9, the island’s primary surfing spot. It is perfect for solo backpackers, couples and big groups. Here, Php 300 a night can get you a cozy bunk bed and vibrant, sun-worshipping globetrotters for neighbors. Those who come in large groups can choose among the six two-story thatched bungalows that could fit up to 5 people, the most expensive priced at only Php 2,000 per night. Not bad at all! To keep his guests entertained, Pal regularly organizes island hopping, diving, running and fishing activities. He also offers all-inclusive surf packages for both amateurs and professionals.

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bunk beds in Villa Solaria

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Pal Martenson, owner of Villa Solaria

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Lit by the orange glow of sunrise, a gorgeous speck of land in the middle of the sea catches our attention. We are standing against the bobbing of the boat as we approach Naked Island. Fittingly, the islet is devoid of any structures or trees, save for a few patches of grass that have pretty purple flowers. We have the islet to ourselves when we arrive, and the rare solitude and freedom in a popular destination bring out the audacious adventurer in us. “Let’s go skinny dipping!” somebody in the group suggests. “Seriously?” another asks. “Yes!” I have always wondered how it felt to swim au naturel. I think this would make a hilarious Instagram post- Naked in Naked Island! Kicking cool sand along the way, we run to the other side of the islet where we are partially concealed by an elevated mound of sand, pull off our clothes and dive into the clear turquoise water.

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

Naked Island

Naked Island

As the sun drags itself above the horizon, we move to the nearby Guyam Island, a privately owned shape-shifting islet that is less than a hundred meters in length. Aptly, guyam means “small” in Visayan. It is quite stunning from afar: gorgeous white sand, sparkling waters, swaying coconut and Talisay trees, a handful of wooden cottages and razor-sharp rock formations on one side. Quiet and uninhabited, Guyam Island seems like the perfect place to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

There is sand all over our hair and the skin on our back have grown red and taut. We are catching our breath in heavy sighs after several failed attempts to do acroyoga in thesweltering heat. I may have mastered the art of blissfully contorting and doing #YogaEveryDamnDay poses against stunning beaches and sunsets, but the simplest acroyoga pose is not as easy as it looks. Daku Island would’ve made a perfect backdrop for one, making our Instagram friends drool with envy. The largest among the three islands, Daku Island is home to a small fishing community living contentedly in the absence of materialistic distractions and pollutants. Nestled under sweeping coconut trees, a cluster of wooden cottages invites us to bask in the gorgeous view of the sea and the nearby islands. We decide to drop our ambitious acroyoga “photo shoot” and soon, we are gulping down ice-cold soda and brushing Cheetos dust from our fingers. Our next challenge is to stay awake. It is difficult to when all we hear are the soothing cadence of the crashing waves, the rustling of the palms and the birdsong.

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

It is noon and a slow hour at Cloud 9 when we arrive. A few surfers walk lazily along the shore. The waves are small and the tide is low, treacherously exposing razor-sharp corals and sunbaked rocks on the seabed. Feeling lethargic after finishing a pan of three-layer pizza at Aventino’s, we decide to languish by the viewing deck at the end of the long wooden ramp. Cloud 9 is the most popular break in the island, and this is where the action usually happens. Several international surfing competitions are held here during the months of August until November, attracting surfers all the way from the United States, Europe, Australia and Indonesia.

Aventino's three-layer pizza

Aventino’s three-layer pizza

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Surfing in Cloud 9

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The waves haven’t picked up and after a long lull, our surfing coach takes us to the nearby Rock Island, named after a massive outcrop of rock rising up from the swirling waters. It is the surfers’ playground at low tide. After a quick lesson on standing up and balancing on the surfboard, we paddle into the current. Soon, our coach signals us to pop up and ride the incoming wave. Keep your weight centered on the board, my coach’s instruction reverberates in my head. In one quick motion I jump up in a crouch, arms stretched and feet wide, only to be tipped over as the wave’s peak begins to crash. The waves knock me over countless times. God! Surfing is not as easy as it looks. Standing centered on the board was so much easier on the sand earlier. My friends, on the other hand, are doing much better. They appear effortless as they glide along the crest of the wave. On my final attempt, I manage to stay upright on the board until the wave dissipates. I scream and wave my arms up and down excitedly as if I have just won the Surfing Cup. This must be how it feels to be “stoked”.

surfing in Rock Island

surfing in Rock Island

Surfer or not, anyone who visits Siargao won’t run out of things to relish. Inarguably, the friendly faces everywhere and the charming, relaxed atmosphere of surf living and beach bumming have made this tiny and sun-drenched island irresistible for so long.

 

Getting There:

1.)  By Plane– Cebu Pacific flies directly to Siargao (Sayak Airport) from Cebu.

2.)   By Ferry- Go to the main pier of Surigao City and ride a Roll-on-Roll-off vessel to Dapa Port in Siargao Island. The earliest boat departs at 6 am and the latest at 12 noon. Travel time is 3.5 hours

 

Where To Stay:

Villa Solaria

Tuazon Point, Brgy. Catangnan,

8419 General Luna, Siargao Island

Surigao Del Norte

http://www.villasolaria.surf/

Email: villa_solaria@yahoo.com

09204077730

 

5 Reasons To Go Camping in Balabac

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

the whitest and finest san in Ph

the whitest and finest san in Ph

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

breathtaking water in Onuk Island

breathtaking water in Onuk Island

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Lit by the kaleidoscopic glow of sunset, a bright white egret wades along the edges of the ebbing water, occasionally flicking its wings forward over its head as it hunts for its prey. The tide has abandoned the shore, uncovering swathes of velvety white sand that seem to stretch out to infinity. All is quiet except for the spirited chatter of migratory birds among the pine trees.

Nature is raw and alive at the tip of the Philippine’s last frontier. Tucked away in the south-westernmost part of Palawan, the Balabac Group of Islands is composed of 31 unspoiled islands and 20 small villages that thrive on fishing and seaweed farming. It is a peaceful home to the Palaw-an, a Manobo-based linguistic group, and the Molbog, a Muslim ethno-linguistic group that is believed to be its earliest inhabitants. Getting there is a tedious eight-hour journey, and the absence of resort facilities has attracted only hell-bent travelers who don’t mind roughing it just to see the country’s finest beaches and clearest waters.

Here are 5 reasons to pack your camping essentials and go.

1.) Punta Sebaring has the finest and whitest sand among the beaches in the country.

The rich whistling songs of the Orioles and the warm golden-hued rays of sunrise awaken you. You slip out of your tent to enjoy a quiet stroll along the beach while everyone else is still asleep. On one side of you is an evergreen mass of conifer trees, on the other the cerulean of the slothful sea. Under your bare feet is sand, white sand- consistently soft and silky it feels like you are walking on a carpet of baby powder. You are in Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island; you have found the Mecca of white-sand beaches.

In the morning when the tide is low, the rippled shore extends quite far out until it disappears into the sparkling shallows. The entire island is a 119 square kilometer stretch of immaculate white sand where you bask on to a crisp all day.

Punta Sebaring has the finest sand among the beaches in the country.

Punta Sebaring has the finest sand among the beaches in the country.

Bugsuk Island

Bugsuk Island

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Sunrise in Punta Sebar

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

2.) Its waters are the clearest you’ll ever see.

In the excitement you blurt out profanities when you see the waters surrounding Onuk Island. The panorama unfolding in front of you is heart swelling. You gawk, wanting to completely absorb every single detail of its beauty. The water is incredibly clear you could see the boat’s shadow on the seabed below. Sitting on the outrigger’s bow, you easily spot some hawksbill and green sea turtles gliding away, shunning the attention. The boatman is right; your snorkels are practically useless when you reach the island because the water’s clarity extends as far as the eyes can see. On a lucky day, you are told, one can even see dolphins and whale sharks in the underwater cliff wall nearby.

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3.) It is nice to be unplugged from the rest of the world once in a while.

Balabac disconnects you from the rest of the world. Mobile connection is bad and you are forced to put your phone away. Your Instagram followers must be eagerly waiting for your beach yoga photos by now. You don’t even know what day or time it is, but by the funfair of barbecued aromas wafting through the air and the sun’s heat, which bakes you like a potato in an oven, you could tell the day is approaching high noon. You continue floating about in your plastic raft, bobbing up and down in the incoming tide.

You and your fellow campers, who you instantly click with, break the afternoon’s serenity with endless banters and rambunctious laughter. You are laughing so hard you are clutching your sides when somebody in the group pretends to flirt and throw himself at his crush. Sometimes not one in the group knows what exactly is so funny, you all simply laugh. What you know, however, is that it feels great to laugh without constraint and be away from your daily stressors.

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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Team Baklabac :)

Team Baklabac 🙂

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4.) Balabac has a rich biodiversity.

It doesn’t take you much tiptoeing and stalking to spot that peculiar-looking bird on the high branch of a Talisay tree. You are in Palawan, a vast reserve of natural beauty and tremendous biodiversity. Here, songs of more than 200 kinds of birds permeate the air. Some ten of those are endemic to Balabac, including the Philippine Cockatoo, Nicobar Pigeon, Grey Imperial Pigeon, Blue-headed Racket Tail and the Palawan Hornbill.

A globally significant number of flora and fauna can be found in Balabac. Among these are the Philippine Mousedeers, scaly anteater, estuarine crocodiles, 30 coral species, 440 reef fish species and more than 60 mangrove species. Migratory species like tuna, sea turtles, whales, sharks and dolphins also dwell within its waters.

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5.) Camping in Balabac teaches you a lesson in simplicity and gratitude.

As the sun scorches you to a toast, you wish you had an ice-cold soda and Cheetos in hand. Too bad the nearest sari-sari store is two islands away, (You bet your life they don’t sell Cheetos in there!) so you reach for that sun-warmed bottle of water and Rebisco crackers you have been ignoring for days. The biscuit doesn’t taste bad at all, the briny tang of the sea breeze mingles with it. Or maybe it’s the deprivation talking.

Life in the island is as simple as it can get. A local’s hectic day involves hanging his seaweed harvests on bamboo poles to dry, or scraping dry coconut meat out of the shell. Devoid of electricity, the island’s music comes from the coos and whistles of migratory birds. Nights are best spent on meaningful conversations with your new friends under the starlit skies.

You eventually forget about that ice-cold Coke and find contentment in fresh coconut water. Everything around you makes you realize that the simplest pleasures bring the most joy and relaxation. And when you have to fetch pails of water from a nearby well at midnight because there is none in the toilet (Must be the raw sea urchins you ate. Oh, the things you put in your mouth!), you realize that not having a hot shower isn’t the worst thing in life. Here, whatever you don’t have, find a way to do without. Most importantly, you learn to appreciate and be grateful for the little luxuries you have at home.

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Palaw-an kids

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seaweeds left to dry under the sun

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Fish left to dry under the sun

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Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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yours truly

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Getting There:

1.)  Since most of the islands are privately owned, you have to coordinate with the owners prior to the visit. Carlos Renato Principe owns Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island. You may contact him at 09291403125.

2.)  From Puerto Princesa City, go to San Jose Terminal and ride a van going to Rio Tuba. Travel time is 4-5 hours. Make sure you arrive in Rio Tuba before 10 am. Fare is Php 450.

3.)  At the Rio Tuba Port, ride a boat to Balabac mainland. Travel time is 3 hours. The only boat to Balabac leaves at 12 nn, but could be earlier depending on the number of passengers. Fare is Php 250.

Expenses:

6 Days/5 Nights Package(full-board meals, island hopping)-Php 7,500

Airfare from Manila to Puerto Princesa vvPhp 1,200

Van ride from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba vv– Php 800

2-night hotel accommodation in Puerto Princesa- Php 700

Meals in Puerto Princesa Php 500

TOTAL- Php 10,700

Tokyo On The Cheap

Shibuya Crossing3

Shibuya Crossing

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

There’s not a scrap of usable Japanese word in my pocket-sized notebook to help us explain our conundrum. After pointing on the map our planned destination, the gentle-faced policeman gives us a confusing instruction full of hand gestures. We nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. One thing is certain; we’d inadvertently gotten on the wrong train to Asakusa.

A Tokyo first-timer is bound to get lost. With intricate piles of overlapping routes, the map of the train stations looks like a bowl of tangled ramen noodles. “Check the color,” the policeman says, pertaining to the color-coded subway lines on the map. You see, there are at least three different companies that run the city’s train system, and each company has several lines. To add complexity, some trains even operate on the tracks of other companies. Perhaps doubtful that he made himself sufficiently clear, he beckons us to follow him all the way down to a long tunnel that leads to the next terminal station. “Wait for your train here,” he smiles with an unfeigned effort to catch his breath. After bombarding him with “arigatou”, we hop on the next train, eager to explore the world’s largest metropolis.

Day 1: Asakusa and Akihibara

“Coming through! Coming Through!” A young shafu (rickshaw driver) wearing a brown happi coat and zori sandals rushes past the crowd at the iconic Kaminarimon Gate, pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with high-perch seats called the jinrikisha (rickshaw). There are several shafu near the gate, sometimes yelling to attract prospective passengers. A popular method of transportation during the late 1800’s, the jinrikisha completes the old-world ambience of Asakusa, Tokyo’s leading entertainment district before World War II. Tourists flock to Asakusa to see ancient temples, shrines and other historic structures wedged between modern buildings and bustling streets.

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa sidewalk

Asakusa sidewalk

at the Azuma Bridge over the Sumida River

Beyond the thousand-year old Kaminarimon Gate is the Nakamise-dori, a 250-meter shopping street that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) of the Japanese history. Sauntering down the arcade’s narrow lanes, I am drawn to the traditional shops that sell Japanese souvenirs like paper fans, samurai figurines, trinkets and geisha wigs. The mouthwatering aromas of freshly cooked takoyaki and ningyo-yaki from the nearby stalls waft through the air.

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping center

Nakamise shopping center

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

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street food stall in Nakamise

streetfood

streetfood

Takoyaki vendor

at a Takoyaki stall

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

street food in Asakusa

Asakusa’s main tourist draw is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple which was built in the 7th century to enshrine the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, after it was found by two fishermen in the nearby Sumida River. Here, I see visitors fanning the smoke from the large incense burner toward their bodies with their hands. “It is for healing and for good fortune as well. Try it!” says the lady attendant of the stall that sells omamori or good luck charms. It doesn’t take me much convincing. What fool would resist good fortune?

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

Towering above skyscrapers, the Tokyo Skytree is impossible to ignore from the temple or from anywhere in the district. This new famous attraction opened only in May 2012 and is considered the world’s tallest communications tower, standing 2,080 feet tall. It has observation decks at 1,148 and 1,476 feet where visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city.

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

After gawking at the cityscape, we catch a train bound for Akihibara, a district whose bustling streets and massive neon lights and signboards evoke a rush of excitement. Also known as the “Electric Town”, it is a jungle of electronic shops that sell every technological gadget one can imagine at a reasonable price. Turn a corner and you’ll find a store devoted entirely to, say, cameras or computers. In the recent years, Akihibara has emerged as the center of the anime culture, with shops specializing in video games and anything anime sandwiched between electronic retailers. Walk further and you’ll find several maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters.

Akihibara, the Electric Town

Akihibara, the Electric Town

 

Day 2: Harajuku and Shibuya

A large jungle crow squawks and soars from its perch as we enter the torri gate of the Meiji Shrine, a shrinededicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Walking under the imposing torri, we are transported to a different world as the sounds of a bustling city are replaced with the rustle of the trees. The 70-hectare forest surrounding the shrine has over 100,000 trees, donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was built in 1920. Emperor Meiji is highly revered for modernizing Japan without sacrificing its ancient traditions. He abolished the feudal system and the national seclusion policy and introduced the system of compulsory education.

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine entrance

Meiji Shrine entrance

an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

PHOTO BY TOPHER ASTRAQUILLO an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine Museum

Meiji Shrine Museum

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Meiji Shrine Garden

Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Munching on a few sticks of butabara (skewered pork belly) and torinuku (skewered chicken), we cross to the concrete jungle called Harajuku, a district known as the center of Japanese youth culture and street fashion. We find ourselves walking in between teenage girls with heavy make up, pigtailed blonde hair and gingham miniskirts as we stroll along Takeshita Dori, a narrow street lined with fashion boutiques and quaint cafes. I later on find out that cosplayers usually gather at the Harajuku Station on weekends. Seeing women in traditional kimono, rockabillies with outlandish hairdos, trucks with anime designs blasting Japanese pop music, I am rather overwhelmed by the vibrant environment of the district.

yakitori

butabara

Japanese streetfood

in Harajuku

in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

Time seems to fly so fast in Shibuya, another colorful and busy district heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens. It is full to bursting with restaurants, nightclubs and shops that sell pretty much everything under the sun: apparel, car accessories, gadgets, furniture and even kinky sex toys, which are surprisingly sold in multi-floored specialty stores. It would be a shame not to walk across Shibuya Crossing, the famous intersection just outside Shibuya Station. Unabashedly armed with a selfie stick, I follow the surge of pedestrians as soon as the traffic lights turn red at the same time in every direction.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Not far from the crossing is the statue of Hachiko, the Akita who waited for his late master at the Shibuya Station everyday from 1923 to 1935, eventually becoming famous for his loyalty.

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

For extremely cheap finds, we go to 109 Men’s and Don Quixote. These stores cost me more yen than I want to think about. Thank God for the small ramen joint with bright yellow Japanese signs near the Berksha building. One sip of its thick, smoky-flavored ramen broth alleviates my guilt for splurging on new shoes and gadgets.

Shibuya at night

Yours truly Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night..

Shops everywhere in Shibuya

Shibuya at night.....

Shibuya at night

authentic bowl of Ramen

authentic bowl of Ramen

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Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night

 

Day 3: Odaiba and Ginza

“Irashaimase!” A smiling woman greets us with a nod at the entrance hall of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, simply known as Miraikan, on the reclaimed island of Odaiba in the middle of Tokyo Bay. We arrive quite early, excited to see a humanoid robot, which I hear is being programmed to give guided tours at the museum in the future. Here, robotics makes up a large portion of the exhibits. A robot on display that is usually swarmed by giggling children takes the form of a baby seal, which reacts to people’s touch. Another section talks about the dangers of plastic to the environment and the current research to make plant-based plastic. We are thrilled to see a full size model of a section of the International Space Station, where visitors can walk inside to have a glimpse of an astronaut’s life in outer space. The museum also has highly interactive, bizarre and fascinating exhibits about information technology, medicine and biology.

Miraikan Museum building

Miraikan Museum building

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan

inside Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

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Japan’s unforgiving cold this time of the year brings us to a hot spring theme park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari, just a short walk from Miraikan. Inside, a replica of an ancient street filled with bars, restaurants and game booths recreates the ambience of the Edo Period of the Japanese history. Guests, who are required to change to a yutaka (kimono) and obi (belt), can experience at least 14 bathing facilities using natural hot spring water coming from the underground. It is also important to note that tattooed guests are unwelcome at any onsen (hot spring baths). This disfavor dates back to the ancient times when criminals were forcibly branded with tattoos.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Odaiba has pretty much everything to keep us entertained the entire day. Here, we see some of Tokyo’s boldest architectural designs, like the Telecom Center and the Fuji TV building. One cannot miss the gigantic Gundam Robot statue standing head to head with Diver City Tokyo Plaza. At night, the robot’s eyes and body light up and change to different colors, making it seem like it has come to life. A short walk from the statue is another shopping and entertainment complex called Palette Town, where we see a 115 meter tall Ferris wheel, museum of vintage cars, showroom of Toyota’s latest car models and a huge gaming arcade. At the nearby Decks Tokyo Beach, also a shopping mall, we get a good view of the breathtaking cityscape and the brightly lit Rainbow Bridge, which connects Odaiba to the rest of Tokyo.

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Gundam robot statue at night

Gundam robot statue at night

IMG_2882 IMG_2878 IMG_2846

Odaiba skyscrapers

Odaiba skyscrapers

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Madam Tussaund's

Lady Gaga and I @Madam Tussaund’s

If unlike us you don’t watch every yen, head to the upscale Ginza district, where every leading international brand name in fashion and cosmetics has a presence. Time-constrained, we skip the fancy malls and head straight to the Kabukiza Theatre to catch the last Kabuki show for the evening. A Kabuki is a traditional Japanese drama performed with elaborate costumes and highly stylized singing and dancing. A full performance comprises of three or four acts and usually lasts more than four hours. Thankfully, we are allowed to buy tickets for just a single act. The performance we catch tells a story of a fugitive named Naozamurai who risks one last meeting with his lover, the courtesan Michitose. Accompanied by the Kiyomoto narrative music, the act ends with the lovers parting forever.

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

 

Day 4: Tokyo DisneySea

We keep a tight grip on the rail as our smoke-powered subterranean vehicle accelerates into a dark tunnel. Illuminated only by colorful glowing crystals, the car enters a mushroom forest, which is inhabited by giant strange-looking insects. Suddenly, the ground shakes, causing the cavern to crumble, forcing our car down another path filled with huge egg-like sacks. We are nearly struck by a lightning as we emerge on a shore. Before we could catch our breath, our vehicle plunges into the depth of an active volcano, where we come face-to-face with a monstrous centipede.

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We are breathless at the end of The Journey To The Center of the Earth. It is one of the highlights at the Tokyo DisneySea, a 70-hectare amusement park that is inspired by the myths and legends of the sea. Here, we experience our wildest childhood imagination through its seven themed ports: Mermaid Lagoon, Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. Centerpieced by Mt. Prometheus, an active volcano that spews out balls of fire every hour, the park is beautifully crafted and has magnificent architecture that takes us to different parts of the world. The entrance, for example, is styled after an Italian port town, complete with Venice style canals and gondolas. Though suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to appeal to an older audience, with faster and scarier roller coaster rides.

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon.

Mermaid Lagoon.

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Tokyo DisneySea:Tokyo DisneySea....

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea...

Tokyo DisneySea…

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea,, Tokyo DisneySea,,, Tokyo DisneySea,,,,

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Tokyo DisneySea

Lost River Delta port at Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo is chaotic yet orderly, modern yet traditional, crazy yet peaceful. Yes it is expensive but with careful planning, a shoestring budget can go a long way. And what’s not to love about the Japanese? They are amazingly well disciplined, big-city people with warm countryside attitude. Despite the language barrier, they take pleasure in helping an ignorant backpacker with directions. Full of contradictions and surprises, Tokyo is an exciting city to get lost in.

 

How To Get There:

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have direct flights to Tokyo (Narita Airport).

 

Expenses
Airfare 15,000 Yen
Accommodation (Azure Narita) 4 nights 15,900 Yen
Train fare 6,000 Yen
Food 8,000 Yen
Tokyo Skytree entrance 2,600 Yen
Kabuki ticket 1,200 Yen
DisneySea entrance 6,900 Yen
Meiji Shrine Museum and Garden entrance 1,000 Yen
Miraikan entrance 600 Yen
TOTAL 57,200 Yen (roughly Php 22,880)

 

Roadtrip To Ilocos Norte

 

I’m losing control! A steep slope pushes my steering wheel to a different direction. I scream in panic and excitement as the ATV gets stuck on the edge of a ridge, roaring and stirring sand as it digs itself deeper. Driving one on a seemingly infinite stretch of coastal sand dunes is a constant wrestle with the wheels. Illuminated by the sunset’s afterglow, some 4×4 trucks emerge from the dust and roar throughout the dunes as they race with each other. I arduously push the vehicle out towards a gentler trail and find my way to the middle of the desert.

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

I am at the Paoay Sand Dunes, an 88-hectare expanse of wild thirsty sand that is remarkably gaining popularity among tourists and thrill seekers travelling to Ilocos Norte, a province located at the northwest corner of Luzon Island. With its endless hills and valleys, the landscape resembles the waves of the adjacent West Philippine Sea. Here, one can either traverse the silky dunes through 4×4 Rough Riding vehicles or try sand boarding, a sport that requires its players to ride a plank of wood and slide over sand folds.

Iconic

The Ilocos region is home to some of the country’s oldest colonial-era churches. I find myself gawking with wonder at a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following morning. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate St. Augustine Church’s bold and magnificent Baroque architecture. Also known as the Paoay Church, it was built in 1694 by Augustinian Friar Antonio Estavillo. To prevent possible destruction due to earthquakes, enormous buttresses of about 1.67 meters thick were built to support the sides and back of the massive edifice. While its façade displays few Gothic features such as the use of finials, its triangular pediment shows Chinese and Oriental influence. Just like other Spanish-era churches in the country, the Paoay Church is made of large coral stones on the lower part and bricks at the upper levels. A three-storey bell tower, which was constructed separately to prevent it from toppling over the church during earthquakes, stands a few meters away. A survivor to bloody rebellions and countless catastrophes, the belfry was used as an observation post by the katipuneros during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1898 and again, by the Filipino guerillas during the World War II.

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Fueled by a peculiar yet delicious brunch of Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant just across the church, we drive to Malacanang ti Amianan(Malacanang of the North) in the municipality of Suba. Built as a gift of Imelda Marcos to former President Ferdinand Marcos on his 60th birthday, the two-storey mansion with a traditional “bahay na bato” design stands on a scenic 5-hectare property. It has large rooms and a grand sala with antique furniture and fixtures, a well-tended garden, balcony and capiz-shell windows that open to a breathtaking view of the Paoay Lake. The Philippine Government sequestered this property when the president was overthrown from power in 1986. After more than 20 years, the mansion was handed over to the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte. It was renovated, restored and later on, converted into a museum, where mementoes of the former President and his family are reposited.

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

A young girl selling souvenir items and snacks calls out to us as we exit the mansion’s gate. The mouthwatering aroma of a freshly cooked Empanada wafts through the air. How can I resist an authentic Ilocos Empanada? The orange-crusted half-moon shaped delicacy is cooked as ordered to ensure crunchiness and it only takes seconds for the girl to make one. She skillfully rolls out the dough, fills it with shredded young papaya, cracks an egg over the center, seals it edges and drops it in boiling oil. She says it tastes even better when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). I finish three large servings.

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

We drive further to see the rock formations in the town of Burgos, located on the northwestern tip of Ilocos Norte. Beautifully sculpted over the years by the roaring waves of Bangui Bay, the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation is a sight to behold especially under the blazing sunlight, when its chalk-like and creamy white surface gleams brightly. Kapurpurawan comes from the Ilokano word “puraw”, which means white. One needs to trek along a craggy trail or go horseback riding to see the stunning limestone formations up close.

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

horseback riding at the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Here, it is impossible to miss the enormous windmills towering over the surrounding hills, their blades constantly swirling in the wind. There are hundreds of them, says the driver, and to see some of them up close, we head to the nearby Bangui Wind Farm, which was built by the Northwind Power Development Corporation to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases and to generate clean and renewable energy for the province. The nine-kilometer windswept shoreline of Bangui Bay has 20 units of 70-meter wind turbines, each capable of producing electricity up to a maximum capacity of 1.65 MW. Amazingly, the windmills of Bangui alone support forty percent of Ilocos Norte’s electricity.

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Bangui Wind Farm

Bangui Windmill

Bangui Wind Farm

Another iconic landmark one shouldn’t miss in Burgos is the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. The 66-feet cultural heritage structure was one of the many lighthouses built during the Spanish period and was first lit on March 30, 1892. Perched on top of the Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the scenic Cape Bojeador, it still functions today as a guiding light for ships that sail the northwestern part of the Philippine archipelago.

Cape Bojeador

Cape Bojeador

Not-So-Secret Paradise

“Ako po’y pagod na pagod at ang sapatos ko’y pudpod!” (I’m extremely tired and my shoes are worn-out!)

This famous line by the Batangueno peddler who once came to the village of Tongotong resonates to this day. It became popular among bystanders that Tongotong was renamed as Pagud-pudpod and later shortened to Pagudpud.

At the northern tip of Pagudpud, we find a beautiful cove named Maira-ira Point, more popularly known as Blue Lagoon, tucked behind the verdant rolling hills. A glance at the long strip of white sand and the clear aquamarine waters delivers a rush of excitement. We find a good spot to watch surfers ride the big swirling waves. One side of the beach is strewn with picnickers playing volleyball and frisbee.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

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With the influx of beachgoers, the Blue Lagoon is hardly a secret these days. There are newly built resorts, restaurants and cottages near the beach for the convenience of those who traveled long hours to see this paradise.

After romping in the churning surf, we head straight to Kabigan Falls in the village of Balaoi to wash off the salt on our skin. A thirty-minute trek along a scenic trail lined up with Narra and Bagobo trees takes us to the foot of the waterfalls. We watch the mesmerizing cascade in silence as it rushes 112 feet down into a concaved basin. Squinting through the haze of the large spray, our guide says the falls is an important water source for the rice fields nearby. Unmindful of the punishing cold, we jump into the rocky pool and swim to our hearts’ content.

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” plays in my head when we reach the Patapat Viaduct, the last stop of our sightseeing tour. It is located at the foot of the cliff of the North Cordillera Mountain Range, which snakes throughout Northern Luzon. The 1.3-kilometer coastal bridge, which hangs 31 meters above sea level, was built during the Marcos regime to connect Ilocos Norte to the Cagayan Valley Region. Just imagine the convenience this brings to motorists and travelers.

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

Culinary Gems

Besides the Pinakbet Pizza and Empanada, the poqui-poqui and warek-warek shouldn’t be skipped when you are in Ilocos. Don’t be deceived by their funny names because they are pretty much pleasing to the palate. To cook poqui-poqui, the eggplants are first grilled then sautéed with onion, garlic, tomato and eggs. It is usually eaten for breakfast or served as a side dish. The warek-warek is a famous delicacy you’ll find in almost every occasion up north. Comparable to the sisig, it is made of grilled pork’s face, tongue, brain and liver. Those with sweet tooth can enjoy the vibrant pink dragon fruit ice cream, which is available from the streets to the finest Ilocano restaurants.

warek-warek

warek-warek

Poqui-poqui

Poqui-poqui

The Ilocos Region is crowded with tourists these days, but it’s all for the right reasons. Rich history and culture, breathtaking views, magnificent architecture, delightful local cuisine and thrilling adventures can all be enjoyed here, putting it on top of the must-visit places in the country.

 

Getting There:

By Plane: Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines have regular flights to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte

By Bus: Go to the Cubao Bus Terminal and ride a sleeper bus bound for Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. Several bus companies like GV Florida, Partas and Farinas Transit have regular trips to Laoag City. Travel time is 10-12 hours.

To go to Pagudpud from Laoag City:

Option A: Ride a jeepney from the Terminal. Travel time is 2 hours

Option B: Ride a tricycle to Claveria Tours, then ride a bus bound for Claveria. Tell the  conductor to drop you off at Pagudpud’s Baduang Market. Travel time is 1-2 hours

To go to Paoay from Laoag City:

Ride a tricycle to the jeepney terminal, then look for one that is bound for Paoay. Travel time is about an hour.

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

dinengdeng

dinengdeng

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

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