Archive for December, 2007

Hyde Park Conspiracy

Unbeknownst to me there was a conspiracy taking place all throughout the time I was travelling in Belgium and Netherlands, and even before that when I was back in Singapore to attend PS’s wedding!

I had been talking about wanting to go ice-skating in the open air just to try it for once. I imagined there would be a greater sense of freedom compared to skating in a rink back home in Singapore, covered up with a concrete roof and surrounded by lifeless walls. When we were back in London from our Christmas trip I kept telling Jon I wanted to go skating.

It so happened that we were meeting Ben & Shan at Hyde Park to wander around the Christmas market there which had a skating rink. I was asking Shan if they wanted to go skating, but they didn’t really respond.

I thought it was lovely walking around the market and carnival, and when Jon & I went to get a snack, I was wondering why Shan was hurrying us. I was curious why the rush. Theeennn….when we had got our sandwiches, she whipped out tickets for the ice-skating rink! :O) Shan was rushing us cos there were allocated timeslots for skating in the rink. She had booked the tickets long before, and Jon knew about it the entire time!!! He said he was laughing to himself the whole time I was talking about skating, and had been msging Shan about it even while we were in Belgium! These people…see lah…when friends get to know your husband too well ;)

The surprise was a perfect match to what I had been wanting to do :) Hee hee…it had been so long since I last went ice-skating…I think it was primary school, or at the latest sec 1 or 2.

It was such fun being in the open :) I tried learning from Ben how to skate backwards in the “pro” way, you know where you bring one leg behind the other…well, I didn’t come close haha. Ben was pretty good at it though!

And, none of us fell throughout the hour-long slot! :)

I remember telling myself as I was skating not to forget how it feels like to skate in the open with the trees above you, and to see leaves stuck in the ice cos it had fallen there when they were freezing the ice. To remember that I was skating in Hyde Park!

After battling the crowds to retrieve our shoes, Shan & Ben sprung another surprise! A ride on the ferris wheel! Yippie :) Been so long since I rode on one too! I guess it was for us a mini London eye. In fact, from our mini-eye we could see the real thing :)

Speaking of mini, guess who I saw in the park? A mini Luke Skywalker up in a tree!

Anyway, having expanded all that energy on skating and being excited, we headed to South Kensington for pancakes! This was the same shop that had an outlet up in Hampstead, and I remember queueing in the cold for pancakes at that pancake stand the last time I came to London. The pancakes were really really yummy, and definitely worth waiting in the cold for. And in a way, I thought it was nicer to eat the pancakes out in the cold – to which Shan agreed. But the guys (being guys? heh :p ) rather stay indoors in the warmth to enjoy their pancakes. In any case, the South Kensington one was indoors.

How lovely to be surprised :) It’s not easy to surprise a girl you know! Thanks Quack! =)

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The last city we popped into was Brussels, capital of Belgium. We spent just a day in Brussels as we didn’t have a lot that we wanted to see there. The main attraction for us was the main square, the cartoon murals, Manneken Pis, and his ‘sister’ Jeanneke Pis.

The Grand Place (read in French, not English) did live up to it’s name. Like Antwerp, the tops of the buildings were decorated with golden statues. The place is more touristy than Antwerp though. You can tell that the crowd is made up mainly of foreigners rather than locals.

Our first stop was at the restaurant Taverne du Passage – it was lunchtime, and we were starving! The restaurant is on the top 5 places to eat in Belgium, and known for their good local food. We ticked off the last of the Belgian dishes that we wanted to try – Waterzooi. It’s basically a cream based chicken soup of sorts. Hearty and yummy – typical of all Belgian food. We also ordered mussels, this time in wine instead of beer. Again it came in a large and satisfying serving. The food was excellent! And you can tell the place is popular with the locals as well. In fact, the majority of the people in the restaurant were locals :) The interesting thing about the place was that the waiters were all male (at least I didn’t see any females), and some of them look like they’ve been working at the restaurant since it first opened! But because of their experience, the service was immaculate and very impressive.

We went to search first for Jeanneke Pis as she was situated near the restaurant. I was surprised to see that she was caged up behind bars like a prisoner. In addition, she was located at the end of a quiet dead-end lane. The tourist board doesn’t even recognise her existence as she’s not listed on the tourist map. If not for Lonely Planet we wouldn’t have known about her. In spite of her less than favourable circumstances, Jeanneke seems to have found the strength to remain cheerful :)

On-the-other-hand, Manneken Pis is given a luxurious garden of his own and displayed at the corner of a busy pedestrian street. Legend has it that he saved the city of Brussels by putting out the fire with some quick thinking and personal resources. So everywhere you walk you see little replicas of Manneken in the shop windows. Where’s Jeanneke? Sexist..

Anyway, I thought it was lovely how they enjoyed their comics so much. As you walk around the city you’ll stumble upon large murals, sometimes of well-known comic characters :) We went to seek out the murals of Tintin (for Jon), and Asterix (for me)!

We also went to check out the mural that was painted in the gay district. Previously people weren’t quite sure whether it was a painting of 2 guys, or 1 guy and 1 girl. Then not too long ago they ‘touched up’ the mural and made one of the characters have wider hips and more visible boobs. Hmm..

Anyway having seen what we wanted to see in Brussels, we had a pancake stop and that’s where a funny case of mistaken identity occurred. Along with my coffee, they served a biscuit to go with it that I happily munch it down. Then I took a closer look at the wrapper, saw Santa Claus, and thought “hey, they put these in festive wrapping!”…then I flipped over the rest of the wrapper, and started laughing…cos the character I thought was Santa Claus was actually the Pope! ;P Talk about priming…the season just made me think of Santa :) Even Jon said “Santa lah” when I asked him who he thought the character was before revealing its true identity ;)

Well, it was a fabulous trip filled with marvelous food. Having had our taster of Belgium and Netherlands, it was time to head back to London! How nice to feel like residents in London. Getting off the Eurostar at Kings Cross, we knew immediately how to get home without checking the map. Feels good to know you know the city well.

Here’s a link to more photos we took during the trip. Take a look!

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Amsterdam – the place with endless rows of crooked buildings! You half feel like some buildings would topple over if not for the fact that they were propped up by the neighbouring buildings.

The houses in Amsterdam are thin and long cos in the old days they charged for land based on the width of the frontage. Much like the peranakan houses in Singapore. In fact, the narrowest house in Amsterdam is only as wide as Jon’s outstretched hands!

We had decided to spend Christmas in Amsterdam thinking it would be bustling, but it was a lot more quiet than we expected. The Dutch themselves take a holiday and most businesses are closed. But it was all fine, the museums kept us busy anyway :)

On the whole Amsterdam was less Christmassy than the Belgian cities we had seen. But at least there was one huge Christmas tree in the middle of the Dam, even if it was mismatched in its lighting – half yellow, half white. But the Dutch really aren’t that into Christmas. On 26th Dec, they started to take down the tree already!!

In any case, Jon and I were really keen to attend a Christmas service, so after a lot of searching we found a protestant church with English services hidden in a begjinhof – a set of houses set around a private courtyard. Such a lovely setting for a church :)

We also had a really nice place to stay in Amsterdam. We put up at Hotel Sint Nicolaas which was just 5 mins from the train station. It was beautifully decorated in a boudoir style and very cosy :) I’d definitely recommend the place!

Well we were wandering to check out the red light district, and on the way came across a souvenir shop that had quirky decor – cows walking on the ceiling, and outside, a giant clog :)

The red light district itself was really a sight to behold ;) Women of all shapes and sizes, of all nationalities and races, and wearing (or maybe not wearing) all manner of clothing. The ladies there have to rent window space in narrow lanes which they stand in and try to seduce passersby. Behind each window is a little room, so when the curtain is drawn you know that someone’s attracted some business. As I was walking in front of Jon, I joked that no one would be interested to seduce him cos they knew I was with him. Then, just as I had said that one of the ladies beckoned to me signaling that she’ll take us both in! (And, no, of course we didn’t take up her offer!!)

No photos are allowed in the area. I’ve heard and read plenty of stories about how if you try to take a photo, a bouncer will appear from nowhere and throw your camera into the river, tear out the film, or carry out some other destructive action.

The other more wholesome areas of Amsterdam featured its many canals. On a map, Amsterdam looks like a series of concentric circles – land, canal, land, canal.

Although less pretty and photogenic compared to Bruges, especially having seen Bruges magically covered in frost, Amsterdam does have its own character. We indulged in a canal cruise since it was a nice sunny day and we had some time on our hands. It just so happened that the particular one we took was called “Lovers Cruise” ;) We had already walked most of the paths covered on the canal cruise, but the cruise still gave a different perspective to the place. The buildings looked a lot grander from the river, and I found the commentary very informative, giving background to the city’s architecture, and some other tidbits.

We visited the Rijksmuseum which we agreed was very well curated. There was restoration being done, so quite a bit of the museum was closed off, but the main highlights were still displayed. And actually it was a good thing cos we had a more manageable collection to deal with. Rembrant’s work really is very impressive, and the famous Night Watch deserves the admiration it receives. It’s a huge painting, and your eyes dart all around trying to take in all the action.

The Anne Frank museum was also an experience. I found walking into the rear annex quite exhilarating, trying to imagine what life must have been like then. It is much more spacious than I expected, and it’s amazing it remained hidden for as long as it did. I also found it sobering to read the Franks’ names in the book containing the names of those sent to concentration camps.

But my favourite museum by far was the Van Gogh museum! I love his work, and found the trip there absolutely worthwhile. It was fascinating to see that he went through a period where he was exploring Japanese art, experimenting with the techniques and stylistics employed by the Japanese. I was also particularly touched by 2 pieces. One was a painting he painted for his nephew. Even though he was in the depth of depression, he painted a lively picture of almond blossoms specially for his new-born nephew. The other was the ominous painting of a wheatfield with crows. I really felt sad and even teary thinking about how he must have been feeling and what he was going through. To feel that life is hopeless and a dead-end. It was really quite moving.

On our last day there we took a half-day tour to check out some windmills! :) The tour also included a stop by a clog workshop and a cheese-making house. It was nice to get out of the city and see the countryside. I was particularly impressed with how the Dutch had drained out the water to increase their land. I had always known they did this, but to see physically the scale on which it was done, and to know that water must continually be pumped out to this day, I thought the Dutch really deserved respect for that. It was such an incredible idea. I was imagining how it might have been at that time. Was the person who suggested the idea taken seriously at first go? It must have seemed an incredulous idea to drain out all that water! But it was done, and it is impressive.

I thought the clog making demonstration was also intriguing, mostly because of the demonstration on how fresh the wood was. The presenter was showing how from a lump of wood the clog is made, and then he declared that the wood has to be very fresh. And to prove just how fresh it was, he blew hard inside the clog, and suddenly water (and quite a lot of it!) flowed out! I was surprised! It looked and felt like a dry piece of wood!

For lunch we popped by a little lakeside town of Volendam. Quaint, small, and not much to do. At least the fish and chips were alright :)

Food wise, I think the only really Dutch food we had was pea soup! There really wasn’t much ‘dutch’ food around anyway. Tons of italian pizzarias, kebabs, argentinean steakhouses…er..where was the Dutch food??! We had Indonesian Rijsttafel on Christmas eve, which was yummy! And we chit-chatted with the Indonesian staff there. In some ways, it was like ka-ki-nang cos we were from Southeast Asia. A “Pak” here, and “terima kasih” there, we made friends with the waiters and (we think) the boss. At the end of dinner they served us tea on the house :) We also found out that the restaurant was named Tujuh Maret cos that is the birth date of the boss :)

Oh! I remember what Dutch food we had now. Pancakes! Dutch pancakes are more like crepes actually…so even then, it’s kinda French? heh..

We also added to the beer count in Amsterdam, trying the Amstel and Wieckse in…a gay bar! We wandered in without realising it was a gay bar. We just thought it looked like a really nice place. And it was! The people were friendly, and you can tell the place has regulars cos the bartender knew the customers well. The place was airing 80s MTVs, and it was real fun when a song like “summer rain” came on and everyone, including the bartender, would start to shimmy to the song and sing along :)

Overall, we had a load of fun in the little bit of Netherlands that we saw :)

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Compared to quaint Bruges, Antwerp had an element of grandeur, though both were equally elegant. Again, all the Christmas markets really added to the atmosphere. I was really glad we were travelling during the Christmas period :) It’s just gave me such a wonderful feeling! And of course we indulged in some of the goodies – like this fabulously sinful cherry & whipped cream waffle! (I didn’t eat the whole thing on my own lah!)

The symbol for Antwerp is a shining A! Probably cos Antwerp is famous for its diamond industry. We went to check out the diamond museum, which gives all the background on mining diamonds, polishing, cutting, and interestingly, even on the cultural aspect of it – a significant part of their collection featured hip hop icons, and bling-bling style jewellery! :) And yes, Jon’s Mr T was featured! :)

Even though it’s one of the largest cities in Belgium, it was really quite small. From almost anywhere in the heart of the city you could see the tower of the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral. Of course there are some places in the outskirts that you need to take public transport to get to, but it really isn’t all that far.

We walked the promenade on the first day, and it reminded me of New York! :) For reason it felt like I was looking over to New Jersey. Anyway, once you turn around and see the cathedral you’ll be promptly reminded that you’re in Antwerp.

The Grote Markt was a real highlight. It was cosy yet grand. Cosy because the square isn’t very large, plus there was a large crowd at the Christmas market; grand because the buildings around the square are topped with gold statues – St George killing the dragon, an eagle, some soldiers, etc – and they gleam gloriously in the sun :p

We went to check out the fine art museum to see the work of Pieter Paul Rubens, the darling son of Antwerp. The museum was quite compact, and we managed to cover the collections that we wanted to see :) I found that although Rubens was the main highlight, I thought some of Jacob Jordaens’ work was more impressive. Dramatic and emotive, I felt his paintings really leapt out at you, and you could almost see the figures moving.

Antwerp is known for its shopping, so we wandered through the shopping area as well. There was this shoe shop that the Lonely Planet hailed as the best shoe shop in Belgium, so of course I had to check it out. But, oh man, it’s not a place for shoppers like me. Each pair was around 400 Euros or so, some much more! So it was a look, even touch, but not bring home kinda place. Can’t really remember the name of the shop, I don’t see a point! ;)

Check out this knife holder we saw in one of the shop windows! Poor man…so hated…

I also had a go at being a Paparazzi! An animal paparazzi that is. I stalked a dog through a section of the shopping district! It was HUGE. I was trying to take a nice photo of him, but he kept moving! So at one point I was literally running after the dog trying to get a shot of him. The best shot I got was a silhouette of him, but you can really see how big he is. If he stands on his hind legs he’ll tower even over Jon!

One shop we came across had the most interesting shop sign I’ve seen! IKKS had it’s sign mounted on a wall that had water flowing down it. But on top of that, streams of water were flowing into the alphabets which were hollowed out like buckets. So every now and then when the letters filled up with water, they would tip over and the water would splash out into the drain below. Each letter tips at different times because of the different sizes of the alphabet-buckets. I managed to catch a photo of the before and after, take a look!

Another quirky place we went to see was the street called Cogels Osylei, famed for the diverse architectural styles. At some point the residents there decided to each out-do one another in how weird and wonderful their houses could be. As a result on that street alone you can find anything from Art Deco to Gothic, fanciful to just fantasy! All elements like stained glass, turret roofs, sculptures, balconies, mosaic..you name it, it’s probably somewhere on that street. Some houses even have names like ‘The Sunflower’ or ‘Morning Star’. Quite an interesting walk down from one end to the other just ogling at the houses.

Well, how can I end off Antwerp without mentioning the food? It was excellent! The best find in the city – stoemp! Stoemp is belgian mashed potatoes, which are incredibly smooth, and usually have some sort of vegetable mixed in. You can choose to have carrots, leek, cabbage, etc., in your stoemp. The first night we had dinner at Eethuisje De Stoemppot, famous for their stoemp. It’s served in mounds, and the stoemp is so good that many people have seconds (which is a lot!), or order it over and above their main course! We also tried traditional Belgian beef stew, which was again wonderful!

Second night, we went to a restaurant called the Walrus, also known for it’s good food. And again we were not disappointed! We tried horse steak, and it really does taste different from beef, lamb, chicken, etc. It’s flavourful, but not overpowering. More subtle than lamb, more complex than beef. Yummy. And of course, more stoemp!

And to top it all off, beer! We tried Westmalle Duvel and had some Hoegaarden, which somehow does taste better there :)

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Attention all foodies! GO TO BELGIUM!

Truly, our trip to Belgium was a gastronomic tour! It was freezing cold, some days dropping to -6 degrees! So once the sun goes down, you just want to hide in a warm restaurant and have some warm hearty food. And warm hearty food we got! Amsterdam on-the-other-hand doesn’t have so much of a food culture, and even the Lonely Planet reflects that. In the food section in the Belgium Lonely Planet, the list of Belgian specialties go on and on; for the Amsterdam edition, there really wasn’t much mentioned at all. Any cuisine that was mentioned was not Dutch. Highlights were Indonesian food, Italian food, etc.

Anyway before I get to into all that. Our itinerary for the trip was:

Day 1 (20 Dec): London – Bruges
Day 2 (21 Dec): Bruges
Day 3 (22 Dec): Bruges – Antwerp
Day 4 (23 Dec): Antwerp
Day 5 (24 Dec): Antwerp – Amsterdam
Day 6 (25 Dec): Amsterdam
Day 7 (26 Dec): Amsterdam
Day 8 (27 Dec): Amsterdam – Antwerp
Day 9 (28 Dec): Antwerp – Brussels – London

It was one of the more relaxing trips we’ve had in that we didn’t squeeze a lot of activities into one day but really took our time. Partly cos it was winter where the days are short and the weather cold. Normally our backpacking trips are in spring and we’d start early and stay out all day long (which can be quite late in the longer spring days), and often stay out in the night too. On this trip, especially the freezing cold days like those in Bruges, we even went back to the room for a short while in the afternoon to just thaw out for a bit :) I guess it also didn’t help that I was feeling under the weather, having brought my flu and cough with me over from Singapore.

— Bruges —

Bruges is a quaint, small town that can easily be covered within a day. But taking it slowly has its pleasures, especially with the many Christmas markets at the various squares! It was really Christmassy. Think cold weather, stalls decorated with lights, steam wafting from the hot drinks stalls, sausages stands, and waffle shops. And in the centre of it all, an ice skating rink! Add to that some misty fog, and music! Yes, the centre of Bruges has music piped throughout the town :) So you feel like you are living a soundtrack! It’s really lovely, and adds so much to the atmosphere of the place.

When in Belgium, of course you think of chocolates. And one of the must-see sights in Bruges was ChocoStory – a museum telling the story of chocolate! Everything from how and where it is grown, how the cacao beans are harvested, how the by-products are obtained, to making of the chocolate, and tracing the evolution of chocolate packaging. And to top it all off, there was a chocolate making demonstration where we got to try some freshly made chocolate! And they were really heavenly! The shell was just the right thickness and hardness, so that when you bit into the choclate a lovely ‘crack’ can be heard, and then you taste the sweet praline inside. Mmmm…mmm…

Actually we got to eat the yummy demo chocolates twice. We joined the demo after it had already started, and got a chocolate at the end. Thinking that we missed out on quite a lot, we decided to wait for the next round to start again. Only after the second demo began did we realise we actually didn’t miss very much. We didn’t intend to take the demo chocolate again, but the lady making them insisted. (Actually I think it’s more because she can’t be seen to not be offering it to us, and of course we won’t say no right?) =)

We also did a ‘Chocolate Walk’ on the second day in Bruges. It’s a walking tour around town and the highlights are chocolate shops where you can exchange coupons to try chocolates and other chocolate products like chocolate gin (which is fantastic!). I like the family run shops cos they are more personal and friendly. There was one couple we met who ran a pair of shops which were side by side. One sold chocolate, one sold alcohol. The chain shops we walked into had staff who were rude or stuffy. Sign that they are doing too well and it was getting to their heads.

The second day in Bruges was particularly pretty as everything was covered in frost! The trees were white, the canals were frozen over and dusted with icing sugar..everything looked so beautiful! Such a picturesque day! It’s amazing how different everything looks when there is frost. And it’s amazing how quickly the frost disappears. The third day everything was back to normal and totally un-frosty!

The room itself was very cosy, and even had a small sitting corner. And the views out of the window made you feel like you were very much living in the local neighbourhood – which we were! The B&B is also the home of the owners, and is located in a residential area. It was beautifully decorated! The lady of the house has wonderful taste, quirky and refined. And she always looked very well put together.

We had 2 really good dinners in Bruges. The first night we tried meat fondue and traditional Belgian rabbit stew. We had thought that meat fondue was meat that you dip in cheese. But it turns out that it’s raw meat that you cook in hot oil flavoured with herbs. In that sense the term ‘meat fondue’ is a misnomer cos for choclate fondue you dip things in chocolate, and cheese fondue you dip things in cheese. This should be called ‘oil fondue’ instead! Anyway it was yummy all the same. The stew too! And everything was ‘eat all you can’. They refill the meat, the veg, the chips, and even my stew!

Dinner on the second night was of the classic Belgian dish – mussels and chips! And also something called ‘eel in green’. It was the specialty of the restaurant, and another Belgian specialty. Turns out the ‘green’ is some jelly-like herb sauce. Not too bad. The eels were surprisingly less fishy than I expected considering that Japanese unagi is very fishy. The mussels were cooked in beer with other vegetables and herbs, and was very good! Such a huge bowl too! We had a bowl of tomato soup more for me, cos I had a stuffy nose and was feeling sick, so wanted something hot to warm me up.

Besides Belgian food, we were trying out some of the many many Belgian beers. The interesting thing about Belgium is that they always serve the beer in the correct glasses…so if you order Westmalle, the beer will be served in a Westmalle cup! And prior to Belgium, I had not seen beer glasses in the shape of goblets. The other difference that Jon noticed was that Belgians serve their beer with a very thick layer of foam..approximate an inch thick! There’s even a marker on the glass for where the foam must begin!

One of the bars we went to in Belgian on the top 5 bars to go to in Belgium! Very much a beer institution in Bruges, and Belgium as a whole :)

That certainly isn’t the end of the beer, food, and sights in Belgium! More up next, in Antwerp!

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Came back to Singapore for Peishan & DK’s wedding :) I like flying so that was no problem haha. (Woman, can claim air ticket? ;) ).

Was super jetlagged for the entire time I was back. Slept till 2 or 3 pm, stayed up till 4am… very terok. But had to make sure we got up on time for the wedding!

Operation Jie Mei!

The evergreen suan-tian-ku-la! Lime juice, chocolate sauce, pureed bittergourd and bittergourd slices (the puree is so much worse, the smell can knock you out! I felt like puking when I was pureeing the stuff!), and chilli padi with wasabi spread on bread!

Not bad lah, the guys sucked it up and managed to make it into the house. Daokai then heroically made his way step by step towards PS’s room, completing tasks along the way. He finally made it to her side after belting out “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You”, and some “notti” spelling.

The groom and his brothers arriving.

We popped to DK’s house and back again to PS’s place for all the ceremonies.

I’m no longer eligible! So just take photo lah haha

Dinner at night was good too, but no time to take pics lah, was the emcee for the night :) Was supposed to emcee with Jon, but he wasn’t able to make it back for the wedding. So it was just me! Was a little jittery, and made a little booboo, but hopefully no one really remembers!!! :)

Just a short stay in Singapore before heading back to London to be with Jon again :)

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Wedding Anniversary!

How wonderful and unexpected that we’d spend our first wedding anniversary in London! Both of us had no idea one year ago that that would have been the case :)

Well we figured that since we were in London, and some people pay to come here just for their anniversary, that we’d spend the day just wandering around the city! As it was the Christmas period, there were several Christmas markets around to explore. So after church we head down to Pimlico area to look for the Elizabeth Street market, which was only being held that particular Sunday.

The atmosphere was lovely – decorations, cold weather, carollers, and the tingling happy feeling of being in love and celebrating a most special occasion ;) Even though it wasn’t a sunny day and it was drizzling a little, it was sunny in my heart and cosy to cuddle under an umbrella-ella-ella :)

We wandered into Waitrose as we’d heard about it but not actually been to one outlet. And there was quite a crowd mingling about. Why? There were at least 7 tasting stations with all sorts of good food! Champagne, wine, cheese, sausages, minced pie, chocolates, sushi, bacon, christmas pudding.. Sounds good huh? I have not seen such extravagant tasting stations before. So we wandered along with the crowd and tried the goodies :) That was a nice thaw-ing stop cos it was cold out.

We wandered through Belgravia, past many embassies, and up to the Knightsbridge area, and ended up at Harrods :) We’ve only ever been to the ground floor, so thought we’d wander about a bit more. In particular I wanted to go see the pet shop! The place is really more for window shopping if you know what I mean ;) But we did get something there! Jon found the complete first season of the A-Team! Now who of you actually know what that is? I don’t recall having watched it before, but maybe if I watch an episode I might find it familiar, but it’s a show that was shown loonnggg ago (I would add more ‘g’s except that I’ve since discovered that Shan knows what it is, so it can’t be an era thing…darn! Though on the bright side, Ben wasn’t familiar with it either! Hah!).

We were working up an appetite for the grand finale of the night – dinner at Gaucho! It’s an Argentinean steakhouse that apparently has the best steak in London!

We were gonna splurge that night on a really good dinner! And the food did not disappoint! On top of that, we were really pampered the whole night. They had made a note that it was our anniversary, and had passed the message around such that once they knew we had arrived, all the waiters and waitresses we met greeted and congratulated us :) We were escorted to the bar where they generously served us some complimentary champagne! And to top it all off, they had prepared a bouquet of flowers for me =) I thought it was interesting that they did that, because when I made the reservation I had mentioned that I wanted to surprise my husband. And then they surprise me instead! Which is clever since men are usually themselves happy when the lady is pampered :) (maybe it’s cos they then don’t have to pamper the ladies themselves? ;) )

The flowers were beautiful! Romantic with a modern twist. Deep red roses accompanied by dried leaves spray-painted black with sparkles, and a twig spray-painted white. It was all put in a black vase and wrapped with black paper. Very Anna Sui.

The restaurant itself is definitely not a place for vegetarians. Besides the fact that it is a steak place, the restaurant is almost entirely decorated with cow skin! From the walls, to the chairs, to the foot stools!

Well if you thought that was the end of our pampering, it wasn’t! A friendly (and slightly drunk) American man was at the next table along with two other friends, and he started chatting with us. He asked if I was Jon’s girlfriend, and Jon explained that it was actually our first wedding anniversary :) Then the man started telling us about his marriage and his kids, and encouraging us to have children of our own, how they are wonderful, etc etc. His friend chimed in as well. Then the American man decided to buy us a glass of champagne each! =)

What a day! Really had a great time :) More than all the pampering and activities, it was a lovely day spent with Jon ;)

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Oxford & Stratford-upon-Avon

Well, the very next day (4th Dec) after our Cardiff/Bath trip, Jon and I went north on a day-trip to Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. I’ve always wanted to visit Stratford-upon-Avon because my Mum had told me many times how lovely the place is, and how she particularly liked Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

We had initially planned on going to see the Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge, but we were quite tired of driving in that direction. All our roadtrips so far headed out east-ward on the M4. We wanted to go onto a new highway! So upwards we went on the M40 :)

We had a really early start at around 630am to try and beat the traffic. Also because we had parked in the congestion area and needed to get out by 7am :) It was a lovely sunny day, and the countryside looked wonderful. It’s one of those things that best seen live, and can’t quite be captured on camera.

With such an early start we hit Oxford by early morning. We didn’t spend too long there cos we wanted to make sure we had enough time in Stratford. So we just gave ourselves a little over an hour to get an overview and a feel of Oxford. On our hitlist was the Radcliffe Camera, an Oxford landmark and one of city’s most photographed buildings. Built in the Palladian style, it is Britain’s third largest dome.

We got even better views of it when we climbed the tower of the Church of St Mary the Virgin. In addition, we got lovely views over the Gothic looking All Souls College, as well as the rest of Oxford.

[You’ll see that Jon still has his Mo here even though it was already December cos there was a Mo Brothers gathering the day after :) ]

We wandered some backstreets, through the covered market, and back onto the main street. Rounded the corner and headed for Christ Church College, the largest and grandest of all of Oxford’s colleges.

I particularly liked the stone faces that were lining the outside of the building. They each were of different people wearing different expressions on their faces, and an odd non-human creature made its appearance as well.

Something funny – one boy thought I was a student at Oxford! If only! :) But we did see come legitimate smarties around the place, pondering over books, etc.

For me it was fun walking around Oxford cos I was reading “Northern Lights” which was partly set in Oxford, but in the fictitious Jordan College.

Well, onwards to Stratford! We were trying to make the most of the bright sunny day! And along the way we saw an added bonus – a complete rainbow! :) At first we saw just half of it because we were driving between building, then as we drove on, it extended and extended until it formed a complete arc when we emerged into an area of wide open space! Beautiful! :) The arc was so wide even my wide-angle lens couldn’t capture it.

And that wasn’t the last rainbow we saw during the day! In fact, we saw them on at least 3 other occasions!

Of course the main highlight of Stratford-upon-Avon was to see the Shakespeare Houses. The bard single-handedly put the town on the map! And in the bid for the tourist dollar, they brought in his whole family to entertain the crowd. There are in total 5 houses to see – Shakespeare’s birthplace (the main draw), Anne Hathaway’s cottage(where Shakespeare’s wife lived before their marriage), Mary Arden’s house (Shakespeare’s mother’s childhood home), Nash’s house (where Shakespeare’s granddaughter lived – getting quite far-removed already huh?), and Hall’s Croft (his son-in-law’s house).

For us, the main ones to catch were the first three since they are most closely related to him. The other two we’d do if we had time, which it turns out we didn’t. Anyway Nash’s house isn’t even about Shakespeare. It has exhibits on the history of the town, and a collection of 17th century oak furniture and tapestries (?!). Hall’s Croft isn’t much better. It has exhibits on the medical practices during Shakepeare’s time. I’m sure they are interesting in and of themselves, but with our limited time – Prioritise! Prioritise!

Shakespeare’s birthplace was a good chance to find out more about him, and the context he grew up in. Apparently there is no evidence that shows he was actually born there, but he did live there at some point. I suppose you could say it was the birthplace of his fame. The place is essentially decked out in the style of Shakespeare’s time. One of things you’ll notice is how small the beds are, giving you the impression that everyone must have been really short those days. But as we discovered, the reason why the beds were made short was because people in that time believed that if you lay down flat your soul could leave you. So they made the beds short, ensuring that you’ll always curl up in bed! Interesting little tidbit huh?

Anne Hathaway’s cottage was lovely, just as my mother had described! A charming thatched farmhouse set amidst lush gardens (which would be more lush in spring and summer). The cottage is again decorated in the “olde” style, complete with the short beds. It’s just a nice experience to walk through the house and explore the grounds :)

In the garden there was a pod-like structure made of willow, known as an arbour or simply a willow cabin. These were apparently commonly seen in gardens during Shakespeare’s time. Willows were symbols for grief or loss, and these cabins were sometimes retreats for those suffering from unrequited love. I tried to look love-lorn in this photo, but you can’t quite see me at all through the thicket of willow…i’m so lost in my sorrow!!! Woe is me!!!

In spring/summer the Shakespeare Tree Garden would prove more interesting than it did when we visited it. It’s basically a garden with examples of all the trees ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. But in winter…they all look the same – bare!

Sun was setting!! We had to hurry over to Mary Arden’s house. Some lovely scenery on the way there..

Mary Arden’s house is set in a farm, and the exhibits trace local country live over the past four centuries. Interestingly, the people working there really get into the act. They literally live out the country life, doing things like chopping wood, feeding the chickens, taking care of pigs, all the while dressed in period costume :) It’s like being transported back in time.

We also came across these really cute FAT chickens! I saw them and thought, “hmm, they must be juicy!”. But apparently, it’s just that their feathers are fluffy :/

By the time we were done with those three houses, the sun was about to set, and there was no time to view any of the other two houses, which wasn’t a loss to us. We had planned to watch a Shakespearean play, but unfortunately there weren’t any on show that particular day. Oh well!

So we just settled in for a leisurely drive back to London :)

Here’re more photos taken during that day-trip!

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Day 3 (2 Dec) started at Chepstow, a border town between Wales and England. We made a stop by Chepstow Castle just to take a look since it was not far from our B&B. We didn’t wander in cos we were too early, and anyway, it wasn’t on our hitlist.

We moved on to Tintern Abbey – a ruined abbey which was built in the 14th century. It did look impressive with it’s high walls and gothic arches. In it’s hey-day it must have been stunning!

We didn’t stay there long, and quickly drove on to Bristol where we went to check out the Clifton suspension bridge, reputedly one of Britain’s most beautiful bridges. Apparently this bridge became a magnet for stunt artists and suicides. One story goes that in 1885, Sarah Ann Hedley jumped from the bridge after a lover’s tiff, but her voluminous petticoats parachuted her safely to the bottom of the valley, and she lived to the ripe old age of 85!

Click click, snap snap. The photos were taken and off we went to Bath. We didn’t really think there was anything else worth looking at in Bristol besides the bridge.

We kind of got lost on the way to Bath, and got there later than planned. Hungry, we aimed straight for a nearby pub that offered Sunday Roast as it’s lunch special. That was something I’ve been wanting to try, especially cos I wanted to see what Yorkshire puddings taste like (these puddings are always served with Sunday roasts). The meal was alright, but perhaps cos I was hungry and eager to try the food, it tasted better than it otherwise would have ;) And Yorkshire puddings are essentially tasteless pieces of carbo. I guess it’s just meant to soak up the gravy?

No they didn’t drink all that on their own!

Having had our fill of beer/cider and food, we carried on with the sightseeing. There was a Christmas market around Bath Abbey, and we succumbed to the temptation to get waffles as dessert :) As it was drizzling a little, Jon was holding the umbrella while trying to take a bite at the waffle. Then suddenly a gust of wind blew, and the umbrella inverted! And I managed to get a shot of that moment! :) I like that photo very much :)

Bath Abbey itself had a very interesting facade with angels climbing up and down ladders on both sides of the large glass window.

After munching down the waffles we filed into the Romans Baths Museum, afterall, how can you come to Bath and not see the baths? Very impressive the way the Romans set up the place, and channeled the waters around the complex.

We then went to Sally Lunn’s to try the buns, cos that’s what they’re famous for. But it wasn’t quite as spectaclar as we thought it would be. Quite dry and tasteless really. It was the brandy-butter spread and the variety of tea that was the real highlight for me.

Anyway, after that snack it was a speedy drive back to London for some well deserved rest :)

Here’s a link to more photos that I took during the trip!

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The sightseeing really began on Saturday (1 Dec). After an unhealthily yummy full English breakfast, we head off for Caerphilly Castle – a 13th Century castle that’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful medieval fortresses in Wales. It was the first castle that Jon & visited in UK, and it was great that it came complete with a moat and a draw-bridge! Largely intact, there were a few sections in ruins and a tower tilting like Pisa.

The moat must be filled with fish, cos we saw quite a few fishermen there. So much for scary monsters that could have lived in the waters in the medieval era. Maybe these fishes are the tamer off-spring? I’m just talking rubbish.. :)

The day we visited Caerphilly Castle there were preparations being made for a wedding in the evening. I suppose the place must be quite popular for weddings given it’s cosy, yet grand and historic, atmosphere.

At the gift shop, Jon and I got into a fight! Shouting at each other…armed with foam swords and shields, we battled it out! Engarde!! Don’t quite know who won, but it was great fun! (betcha were wondering what kind of fight, huh? :) ).

Well we couldn’t spend all day at Caerphilly, we had so many more places to visit! We packed into the car, and drove off to the next castle – Castell Coch (heh heh..how are you pronouncing that? It’s “cas-tel cor-h”. What were you saying? haha).

This castle was the summer retreat for the Bute family, and uber rich family usually based in Cardiff. The place is described as Disney-like, and I guess with the conical-roofed turrets, it does look a little like it could come out from a Disney cartoon!

And the fairy-tales carried on inside some of the rooms. There was one hall which had the walls painted with pictures depicting Aesop’s fables. Stories like the Tortoise and the Hare, the Dog and his reflection, etc. To read the fables, you can check out this website: http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Aesop/Aesops_Fables/

There was one interesting set of sculptures in the fairy-tale room depicting Birth, Life and Death. The figure on the left spins the thread (signifying birth), the figure in the middle measures the length of the thread (the length of one’s life), and the figure on the right cuts the thread (determining the time of death).

Moving on to see the bedrooms, we found that the women seem to have the better deal in this castle. They get huge bedrooms, but the room which was meant for the man-of-the-house was so puny! Poor man. But anyway, I didn’t really think the bedroom of the lady-of-the-house was that nice. It was Oriental in style, but overly ornate. For some reason, it just reminded me of a Chinese funeral. Or at least, the back of the furniture shops in Dempsey road, which I always find to be a bit scary and jiang-si-esque.

The whole place was very kid-friendly and had plenty of activities like stenciling, assembling a model of the castle, etc. Not that we are kids, but since we were just enjoying the fun of it all, Ganga and I indulged in some art work! :)

Next stop: Cardiff (or Caerdydd in Welsh)!

As we were looking for a parking lot we found that there was a rugby match between Cardiff RFC and Maesteg RFC that afternoon, which got Jon and Sathia excited :) (Both had played rugby in school). So we decided to split up – Jon & Sat heading for the rugby match; Ganga, Hsu Hsien, and myself going to visit Cardiff Castle.

Anyway, as we were heading to the castle the weather conditions changed drastically in a span of around 30 minutes! First it was lovely and sunny, then there was sleet (like hail but much much smaller..ard marble size), and less than five mins later it was drizzling, then soon it was sunny again! C’est tres bizarre, non!

Cardiff Castle was also owned by the Bute family (same ppl as at Castell Coch). It was getting dark by then, so we ran through the grounds quite hurriedly. Not much, but the view from the top of the prison tower was quite good, allowing a sweeping view over the town centre, juxtaposing the old castle with the Millenium Stadium.

The inside of the castle was very ornate (but not o-biang), and I especially liked how each room had a theme. The drawing room had the theme of “time” – there were paintings representing the four seasons, and the ceiling was adorned with decorations of the horroscope, indicating the passing of time. (No pictures allowed in the castle, so I can’t show you).

The nursery brought you into the land of fairy-tales. Characters from various fairy-tales were painted on the wall, and depicted in the stained glass of the lamps. Everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to the Little Red Riding Hood.

I think most impressive of all was the library where I found out that Lord Bute was fluent in 9 languages! Super impressive!

By the time we got out of the place it was dark (and cold and rainy I might add). We met up with Jon & Sat, and went for the main event of the trip – the Wales Rally GB! Car racing!

I don’t follow these things, so it was all new to me, but exciting and interesting nonetheless. Fast cars of all makes and models speeding around the race-track, sharp turns, zooming around the corners – how to not be exciting? I especially liked it when drivers took a risk and started to turn many metres before the actual turning, then sliding around corner missing the barrier by inches (like in the movies!). To add to the fanfare, whenever the driver reached the end of the circuit, a row of flame-blowers would spew out balls of fire, rousing the crowd to cheer all the more loudly!

Anyway after all that excitement, and all that sightseeing, it was time for some food. And we had a yummy meal at Cardiff Bay, before driving on to Chepstow – our stop for the night – where we again had to ‘sneak’ into the inn. For some reason the inn keeper was also having a later dinner that night, and she left the keys with (i suppose) her friends at an Indian restaurant opposite the B&B. It felt almost clandestine, like some spy collecting secret documents or something. We went upstairs to the restaurant, told the waiter we were there to collect keys, he directed us to another man in a suit, man asks, “what’s your name”, and after giving the right answer, he hands over a white envelope. Dodgy huh? Haha :) But like I said previously, I think all these Welsh small towns are just communal, and everyone probably knows everyone else.

Once we got ourselves into the inn, we had a time of room hunting, cos we just had the room numbers, but no idea where all the rooms were. After some wandering around, walking to the back of the house through some narrow corriders, we finally found our room!

What a packed day and a full itinerary! I love it! Haha :)

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