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Here’s a link to the photos we took on the trip!

Click here.

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Iceland – Day 4

For our last day in Iceland, we headed to Hafnarfjordur where I went horse riding! Icelandic horses are more stocky than other horse breeds, and are famed for their smooth gait and warm personalities. Most guidebooks say that they are friendly and willing. But I think the Insight Guides was most accurate, “surefooted, intelligent, affectionate, home-loving and sometimes headstrong”. Yep..it can be headstrong too as I discovered!

My horse, Sqwisa, was certainly not willing. He refused to walk faster even when kicked! He’d walk slowly, resulting in a large gap between myself and the person in front. Initially I was in the middle of the pack, so one of the guides rode up to me and urged my horse on. It seems Sqwisa only responds when under peer pressure. Cos even when the guide gave me a riding crop to use, and asked me to kick my horse more, Sqwisa refused to move faster. Only when the guide rode alongside did he oblige to trot a little, but otherwise he ambled along at his own pace. So when the group turned to head back to the stable, all the other horses walked ahead and I ended up right at the back. After a while I was 20-30 metres behind everyone else!

Near the end of the ride there was a snow plow behind, and the guide asked everyone to kick their horse and trot forward to the stable. But I kicked, and kicked, and hit with the crop..and thought that maybe I’m hurting Sqwisa so tried stroking, I tried talking to him, then tried kicking again, but all to no avail. He just walked on while everyone else galloped away.

Later on when I was changing out of the riding gear, one of the other riders asked if I enjoyed my ride. I said yes, but that my horse was really slow. She said that I should have used a riding crop. When she used it her horse moved faster. But I told her I had kicked and hit no end, but he still went slowly. Then she asked, “were you the last one?” And when I said yes, she and the others all burst out laughing….. TSK! Great.

Anyway, it seems there’s this love-hate relationship. Because at one point before our ride, Sqwisa was nuzzling his snout against me in an affectionate way. I thought that was sweet. But then he turned out to be quite stubborn. Hiya. So much for the willing, good-natured Icelandic horse :) I guess even they have a range of personalities :)

But I do love how Icelandic horses look so cute with their thick fringes that hang over their eyes :) And you get all sorts of colour combinations. Brown horses with blonde hair, white horses with brown hair, black horses with brown hair, etc.

They also display some interesting behaviour. When they first come out of the stable, and also after we dismount from the horses and remove the staddles, the horses start rolling around in the snow on their backs as if to cool it or scratch it! I’ve never seen horses do that! They’ll prance around, lie down, then roll to and fro until they are satisfied. A fascinating sight :)

Anyway cos my Sqwisa was rather stubborn, plus the riding path was much less adventurous than the brochure made it out to be (just walk out then turn and walk back), I was a little disappointed with the experience, though I still love the horses and being around them.

Jon and I then drove to The Pearl back in Reykjavik to get some panoramic views over the capital. The Pearl is a revolving restaurant that sits on top of hot water tanks, and has an outdoor platform that you can walk on and look out in all directions. It was a bright and clear day, so we were even able to make out the glacier Snaefellsjokull on the Snaefellsnes peninsular in the distance, almost 80 miles away as the crow flies!

We then made our way to Garður, a small fishing town near the airport. It was very small and the port really smelt heavily of fish, which was fine with me :)

Time was catching up with us so we had to make for the airport to catch the flight…the end of our trip! Again it was a day flight, and this time we sat on the correct side of the plane and managed to see beautiful views of the Reykjanes Peninsular – the roads we drove on, Reykjavik in the distance, bird cliffs in the South that we didn’t have a chance to go to; and as a bonus we also saw Heimaey and Surtsey! It brought the trip full circle, ending with the islands we got to know through the volcano show on the first day in Iceland. I felt really privileged to see Surtsey, the tiny island that didn’t exist not long ago in geological terms.

Anyway, as we got higher into the clouds, we settled in for the short flight back home to London :)

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We decided that we’d try some local food that day. For the previous few days we’d been self-catering our meals. We had brought bread, canned tuna, canned salmon, pate, corned beef, and clementines from UK. Apparently other travellers often also bring along food with them from home cos the cost of food, and the the cost of basically everything, is very high in Iceland. Iceland tops the Big Mac index! One of the guidebooks described how it is pitiful to see travellers who normally travel in style and luxury end up penny pinching, and even taking food from breakfast buffets to make lunch packs. Our hotel had a sign on the dining room door that read “it is not the custom in Iceland to make lunch packs from the breakfast buffet” to prevent exactly such behaviour. But Jon and I are used to self-catering anyway, having done that many times on our various backpacking trips.

We got to see just how expensive food is in Iceland that Sunday. We shared a snack of soup and a kebab and it added up to S$36! But the food was really good! The soup was made from lobster (and was excellent), and the kebab was of Minke whale! Wait wait wait! Before you say anything, Minke whales are not endangered! In fact Iceland carefully watches the Minke whale population. Of the 45,000 Minke whales, less than 1% are allowed to be caught. Whale meat is surprisingly like red meat! It really looks like, and has the texture of beef steak, though the taste is slightly different.

We were glad for the hot meal because it was another freezing day!

Having warmed our stomachs, we went to explore the Sunday Kolaportio flea market. It’s rather an ordinary flea market, except for the food section. Oh…the food section. There we tried some yummy Icelandic food like smoked fish (like giam he) and smoked herring (sweet, fishy, and tasty). We also bought some of their flat rye bread (yummy! sweet and with a slight burnt taste), a loaf of sweet malty bread, some smoked salmon and fish pate to try.

But the king of Icelandic delicacies that we tried was Hakarl, which is rotten shark. Yep…rotten shark. It is buried for up to six months in sand to break down the high levels of ammonia and neurotixins contained in its flesh. Different parts of the shark yield either white or dark meat. We tried the white one… While the initial taste was sweet (though Jon will dispute that heh), the aftertaste which came quickly after was horrible! Oh man…you cannot image the taste! Ammonia plus some other gross concoction of flavours…yucks.. And the worst part is that the taste stays in your throat for the next few hours. Even though we ate other things after that…there was still a lingering tinge of the rotten shark. The smell was horrible too. At the stall selling Hakarl there was an overwhelming pungent smell that I kept trying to blow out of my lungs! I couldn’t imagine working in that stall and being surrounded by that smell all day long. But I suppose the stall keeper was used to it..and maybe even likes Hakarl!

Anyway, we tried it! :) It seems many Icelanders also don’t really fancy Hakarl, and the traditional way of eating it is to drink a glug of really strong alcohol once you’ve popped the Hakarl in your mouth so that you don’t taste the rotten fish.

Another really fantastic bit of Icelandic food that we tried was their hot dog! We went to the most well-loved stall called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur which was near the flea market. It looks like a simple hot dog, but you know you’ve got something wonderful when you bite into it! The flavour and the blend of sauces is excellent! And there’s an extra crunch from the fried onions they put inside. Fantastic! Don’t think I’ve had a better hot dog!

We couldn’t resist going back to the hot dog stand after coming back from the Blue Lagoon and getting a hot dog each as a pre-dinner snack. It’s clear it’s a well-loved stall cos there was an endless flow of customers going to buy hot dogs, even at night! We then had dinner proper back at the hotel, eating some of the stuff we had bought from the flea market. Yummy smoked salmon and the super tasty rye bread with knobs of butter! :) So much better than canned tuna! :)

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Iceland – Day 3

As we got back pretty late in the early AMs from the Northern Lights hunt, we slept in a little on the third day. Anyway, the forecast for that Sunday was snow, which was accurate. So our plans to either drive east to see the Jökulsárlón lagoon, or to drive North to Snaefellsnes peninsular had to be scraped since it would be a long drive and the snowy conditions would make our progress slow and potentially dangerous.

Instead, we decided to wander around the capital of Reykjavik then head to the Blue Lagoon in the afternoon. Reykjavik is small compared to other European capitals. We went to see Tjörn, which is a large lake in the heart of the old part of the city. It was mostly frozen over except for one corner, as a result, all the ducks, geese, swans, and other water fowl congregated in that corner. It was so noisy!

The City Hall stood by the lake, and in it was housed a 3D model of Iceland. It’s a huge model that took 4 people 4 years to make. I thought it was nice to catch a glimpse of the landscape that we wouldn’t get to see in the rest of Iceland. And what I saw made me want to come back to Iceland again to see the rest of the magnificant landscape. In our short 4 days (actually only 3 days if you count by 24hr periods), we’d cover only a small portion of what Iceland has to offer!

The rest of the town was quaint and cosy. And it felt very safe. We felt no need for heightened alertness to danger, much like when we are in Singapore. We could walk about freely with peace of mind.

After wandering through the Sunday Kolaportio flea market (more on this in the food section), we started to make our way to the Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermally heated pool. The wind was strong and it was blowing snow across the roads, making visibility poor. If we thought the highway was bad, the smaller roads were much worse! It was covered in snow, and at one point we experienced a near-whiteout situation! We couldn’t see the road, and we could barely see the road markers! The wind was blowing very strongly and all around was snow. We went slowly and carefully because we didn’t want to end up off the road and onto the lava fields – not terrain that you can drive on with a regular car. In that snowy condition, we got stuck in the snow twice! But Jon was the hero and immediately got out of the car to push it out of the snow! :)

What a drive! On hindsight really exciting, but during the drive itself was a situation that required one’s full concentration, lots of patience and perseverance! I’m glad we went through that it, but I hope we won’t have to go through that again!

In contrast to our adventure on the way to the Blue Lagoon, the Blue Lagoon itself was like a paradise of calm and serenity. Everyone who was already there was totally oblivious to the strong wind and poor road conditions outside. They were just enjoying the dip in the blue waters.

It’s an amazing place, sounded by snowy mountains. Steam rises from where the water enters the lagoon. The bottom of the lagoon is covered at some parts with black lava sand, and at others with soft silica mud. Some purer silica mud (probably taken from another pool, not the blue lagoon itself) is set aside for patrons to use as face masks. Apparently the silica mud is really good for the skin, so you’ll see men and women alike swimming around the lagoon with silica mud on their face :)

And the water is so wonderfully hot! The air is 0 degrees Celsius, and water temperature ranges from 38-41 degrees Celsius! We took the brave route and ran in the open to get to the warm water :) There is the more tame way of entering the water from the indoor pool, then wading out into the open. It’s lovely to be in hot water out in the open. The only problem is that your ears get soooo cold if you don’t dip your head in every now and then. I tried not to dip my whole head in cos the water is supposed to really dry out your hair. So every so often when my ears start to freeze, I’d dip my head side ways :) It was so cold that ice crystals even started forming on Jon’s eyelashes!

We spent almost three hours just enjoying the water there, and emerged relaxed and having really smooth skin! :)

We were so glad that the road has been plowed so that the drive out was much more manageable. Got back to our warm room safe and sound :) Such an eventful day!

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Iceland – Day 2

On the second day we decided to do the Golden Circle, a route which covers some of Iceland’s main attractions. We first headed for Þingvellir National Park, where the Alþingi – Iceland’s national assembly (also the world’s first) – was first instituted in AD 930. It’s apparently still a place regarded with reverance by Icelanders. It’s set on the lava plains lying between the European and American tectonic plates, two plates which are constantly moving apart! The Alþingi itself was held at the foot of the Almmannagjá – just one of many large fissures. The place, like everywhere else, was beautifully covered in snow except for the rivers and ponds that hadn’t frozen over. It’s always nice to see fresh snow that hasn’t been trampled on. Some bushes looked like marshmallows or frost covered muffins :) I also loved how the snow glittered luxuriously under the bright sunshine.

Our next stop was to Geysir, the original water spout that lent it’s name to all other water spouts around the world. The road we wanted to take was snowed over and impassable, so we had to take a longer route to get there. But that was fine as we got to drive along Iceland’s largest lake Þingvallavatn. Some parts were frozen over, but at sections the bright blue water appeared and contrasted beautifully with the white snow.

We also had the bonus of seeing the Kerið crater. There was actually a lake in the middle, but it was frozen. We met a Polish guy there who was on his third trip to Iceland. He thought that Iceland though beautiful in winter is at its best in spring and encouraged us to try to visit Iceland again during that season.

We also saw Icelandic horses grazing in the fields :) It was a lovely sight! Horses of various colours contrasting beautifully against the white mountains the fields.

It was a long detour, and eventually we got to Geysir. Geysir itself has stopped having regular activity for years. The nearby geysir called Strokkur has taken over as the key attraction. It consistently blows up a spout of water every five minutes or so to a height of around 20 metres. Before the geysir blows you can see the water level drop significantly, then it starts to swell, then it suddenly bursts!

The entire Geysir area is just gorgeous. Because of the warm ground temperature, some of the snow melts away revealing the colourful moss that lay hidden elsewhere. Again, the snow-covered mountains provided a lovely contrast and brought out the colour even more :)

We saw Strokkur spout three times :) So being satisfied, we moved on to check out Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s best known waterfalls. It’s a stunning, jaw-dropping sight that will stop you in your tracks. As you walk towards the path that leads to the waterfall you can’t see anything because you’re on a ridge. Then as you step to the edge of the ridge onto the staircase leading down to the falls you are hit by the wonder of the sight. Photos don’t quite capture it. The waterfalls tumble down a series of cascades, onto a lower level, then tumbles again down into a narrow ravine.

The wind was also incredibly strong…and cold! Already it was a -5 day, add the wind and the spray from the waterfall, it was even colder! I was so thankful for the jacket, raincoat and beanie I borrowed from Shan! Even through all the layers it was cold!

We walked down a path that leads right to the next of the waterfalls. I was a little worried when I was walking down the path cos it was slippery due to the ice. The path was narrow, and next to it was a rather steep fall down…so clumsy me made my way slloowwllyy and carefully down the path. But the walk down was well worth it! Surprisingly it was not that windy down by the waterfall, so it was a little relief from the cold :) But eventually we had to walk back up into the wind and cold.

We had to head back to the hotel cos we were going for the Northern Lights hunt! We got back in good time, and found that the tour was not cancelled, meaning that there was still a possibility for us to see the Northern Lights!! I was really excited! But was also psyching myself up for the possibility that we wouldn’t see the lights. You need really clear skies and good auroral activity to see the lights, but the though the afternoon had clear blue skies, the clouds had come in! Ahhh!!

We drove out of Reykjavik to escape the bright city lights, and to try and find a patch of clear sky. Along the way, in the dark of night, and away from some of the clouds, we saw a faint but distinctive green light glimmer in the sky!! It had to be the Northern Lights cos there was no large city around the area, meaning it wasn’t the reflection of the city lights on the clouds. It stretched lengthwise with a slight curve. I can still remember it clearly in my mind, even though it was faint, and nothing like the beautiful postcards you see. But it’s a haunting image, and the green is just so distinctive. I was hoping that we’d step off the bus to see the lights, but the tour leader thought we might get a better view of it further up the bay, so on we drove. The light remained in the sky, but by the time we got to the location he wanted, it had faded away! :(

So we went on north again to find another patch of clear sky. Again I saw the glimmer of the green light in the sky! I was hoping it would get brighter and more spectacular, but the clouds were getting thicker above us. We got off the bus and saw some of the green stretch further across the sky, but eventually the clouds came in and obscured the colours. Without the clouds it’d probably look something like this.

Anyway, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see the full spectacle of the Northern Lights, but some of the others on the tour with us didn’t manage to catch the lights at all! And others who’ve gone to Iceland before have not seen even a glimmer of it either. So I’m really happy that I got to see at least a shimmer of the haunting green :)

[Again..the photo uploader is wonky…. photos akan datang].

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Iceland – Day 1

What a wonderful opportunity! We’re so close to Iceland, and Icelandair had a flight/hotel offer. We had to grab it! The package included a Northern Lights hunt!!! I’ve always always always wanted to see the Northern Lights!

I was filled with excitement at the thought of going to Iceland! Never thought I’d ever set my foot in that country! And oh, how beautiful the place is. Although what we saw was great, it looks like Iceland will be all the more gorgeous in spring/summer. We hope to head back there again someday!

We took a day flight, which was fantastic because we got to look over the snow-covered landscape of Southeast Iceland. Jon and I were really awed by what we saw. It was literally jaw-dropping! That’s how Iceland is – it bewitches you even before you reach it!

Anyway I saw something funny on the plane. Under the “Golden Oldies” category of songs I saw U2’s “With or Without You”, and Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” ;) Poor U2 and Maddie!

I have been wishing it would snow in London, but it hasn’t. It’s snowed almost everywhere else in UK. But God answered my prayers in a big way. It was snowing in Iceland! And apparently it hardly snows in Reykjavik :) The wind was so strong the snow was blowing horizontally! All that snow made driving a new and exciting challenge for me. Think I won’t forget the drives in Iceland any time soon!

Unfortunately because it was cloudly that night, the weather was not ideal for viewing the Northern Lights. So we decided to go catch the Volcano Show. It was a series of two films on Iceland’s recent eruptions, filmed by Villi Knudsen – a man with a passion for the volcanic activity in Iceland. He’s filmed eruptions up close and personal, tracking the changes in activity as long as the eruptions continue. The films gave fascinating portraits of the formation of Surtsey (Iceland’s newest island) and the activity at Heimaey. He also covered the eruptions at Lake Myvatn and at Vatnajokull. We thought that the films really have perspective to the still-changing land of Iceland, and gave us insights to better appreciate the landscape. The footage was excellent, though we found the soundtrack to be highly amusing. It was a collection of random noises and space-age sounds, much like the type of soundtrack they used for sci-fi movies long ago. There were “UFO” sounds, crashes, knocks, etc. At points Jon and I couldn’t help laughing because it was really quite hilarious watching volcanic lava flow to such a soundtrack :)

It was only after watching the first film that we started to suspect that the guy who was showing us the film was Villi Knudsen himself! The films were quite old, and the man who appeared occasionally in the film resembled the man at the theatre, only much younger. We got confirmation after the second film that indeed, the man at the theatre was Knudsen himself! How amazing to meet the man who’s been so close to the eruptions. He was a lot older now, but he was still very interested in volcanoes and their activity. He told us about some of the places they are monitoring for potential volcanic eruptions. He also told us that he had been to Singapore too, although it was quite a while back :) He was a very nice man, and it really did feel like an honour to meet him.

Well it was just a short first day since we arrived in the afternoon. But there’s a lot more to come!

[Hmm…Something’s wrong with my photo uploader, so I’ll put up the photos another day]

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Dublin

We decided to try an audacious plan to visit Dublin over the weekend by taking an overnight train and ferry ride to Dublin, arriving Saturday morning, and returning to London again by overnight train and ferry arriving Monday morning. Quite exciting!

We arrived so early that none of the attractions and few cafes were open. So we just hung at one of the fast food restaurants at a train station. A good breakfast and a short nap later, we walked to Kilmainham Gaol – a former prison. It’s a historic, sombre place with great political significance for the Irish because many of those who fought for independence were once imprisoned, and even executed there.

The unique architectural aspect of the prison is it’s panoptican east wing. It’s constructed in such a way that from the observation landings, the wardens could look into every cell to observe the prisoners at all times.

The other gruesome yet interesting nugget we found out was that the gates at the entrance to the prison were built not to keep the prisoners in, but to keep the non-prisoners out. Apparently hangings were such a popular social event that throngs of people would gather at the entrance to watch. You can see the two small white squares on the wall above the entrance was where the wood beams would have been.

And look how one of prisoners proposed to his girlfriend “you will marry me and nobody else”. Period. It was quite a touching and tragic story though. They were allowed to get married in the prison chapel, but they were only married for one afternoon, as he was executed soon after. She herself was imprisoned at Kilmainham at a later date, where she spent some of her time painting this image.

After the prison tour, we took a bus into town and walked along the river Liffey, checked out the famous Ha’penny Bridge, explored the Moore street market (which turned out to be much less bustling than the guidebook made it out to be), walked down O’Connell Street, and checked out Temple Bar and the nearby Meeting House Square market (which is like the Irish equivalent of London’s Borough market, but on a smaller scale).

A funny window display :)

We had arranged to meet Julian (my JC pal!) at Trinity College. He brought us around the campus, to see the well-known Book of Kells, and the magnificent Long Room. He was a great tour guide! :) He could relate everything from the dates of the founding of the school, who founded it, to significant events since it’s opening, and recent events of interest that related to the college :) Very impressive!

It so happened that weekend was when the Rugby Six Nations Ireland-Scotland match was on! As a result, Dublin was flooded with Scotland supporters…decked out in kilts! :) I’ve never seen so many men in skirts ;)

This particular shot is not too flattering for the guy. Looks rather effeminate =)

Julian, Jon and I watched the match in a pub. An exciting match it was! Ireland played really well, and deservedly won the match.

Jon & I head off to Tallaght after the match where our hotel was located – some 40 mins out of town. Turns out that we were one of the first few guests at the hotel. They had only opened the day before! You could tell that the staff were new cos they were so eager to please, plenty of hellos, some awkwardness on their part (e.g., sometimes they don’t know which way to walk and they bump into the guests, prompting swift apologies with a big sunny smile). The place definitely has some teething problems, for example, the lift broke down on the second day and we had to walk down to the ground floor, the heating in the room wasn’t that good, the water was also quite chilly; but overall it was a very comfortable place to stay.

My only gripe is the funny mismatch between the lift numbering and room numbering system. Normally if your room is 401, you’d expect it to be on the 4th floor. But nooo, they used the G, 1, 2, 3.. system instead of the 1, 2, 3, 4..system, hence room 401 is on the 3rd floor. Even then they don’t follow the G, 1, 2, 3 system perfectly. Theirs is actually G, M, 2, 3… So just as you thought you’ve figured it out, they tell you breakfast is on the 1st floor and you suddenly realise there’s no ‘1’ button in the lift! It’s actually on ‘M’! Hiya…confusing lah. Need to standardise!

Our second day was really relaxed. Slept in – afterall we didn’t get much sleep the night before with all the train-ferry transfers, had a yummy Irish breakfast (complete with black and white pudding), then head off for the Guinness Storehouse.

It was a very informative place, and a fun museum to wander about. I liked the Storehouse very much. Unfortunately, I don’t like the product quite so much. I never really liked beer, much less stout. And even though Guinness from the Guinness brewery itself does taste richer and is much more creamy, I’m still not a Guinness fan; for Jon though, he concluded that the glass of Guinness he drank there was the best he’s ever had :) He ended up drinking up the other half of my pint. I couldn’t finish it! It started to give me a headache…even though the advertising says it’s good for you! Think I’ll just stick to cider :)

We spent quite a bit of time just hanging around the Guinness Storehouse after wandering through the exhibits. There’s a nice bar on the top with panoramic views over Dublin, and one floor below is a relaxing area to just chill.

We slowly sipped our Guinness while watching Gaelic sports on TV. I’m not too sure how the rules for Gaelic football works. It seems to be a mix of soccer, rugby and American football, and a whole lot more. It seems like almost anything goes! You can run with the ball, you can bounce it, you can dribble it; you can score by kicking it in the goal net, or you can kick it through the posts like in rugby…?!? Catch no ball. Will wiki it.

Dinner, then it was time to head to the ferry port and back to London. How quickly time passes!

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We’re off to Liverpool tomorrow!

Jon’s all eager to pay homage to Everton at their home ground – Goodison Park! We’re catching the Everton-Reading match with Ernest :)

After that we’ll be heading to the Peak District! More when we come back :)

I’ve decided to update current events and past events at the same time. All these technology troubles have taken too much time away from bloggin’!! January looks boring, like we’ve not done anything! But we’ve been keeping ourselves busy nonetheless!

Updates to come! Gotta go sleep! We’ve an early start at 5.30am, and Jon’ll kill me if I wake up late and miss the bus haha :)

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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!
http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLandingSignin.jsp?Uc=r2ctt29.1kflcjjx&Uy=-xj3aet&Upost_signin=Slideshow.jsp%3Fmode%3Dfromshare&Ux=0&UV=514295358583_153393670605

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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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