Postcards from: Scotland
River Safari, Singapore
As part of the Buddy Programme at SMU, we had an outing to the newly opened River Safari.
River Safari is the newest wildlife park opened by Wildlife Reserves Singapore, and is inspired by the world’s most famous rivers such as the Mekong, Nile and Yangtze. While I am a big fan of the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, the River Safari failed to impress as I felt that it was quite barren compared to the other parks. Of course, the highlight of River Safari is the Giant Panda Forest, home of Kai Kai and Jia Jia – the pair of giant pandas which is a gift from China to celebrate 20 years of Sino-Singapore relations. But mind you, it is just a 10 year loan.
Kathy, Anton, Dj and I (at my chubbiest)
The Amazon River Quest is a boat ride that brings you through “the Amazon”, showcasing many species of wildlife from the Amazon. That was pretty fun too, I guess. However, like how the trams are at the zoo and Night Safari, you may not get to see the animals if the timing is not right, since the boat will not stop. Fortunately, we got to see the jaguar, which was to me, the highlight of the whole ride.
Flamingoes – always an amusing bunch
Of course, no trip to River Safari would be complete without having a meal or a little snack at Mama Panda House, the resident café serving up Chinese food such as bamboo (surprise, surprise) rice and their signature Panda Paus. I am a HUGE fan of paus, especially red bean pau, so I ordered one for myself. These paus do not cost the same as paus we get at neighbourhood food centres; they cost about $2.90 each but they are also bigger than they kopitiam compatriates. The paus also come in Chocolate Custard flavour. The paus look adorable, almost too cute to eat. Almost. To make it more bearable, eat the eyes and nose first, then you will have the heart to devour these yummy paus. They were soft and fluffy, and filled with a generous amount of red bean paste. Yup, worth the $2.90. Almost as yummy as the $2.50 tau sar pau at 40 Hands.
Red bean Panda Pau from Mama Panda House
Posing with the pandas outside Mama Panda House
Gazing at the long bridge that connects the park, it felt like I was transported back to the past. This somehow looks very “kampong” like.
We wandered into the Giant Panda Forest. Other than the famous giant pandas, it is also home to the red panda, which reminded me of a reddish-brown racoon.
We spotted one panda lazing and grazing. Not sure if it was Jia Jia or Kai Kai.
Suddenly, we heard some rustling, and saw the other panda scurrying from one side of the exhibit to the other. Just like paparazzi, we followed suit with our cameras, capturing photo after photo of the panda.
They really are the celebrities of the River Safari.
Towards the end, we saw the alligators of the Yangtze as well as the giant catfish of the Mekong. Close up of a Chinese alligator
Thank you SMU for organising this trip for our buddies! Although I felt that it was pretty disappointing compared to the zoo, I am hoping that River Safari has gotten better since last year when we visited since I believe it is now fully operational.
After our trip to Neuschwanstein, we returned back to Munich to have dinner at one of the most famous beer halls in the world – Hofbräuhaus München. The beer hall that stands today is over a century old and its history as the royal brewery stems dates back to the 16th century when the Duke of Bavaria first started brewing brown ale. Whether you are a fan or Weißbier or Dunkelbier, you must visit the Hofbräuhaus in Munich to taste some of the best beers in the world. I honestly do not like beer, but I am a BIG fan of the Dunkelbier served here.
Other than the beer, the Hofbräuhaus is a great place to try traditional Bavarian fare such as Weißwurst and Laugenbretzel. I tend to avoid processed meats like sausages but these were amazing sausages! The pretzel was also really good – hard on the outside, soft on the inside (just like me) and also nice and chewy. The mustard is a good accompaniment to both the sausages as well as the pretzel.
Good luck trying to find a seat here as it is ALWAYS packed. Be prepared to share a table and to speak much louder than usual as it is a crowded and noisy place, but it all adds to the amazing atmosphere at the Hofbräuhaus!
The next day, we headed out for the free walking tour which is once again run by Sandemans. As usual, a very insightful tour. The three hours are jam-packed with visits to the most famous, and not so famous, tourist attractions around Munich. Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady)Rathaus-Glockenspiel at Marienplatz
Like many big European cities, Munich also has a famous clock tower. However, this one puts on a little show for the hundreds of spectators below. The story of the royal wedding, a joust between a Bavarian and Habsburger and a popular folk dance are performed by the little figures. The whole event, which takes place at 11am daily at Marienplatz – the heart of Munich, lasts about 10 minutes. It is highly overrated and a long time to keep your head up (or your cameras pointed skywards).
One of our stops was at Viktualienmarkt (“Viktualien” means food in Latin). This farmers market hosts over a hundred stalls selling a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, baked goods, flowers and more.
Our guide recommended a stall for us to have a little snack – a Bratwurst im Semmel.
Bratwurst and beer. How very cliché.
Our tour brought us back to the Hofbräuhaus. While we simply enjoyed our German fare the last time, our guide provided us with the very interesting history of this brewery.
Hitler used to hold some of his most memorable rallies and speeches at the Hofbräuhaus.
Lunch time at the Hofbräuhaus
Look closely and you can make out the elaborately disguised swastikas on the ceiling of the Hofbräuhaus.
Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich State Opera)
The Golden Line along “Dodger’s Alley”
This line of gold painted cobblestone was one of the most memorable places we visited. During the failed coup (a.k.a. the Bierhalle Putsch or Beer Hall Putsch) to seize Munich in 1923, 16 Nazis were killed. Hitler put up a plaque honouring the death of his comrades and ordered everyone who passed by this very spot to do the infamous Nazi salute as a sign of respect to the fallen Nazis. However, people who were against them started taking a route down another alley so that they did not need to salute. The Nazi soldiers started to notice this pattern and on the assumption that they were non-supporters, would shoot those who walked down this alley. The golden line was laid in honour of the “dodgers” who died.
Our last stop was at the Feldherrnhalle.
Feldherrnhalle at Odeonsplatz
The Feldherrnhalle was where the Bavarian police and Hitler’s followers opened fire during the Beer Hall Putsch. It was here that after rising to power in 1933, Hitler turned the Feldherrnhalle into a memorial for the fallen Nazis. Odeonsplatz was often used for Nazi rallies and parades.
Present day Munich still hints of its Nazi history which is embedded in little details such as the ceilings in the Hofbräuhaus. However, Munich, as well as many other European countries occupied by the Nazis, have gone a long way to destroy the remnants of the terrible past and to commemorate those who gave their lives in their fight against the Nazi regime.
After the tour, we searched for baumkuchen.
Conditorei Kreutzkamm is a café founded in 1825 in Dresden. They are famous for their baumkuchen and also, the world famous Christstollen from Dresden.
Baumkuchen can come in two forms. The more famous version is that which resembles a log. When sliced, the characteristic rings look like tree rings – hence the name baumkuchen, or tree cake.
However, the log-like baumkuchen was atrociously expensive, and we had to settle with the baumkuchen torte, which is baked in a normal cake pan as opposed to on a spit. It is also known as a Schichttorte, sometimes glazed with chocolate. The baumkuchen torte resembles our Nyonya kuih lapis and tastes similar as well. It is painstakingly made layer by layer. I’m not sure when I will ever have the patience to do that, but this cake is definitely on my baking bucket list.
We also ordered the Käsekuchen, which is a German-style cheesecake traditionally made with quark instead of cream cheese (New York-style) or ricotta (Italian-style). This results, in my opinion, in a lighter, not-too-sweet, healthier cheesecake. Quark was something I discovered back in Graz as many of the pastries there used quark instead of cream cheese. I fell in love with it instantly.
Baumkuchen torte and Käsekuchen
Our final dinner in Munich was with Ron once again. This time we went to Augustiner Biergarten, another famous beer hall in Munich.I had the pork sausages with rotkraut instead of the usual sauerkraut. SO DELICIOUS. This meal was on-par with the meal we had at Hofbräuhaus. It seems like we ended our little Bavarian adventure with a very typical Bavarian meal that night.
Sadly, this also marked the end of our entire European tour. I am glad we ended it in one of my favourite cities in Europe – Munich. We flew back to Singapore and the very next day, we had to go to school. There was not much studying involved over the last few months in Austria (as compared to Singapore), but we all did well with the little work we put in. We always pulled our weight when it came to group work and we excelled in presentations and in exams.
Although Graz was not my first choice as I initially chose to attend a school in France instead, I never looked back from the moment I arrived in Graz. I am thankful for the opportunity that SMU affords it students to immerse themselves overseas and to experience different cultures and landscapes. I am also grateful for the scholarship I got that made this whole journey less of a financial burden for me since I funded it all with my own savings. I must say that I do not regret a single cent I spent (except maybe on some terrible food) because as cliché as it may be, the journey was priceless.
25 cities later, I finally conclude this travelogue of my epic exchange. Cheers to all whom I share many wonderful memories with.
A Visit to Schloß Neuschwanstein, Bavaria
Our final destination was one of my favourites from my entire time in Europe. We made our way from Berlin to Munich, or München (which I now know how to pronounce after taking a few German lessons).
On one of the days in Munich, we met with Ron who was on his exchange programme there, and journeyed to a very enchanting and somewhat surreal castle – Schloß Neuschwanstein.
The castle is one of the world’s most famous castles, and definitely the most beautiful one I have seen. It is known as the Sleeping Beauty Castle, as Walt Disney’s inspiration came from this very castle. Most recently, it was featured in The Monuments Men – which is a movie I very much enjoyed. Must be George Clooney.
We took the train from Munich’s train station early that morning to Füssen, which is the closest bahnhof (train station) to visit the castle.
From the train station, it is a pretty long and arduous hike up to Marienbrücke, the bridge where you get simply the best view of Neuschwanstein Castle. I would highly recommend wearing good, sturdy shoes. When we were there, it had been snowing a couple of days before, and the path was icy and slippery, even with my Timberlands. It wasn’t a stroll in the park. Even though it was very cold initially (I had on 4 layers in total), about midway through, I had to remove my coat because I was perspiring! How uncommon for winter.
On the way up, you will come across another castle – Schloß Hohenschwangau. I find it quite sad that most people simply disregard this castle for the more famous Neuschwanstein Castle.The way up…
After a tough uphill climb, we finally made it to Marienbrücke. I couldn’t stop smiling.Marienbrücke
The view that greeted us was one of the most amazing ever – a magical castle perched precariously on a hill.Schloß Neuschwanstein
I was very much in love with the exterior. A pale grey/cream limestone façade; it towered even from a distance, completely overwhelming, yet simultaneously, complementing its surrounding.
Do look down the opposite side when on you’re on Marienbrücke; another beautiful sight awaits.
On the way down, you can once again catch a glimpse of Schloß Hohenschwangau amidst its surroundings. The beautiful snow-capped mountains seem to fade into the horizon. It was really serene.I wonder how my face got so chubby…
When we got close to the castle, I felt tiny. It’s a different feeling standing beneath, as opposed to looking at it from the bridge. It is so well preserved (or restored) that it really does look like part of Disneyland. This is definitely a good day trip I would recommend to anyone visiting Munich. The little girl/little boy in you will be very happy.
Berlin, Germany (Part 2)
The Berlin Wall is quite possibly the most iconic landmark in the whole of Berlin, if not Germany. There is so much history behind this wall, so many stories told, and many more lost. In part 1 of my post, I posted a picture of a small, undecorated segment of the wall. Bright and early one morning, we took the train to the East Side Gallery.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, and today exhibits many beautiful pieces of graffiti art from artists that hail from all over the world. The images are striking, and they portray the turmoil of the era, but more importantly, the hope of a better future.Looking up at the wall, I tried to put myself into the shoes of the Germans who were separated from their families, and those who risked their lives to get across to greener pastures. What a struggle it must have been.
We spotted some art from Singaporean artists too. My favourite was this psychedelic portion of the wall. I guess the wall now make many people happy as they admire the many pieces of art.“I painted over the wall of shame so freedom is ashamed no more. Inferno ruled too many years, until the people chose the light. I put my faith in you Berlin, and give to you my colours bright.”
This beautiful quote perfectly summarises what I believe the East Side Gallery symbolises today.
After spending some time appreciating and reading the many messages scribbled on the wall, we made our way for lunch nearby.Burgermeister, or Burger Master, supposedly serves up some of Berlin’s best burgers. Visit Tripadvisor and read the many positive reviews it has received. As of 5 June 2015, it is #18 of 6,108 restaurants in Berlin. I wouldn’t call it a restaurant though. Burgermeister is just a little kiosk (which apparently was once a public toilet) under a bridge.
There was a long queue and we had to wait about an hour in the cold to finally get our burgers. Fortunately, there were heaters around and I found myself standing around those half of the time. I am terribly bad with terribly cold weather.How would I rate the cheeseburger? I’d give it a 3.5 out of 5. I guess I was expecting much more from it because of the all the reviews from friends and just the sheer number of people who queue up for this. However, I would say for the price – under 4 Euros for a cheeseburger, it was pretty reasonable. Oh wait, Euros. Ok, it beats McDonald’s cheeseburger, but I wouldn’t queue up for it again. The thing that I found good though, was the bun – it was perfectly toasted.
I would suspect that the other burgers on the menu which sound much more decadent would taste better. The chilli cheese was better, the Meister Aller Klassen would be too. We also ordered a serving of cheese fries. Ok too, but once again, not anything special.
Address: Oberbaumstraße 8, 10997 Berlin, Germany
That night, we went over to a friend’s place to celebrate the new year with our fellow SMUdents. I don’t remember many instances where I have been so fearful for my life. We stayed in a residential area with many immigrants, and let’s just say that there were too many fireworks, and gunshots that night. I do not claim that those bullets fired were real but they were all too real for me. We hurried to the train station before we got into any trouble.
After a very long game of charades and fits of laughter, we made our way downstairs to partake in what seemed like Berliners’ tradition of setting off fireworks. This was my first time ever and of course, I was paranoid that someone might lose a limb of two. The hobo-haired boyfriendHappy new year!
The next day, we tried looking for the famous Baumkuchen bakery, but it was closed, and I was utterly devastated. So instead, I have a Berliner to end Berlin with a bang. If you are what you eat, then as John F. Kenny proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, I must be a jelly doughnut.
That pretty much sums up our days in Berlin. Off we go to Munich!
Berlin, Germany (Part 1)
I haven’t written anything in months. Whether its a lack of motivation or sheer laziness, I’ll leave it to you. Clearly, when it’s been over a year since I’ve returned from exchange, lots of the little details about my trips have been forgotten.
We arrived in Berlin late at night, and took the bus to our place which we rented on Airbnb. It was the only reasonably priced accommodation we could find as every other place was either full or were charging exorbitant prices for the new year. Berlin happens to be one of those cities where everyone wants to countdown the new year in. We heard that over 200,000 (conservative estimate) were going to the countdown at Brandenburg Gate. We got the whole place to ourselves, as our host and his girlfriend left the city. It wasn’t the most centrally-located place, but we didn’t have much of a choice anyway. However, the place was clean and lovely. No complaints there.
The next day, we headed out without much of an itinerary. We first headed to Museum Island.
The Berlin TV Tower (Berliner Fernsehturm) is the most prominent (outstanding, literally) structure in Berlin. It also happens to be the tallest structure in the whole of Germany. Should have gone up, but we didn’t. There was always a perpetual queue and we had lots to do in Berlin.
The Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) is my favourite building in Berlin. Always a sucker for those green domes. I used to think that the green was the original colour of these domes, however, it was only while on exchange that I found out that it was due to corrosion that it becomes that distinctive green patina. I feel smarter already.
The Altes Museum
Much of what we did the first day is lost to me. Not saying it sucked but it was nothing significant.
The TV Tower at night
There were still Christmas markets up and we briefly walked through one. It was a small one but nonetheless, still as enchanting.
Beautiful Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread hearts)
That night, we headed to a famous (touristy) spot – Checkpoint Charlie.
Checkpoint Charlie is extremely gimmicky now (in my opinion), due to the actors dressed in military attire – whom you are able to take photos with at a fee. During the Cold War, however, Checkpoint Charlie represented the divide between East and West Berlin. Down the street, there are exhibits with lots of information about Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War in general.
Remember all the history lessons back in high school? History was my favourite and till today, I am fascinated with it. It seems like all my favourite books are about the wars (fiction as well as non-fiction). I guess the highlight of this trip to Berlin was how much history the city has. The free walking tour was also awesome! More on that later.
After Checkpoint Charlie, we went hunting for the Ritter Sport store – a.k.a. Ritter Sport Bunte Schokowelt (translated: Ritter Sport Colourful Chocolate World). Oh, and indeed it was a colourful world of chocolate! Ritter Sport is definitely one of my favourite brands of affordable chocolates, so visiting this store was like being at Disneyland for me. My love for chocolate might just rival my love for peanut butter (or not). We found many flavours we have never seen in Singapore, and that I didn’t find in Austria.
Us, at the Ritter Sport store
We bought lots of chocolate to bring home for our families! The chocolate is much cheaper here too. As you can see, I gained many many pounds on exchange, and I attribute at least half of the weight to the countless bars of chocolate I ate. I made it a point to try all the chocolate that couldn’t be found back home. Heh.
We ended the day with dinner. We met up with my friend Franco and his friends who brought us for a Middle Eastern dinner. The food was fantastic, especially the manti.
These dumplings were delicious! Manti are dumplings filled with spiced meat that are either steamed or boiled. This version was served in a spicy chilli oil and topped with sour cream.
Don’t remember if these were lamb or beef kibbeh but I ate it anyway. It is made with bulgur and minced meat, deep-fried like a croquette. I love croquettes; I love deep-fried food.
The next day, we decided to go for the free walking tour. The free walking tour we chose was once again – Sandemans.
On the way to the meeting point – Brandenburg Gate, we passed by a Daimler AG – Mercedes Benz Gallery along Unter den Linden. It was interesting to see the evolution of the cars over the years.
I like the S350 best, though I wouldn’t mind owning them all if I had the money.
The meeting point for the free walking tour is at Brandenburg Gate. Brandenburg Gate has played an important role in the history of Berlin. Representing peace, the gate is a beautiful one – the Quadriga with Goddess Victoria holding the Iron Cross and an olive wreath makes it look ever so trimphant.
I’m not sure if it was because it was close to the new year, or if Berlin’s free walking tour is just very popular, but I’m just glad that we got there early because they had to turn many people away. There were hundreds of people waiting for the tour and too few guides to accommodate.
The tour brought us to numerous locations around Berlin. Our first stop after Brandenburg Gate was the Reichstag building – the meeting place of the German parliament.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just a short walk away from Brandenburg Gate. The memorial is for the victims of the Holocaust.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
There are many interpretations of the memorial – some say each column represents a number of the victims since they look like tombstones. My first impression of the memorial was that it was vast, orderly yet disorderly at the same time. The columns are arranged in straight rows but the columns are of different heights. A walk through the memorial was greatly upsetting to me as I recollected the many stories of the Holocaust. It truly repulses me what people are capable of, not just back then, but also at this present day.
Also, remember to be respectful while you are at the memorial. Please no standing on the columns. It really irked me to see people standing on and misbehaving around the memorial.
One of the most interesting places we visited during the tour was what we thought was a random carpark. It looks like just another carpark in a residential estate; however, little did we know that this carpark was once where the centre of the Nazi regime – the Führerbunker. This was also where Hitler and his wife died by taking their own lives. Of course, this isn’t the typical tourist attraction. Only a small sign displays the history of the location.
The former site of the Führerbunker
You can find the location here.
Many of us know the Berlin Wall as the beautifully graffitied gallery. The tour brought us to a segment that was unpainted. It looked like just another wall (a very old, dirty one). The Berlin Wall divided West Berlin from East Germany from 1961 to 1989, keeping East Germans from fleeing to the West. One of the most famous checkpoints along the wall was Checkpoint Charlie, which was the main access point for the Allied forces.
A segment of the Berlin Wall
One of my favourite topics in history is on the Berlin Wall. Who can forget that speech by Ronald Reagan with one of the most powerful lines: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Many people lost their lives in attempts to defect. Guards were allowed to shoot anyone who tried to escape, but many people in desperation still tried their luck.
We also visited the Luftwaffe HQ which our tour guide explained was the former Nazi Air Force HQ. It is constructed in the typical “Nazi-style architecture” – intimidating and designed to make you feel small and insignificant. The building is now used as the German tax office.
One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Berlin is Humboldt-Universität. During the Third Reich, the Nazis burnt thousands of books from its library that were written or considered opposing their regime. The infamous book burnings took place in the square outside the university at the current Bebelplatz (formerly Opernplatz).
A memorial now stands at Bebelplatz. It is minimalistic – empty bookshelves to represent the missing 20,000 books that were burnt.
Memorial at Bebelplatz commemorating the book burnings
“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” which translates: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
We ended the day at the Topography of Terror, which is the former location of the Gestapo and SS Headquarters in Berlin.
Topography of Terror
This was one of the most informative museums I’ve been to, but definitely not one for people who hate reading. If you’re as interested as I about the history, then the reading won’t be too painful. I definitely learnt a lot more from the visit, and I would encourage anyone to visit too, even if just for a short while.
The free walking tour was definitely one of the better ones I attended, very informative and covering many of the important historical locations around Berlin, including those that we wouldn’t find on TripAdvisor.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Berlin!
There is probably no place in Austria so surreal, so peaceful and so picturesque as Hallstatt.
Peiwen and I did a short day trip to Hallstatt. I came from Graz, while she came from Salzburg. We ended up on the same train. My jaw literally dropped when I got off the train.
Across the tranquil Hallstätter See (Hallstatt Lake) is the village of Hallstatt. Since medieval times, this village has be known for its salt trade. Its name, Hallstatt, means “salt place” in Celtic. Even today, you can still visit the world’s oldest salt mines. However, as we were there in the winter, the salt mines were closed, but we still had an amazing time just strolling along the lake and wandering around the “pearl of Austria”. It’s times like this that I’m happy I invested over a thousand dollars on a good camera. My photos are minimally edited on iPhoto (that’s all I can manage) and they look really good, yet, I feel that they offer only a small glimpse into the beauty of Hallstatt.
Hallstätter See with Hallstatt set against the mountains
Hallstatt is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Human activity in the magnificent natural landscape of the Salzkammergut began in prehistoric times, with the salt deposits being exploited as early as the 2nd millennium BC. This resource formed the basis of the area’s prosperity up to the middle of the 20th century, a prosperity that is reflected in the fine architecture of the town of Hallstatt.”
When you arrive at the train station, the only way to get to Hallstatt is to take a boat across the lake. The boats all have a schedule pasted onboard so you can plan your return trip. As the boat set off towards Hallstatt, the looming mountains became bigger and the village came into clear sight. It was a really amazing experience, just being on the boat slowly approaching Hallstatt. I can’t seem to describe the awe I felt, but I definitely hope that everyone will get the chance to experience it at least once in their lifetime.
View of Hallstatt from the boat
When we got off the boat, we immediately made our way up a hill. I can’t quite remember where we were headed for, because we eventually had to turn back after a fair bit of climbing as the roads were closed. It had been snowing in the days before and the snow had frozen up, making the climb pretty dangerous.
Slightly disappointed and a tad exhausted, we headed back down the hill and traveled to the other side of Hallstatt instead.
A tired Peiwen
Vandalized, and proud of it (Peiwen + Maddie 🙂 2013)
I had to resist taking photos every second because it seemed like everywhere I looked, there was some beauty to be captured. A quick tip: when you get off the boat, walk towards the right side, and up a slight slope to catch this magnificent view that you often see on postcards.
The best view of Hallstatt
Peiwen and I ❤
Never be afraid to ask other travellers to take photographs for you. Sometimes, you get amazing photos like this one! Also, just because someone is carrying a DSLR, doesn’t make them a professional. Oh, and also, I find that Asians are better photographers in general. Must be all the practice we get from taking photos of our friends and all the selfies too.
Right at the heart of Hallstatt is the church that has become one of the landmarks of this charming village – the Evangelical Parish Church. Its spire is the most prominent piece of architecture in the whole of Hallstatt.
Cemetery at the Ascension of Our Lady Catholic Church
I have never been a fan of cemeteries because those we have in Singapore are just eerie, but the cemeteries throughout Europe aren’t. In some places, people actually have picnics in cemeteries! GASP! We wandered among the headstones, and I felt a sense of peace rather than fear. I never thought I’d say this but this was a really beautiful cemetery.
Now, back to die Salze (the salt). Even the bottles you get here are so pretty. I regret not buying a bottle for myself. It would’ve made a great souvenir.
Bottles of locally mined salt
Instead, I got a small bottle of eggnog for Dj and I from this wonderful store. I never had eggnog before, but I knew it was a Christmas drink and I was already anticipating my favourite day of the year! It was really delicious. I shall try making my own eggnog this year!
We walked past the Market Square (Marktplatz). They were setting up a Christmas market.
Market Square (Marktplatz)
We walked to the extreme end of Hallstatt to catch another beautiful view of the village.
I actually won $50 worth of CapitaLand vouchers by entering this photo in the #TravelMadeDifferent contest on Instagram. YAY.
There was a sign that said “No entry” onto the dock, but we hopped over quickly to take this photo. Yeah, we’re badass.
Peiwen and the swans
The glassy waters of Hallstätter See are just magnificent, aren’t they?
Although we knew that the mines were closed, we walked to the funicular anyway. The funicular brings people up to the world’s oldest known salt mine. It’s really a pity that we didn’t come before they closed for the winter.
Since no salt mine for us, we decided to frolic in the snow. There’s something magical about beautiful, untouched white snow. Of course, my ass was freezing and my jeans were damp afterwards. It was worth it. I felt like a child again.
Just chilling, literally.
We walked back towards Marktplatz to grab some food.
Such a photogenic place
The narrow alleyways
I had some pumpkin and apple soup to fight the cold, while Peiwen had some yummy fish at one of the cafés.
And of course, no meal is complete without dessert. We hopped on to another restaurant to have dessert. To be honest, we already had a slice of cake in the café, but you can never have enough dessert, right?
We had our dessert at the restaurant in the Seehotel Grüner Baum. It was a pretty posh place and I was worried that everything on the menu would be unaffordable. To my pleasant surprise, it was ok! We were dying for some Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian specialty, which translates to “emperor’s mess”. It is a shredded pancake, usually dusted with powdered sugar and served with jam. Kaiser Franz Josef I loved it, and so do I!
Beautiful floral arrangement at Seehotel Grüner Baum
Kaiserschmarrn with stewed plums – €9.90
The Kaiserschmarrn served at Seehotel Grüner Baum is served with stewed plums, which was extraordinary! The pancakes were perfectly caramelised on the outside and fluffy inside. My only complaint is that there was way too much butter. We left the bottom bit untouched because it were literally soaking in butter. Nonetheless, the most memorable Kaiserschmarrn I’ve had.
We quickly made our way to the dock to catch the boat back to the train station.
Although it was just a few hours in Hallstatt, the place has left such a lasting impression on me. I would love to return to Hallstatt with Dj someday. Hallstatt is unspoilt; it transported me back in time. It really is heaven on earth.
Auf Wiedersehen, Hallstatt.
Vienna, Austria (Part 2)
My second time in Vienna was a trip with Peiwen and Alex. Alex and his mum warmly welcomed us into their beautiful home to stay for two days.
We were there to see the famous Christkindlmarkt. From about mid November, many squares transform into festive Christmas markets. Yes, Christmas is a BIG thing in Austria, and all around Europe. Out of all the Christmas markets in Vienna, the main one, and by far, the most beautiful and grandest Christmas market I’ve seen, is the one at Rathausplatz (City Hall Square). It is on the top 10 lists of many of the best Christmas markets in Europe. For the locations of the Christmas markets in Vienna, click HERE.
All around town, the streets were adorned with Christmas lights, decorations and Christmas trees. It was really stunning at night.
Beautiful street lights around the Historic Center of Vienna
If only Christmas was like this in Singapore! But it would be extremely expensive!
On the first night, we visited the Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz.
Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz
At this Christkindlmarkt, you will find over 150 stalls selling everything Christmassy. What makes it different is its setting, in the foreground of the Rathaus (City Hall), a beautiful and imposing Neo-Gothic building. Then there are the myriad of coloured lights that illuminate the market. Because I suck at night photography, I don’t think I managed to capture the beauty and ambience of the Christmas market. It is definitely a must-do when you’re in Vienna during Advent, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas. Vienna might convert you!
Of course, there is a lot of food available at the Christkindlmarkt. I was very attracted (as usual) to the sweet stuff and glühwein (mulled wine). The cakes and sweet treats were so beautifully made.
Austrian specialties – Sacher, Mozart & Apfelstrudel
Das Wiener Rathaus (City Hall)
We bought a slice of chocolate cake and a huge Krapfen (a.k.a a doughnut, or Berliner) for breakfast the next day. Peiwen and I also got a cup of mulled wine each, and walked back to Alex’s place slowly sipping (and spilling) the wine. How it works at Christmas markets is that you pay for the drinks with the price of the cup included. It is not a plastic cup, or any old cup, but a special one with drawings and little pictures that are 3D. When, and if you return the cup, you get a few Euros back. If you don’t, then you simply keep the cup. So yes, I did not steal the cup. It is a nice souvenir!
The next day, we visited Schloß Schönbrunn. I didn’t manage to visit the palace the last time I was in Vienna with Cindy, so my two friends happily (or reluctantly) agreed to follow me. We just visited the garden, because apparently, just seeing the palace building and the garden alone is good enough.
Christmas market at Schönbrunn
Initially constructed as a palatial hunting lodge by the Habsburgs, the palace was later used by the courts under Maria Theresia.
The name Schönbrunn means “beautiful well” – the well referring to a well where the courts got their water. The word schön was one of the first German words I learnt. Schönen Tag (good day), people! In 1918, with the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, ownership of Schönbrunn Palace was transferred to the newly founded Republic of Austria.
Alex is smiling!
We walked up the hill, through the gardens and caught an amazing view of Vienna from high up.
I had to Google the meaning of gloriette – “A gloriette is a building in a garden erected on a site that is elevated with respect to the surroundings”.
After Schönbrunn, we made our way back to town to get lunch. I think Alex was famished! We had a buffet lunch at some restaurant before heading back home to take a break. We considered going to the opera, but decided against it since no one was really too fond of it. Instead, we went out to get some veal to cook ourselves dinner. We were going to cook a typical Viennese dish – Wiener Schnitzel!
Alex’s Oma (grandma) gave him the recipe, so we set out to get the ingredients – some flour, meat, and lard to cook. I didn’t even know they sold that lard like that. It was packaged like butter and looked like petroleum jelly. Anyway, I did most of the cooking. 😛
I think it is an extremely easy recipe. There really isn’t any way to go wrong, unless you burn it. I thought this recipe was as close as it could get: Wiener Schnitzel recipe.
We cooked some rice to go, and garnished with it with lemon. It was really simple, yet delicious. Am I a fan of Wiener Schnitzel though? I don’t care much for it, but I would eat it if someone served it (I guess).
Our homemade Wiener Schnitzel
Thank you to Alex and his mum for making us feel so at home in Vienna!
Really awesome chocolate from Alex’s mum as our farewell gift
The three of us returned to Graz after our short trip together.
Back to school! On the train ride back, I was working hard on my German homework and studying hard for my exam. Fortunately, I had two German speakers to help me 🙂
Rome & Vatican City
We took the train (Trenitalia) from Venice to Rome. Definitely one of the best train rides I had in Europe. It was a much more modern train than those I usually take out of Austria. Also, much cleaner and the seats are more comfortable.
My first impression of Rome was that it was just an extremely rich city. It was, after all, the capital city of the Roman Empire. If you’ve seen enough movies, you’re sure to know a little bit about The Eternal City.
Upon arrival at our hostel, Dj and I went for a late lunch at a restaurant, excited to taste “real” Italian food. However, I was slightly disappointed. Maybe my tastebuds are too accustomed to the Italian food here in Singapore, or my mum’s Italian cooking.
The next day, we visited the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. We entered the basilica the night before, but once more so that Joel and Jared could also take a look. The basilica looks utterly run-down from the outside, just reddish-brown bricks and stone. However, upon entering, we were absolutely spellbound. I had never seen a church like it before.
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs)
This would be the first of many churches visited in Rome; each one more spectacular than the last.
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs stands on Piazza della Repubblica, which is the starting point of one of the main streets of Rome – Via Nazionale.
Piazza della Repubblica & The Fountain of the Naiads
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It also holds the name of major basilica, one of only four in the world.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The church’s marble columns, fifth century mosaics, triumphal arch and nave are stunning. Definitely one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen (and I think I’ve seen a lot). We also entered the Crypt of the Nativity. The crypt houses the Reliquary of the Holy Crib, said to contain wood from the Holy Crib of of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
Next up, the Pantheon. The Pantheon is one of Rome’s most well-preserved ancient buildings. The height to the oculus is dizzying, 43.3m tall. During the Renaissance, it was used as a tomb. It is now a church where mass is held.
Just a few minutes walk from the Pantheon is Giolitti, where I had the best gelato! Giolitti is supposedly the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome.
Gelato from Giolitti
We visited Giolitti at least twice to satisfy our gelato cravings. Flavours we tried include: nocciola (hazelnut), gianduja (chocolate-hazelnut), riso, Nutella, and champagne. The best has to be Nutella, although nocciola and gianduja put up a close fight. Then again, Nutella and gianduja are almost the same thing. Ok, don’t trust me. I obviously love hazelnut and chocolate! You also get to choose if you would like your gelato topped with whipped cream, but the gelato is good enough on its own.
Giolitti is opened until 2am, so it’s a great place to get your late night munchies on.
Forum of Augustus
Forums are public spaces or squares built by the Romans. The Forum of Augustus housed a temple in honour of Mars and was also the venue of ceremonies and where the senate held discussions.
Another must-see is the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland). The monument was built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of unified Italy. Personally, I find the monument quite grand and very different from the surrounding architecture – more Greek than Roman. I really love the two statues of the Goddess of Victory, Victoria, riding on the chariots.
Altare della Patria
Altare della Patria by night
Fans of pasta, attention please. Ever wondered where Carbonara comes from? Well, Rome. La Carbonara has been serving delicious pasta dishes from 1906. The original Roman Carbonara, unlike the Carbonara we get in most parts of the world, does not include cream, and is instead, a mixture of eggs, cheese and bacon. Can’t say I prefer the original though. The guys all got their Spaghetti alla Carbonara (€6), while I chose Pomodoro e Mozzarella di Bufala (€7), mainly because I love tomato-based pasta and also because my favourite cheese is buffalo mozzarella. The Pomodoro was delicious, and the buffalo mozzarella was nice and stringy. Amazing how something so simple can taste so delicious! However, for the sake of it, make sure at least one person at the table orders Carbonara so you can try the authentic version.
Pomodoro e Mozzarella di Bufala from La Carbonara
I recommend visiting the Colloseum before or after having your pasta fix art La Carbonara. They are just a short distance away from each other.
The first time we visited the Colloseum, it was about to close. As it was during the winter season, it closes earlier than during the summer. We decided to come back again the next day, and as luck would have it, it was the perfect sunny day in Rome.
We spent a good hour or more walking around and taking lots of pictures. It was really spectacular. The largest amphitheatre in the world, the Colloseum has a capacity of 50,000 to 80,000 and was used to host the renowned gladiator contests. It is hard to believe that it is still standing. What an amazing feat of Roman engineering!
After the Colloseum, we decided to walk a little more around the Roman Forum.
We got an amazing view of the rooftops of Rome. I wasn’t feeling very well after the Colloseum, and left the boys to return to the hostel myself. I remember they were a little concerned about me traveling back myself. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself! The guys visited the Catacombs of Rome after, and from what I heard, it was really spooky. Good thing I didn’t go. I think I would’ve sensed a lot of weird things.
At night, we visited the famous Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), which is a big-ass fountain, the biggest, in Rome. Built in my favourite Baroque-style, it a sight to behold.
Legend has it that those who throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain with their right hand over their left shoulder, with their backs against the fountain, will most definitely find themselves in Rome again. Do I really need to toss a coin to return? Nope.
The coins are cleared every night from the fountain – almost €3,000, and is used to fund a supermarket that helps the needy in Rome.
Us, at Trevi Fountain
Because SMU sends its students all around the world for exchange, it was easy to meet up with fellow school mates in Rome. Ben Ben was staying with some other SMU students in an apartment, so he arranged for us to have dinner one night… with Singaporean food! Chicken rice, laksa, and the best Swedish meatballs ever (take that, IKEA) made from scratch by their Swedish flatmate.
Food, glorious food
I knew Ben from FTB, and Benny from my TA class. But the rest were strangers, and the guys knew no one at the table. But it’s really amazing how just being from the same school, or being exchange students in a foreign land can so easily bring people together. Well, the food helps too.
After dinner, we hopped onto a bus and headed to Giolitti for gelato. Really, happy calories don’t count.
One of the mornings, I passed by a pastry shop near our hostel. It sold really pretty desserts, bread and pastries. I couldn’t resist the amazing looking chocolate croissant. I’ve never seen croissant made this way, striped with chocolate. More often, we have pain au chocolat, with chocolate in the middle. It was so delicious.
On my last day in Rome, Dj and I headed to Vatican City. It was a twenty minute train ride from Roma Termini.
An independent state of its own, it is the smallest in the world by area and population. The population of tourists, however, not so small. When we arrived, there was already a snaking queue waiting to get into St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano).
Fortunately, we only queued for an hour, and the weather was super! It was warm, and I could remove my coat. We had to go through security first before entering the church. Entry to the church is free.
I’m not exaggerating, but my jaw really dropped when I entered. St. Peter’s is one beautiful piece of art. The dome, the mosaics, the columns, the marble, the sculptures… everything was so ornate, so stunning. Not to mention, St. Peter’s dwarfs every single church I’ve laid eyes on. I felt so small and insignificant, like a tiny ant amongst the rest of my kind.
The artist Michelangelo helped to design the basilica – the dome being one of his most celebrated works of art and architecture. The dome of St. Peter’s is the largest in the world.
St. Peter’s is the burial place of St. Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles, as well as the first Pope and Bishop of Rome.
We didn’t get to stay long in St. Peters, as there was something going on the next hour and they were clearing the church before the guests arrived. A pity though, would’ve loved to climb to the top. I’ve seen, from photos, how the view of Rome from the top looks like.
St. Peter’s Square
Panoramic view of St. Peter’s Square
From St. Peter’s Square, we walked around the walls of the Vatican and to the Vatican Museums.
The walls of the Vatican
The museum houses some of the most important pieces of religious art in the world, and also, with the ticket for the museums, you may enter the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t linger too long around the art, but quickly made our way to the Sistine Chapel instead.
For many years, I’ve been longing to see Michelangelo’s paintings. My aunt told me about the beauty of the Sistine Chapel, but I never imagined it to be as beautiful as she claimed. Sure, the chapel is a little old and dusty, tourists are packed in like sardines, and the annoying guards keep shouting “No photographs, no videos” every thirty seconds, but I think everyone can appreciate Michelangelo’s work. The ceiling is magnificent. If there were mattresses on the floor, I’m sure everyone would just lay down and stare at the ceiling and frescoes all day long.
After marvelling at Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and The Creation of Adam for a really long time, we left the Vatican Museums hunting for more gelato. Using our trusty Tripadvisor iPhone app, we found Hedera, which is ranked #8 out of #8,433 restaurants in Rome. Can the gelato at Hedera compete with that of Giolitti? Well, yes, it could! However, Hedera doesn’t have as many flavours available, so it definitely doesn’t appeal as much. Having said that, the quality of the gelato is amazing. I had nocciola once again and the taste was richer than that from Giolitti. They use premium ingredients for their gelato, and it’s just plain to see why so many people have rated their gelato among the best in Rome.
Nocciola gelato served in a cup + a mini cone
After gelato, we walked back to St. Peter’s Square, and towards Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).
St. Peter’s Square, bustling all day
Castel Sant’Angelo was built as a mausoleum, was used as a fortress and a castle, but now serves as a museum. It is also featured in Dan Brown’s book Angels & Demons. We didn’t enter as it was only thirty minutes to closing time, and we didn’t want to rush through it. Outside Castel Sant’Angelo, many street peddlers can be found selling counterfeit goods, especially fake Prada and LV bags. Just ignore them.
From Castel Sant’Angelo, make sure you look back towards St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a spectacular view, that straight road down.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Be sure to admire Ponte Sant’Angelo, the beautiful bridge just beside Castel Sant’Angelo. The statues of angels holding Arma Christi (the Instruments of the Passion) adorn the sides.
We caught the sunset at Ponte Sant’Angelo before heading back to the hostel. I left that night back for Graz, and had the most terrifying train ride ever. More on that next time.
St. Peter’s Square still crowded in the evening
I really enjoyed Italy. I think it’s one of my favourite places now. I would love to visit Florence, the rolling hills of Tuscany, Sicily, Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast some day. Special thanks once more to my best friend, travel buddy and boyfriend for making this trip so memorable and for putting up with me (I know I can be difficult).