Monday, June 29, 2009

A walk in Rouen

Rouen, pronounced through the nose as “Ro-wah” is the capital of the Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) region in France known for its beautiful and large number of surviving half-timber houses.

Striking, pastel-coloured and playful half-timber houses in Rouen... so lovely to look at! These buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and were painstakingly restored to its former glory in the 1950's.

The city is also known for a couple of significant personalities and historical events. Firstly, for its Cathedral being a favourite subject of Claude Monet’s series of paintings. Secondly, Rouen was the capital of the once powerful Anglo-Norman empire. And thirdly, for Jeanne D’Arc (Joan of Arc), the national heroine and patron saint of France. Jean D’Arc was burned at stake in the old town square of Rouen.

More fotos of the old historical town of Rouen. Unfortunately, Rouen is a large city and I am not really fond of large cities but the old town is pretty and compact, so truly worth it to visit. The last foto to the right is the street going to the Cathedral.

It’s no surprise that France, being a republic that is personified through the legendary Marianne elected a woman patron saint, Joan of Arc. A woman indeed best describes France. I’m not sure if that is flattering to the (chauvinistic) French men though but I guess they do not mind at all?

The Anglo-Norman empire was also the ultimate British-French connection and seems like ties have been ruthlessly severed before that until now the Brits and the French play politically correct with each other while underlying hostilities obviously still ruled the day.

The gothic Cathedral of Rouen that Monet loves to use as a subject of his paintings. The French teach art and culture at an early age. These kids were on a school fieldtrip. I must have seen more than 5 groups there. And these days, I am less enamored with facades of gothic churches... perhaps due to having seen so much of the same dark, busy and eerie design and structure.

I arrived a bit late in Rouen. I totally underestimated the traveling time. Rouen unlike Caen is a much bigger city which means there are many one-way streets and finding my hotel in the small narrow alleyways was a dare. And, it’s almost dark! I pulled over and asked a passerby who gladly helped me and pointed where the hotel is in the map, then directed me the road I should take. Afraid to make the wrong turn, I followed the instructions religiously and found the hotel. *BIG sigh of relief* I hate checking in late, but oh well...

Hallelujah, before I totally forget I managed to get someone to take a decent full body shot souvenir of me in Rouen. This is taken in Place du Vieux Marché where Jeanne D'Arc was executed in the 14th century. On the right foto you can see a large gray canopy, this is the modern church of Saint Jeanne D'Arc, constructed to commemorate her death and sainthood.

Here you can see the interior of the Saint Jeanne D'Arc church. The stained glass were very pretty; it occupied me for a bit.

The hotel I’m spending the evening at has a very fascinating interior. My bedroom is in period style décor, has a high ceiling tapered with elaborate crown moulding pattern, and the wallpaper reeks Victorian antiquity. I’m not very fond of taking hotel bedroom fotos so I have no souvenir here.

Throughout the night, I had the window opened for ventilation. I can’t sleep when it’s warm; it makes me restless. I always wonder how other people can sleep with electric blankets. Even if its -30C for me, no heater in the bedroom please, just give me layers of soft duvets. Luckily, the hotel is in a quiet corner so there was less noise coming from the road. I slept tight.

The Gros Horloge (Astronomical Clock) in Gros Horloge Street dating back to the late 16th century (but believed to be dated 13th century). It is currently under renovation (from the other side of these fotos so you are not seeing the work in progress). The foto in the middle is the carved detail of its ceiling, very striking. I think the Czech Republic have the best collection of Astronomical clocks, the one in Prague I have seen, and the other in Olomouc I still have to visit.

Me in my usual side pose in Gros Horloge Street and this house has a good way of advertising the product they are selling. Perfect vintage look! By the way, the sideways pose is the best pose to do when there is no one to take a foto of you, it gives more space for the other intended subjects to be seen =)

In the morning I woke up with the fresh breeze sifting through the open window and the curtains. The skies were grey outside and I feared it would rain. Up until now I have had only perfect weather and the plan was to go around Rouen on foot after my quick little breakfast which consists of tea and 2 biscuits. Suddenly, a flurry of rainfall slapped the window sill I had to close the shutters a bit so water won’t come in. I peeked outside through the glass window and saw umbrellas. It’s 7:30AM and people are going to work. A female biker passed by in a fashionable see-through raincoat. Oh, how cool is that.

After checking the weather update on TV, I have resigned to the fact that it is going to be a wet last day in France so I packed my portable umbrella with me, a hat and a cashmere throw. It might be chilly so I need something to wrap me up. Downstairs the hotel manager joined in my despondent mood. He was worse; he thinks it will rain for the most of the day!

By the time I was finished chatting with the hotel manager, the rain dried up, rather quickly to our surprise. And after half an hour of exploring the old town, the sun went up! Hallelujah!

The cafe scene in Rouen, and as you can see Jeanne D'Arc is all over the place. The cafe in the middle foto is one of the best place to people watch in town. Location is across the Gros Horloge itself which is nice and is a crowded shopping street by day too. Taken before 11AM so it was not busy yet.

I was able to enjoy my walk, drifting from one alley to another and finding beautiful half timbered houses in every corner I turn to. Rouen has hundreds of them clustered in corners and little neighborhoods, some in pastel colours while others in dark. The ambience of this town is akin to a toy land. Thanks to the determined Rouennais!

After the Second World War when Rouen lay in flames and ruins, the locals bonded and rebuilt the city. They did a great job re-establishing Rouen, and preserving art, culture and architecture once again.

More fotos of Rouen here: Rouen - Haute-Normandie, France

Now, I am off to my last stop, Honfleur.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Vredenburg Markt in Utrecht

I still have 2 more France travel entries to post: Rouen and Honfleur, the latter together with Le Mont Saint Michel were my favorite. I will post them soon after I have edited and uploaded the fotos online. For now, let me show you a bit of the open-air Vredenburg market on a Saturday in Utrecht Centrum.

Vredenburg Markt in Utrecht Centrum (you can't miss this when going to Bijenkorf) is open 3x a week during Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Saturday is the busiest and the biggest market.

Dutch markets are not like their southern counterparts where lots of produce from the ground are brought on sale. There are very few fresh produce stands in the markets as most fruits and vegetables here come from other countries. The Netherlands import them as far as South America. The local farmers in the country are also directly contracted with supermarkets. This could perhaps be a preference as this business strategy yields steady income.

So if looking for fruits and vegetables, it’s better then to go to a supermarket as they have a wide variety available there. Always check the labels and see, “land van herkomst” on it, meaning land of origin. You will notice a lot of the produce are imported.

More fotos here: Vredenburg Markt, Utrecht - The Netherlands

Cheese vendor with all the yummy Dutch cheese and this man selling stroopwafels with Gouda recipe has been there on the same stand for years! Stroopwafels are again one of the typically Dutch treats. The waffles are pressed together with soft caramel melted in between. This is yummy but too sweet for me though.

Flowers are also not a big thing in Dutch markets, although there will always be 1 flower vendor present. I think this has something to do with flowers being a principal product all over the country. You do not need to go to a market to buy flowers because you can find them in your neighborhood anyway. There is always a flower vendor nearby. Or you can just pluck those flowers that grow on the roadside too.

The more common food products sold in the market are dairy-cheeses, baked goods, meat and seafood. The seafood though is not as impressive as I have for example seen in Spain or Greece. Most Dutch I noticed, like with fresh produce, prefer to buy meat and seafood that is already filleted and pre-packed in the supermarket. Even for chicken, they prefer fillet too.

It looks like practicality is the key thing here to understand the local’s buying habits.

Bakery stand... you might want to know that the Dutch are bread people. They eat bread for breakfast and lunch. Bread and cheese, day in day out. And Haring is another big thing in this country. The Hollandse Nieuwe, a type of haring with 16% fat is the most popular that many fishmongers and followers celebrate the yearly season when they are catched for public consumption.

While I was taking fotos of the sea food catches, a fishmonger who was quite friendly said, “Je bent zeker niet van de belastingdienst? Anders word ik echt eng!” I told him NEE so he laughed and told me to take fotos.

This also happened recently in Caen market in France when I was taking fotos of the dried sausages and this prickly man told me something in French and then switched to his broken English when he realized I don’t speak French at all. I only understood the word TAX that he kept repeating.

Hmm… this is the first time I have heard of the tax department going clandestine audit operation of markets.

Smoked fish (need to get their translation in English) and you can see behind jar bottles of sliced liver sausages and pickled fish. Next foto is the lekker kibbeling with other assortment of deep fried fish. They taste good when sprinkled with herbs mix with pepper and salt specially made for fish. I just discovered this the other week when I was here.

I guess the most fascinating part of the seafood section is the fresh “haring” (herring) and the fried “kibbeling” (cut pieces of cod fish deep fried). They truly represent Dutch gastronomy to the highest level! I love both! As a fish lover, I always do a haring and kibbeling treat from time to time.

Anyway, its Saturday today and I have to buy a couple of gifts in town... a friend had her birthday, my sister in law will be celebrating her birthday too soon, and another friend have invited us over to her housewarming party. Perhaps I will stop by the market and pleasure myself with some kibbeling!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Weekend Wrap Up and snippets of Luchtmacht Dagen

Friday – went to gym and worked out for 2.5 hours, then ask for and signed my “uitschrijving” because I am moving gyms. Thought its better to train nearby home during the weekends, plus Dutchman and I will be going together so that would be good I hope, hehe. He’s not into fitness though but swimming.

After the work out I had this insatiable hankering for hot spicy chicken wings, and since Dutchman is off skating for the evening, I really have no desire of getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, so here I come KFC! Yeah, KFC on my birthday, lol.

Saturday – picked up our blonde curly haired 11- year old nephew. We are borrowing him for a day to the Luchtmacht Dagen (Royal Netherlands Air Force Air Show) in Volkel Airbase down south in Brabant.

The impressive red and yellow act represent the Spanish flag. These are Spain's Patrulla Aguilla, one of the air show acts that I really like. Next foto is the British Avro Vulcan with his 2 escorts, famous to have served during the Cold War.

On the way, the traffic was horrible! It took us more than 2 hours to get to Volkel and vice versa to Utrecht. Because of this we missed a couple of shows.

Two of the shows we missed but were lucky enough to get a glimpse of are: a) the KLM Airbus with his entourage of jet fighters, and b) Chinook helicopter and a jeep strapped hanging below it, also with his entourage of helicopters.

Me sitting on the grass just after having lunch. Next foto... the Chinook has become a live museum.

We caught sight of the spectacular show on Peelweg, the road to the airbase which at that moment was jammed with cars moving slowly. I was able to take a foto of the Chinook and we had a great view of it through the trees when it flew so low and hovered above us. It was simply awesome. Images of the Vietnam War flashed before me.

Below are a few videos I took with my Nokia Nav mobile phone. More to come on a different post!

F-16 solo act from I believe a Belgian pilot, if not Dutch... then the Spanish Flies, the Patrulla Aguila, I really enjoyed this act.

It was my first air show and the Dutchman being the airplane enthusiast was our coach for the day, giving information about the airplane, the model, and pieces of related history which I find really neat. Most men are into cars and fast driving (think about a sports car shooting down the no speed limit autobahn here), unfortunately Dutchman is into flying. If he could turn back the clock he would have been a pilot now by profession.

The event anyway was a success. There were so many aficionados and spectators, even children!

Saturday evening – after dropping off little nephew at his parents – I like kids you know as long as I can return them to their parents, we went home to change for dinner.

Grand Hotel Karel V in Utrecht has a Michelin Star restaurant

I didn’t realize that Grand Karel V is actually a 5-star hotel until I saw the 5 stars on the hotel’s sign board. The food was good. The wine excellent! I didn’t take fotos of the food as I thought it would be “genant”. I don’t mind doing so during my holidays because many tourists do this anyway but not here and not in a fine dining place.

I however did take a foto of myself in the toilet. I also managed to take a snapshot of Karel V’s facial mural impression in the basement for souvenir which I will post later together with the other fotos and videos of the Air Show once I have the software of my camera installed and running on my new laptop. Right now I only have the software of my mobile installed.

Basement of Grand Hotel Karel V, quick fotos I took before the stroll outside in the garden.

After settling the bill, we went for a little stroll in the Centrum and discovered small passageways that we never saw before. We hopped on the bike just after midnight with me perched royally at the back as Dutchman pedals home.

Sunday – spent the morning till early afternoon cleaning the house after which entertained the Dutch families for my birthday feast. I got nice presents but the present I am waiting for is from Dutchman – he promised to bring me to Berlin this autumn when we are back from our Philippine summer holiday. Yay!

Original plan for Sunday was picnic at the park with everyone but the weather was not cooperating. Bouts of dark clouds, showers and sunshine... not a good idea to be staying outside.

All in all the weekend went good.

I will be posting fotos and videos of the Luchtmacht Dagen (Royal Netherlands Air Force Air Show) separately once I have uploaded them all to my laptop.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ouarzazate: A tour in Morocco always ends up with someone selling you a carpet

In April I was in Morocco with Blondine and we visited Ouarzazate which is located in the eastern part of the country near the Saharan Desert. We hired a tour guide for our visit to Kasbah Tourirt and the medina. It was well worth it.

At the end of the tour, our tour guide brought us to a tapestry shop outside the medina. We witnessed how carpets were weaved the traditional way. Just by using their hands and a wooden frame weaver. We saw 2 women busy on their weaving by hand tasks while 1 was taking a nap. They have shifts here as well =)

The women were on the top floor (open terrace) of the shop.

At the open terrace where the women are weaving one can sight beautiful views of the medina.

We were then led down to the main hall with walls adorned in stunning bright rugs designed with beautiful weave work patterns. At this point, we already knew what’s going to happen – they will sell carpets to our group. It can be pretty annoying but in Morocco, everywhere you go someone will always try to sell you a darn carpet. That is the reality.

Our carpet sales person was dressed like an Arabian Knight, in a silken djellaba complete with the turban gadget and all. He looks more Egyptian to me than Moroccan. To get us settled down a bit he explained some cultural norms in Ouarzazate, the what and the whys. After that he went straight to his agenda, and that is selling the carpets. He showed us the beautiful rugs one by one… small carpets, medium sized carpets, big carpets, bigger carpets... it went on for a long time but sadly no one in our group has plans in buying a carpet.

At least this carpet seller was not as aggressive as the one we encountered in Setti Fatma who had serial killer eyes. Thank you anyway!

The animated carpet seller and his hundreds of carpets. I am not really a fan of brightly coloured and busily patterned carpets... so, no thanks.

More views of Ouarzazate medina from the carpet shop terrace.

We left the tapestry shop and outside down the road we saw our ADHD Moroccan driver waiting impatiently. He said we have to leave now so we will be on track with our schedule for the next item on the agenda (a visit to Ait Benhaddou) because he doesn’t want to drive the Tischka Pass on our way back to Marrakech when its dark. OK, at least he has some sense of responsibility even if he is a maniac on the road.

Tip: When taking a tour guide in anywhere else in Morocco, always communicate beforehand the price to avoid misunderstanding and irritations.

I have by the way an awakening for this trip. I found Arab music not that bad after all. I really learned to appreciate its eccentric melody. Thanks to ADHD Moroccan driver who was playing the same Arabic CD during the entire journey. Now I see the beauty behind Arabic songs.

Travel Period: April 2009
Destination: Ouarzazate (Drâa-Tafilalet), Morocco

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Friday, June 19, 2009

39!!!! and something Typically Dutch (007): Soesjes

OK I turned 39 today but I still feel like 18, hehe.

Because it’s my birthday, I brought treats to the office today. This is by the way typically Dutch to treat colleagues on your birthday with a cake – usually with a Dutch taart or vlaai. Filipinos do the same thing, they order noodles (means long life, got the practice from the Chinese) and the favorites are Pancit Palabok or Pancit Canton.

So I brought Strawberry filled tart, Apple Cream tart and SOESJES! Pronounced as soo-shuh (singular), soo-shuhs (plural).

Soesjes are small doughnut balls filled with cream, custard or ice cream. They’re a bit like cream puffs (used to buy them at Le France in Cebu during my younger years, just 2 decades ago!) except that soesjes are softer in texture. They are very popular in the Netherlands as snacks and desserts.

I’ve also read that this pastry actually originated in Italy during the Medieval Period. The Dutch would probably argue that it’s theirs. The French I am sure too.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Normandy, France: Half-Timber Houses in Bernay

I was on my way to Rouen from Le Mont St, Michel and Camembert, and this little town called Bernay that I read before the trip was along the way, so I thought, why not combine the journey with a quick stopover? Stretching my legs by doing a short walk around town is a good idea. Bernay is about 65 kilometers to the south of Rouen and is part of the Haute Normandie region (Upper Normandy).

Half-timber framed houses in Bernay, and most of these houses are in the same colours, beige with brown timber stripes.

Bernay was not what I expected. It is literally a ghost town on a Sunday (early) evening. On the other hand, I’ve read that on Saturdays the town holds a bustling and colourful market. Unfortunately I was somewhere else on a Saturday... can’t have everything right, must choose. Anyway, I was here around 7:30PM Sunday for a quick driving break and apart from the steady flow of French and English plate numbered cars that seem to have lost their way, there was almost no one in sight.

BUT, the place is a breathing medieval town! Fine-looking and well preserved half timber-framed houses filled every lane and every street corner. Bernay is one of the lucky towns that escaped the bombings during the 2nd world war. So pretty – they kept me busy and amused the whole time, so I can’t really complain even if I felt a bit spooked. Where is everybody?

Across the parking lot where I had parked the car is a beautiful Benedictine abbey which I later found out to be the Church of Notre Dame. History said that Bernay was actually a dowry given by the Duke of Normandy to his wife, and building the abbey crowned the whole engagement. Lavish huh.

I did a lot of walking around town, explored the streets, corners and squares when I turn to this small alley, and surprise, surprise, what did I see? People! People sitting outside the terrace having dinner. Haha, this must be the lone restaurant in Bernay that is open. I reminded myself I am only transiting so no buying drinks, which reminds me its time to head back to the parking lot and proceed with the journey.

Bernay I am pretty sure is a nice lively place. It’s just too bad I came on the wrong day and the wrong time. Most villages and even good sized towns in Europe during Sundays are ghost towns. And no doubt its because of the timber-framed houses the tourists come over here for a quick detour. Although Bernay is not as popular as the other touristy towns in the area that have a high influx of inquiring visitors, the place is still very much worth the visit. Please come though on a Saturday when the town is alive and I am sure you will enjoy your visit more than I did.

Half-timber framed houses like in Bernay are mostly found in Germany, Northern France, Denmark and some parts of the United Kingdom.

I came from Mont-Saint-Michel passing via Camembert (quick stop-over) and then to Bernay (for another short stop-over). My end destination for the day is Rouen where I will stay for the evening.

Typical half-timber house in brown and white.

The Abbey, Church of Notre Dame was constructed around the 10th century, and the town was built around this church. 

Almost no one breathing in sight.

The only restaurant that was open in town.

I am not sure if that is real hair hanging from the scissor art sculpture, but it sure looks icky.

Travel Period: May 2009Destination: Bernay (Upper Normandy), France

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