#smugrad2014

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 Thank you SMU, for all the wonderful memories – the friends I’ve made, the love I found, the things I’ve learnt in and out of the classroom; the opportunities to travel, to learn new sports, to inspire. These have been the greatest 4 years of my life, and I have zero regrets. But the road wasn’t always so smooth. I regretted the decision choosing SMU in my first and second year, asking the what-ifs if I had chosen NTU or NUS instead. However, things changed. I started to enjoy the classes and met people who made life in school so much more enjoyable. I can proudly say that I’ve made friends for life – BFFs, and of course, the love of my life. They encouraged me, they listened to my endless ranting about sleep deprivation, heavy workload and useless group mates for years, yet they always willingly offered a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. You know who you are. I thank God for you everyday.

Also, I would like to thank my mummy dearest for supporting me throughout my years of education. I hope you’re proud of what I’ve accomplished, and the woman I am today. I work hard so that one day, you can have the life that you really deserve. I know it wasn’t always easy – and maybe it still isn’t, being a single parent, having none of the household burdens shared with anyone. But you’ve done the best job. Look at where we are today. You never pushed me to study that hard. In fact, you were the one who told me not to kill myself over my exams, and that I should just go to sleep. You’ve said this since as far back as I can remember. Yet, I always studied into the wee hours, because I didn’t want you to waste your money sending me to school for nothing. Like you always say, “what is worth doing, is worth doing well”, and that has been a principle I’ve always believed in.

 Yesterday, 15 July 2014, marked the official end of my university education. And I’m proud to announce that I graduated with a Cum Laude (totally unexpected!). It really brings me great joy to celebrate with those I love, and to see the proud faces of my family, especially my grandpa who already demanded to see my official transcript. I know that he is extremely proud of me too, because I’m the first in my generation to graduate from university.

Once again, thank you to everyone who has helped me in this journey. In all honesty, some of us may grow apart over the years, but at this very moment, I just want to say that I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. I wouldn’t have made it this far, and this well, without you.

 With love,

Maddie

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck is the capital of Tyrol. Known for its winter sports, this picturesque city is surrounded by the mountains. The name, Innsbruck, means “bridge over the Inn”, which is the river that runs across the city. Stepping out of the train station, my jaw just dropped. Everywhere I looked, I saw the mountains, and as I’ve mentioned, I really fell in love with mountains when I was in Austria.

I was to meet Dj and his friend Shannon, who decided to cut their Prague trip short to come to Innsbruck. I hope they didn’t regret their decision, since they only got to stay in Prague for a day, while we had 2 days in Innsbruck.

I tried Couchsurfing for the second time, after such a wonderful experience in Salzburg. Our host, Max, didn’t have a big place but he, and his girlfriend, warmly welcomed us to their home.

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Triumphpforte

On the way to Max’s place, we passed by the Triumphpforte, which was built in 1765 to mark the marriage of archduke Leopold and the spanish princess Maria Ludovica.

After settling in, the first thing we did was go straight for the mountains for a hike. Max brought us to Nordkette. We enjoyed a quiet hike. Max very kindly joined us though he said he hadn’t hiked in ages.

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Hungerburg Funicular

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Somehow all my photos turned out like paintings. I guess the beauty of the place is simply surreal.

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Group photo

 We didn’t make it to the top due to time constraints. I was a little disappointed, but the hike had been an enjoyable one with the most amazing views and the freshest air.

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On the way down

 We decided to walk around Innsbruck Altstadt (Old Town).

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The colourful houses along the river

It was a short walk and decided to head back to Max’s place, as his girlfriend had made us a meal – delicious homemade Mexican fare.

That night, Max brought us out to have drinks at one of their favourite haunts to watch some football. Needless to say, the guys had their fun.

The next day, we decided to give Max a little break, and headed out on our own to the Old Town again.

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IMG_1312Annasäule (Anna Column) along Maria-Theresien-Straße

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 The weather was much better the second day compared to the first, which allowed the colours of the houses to pop even more against the blue sky.

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I have to say that Innsbruck was probably the most chill trip I had throughout exchange. We made no plans at all before going, relying on Max’s recommendations and our own feet to take us places.

After lots of walking, we stopped for coffee and dessert.

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Kirschtorte – cherry cake/tart

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Apfelstrudel – apple strudel with vanilla bean custard

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Bienenstich Kuchen – bee sting cake

Unfortunately, I don’t have the name of the café anymore, but I think it is a prominent one along Maria-Theresien-Straße with outdoor seating. The desserts were excellent. They had the best Apfelstrudel I had in Austria, and the Bienenstich Kuchen – a German specialty, was my favourite of the lot. The crunchy almond top perfectly complemented the soft sponge cake and smooth cream in the middle. They definitely aren’t stingy with the cream. There was a thick layer of it. But no complaints here.

That night, we spent some time with Max and his friends at a bar, having drinks and chit chatting about our countries. I guess Singapore is infamous as a “fine city”.

On our very last day in Innsbruck, we woke up bright and early, packed and said goodbye to Max before heading to our final stop – Swarovski Kristallwelten (Swarovski Crystal Worlds). Before visiting Innsbruck, I hadn’t questioned the origins of the Swarovski brand. My friends highly recommended visiting the Crystal Worlds, and I would recommend it too!

Unfortunately, we had terrible weather that morning. It was wet and gloomy, and we had to rush for the bus at the Hauptbahnhof that would take us to Swarovski Kristallwelten.

When we arrived, it was raining even heavier, so I couldn’t take any photos of the beautiful outdoor of Kristallwelten. We were also carrying our big backpacks with us, and couldn’t afford to get our stuff wet, especially not my camera.

I was definitely not expecting what I saw inside. Crystals, everywhere, on the walls, on the floor, in all shapes and in all forms.

The most impressive was the Crystal Dome. It’s as though you are standing inside a giant crystal, watching the colourful lights refract off the mirrored surfaces.

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The Crystal Dome

The museum is huge, and it takes you through many rooms, each showcasing different crystal pieces and telling different stories. Some of the displays are plain quirky, but I guess that makes the tour much more enjoyable.

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At the end of the tour, you can purchase all sorts of crystals. Of course, most were beyond my price range.

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 I managed to buy a gift for my dear Cindy’s upcoming birthday, which I would be spending with her in Vienna. Nope, not the tiger, but a simple keychain with a letter “C”.

Once again, I said goodbye to Dj, not knowing when I’d see him again. But thank God traveling around Europe is so easy.

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Goodbye, Innsbruck. I’ll be back someday for some skiing!

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is known as one of the most beautiful places in Austria. It is also known as the birthplace of that composer, Mozart. Heard of him? Oh, and also The Sound of Music - a childhood favourite!

This was my first trip with Peiwen, who invited me to join her and her friend Angela, from Taiwan.

I remember catching the train at about 6am that morning, after a night partying with the Erasmus students. I was completely exhausted, but stayed awake for the most of the train ride because the scenery on the way from Graz to Salzburg was just so beautiful. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.

Peiwen and Angela picked me up from the train station, and brought me to our flat which we had found via Couchsurfing. We cut through Mirabell Palace and Gardens, with its baroque gardens which was featured in The Sound of Music.

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After lunch with our host at a surprisingly good Asian buffet restaurant, we headed to St. Wolfgang im Salzkammergut, a pretty long bus ride from Salzburg Altstadt (Old Town).

St. Wolfgang is an idyllic market town which has a similar feel as Hallstatt.

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The highlight of the trip to St. Wolfgang was Wolfgangsee. As with the name of the town, it is named after St. Wolfgang of Regensburg, who built the first church there by the lake.

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The church was pretty creepy. I stepped in, and immediately out because I felt something. Have I mentioned, I believe I can feel the presence of ghosts pretty strongly?

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We left as night fell, and it was awfully cold as we waited for the bus. My leather jacket just didn’t cut it.

The next day, we woke up early to take a trip to Eisriesenwelt – the world’s largest natural limestone ice cave, which is situated in Werfen, about 40km away from Salzburg.

We were lucky to be in Salzburg at that time, as the cave was just about to be closed in a couple of days for the winter. It was such an amazing experience! Definitely the highlight of my trip to Salzburg.

Getting to the cable car that brings us closer to the cave can be quite a journey. From the Werfen train station, there is a van which shuttles passengers to the ticketing office, which is a distance up the mountain. Then, with the ticket, you then take the cable car until you are 1586m up the mountain.

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Once you get off the cable car, it is an arduous climb up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. However, the view makes it far less painful. This was the first time I truly fell in love with mountains. I was just in awe. The view is spectacular and the colours in fall are just so vibrant.

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At the entrance of the cave, we waited for the English tour to start. We were each handed a lamp with a small fire to light our way through the ice cave. Entering the cave, a huge gust of wind is expected due to the difference in temperature between the inside and the outside. My lamp had to be relit again. That rush of cold wind nearly blew my beanie off.

No photographs are allowed inside the cave, and they are really strict about this. Peiwen snuck a few, but I shall not post them here. The ice formations, such as the stalagmites and stalactites in the cave are really amazing. The total length of the cave is over 40km, and the one hour tour involves climbing lots of stairs in zero degree temperature. Needless to say, bring your gloves, wear thick socks and the appropriate clothing when visiting.

After the tour, we saw a few other tourists taking photos on a bench which sits precariously on the side of the mountain. No way we were going to miss this awesome photo opportunity!

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Getting off, I almost fell to my death. The photographer kindly snapped that exact moment for me. Also photographed – Peiwen laughing at me. Thanks.

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We left Werfen for Salzburg Altstadt.

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Mozart is pretty much a big deal in Salzburg. You can find Mozart’s geburtshaus (birthplace) and wohnhaus (residence).

We went for dinner at Stieglkeller. The restaurant is quite famous in Salzburg, and offers delicious Austrian cuisine and beer. It also has outdoor terraces which offer an amazing view of the Old Town. Otherwise, you may choose to sit indoors in their elaborately decorated halls.

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I ordered the Salzburger Fiakergulasch mit Semmelknödel, Spiegelei, Grillwürstel & Gurkerl (traditional beef goulash with dumplings, fried egg & grilled sausage). At just €12, it was totally worth it. My only complaint would be that it was too salty. But then again, I don’t usually add salt to anything. I survived my entire exchange without buying salt or sugar!

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Dom zu Salzburg (Salzburg Cathedral)

After dinner, we took a walk up Hohensalzburg Festung (fortress), which is located on a hill above the city. 

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The view of the city is really spectacular. My photo does no justice.

 To end the day, we decided to indulge in some traditional Salzburg desserts at Café Mozart. We ordered the Salzburger Nockerl, which is a soufflé-like dessert that is a specialty of the city. It is always made fresh, so our dessert took about 15 minutes to arrive, but it was worth it. It was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. Under the golden dumplings is a berry compote.

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Salzburger Nockerl

We also ordered Topfenstrudel mit heißen Himbeeren (Topfen strudel with hot raspberry sauce). Topfen, or quark, is a soft cheese that I fell in love with when I got to Graz. It also happens to be healthy (if not sweetened) and is a good source of protein!

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Topfenstrudel mit heißen Himbeeren

The desserts and the service at Café Mozart is great! We had a good chat with some of the waiters there, and even took a photo with one!

The next day, we visited another place where The Sound of Music was filmed – Schloss Leopoldskron. The route to the castle was extremely scenic. As usual, the Festung is visible from a distance, as it sits pretty above the town.

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Schloss Leopoldskron

It was a great stroll to start the day.

Next, we headed to Schloss Hellbrunn. Peiwen had previously visited the palace, so Angela and I went in. She didn’t want to spoil the surprise of this magical place, but when I found out it was known for its Wasserspiele (trick fountains), I pretty much expected that I wouldn’t come out dry.

Once the summer palace of the Archbishops of Salzburg, the palace and its gardens were largely used for celebrations. Markus Sittikus, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, was a man with a sense of humour. He built the trick fountains to play practical tricks on his guests.

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Steintheater (Stone Theater)

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Needless to say, I did not volunteer for anything.

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Throughout the tour, I was repeatedly caught off-guard by sprinklers that suddenly came to life from the least expected of places.

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Sometimes, you just have no choice but to walk through such paths (as pictured above). This one was my favourite. But I shan’t spoil the surprise!

Schloss Hellbrunn is definitely a place for family and friends to have a good laugh. And also to laugh at complete strangers.

Within the compound, there is also a zoo. However, coming from Singapore, I thought it wouldn’t be worth it to pay it a visit, considering it will take a lot to beat the Singapore Zoo! We decided to climb a small hill to take a panoramic look of the palace grounds instead.

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Schloss Hellbrunn

After Schloss Hellbrunn, we headed back to the Old Town to have some food at another popular café – Café Tomaselli, which is a traditional Viennese coffee house, and the oldest in Salzburg. The café itself is over a hundred years old, having acquired another that was opened in 1705. It is also said that Mozart used to have his almond milk here.

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Café Tomaselli

The waitress goes around with a cart of cakes to choose from. I chose the chocolate and marroni torte, and we also had Apfelstrudel and Eszterházy torta. All were scrumptious!

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Chocolate and marroni torte

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Apfelstrudel

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Eszterházy torta – Vanilla cream, cinnamon and walnut cake 

The café also offers fragrant Viennese coffee and so many other variants I never heard about until I got to Austria. They really love their coffee!

After coffee and cakes, we set out to find the original Mozartkugel, which is a chocolate bonbon that was created by the Salzburg confectioner, Paul Fürst, in the 1800s. However, since the confectionery Fürst does not own a trademark for Mozartkugeln, there are numerous imitations out there, such as the gold ones you find everywhere. DO NOT BUY THOSE. Please, please look for Fürst if you are in Salzburg. Even though pretty pricey, I highly recommend giving it a try. As a true chocolate-lover, it receives my stamp of approval.

 

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die Original Salzburger Mozartkugeln from Cafe-Konditorei Fürst

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Mirabell Mozartkugeln

The difference between the quality of the chocolate and marzipan is obvious. Think Godiva versus Hershey’s. The original Mozartkugeln has a chocolate-hazelnut nougat creme core with a small piece of marzipan, and is coated in dark chocolate. Two thumbs up! So, go for the silver, not gold!

We continued to walk around the Old Town, and looked for the famous Bosna. Yes, more eating! Bosna is like the Austrian version of the hot dog bun.

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The original

We ordered the original, which has onion, parsley and curry powder sprinkled on top. It was delicious, but I think the Americans win this time.

Salzburg is truly an amazing city, and remains one of my most memorable trips. I would definitely return again if I had the chance. I got to see beautiful architecture, savour the traditional foods of the city, see the best nature has to offer and most importantly, got to know more about the history of Salzburg.

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Until we meet again.

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, or Warszawa, is the capital of Poland.

I was in Warsaw twice. The first time, we had just a few hours there with Dj’s buddy. We left our luggage there before heading to Santorini, the first stop to our pre-exchange travels. We only had time to dump our luggage, have breakfast and wander about for a couple of hours before we had to head back to the airport.

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Warsaw Old Town

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Monument of the Warsaw Mermaid (Pomnik Warszawskiej Syrenki) at Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) – the centre and oldest part of Warsaw’s Old Town

In October, I was back again to spend some time with Dj on his birthday. I took the overnight train from Graz to Warsaw – a painful 11 hour journey. But I was so happy to see him again, considering we had cried buckets when we said goodbye in Vienna.

When I arrived in Warsaw, I was greeted by the colours of fall, which had yet to hit Graz. It was beautiful – red, orange and yellow leaves.

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The first thing we did was to have some Pierogi at Zapiecek.

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Served with bacon and onion gravy (a.k.a. bacon and onion in grease)

Pierogi are Polish dumplings that can be made with a variety of fillings, both sweet and savoury. You can order them fried or boiled. I chose the boiled, for health reasons. I heard the fried ones are good too. We wanted to have pierogi the first time we were in Warsaw, but it was too early in the morning and most restaurants were not open yet. Also, I doubt they are considered breakfast food! I was glad I got to try them this time, because they were yummy!

We ordered a mix of fillings. My favourite was the spinach, turkey and the cheese filled ones. Not a big fan of buckwheat. At all.

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I think it’s pretty amazing that almost every country has its own version of different foods. Dumplings can be found all over the world – in China, India, Germany, Poland, Italy, the Middle East and just about any country!

After brunch, we took a walk around Old Town, to the parts we didn’t get to see the last time.

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Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary (Kościół Nawiedzenia Najświętszej Marii Panny)

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The Warsaw Barbican (Barbakan Warszawski) – the remnants of Warsaw’s defensive walls, which were erected in 154os

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The Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski w Warszawie)

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King Sigismund’s Column (Kolumna Zygmunta) 

After much walking, we decided to stop for some ice cream. This swirly ice cream is called the “Amerykańskie Świderki”, which Google translates to “American Fusilli”. Ahhh, I see it now!

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Amerykańskie Świderki. Ice cream makes us feel like children again.

Oh, and I think I forgot to mention how things in Poland are super cheap compared to Western Europe. Coming from Graz, I was just appalled at how much I was paying back home!

We continued our walk through Old Town, and then we headed to Łazienki Park.

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Łazienki Park, or Łazienki Królewskie, is the biggest park in Warsaw. Its name translates to “Royal Bath”. The park is just stunning with the autumn hues.

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Fallen leaves

We spent a long time there just walking and enjoying the view. I fell in love with fall! :)

We walked back to the Old Town, and by then, it was about time we had our early dinner.

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Warsaw Uprising Monument (Pomnik Powstania Warszawskiego)

We decided to have dinner at Kluska Polska, which claims to have the “best noodles in Europe since A.D. 1682″. Well, seems like a puff, but I must say, I was very impressed by the food here.

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 Kluska Polska
 
We ordered two different kinds of noodles (which are actually dumplings).
 
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Dill kopytka with Highlander’s goulash with peppersI had this and I pretty much wolfed down the entire plate. It was really filling as the dumplings are very starchy. Kopytka is a kind of potato dumpling, much like gnocchi. The name actually means “little hooves”. The goulash was so very yummy! No regrets having this at all.IMG_0019Silesian potato noodles with turkey in horseradish sauce

Dj had the Silesian potato noodles, which are called kluski. They also tasted like gnocchi, albeit slightly chewier and in a different shape! The horseradish sauce was also really good.

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Overall, a good dining experience for us both. And the interior of the restaurant is really artistic too.
 
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Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)

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Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki)

The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland. It was originally named after Joseph Stalin, and was considered a gift from the Soviet Union to Poland. I think some animosity still exists towards this “gift”, which was deemed as a symbol of Soviet domination. The joke is that the best view of the city is from the tower, as you can’t actually see the building. HAH! The next day, we would return here to decide whether we would head up to the terrace.

The next morning, we went to the weekend flea market. There were antiques, furniture, rugs, cutlery, clothes and all sorts of other knick knacks on sale. Nothing caught our fancy though. Even if it did, I don’t think our baggage allowance would permit any purchases.

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We went back to the Palace of Culture and Science, but we decided not to go up to the terrace because the weather didn’t seem so great. I kind of regret not going up though. I saw some friends’ photos and it looked pretty awesome.

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Palace of Culture and Science

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Us, walking randomly

We stopped by W Biegu Café (because they advertised really cheap chai tea latte) to have a drink and some dessert.

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One of the best chai lattes I’ve had

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Apple crumble tart

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And that was the end of my Warsaw trip. We headed back to get my stuff packed before I caught the overnight train back to Graz. Those dreadful, sleepless train rides!

I had a really good time with Dj. This was the first time I really had some quality time alone with him.

My boyfriend, my best friend and my best travel buddy! :)

Goodbye, Warsaw.

Bärenschützklamm

I shall skip the post for Graz for now, because I think it will be terribly long and I’ll be so emotional just thinking of all the fond memories.

During orientation week in FH Joanneum, which was the university in Graz which I did my exchange programme at, a bunch of us decided to go hiking at Bärenschützklamm. Bärenschützklamm is not for the faint-hearted. It is an amazing place to hike. The ascent to the top involves climbing 164 wooden bridges and ladders along 1300m.

I almost didn’t go for the hike because we had to wake up really early to take the train. But I’m really glad I decided to sacrifice some sleep for this. It gave me the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. Indeed, nature at its finest.

The hike involves climbing up a gorge with many perilous wooden ladders, all wet due to the roaring waterfalls. I can’t count the number of times I almost slipped, but I held on to my life, and a few times, I had someone hold on to me.

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We didn’t manage to get to the top as we were taking too long and it would be dark. We ended our hike at a lodge, where we had some food. Then it was a race against the clock to get back down before we would be left in the darkness.

As we made the descent, I started losing the feeling in my fingers. Shortly after, they started to hurt really badly. I was so afraid I might get frostbite. But Clement was a good friend and he gave up his gloves so that I could warm up again. For that, I am extremely thankful. Thank you! :)

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Topfenkuchen

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The most beautiful view from the hike

Overall, it was a great experience. I’d never done anything like this, and I have never seen such beauty before.

By the time we got back to Graz, we were cold and hungry. Clement and I made some hot soup for dinner to warm up.

Needless to say, we slept very well that night.

Paris, France (Part 2)

 

Almost 7 million people visit the Eiffel Tower each year. It is 324m tall and weighs 10,100 tonnes.

The next day, we were blessed with much better weather. The day before, it was rainy and foggy; not the best day for a good view atop the Eiffel Tower.

I found quite a strategic location to actually take some shots that showed both the tower as well as the humans. But it required very dedicated photographers to get down on their knees (or lower).

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Beneath the Eiffel Tower

You can actually buy your tickets online so that you have one less queue to wait in.

 Instead of taking the lift all the way up, we decided to climb 704 steps to the second floor to save some money (€11.50 vs. €13.50 in total for 12-24 year oldsand also some time, since the queue for the lifts were horrendous. It was a pretty good experience climbing. We got to see all angles of this wonder and also, could take our time to take pictures and enjoy not squeezing with a thousand other people. Ok, I exaggerate.

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Climbing the Eiffel Tower

Beyond the second floor, climbing is no longer possible. So we had to take the lift to the top. At this level, the view is phenomenal as it is unobstructed; unlike at the top where there are pesky fences that deprive us of really amazing shots. But, of course, you can always stick your camera out; just don’t drop it. It will fall to a terrible death.

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Looking up from the second floor

We then took the lift to the top.

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At the top of the Eiffel Tower

We took the lift down from the second floor and it was a fun ride down. The lift was made with clear panels so we could see the descend, and it moved diagonally down the legs of the tower.

Our next stop was Cathedrále Notre Dame de ParisMost of us would know of Notre Dame Cathedral from Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was written to bring awareness to the value of Gothic architecture, which was slowly being replaced by more modern styles. His novel might very well have saved the cathedral from demolition!

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Access is free. I was never a believer of churches that charge for entry.

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We were fortunate to have entered during evening mass. There was a huge congregation, and the music playing was really haunting (in a scary way). It gave me goosebumps.

We remembered what our tour guide, Nancy, had told us about Notre Dame, and how we should see the rear as well. It was really different from the front. It reminded me of a spider.

The next day, we decided it was about time to visit one of the world’s most famous and most photographed museums – the Louvre. The best thing about Paris? Entry is free for most, if not all, museums! Hooray for Erasmus!

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As I have probably mentioned a thousand times, I’m not the biggest art fanatic. My appreciation for art cannot rival my appreciation for good food. I like art only because I enjoy looking at beautiful things (people included). So our goal was to see Mona Lisa, some other stuff for a short while, and we were out! We did try to “appreciate” the art, but the Louvre is just HUGE. There was no way I would last that long in there. We were getting bored, so we had to find our way to the wing where Mona Lisa was.

We knew we were in the right area because there was a crowd of “paparazzi” (like a hundred people) trying to capture a picture of the Mona Lisa. You know what they say… If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! I jostled into the crowd with Joel to see this enigmatic, little thing that hung on a wall disproportionately bigger than she. Oh, and by the way, she is also protected by bulletproof glass.

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Mona Lisa

Just across the Louvre is Pont des Arts, otherwise known as the Love Lock Bridge. Each year, thousands of lovebirds flock to this bridge to “lock” in their love. They then throw the keys into the Seine. Throughout the world, other couples have done so on other bridges.

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Us at Pont des Arts

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The funny couple with their German padlock. SPOIL MARKET.

We didn’t do the whole lovey-dovey thing. We don’t want to add any more weight to the poor bridge, which is so heavy from the locks that part of it recently collapsed. Also, the authorities occasionally remove parts of the bridge to prevent such mishaps. I don’t want anyone to take our love away, ya know? Besides, he’s already got the keys to my heart <3

From Pont des Arts, we grabbed a quick snack of French goodies.

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Pain Viennois

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Madeleine

We got the bread and madeleine at a random bakery and they were so good! I especially love the madeleine. So buttery and soft.

We passed by Eric Kayser again and had more even more to eat. We tried the pistachio éclair and a raspberry financier.

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Pistachio éclair

I’m a huge fan of éclairs, but this just did not cut it. I felt that the choux pastry was too hard and too dry. The ones we get at Délifrance here in Singapore are better. Sorry!

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Financier aux Fruit Rouges

The raspberry financier, on the other hand, was exceptional! It had a core filled with raspberry and a wonderful taste of almond. Slightly crumbly and very rich.

Our very last stop was to the Palace of Versailles. But first, I had to get myself another one of those paninis from the first morning.

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Smoked salmon and mozzarella panini from Epik Café

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I. Just. Love. Stringy. Cheese.

Versailles was just a 20 minute train ride from Paris. I first heard of Château de Versailles in high school history class. It was in 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors, undoubtedly the most famous room in the whole of the palace.

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Inside the golden gates of the Palace of Versailles

Once again, entry was free for us. We just needed to flash our student Visas.

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The Hall of Mirrors

The history of the Versailles Palace is an interesting one. Take a guided tour or the audio tour, and take lots of pictures too. The House of Mirrors is exceptionally stunning. The entire palace is over-the-top. There is gold in every corner. Louis XIV definitely outdid himself.

Versailles Palace is also where you get a peek into one of history’s most outstanding female figures – Marie-Antoinette. In Austria, I would find out more about her. But that’s for another time.

We were quite unlucky that day. When we arrived at Versailles, it was already drizzling. By the time we were done exploring the palace, it was almost evening and the rain was falling heavier than before. The palace gardens are beautiful with manicured lawns and flowers, and I really did want to see it. However, the weather just did not permit it. It was wet and cold, so we left the compound with only a short glimpse into the park.

We realised that we hadn’t eaten a proper meal out in Paris thus far. I’m sure it was the exorbitant prices restaurants charge there. All this while, we were surviving on pasta we cooked at the hostel. Their stove wasn’t even working, so we had to boil water over and over again to cook the pasta. I also made microwave scrambled eggs a couple of times. So, for our last meal, we decided to indulge. We searched Tripadvisor for good restaurants around our area and found one that was #29 out of 12,383 – Les Rillettes.

When we found the restaurant, it was full, and we were asked to come back in about an hour’s time. The restaurant is pretty small. I only recall two long tables. There were also only two people working there – a husband and wife duo. The wife waited on the tables while the husband was the chef. They were really such lovely people!

The menu was in French and so we had to depend on my limited knowledge of French to figure out what each item was. Fortunately, the chef’s English was good and he explained it to us.

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Most of the mains are burgers but with a French twist. You may notice that the burger buns look different. They used gougères in place of the usual bun. A gougère is a savoury choux pastry mixed with cheese. Very delicious.

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Beef burger with foie gras, ham and a homemade onion and tomato compote – €20

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Grilled chicken burger with French ham, Camembert and roasted mushrooms – €17

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Beef burger with tomato cherry chutney, onion compote, melted cheese and ham – €17

Till this day, these burgers have to be the most delicious burgers I have ever eaten. Hands down. And it has nothing to do with the price either. I would definitely recommend the beef burgers for meat-lovers. I only ordered the chicken because I can’t take too much beef.

For dessert, we had Fontainebleau chestnut cream with chestnut honey. This was so light and refreshing. I personally love crème de marrons and have a container full of it at home. The guys really enjoyed this too. We were scraping off whatever was left in the glasses.

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Fontainebleau chestnut cream with chestnut honey

This was definitely one of the most memorable meals for me. Good food, good ambience, great service and even better company.

The next day, Dj and I left Paris for Warsaw, where I would pick up my bags and head to Graz alone.

Paris was, overall, good to me. The guys were not so impressed; the whole experience tainted by our run in with those brutes and also the dirty, stinky train stations and streets.However, I hope to return someday and enrol in Le Cordon Bleu Paris. That has been my dream for a long time. So until then, au revoir, Paris!

Paris, France (Part 1)

We got in to Paris at night, and once again, got a little lost finding our way to the hostel.

We stayed at Vintage Hostel, which is close to Gare du Nord train station and also walking distance to Montmartre. Gare du Nord has to be the most wretched train station I have ever been to. It stinks, it’s dangerous; I wouldn’t want to be there at night by myself.

The next morning, I had the most amazing panini ever. Just a few steps away from the hostel is a little café called Epik Café. I had the mozzarella cheese panini, which was prepared with sesame bread. Just look at that… Yup. Best. The guy at the counter was really nice too! I didn’t see any tourists in the café, so prices aren’t too high, but you get really yummy, unpretentious food there.

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Mozzarella cheese panini from Epik Café (Address: 69 Rue de Dunkerque)

We took a walk to Montmartre, the highest point in Paris.

An amazing Byzantine basilica sits on the summit and overlooks the whole of Paris. The Sacré-Cœur, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, is stunning in and out.

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Sacré-Cœur

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Inside the Sacré-Cœur

I got goosebumps when I stepped into the basilica, which doesn’t happen too often. There’s an understated beauty about the interior. I felt so at peace.

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View from Montmartre

The Sacré-Coœur is one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. There was a huge crowd gathered outside on the steps of the hill just enjoying the view of this scenic city. I found this view the most beautiful I saw in Paris, even more so than the one from the Eiffel Tower.

As we were admiring the view, there was a small commotion as a football freestyle street artist started to take his place on a narrow ledge along the steps. We were fortunate to have witnessed this outstanding artist perform. Iya Traore is his name. Be sure to check him out on Youtube. I have his entire performance recorded, which I will upload sometime in the near future (hopefully).

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Iya Traore

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Streets of Montmartre

At the heart of Montmartre is Place du Tertre, where you can find portrait artists charging hefty prices for sketches/caricatures. The portraits are really realistic. Maybe if I one day become full of myself, I might get one.

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Place du Tetre

A must-try in France is the French crêpe, which is somewhat of a very thin pancake. We ordered the Nutella crêpe, but they have many different fillings, both sweet and savoury.

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Nutella crêpe

On the way down, we decided to take the scenic route down to the park instead of the side stairs that we took on the way up. Oh boy, was that the biggest mistake! Just after taking this picture of the boys, we were “attacked” by a large group of black men selling friendship bracelets. They managed to separate us, grabbed our arms, and forcefully tied the bands around our wrists without our approval. Then, they demanded we pay for them. All I can say is, FUCK YOU. We paid because we didn’t want to get into any danger, considering that this bunch of hooligans were so much bigger than us. They even refused to take coins despite saying that they didn’t mind any amount. They probably had ten times more money on them than the three of us had combined! That totally ruined our day, and our already tainted impression of Paris. Ok, shall stop the rant now. But yes… Fuck you.

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We did the free walking tour in Paris too, which was also organised by Sandemans.

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Our guide – Nancy

The tour takes about three hours to complete, with a short break between to have a little snack at Eric Kayser. Be sure to try the financiers there. They were yummy!

The meeting point for the tour is at the fountain on Place St. Michel, and it brings you to the most popular tourist attractions in the city including Notre Dame de Paris, Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre, Pont des Arts, and Place de la Concorde, where the tour ends.

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Love locks on Pont des Arts

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The Louvre

The weather was pretty shitty the entire time. European rain is really a pain. Also, it annoys the hell out of me because I get little raindrops on my camera lens and it makes my photos all blurry.

From Place de la Concorde, we walked straight down to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, one of the world’s most famous streets and probably, one of the most expensive as well.

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The Arc de Triomphe

One of Paris’ most notable monuments, the Arc de Triomphe, stands at the Western end of Champs-Élysées, in the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle.
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Us, at the Arc de Triomphe

We stood in the heavy drizzle in a short queue just to take this shot. I was secretly praying the other tourist that we asked to help us take a picture was a decent photographer. Fortunately, out of  multiple shots, we managed to get one without too many raindrops on my camera lens! And I also managed to hide them by making the photo black and white!

From the Arc de Triomphe, we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. It was quite a distance away, but walking is always a good way to explore. Had we decided not to walk, we would have never discovered this very significant place – Pont de l’Alma. Beneath this bridge was where the late Princess Diana had a fatal car crash. We took a moment to read the little notes people had left on the bridge for Princess Diana. She was indeed very much loved.

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We continued walking towards the Eiffel Tower.

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The sky was turning dark by the time we got to the Eiffel Tower. We got to see the tower both with its lights off, as well as with the lights on. It was really amazing getting to see the Eiffel Tower light up before our very eyes.

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The Eiffel Tower certainly looks much better with its lights on. Without, it looks like a rust bucket. Then again, it is still magnificent and makes you feel so small.

We would return again the next day to climb up to the top, when the weather was better.

The next day, we visited Jardin du Luxembourg, which is the second largest public park in Paris. It was perfect weather – sunny and warm. There were many people out and about, jogging, reading books and just relaxing. We too, just took some time off to enjoy the warmth and the colours of the beautiful garden.

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Jardin du Luxembourg

Somewhere in the vicinity was a Pierre Hermé, and I had to get some of those world famous pastries for myself. On the way there from the park, we passed the Church of Saint-Sulpice. There was a small flea market there with people selling all kinds of knick-knacks.

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Saint-Sulpice

We were there at the right time too, as we got to hear the bell ring and it was really music to the ears.

Pierre Hermé is just a street away at Rue Bonaparte. Entering the store, I was in my little heaven. Such beautiful cakes and pastries! I can only dream of becoming a professional patissier and creating such works of art someday!

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Cakes at Pierre Hermé

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Macarons at Pierre Hermé

 We bought assorted macarons, the famous Ispahan and the tastiest-looking thing I saw at the shop.

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Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan macaron – €7.50

The Ispahan macaron is just amazing! The perfect combination of rose, lychee and raspberry. It is their best-selling macaron. Honestly, I am not the biggest fan of macarons; but that’s probably because the ones we get in Singapore are usually way too sweet. The macarons from Pierre Hermé really changed my mind. There was a subtle sweetness to the Ispahan macaron. Tart, fresh raspberries with chunks of lychee in a delicious rose petal cream, between two rose-flavoured macaron shells.

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2000 Feuilles – €7.30

I couldn’t get my eyes off the 2000 Feuilles. It probably took a lot of effort to create this delicious dessert. Layers upon layers of flaky caramelised puff pastry with crushed hazelnuts and praline crème mousseline. It was sheer decadence. If there is anything I would recommend, this would be it.

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We also got four macarons to share. Pierre Hermé is not exactly affordable, but I really wanted to try the macarons. I am really thankful for Joel and Dj for sharing :)

The flavours we got were: Infiniment Rose – rose & rose petal, Veloute Framboise – yogurt & raspberry , Infiniment Chocolat Porcelana – pure origin Venezuela Porcelana dark chocolate, and Infiniment Cafe Iapar Rouge du Bresil – red Iapar coffee from Brazil. I would say, my favourite among the four was the Veloute Framboise. It had a very good balance of sweetness from the macaron shells and the tartness of the yogurt and raspberry. We didn’t get to try the other more interesting flavours, including something with cucumber in it. I guess I’m not that adventurous with my food!

We sat outside on the pavement, savouring these little French macarons and enjoying the good weather. But soon, we were off to to climb the Eiffel Tower. That’s part two of Paris. Be back soon!

London, England

  We took a bus from Amsterdam to London. It was a really long drive, and bus had to be put on a ship before we could reach London.

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We arrived early in the morning at Victoria Station and took the London Underground to our hostel, probably the worst one we had. It was a long walk lugging all our baggage along.

Our first stop was Portobello Market.

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It was a wet and gloomy day, like most days in London. Nothing really was open on that day, so we just grabbed a burger, a very delicious one, before heading to Camden Lock Market.

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But first, we got off at King’s Cross to find Platform 9 3/4. I am pretty disappointed that I don’t have a picture of myself pushing that darn trolley!

At King’s Cross station, I found my Cornish pastry at one of many Cornish Pasty Co. stores.

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It is a huge pastry, and comes in different flavours. But you can’t go wrong with the traditional, which contains beef and potatoes. So delicious!

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At Camden Lock Market, you can find everything from fashion, to books, to art and lots of food as well.

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We walked around until almost closing time, which is also the perfect time to have dinner there, as the stalls are all clearing their food for the day. Expect huge servings at a lower cost. We had decent Chinese food there, and some free add-ins as the stall keeper found out we were from Singapore!

Later that night, we made our way to Oxford Circus, which is one of the busiest intersections in London, for a stroll and maybe some shopping.

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As we were walking down the street, I spotted a Ben’s Cookies outlet. I swear, they have one of the most delicious cookies ever, and an extensive range of flavours to choose from. But beware, these cookies are huge and they are sinful.

We shopped at Primark, our virgin experience, and we went all crazy and bought way too much. I also bought a coat for myself, as I had stupidly left my jackets in my luggage which was sitting in Warsaw. Everything at Primark is so cheap, it’s easy to go overboard. I also bought my stupidly cheap pair of boots there. Boots are a must in chilly/wet European weather.

The next morning, Dj and I met Benji and we walked along the river and to the Tower of London.

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We took a stroll around the financial district while waiting to meet with the rest. There were some interesting buildings around.

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When we reunited with the rest, we walked to the Tower Bridge.  Tower Bridge, not to be mistaken for London Bridge – and therefore, has nothing to do with the song “London Bridge is Falling Down – crosses the Thames and was built to keep up with increased commercial development in the East End of London.

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From Tower Bridge, we made our way to Borough Market. I was really excited about because I had heard so much about it. I was saving some space in my tummy for this visit.

IMG_7385Hungry souls at Borough Market

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IMG_7386English fudge. Incredibly yummy!

IMG_7388Cakes, cakes and more cakes!

IMG_7409Moo pie and gravy from Pieminister. Always, I repeat, always, have your pies with gravy.

IMG_7410Khanom Krok – a delicious Thai coconut custard pancake

IMG_7447Victoria Sponge Cake from Konditor & Cook. Also try their coffee and walnut cake.

The next time I’m back, I hope The Flour Station is open, because I really must have some Chelsea buns!

Our next stop was to Harrods.

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Right outside Harrods, this amazing artist was sketching a portrait the late Princess Diana. For those who don’t know, Princess Diana was dating Dodi Fayed, the son of former owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, at the time of her death. They say, you never forget the day when she died; and it’s true, I still remember the day I heard the news. The only other day I remember so clearly was 9/11.

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Being poor students, the only thing we really could afford was food at Harrods. The food hall is just amazing! Everything from tea, coffee, cakes and pastries, seafood, pies, sushi… You name it, they’ve got it. We bought an assortment of sweets for breakfast the next day.

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The eating continued. Fish & chips – an English dish we are all too familiar with. Someone had recommended Kerbischer & Malt – an award-winning shop to us, so we decided to have dinner there.

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Kerbischer & Malt is/was the winner of the best contemporary fish & chips. All their fish are from sustainable sources. We had the battered haddock with chips, and shared some fried calamari rings and fish cakes. Verdict: Good, but I prefer my Fish & Co.

I’m sorry.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to catch the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. For short people like me, it is recommended that you be there early to get a good spot. I was terribly annoyed with the taller people who refused to show any sympathy.

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As you exit Green Park station for Buckingham Palace, there is a very green park right outside. I don’t mean to sound really lame, but it’s true; they probably named it Green Park because the trees and grass are just really THAT DAMN GREEN.

IMG_0884My favourite photo of us, ever!

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Sandemans also runs free walking tours in London. We went for the tour after Buckingham Palace and photo spam at Green Park. There were a lot of people on the tour, which meant we had to keep up or risk missing something interesting. Also, I found that 2.5 hours wasn’t enough for a tour of London. Definitely not one of the better Sandemans tours, but I would still recommend going for it, since you pay what you think it’s worth.

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IMG_7786Westminster Abbey

This is one place I regret not entering. I think the price of the entry ticket really turned us off since we were on a budget. The next time I’m in London, I will visit Westminster Abbey for sure. This Gothic church is where coronations were held, where royal weddings are still held (including that of Prince William and Kate Middleton), and where many notable people are buried (including Charles Darwin).

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Our free walking tour ended at the Houses of Parliament. This building has a gruesome past, and we heard lots of torture stories in full detail. The size of this piece of art is just amazing! The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, also consists of one of the most iconic landmarks of London – the Big Ben. Big Ben is the name of the bell of the clock tower – the Elizabeth Tower.

After the free walking tour, I had the most unforgettable meal of possibly, my whole life.

Burger & Lobster is a fantastic restaurant with five outlets in London. We went to the one at Soho. The concept is simple – 3 items on the menu, each at £20. You can choose from lobster, lobster roll or burger. I recommend going for the lobster. I’m not the biggest fan of seafood, but this, I simply could not miss.

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A whole lobster, served with lemon butter and a side of fries and salad for just £20. Considering how delicious this was, definitely £20 well spent! We even joked about (or maybe we weren’t joking) coming back the next day if we had any leftover Pounds.

Not far from Burger & Lobster was The Hummingbird BakeryThe Hummingbird Bakery is famous for their cupcakes, cakes and brownies, especially their Red Velvet.

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I got the Red Velvet and Tiramisu cupcakes. This was actually my first time having Red Velvet, and I was slightly disappointed. It was too cloyingly sweet. The Tiramisu was nothing special as well. But their cupcakes and the whole store is really pretty. I would give them another shot.

From Soho, we walked to Chinatown. I don’t remember if we intended to end up there or not, but we did.

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We chanced upon M&Ms World, a HUGE store, about three levels, that sells merchandise and candy.

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On the very last day, we had until the afternoon before we had to leave London for Paris. I wasn’t too satisfied with the entire trip because I felt like I didn’t get enough good photos. So while the rest decided to spend the last few hours shopping at Primark, Dj and I left bright and early to Buckingham Palace again, to get a shot right at the palace gates.

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We also went back to get a better view of the London Eye and Big Ben once again.

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And we just walked. Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, past parks and memorials… I felt like we had accomplished so much more in just a few hours than we did in the past few days!

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IMG_8083Red telephone box – Who’s that handsome fella? He looks like my boyfriend!

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The duration of our stay was simply insufficient to really explore London, and to learn to appreciate the culture of this city. However, we were happy to leave grey skies and pitter-patter rain behind. London is definitely a city that I would return to someday, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Goodbye, London!

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in Amsterdam. And no, it has nothing to do with the use of “illegal” substances. What I do remember, and enjoy, were those leisurely strolls we had from our lovely apartment – which we rented on Airbnb – to the city centre. It is somewhat surreal waking up and, looking out the window behind your bed, seeing the canals which are so synonymous with Amsterdam, otherwise known as the Venice of the North.

We arrived late in the night, and kind of got lost for a bit trying to find the apartment. But our Airbnb host waited very patiently for us and warmly welcomed us. The apartment was really nice and had two bedrooms and a couch that could be used as a bed for one. If interested, let me know, and I can drop you the host’s profile on Airbnb.

On the first day, I took a walk with Dj to the city centre. I wanted to visit the Anne Frank House.

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In Amsterdam, cycling is probably THE way to get around. You don’t see that many cars on the roads. Instead, lots of cyclists. Very eco-friendly. Apparently, the number of bicycles outnumber the number of citizens, over a million!

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IMG_6896The idyllic canals of Amsterdam

We first stopped for lunch at Toos & Roos. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much cheese in my life in a single seating. I had a goat cheese sandwich with honey and walnuts, which was served with pumpkin soup shooters. I was expecting just one slice of goat cheese, but I got three. Thankfully, Dj was there to save the day, otherwise I would have puked trying to finish it all. Goat cheese is really strong and way too cloying after a while.

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I’m sure most of us know the story of Anne Frank. I read the book as a teenager. Even to this day, I enjoy reading stories about the war and memoirs most. The Diary of a Young Girl is beautifully told. Visiting the Anne Frank House was truly a haunting experience for me. It is definitely one of the better museums around. Even those who have never read her story should visit it. There are many good museums in Amsterdam, but this was the only I wanted to visit. Other museums to consider are the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museum and Rembrandt House Museum. Museumplein (Museum Plain) is where you can find the major museums.

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After the Anne Frank House, we met up with the rest. And that was when I made a discovery – Speculoos! As someone who loves baking and looking for new recipes, I’ve always wanted to try Speculoos and transform this yummy cookie butter spread into a cupcake. We first bought one bottle, but after our first try the next morning at breakfast, we were hunting the supermarkets for more.

IMG_6923The original Speculoos spread

It was soon dinner, and we came across Manneken PisNope, not the bronze sculpture of a pissing boy which can be found in Brussels, but the store that sells huge-ass servings of kick-ass fries. We had ours drowned in Samurai sauce because we really, really missed spicy food. Unfortunately, it was more tangy than anything. The fries were delicious and piping hot, perfect for the chilly weather!

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No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a visit to one of their renowned coffee shops. We were looking for Green House, which is pictured on the left of this beautiful shot I caught on my iPhone :P

I was sulking at this point, as this was the first time we had actually been in cold weather. In the day, it was warm, but by evening it was so cold, and I was in my tank top and shorts with just a thin cardigan. All I wanted to do was go back to the apartment and sleep.

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IMG_6983Green House

To look around and see so many people smoking weed like it’s no big deal is actually quite the experience. Amsterdam is also the place where I first learnt how to identify the smell of weed. This would later serve as an important skill while traveling around Europe.

So, enough talk of weed and space cakes… which I have to add, is a total waste of a perfectly delicious marble cake, because it tastes like grass… to more delicious things. There was a really good ice cream place called Yscuypje that we passed pretty often. We went there twice. The first time, we had chocolate and Speculoos. GOOD!

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On our way to the city centre, we also pass by this really awesome store that sells such a wide variety of cheeses. They’ve got really exotic flavours such as wasabi and pesto too. Dj and I walked in twice just to taste the samples! The store is called Kaashuis Tromp. They even have yummy looking cheesecakes which I was so tempted to buy!

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Amsterdam also has great architecture… like almost every European country. Something will catch your eye. That’s why I enjoy walking over taking the tram. You’re bound to discover something.

IMG_7092Spotted a rainbow!

IMG_7056Amsterdam Centraal

Amsterdam Centraal is the main railway station. The building is huge and so grand. A very beautiful design with its red bricks.

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IMG_7037Street performers

IMG_7088By far, my favourite shot taken in Amsterdam. The Royal Palace of Amsterdam.

Another must-visit is the Red Light District. Before entering, you are welcomed by a “traffic light” that is red. Upon entering, you are welcomed by scowling, and very plastic-looking prostitutes in glass windows. I found them to be highly entertaining and offensive at the same time, if that’s possible. Try not to take photos of them, they really hate it.

IMG_7102Red Light District

To prove that you really have been to Amsterdam, visit the Rijksmuseum, where the famous “I amsterdam” sign can be found. When we got there, it was crowded and we had to wait quite a while for the place to clear out before climbing up those letters. Please be careful when climbing, it can be awfully painful. I think Dj got a cut somewhere. But we got up relatively easy. We are fit people!

IMG_7163“I amsterdam” at the Rijksmuseum

At the park outside the Rijksmuseum, you can get some snacks and just people-watch. A must-try food here is the Stroopwafel. Yes, you can get them in Singapore, and the good ones cost a bomb, but you can get these freshly made, warm and filled with that unbelievable gooey-goodness, for an affordable price in Amsterdam. This was the best I had there. I wish I had eaten more of these fresh ones before leaving.

IMG_7133Fresh Stroopwafel

We took a walk to Vondelpark after the Rijksmuseum. Vondelpark is the largest park in Amsterdam. Europeans really enjoy their parks. I guess the weather makes it a much more pleasant experience.

IMG_7168Vondelpark

Our last meal in Amsterdam was at Pancakes! AmsterdamThis was beside Toos & Roos, where I had my first meal. Dutch pancakes, Pannekoek, are unlike the standard American pancakes we get. They are thin and large. I chose the lemon sugar pancake, while the boys got the apple with nuts and Calvados, and paprika, mushroom, bacon and cheese pancakes. All very yummy, especially the lemon sugar. Amazing how something made with flour, eggs and milk can be so yummy!

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That marked the end of our trip to Amsterdam. We left at about sunset with a bag full of Speculoos and supermarket brand Speculaas and stroopwafels.

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Next stop, London!

Lisbon, Portugal

 

From Madrid, we left Spain for Lisbon, Portugal. I was really looking forward to Lisbon. Portugal has been one of the countries I’ve always wanted to visit since I was much younger. Spain, of course, was my number one destination since I was a little kid looking through travel guides. Yes, I started young.

I love the streets of Lisbon. Cobblestoned, sloping, with quaint little buildings on both sides. Lisbon is also known as the City of Seven Hills. You will understand when you start exploring.

We arrived early in the morning and checked into our hostel. We stayed at Passport Lisbon Hostel. Location wise, it was good as it was in the centre of Bairro Alto and a stone’s throw away from Chiado, and there are many trams running right in front of the hostel. However, if you are a light sleeper, you might experience some problems. Right in front of the hostel is a statue of Luís Vaz de Camões, who is considered the greatest Portuguese poet. It is THE meeting point for many, especially at night. There also seemed to be music coming from I don’t know where late into the night, which really pissed me off. But the hostel itself was great. I might consider it the best one we stayed at. Clean, big beds, friendly staff and a very good breakfast!

So off to breakfast after checking in. I will remember this breakfast, because we had such simple, unpretentious, yet yummy food.

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This croissant with a thin slice of ham was so yummy. Not the usual flaky, pastry croissant, but more like bread, soft, but layered, with a hint of orange, baked till golden.

 The late morning we spent eating egg tarts and taking a nap. We were so exhausted. I recall walking down the streets with Dj in the evening to catch the sunset.

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A lot of my photos of Lisbon have this yellow tint, and I think it is true when they say that yellow, or rather, gold, is the colour of the city.

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On the second day, we went for a free walking tour which started at the Luís de Camões Square. Good walking shoes are highly recommended. There is a lot of walking involved in this tour; and we walked for hours. Our tour guide was a funny chap, easy to talk to, and had lots of stories to tell about Lisbon. So, if in Lisbon, I do recommend this free walking tour. Link to their website here.

Here are some of the places where the tour brought us:

543454_10153243564715220_1771075451_nRua Augusta Arch 

This arch was built to commemorate the city’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake. Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) where the arch is situated, is HUGE.

Our tour also led us from Baixo to Alfama, which is the oldest district in Lisbon. The walk was, indeed, a step back in time. For photographers, this little district presents great photo opportunities.

1185370_10153243568495220_1238729419_nOur guide

Sadly, I don’t remember his name, but what I do remember is that he thought us a Portuguese word – Saudade. Saudade has no direct English translation, but describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one loves.

It is the most beautiful word, to me.

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1235357_10153243576510220_1636126178_nView from the climb up at Alfama

1239716_10153243623215220_687367769_nTram 28

Tram 28 is listed as a must-do when in Lisbon. The iconic tram brings you many historical locations in Lisbon. We took the tram to Castelo de São Jorge and Miradouro, which is an excellent viewpoint high on one of the hills.

We took a day to go to Belem, which is a not-too-long train ride from Lisbon’s city centre. Why did we go there? For the original Portuguese egg tarts of course! Pastéis de nata were created by Catholic monks before the 18th century in Belém. Pastéis de Belém has been baking these scrumptious tarts since 1837. The queue was long, but it moved fast. We bought a couple of boxes of them and devoured them so fast. Was so tempted to get more, but they are really sinful.

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I think what makes this egg tart so different from the ones we get in Macau, is its crust. Thin and crunchy, flaky. We got them warm and it was divine. The custard perfectly caramelised on top.

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Traditionally, pastéis de nata is eaten with a dash of cinnamon, but I much prefer it without!

After gobbling down two whole pastéis de nata, we went for a walk to Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Had to steal Dj’s photos of the monastery, because strangely, I took none?!

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Just a short distance from the monastery is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), which lies on the northern bank of the Tagus River. The monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

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1379930_10153334077490220_1357125199_nMy Muay Thai kick in front of the Ponte 25 de Abril, or 25th of April Bridge, which connects Lisbon to Almada.

We heard a lot about Sintra from the locals, so we decided to spend our last full day in Portugal there.

The train ride to Sintra took about 40 minutes from the train station in Lisbon (I think it was Oriente). Indeed, Sintra is a mysterious place. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sits at the foot of the Sintra mountains.

Before exploring Sintra, we had an amazing meal at Café Saudade.

1380042_10153334078070220_940067835_nEmpada de Porco Preto (Iberian black pork mini pie)

1379732_10153334078225220_1438905042_nTosta Mista (ham and cheese panini)

1380225_10153334078065220_1919106679_nQueijada de Sintra – a local, cheesecake-like pastry which were a favourite of King Ferdinand II.

1383025_10153334078400220_1354183593_nSaudade coffee with condensed milk – one of the best coffees I’ve ever had!

935948_10153334078690220_192981089_nChocolate fudge cake. Yup. No words needed.

After our meal, we took a ride up to the attractions, to one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

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1375785_10153334089255220_626977930_nPalácio Nacional da Pena

Such rich, vibrant colours. Palácio Nacional da Pena was surreal. The view from the palace was spectacular as well, overlooking Sintra. We spent a few hours at the palace before proceeding to one of the spookiest places I have ever been to. So spooky I refused to take photos in fear of capturing something supernatural in my picture.

1381291_10153334092250220_92021076_nQuinta da Regaleira

The gothic façade of the palace gave me goosebumps, and when I entered, I immediately wanted to get out. Maybe it was the time of the day – it was late in the afternoon, that made things worse, or maybe it was how it seemed like we were the only living souls in the huge estate which includes a sprawling park with wells, fountains and other odd structures.

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I tried to rush the guys, but they were looking for some landmark within the estate and I was so afraid that the sun would set and we would be left inside with no light to guide our way out. Alas, we gave up and hurried out. We had dinner at a restaurant (Trip Advisor recommended) before walking down the hill to catch our train. By then, it was dark, damp and cold. After the sun had set, the hill was shrouded by a mysterious fog. Funny how Sintra transforms from a crowded tourist attraction in the day, to a ghost town in the night.

On our last day, we had a few hours, so we hopped onto Tram 28 for a ride up to Castelo de São Jorge and Miradouro for the view.

166087_10153334095725220_1598342995_nMiradouro

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1384036_10153334098300220_1243086671_n Castelo de São Jorge

One of the best views of Lisbon is from Castelo de São Jorge, a Moorish castle which overlooks the city and the Tagus River. Entry fee is just 4 Euros.

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That pretty much summed up our trip to Lisbon. Charming cafés, beautiful architecture, rich history, beautiful streets.

Saudade.