Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Spain: Costa de Valencia along the Mediterranean

Valencia is one of the major cities found along the Mediterranean coast of Spain. In fact, it is said to be a prototype of big Mediterranean cities which are fertile, productive, luminous and commercially astute. It would be a pity if we did not check out its beaches. So we visited Playa de las Arenas or Playa Levante.

Arenas Beach is just a few minutes from the city center. In fact, there is a Metro station to it. It's right beside the port yet it remains clean and pollution free. Paseo de Neptuno (Passeig de Neptu in Valencian) is a walkway along the beach known for its row of restaurants. It's a relaxing stroll especially on warm afternoons.

As much as we would have wanted to swim, at 20 degrees Celsius, the temperature was just too low for tropical denizens like us. So we were content hanging out enjoying the Mediterranean breeze. Before leaving, we had more horchata at an heladeria (ice cream store). This time, it was horchata con helado (with ice cream). I spent an additional 1€ for the scoop of ice cream floating in the horchata! But it was perfect!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Spain: La Lonja de la Seda, Valencia's old silk market

La Lonja de la Seda or the silk exchange market in Valencia, Spain is one of the most outstanding monuments of Spanish Gothic architecture and was thus inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. Also known as La Lonja de los Mercaderes, it was where commercial transactions related to silk were carried out.

One of its most outstanding features is the impressive hall of pillars which was completed in only fifteen years from 1483 to 1498. It’s a grand space crowned by ribbed vault ceilings supported by two rows of sixteen-meter pillars that look like palm trees.

If you take a closer look at La Lonja, you will notice detailed ornamentation on the building and its façade composed of hundreds of symbolic and grotesque figures. The building is right in front of the Central Market and entrance is free of charge.

Spain: Horchata in Valencia, Spain

We went back to the old Valencia in the afternoon, this time with the rest of the group for a walking tour with some teachers. We used the Valencia Metro again which is why the multiple trip tickets come in handy and much cheaper. The cost of a single trip in Zone A or the inner city is 1,20€. But you can purchase a ten trip ticket for 6,10€.

Our walk started at the Torres de Serrano, once the main gateof the city and one of two remaining gates from old Valencia. When the city expanded in the 19th Century, they got rid of the old city walls and most of the gates. We made our way through the same attractions and ended up at the Plaza de Toros where bullfights are held. Again, we were lucky because of the upcoming fiesta, there are bullfights scheduled. So we’ll be buying tickets to that.

After the tour, we chilled out (quite literally since it was cold and started to drizzle) at the horchateria in Plaza Sta. Catalina, one of the older and more popular horchaterias in Valencia. Horchata (or orxata in Valencian), is a sweet drink made of tigernuts or chufas. We spent 2€ a glass.

The next afternoon, I found myself back in old Valencia exploring more of the place. We passed by even more churches (I wonder how many wishes I’ve gotten by now) and other historic structures. I’m featuring the churches in a later post. But the main reason I went back was to visit La Lonja de la Seda, the old silk market of Valencia which was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Spain: Walking around old Valencia

The day after we arrived in Valencia, we went straight to the old city for a stroll. The city has conveniently marked important places of interest in the maps they give out such as churches and other religious structures (there were just so many of them that I felt sad we lost our own Intramuros during WWII), government and other civic structures, museums and parks.

We took the Metro to the Colon station in Valencia viejo. And from there, made our way around the old district. This is a wonderful collection of built heritage from various periods since the city was founded in 157 B.C. Our first stop was the Ayuntamiento de Valencia (city hall) and the grand plaza in front of it.

While walking, we passed by the Iglesia de San Martin where Mass was being said. So we stayed. A few meters down the road is the towering belfry of Sta. Catalina and its Medieval church. In Plaza Sta. Catalina, there is a popular horchatería. Horchata (or orxata in Valencian), is a sweet drink made of tigernuts or chufas.

From Sta. Catalina, we walked towards Plaza de la Reina and the Catedral de Valencia. For access to most of the Cathedral, you have to pay the 4€ entrance ticket. We actually asked if we can go inside just to pray. But they said we could only stay in a small area by the door designated for that. I guess it's true then what people have been saying that churches in Europe have become museums unlike those in the Philippines and much of Latin America which are alive as places of worship.

Behind the Cathedral is the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados. I'm quite excited since the fiesta of the Virgen de los Desamparados is on the second Sunday of May and we'll be here to witness it. We went back to school to meet up with the rest of the group and were back in Valencia viejo in the afternoon. There are just so many significant structures in old Valencia so I'll write more about them in the next few days.

Spain: Madrid to Valencia by bus

Taking the bus from Madrid to Valencia was a great way for us to see the Spanish countryside. We had been traveling for over 24 hours now and this last leg would take four more hours. There are two types, the Normal [22,89€] and Express [28,95€]. They are both four hours but I was told that the Express has wider and more comfortable seats. So we took the Express. Most of what I saw was agricultural land. But we'd pass by small towns quite often, many of which have preserved their character through the years. We were also warned to watch our luggage while at the bus station since theft was a threat if you are not alert. We finally arrived in Valencia at 3 p.m. just in time for lunch, in Spain that is.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spain: ¡Viva Madrid!

I just arrived in Madrid, Spain today together with my group from the Institute for Foreign Study, after a 19-hour trip from Manila via Doha, Qatar. Our destination is the Mediterranean city of Valencia, four hours from Madrid by bus.

Before proceeding to the bus station, we asked the Enforex staff to stop at an attraction. And they brought us to the Puerta de Alcala. Stay tuned for more stories from Spain!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Aurora: Learn to surf in Baler with two SEAIR tickets plus surfing lessons up for grabs!

You and a friend can fly to Baler, Aurora and go surfing with two SEAIR tickets up for grabs! Ivan About Town and the SEAIR Adventure Club is giving away round-trip tickets to Baler and free surfing lessons for two to one lucky person. All you have to do is leave a comment in Summer fun in Baler and tell us why surfing is fun and why Baler is such a great place by Sunday, 4 May 2008, at 8:00 p.m.

Like the previous raffle, make sure you place your full name in the name field since you will need a valid ID to claim the tickets if you win. The winner will be drawn at random and will be notified by e-mail so make sure you double check your e-mail address before submitting your comment. Finally, one entry per IP address so only the first entry from each IP address will be counted. Tickets will be valid from now until 15 October 2008. Good luck!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Vietnam & Cambodia: Bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The bus from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia is usually straightforward. We spent US$15 for it. The six-hour land trip is a very common route. And you can easily buy tickets anywhere in Vietnam. But for this trip, we encountered some problems.

We left Mui Ne at 1 a.m. for the five-hour trip to HCMC. We were to catch the 8 a.m. bus to PP hoping to be there by 2 p.m. I had always wanted to shop again at the Russian Market since they have a lot of great cultural souvenirs and export overruns there.

What I thought would be an easy border crossing turned out to be an irritating one. At the Vietnamese border, the immigration officer treated us shabbily. We were standing in front of him for almost 30 minutes and he was not minding us. At times, he was smirking. When asked if we were in the right line, he would answer "I'm busy" while passports of the people behind us were brought to him. We didn't budge until finally he entertained us after we reminded him that we could be left behind by the bus.

At the Cambodian border, we had to wait over an hour for our passports to get processed. But the highlight of the day was the four hour wait for the bus to get on the Neak Leoung Ferry that would transport it across the Mekong since there was no bridge yet. Since the Cambodian New Year holiday had just ended, everyone was rushing to get back to Phnom Penh which explains the traffic jam. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh, close to 5 hours behind schedule. But it's all part of the adventure.

For more information on what to do in Ho Chi Minh City, read Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vietnam: Sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam

The different sand formations around Mui Ne are a major attraction after its beaches. The sand ranges from pure white to gold in the Bau Trang (White Lake), to a fiery red in other areas.

We visited several sand formations including the red sand dunes in Fairy Stream and Red Canyon, the white sand dunes in Bau Trang as well as the yellow (gold) sand dunes. If not for the cluster pine trees by the lake, one would think it's a desert in Africa or the Middle East. In Bau Trang, you can ride a horse up the dunes or slide down on a makeshift sled which small kids will tout to you.

We booked this afternoon tour in Ham Tien Beach. It was US$14 per person but we had the 4x4 all to ourselves. The ride around was a blast as I enjoyed the wind hit my face as we stood behind the jeep.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vietnam: Mui Ne Fishing Village in Vietnam

I've always enjoyed taking the road less traveled. And this time around, that road led me to a fishing village five hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, I found myself in Vietnam once again. And I was going to the beach! How we got to Mui Ne in Binh Thuan Province was an adventure in itself.

Because one of our low-cost carriers arrives in HCMC or Saigon at such an unholy hour, there is a big risk especially if you need to travel outside city limits. Our problem was the first bus to Mui Ne wasn't going to leave until 6 a.m. So we had to wait several hours before we could even start our five-hour journey by land. We decided to wait in Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area of HCMC.

While asking around, we were badgered by xe om (motorbike for hire) drivers who said that they knew of a bus to Mui Ne that would leave much earlier in the Binh Thanh District of HCMC about 8km away. It was a risk, but for some reason, we trusted them. And they dropped us off in front of a bus station that looked closed and told us to wait in the coffee shop in front of it. At least it was a bus station. And so we waited and had some local coffee. Until finally, a van passed by and people inside started shouting something in Vietnamese. Unable to comprehend, we asked the lady at the coffee store if that was the vehicle to Mui Ne. And she signaled us to get on board.

All was well until they stopped somewhere to load newspapers at the back. It turns out, aside from taking in passengers, they deliver newspapers as well! So we were on a newspaper van that left at 4 a.m. We arrived in Mui Ne at about 7:30 a.m., earlier than expected. Mui Ne and neighboring Ham Tien Ward are very popular for their beach resorts. But what struck me about this town were the colorful fishing boats in Mui Ne Harbor and the vicinity. And I leave you with pictures of them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Boracay: Boracay is just 35 minutes away

The belief that getting a flight to Boracay during peak season weekends is close to impossible is a myth! And I realized that myself after flying to Boracay on several fully-booked weekend flights as a chance passenger.

It was a hectic weekend. I found out last Thursday night that I had to be in Boracay Friday and Saturday night. But I already had commitments Saturday morning. So what was the solution? I was a chance passenger on the 3 p.m. SEAIR flight and that wasn't a problem. Then I was to risk being a chance passenger again for the 6:45 a.m. flight back to Manila the next day, hopefully to get to my 9 a.m. appointment in Makati. It's a good thing SEAIR has 35-minute flights to and from Caticlan.

Then it was another SEAIR flight to Boracay on the same afternoon to catch another event in the evening. I had to be back in Manila on Sunday since I had to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam on Monday!

As planned, I got on the 6:45 a.m. SEAIR flight back to Manila and made it to my 9 a.m. appointment in Makati. I was back at the airport after lunch and got on the 3:00 p.m. SEAIR flight as a chance passenger. The next day, I was back on the 9:30 a.m. SEAIR flight back to Manila, again as a chance passenger. And the first thing I did when I got home was to take a nap!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Backpackers accommodation in Manila

Since I reside in the Metro Manila area, there is no need for me to stay at backpackers accommodation in Manila. But I do get queries about cheap accommodation. So I checked out the backpackers haven of Manila which is in Malate to find out where backpackers can stay. Here are some of them:

Friendly's Guesthouse
One of the more popular backpackers accommodation in the Malate area. They have fan dormitory rooms at PHP290 per person and AC dorm rooms at PHP340 per person. Fan rooms with shared bath start at PHP450. AC rooms with common bath start at PHP800 a night. While AC rooms with private bath start at PHP900 a night.
1750 M. Adriatico corner Nakpil Streets, Malate, Manila
+63 2 4898897 / 4469908
+63 917 3331418

Malate Pensionne
It's in the same complex as Portico Restaurant. You can't miss it since there is a Starbucks store in front. Fan dorm rooms are PHP350 per person. Fan rooms are PHP750 a night. While AC rooms with private bath start at PHP1400. They also accept credit cards.
1771 M. Adriatico Street, Malate, Manila
+63 2 5238304 to 06

Stargate Pensionne
Fan rooms with private bath are PHP850 a night. While AC rooms start at PHP988 a night.
1711 M. Adriatico Street, Malate, Manila
+63 2 3036572 to 75

Joward's Pension House
Fan rooms with common bath start at PHP275 a night. AC rooms with shared bath start at PHP525 a night. While AC rooms with private bath start at PHP625 a night.
1730 M. Adriatico Street, Malate, Manila
+63 2 3383191

Bukingham Pension
Fan rooms are PHP500 a night. AC rooms with common bath are PHP800 a night. While AC rooms with private bath starts at PHP1000.
Gen. Malvar Street, Malate, Manila
+63 2 5253663

Juan's Place
This is the cheapest it could get. And don't expect much since it's an apartment in a rundown alley right beside Malate Pensionne. They charge PHP180 per person for dorm rooms and PHP250 a night for fan rooms.

There are no buses direct from the airport (NAIA) to Malate. So the easiest way to get there is by taxi. Remember though that airport taxis at the Arrival Area are quite expensive. So to cut down on costs, you simply have to go up to the Departure Area on the second floor and flag down a metered taxi from there. And if the driver tries to haggle for a fixed rate, find another one! From Clark, take a bus to Pasay and get a cab from there to Malate. Here's more on the Clark Airport: How to get to and from the Clark Airport.

Do you know of any other reliable backpackers accommodation in Manila? Leave a comment to let us know.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rizal: Avilon Zoo in Rodriguez, Rizal

Avilon Zoo is the best zoo within the vicinity of Metro Manila. At 7.5 hectares, it's also the largest in the country. As Manila Zoo continues to deteriorate (what do you expect from a government zoo that lacks the proper funding for rehabilitation), it is these private endeavors that fill in for the need for quality recreational and educational facilities for Filipinos. Since it was a holiday last April 7, my family planned a visit to Avilon Zoo as soon as I arrived from Tablas.

Getting there was a bit confusing since there was a lack of visible directional signs from San Mateo. You had to proceed to the town proper of Rodriguez (formerly Montalban) and from there, you could ask around how to get to the zoo. The first directional sign I noticed was away from the National Highway where they should have been to help visitors locate the park.

We finally arrived at Avilon Zoo after passing through a dirt road. I expected the municipal government to have cemented this road long before given that Avilon was one of the town’s major attractions. We spent PHP208 each for entrance and it’s a good thing that they accept credit cards.

At the time of our visit, there were some parts of the zoo undergoing renovation in order to improve the facilities but overall, the design and theme was great. Mom said it reminded her of Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.

Check out the close encounters with the animals. I had a chance to interact with several birds of prey including an owl and an eagle, while Bettina got to ride on George the pony for a photo opportunity. They usually charge PHP50 for this. But the funny experience was with Camille the orangutan who was really playful. She would reach for your hand and if you would oblige, she would give you a hug, or in my case, climb up so you could carry her like a little kid.

The zoo has most of the animals that can usually be found in zoos, like lions, a tiger and other large cats, monkeys and other primates, and birds among many others. But it did not have a giraffe, zebra or elephant. But overall, the zoo is worth the visit especially if you have kids.

Avilon Zoo
The Avilon Montalban Zoological Park in San Isidro, Rodriguez, Rizal is usually open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can call them up to check their schedule.
+63 2 9418393
+63 2 9489866
+63 917 8995126

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Win two round-trip SEAIR tickets to Batanes!

Ivan About Town and the SEAIR Adventure Club is giving away two round-trip SEAIR tickets from Manila to Basco, Batanes. All you have to do is leave a comment in SEAIR flies to Batanes telling us why you love Batanes by Sunday, 20 April 2008 at 8:00 p.m.

Make sure you place your full name in the name field since you will need a valid ID to claim the tickets if you win. The winner will be drawn at random and will be notified by e-mail so make sure you double check your e-mail address before submitting your comment. Finally, one entry per IP address so only the first entry from each IP address will be counted. Tickets will be valid from now until 15 October 2008. Good luck!

Update: We have a winner! Make that two winners! Our Batanes ticket raffle got 396 comments posted before the 8 p.m. deadline last Sunday, April 20, 2008. Members of the SEAIR Adventure Club met Tuesday to draw the winning comment. To do this, each comment was numbered 001 to 396. The draw was done lotto style. Three piles of numbers were made, the first pile had the numbers 0 to 3, while the second and third pile had the numbers 0 to 9. And the winning number is 190 which is the comment of William Gilbert Agravante. Congratulations, you just won two round-trip SEAIR tickets to Batanes!

But since we enjoyed reading your comments, we've decided to give one round-trip ticket to the best comment with the word "SEAIR" in it. And that comment belongs to Dorcas Juliette Ramos. Congratulations on your graduation! You win one round-trip ticket to Batanes! To both our winners, please wait for the notification e-mail on how to claim your tickets. And to all those who joined, don't fret since we have another one! So watch out for it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Romblon: SEAIR's Let 410 UVP-E back to Manila

I had an early morning SEAIR flight from Tablas back to Manila. It was my first time to ride in a Let 410 UPV-E plane. This 19-seater plane is quite versatile since it could service both paved and unpaved airstrips.

The plane flew lower than the usual commercial aircrafts so I got to take really nice aerial shots.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Romblon: Aglicay Beach and Trangkalan Falls in Tablas

First order of business for the day was to take the ferry from Romblon back to Tablas. Since the SEAIR flight from Tablas back to Manila is early in the morning, you have to be in Tablas a day before departure. The only morning ferry trip back to Tablas was at 8 a.m. so I made sure to get some quality rest the night before. After munching on the pizza leftover from my dinner at Romblon Deli, I made my way to the pier to catch the ferry.

Back in San Agustin, I went back to the Madrona Residence in Brgy. Bachawan where I was to stay for the night. About three kilometers from the place is Trangkalan Falls which I decided to visit before lunch. On the way to the falls, I passed by three large bronze sculptures by the late Florante Caedo depicting the crucifixion, the pieta and the resurrection. Indeed, who would expect to find these works of arts tucked in the middle of nowhere?

Finally reaching Trangkalan Falls, I immediately noticed its aquamarine catch basin which was most definitely enticing for a swim. My guide explained to me that during the rainy season, the falls raged down the rocks. But in the summer, it was reduced to a near trickle.

The hike back got me really hungry and I was at the Madrona Residence in time for lunch. I took a quick siesta after lunch before proceeding to the Aglicay Beach Resort in Alcantara for a swim. Aglicay Beach is one of the best resorts in Tablas Island. Since I was really hungry, I had some snacks at their restaurant before heading over to the water.

The marine life was alive and kicking since I spotted a lot of fish, starfishes and sea urchins in the water. But a sad note is how you'd find the occasional snack wrapper stuck in the sea grass. Some tourists are so inconsiderate and think that everywhere is a garbage can.

Aglicay also offers tours to the nearby Looc Marine Sactuary, the Battle of Sibuyan Sea Marker and Memorial which we passed by on the way back to San Agustin, and the enchanted Kalatong Hill of Guimbirayan.

Aglicay Beach Resort
Fan rooms start at PHP600 while air-conditioned rooms start at PHP900. You can arrange airport pick-ups with them for PHP400 one-way.
+63 2 9375064
+63 915 4256898
+63 919 6346708
+63 906 4813470

Part 1: Romblon is more than marble
Part 2: Romblon, Romblon is a heritage town
Part 3: Romblon's food surprises

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Romblon's food surprises

Romblon still had more surprises. After climbing down from Fort San Andres, I proceeded to the Romblon Shopping Center to shop for marble souvenirs. But since I was starving, I had some halo-halo in one of the carinderia in front. As soon the shopping was done (since I still had to return to Tablas, I had to shop wisely or face the problem of carrying a heavy load), I returned to the hotel to get some rest before dinner.

I was resigned to the fact that I had no choice but to pick another of the usual turo-turo at the Romblon Shopping Center. But I decided to walk around a bit and remembered passing by a cafe called the Romblon Deli from the pier. And I easily spotted it a few meters away from Freedom Park.

Who could imagine that this laidback town of Romblon would have restaurants serving international cuisine? Indeed, Romblon Deli Coffee Shop & Restaurant was a bold experiment as the owner Dave Kershaw explained to me. There are two such restaurants in fact located beside each other, the other being Republika Bar & Restaurant (formerly Jack’s Restaurant which Dave sold to his friend three years ago).

The items in the menu are chalked up on a black board and change every now and then. Most of the perishable ingredients are imported such as the steaks, lamb and cheeses, brought to Romblon via a complicated supply chain from Manila, Batangas and Puerto Galera. The dry ingredients are sourced locally.

The restaurant was established to cater to up market visitors, hoping to pull in the “right” kind of tourists. Most of the clientele that night were foreigners many of whom were working as volunteers in Romblon. But there were the occasional locals. Though the selection is quite pricey for most locals, imagine getting steak for PHP250. Not bad at all! For the night, I got myself a medium deli pizza topped with salami, olives, onion, tomatoes and bell pepper just for PHP200.

Romblon Deli Coffee Shop & Restaurant
Menu includes deli pizza (depending on size between PHP180 to PHP280), fillet steak (blue cheese, peppered or New York style with fries and salad at PHP250), bangers and mash (PHP160), roast lamb with toast, potatoes and peas (PHP250), and sandwiches (from PHP105 to PHP125).

Republika Bar & Restaurant
Check out their rib-eye steak with French fries (PHP250), beef goulash with mashed potatoes and veggies (PHP170), pork schnitzel with fries and salad (PHP170), and chicken paprika with rice (PHP140).

Part 1: Romblon is more than marble
Part 2: Romblon, Romblon is a heritage town
Part 4: Aglicay Beach and Trangkalan Falls in Tablas
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