Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Mexico: Archaeological Site of Monte Albán & Cuilapan de Guerrero in Oaxaca

After visiting cities north of Mexico City, it was time to proceed south. Oaxaca was our next destination. We made a brief transit in Mexico City, taking time to visit UNAM, before boarding a late night bus to Oaxaca, for a trip that took about six hours.

We arrived quite early in the morning and proceeded straight to our hostel. Our plan for the day was to visit Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality of Oaxaca. The Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We learned from our hostel that we could still catch the guided-day tour to Monte Albán and other nearby attractions (MX$300). Since we wanted a stress-free day, we decided to join.

Monte Albán, ten kilometers from downtown Oaxaca, was once a holy city with a population of more than 30,000 Zapotecs. Archaeological findings suggest that efforts to construct Monte Albán began in 500 BC. It reached its peak in 300 AD and was mostly abandoned by 800 AD.

Built on top of a mountain, the city offers spectacular views of Oaxaca Valley below. The Gran Plaza is the highlight of the visit to Monte Albán.

We were given ample time to explore the different areas of the complex before we proceeded to our next stop. The tour also included visits to an alebrijes artisans workshop in San Antonio Arrazola, the ex-convento in Cuilapan de Guerrero, a Oaxacan buffet lunch, and a black clay pottery workshop in San Bartolo Coyotepec.

Alebrijes are wooden figures, mostly animals, that are colorfully painted with designs created with small dots. The shop gives visitors on overview of the process from carving the wood to the painting and finishing. Of course, finished products are on sale in the shop.

Our next stope, the ex-convento in Cuilapan de Guerrero, is a grand structure that was built from 1559 but was never completed. It was supposed to serve as a base of the Dominicans for the conversion of native Oaxacans to Catholicism. The scale of the construction suggests that if it was completed, it might have been among the best and most beautiful monuments of Spanish America. Another claim to fame was that Mexican president and national hero Gen. Vicente Guerrero was executed there on February 14, 1831.

We were wondering what time we'd eat lunch as it was close to 3 p.m. by the time we made it to the restaurant. There were buffet and a la carte options which were not included in the tour cost. Since Oaxaca is known for food, we paid an additional MX$120 to enjoy the buffet. We were not disappointed.

Our last stop for the tour was a black clay pottery workshop in San Bartolo Coyotepec, another traditional craft in the Oaxaca area. We got to watch demonstrations and explore the shop.

More photos of Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico in the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Hungary: Exploring Budapest, the Heart of Europe

Budapest, Hungary is one of the most spectacular cities in Europe. No wonder people refer to it as the Heart of Europe and Pearl of the Danube. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the current city of Budapest was created in 1873 by the unification of three older cities namely Buda, Pest and Obuda.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Buda
Buda Castle
From Graz, Austria, we left very early in the morning and drove to Budapest. It was about 3 to 4 hours from Graz and it entailed driving back to a part of Slovenia and into Hungary. The sun was up by the time we arrived in Budapest.

Szabadság híd or Liberty Bridge
Without any GPS or city maps to help us, we just tried to find a place to park for us to explore the city on foot. We would later find out that we were on the Pest side, where the Inner City, including the Hungarian Parliament, Heroes' Square and Andrássy Avenue, can be found.

Hungarian Parliament Building and Lajos Kossuth Square
Given our limited time, we went straight to the Hungarian Parliament Building (Országház) in Lajos Kossuth Square, home to the Hungarian National Assembly, and an iconic landmark of Hungary. It was inaugurated in 1896, the 1000th anniversary of Hungary, and was completed in 1904.

Built in the Gothic Revival style, it is the largest and tallest building in Budapest. Both the Országház and St. Stephen's Basilica are 96 meters high, representing the conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary in 896. In fact, there is a rule in Budapest that no building can be higher than 96 meters, a major reason why the city's historical fabric is well-preserved. Why they share the same height also has a symbolic meaning, that worldly and spiritual concerns are of equal importance.

Museum of Ethnography
While it's nice to see the building up close, a better view can be seen from across the river. Too bad we didn't have time to explore the Buda side since we had to rush to Bratislava.

On the way back to the parking garage, we passed through Great Hall Market (Nagycsarnok), the biggest food market of Budapest, which sells meats, produce, spices (especially paprika) and souvenir items. It was a very colorful look at Hungarian culture and it's one of those places you must visit and eat at to experience the local flavor.

We also got to pass by a kürtőskalács shop while walking around Budapest. Also known as chimney cake, it consists of a thin pastry ribbon wound and baked around a wooden cylinder, and heavily sprinkled with sugar. The sugar is caramelized during the baking process and the finished pastry is flavored with cinnamon, walnuts, almonds or chocolate.

Nagyboldogasszony Church and Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd)
Our regret was we should have stayed in Budapest for a night since the city was very impressive. At least there's a reason to visit again. More photos of Budapest in the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Singapore: Walking tour of Singapore's Civic District

Singapore's Civic District is the heart of colonial Singapore. Walking around the district gives visitors a glimpse of monuments and structures that connect modern Singapore with its rich historical past.

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple
I started my walk at the Bugis Station, going through Waterloo Street where the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple (观音堂佛祖庙) and Sri Krishnan Temple can be found. Kwan Im Temple, also known as the Guan Yin Tong Temple, is quite popular especially to devotees of its main deity Kuan Yin (观音), the Goddess of Mercy, who they pray to for good luck. The temple has existed since 1884 and survived the Second World War. But the original structure did not survive a fairly recent renovation. And most of what you see today dates back to 1982.

Sri Krishnan Temple
Sri Krishnan Temple, dedicated to Sri Krishna and consort Rukmini, dates back to 1870 and is the only South Indian Hindu temple in Singapore. Further down Waterloo Street is Southeast Asia's oldest Jewish synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which dates back to 1878.

Across the road, along Queen Street, is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a Catholic church that was completed in 1870. Further down Queen Street is Singapore's oldest Catholic church and seat of the Archdiocese of Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, completed in 1847.

Beside the Cathedral, along Victoria Street, is CHIJMES (pronounced chimes), the former Catholic convent known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) and its middle education school. The complex has been adaptively reused as a dining, shopping and entertainment center. The chapel is now a multi-purpose hall that caters to musicals, recitals and other performances and weddings of course.

Raffles Hotel
St. Andrew's Cathedral
The iconic Raffles Hotel is near the corner of Beach Road and Bras Basah Road. Further down is the Anglican St. Andrew's Cathedral. The first was church built in 1836. The current cathedral dates back to 1861.

By this time, after walking quite a lot, you might have gotten an overdose of heritage. But it gets better. If you are not really the type who likes walking a lot, you can actually start your walk at the St. Andrew's Cathedral via the City Hall MRT Station. Beside the sprawling grounds of the cathedral is a vast green field called the Padang, which in a way is Singapore's central square. Around it are the old government buildings of colonial Singapore which include City Hall and the Old Supreme Court, both currently being renovated and converted to house the National Art Gallery that will open several years from now.

Asian Civilisations Museum
Boat Quay
You can also see the Singapore Cricket Club and the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, which is also being restored as we speak and covered with scaffolding. In the area are the Dalhousie Obelisk, Asian Civilisations Museum (Empress Palace Building) and the Raffles's Landing Site, where Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles landed in 1819. Across the river, you can see Boat Quay, old shop houses and warehouses that have been converted into chic and trendy bars and restaurants.

Cavenagh Bridge
The Fullerton
There are two old bridges which bring you to the other side of the Singapore River, the now pedestrian Cavenagh Bridge and Anderson Bridge which connects to Fullerton Road and the Fullerton hotel complex, fine examples of adaptive reuse. The Fullerton was the former Singapore Post Office while the Fullerton Bay Hotel's main entrance and lobby is the former Clifford Pier Terminal.

Don't forget to pass by Merlion Park for a photo with another Singapore icon, the Merlion, and a nice view of Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands.

Satay at Lau Pa Sat
I ended my tour near the Raffles Place MRT Station, capping it off with a satay dinner at La Pau Sat Market, a preserved colonial market converted to a hawker centre in the heart of Singapore's business district.

Another area of the Civic District I plan to explore when I return to Singapore is Fort Canning Park. Around it include the National Museum, Perenakan Museum and Singapore Philatelic Museum.

How to get to the Civic District
There are several MRT stations that can bring you to the Civic District. Aside from Bugis and Raffles Place Stations at the northern and southern ends respectively, there is City Hall Station, and the Bras Basah and Clarke Quay Stations on opposite ends of Fort Canning.

Thank you to the Singapore Tourism Board and Agatep Associates for their valuable assistance during this trip.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur for the heritage junkie

Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks goes on a walking tour of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in search of built heritage. Here's what to see and do if you've only got a day!

Twenty-four hours. This was all the time I had on my third trip to the Malaysian capital. Take out 10 hours of rest in between and what can you do in the city with fourteen hours? Quite a lot.

First , an overview of the cityscape. If you're not the type who'd wake up at 5:00 a.m. to queue up for the skybridge at the iconic Petronas Towers, then the next best thing is to head-off to Menara KL or KL Tower for an unobstructed 360 degree view of of the city. Spend an hour or so to admire KL's iconic buildings 421 meters above the street. Looking from above, I realized that Kuala Lumpur is (thankfully) not an oversized megalopolis but rather a small city which dreams big. The views are really inspiring.

Entrance to KL Tower  is RM55 (approximately P760.00) and includes a choice of simulated F1 ride or pony-back (ala Baguio) on the street. I chose the former.

Our bearings in order, we then revisited historic heart of the city in Merdeka Square. This area has been spruced up with most of KL's iconic colonial buildings all looking as stately as the last time we saw them.

Don't miss the area's latest attraction: the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery. This small museum takes you through the history of KL from a state to national capital. You won't miss this as it is housed in a beautifully restored 114-year old buillding (just look for the I heart KL outside). This facility also has information booth with loads of brochures and maps. Be sure to get the Kuala Lumpur Walks and Tours Map (free). Across the street is the National Textile Museum (free admission) that is also housed in another heritage structure.

For more local color, we walked to the city's Chinatown along Jalan Petaling to visit the Sze Yah Temple (Taoist) and Sri Maha Mariaman Temple (Hindu).

And of course, I late lunch at the food court of the famous Central Market which was a welcome break from all the walking.

Here's a tip, if the heat and your legs start taking their toll on you, head for a Hindu temple to get some peace, quiet and maybe a quick nap. These shrines are really a place for religious contemplation as they are sanctuaries the weary body. Remember to take off your shoes!

Capping off, we headed to the Lake Garden district to visit the (25 min walk or a taxi ride) Mesjid Negara (National Mosque) and admire its very bold and modernist 1960s architecture. The compound is very refreshing with fountains around. Visitors are allowed to go in provided there are no services. Nearby, the Islamic Arts Museum is another worthy stop on our cultural circuit. This was actually the reason why we stayed a day in KL and we're glad that the facility was open on the day we visited.

Feet weary and stomach grumbling, we chowed down 10 sticks of satay, a mid-sized oyster omelette, a bowl of fish ball soup and a can of pop at the famous hawker street Jalan Alor.

A day well spent in KL!

P.S. We found out the KL has a similarity with Manila in the way that taxi drivers never use the meter. Take heed and bargain well!
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