Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Slovakia: Early evening walk around Bratislava's Old Town

A castle on a hill next to the Danube, churches, towers and grandiose institutional buildings are just some of the things you will see as you walk around the medieval Old Town of Bratislava, the historic center of Slovakia's capital. No negative vibes from the horror movie Hostel could scare us from visiting charming Bratislava. In fact, Bratislava was very pleasant and walking around the Old Town was a really nice experience.

Unfortunately for us, the sun sets a bit earlier in this part of Europe. And since it was November, that was quite early. Driving all the way from Budapest, we thus arrived at sunset. After finding a place to park our car, we immediately rushed over to the Old Town to explore what we could with the little time we had left as we were spending the night in Vienna, Austria.

We got to see Bratislava Castle down from where we were. The first structure that greeted us was St. Martin's Cathedral (Dóm sv. Martina), the largest church in Bratislava. This Gothic cathedral, which dates back to 1204, was the coronation place of several Hungarian kings.

As we made our way to the Main Square (Hlavné námestie) where the Old Town Hall (Stará radnica) is located, we got to see Michael's Gate (Michalská brána), the only city gate that remains of Bratislava's medieval fortifications.

By the time we reached the Main Square, it was quite dark. The Old Town Hall was easily recognizable with its colorfully tiled roof. Around the square, you could see that they were almost done constructing stalls for the Christmas market. At the center of the square is Roland Fountain, built in 1572 by order of Maximilian II, the king of Hungary, as a public water supply.

Beside the Old Town Hall is the Holy Saviour Church or the Jesuit Church. The main door was still open to allow people to pray. But the gates that secured the main nave was already locked and the lights turned off.

Since we didn't see much and wanted to make the most of our Bratislava experience, we made sure to have a Slovak dinner. I had Kapustové Strapačky (sauerkraut dumplings w/ bacon) and Sedliacke Opekané Zemiaky S Cibulkou (country-style roasted potatoes w/ onions). The dumplings actually remind me of gnocchi.

So many places to return to if ever I get to visit Europe anytime soon! For more photos of Bratislava, Slovakia check out the Ivan About Town FB page.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Malaysia: My Penang top 10

It's Ivan Man Dy's turn to revisit Penang, Malaysia. Here's what he has to say about the UNESCO World Heritage Site:

During my first visit in 1999, Penang Island in Malaysia was love at first sight. Fast forward to 2012, we're even more in love the second time around! In particular, we're pertaining to the island's historic capital Georgetown. Established in 1786 as a trading port, over the next 200 years, this city attracted various nationalities that included, among others, various Chinese and Indian language groups, British colonials and even Armenian immigrants.

Today, the city is heir to this amazing cultural legacy and it really does justice to Malaysia's tourism slogan Truly Asia. Get yourself a map (there's lot's of them and mostly free) and explore the old quarters on foot. Here are our top 10 favorites:

1. Shop house architecture
And lots of it! Georgetown has the biggest collection of these unique dwellings, some of them more beautiful and ornate than the other. Our hotel was located in one and the experience was a throwback.

2. Chinese clan temples
Home to a huge ethnic Chinese community, Georgetown has a wide collection of family clan temples (built to help early immigrants settle in) the grandest of which is Khoo Kong Si on Canon Square. The craftmanship, carvings and detail will make you knees shake with their beauty. Don't miss the other ones like the clan houses of Cheah, Yap and Lim. Most are a stone throw away from each other.

3. Penang State Musuem
You have to visit this first to understand the city. Cheap too at RM1!

4. Historic mansions
If you have 2 days like we did, spread it out to the two best ones: the blue Cheong Fatt Tze on Leith Street and the green Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street. Both have fabulous rooms, furniture and a fascinating glimpse of 19th century Chinese immigrant rags-to-riches stories. Look for the Filipino guide in the latter to regale you with insider stories!

5. Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera)
At 833 meters above sea level, it's cool, breezy and has a great view of of the city. Take the 45 minute bus at Komtar (transport hub) then up by a funicular (RM30). We also had the best Nasi Goreng in recent memory at the Owl Museum food court!

6. Mesjid Kapitan Keling
Penang's oldest mosque (1801). Charming Anglo-Mughal architecture and a better undestanding of the Islamic faith.

7. Clan jetties
These are seaside ethnic Chinese communities (similar to Badjaos). A living heritage of Penang that gives you an insight of a modern life in a traditional albeit unorthodox setting. It's perfect too to catch the afternoon breeze.

8. Little India
Colorful, atmospheric and loud with Bollywood music. For some peace and quiet, head off to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on Queen street. Lots of eateries in the area serving traditional specialties like Roti Canai, Naan or Nasi Kandar.

9. Street hawker fare
They're quick, tasty and yummy. Eat with locals at night along the corner of Love Lane and Chulia Street. Try Lok Lok the Penang version of tusok-tusok food that comes with choices of squidballs, fishballs, fried wantons, sweet corn, sausages, etc. Choose between the sweet or spicy sauces. Another favorite: Yong Tau Foo, that's tofu with crabsticks and balls (fish, squid, etc.) in a clear soup. Set up begins at 6:30 p.m. so grab a seat!

10. More street hawker fare along Gurney Drive
We had local insider info that is even better place but had no time to check it out due to distance. Well, that's another reason go back Georgetown!

Read more posts on Penang!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Aldevinco Shopping Center, Mindanao handicrafts in Davao City

Cultural markets are an important element of any tourist friendly city. I was glad to find one in Davao City, the Aldevinco Shopping Center. Right across Marco Polo Hotel and the Ateneo de Davao University, Aldevinco is host to over 100 handicraft and antique shops, many of which have been there since it opened in 1965.

In the shops, one can find local Mindanao products, local indigenous costumes and textiles, various batik products, textiles imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, antique and brass items, and even indigenous musical instruments.

Right outside Aldevinco are fruit stands where you can get some really good local fruits such as pomelo and mangosteen. It's definitely a place you have to explore when you visit Davao City.

Aldevinco Shopping Center
Claro M. Recto cor. Manuel Roxas Avenues, Davao City

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @ivanhenares for the latest on my travels!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Oriental Mindoro: How to get to Puerto Galera (White Beach, Sabang & Muelle)

Manila Channel at the entrance of Puerto Galera Bay
Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro, most known for White Beach and Sabang Beach, is quite close to Metro Manila. It has 42-kilometers of uneven coastline which will most definitely satisfy your preferences, be it a party beach or laid back quiet getaway.

There are several ways to reach Puerto Galera. By car, take the SLEX and STAR Tollway all the way to Batangas Port (about 2 hours). You can leave your vehicle in the open air parking facility (they call it Park and Ride which is the term the guards are familiar with), or you can take your vehicle to Mindoro via the RORO to Calapan City (although Calapan is still an hour away from Puerto Galera, about 51 kilometers). The Park and Ride costs Php155 for overnight parking and Php6 per hour in excess of 24 hours.

Yachts anchored in Puerto Galera Bay
Alternately, public buses go all the way to Batangas Port. So make sure to ask the bus if it's going all the way to Batangas Port before boarding. Outrigger boats for Puerto Galera (sorry, no airconditioned fast crafts servicing Puerto Galera) leave from Batangas Port Terminal 3.

View of White Beach in Puerto Galera
Note that there are various Puerto Galera destinations which include White Beach, Sabang and Muelle (which is the main port in the poblacion of Puerto Galera). There are also trips to Aninuan and Talipanan. So make sure you know where your resort is. I spent Php220 for a ticket to Muelle, Php30 for the terminal fee (which you pay for when you purchase your ticket), and Php50 for the environmental fee paid in another counter in the ticketing area. The boat trip takes between 1 to 2 hours.

Minolo Shippine Lines (MSL)
Boats leave Batangas Pier every 15 to 30 minutes from 6 a.m. (5 a.m. during Peak Season) to 5 p.m. Tickets to Muelle cost Php220, while tickets to White Beach cost Php275 one-way and Php500 round-trip. MSL leaves Muelle between 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and White Beach between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. (4 p.m. on holidays)
Tel. Nos. (043) 2873614 (MSL Office); (0917) 8392608, (0916) 6054887 for Batangas; (0915) 2044348 and (043) 2873608 for Muelle; (0916) 2074747, (0915) 4945323 for White Beach

Father and Son Lines (FSL)
Boats leave Batangas Pier every 15 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. FSL has trips to Sabang, Muelle and White Beach. Ticket cost is Php230 for Sabang and Muelle; Php270 one-way and Php500 round-trip for White Beach. MSL leaves White Beach daily between 8 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. (7 a.m. on Monday, Sunday and Holidays; 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. during Sundays and holidays)
Tel. Nos. (0917) 3610772 or (0943) 3236992

Galerian Lines
Boats depart Batangas Pier between 5:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. White Beach fare is Php275 one-way and Php500 round-trip; Aninuan and Talipanan fare is Php325.
Tel. Nos. (0915) 3128647; (0916) 4427936; (0916) 2056110; (0922) 7676903; (0905) 3839079; (0916) 4446605

There are also passenger and RORO services to Calapan for those who want to bring their vehicles to Mindoro. Trips are also more frequent and are available 24/7. Remember that the trip to Calapan takes about 2 hours plus another hour by land from Calapan to Puerto Galera. Here are your options:

Montenegro Lines
Passenger and RORO ships from depart from Batangas Pier to Calapan and v.v. every two hours for 24 hours at even-numbered times. RORO fare is Php1536 for light vehicles, Php240 per person for regular fare, but they are currently on promo fare at Php192 per person. They have WiFi on board.
Tel. Nos. (043) 7238294 or (043) 7236980

Super Shuttle
Passenger and RORO ships depart Batangas Pier for Calapan at 5:15 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. and depart Calapan for Batangas at 1:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. RORO fare is Php1440 for light vehicles and Php192 per person.
Tel .No. (043) 7221655

Starlight Ferries
Passenger ships depart Batangas Pier for Calapan every two hours for 24 hours at odd-numbered times. Regular fare is Php180.
Tel. No. (043) 7239965

Note: Fares and schedules are accurate on the date of posting. Best to call the phone numbers above for confifmation of schedules and fares.

More from Puerto Galera soon! I'm here to judge for the De Galera Festival. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @ivanhenares.

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.
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