Friday, July 27, 2012

Celebrate London 2012

My morning and evening commutes, not without their occasional excitement and frustration, have been made even more amusing with the recent 1984-esque tube station announcements by Mayor Boris Johnson’s recognizably baritone voice, which usually go something like this: 

"Attention Londoners!  This is the Mayor of London.  This is the greatest moment in the life of London for 50 years.  We're welcoming more than a million people a day to our city and there is going to be huge pressure on the transport network.  Don't get caught out.  Get online and plan your journey at"

Thanks for the notice Mr. Mayor; I’ll do my best to do my part, even if that means avoiding East London and Canary Wharf altogether and working from my impromptu “Southwest London office” during this period.  Olympic fever is everywhere, equally matched and amplified by the sudden heat wave of the last week.  The official Olympic designated “Fast Lanes” have opened, the tube stations are decorated with bright pink signs directing visitors to the various sporting venues around the city, gigantic yachts are filling the harbors of the Docklands, and throngs of tourists, officials, celebrities, politicians, and athletes are pouring into London every day.  Yesterday the Olympic Torch passed right through our neighborhood along the leafy Clapham North Side of the Common before making its way around the rest of the city, visiting every major landmark, and finally arriving to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford where it will remain until the Closing Ceremony.  There really is no escaping this for the next several weeks, the Olympic spirit is everywhere.   

Over the last several months casual chatter and media commentary have been mixed with a combination of enthusiasm and skepticism, often focusing on the challenges that we will undoubtedly face as soon as the world descends upon this vast metropolis.  Longer than average waiting times on more crowded than usual tube trains, disruptions to our daily commute, crowds of people jammed into almost every corner of our city, and of course the expected and unexpected security threats that come with any major international event, have been just a few of the concerns highlighted in the months leading up to tomorrow.  Even the designs and logos have been criticized, with the poor mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, specifically targeted for a variety of deficiencies.  Other, more sensible discussions have been around the “legacy” of these Olympics.  Will the increased tourism and advertising money help push Britain out of its shallow double-dip recession?  How will the newly constructed venues be used post-Olympics?  And what will be the overall impact on the regeneration efforts throughout East London over the long-term?  As with any Olympics, their true impact may not be felt or realized for years, but in the immediate near term all eyes are going to be on the displays of the games and ceremonies. 

As the days progress, comparisons to Beijing will predictably pre-empt and follow any major aspect of these games, but will ultimately prove unfounded.  These will be a different kind of Olympics just as Beijing and London are completely different types of cities and China and Great Britain are entirely different types of countries.  The Olympic Games should reflect the local geographic, historic, and cultural heritage of the host nation, China succeeding extraordinarily in their own right, and that is the best that London can hope to achieve from their efforts.  Much like the brand new Shard landmark skyscraper, the tallest in Europe, which sits at the bank of the Thames and dominates the new London skyline, Britain should stand proud that for these two and a half weeks it plays hosts to the world and will do so in a quintessentially British style.  Already the Olympic Park in Stratford is being lauded as an attractive destination to visit in itself, independent of an Olympic event, filled with green space, gardens, and outdoor viewing screens.  This can be said of very few other host cities, most of which have struggled to provide a striking identity to the built environment of their respective Olympic venues.

Now that we have reached the day of the Opening Ceremony there is an excitement and buzz throughout town which is unparalleled and Londoners, perhaps aided by the recent amazing weather, appear united in welcoming these Games to our city.  It is similar in atmosphere to the Royal Wedding of William and Kate in 2011 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, but unlike those milestone events, this energy will last for two and a half weeks and will draw in thousands of visitors from countries all over the world.  To add to what has already been an extremely historic year with Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year on the throne, London is now the first and only city to have hosted the modern Olympic Games three times, first in 1908, then after World War II in 1948, and again in 2012.  This is yet another special milestone for this great city.  Throughout the entire summer of 2012 the city has enjoyed a series of high-profile concerts, parties, special exhibitions, shows, and events which together comprise the 2012 Festival of London, culminating with these Olympic Games in a season of pomp to celebrate the exceptionalism of London.  Why not embrace this?   
It was about four years ago today that we were in the middle of finalizing our plans to move to London, and at the time the 2012 Olympics felt like a lifetime away.  Finally, four years later, the Games have arrived and the time that has passed in London since has gone by in the blink of an eye.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to live in a city that plays host to any major global event, especially the Olympic Games.  Although my commute will undoubtedly be disrupted and the masses of tourists will slow me down and get in my way at every turn, the next several weeks will be uniquely memorable.  The 2012 Olympic Games should be a time for nations and people to come together here in London,  one of the most cosmopolitan, dynamic, and diverse cities in the world, to embrace the universal spirit of sportsmanship and to exalt the virtues of discipline, spirited competition, and teamwork.  In an increasingly uncertain world wrought with its fair share of cynicism, unrelenting war, chaos and unspeakable tragedy, this is something that should be celebrated, not dreaded.  So Mr. Mayor, I will take your advice and join my fellow Londoners in embracing what may be London’s greatest moment of the last 50 years. 

Let the Games begin…     

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Venice, the Pace of the People

Believe it or not, with all of our time and travel in Europe, I have never made it to Venice.  My better half has made it there a couple of times herself, but this tiny little aquatic labyrinth of a city has somehow always evaded me; until recently of course when I had the opportunity to make a short, but sweet trip here for work.  

We have written a couple of posts on Venice, so there is no reason to revisit the obvious and repeat what most people would already know from having traveled there themselves or reading about it somewhere else, including this blog.  It is widely one of the most popular destinations for any traveler in Europe and for very good reasons; it requires no introduction.  Getting lost along the canals, dining on the amazing food, and drinking the sublime wine, it is no wonder that this is one of the most visited places in Italy, yet alone in Europe.  I am still surprised that it took me this long to get here and a work trip to justify it.  

No matter how you spend your time it seems it is impossible to get bored or disappointed.  Just don’t bother with Harry’s Bar which is un-extraordinary at best and which will charge you €18.00 for one Bellini and standing room only.  You’re probably better off posting up with a carafe of house wine at one of the plenty of welcoming cafes anywhere off the beaten paths and away from the ultra-touristy main squares.

I got very lucky with the weather, escaping what had been constant rain in London and was able to enjoy clear skies, sun, and constant heat during my time in Venice.  I somehow even managed to avoid what has been described to me as the unpleasant canal smell which overtakes the city on days with stiflingly high temperatures.  My only slightly unenthusiastic observation, which could not be helped based on the circumstances, was that unlike some other European cities which I would happily visit for work, Venice is truly not a business trip kind of a place.  Perfect for couples, families, or even groups of friends or solo travelers, but being here for work felt somehow out of place.  But I can’t complain; at least I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to finally make a visit so I certainly made the most of it.      

The one major thing that did surprise me was that people actually do live in Venice and lead every day, routine lives; normal people, not just tourists and those in the tourism industry.  After my work meetings the following day I casually inquired where my business contact lived.  To my surprise he actually lives in Venice with his family.  Along with all of his friends, associates, and extended family that also hold normal jobs, commute daily to the mainland, and make Venice their actual home, he has lived there his entire life and has no intention of ever moving to the mainland.  

This certainly gave me a richer and deeper appreciation for the city which at first glance can appear to be overrun by and catered to tourists.  He put it best himself when he said the reason he has lived his whole life in Venice is that “it is the one city in the world that moves at the pace of the people and not at the pace of machines”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Perhaps it is this timeless distinction that keeps visitors flocking to Venice again and again throughout the years.  I would return here myself, but maybe next time I’ll leave the work at home and take a gondola ride with my better half.    - KV

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I Heart Paris

My kid sister has been working hard towards her nursing degree over the past few years. Since it is very unlikely that we'll make a trip to California to attend her graduation this year as we'll most likely be in Hong Kong to visit my newborn niece, Keenan and I wanted to give  my kid sister an extra special gift to celebrate this milestone achievement. So we thought what better than a weekend trip to Paris! Oui Oui!

I booked her on an early morning train from St. Pancras so she could enjoy a full day of sightseeing around the City of Lights with time to visit the Louvre. Since this was my kid sister's first trip to Paris, I wanted to base ourselves in one of my favourite Parisian neighborhoods -- 5th/6th or 3rd/4th arrondisement. We found a cute 3rd floor flat on AirB&B conveniently located on Rue Des Franc Bourgeois, right in the heart of Le Marais. By the time Keenan and I arrived in the early evening, my kid sister had already made herself at home and greeted us at the front door as if she had lived in Paris for years. Who knows, maybe she'll be an expat herself like her two older sisters? 

The weekend was short, but sweet. We spent most of the weekend visiting all the major tourist attractions, some even twice! But first we took a detour to get croissants and one dozen macroon for breakfast. Ummmm...


Saturday was a long day of walking starting from the Arc de Triomphe and all the way to the Eiffel Tower where we enjoyed an impromptu picnic of baguette, French cheese, ham, and bottle of wine. So very French, and oh so lovely. Keenan and I  have a bad habit of visiting Paris in the late fall or early spring and the weather was never warm enough for a leisurely afternoon picnic, but not this time although it did drizzle off and on. 

 Paris, France

Then it was on to Place des Invalides, a museum dedicated to all things related to France's military history, including the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparete; then through Saint-Germaine-des-Pres to the lovely Jardin du Luxembourg, and finally to Le Bistro des Gastronomes where we had my kid's sister early graduation dinner. 

Located in the 5th arrondisement just off the Seine River, Le Bistro des Gastronomes is a great neighbourhood restaurant, seating no more than 25 people in an unassuming and rather simple dining room of blonde wood paneling. Lucky for us, no English-spoken here, which is a good sign, right? Specialising in contemporary French cooking, the rising young chef Cedric Lefevre who previously worked for Christian Constant and at Chez Michel has earned himself a Michelin Bib  Gourmand awarded to restaurants that offer excellent value for money. At €35 for a three-course, this place is a steal by Paris standards, and the food did not disappoint. 

My sisters and I tend to gravitate towards the same dishes on the menu after all we are cut from the same cloth, so we both opted for the jumbo prawns over artichoke and Keenan went straight for the foie gras as starters. Both were delicious -- prawns were succulent and tasty, and the foie gras was equally good though the portion was a bit small. Then it was on to the main course which we all had a hard time deciding on the dish -- they all look excellent. Taking a recommendation from the table next to us, my kid sister and Keenan order the beef steak, seared to perfection over carmelised onion and some potatoes, and I ordered for the salmon with clams over fennel and cherry tomatoes.  


Dessert was ridiculous -- Keenan had a massive creme brulee, my kid sister ordered a light raspberry 'tart' and I opted for a mini espresso mousse cup. Sugar overload! We enjoyed some good family-bonding time over a wonderful meal and  bottle of Bordeaux red from St. Emilion. Then it was off to the Eifel Tower again, this time to see the light show which goes off on the hour every hour. 

The next morning we were off to see some more sights -- Notre Dame and Hotel de Ville -
before lunch at our usual Sunday spot at L'as du Falafel for their famous falafel. We spent the rest of the day up in the artsy neighbourhood of Montmarte to do a bit of souvenir shopping for family and friends and of course, visit the beautiful Sacre Coeur as well as the obligatory photo-opt in front of the Moulin Rouge. Despite the numerous times I've visited Paris, I've never seen the iconic red windmill in person. Underwhelming at best but it is worth ticking off on your Paris To-Do List. 

Weekends always come and go so quickly. This one was an extra special, a sweet weekend trip to celebrate with my kid sister. 

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Alhambra & Granada, Spain

Granada is a special place. Nestled on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it has a glorious past as the last city to fall to the Reconquest. Its main attraction, the Alhambra, a medieval Moorish palace built on top of the hill of Assabica, is one of the most impressive piece of architecture I have ever seen. I’ve had the privilege to visit some amazing monuments over the past 10 years from the white marble-clad Taj Mahal to the temples of Angor Wat, to the grand mosque of Cairo, Istanbul, and Damascus, and ancient wonders of Petra, Machu Picchu, and Giza, but the Alhambra is definitely my favourite. You cannot beat the level of detail and masterful craftsmanship.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that you should allow at least one full day to visit the fortress complex and vast maze-like gardens. Brilliant use of light, space, and water, the Alhambra does not disappoint with its masterful craftsmanship using modest materials. Divided into three main parts: the Royal Palace, the fortress of Alcazaba, and the Medina. The core of Alhambra is the Royal Palace, masterfully designed with delicate arches, intricate carvings, patterns, and inscriptions on plaster are absolutely stunning. Jaw-dropping gorgeous – photos do not do it justice.
A stark contrast to the dazzling Royal Palace, the Alcazaba is simple military fortress of high walls and bell towers overlooking the city of Granada. Further afield is the summer palace of Nasrid kings known as the Generalife, a tranquil oasis of manicured gardens and fountains. One very useful advice: be sure to buy your tickets in advance especially during the high season and reserve the morning session as the heat becomes unbearable. 
When we weren’t enthralled by beautiful palaces and Gothic cathedrals, our stomachs were in for a treat as Granada is the last Spanish city to offer free tapas with each drink. The tapas gets better with each successive round of drinks. Don’t be surprised to receive a tasty plate of gambas al ajillo (shrimp) or punta del solomillo (pork). Cheers to that.

If you need a break from tapas, head over the medieval neighbourhood of Albaicin for a glass of mint tea, kebab, and sugary-dose of baklava. You’ll feel like you’re in Morocco thanks to labyrinth of narrow alleyways, Middle Eastern restaurants, and the smell of sheesha.

If you need to burn off some calories from your nth albondigas (meatballs), hike up to Mirador de San Nicolas for unbeatable views of the Alhambra behind the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. It’s the perfect place to for alfresco drinks or an apertif whilst gazing over the sunset.

From Granada, it was on to the seaside town of Malaga for two days of beach, sun, and more tapas. Our trip to Andalucia was long time in coming, but this was an extra special trip as Keenan and I got to enjoy it with our favorite (and only) little sister. Hope she enjoyed the trip as much as we did.