Monday, August 25, 2014

Warsaw: A City Destroyed and Made New Again

I remember the capital of Poland from The Pianist, which is in my opinion one of the best WW2 films out there.

I've played piano pretty much my entire life, so seeing how Adrien Brody's character suffered not only at the hands of the WW2 injustice but also from being away from his instrument, I can quite truthfully say that I almost cried when Szpilman started playing Chopin's Mazurka in A minor.

Everyone, on three: sob.
The city is beautiful, its architecture old and weathered. Warsaw has survived numerous wars throughout its city, most famously World War 2, where some 85% of the city was destroyed. It has since been rebuilt (can you imagine rebuilding an entire city?), although the city bears memories of the war and especially the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, with monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Jews.

The Warsaw Uprising monument on Krasinskich Square

Warsaw is a city shaped by its scars.

Despite its difficult past, it's clear that it has come a long way. Today, it is very much a liveable place, with all the creature comforts that one would expect of a global city. The summers are comfortably warm, with people out on the streets under blue skies walking in between crayon-coloured buildings. Without the many monuments to WW2 victims, you might not ever know that this place was once the scene of massacres.

My German fellow Couchsurfer Ozzie and I set out on a hunt for the perfect pierogi, a Polish dish of stuffed dumplings that are first boiled, then either baked or fried. A summer day in July is perfect for just such a hunt.

I love seeing interesting adverts, especially if they involve upcycled materials. So when Ozzie and I were walking around and came across this advert van, I just had to take a picture.

We wandered down some tree-lined streets leading up to beautiful gates. (It's almost like Warsaw had to double her efforts to look pretty after being destroyed in all those wars.)

It turns out that 'authentic' pierogi isn't really a thing - in Poland, they're as common and widespread as fish and chips. (Imagine the embarrassment when we were trying to ask around for 'real' pierogi. Typical tourists!) Ozzie and I finally headed to Zapiecek, a restaurant chain that is well-known for having kickass pierogi at really decent prices.

Zapicek is super cute - it has a really homely atmosphere, with servers dressed in Polish costume and every restaurant decorated the way you might expect a grandmother's house to be. It looks and feels almost like a fairytale grandmother's house, which makes it all the more fun to be in.

After having a very Polish meal, we had fun hunting down the most Polish name that there was. (The name is "Stanisław", in case you're wondering.) And it's so typically Polish that we even found streets named Stanisław.

If you're a chocolate connoisseur, listen up: there's a Polish brand of chocolate called E. Wedel, and it's got an entire chocolate factory in the centre of Warsaw. Yup, that's right - a whole chocolate factory! Where there are chocolate factories, there must be cafés, and it was here at the Warsaw E. Wedel factory that I had some of the best hot chocolate I've ever had.

As if having hot chocolate next to a chocolate factory isn't enough, it's even better that the heavenly smell of chocolate wafts through the air around the factory. It's like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come to life!

That chocolate! That whipped cream! What more could you want on a summer afternoon?
The heart of Warsaw's Old Town is its marketplace, which is bustling with restaurants and cafes filled with people at dinnertime. Amazingly, this entire area was systematically destroyed by the German army in the second World War and then completely rebuilt in the style of its pre-war appearance after the end of the war! A near-total reconstruction of a medieval city - that's pretty incredible.

It's clear that Poland is full of people who are as stubborn as they get. Complete rebuildings of cities are all in a day's work for these guys. I guess that's what you get from being a part of a country that's forced to toughen up from endless war and suffering, and that's what makes the Polish some of the most admirably resilient people there are out there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Singaporean in Warsaw

One of the last places you might expect to bump into Singaporeans would be Warsaw in Poland.

And yet, Warsaw is precisely where I met the amazing and incredible Toniwalia, who - despite having grown up in Singapore, being totally Singaporean through and through, and cooking maggi goreng of all things for me on my first day in Poland - is Poland's top Couchsurfing host.

Toni is absolutely the most amazing guy and the most incredible host - he left Singapore some 18 years ago, moved to Warsaw, and never looked back. And when I asked him why Poland of all places - most people would go to the UK or the US - he simply said that it was the first place he went to and that he'd fallen in love so much that he never left.

This is "do not freak, I am a Sikh" Toniwalia.
Toni has hosted over 800 people in his little apartment in downtown Warsaw in 5 years of being an incredibly involved Couchsurfer. There's never a week that goes by that he doesn't have someone staying with him.

Imagine the amount of trust you must have to let more than 800 people through your front door!

Apart from being an incredible host, Toni also cooks insanely good Asian food. He runs a place called Tandoor Palace that makes the best tandoori chicken. The signature dish is called Chicken Toni (named after himself, of course) and it was the best Indian food I've ever had.

After having spent a good year away from Singapore and food like this, having this little taste of home was the best thing that ever happened.

Perfectly crisp tandoori chicken with neon green mint sauce. Soooo good!
While in Warsaw, I met a German girl named Ozzie who was Couchsurfing with Toni too. My temporary room-mate and I hit it off from the very get-go, and as everyone knows, liking the people you meet is the foundation of any amazing trip!

Toni took us around some of the most famous places in Warsaw, including the Łazienki Królewskie park to see a statue dedicated to one of Poland's most famous sons, Frederic Chopin.

Ozzie and me in front of the Chopin monument in Łazienki park!
Walking around Łazienki on a warm summer's day is like some sort of a dream, with happy families out having picture-perfect picnics on the green, green grass. And the park is massive - like, really, really huge, occupying an incredible 76 hectares in the centre of Warsaw.

In fact, Łazienki park is so big that it even boasts a palace. A palace! It's called, imaginatively enough, the Palace on the Water (because it sits right on the water).

The Palace on the Water actually sits on an artificial island that was built in Łazienki Lake, so it divides the lake into two northern and southern parts.

In keeping with the style of what seems like every other piece of royal real estate out there, the palace has peacocks. Indian peacocks, right in the middle of Central Europe. Why? I don't know, but it seems like every piece of royal property has to have peacocks, so... Peacocks for Poland!

Let's not forget the peahens.
The peacocks and peahens in Łazienki are so tame that they are barely bothered by the humans all around them. Some are even so tame that they'll take food right out of your hands! Most people feed pigeons, and then there are those that feed peacocks... Ha ha!

While we were walking and talking, Toni, Ozzie and I started making some so-bad-they're-good jokes. Toni told Ozzie and me about the Polish dish pierogi, which are a sort of dumpling with all sorts of fillings on the inside. ("P-p-p-pierogi!")

He also told us that since we were staying at his place, we were free to make ourselves at home. 

How much at home, you may ask? "If you go out and bring someone home, all I ask is that you bring one girl home for me too," says Toni. "With Polish girls, you don't fuck them - they fuck you!" Well, Toni, we'll be sure to keep that in mind! Bahaha!

I could not have been any happier with the new friends that I'd made that day in Poland. Two Singaporeans and a German in Poland? Sometimes the most unlikely combinations are the foundation for the most memorable moments.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In the South of France

I don't usually take group tours when I'm travelling, but when I do, it's because I want to go to some seriously pretty towns for less money that I would otherwise have spent if I had done it solo (oh, the woes of travel and money! Every traveller wishes that they could have an infinite bank account.)

But on occasion, being on one of these group tours can be pretty interesting, when they take you to really sweet little towns that you never knew existed.

Have you heard of a place called Moustiers-Sainte-Marie? I hadn't either until my tour group took me there. It's a really little place, a tiny little village tucked away on the edge of a limestone cliff and at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon. With a population of only 700 people (seven hundred!!!), it seems like everyone wandering their streets in summer must be tourists.

The buildings in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie are painted in shades of warm, terracotta colours, with shutters that stand out against the colour of the walls. It's all very quaint and quintessentially French, as one might expect from a little village in the cliffs. The bushes and plants are alive in summer, and with clear blue skies, nothing could be more perfect.

What I liked about this picture-perfect little village is how, despite the buildings and cobblestone that seem caught in time, little details like metal foldaway chairs provide a gorgeous modern contrast to the old.

While in a place as picturesque as this, what else is there to do other than indulge in some seriously good eats? This basil and cheese sandwich that I had was absolutely to die for - perfectly grilled bread and yummy yummy basil! How is it that something so simple can taste so good? Whatever it is, I'm stealing the secret recipe!

I also had some lavender ice cream, which I decided to get because it was such a gorgeous shade of pretty pastel purple. I wouldn't really recommend it though. Lavender is amazing as a scent and I love dropping a few drops on my pillow before bed, but as a food it comes across a little too strongly for my liking. As far as lavender ice cream goes, I'll pass the next round.

Still though, food and blue skies in the middle of a cliffside French summer? Sign me up!

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie opens right up to the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, which has water the most mesmerising shade of bright turquoise. The most incredible bit? All this is real! Water this colour actually exists! The water attributes its colour to glacial melt as well as the suspension of mineral rock flour sediment.

I would have loved to be one of those happy people in boats paddling around the canyon!

Look closely at this picture - do you see a guy cliff jumping?! If only I'd been able to join him!

Standing on a bridge in the middle of the Gorges du Verdon is breathtaking - just being surrounded by bright turquoise water on either side. Turquoise!!! This blue-green colour is absolutely my favourite colour ever, so can you imagine how excited I was? Just like a little girl who couldn't keep still!

The contrast of summer dry grass to the turquoise water is so pretty, too :)

Tell me - will you be visiting Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and the Gorges du Verdon?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Lavender Summer

Did you know that the L'Occitane has museums in the middle of France's lavender fields? Yup, you read that right. Museums! For a skincare company! There's an endless display of L'Occitane related things - from the founding of the company to incredibly pretty seasonal packaging.

I guess it's no surprise that L'Occitane has a museum in this part of France, given how obsessed the French seem to be with everything related to lavender especially this time of year.

It's easy to see why and how the lavender obsession starts (although any real French person will never admit that they're properly obsessed over anything, that's being far too passionate). The fields burst into vibrant purple, so colourful it almost doesn't look real. Interestingly though, the characteristic calming scent of lavender doesn't get released until you crush the flowers, so even though the fields are filled with lavender they don't scent the air!

I couldn't resist taking a picture of myself in the field of flowers. Look how it's all the same colour as my hair!
This region of France is crazy scenic. I mean, this view! Look at this view! A warm summer's day, with clouds lazily drifting in the sky... It gives the effect of making everything look incredibly timeless, as if these fields and buildings have been here forever and will be here for a very long time to come.

It's impressive how every row of lavender is perfectly in line - just endless rows of perfectly carved, straight bushes of lavender. The only thing that wasn't perfect about this scene were the many bees and other bugs among the flowers - I kept thinking that I was going to get stung by a bee! Luckily for me nothing of the sort happened in the slightest.

So I continued dancing among the flowers.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lazy days in the South of France

In the South of France, there is a very small, very picturesque little city called Aix-En-Provence. The climate is warm and Mediterranean, the locals are genial and friendly, and everything looks like it was taken straight out of a story about luxury holidays.

Surprisingly, Aix is known as a student town, with students at many universities making up the majority of its population. How any of them get any work done in a city like this I don't know! (I'd be one of those kids who would just sit out in the sun all day.

The streets of Aix are filled with tourists in summer. (It is the South of France, after all.) Many have glowing tans and slight sunburns, dressed in big sun hats and cool, short-sleeved cotton shirts. They fit right in with the sun-orange walls of the Aix streets.

I love that everything in Aix looks like it's been there for the longest time! (Which, to be fair, it probably has.) I love the old-school shutter windows, the beautiful rails on the balconies, and the terracotta colour of the buildings.

On a hot summer day, who can resist a cold ice-cream? ♥♥

I love how in Aix there's just so much lavender everywhere in summer! They're right there in massive bundles, absolutely tonnes of lavender bushels, buds, scented sachets, soaps and oils and perfumes and creams... It seems like there's nothing that can't have a bit of lavender added to it! And because it's right in the middle of lavender country, the flowers are surprisingly cheap too. Well... As cheap as luxury lavender can be, anyway!

I wanted to take home one of these bushels for myself! But I couldn't figure out a way to put it in my luggage...
Aix isn't very big, so everything is walkable. The centre of the city is really small, with some old fountains and cafes at every corner. Cafes, ice-cream, sun and summer? Perfect!

I love places that have herbs displayed like this!! I love how having goods displayed in baskets makes everything look so much more rustic, old-school, and welcoming. I can't get enough of those handwritten chalk pen signs! It took every ounce of self-restraint not to take something home, even if I didn't exactly know what I'd be doing with them just yet.

Hordes and hordes of tourists!
There's nothing quite like letting yourself wander around the hundreds of narrow and irregular streets that seem to lead to the most enchanting little places, like cafes at the end of a lane or beautiful ivy-covered walls that look like something out of a storybook.

The main street in Aix is Cours Mirabeau, and it's been called the most beautiful street in France by some. Well, I don't know about the most beautiful street, but it's definitely right up there! The street is lined with trees on either side, and what I like best about it is how small it is - even though it is a main street, it doesn't feel too busy.

Just like the south of France should be, anyway.

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