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May Destination: Helsinki, Finland

I’m still trying to catch up with blogging and sharing my amazing travels this year but between school ( I’m taking my Masters at the moment), dance classes, crisis all over the world and deadlines, it has been challenging. Anyway, moving on to my 2015 travel destinations, for spring, I went to Helsinki, Finland to visit one of my best friends in the world.

It was my first time to travel to northern Europe and I find it interestingly different. To get there, I took KLM flights. It was more or less a 5 hr flight with a lay over of an hour in Amsterdam. FinAir flies directly from Geneva to Helsinki but I was going in for the miles.

Hietaniemi Cemetery

leave it to us that our walk end up in a cemetery… typical! hahaha!

I was in Helsinki for 5 days but I actually didn’t do a lot of sight seeing – I was too lazy and it was unexpectedly very cold. My friend and I were joking that it was more like a lola’s vacation (lola is the Filipino word for grandma). On my first day, my friend picked me up at the airport, we stored my luggage in her restaurant (my friend is an amazing chef in Helsinki) and went straight to her friend tattoo artist to get inked. After I got my tattoo, we stopped by a bar to say hi to her fiancé and had coffee with one of her friends. After that, we went home, had dinner and talked for hours – just like old times! You see, my friend is an old roommate of mine when we were in university. There were five of us in that dorm who became so close that we’re more than just friends… we’re family up to this date.

IMG_4245On my second day, we went walking (it was supposed to be a running activity but I can’t sweat because of my fresh ink). That was sight seeing for me. After our morning walk, we grabbed breakfast in a little café close to her place. I think on that day we also went shoe shopping, or maybe that was on the first day too, and we met up with her fiancé for a late lunch where I had the Finnish version of filets de perche. Afterwards, we took a quick look at the city via tram and grabbed coffee at the city centre.

On my third day, I had brunch with my friend’s fiancé since my friend had to go to work. After brunch, I went shopping and then picked up my friend after her work. We had an early dinner in an Italian restaurant close to her restaurant then we went to a bar to quickly say hi to her fiancé and his friends. In the evening, we just sat

Kauppatori, Helsinki

Kauppatori, Helsinki

On my fourth day, I went around the town by myself since my friend had to work. She advised me to check out the food fair happening because there was a Filipino tent in that event. The food fair was in a park and they had food from all over the world. It started raining after sometime so I went to the oldest café in Helsinki called Edberg. They had an amazing coffee and one of the best tarte au citron with merengue I’ve had – my favourite dessert in the world! After the rain stopped, I went around town to check out some of the touristy sights and of course, ended up in another culinary fair. After my sight seeing, I met my friend at the city centre and we went to another nice café for coffee and patisserie. Afterwards, we went home where my friend prepared her specialty for dinner – salmon soup. Yes, my friend, born and raised in Philippines, is known in Helsinki for her salmon soup because she makes them in the most traditional way. When I asked around where to get salmon soup, they told me to ask my friend to make it. We didn’t stay up to late that night because I had a very early flight the following day.

When I told my Finnish friend that I very much enjoyed Helsinki, she laughed at me and told me I was being nice – not because it’s not a pretty city but because there’s nothing to see there. True, it’s not your typical European city and you can’t compare it with France, Italy, Germany or even Czech Republic where the cities are buzzing with tourists. I find Helsinki quieter and calmer than Geneva but it has it’s own beauty. I also think I very much enjoyed my stay in Helsinki because it allowed me to spend time with my really good friend who I dearly miss.

So yup, I loved Helsinki! It was a good choice indeed.

 

xx, I.

 

April Destination: Saint-Genix-Sur-Guiers, & Annecy, Rhone-Alpes

The perfect staycation at Rhone-Apes

The perfect staycation at Rhone-Apes

An Easter weekend in Geneva is also a good opportunity to spend a long weekend up in the mountains or down the south. This year, the Easter weekend was my April destination excuse. It was also a friend’s birthday so we decided to just rent a house in Rhone-Alpes, just an hour drive from Geneva and about 40-minute drive to Chamonix. It was a perfect staycation in the little town of Saint-Genix-Sur-Guiers with friends, game nights, a lot of cooking, and a Jacuzzi.

 

Soaking the sun in Annecy

Soaking the sun in Annecy

I guess it was a good thing that I wasn’t feeling well because I was forced to stay in the entire time. My favorite moment was watching the sunset in the Jacuzzi while sipping a nice rhubarb-champagne cocktail. And since the house we rented is quite far from other houses, we had the rare freedom of playing drinking games and just having fun until 5 am. On our way to Geneva, we stopped by Annecy to enjoy a bit of sun before we wrapped up our Easter weekend.

xx, I.

 

March Destination: Freiburg & Rust, Germany

The Silver Star is the 2nd highest roller coaster drop in Europe

The Silver Star is the 2nd highest roller coaster drop in Europe

On 27 March, two of my friends and I went on a road trip to Freiburg, Germany to de-stress by… riding roller coasters!

I just submitted 2 essays as a final exam for my intelligence analysis class and I felt like I’ve used up all my intelligence in the process. So, my friends and I decided that the best way to recover from a very stressful week was to scream our lungs out.

Freiburg is a small town in Germany that is bordering Switzerland. From Geneva, we drove for about 3 hours. As we left work at around 6 pm, we got there at around 9 pm and immediately went to a Brazilian bar for a flammkuchen and beer. I know it sounds weird but I do remember enjoying their food and house beer a lot. In fact, we returned to the same restaurant/bar for breakfast the following day and it was excellent. The following day, we drove to Rust (it was about 30-minute drive) for the Europa park.

Europa park is like adults’ Disney land – it has the atmosphere as Disney land but with a lot of adult rides (mostly insane roller coasters). We probably rode 6-8 roller coasters that day and the most memorable ones were the wooden roller coaster, the blue fire and the silver star. The blue fire is a super fast roller coaster with lots of inversions – it actually freaked me out. The silver star has the normal speed but it’s the second highest roller coaster in Europe. Between the height and the inversions, I’d definitely choose the height!

On Sunday, we had an excellent brunch in a smaller town right next to Freiburg then drove back to Switzerland, stopping by at Lucerne to walk around and have coffee. It was such an adventurous weekend… it was my first time in Germany after all.

xo, I.

12 Months, 12 Destinations: The 2015 travel year challenge is on!

At the beginning of this year, a close friend of mine dropped the bomb that she’s moving out of Geneva and assuming a position in Asia… in 2 weeks. As usual, when someone leaves, we always feel like we didn’t really take advantages of the fact that we are living in a strategic part of Europe where travelling around Europe is so easy and if planned properly, can be relatively cheap. With this, I decided to challenge myself to travel outside Geneva for a minimum of 2 days at least once a month. With so many places to choose, here’s my destination wish list for 2015:

Switzerland: Basel, Gstaad (for the husky sledding)

Italy: Sardinia, Sicily, Chianti or anywhere in Tuscany, Rome (maybe, after 4 ½ yrs in Europe, I’ll manage to convince myself to see Rome)

France: Corsica, Strasbourg, Lyon (already did for Feb!)

Germany: Berlin

Spain: Seville, Alicante, Barcelona (required! I miss it so bad)

Netherlands: Amsterdam

Portugal: Lisbon, Porto, Albufeira

Finland: Helsinki

Austria: Vienna (again), Salzburg

Outside Europe: California, Istanbul, Marrakesh, Petra

Let’s do this!

2014 Travel Recap: The Year of Spontaneous Trips (Part 2)

Weekend in Paris

the Louvre's pyramid in the evening

the Louvre’s pyramid in the evening

I visit Paris twice or thrice a year. In 2014, I went to visit in August with a couple of friends to visit a best friend and her adorable little bundle of joy. It was a very relaxing weekend in Paris. We basically just shopped and eat. As all of us have been to Paris, there was really no need for sightseeing. I’m quite a morning person so, in the morning, while I wait for friends to wake up, I take the time to walk around the Tuileries garden which was very nice – it’s nice to see an empty Paris.

Morning walk in Paris around the Louvre area

Morning walk in Paris around the Louvre area

Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris' 6th arr.

Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris’ 6th arr.

 

Hiking in Zermatt

Our 5-turned-2-lakes hiking adventure in Zermatt - everything was so surreal, we looked like we were in a film

Our 5-turned-2-lakes hiking adventure in Zermatt – everything was so surreal, we looked like we were in a film

After coming back from Paris, another friend asked me if I want to join her for a weekend hike in Zermatt because a friend was visiting. Who can say no to Zermatt in summer?! Zermatt is quite nice and has a lot of hiking activities to offer in the summer. We rented a car, drove to Zermatt on a Saturday morning, went hiking in the afternoon, spent the time in the sauna in the evening and had raclette and fondue for dinner. On Sunday, we did the Matterhorn glacier paradise where we took the highest cable car in Europe and visited an ice castle.

Up close and personal with the famous toblerone mountain, the Matterhorn

Up close and personal with the famous toblerone mountain, the Matterhorn

A hike in the swiss mountains means meeting new friends

A hike in the swiss mountains means meeting new friends

view of swiss alps is always breathtaking for me

view of swiss alps is always breathtaking for me

Hiking in Annecy

view of the lake Annecy, France on top of a mountain

view of the lake Annecy, France on top of a mountain

The following weekend after our trip to Zermatt, my friends and I went to Annecy, France for a day trip. While looking for a coffee place a little bit outside Annecy, we learned that the place has a short hiking trail that leads to a very nice panoramic view of the Annecy lake and a waterfall. Not only we were not dressed for a hike that time but us, girls, also brought our shoulder bags with us. It was a short hike but was quite steep, especially the trip down was particularly a little scary since our shoes have zero grip. Of course, we also managed to take another trail down (without knowing it) and ended up in another town where we had to walk for another 30-40 minutes. At the end of the day, we had a really great time – I always enjoy a trip to Annecy.

 

The Ultimate Greek Adventure

When it was time for my solo travel, I was first initially thinking of visiting my friends in California again… but then I thought: the only time I’ll be by myself in California will be never. Also, since I didn’t want to spend so much time in the planes, I decided to just stick within Europe. One day, my friends and I were talking about our favorite holiday destinations and 2 of my friends mentioned Greece – voila! To my surprise though, most of my friends didn’t quite approve at first with me traveling solo to Greece (and island hoping). Greece is massive and getting from one island to another can be complicated, especially if aiming for the non-party islands. But with massive research, I managed to book my favorite solo adventure/summer getaway in Europe.

Athens

at the Acropolis Museum

at the Acropolis Museum

From Geneva, I first flew to Athens. If you read reviews and travel blogs on Greece (in fact, majority of my friends said the same thing), most will tell you that you that you only need 1 day in Athens because there’s not really much to see. Well, I say it depends on who you are talking to.

When I was about 10 yrs old, our neighbor gave me a book on Greek mythology. It was a big book with small texts that reminds me of the encyclopedia – actually, if I remember it correctly, it was more like an encyclopedia-type of book as it had the A-Z of Greek mythology. I first started by reading the texts with photos and I got really fascinated by it that I started reading really reading the book. I must say, I moved on from Disney princesses to Greek mythology. I forgot about my fascination with Greek mythology until Athenian democracy, the Peloponnesian war, Sparta, Persia, the Peace of Nicias, etc. became a part of my language again in college.

So, going back to my main point, when I got out of the plane, the first thing I saw in the Athens International Airport was an advertisement from visa or mastercard that says something like: plane fare to Athens, EUR 200. Seeing the things you only see in school books, priceless!

Yes, that’s exactly how I felt in Athens as I went to see the Acropolis museum, the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Theatre of Dionysus, etc.

the Theatre of Dionysus

the Theatre of Dionysus

the Erechtheion

the Erechtheion

the Parthenon

the Parthenon

Santorini

There’s something about the sun, the sea, and being on top of a cliff in an island that gives you peace. Santorini was said to be the result of a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago and some even say that this was the inspiration for the legend of Atlantis.

I did spoil my self a bit in Santorini and stayed at the beautiful Rocabella Hotel.

I did spoil my self a bit in Santorini and stayed at the beautiful Rocabella Hotel.

In Santorini, I felt real tranquility – something that I haven’t felt for a very very long time to the point of it becoming something new. Click here for more of my Santorini reflections.

the breathtaking view Sunset of Santorini

the breathtaking view Sunset of Santorini

Oia, Santorini

Oia, Santorini

the beautiful town of Oia in Santorini is the "Greece" we often see in movies

the beautiful town of Oia in Santorini is the “Greece” we often see in movies

Island of Paros

my everyday dilemma in Paros: to hang by the pool or by the hotel's private beach... life is good!

my everyday dilemma in Paros: to hang by the pool or by the hotel’s private beach… life is good!

While everyone goes to Mykonos in summer to experience the fun and wild beach parties, I decided to retreat to the Island of Paros. Paros was just about 2 hrs boat ride from Santorini. The Island is known for its turquois-colored beaches and the town of Naousa is beautiful, quiet, fishing village. For 5 days, the Astir of Paros became my home – yes, I invested on a 5-star hotel and it was worth it! As I was one of the last guests of the season, I felt like I had the entire resort to myself. For 5 days, the only things I need to think about were: 1) where to hang? beach or pool side? 2) what to drink while hanging under the sun, reading my book? 3) what to order for dinner from the hotel’s mouthwatering selection of food? I also had the opportunity to meet the owners of the hotel resort and they are absolutely kind, warm, and welcoming.

having dinner at Astir of Paros is like having a birthday every night... everything in the menu were absolutely amazing

having dinner at Astir of Paros is like having a birthday every night… everything in the menu were absolutely amazing

Astir of Paros' beach side

Astir of Paros’ beach side

While I liked hanging out at the private beach and by the poolside, I also managed to actually go to a yoga retreat at a yoga centre in Naousa. There, I met Irana Ji An, an amazing yoga teacher at the Paros Yoga Retreats & Workshops. I found my love for yoga because of this yoga retreat. Before Paros, I was irregularly practicing yoga for the past 8 months and my yoga studio wasn’t really that good – I was often left guessing if what I was doing was right or wrong. After going to Irana’s retreat for 4 days, I finally understood what my body should feel during and after yoga and I really loved it. With this, I invested in a good yoga studio here in Geneva and have started practicing yoga regularly.

Inside the beautiful cobblestoned town of Naousa

Inside the beautiful cobblestoned town of Naousa

dine by the beach in Naousa

dine by the beach in Naousa

the Galileo ship docked in the main port of Paros

the Galileo ship docked in the main port of Paros

Back in Athens

After having a great time in Paros, it was almost time for me to go back to Geneva… well, almost. First, I had to transit overnight in Athens. It was a late night flight back to Athens so I ended up just ordering a Domino’s pizza in my room (I know, right?). In the morning, I had time to do some shopping around the Monastiraki area.

2014 was indeed quite an adventure for me – full of spontaneous trips and discovering places for the first time. Here’s to hoping for more trips this 2015.

2014 Travel Recap: The Year of Spontaneous Trips (Part 1)

I’m known to my friends as a very organized traveler, to the point of being horrified by spontaneous trips. In 2014, I must say that I got better with this spontaneous business – from road trip to Italy to weekend hiking to the mountains.

Birthday celebration in Milan

Milan's Duomo in the evening

Milan’s Duomo in the evening is beautifully surrounded by lights

I’ve only been to Milan once and we were just transiting to Lugano in 2011. From that experiencing, I thought Milan was nothing special – just a big shopping city. So, when my friends told me that we should celebrate our birthday in Milan, I must admit I was a little apprehensive about it. I thought: there are so many other beautiful places, why choose Milan? In the end, I agreed to do it. To help raise my enthusiasm for the trip, I read a lot about Milan and research on places to go to. Eventually, I learned from the trip that Milan is so much more than shopping and it is a city with lots of character. I went back to Geneva falling in love with Italy – the culture, the history, the food… yes, the food.

After my birthday, another friend of mine realized that the long Easter holiday was fast approaching and there’s no way we are getting stuck in Geneva. Since we didn’t have proper preparation, all the flights to the nice European destinations cost an arm and a leg. So yes, I suggested going back to Italy… this time, somewhere close to the Mediterranean.

The convent of Santa Maria delle Grazzie is where Leonardo da Vinci's the famous last supper is found

The convent of Santa Maria delle Grazzie is where Leonardo da Vinci’s the famous last supper is found

 

A day trip in Morges to see the Tulips

IMG_1681

Morges is less than an hour drive from Geneva and it is famous for its tulips festival in the spring. I’ve heard so much about this tulips festival but have never gone to in my 4 years in Geneva. So, when we had the opportunity to go there last year to check out the festival, we borrowed a friend’s car and just drove there on Sunday.

IMG_1698

 

Easter road trip in Genoa and the Italian Riviera

Genoa - Italy's oldest port town. Also known as the home of delicious pesto and birth place of Christopher Colombus

Genoa – Italy’s oldest port town. Also known as the home of delicious pesto and birth place of Christopher Colombus

For Easter, my friend and I borrowed a friend’s car and drove to Genoa. Yes, this is one of my first spontaneous trips of 2014. None of us have ever driven to Italy and the only preparation we made was to book a hotel. The only thing I knew about Genoa that time was it is where pesto originated. We got lost several times, even with a sat nav, and took us an hour going around, finding our hotel. One day, we also drove by the cost, with the goal to have lunch at Portofino, and we ended in another town (thinking we were in Portofino). Despite those challenges, Genoa and the Italian Riviera captured my heart and most especially my taste buds! There was no place we went to that we didn’t love the food.

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Cave overt in Satigny

 

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In May, we also participated to the famous caves ouvertes in Geneva (well, the caves were actually outside Geneva) and we went biking! Yes, it was wine tasting combined with hardcore biking. It was probably an 8-10 km (at least) of biking through unpaved roads and extremely steep hills and at the end of the road, you get to drink as many types of wine as you can. It was so much fun! 2014 was also my fist dry caves ouvertes – it always rains during caves ouvertes.

The Other Side of Milan: A 3-hr Walking Tour

When my friends told me we are going to Milan for a weekend to celebrate our birthdays, my first question was: “Why Milan?” She answered: “To do shopping, what else?” Since the group pretty much decided that we’re going to Milan and I wasn’t really up for shopping for 2 ½ days, I managed to convince them to do something that is not related to shopping – like seeing the Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper.

One thing about viewing the Last Supper is that you have to book it in advance – at least that’s what everybody says. This is where I came across with the City Wonders’ Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Best of Milan Walking Tour… and I’m glad we’ve taken this tour. At first, my friends were apprehensive with the 3-hr walking tour since 2 of them just recovered from a leg and a hip injury. Second, I’ve been travelling a lot in Europe and I’ve only done a guided tour once in Barcelona – it was horrible. After that, I lost faith in guided tours with patronizing tour guides who automatically thinks all Asians are Chinese. However, as we only had limited to tour Milan and I was too busy at work to do a research on Milan, we ended up getting the 3-hr walking tour.

Booking

Getting a reservation with City Wonders’ Last Supper was much easier than shopping online. I just went to their website (http://www.lastsuppertickets.com/last_supper_tour.aspx), paid in credit card, and I instantly got an email confirmation. The instructions on the meeting place and how to get there are very clear.

Price

The price of the tour is EUR 65 per adult (it’s EUR 60 for children). For me, this is already a good deal since it already includes the Last Supper tickets… and being able to skip lines is the most convenient thing ever.

The Tour Guide

Recalling my traumatic experience with a tour guide in Barcelona? Rafaella, our tour guide was the exact opposite of that dude. With Rafaella, 3 hours went like minutes! She was very knowledgeable about her city and I felt how passionate she is about telling Milan’s story to people too. She is fluent in English with an Italian accent – very easy to understand. She was super funny and very accommodating. I was very much impressed by how much she managed to connect with everyone despite being in a group of 20ish people.

The Tour

Milan's Duomo is the fifth largest cathedral in the world.

Milan’s Duomo is the fifth largest cathedral in the world.

I enjoyed the tour very much and I must say, I learned a lot! A big part of it was, again, Rafaella – our very good tour guide. As mentioned, skipping the line in Duomo and the Last Supper is everything! When we arrived in Duomo, the line was insanely long. Then, Rafaella said we were actually entering the side entrance, which is exclusive for guided tours – I guess. That must have saved us from falling in line for at least 30 minutes. In Duomo, we learned fascinating trivia about its structure, the statues, the works, etc. These are the things that we won’t know just by going inside, perhaps unless you buy a guide book or something. The Last Supper was of course the highlight of the tour and was the last part of the tour. As what Rafaella said, if you were disappointed by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, you won’t be with the Last Supper. I’m not a big art fan – in fact, I get bored at every Picasso museum I’ve been to. I see art stuff because of their historical significance or in lay man’s term – just for the sake of saying I’ve seen it. But the Last Supper, I literally stared at it in amusement and with genuine appreciation of its history and significance. It was also because Rafaella was giving great trivia about it – something you won’t get if you view the Last Supper without a tour guide.

Also, don’t worry if you think that 3 hours of walking is too long. As I said, the tour is very interesting and especially if you get a really good tour guide, 3 hours will pass by like minutes. In addition, Rafaella took us in a café for a good 10-15-minute break. This gave us an opportunity to talk to the other tourists and ask Rafaella for food and restaurant recommendations while having amazing coffee.

Recommendation/s

I definitely recommend City Wonders’ Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Best of Milan Walking Tour to everyone who is going to Milan. I guarantee that after the tour, you will see Milan in a different way – it’s not just a shopping city.

One recommendation I can give is take the 14.30H tour, which finishes at 17.30H. The timing is perfect for an aperitif after the tour to rest a bit and talk about the tour with your friends then go to dinner.

To learn more about the tour, click here.