Prague Castle

Surely by now, you all know how much I love my palaces and castles. I can never get enough of them. And when you’re thisclose to the biggest ancient castle complex in the world, well, you need not waste the opportunity, right?

Prague Castle actually holds that distinction according to the Guinness Book of Records. It’s practically a mini-city unto itself, with its own church(es), palace, village, mansions and gardens all within its walls. It’s even perched on an elevated parcel of land overlooking the city of Prague with its thousand spires and the Vlatava river nearby.

IMG_4193Like with everything in Prague, the first word that came to mind when I saw the spires jutting out against the sky was this: mysterious. Whereas Paris reminded me of the glamour and glitz of royalty, Prague brought to mind the mystery of the olden times, like secret societies, and pagan rituals, and medieval wars.

It’s the stuff you only see in epic movies, except that it’s for real.

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Prior to our visit, I must confess that I knew nothing about the castle, except that it ranks high in our to do list. So I was expecting the building so familiar in all Prague postcards and towering above the complex to be the royal residence (or, in modern times, the presidential residence). But lo and behold, it was actually the Cathedral of Saint Vitus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe St. Vitus Cathedral (or more properly, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Vitus, Wenceslau and Adalbert since its rededication in 1997) is the biggest church in the country, although since it is a part of the Prague castle complex, it is owned by the government, instead of the Roman Catholic Church. The church itself was founded in 930, but the current structure of the cathedral was built starting 1344. Quite luckily, its patrons included Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor; he wanted the new cathedral not just to be the resting place of St. Wenceslau (a former duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the state), but also to serve as a coronation place and family crypt. The original architect, Matthias of Arras, drew its initial plans and layout but upon his death, Peter Parler and his sons took over the construction.

It is quite interesting to note that Peter Parler practically designed the Prague that we now know today since he was also commissioned to construct the Charles Bridge, among many other projects.

The cathedral is extremely beautiful and grand, and if Charles IV’s goal was to build something fit for royalty, then he succeeded. I was in awe of the exterior, with its many turrets and ironworks dotted with gold. Its design, particularly the facade and rooftop, reminded me of the St. Stephen in Vienna, and upon doing a bit of research, I found out that members of Parler’s family and group took part in its construction as well.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInside, you can’t help but feel insignificant amidst all the grandeur. What sets apart St. Vitus Cathedral from others I’ve seen in Europe is that there were so many well-maintained sculptures, not just occupying obvious places of honor, but adorning just about every pillar or corner of the cathedral. Parler was a sculptor and his unique background as such influenced the overall feel of the cathedral. The big, stained glass windows, which followed a lighter color scheme than most churches I’ve seen, also made the place decidedly more cheerful and airy than its somber counterparts in other cities.
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I mentioned earlier that I associate Prague with mystery and the Cathedral is no exception. What probably even reinforced the thought in my mind is that while the structure is primarily a church, there are so many items inside that seems to me a display of a morbid fascination with death. Occupying the eastern end, for example, is a white marble effigy of Ferdinand I, his wife Anna, and their son Maximilian II, which stands guard to the Royal Mausoleum – where a crypt of kings lies underneath…
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… And of course, you cannot miss the silver tomb of Saint John of Nepomuk. Created in the early 18th century by J. Wurth, it is said to be the single biggest silver object in the whole world. At 20 tonnes, I imagine that claim must be true.
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There are so many artworks inside that were it not for an eerie sense of morbidity, it would have felt like walking around a museum. The pulpit, with its gold trimmings, paintings, and sculpted cherubs, is one of the prettiest I have seen, even though it is much smaller compared with others.

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There are 24 chapels inside the Cathedral, but perhaps the most beautiful and significant is the St. Wenceslau Chapel, with its lower walls inlaid with semi-precious stones, and paintings dating from the early 16th century. The chapel leads to a small room where the Czech crown jewels are kept, although of course, it is not open to the public. There are seven locks to open this room, with each of the seven keys given to different high-ranking officials including the president. All seven would need to be present to open the hihly protected room. No wonder, as the Czech crown jewels – which includes St. Wenceslaus’s crown (a roughly 2.5 kg gold crown with sapphires, spinels, and pearls), scepter, and sword – are the fourth oldest in Europe, and while it has outlived its function as coronation jewels, they still serve as symbols of the independence and grandeur of the Bohemian kingdom.

I found it very amazing that the chapel (like the entire cathedral), was very well-maintained. Indeed, the paintings were still so vivid and I could not detect any missing stones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeside the cathedral is the Saint George Basicilica, the oldest church building inside the castle. It was initially founded in 920, but after huge fires and other calamities, it was finally rebuilt in the late 17th century with the Baroque facade we see today.

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Whereas the cathedral nearby had an air of opulence about it, the basilica was somber and austere, more functional than ceremonial. It served as the resting place of members of the Premyslid family (Bohemian royal family; through relations wih them, the Habsburgs and House of Luxembourg claimed their respective titles to the crown), until 1055.

Perhaps the only colorful parts of the church are the crypts and portions of the choir with the Romanesque frescoes.
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Well, the church is indeed somber and quite empty, so it makes perfect sense that it is a favorite venue for concerts – the acoustics inside must be heavenly.
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Okay, it’s not that I am particularly drawn to crypts, burial places, and other eerie places, but why is it that I often find myself alone and separated from other tourists when visiting such places? Anyway, I was touring the interior of the basilica when I chanced upon the Roman crypt. It was so quiet and serene, but it gave me a seriour case of goosebumps. The soft lighting didn’t help, either.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur Prague Castle ticket actually came with an itinerary of sorts, with the various attractions numbered and labelled in a small map at the back to serve as guide. Of course, it depends on which ticket you get – you can opt to visit just what interests you.

We had allocated the entire day to visit the castle, so we went to our next stop: the Powder Tower and the Golden Lane. We didn’t dwell too much in the Tower but spent time going through each of the small but colorful houses built in the Mannerism style alongside the walls of the castle. These tiny quarters used to house the castle marksmen who guarded the castle, who lived there with their families. The street got its name from the goldsmiths who lived there, although the name may have also been derived from stories of the alchemists hired by the mad King Rudolph to try and turn lead into gold.

The second level of some of the houses had been joined to showcase medieval armoury. I think this is the biggest such display I have come across in Europe, with all those rows of empty full-body armors and weapons.

Some of the houses had been converted into souvenir shops. I found an antique chess set which I wanted to buy but was too scared to do so. Who knows what history that chess set holds? But perhaps the house that brought me the most goosebumps was the house of an old lady who could see the future – she had a son who died in the war but she kept the house exactly how he left it, hoping he would return.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe ended our tour by gazing up the presidential palace. Unlike most of the castles and palaces in Europe which have lost their official functions and have been turned into mere tourist spots, museums, or private hotels, Prague Castle still serves as the residence of the president.
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There is a curious bronze statue outside the courtyard of Supreme Burgrave, simply called Youth (Mládí), by Czech artist Miloš Zet. As per tradition, touching a body part of a statue brings good luck (such as Juliet’s breasts in Verona, Italy). Can you guess which body part of this statue is most frequently touched? 😛

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is also a toy museum inside the complex which, I read, is the second largest toy exhibit in the world. We didn’t get to explore this anymore (tbh, I get scared of old toys; it’s like they would come alive anytime).
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking around the entire complex pretty much took us the entire day and we could barely trudge on so we followed all those other tourists sitting by the wall overloong the city. And to make the experience even more memorable, I got some Trdelník, a local pastry which derived its name from the Trdlo, the stick around which the dough is wrapped and then grilled. It is then coated with sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts for added flavor. I loved it!

It gave me just enough sugar to fuel me for the walk back to our hotel.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd while munching our trdelník, we marveled at this view:
IMG_4204Pictures don’t do justice to Prague. That, or I really need to buy a really nice camera and practice my photography. My mirrorless camera avtually died on me during our second day in Prague: courtesy of me cramming my camera with my water bottle and other stuff.

Oh, and I dorgot to mention that there is a wide expanse of royal gardens surrounding the castle, filled with tall trees and freshly trimmed grass. I loved how quiet and secluded it was.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI would have loved to show you more sights in the complex such as the Vlatislav Hall, where the public events are held but unfortunately, I was being a good tourist and obeyed the sign that said picture taking not allowed – only to find fellow tourists unabashedly taking photos!  Also, my camera was quite useless by then.

For those of you who love jewelry, the Czech Republic is known for garnets, its national gem. There is a gift shop inside the main building which sells Czech garnet jewelry, at a fraction of what it costs here. I was eyeing a pendant there but another woman beat me to it. Too bad but makes for a perfect excuse to visit again, no?

Movie: Heneral Luna

My blog has seriously been lacking posts related to movies. Not that I haven’t been going to the cinemas but I find it do depressing that the only movies I can write about are foreign ones. There is such a dearth of decent Filipino movies that I can’t write about movies in general (or else it would be a very negative post about our local films). It’s even harder to find good historical movies. The last one about Bonifacio had noble intentions but Robin Padilla’s serious lack of acting talent was too distracting, and while the source material was rich, the movie’s plot was…blah. It had been years, even decades, since we’ve had a decent historical movie but if Heneral Luna is any indication, then we are about to experience a renaissance.

So when we started seeing those posters about Heneral Luna, the hubby and I were really excited. It is quite interesting to note as well the choice of subject: Antonio Luna. We all know about Luna’s fiery temper but he is one of those heroes who somehow get overshadowed by Rizal’s intelligence, del Pilar’s good looks, and Aguinaldo’s sly, political maneuvers. What we all know (I hope) is that he was the younger brother of Juan Luna, whose brilliance in art Antonio equalled with his mastery of the art of war and guerilla warfare. But beyond those information, we know very little of the man.

That the movie starts with a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction based on facts should not dissuade Filipinos from flocking to it – yes, certain liberties were taken, especially with the chronology of events, but on the whole, it stayed largely faithful to what our history books and biographies tell us. In fact, it was so truthful that for the first time in many years, we have an epic historical/action film that depicts one of our lesser known heroes for the man that he is, instead of glossing over his flaws and presenting him as more of a deity on a pedestal.

The first thing you notice about the movie is the lush cinematography and the painstaking attention to detail to evoke the aura of the late 19th century. The only flaw are the numerous images of the Our Lady of Fatima, which was out of place as the Marian apparitions happened more than a decade after the events of the film. Despite this not being considered a mainstream/commercial film, no expense was spared – indeed, its reported budget of Php80MM (some sources suggest as high as Php200MM) is one of the largest  budgets ever for a Filipino film.

The movie starts with an interview of the general against a backdrop of the Philippine flag. As the movie progresses, his uniform gets more tattered, bloodstained, and the actor’s face more anguished and pained. The flag hanging behind him mirrors the travails the general endures – it eventually gets riddled with bullet holes and blood spatters. The next scenes switch between Cabinet meetings and battles against the American forces, different battlefields in which Luna excels. He comes off as a man possessed, perhaps his penance for having declined joining the 1896 revolution, since he belonged to that generation of heroes who preferred to push for reforms and representation in the Spanish government. The interjections of Spanish curse words, while distracting in most movies, serve to stress the enormity of the situations in which they were used. 

It deviates from the usual storytelling from the hero’s childhood to adulthood, and instead injects “throwbacks” by way of anecdotes told by the general himself to his loyal soldiers, such as when he tells how he and Rizal almost had a duel in Europe – a reference to when they courted Nellie Boustead, a half-Filipino, half European woman who favored Rizal. Luna, presumably incensed that he was rejected, made unsavory remarks about her that eventually led Rizal to challenge him to a duel. Fortunately, their friends intervened and the duel never happened. Imagine what tragedy it would have been. His mother’s visit before his fateful journey to Nueva Ecija also gave us insights to his brilliance as a chemist and doctor, proven by his first place finish for his college paper “Two Fundamental Bodies of Chemistry,” at the Santo Tomas, his being commissioned by the Spanish to study tropical diseases, and his eventual appointment as Chief Chemist of the Municipal Laboratory of Manila (a position he won by placing first place in an examination for the post).

Even the precious few minutes devoted to his love story with Ysabel didn’t feel forced and an unnecessary accoutrement to the movie. It is a vaguely alluded to the relationship he had with Ysidra Cojuangco, a matriarch of the  Cojuangco clan. There were unverified  rumors at the time that Luna had entrusted the revolution’s funds to Ysidra, and upon his death, the money was never heard of again, and formed the foundation of the Cojuangco weath.

Perhaps the most clever tool used in the movie to cover long stretches of time in one go is a black and white montage of important events, reportedly completed within a single take: the Luna family’s traditions, the Ilustrados’ studies in Europe, Rizal’s execution, the establishment of the Sala de Armas (a fencing club) by the Luna brothers in Manila.

Luna’s death, its gruesome depiction notwithstanding, stayed true to historical accounts: the general received a telegram from Aguinaldo purportedly asking him to go to the his office in Nueva Ecija, presumably to discuss the establishment of a fort in the mountains and the use of guerilla warfare. Nearing his destination, his entourage encountered difficulties and were delayed, forcing him to proceed only with his two trusted men, Capt. Rusca and Col. Roman. On his way to Aguinaldo’s office, he encounters Pedro Janolino, the captain of the Kawit Brigade who he had earlier disarmed for insubordination. He finds out Aguinaldo had left and finds instead cabinet member Felipe Buencamino, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who he previously had arrested along with Pedro Paterno for their pro-American leanings, seated on the president’s seat.

Arguments ensued until a single shot outside prompted the already enraged Luna to investigate. This scene is perhaps the most talked about and bloody sequence in the movie, showing how the general was felled by a bolo swing from Janolino, followed by subsequent gunshot and knife wounds inflicted by members of the Kawit brigade –  most accounts agree that Luna sustained more than 40 wounds, calling his assassins cowards and murderers. Even the short quip by Aguinaldo’s mother, asking “nagalaw pa ba yan?” (Is he still moving?), is based on the most consistent eyewitness accounts. His two comrades came to his aide but were overwhelmed, with Roman being killed and Rusca severely wounded. For those familiar with Antonio’s elder brother Juan’s masterpiece, Spoliarium, the scene where his body and that of  Roman were dragged by the  Caviteños pays tribute to that painting.

CASTING

It is quite interesting that the filmmakers cast known comedians in serious roles: Leo Martinez as Pedro Paterno, Ketchup Eusebio as Janolino, and Epy Quizon as Apolinario Mabini. But perhaps this added to the charm of the movie and rendered the comedic lines more natural. Epy was a revelation, as he proved he could be a serious actor, quite like his father actually. I remember quite clearly how Dolphy made me laugh hard in his movies, but when he turns dramatic, he slays. Paulo Avelino’s random appearances as General Gregorio del Pilar drew cheers from the crowd.

To be honest, I am not quite familiar with John Arcilla’s work. I heard he’s a good actor but I don’t think I have watched him in a large role such as this and he was brilliant. There were many instances when his raging outbursts and jokes threatened to turn the movie into a comedy, but the way he delivered his lines took the film from borderline slapstick to art.

LESSONS

Despite the overwhelming evidence against Luna’s killers, no one was jailed or punished; Aguinaldo denied any involvement, though newspapers at the time, both here and in the US, largely pinned him as the mastermind behind the brutal assassination, as he felt threatened with Luna.

Photo credit: filipiknow.net

Photo credit: filipiknow.net

Even Mabini, Aguinaldo’s loyal former prime minister and advisor, embittered and disillusioned, had this to say later on (taken from Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes):

“The revolution failed because it was badly directed, because its leader won his post not with praiseworthy but with blameworthy acts, because instead of employing the most useful men of the nation, he jealously discarded them. Believing that the advance of the people was no more than his own personal advance, he did not rate men according to their ability, character and patriotism but according to the degree of friendship or kinship binding him to them; and wanting to have favorites willing to sacrifice themselves for him, he showed himself lenient to  their faults. Because he disdained the people, he could not but fall like an idol of wax melting in the heat of adversity. May we never forget such a terrible lesson learned at the cost of unspeakable sufferings!”

On a sidenote, it was quite frustrating to hear moviegoers asking either why Mabini was seated the whole time or who the paralytic was – I watched the movie twice and heard seatmates ask these questions out loud. What are we teaching our kids nowadays? And those asking appear to be college students, some even look to be working professionals. One even had the gall to comment that he didn’t know that the Bonifacio brothers died such gruesome deaths.

Inadvertently, the movie brings to the fore the dubious motives and flawed character of Aguinaldo – one need only be reminded of how he usurped power from the plebeian Andres Bonifacio, then had him brutally dispatched off in the mountains of Maragondon, Cavite, which became a morbid deja vu for Luna’s murder. He declared himself president, but when tested, proved to be nothing more than a glorious clan leader. Persistent rumors also question where the $800M given to him by the Americans in Hongkong have gone, a question we will perhaps never find the answers to. His subsequent actions during the Japanese occupation further cemented his reputation as a turncoat- favoring whoever is in power to save his own skin and advance his political agenda. But perhaps, a closer look at history would prove that justice had been served: Aguinaldo lost to Quezon, one of his former majors (indeed, one of his last scenes in the movie where he was about to leave Cabanatuan before Luna arrives, shows the young Quezon greeting him, an account taken fron Quezon’s memoirs) in the presidential elections. And whatever legacy he has will forever be tainted by the murders of the Bonifacio brothers and Luna.

On the other hand, General Luna, regardless of his volatile temper that eventualy became his death warrant, would now be regarded in history as a man who strove to unify the nation, create an army capable of inflicting defeats unto its more advanced adversaries. His death now serves as a lesson that nothing can be achieved by regionalistic sentiments; and he will be forever remembered as one of the most brilliant generals the Filipinos ever had.

The movie, despite its disclaimer as a work of fiction (which on hindsight, must have been included to appease the purist who know nothing of artistic license), is a must-watch for all Filipinos. Painstaking research must have been made to ensure the accuracy of most of the events in the film, and I must commend Jerrold Tarog’s brilliant mind to put this all into one cohesive script and direct a fully entertaining and engrossing movie. It should be watched not just for its merits as a film, but more to reignite nationalism, which has now been reduced to nothing but an idea, and encourage the youth (and the old) to revisit thier history books, and learn from the mistakes we seem to be wont on repeating.

Skin Care Products I Cannot Live Without

Given my very sensitive skin, there are only a handful of skincare brands that I swear loyalty to – French brands Nuxe and Avene, American brand Burt’s Bees, local brand VMV, and Japanese-made SKII. What’s frustrating is that most of these brands are not available locally. Avene has since been available in our trusted Mercury stores and Burt’s Bees is sold in Beauty Bar outlets. But for my Nuxe needs, I would normally hoard during trips to Europe or Hong Kong or order it online (taxing my non-existent patience and EQ to the max while waiting for my packages to arrive).

So imagine my elation when I saw SSI’s post on Instagram showing the Nuxe body oil – I immediately asked if they are now carrying Nuxe and they said yes!  Of course, that very same day I visited BGC Central where most SSI brands can be found. Going there is like being let loose in candyland so I thought I’d give you a rundown of my trusted skincare products from their Beauty Bar (our answer to Sephora and Sasa).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA. Nuxe foam cleanser, shower gel and creme fraiche. Nuxe carries a wide range of skin care and anti-aging products but my favorite would be their creme fraiche (plant milk-based) moisturizer. It goes on smoothly and doesn’t feel greasy. Plus, it is heavy duty – I use this when I have dry patches on my face, especially during the -ber months, when the cold can be unforgiving. I alternate this with my Clinique moisturizer which I use at night.

Among Nuxe’s many variants and product lines, my favorite is their rose petals-based line – I cannot end my day without cleansing with their micellar rose cleansing water (not in photo) and foam cleanser. I use the cleansing water to take off make up, soaking a cotton pad and patting it around my face before washing off with the foam cleanser. My skin feels petal-soft and smells heavenly after. I love roses but a lot of products in the market smell like vaguely scented chemicals; Nuxe smells like a rose garden.

The shower gel from Nuxe Body is a recent discovery. As I said, I have very sensitive skin and I tried using this supposedly hypoallergenic/mild hair and body wash from a leading consumer goods giant. Sadly, my skin got bumps and blisters and itchy all over. So much for a 2 in 1 product. Now, this gel from Nuxe is so divine – it’s a mix of almond and orange blossoms that smells so natural. I wonder how they do that, like they bottle a garden’s natural fragrance. If they ever come up with a perfume, I would not hesitate buying (or do they have it already???). Anyway, the gel is clear and very fluid (actually doesn’t feel like gel at all), lathers nicely but most of all, rinses easily. Yet my skin feels super clean and moisturized after.

But perhaps the most popular product of Nuxe are their body oils. I got the one with shiny sparkles and I use it on my hair and arms for that little sparkle. It can also be used on the face but I haven’t tried it yet – I am already too oily as it is.

B. Burt’s Bees More Moisture Shampoo. Whenever I think of Burt’s Bees, I think of honey and this product looks exactly like a more diluted version but smells like freshly cut grass or vegetables with hints of honey. It’s got jojoba, baobab, and rice extracts, among a long list of natural ingredients, plus, it’s sulfate free so it’s good for your hair and scalp. It is very hard to find sulfate free hair products so I am glad I switched to this one.

C. Messy Bessy Hand Wash and Insect Repellent. I love Messy Bessy. They have no fuss products that smells really great. And they’re all natural too! I think I use all their household products at home –  dishwashing liquid, dish and toy cleaner (for babies), and hand sanitizer (everyone at work loves this). But my favorite is their liquid insect repellent which comes in a spray bottle. It’s not oily, which is great as I hate having oily hands, and is really tried and proven to keep away insects not just from my little boys but from me as well. This is a mainstay in our travel bags. I also love their hand wash which cleanses grease from my hands thoroughly and smells like fresh cucumber. It makes me want to wash my hands all the time.

D. Tatcha Japanese beauty papers. Or oil control film. But this is so much more than that. Trust the Japanese to transform those thin papers used to wrap gold leaf into beauty products. This thin paper, or aburatorigami, removes excess oil without disturbing makeup. It doesn’t contain powder but I noticed that my skin looks fresher and powder fresh after using this. I was not a fan of those rubber-y oil control films but this one product I swear by.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy journey to find the perfect body lotion is quite never-ending (as I said, Avene is my go-to but it is too expensive here), until a friend recommended VMV. I tried their four-step line with the cleansing milk, toner, moisture milk (for hands, body and face!!!) and sunscreen but found them a bit too heavy for me. But I love the re-everything lotion which is also a triple-threat: can be used on the face, hands, and body. I only use it for my body and hands but I love that it makes me feel soft and moisturized. It’s fragrance free and of course, hypoallergenic, so my skin is quite safe. It’s also good for travel since it covers all your skin moisturizing needs so this is also a maintay in my luggage. Vmv is not carried by Beauty Bar though, but you can get it at SM counters and of course at their stand-alone stores.

What about you? What are your trusted skin care products?

Laduree in Manila

Is it me or are more and more international brands coming over to set up shop in our country? And I can’t be happier that Laduree has finally reached our shores!

Not to be confused with our local macaroons (that crusty coconut-based local delicacy), macarons are meringue-based cookies of Italian origin. When Catherine di Medici married King Henry II of France, her chefs, and the recipe, travelled with her. In those days, macarons are single cookies, until the French thought of filling it up with ganache, jam or cream and topping it with a second cookie, giving us the melts-in-your mouth goodie that we know as the macaron.

Well, I don’t really know who thought of doing that but Laduree probably makes the best macarons out there. Their macarons are so perfectly made that they hold their shape and don’t crumble when you hold them, but they instantly melt once they touch your mouth. And the colors and flavors are just too pretty! It’s like travellihg back in time and experiencing the opulence of Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle.

imageAnyway, the first ever branch of Laduree opened a few weeks ago at 8 Rockwell (right across Balenciaga). No, it’s not inside the Powerplant Mall, but you can get out of the exit near Zara and walk across the street to the next building.

Inside, it’s just like all other Laduree stores – decked in French interiors.

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And prices, while definitely expensive, are just about the same as in Europe – a macaron costs Php 150 while the cute jewelry-box like containers with half a dozen macarons go for Php 1,200. Not bad, as I remember it costs around €2 in Paris (can’t remember how much it was in HK).

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All flavors I have tried are good but I am partial to the chocolate and rose-flavored ones. 
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Locally, I have yet to find macarons that can give Laduree a run for their money; Chez Karine would have been my bet but they closed shop back in June (I almost cried when they did). And I am so glad I can give this as gifts now; macarons only last three days so I couldn’t get them for pasalubong when I travel (except HK).

I can’t wait for their tearoom to open next year.

Iloilo

A couple of weeks ago found me on a rather spontaneous trip to Iloilo. The hubby invited me prior to the trip but my work schedule has been unpredictable as of late that it was quite impossible for me to say yes until about two days before the flight. But, you can’t really keep the wanderlust at bay, right?

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Me and my trusty Yosi Samra gold ballet flats. They’re super comfortable and convenient (you can stash them anywhere), although the material doesn’t let the air breath unlike the more expensive ones. Sometimes, the old saying that you get what you pay for is true.

I didn’t have an agenda prepared for this (so unlike me), other than to visit the Miagao Church, the last Unesco-listed baroque church in the country that I haven’t been to, and to sleep, so when our hotel arranged for a city-tour, I was more than happy to go.

We originally planned on hearing mass at Miag-ao but most of our group woke up late (guilty as charged), we decided to just tour around and hear mass at the next town.

What can I say? The Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church in Miagao is indeed very beautiful. Completed towards the end of the 18th century and situated at the highest point of the town, the church is also called the Miagao Fortress Church, as it served another purpose as a defensive tower against Muslim raids. Four-meter thick flying buttresses further fortify its 1.5 meter inch walls. A mixture of adobe, limestone and coral used for its walls provides it with its pale pink/orange hue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe facade of the church has a bas relief, of which the most noticeable feature is a carving of a coconut tree, the tree of life, to which St. Christopher hangs on to. Beneath him is a carving of the town’s patron saint, Saint Thomas de Villanueva.

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What I love about going to the provinces is that they have many well-preserved old churches. Iloilo is one such place. The next church on our list is the San Joaquin Church, found along the borders of Iloilo and Antique. Built in the latter part of the 19th century, what sets this church apart is the large bas relief depicting the Battle of Tetuan between the Spanish and Moroccan Moors. It is the only church in the country to have a militaristic theme.

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Flanking the entrance to the church are statues of Saint Francis of Assissi and Saint Peter Regalado, the latter being the patron saint of bullfighters – quite apt at the time as San Joaquin was famous for bullfights during feasts.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur third and last for the day, and where we heard mass, was the Jaro Cathedral, or the  Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Calendaria, which was completed in 1874. It is quite unique in that there is a grand staircase in front with a shrine of Our Lady of the Candles. This Marian image holds the distinction of being canonically crowned by Pope John Paul II during his 1981 visit.

The belfry of the church stands right across the street from it. Curiously, this wasn’t originally its bell tower. An old church used to stand beside the tower but it has since been destroyed, leaving just its bell tower.

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Our city tour wasn’t just confined to Iloilo – a three-hour van ride (one-way) found us on the other end of Panay island, in Antique. I honestly thought I was mistaken when I saw sign boards saying Boracay. 😅 Apparently, our guide wanted us to swim in the Siraan hot springs. Except that we only had fifteen minutes at the place so I wasn’t exactly sure how she thought we could do that. So we just stood there, snapped some pics, and settled back for the three-hour ride back to Iloilo.

Pardon the sarcasm. Up to now, I still could not figure out why we had to go there in the first place. Plus, not that I am a snob or anything, the place kind of looked unsanitary.

IMG_6081We did see some marvelous views of the ocean and a distant island, and you know me – a dose of vitamin sea can make me happy.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in Iloilo, our last stop found us lining up at the “I Am Iloilo” signage for picture-taking. I thought it was some big structure you can climb, like the one in Amsterdam (which I think is the progenitor of this fad). So we hauled ourselves to the Iloilo River Esplanade for this:

IMG_6089Well, I would have climbed on top of it if I thought it could support me – but the letters were actually just about two or so feet each and I am not sure if it was even made of thick steel so the picture above would have to do. The esplanade reminded me of Manila Bay, where you can walk and have fish balls while listening to the waves crashing; except that this one is beside a river so no chance really of crashing waves. They do have restaurants and some kiosks selling food.

After a 10-hour day, of which six were spent riding a cramped and hot van, we ended our tour with a visit to Ted’s for a taste of the famed La Paz Batchoy. I heard so many raves about this hand-made noodle dish that I had to have a bowl to myself (yeah, and that huge block of chocolate you could spy in the background was mine as well). Verdict? The soup was rich – oily, as you would expect noodles and anything with beef in it – and the noodle was tasty, an intriguing mix of sweet/salty with a very light but distinct bitter aftertaste. However, it’s not for me. I still prefer the lowly lomi and those Japanese ramen.

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There are a lot more churches and natural wonders to visit not just in Iloilo but in the entire island. Iloilo also serves as the perfect jump off point to Guimaras, which is a short boat ride away so I just might visit in the near future.

Prague: Old Town/Stare Mesto

Located in the Stare Mesto or Old Town, the Staromestske Namesti/Old Town Square of Prague is one of the oldest and most beautiful in all of Europe –it almost feels unreal, like you’ve stepped into a dream or a fairy tale set many centuries ago. Tracing its roots all the way back to the 12th century as the main marketplace of Prague, it boasts of a collection of architectural styles: Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic structures stand side by side in harmony. It used to be separated from the rest of the city by a moat connected to the Vltava river and a wall; the moat has since been covered up and turned into streets when Charles IV expanded the city with the addition of the Nove Mesto or New Town.

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Coming from the Vltava side, the first thing you would notice is the gothic Church of Our Lady Before Tyn which dominates one side of the square with its twin spires. Commissioned by the rich merchants who lived in the Old Town in the latter part of the 14th century, it got its name from the Tyn Courtyard right next to it, so the name is to be taken quite literally.

It has a colorful history, reflective of the many religious and political upheavals in Prague during the middle ages. At one point in the 15th century, it became a Hussite place of worship and the center of the Reformed Church, and the cross was replaced by the symbol of the Hussite Church – a huge golden chalice, and a statue of the only Hussite King, George of Podedrad. When the church was taken over by the Jesuits, this chalice was melted and replaced by a statue of Mary.

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Finding the entrance to the church is quite hard – you have to pass through several establishments as the church is located behind smaller buildings. The interior is predominantly baroque in style and I must confess, the sheer number and size of religious statues, paintings and other ornate structures made out of gold and precious metals and stones left me mesmerized. It has perhaps the most concentrated number of priceless artifacts in any of the places I’ve been to, and that made me understand why picture taking was prohibited.

Legend has it that this church inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. I guess it’s a toss up between this and Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, which has a more wholesome image; while I find the Tyn Church magical, especially when set against the dark sky, there’s also some sort of mystery or foreboding about it that doesn’t quite fit in with anything Disney.

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The church, at night, radiates mystery even as it is illuminated by the moon and the various street lamps around it.

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Off to the far right side of the Tyn Church is a group of old buildings – past this is the upscale shopping district where you can find luxury brands.

Historic and beautiful churches aside, perhaps the most fascinating structure in the square is the Old Town Hall Tower with its Astronomical clock. The Tower was built in 1338, and in 1364, was joined to the private house beside it. This private house in turn, was joined to the next and so on, until the entire complex became known as the Old Town Hall.

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The Old Town Hall

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The Astronomical Clock, or Orloj, was added to one side of the Old Town Hall Tower in 1410, and is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world, and the oldest one still working. The inner blue circle of the astronomical dial has golden Roman numerals around it, indicating the local time in Prague. The golden curves dividing the circle into twelve parts reflect variations for when days become longer or shorter, depending on the time of the year. The calendar plate at the bottom shows which zodiac sign currently reigns.

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There are four figures flanking the astronomical dial, two on each side: Vanity (a man looking at himself in the mirror), Miser (with a bag of gold representing greed), Death (a skeleton), and the Turk (a man telling stories of pleasure). Every hour a small trapdoor opens and Christ marches ahead of his Apostles, while the skeleton tolls the bell. A golden rooster crowing followed by the ringing of the bell atop the tower signals the end of this spectacle.

The baroque church of St. Nicholas can also be found in the square, perpendicular to the location of the Tyn Church and the Town Hall. We actually almost missed it since it is rather unassuming, and it was closed during our visit (it was actually boarded up and the heat made us turn back rather than inquire about its business hours). Quite new compared with the other buildings in the area (completed in 1735), it also hosts various concerts, even during winter. We actually would have gone to one, but we all fell asleep early (blame it on our cumulative tiredness – Prague was our fourth as a group, and my fifth).

On our way back to our hotel (which was right smack in the Old Town), we decided to look for this unique attraction in Prague: the man hanging out sculpture. Made of bronze-colored fiberglass by artist David Cerny in 1996, it depicts Sigmund Freud pondering whether to hold on or let go, symbolic of his life-long fear of death.

To be honest, if you are not familiar with this sculpture, you would probably cry out in alarm upon seeing a man in an apparent suicide attempt (or a very strange accident). The fact that it is located in a quiet neighborhood of the Stare Mesto makes it all the more unexpected.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve always heard of how beautiful the Old Town Square is, and Prague in general, so I had high expectations. As it turned out, my expectations weren’t high enough. It was just too beautiful it felt almost magical. I felt like I should have worn a form-fitting dress with a balloon skirt and petticoats and twirled round and round in the middle of the plaza. But of course, all I had on was a summer dress and it was rather too hot to be doing any twirling.

Prague: Charles Bridge and the Infant Jesus of Prague

If I have to sum up my entire visit to Prague in one word, it would be romantic. It is so beautiful and so firmly entrenched in the past that you cannot but view it with none other than rose-colored glasses. And one cannot deny that it seems shrouded in mystery, like most of its sister countries in the Carpathians.

Or maybe it’s just me – I tend to associate this region with my never-ending fascination with vampiric lore (way before Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries made it cool), given that Dracula lives in the mountains of the Carpathians and I will forever think of it in terms of magic and everything unreal.

Anyway, the historical/tourist area of Prague is quite small – you can reach all on foot or for the walking-averse set, take a short tram ride. I recommend the former as the experience is just all the more worthwhile and you get to see the lovely sidestreets and locals going about their daily routine. And as I mentioned, it is very compact.

The city is divided into two main parts, each sitting on one bank of the river Vlatava – the Lesser Town or Mala Strana, where Prague Castle is located, and the Old Town or Stare Mesto, where the town square with the famous astronomical clock is. Linking the two sides of Prague is one of the most famous bridges in the world – Charles Bridge or Karluv Most. There are many other bridges linking the two, of course, but none of them quite reached the importance of the Charles Bridge, which was, until 1841, the only means of crossing the Vlatava. Sidenote: Most actually means bridge in the local language and I finally figured this out after looking at our map and seeing this label on all the bridges.

Commisioned by King Charles IV to replace the old Judith Bridge which collapsed during the flood in 1342, construction on the Charles Bridge began in 1357, with the king’s favourite architect Peter Parler overseeing the work. According to legend, egg yolks were used in the construction of the bridge and that King Charles himself laid the first stone at a specific time because of his strong belief in numerology and that this would render the bridge with more strength. Considering that the bridge is now 700 years old and has survived countless wars, revolts, and yes, floods, there might be some credence to those beliefs after all.

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The bridge is more than half a kilometer long and entrance to it is marked by three towers – two on the Mala Strana side and one on the Stare Mesto side. The Old Town bridge, completed in 1380 and which serves as the entrance to the Stare Mesto, is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture with sculptures by Peter Parler adorning its facade. Climbing the 138 steps to the gallery allows you to have unobstructed views of the bridge from the top, as well as the Prague Castle on the other side of the Vlatava. Too bad though, that when we were there, we either get there too early or too late for the opening of the gate so I wasn’t able to climb up.

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The Lesser Town Bridge, on the hand, serves as the entrance to the quieter side of Prague – the Mala Strana. It was built later than the Old Town Bridge, in the first half of the 15th century during King George’s rule. Visitors can likewise climb up the tower, this time for views of the Old Town from across the Vlatava.

If you look at the tower closely, you will notice that there is actually a smaller tower connected to it by a walkway – the Judith Tower, which is the only surviving part of the old Prague bridge.

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Initially just a simple bridge with just a crucifix in the middle, baroque statues were placed during the 17th century, when such themes became prevalent. The 75 statues on the bridge are now all replicas – the original ones are now so badly damaged that they’ve been taken down and kept on display at the Lapidarium.

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Both sides of the bridge are fascinating but the Mala Strana, an old marketplace which began its life in the 8th century (!), is less crowded and in my opinion less commercialized – there are various cafes and shops showcasing works by local artists as well as jewelry stores with oh-so-lovely pieces in silver and lovely blood-red garnet, which is the official national gem. And pretty cheap too! When I checked in some of our jewelry stores here in Manila, they were all ridiculously priced that I now wish I’d hoarded garnet jewelry during my trip.

Oh well, there is always a next time.

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And I can’t get over how clean the entire city was. Usually, old towns such as this would reek of horse urine and the like but I was surprised to see water tanks regularly drizzling the cobblestoned streets with clean water.

We visited the Mala Strana quite a number of times – first was to go to the Prague Castle (more on that later), and several to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious and the miraculous image of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

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The Church of Our Lady Victorious, while seemingly austere on the outside, is the first Baroque church in Prague, built in 1613. It was originally called the Church of the Holy Trinity and was supposed to be used by the German Lutherans. It was given to the Carmelites in 1620 as a sign of gratitute for their victory in the Battle of the White Mountain, and the church was rebuilt and its orientation changed tot he form we see today.

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The exact history of the statue is not known but its first appearance was in 1556, when the statue was brought from Spain to the Kingdom of Bohemia (of which the Czech Republic used to be part of) by Spanish princess Maria Manriquez de Lara y Mendoza upon her marriage to the Czech nobleman Vratislav. It is said that the statue was a gift from St. Terese of Avila to her mother; she later gave it to her own daughter Princess Polyxena, who in turn donated it to the Carmelite Friars in 1628.

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The 19-inch statue is made of wax-coated wood with it lower part encased in silver; it is similar to other sculptures of the Infant Jesus brought by Spanish missionaries to their conquered lands – it resembles the Sto. Nino de Cebu, itself a venerated statue in the Philippines.

Various miracles have been attributed to the statue – most notably for saving the entire city from plague and invasions, when entire armies would inexplicably withdraw their armies after the city prayed in front of the alter of the infant Jesus.

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There are many devotees to the Infant Jesus and there is a room off to the side of the alter where various presents from its devotees are showcased. Perhaps the most famous of this is the garment sewn by the Empress Maria Theresa.

I spied a number of presents from fellow Filipinos in the glass cabinets – indeed, I felt immense pride upon learning that the choir (we attended the Sunday mass at the church during our trip) is mostly composed of Pinoys. And there were many Pinoys attending the Holy Mass with us.

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I am not really fond of religious statues (except for the rosary and the crucifix) but I bought a small Sto. Nino for our little home. I felt so blessed visiting this Church and quite touched that the Mass was well  attended.

Vienna: Merry go round

There are so many things to see and do in Vienna that we barely scratched the surface with just three whole days. A good thing that our Varsi friends Gizelle and Harold took the time to tour us around the city the entire time!

On our first day, since we were still a bit tired from our overnight train from Milan, we just stayed close to our hotel  and walked around our neighborhood. We’ve been lucky so far in all our hotel bookings, and so all we had to do was step out our hotel and voila – the St. Stephensplatz was at our doorstep.

Just a few more paces and we found ourselves looking up at the Hofburg Palace, the former imperial winter palace. It is now the official residence and workplace of the Austrian president.

It is a very grand structure composed of many buildings and halls, and though it occupies a massive amount of space and the architecture is by no means inferior, it is still less imposing than the Louvre or Versailles in France, and I couldn’t help but wonder that it also seems to be very open to the public. I mean, there were uniformed guards and all, but the palace grounds were pretty much accessible to everyone.

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As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Vienna is also home to many famous musicians, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of them. It’s no surprise then to find a statue of Mozart occupying prime space in the Burggarten (imperial garden) of the Hofburg Palace.

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I am not sure how many miles a day we walked in Vienna but the weather was always perfect for strolling that I didn’t really mind. In one of our excursions, we also viewed the Karlskirche, or St. Charles’s Church, which can be found near the southern end of the Karlsplatz, one of the plazas or squares abundant in the city, and which is just next to St. Stephansplatz. Built in the early 18th century under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in honor of his namesake saint Charles Borromeo, it is considered the most outstanding baroque church in all of Vienna.

It is very pretty, especially at night when the long reflecting pool in front of it casts a somewhat luminous glow on it. I was too busy looking at it (and tired from walking) that I forgot to take a photo of it at night. My bad.

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We didn’t really have time to go to a museum in Vienna (we did spy the Mumok), other than visit one of the exhibits, but their museum square is something that I was really fascinated with – side by side are plenty of museums, galleries, and exhibition halls.

In the open area between museums is a large square where various art installations are displayed. There is also a dipping pool where a lot of locals and tourists alike rest their tired feet. I was so tempted to splash around!

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We also found these two pretty girls providing free entertainment – I forgot from which country these girls were from, but they told us they’re aspiring singers and they are practising by singing here at the museum plaza. I love the gypsy/country vibe they had going, and the brunette had quite a unique style in singing.

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Vienna is probably one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to, and I can easily understand now why it’s been at the top of most livable cities list – aside from its obvious beauty, it has a rich culture and history, and a deep appreciation for the arts.

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One our our last stops before we headed to our next city was the Donauturm (Danube Tower), the tallest structure in Austria. It was opened to the public after 18 months of construction, in time for the Viennese International Horticultural Show in 1964, and is located in the middle of the  Donaupark, itself built to host the horticultural fair.

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I love the wide expanse dedicated to public gardens! I could live here and be perfectly happy…

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I have a fear of heights so it took a lot of gulping and praying before I got the courage to ride the high speed elevator (35 seconds to go up 150 meters!) all the way to the viewing deck of the tower and while my knees turned to jelly and I could barely hold my camera in my hands (I was shaking so badly my knees almost buckled), the sweeping views of the city was more than worth it.

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There are also two revolving restaurants at the top of the tower and we were lucky that the place wasn’t full – we waited for only a couple of minutes before we got a cozy table which afforded us different views of the city at every turn. It was my first time at a revolving restaurant (I have yet to try our very own here in Manila) and I loved it! I mean, the food was great and where else can you get such  unobstructed views of one of the most beautiful cities in the world?

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My travel buddies. We were tired but very happy! So long, farewell Vienna! Until we meet again!

Vienna is probably one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to, and I can easily understand now why it’s been at the top of most livable cities list – aside from its obvious beauty, it has a rich culture and history, and a deep appreciation for the arts.

Vienna: St. Stephen’s Cathedral

In most of the European cities I’ve been to, the center of activity revolves around the parish church, or cathedral, if the city has been declared a diocese and this proves true as well in Vienna, perhaps even more so, since the main shopping and cultural area of the city is located in the Saint Stephansplatz, where the Saint Stephen Cathedral (or Stephensdom in German) is located.

Consecrated in 1147, it was hardly the oldest church in Vienna; however, recent excavations inside the cathedral revealed graves that have been carbon-dated to the 4th century, suggesting that it may have stood on an even older religious building. It was named after Saint Stephen, tthe earliest known martyr of Christianity, stoned to death on accusations of the Jewish authorities. Trivia: Saul was one of the witnesses at his death, when he still believed that he was serving God by persecuting Christians; he later converted after witnessing a bright light on his way to Damascus, converting into the saint we now know as Paul.

The building is of limestone, which over the years has been covered by soot and dust; recent restorations have brought it back to its original white. The south tower of the cathedral, called steffl by the the people. stands at 136 meters, and was used as an observation and command post for the city, and at one point even had an apartment for the watchmen.

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I realized I didn’t have a full shot of the cathedral (I wanted to climb on top of one of the nearby buildings), so I grabbed this wonderful shot from my friend, Gizelle. Photo credit goes to her. 🙂

The roof of the church, on the other hand, is made of ornately designed glazed tiles, forming the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of Vienna on one side. It’s quite steep and I’ve read that due to this, only the rain cleans it every now and then. I wonder how they built it though and how many accidents must have happened! And I can’t believe that one point, this church was in fact ordered to be razed to the ground along with the rest of the city when the Germans were retreating during World War II; thankfully, Captain Gerhard Klinkicht disobeyed orders and left the church intact.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANear the entrance to the catacombs is the church’s original pulpit, the Capistran Chancel, where St. John Capistrano preached to a crusade to fight the invading Muslims in the mid-15th century. It shows St. Francis stepping on a defeated Turk, with a sunburst above his head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur hotel was located just a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral (to our pleasant surprise), but I didn’t get to go inside until our last day. My friends and I decided to split up (we couldn’t agree whether to go shopping or touring; my friend Leah and I chose the latter but ended in different destinations), and I as on an amazing race to tour the entire church in less than an hour. Tip: when pressed for time, avoid the guided tour and rent those headsets for a couple of euros. Both are extremely organized and I was surprised that such a well detailed and organized guide could be rented so cheaply (so I donated a couple more euros to the church’s coffers).

I was awed by the number of carvings and the fact that for an old church, it didn’t smell musty. I could tell that this church is frequented by Catholics and tourists alike, judging from the number of lit candles as well as the long row of tourist waiting to get in to tour the cathedral, or the catacombs underneath. I would have gone to see the latter but after my experience in Milan, I didn’t want to go by myself (never mind that I spied a lot of tourists going down the stairwell leading into the catacombs).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am no architecture major (though the thought did cross my mind at one point), but I have come to realize that thick posts are easily identifiable features of Gothic architecture and while this is common in many churches in Europe, St. Stephen’s is embellished by colorful statues of saints in ornately carved alcoves, albeit some of them have faded a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt also boasts of a huge organ, though not that old at only a litle over half a century.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe high altar of the cathedral is perhaps the first thing that would draw a visitor, since it is right in the middle and you just can’t tear yourself away from the magnificent paintings and carvings. It shows the stoning of St. Stephen, surrounded by figures of four saints and a statue of Mary on top. And I must say the stained glass windows are also very vibrant and lovely to look at.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are many objects inside the cathedral which I found very interesting, not the least of which is this stone pulpit. I’ve seen many grand pulpits in Europe but this probably takes the cake in the way the sculptor paid attention to the tiniest detail – even the portions not easily seen by a casual observer was not spared. It shows the faces of the four doctors of the church: St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I even found more interesting is that the rails going up the pulpit had carvings of frogs and lizards fighting each other; I later found out that this was a symbol of the fight between good and evil. At the top of the stairs, there is even a puppy to protect the preachers (how cute is that!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven the baptismal fount was TDF!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI normally find it creepy whenever I see tombs in conspicuous places inside churches, never mind that it is undoubtedly a great honor to be buried inside a church. While this one is no exception, I can’t help but agree that if I had a tomb this beautiful, I would want the whole world to see it too, which is probably what the church officials where thinking when they put Emperor Frederick III’s tomb on display, during whose reign, in 1469, Vienna was finally declared a diocese.

Such a massive tomb took 45 years to complete, beginning more than two decades prior to his death. It is made of red stone and depicts the emperor in his coronation regalia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe tomb of Prince Eugene of Savoy (I first wrote about him in my post Belvedere Castle) is also located inside the cathedral, In the Chapel of the Cross, but this is off limits to the public. The Ducal Crypt, located under the chancel of the cathedral, is also the final resting place of 72 members of the Habsburg family.

Saving the best for last, is perhaps my favorite piece in all the church – the Wiener Neustadter Altar which was originally used in the Cistercian Viktring Abbey, and later the monastery of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, until it was finally sold to the cathedral in 1885. Ordered by Emperor Frederick III, tt is just so beautiful, with the double triptych opening up to reveal gilded wooden figures of Mary. When the panels are closed (during weekdays), it shows a painting of 72 saints.

It’s a retablo and triptych all rolled into one.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are so many beautiful churches in Europe and it is getting hard to play favorites; I had always thought the Notre Dame in Paris would be the clear winner in my books but with more than ten cities and seven countries visited in the continent, I am now not so sure. Each of them have unique features that distinguish them, and make them works of art.

Vienna: The Pursuit of the Sacher Torte

Vienna may be famous for music but there is one other thing it is famous for: the sacher torte, aka the most famous chocolate cake in the whole world. So famous in fact, that December 5 has been designated as National Sachertorte Day.

The sachertorte actually has royal beginnings. Back in 1832, Prince Wenzel von Metternich asked his chef to come up with a special dessert for his royal guests and the chef’s young apprentice, Franz Sacher, came up with this chocolate cake.

It didn’t immediately gain the fame it would later have until Franz’ son, Eduard, tweaked and perfected the torte during his training at the Demel bakery where it was first served, and later on at the Hotel Sacher, which was established by Eduard.

Anyway, now the torte is served in various cafes and pastry shops all over Vienna and my friends and I set out to eat just about all the versions of it that our tummies could handle. First stop: Aida.

Aida is quite hard to miss as there are almost three dozen shops all over. Its pastel pink interiors with its name written in big cursive letters and the undeniable scent of confectioner’s sugar and coffee drifting out of its windows stand out amidst all those historical buildings.

I am quite a predictable coffee drinker in that I prefer the traditional flavours – which is probably why I felt right at home there: I got myself a nice cup of cappuccino to wake me up for our 1st morning in Vienna, and a fruity tart to go with it. Coffee was good, not outstanding but I could definitely get used to it.

IMG_4126We also tried their apfelstrudel (apple pie), which was quite different from the apple pies I’m used to; it was starchy and not overflowing with crunchy apples. But with a nice scoop cream, it more than made me a happy camper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAida is famous for its wide array of tortes (or cakes), and since we were in in Vienna, why not try their version of the sachertorte? And at the risk of sounding cliche, we also tried the Mozart Torte, a dark chocolate sponge cake with nougat and pistacchio marzipan all topped with fondant icing. It even had a chocolate button with Mozart’s profile on it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur quest for the sachertorte didn’t end at Aida. We also tried the sachertorte at the Gloriette of the Schonbrunn, which tasted okay, though I found it a bit too dry for my taste.

IMG_4131As I mentioned earlier,the recipe for the sachertorte was perfected by Eduard during his training at Demel so I knew we had to find this bakery. It took as a bit of going around side streets and alleyways with hard to read much less pronounce names, but thanks to our trusty trip advisor app, we found it a few blocks away from our hotel at the St. Stephensplatz.

Now, there had been legal battles surrounding the sachertorte – after all, Eduard served it in his Hotel Demel (which later filed for bankruptcy) while the “original sachertorte” was offered by Demel. When his widow Anna died and the Hotel Demel filed for bankruptcy, his son Eduard (yeah, same name) became an employee at Demel, bringing with him the right for the Eduard Sachertorte. Anyway, the two establishments slugged it out in court until they finally settled it by letting the Hotel Sacher have the rights to use “the original sachertorte” while Demel was given the rights to put triangular seals on their cakes bearing the words “Eduard Sachertorte.”

Demel was packed! I don’t remember anymore if there was a third floor, but we found ourselves sharing a small table at the 2nd floor of the building. And of course, we got the sachertorte and apfelstrudel. Their version of the former had one layer of jam between the chocolate icing and sponge portion. It’s not your usual chocolate cake, since it is not fluffy or chocolatey sweet but rather dense and has a light tinge of bitter cocoa that saves it from being overwhelming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe apfelstrudel at Demel was better than at Aida’s, perhaps because I found it had more apples and had a nice sprinkling of powdered sugar.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince we’ve tried just about all versions of the sachertorte in Vienna, we couldn’t let our visit end without going to the Hotel Sacher now, can we?

The Hotel Sacher, a five-star hotel in the vicinity of the plaza, serves sachertortes that are made using the secret recipe that Franz Sacher created almost two hundred years ago. Hundreds of thousands of sachertortes are made almost entirely by hand by its staff every year, to be served in its cafes and restaurants, or bought as souvenirs. They also accept orders (even online!) which can be shipped to various cities all over the world.

IMG_4140This version of the famous cake has not one but two layers of jam compared which I loved, since it broke the monotony of too much chocolate. I also found it fluffier and more moist (at least as moist a cake in Vienna could probably get), and therefore, more to my liking. IMG_4139Well, of all the sachertortes I’ve tasted, I’d give my money to Hotel Sacher, since I prefer the taste of their chocolate (dark and smoother) and their fluffier sponge cake. Plus, the ambience is perfect for catching up with friends without the crowd.

Now, I wonder if they ship to Manila? 😀