Food Trippin’ The Michelin Star Way

I guess it’s a pretty known fact that HK is one of my favorite destinations abroad – it’s just a two-hour flight (shorter than going to Fairview from Makati on a weeknight), and it has theme parks (kid at heart here!), shopping (hello, outlet stores!), and perhaps the best reason of all: it is a paradise for foodies like me.

For my trip with my friends last holiday season, we wanted it to be as laid back as possible, and maybe sneak in a couple of tourist spots. But our main agenda was, yes, you guessed it: FOOD.

And we couldn’t even wait until we stepped out of the airport. First stop – the one Michelin star Ho Hung Kee. We were initially planning on going to their main outlet over at Hysan Place in Causeway Bay but as we where about to step out of the airport, we noticed that there is actually a Ho Hung Kee right there!

We weren’t really that hungry so we just got some shrimp siomai, noodles, and of course, their world famous congee.

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To be honest, I am not a dimsum fan. In fact, I don’t even like Chinese food that much (or maybe, I grew up eating too much of it that I had grown too used to it). But their siomai was so good. Ever thought of how some siomais tend to rely on their main ingredient, like if it’s pork, it’s just the pork that carries the entire dish? Well, the meat of this one was equal parts sweet and salty, and the shrimp was fresh and tender and not gummy at all. Even the yellow wrap was very tasty – I wanted to cut the siomai into different parts so I could taste each. And the crab roe added a nice texture to the siomai. I didn’t even need my usual soy sauce/chili/calamansi mix!

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We couldn’t decide on what noodle dish to get so we got the house specialty wonton noodles in soup. The wonton was good! Same with the siomai, the wrapper itself was tasty. And, the noodles were also a bit sweet! A welcome surprise as I had gotten used to salty noodles. Plus, the dish itself was very heavy – we split all our food into three parts but we still could not finish everything.

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For our finale – we got their abalone, pork and chicken congee. I was expecting a lot from their congee since this was what got them on the Michelin list. But, I was quite taken aback that it was… Sweet. The porridge was a little too sweet for my taste, and the rice too fine that it felt like I was eating puree. I had to drizzle pepper and salt on mine before I could eat it. It was good and tasty, with the individual ingredients all accounted for in terms of taste and yet creating a whole that was greater than each part but, maybe for my Pinoy tastebuds, it wasn’t what I was expecting in a congee. I was expecting something along the lines of my beloved arroz caldo with all its ginger, chicken, salt, and atsuete seed coloring but got something like ginataan malagkit, minus the coconut and a tad less sweet.

All in all, I would still recommend Ho Hung Kee, if only to experience that authentic congee and dimsum. And, for a Michelin-rated restaurant, the price was pretty much hard to beat: our entire meal only costs us about HK$600, with drinks.

(Watch out for the next parts of my HK Food Trip!)

 

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A Disney Christmas

The Christmas season found me in one of my favorite destinations – Hong Kong, which tops my list for a whole lot of reasons: it’s near (travel time is about two hours which is like a one-way commute from Makati to Fairview), it doesn’t require a visa (so yeah, you can practically show up at the airport, buy a ticket and go), and I can do a lot of things while there: hit up some theme parks, go shopping, and EAT!

I normally start all my HK trips with a visit to the happiest place on earth: Disneyland. I mean, how can you not? It’s just two stations away from the airport.

We were honestly tired when we arrived so we decided to catch some ‘zzzz first. It was late afternoon when got to the park – just in time for the afternoon parade!

Disney parades are always a sight to behold! I can just wander around the park all day watching the parades. Oh, and they normally change depending on the season. I remember that during summer, the characters would have spray guns!

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And be sure to catch the parade at night! It’s even more spectacular with all the lights set against the darkness.

Disneyland is very pretty during the day – like all theme parks should. But for me, it’s at night wen the magic comes alive! There’s just something about all those shops on Main Street lit up that brings out the child in me. And you have got to watch the fireworks! It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

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There was a special attraction during the holiday season: Anna and Elsa leading the crowd in the tree lighting ceremony. It was quite fun seeing the “snow” falling but I found it mildly annoying that all Anna and Elsa did were stand there making hand gestures while two Pinoys belted out Let It Go. I wish they just let the singers do the acting also, or, if they wanted the actors to be Caucasians, looked for actors who could also sing.

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We wrapped up our visit with some dessert at the Corner Cafe, where I got a mug of hot cocolate to go with our molten chocolate cake and fresh fruits.

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It’s my nth time at HK Disneyland but my first time to try the Hollywood Hotel. I previously stayed the the Disneyland Hotel (the Victorian style hotel with sweeping views of the ocean). Well, price points aside (the latter was twice as pricey) and minues the seaview, they are both superb. The rooms are comfortable and spotless and the staff are very nice. Disney hotels will always be my favorite hotels in the whole world. Teehee. ☺️

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The Hollywood Hotel has smaller grounds but when you’ve got acres and acres, dmall becomes a relative term, right? It has a wide garden and a pool, although at this time of te year, I guess swimming is hardly on anyone’s list of priorities in HK.

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Okay, I must admit. I was quite giddy when my friends agreed to have breakfast at the hotel. I mean, it normally costs more to eat in hotels and the fare is restricted to what’s on the buffet table, so we usually eat outside but having breakfast at the hotel meant we could pose with Mickey at our leisure. How cool is that?

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I was quite full will all the bacon I stuffed in, but I could not resist getting Mickey Mouse waffles. i mean, come on! Look at it!

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Could you tell by my wide smile just how happy I was?

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See you again, soon, Mickey!

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? 😀

Vienna: Volksgarten

Walking around the city for the first time and wandering around the many gardens and plazas, I had to admit that yes, Vienna is as wonderful as they make it out to be and those surveys constantly naming it as one of the best cities to live in (if not the best) are all telling the truth. More than the palaces that are works of art themselves, I loved the public parks, especially the Volksgarten, or People’s Garden, where anyone can just sit to smell the roses, quite literally.

The Volksgarten, built in the early 19th century over the old city fort that was destroyed by Napoleon’s army, was originally envisioned as a private garden for the imperial family. Thankfully, these plans were scrapped in favor of turning it into the first public garden in the city.

One of the highlights of the park is the Theseus Temple by Pietro di Nobile, a miniature version of a temple of Hephaestus in Athens. It originally housed a scuplture of Theseus and the Minotaur by Antonio Canova, which has since been missing.

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The park is also known for its very pretty rose garden. I love roses, as you may have noticed and I could have stayed in this garden the entire time just looking at them and inhaling their delicate scent. And the roses are so many and so big, I was almost tempted to pick one!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI even found a purple rose near the yellow roses. But the pink ones are the biggest I have ever seen.

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The garden is also home to two monuments, one for Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria and another for writer Karl Grillparzer. There are also two fountains in the middle of the garden, one showing Triton and the Nymph and another simply called the Volksgarten Fountain.

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The Hofburg Buildings, of which the garden is a part of, can be seen from its rose gardens.

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There were many people at the garden that afternnon but the park was still big enough that we never felt crowded or that its tranquility was lost; plus, it was very clean, there were a lot benches (and mind you, they weren’t rusty at all)  and the flower beds well-maintained – I guess a big part of this is due to the discipline of the people. I never saw anyone trying to pick flowers or littering, or downright just making a ruckus. It was very romantic and all those beautiful flowers around you make it seem even more perfect than it already was.

Vienna: Belvedere Castle

Being the imperial capital and home of the Habsburg dynasty, Vienna doesn’t run out of historic palaces and castles. One of these castles is the Belvedere, which was built as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy in the early 18th century. He commissioned court architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt to build his castle on a then undeveloped piece of property in the city.

The castle actually has two buildings – the lower and upper Belvedere. The two structures are quite different from each other, with the Upper Belvedere serving as the grander of the the two, with statues of cherubs and muses adorning its roof.

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I didn’t get to see the interior of the castle (I doubt if my feet could have done it as my friends and I had been walking all over the city the entire day) but the garden which separates the two buildings sure made up for it. The garden unmistakably has a French flair to it – and after researching a bit on it later on did I learn that it had elements designed for it by a former student of Andre Le Notre, the landscape architect and chief gardener of King Louis IV of France, who most famously designed the gardens of Versailles.

This one is on a much smaller scale and you can circle the garden in our hour; although of course, to enjoy it, you would have to spend endless hours.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe castle gardens remind me of classic childhood literature, somewhere along the lines of The Secret Garden, it’s quite small compared to Versaille or Schonbrunn, but that’s part of its charm. It doesn’t look so intimidating or so out of touch when you can see end to end with your bare eyes.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI love flowers! I’ve been torn about staying in a condo or buying a house somewhere in the suburbs precisely because I want my own garden, as big as I can possibly afford.

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The Lower Belvedere looks a bit drab compared to its more grandiose sibling, the Upper Belvedere.

There are not that many people in the castle, perhaps because we visited very late in the afternoon, which makes it perfect for when you just want to slow down while touring the city. I wouldn’t mind exploring the various rooms and exhibitions inside when I visit next time.

The Duomo di Milano

The Italian word duomo means cathedral, but when you hear the word, your thoughts would automatically go to the Duomo di Milano and with good reason: it is the fifth largest church in the world and second largest cathedral, and perhaps the best known cathedral (or duomo). It also took almost 500 years to complete, with contruction started back in the late 14th century. We actually have to thank Napoleon Bonaparte for speeding up the completion of its facade, since he wanted the cathedral completed before his coronation as king of Italy – to this end, he proclaimed that all expenses will be shouldered by the treasury of France. Needless to say, with the guarantee of reimbursement, construction was completed in less than a decade.

The duomo stands out from other churches I’ve been to because of the Candoglia marble facade. Plus, it has many turrets and spires instead of towers, and many marble statues adorning its walls, entrances, and many corners. However, you can tell that construction was never really finished as there are still blank blocks waiting to be carved into gargoyles or statues.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is a very beautiful building whether you visit it early morning with little light coming from the sun just rising from the horizon, or midday with the full light of the sun almost making the church too bright for the naked eye, or evening with the soft light from the nearby lampposts rendering it almost ethereal against a backdrop of dark skies.

It’s quite romantic, minus the crowd that never seems to dissipate.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that those movies showing tourists feeding flocks of pigeon at the piazza were exaggerations until I got to experience it myself. There are many sellers who will try to sell bread for you to feed the pigeons with but my friends and I brought our own and this made them a bit upset and some of them got quite rude. It’s a good thing there were five of us so we just huddled together and walked away whenever the sellers would try to approach us.
IMG_4073The side of the duomo reminds me of the Notre Dame in Paris, maybe because of the similar window panels.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMassive as it is on the outside, it feels even bigger inside given the floor to ceiling height. And the thick marble pillars all contribute to the Gothic theme of the cathedral.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuilt in the early 20th century, the organ of the duomo is the largest in Italy, and one of the 15 largest in the whole world. It is made of several organs scattered inside the duomo.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecognized as the most famous statue in the cathedral, this artwork of Marco d’agrate (circa 16th century) shows St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin over his shoulders. As per tradition, St. Bartholomew was martyred in Albania, skinned alive and then crucified. I can’t imagine how much suffering he must have endured to have the skin stripped off his body and then crucified. The status itself is quite disturbing enough without you knowing the history behind it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are various sarcophagi inside the duomo, especially of former archbishops. While I am fine loking at sarcophagi and marvelling at their usually intricate designs, I can’t help but be creeped out by glass coffins.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are well-maintained crypts under the duomo and oftentimes, private masses are being held there.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn one of its crypts, underneath the main altar itself, is the sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, a member of the Medici family, one of the most powerful families during the Renaissance. Though born an aristocract, he was actively involved in the reformation of the church, helping establish seminaries during his time.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe duomo was undergoing restoration works during our visit – all that marble probably needs a good cleaning what with hundreds of years worth of pollution. Austerity measures implemented by the government included budget cuts to the city’s cultural funds, and this probably forced the duomo’s administration to get creative: they launched this adopt a gargoyle initiative where patrons can “adopt” one of the gargoyles and have their names carved underneath, in exchange for donations. This donation will then be used for the maintenance of the gargoyles they’ve adopted. In fairness, the duomo is one of the best kept churches I’ve been to in Europe (a lot are really old and felt abandoned). I am quite saddened though that beautiful old churches such as the duomo, which are great treasures not just of Catholics but of the entire human population, now have to fend for themselves and beg for alms just to survive.

I didn’t get the chance to go up the duomo and see the Madonna statue up close and get a 360-degree view of Milan, but hey – that just means I should include it in my next trip, right?

The Eiffel Tower

Paris… City of Lights. I will never get tired of you.

It is a really beautiful city, and just about every inch of it is picture perfect. When I first visited Pairs two years ago, I didn’t get to see the Eiffel Tower up close – I was five months pregnant then and had a fever (yet nothing could stop me from traveling!) so I let the hubby and our friends go to the tower while I stayed behind sleeping in our hotel.

Last year though, I made sure to walk right up to it, bad weather be damned.

My friends and I took a cruise on the Seine river, which, in my opinion, is a must when visiting Paris. Unfortunately, it was raining quite hard and I didn’t really like how Bateaux Parisienne boats have these telephone-like gadgets you put to your ear to listen to an audio recording explaining the sights around you. I found it rather inconvenient that my hands were tied up holding the huge receiver and my umbrella, and that I couldn’t take photos because of it. I’d much prefer a live guide to talk me through it, similar to my first Seine cruise. Still, nothing can beat the beauty and magic of Paris.

Anyway, it was quite dark when we finished our cruise and dinner – perfect time to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up and sparkling. There’s just something magical about it. I wish I could show you the video but I haven’t figured out yet how to upgrade/post videos here yet (I know, such a lame excuse).

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Grey skies only made its beauty stand out more. I can’t believe the people almost tore it down a century ago.

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Our cruise included dinner at Le Notre, a quaint little restaurant on a boat anchored in the Seine river banks, quite near the Eiffel. I was famished so I got the tomato/ham salad – it looked so yummy when it was served, and I actually thought the tomato was meat coz it was almost as red as the ham!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI got some meat dish as my entree but I didn’t really enjoy it much… or maybe I was just bummed that it was our last night in Paris already.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor dessert, I got the lemon cake coz I didn’t want a very sweet dessert. Talk about getting more than you ask for – the cake was so sour I felt like it was drizzled with fresh lemons! Seriously! Even my friends tried and couldn’t take one bite of it. I should have gotten the strawberry shortcake instead, which my friend willingly shared with me after seeing how disappointed I was with my lemon cake.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d stick with strawberries next time.

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This is the last of my Paris posts which makes me sad just thinking about it. Oh well, time to plan my next trip to Europe!