The Lannisters send their regards — from Croatia and Spain

Looking at Dubrovnik’s fortification walls from Fort Lovrijenac, which doubles as the Red Keep in Game of Thrones, while the entire old city of Dubrovnik is King’s Landing.  Photos by Tanya Lara
“Knowledge is power,” Little Finger tells Cersei Lannister. Bitch, please. “Power is power,” counters Cersei in this scene filmed at Fort Lovrijenac in Dubrovnik.

It feels surreal to be standing in the castle courtyard where a scene from Game of Thrones with Cersei Lannister and Little Finger was filmed a few seasons ago.

Lord Baelish, implying knowledge of her incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime Lannister, says, “Knowledge is power.”

Cersei counters, “Seize him. Cut his throat. Stop! I’ve changed my mind, let him go.” She pauses, looks at him and says, “Power is power.”

Of all the quotable lines from Cersei, this to me distills her character’s understanding of what real power is. Manipulation is for children; cutting out the second act and going straight for the denouement in the third is the Cersei way, just like blowing up the Sept of Baelor with wildfire and killing everyone in such a spectacular manner.

Boats outside the walls ready to sail on the Adriatic Sea. The little beach is where the Lannisters shipped off a crying Myrcella to Dorne.
I don’t remember if this is indeed the Ethnographic Museum, which doubles as Lord Baelish’s whorehouse.

That line, along with what she casually says to Maergery Tyrrel, “If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep” — which makes me laugh so hard! — is classic Cersei.

Power, which what makes GoT so compelling, is also understood by those who know they will have it only in doses that the gods old and new deem fit, like the eunuch and master of whisperers Lord Varys who says, “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.”

It is September 2017 and I am on a solo road trip through the Balkans, a trip I had always wanted to do and wouldn’t shut up about to friends asking me what else was on my bucket list. Reading about the Balkans conflict and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia when I was younger made me want to see this region for myself.

Many years later, Game of Thrones entered my consciousness with the subtlety of a bullet through the head — and I was even more determined to go to this part of the world where they had filmed.

On top of Srd Hill in 2017, with views of the old city of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea.

I’ve traveled to places before specifically to see where my fave movies were set — Savannah for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Bruges for In Bruges — but Game of Thrones is filmed in so many different locations I had to pick one first to suit my budget. Would it be Croatia, Spain, Morocco, Northern Ireland or Iceland?

My first choice is Dubrovnik, the setting of King’s Landing and perhaps the most publicized of all shooting locations in the series. Landing in Sarajevo, the third of nine cities I would go to on this solo trip, I rent a car at the airport and on the third day drive from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik is a tourist city propelled by history and the Adriatic Sea, and only in the last decade by Game of Thrones. An American tourist once famously told my guide, “It’s great that GoT came to Dubrovnik to make it famous,” to which my guide replied, “Dubrovnik was Dubrovnik before the TV show, our castles were built before the TV show, our people existed before the TV show…”

I understood why she was so irritated in telling this story and two  years later in Seville  I would have to answer an equally stupid question from a fellow tourist on a walking tour. (“Do Filipinos consider Spain their motherland?” Me: “Of course not! It was our  country before Spain,  our people existed before Spain colonized our islands.”)

The Baroque Staircase and the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola as the Sept of Baelor, which was CGI’d to look bigger, grander.
Shame, shame, shame. A vengeful Cersei would blow up the Sept of Baelor in the Season 6 finale.

At my hotel facing the Adriatic Sea, I ask the local staff if they watched GoT and four out of four people said no. My guide at the walking tour, of course, did — many of her friends were hired as extras in episodes till season 4 when most of the shooting transferred to Spain.

But Dubrovnik is the place where some of the series’ biggest scenes were filmed and the city’s entrepreneurs have wisely capitalized on this. The Hilton just outside the walls is where Peter Dinklage stayed during shooting and  he got so drunk one night he fell asleep on a sofa in the lobby. That sofa is now a tourist attraction.

I meet my walking tour group at the main entrance to the walled old town, Pile Gate, which was used in several GoT scenes.

Cersei’s Walk of Shame was filmed here, starting at the Baroque Staircase or Jesuit Stairs. Naked and pelted with mud, she walks through a seemingly straight street but in reality it was filmed in several streets in the walled city.

My walking tour guide shows a picture of Cersei’s Walk of Shame and where it began.
One of the streets where Cersei’s Walk of Shame was filmed. Bar and restaurant owners were happy to close their establishment and get compensation while GoT was filming the scene.

The main street leading from the Baroque Staircase (similar to Rome’s Spanish Steps) is flanked by bars and restaurants and on top is the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. On any given day, the restaurants are all full for lunch and dinner, and the hours in between when tourists try rakia or the popular fruit brandy in the Balkans.

To film the Walk of Shame, the owners were compensated to keep their establishments closed for several days. Then the shooting dragged on to 10 days, and they were very happy to be paid for staying closed.

Fort Lovrijenac doubles as the Red Keep. Outside the walls they shot the scene of Myrcella Baratheon — daughter of Cersei and Jaime — crying on a ship being exiled to Dorne to keep her safe from Stannis’ advancing army. This was filmed on a little beach below the fort.  The yellow and red kayaks waiting for tourists to enjoy the sea were, of course, taken away.

You can see the small beach and the red rooftops of the town from the ramparts of the fort, which is located on a 37-meter-high cliff and known as Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar. Some of the walls in this fortified city are 12 meters thick while other walls are only 60 centimeters.

King’s Landing from another angle
Another scene, another location. Every corner of Dubrovnik is a potential shooting location for King’s Landing.

The Ethnographic Museum doubles as Little Finger’s brothel and where Tyrion Lannister meets with Oberyn Martell, who is seeking justice for his dead sister and her children.

Season 7’s ending scene at King’s Landing, after Jaime Lannister leaves Cersei and rides north, was filmed in the old city. What’s funny about this is that they had to use fake snow in that love scene of King’s Landing with the slow piano version of the GoT theme. After the cast and crew packed up for the season, real snow did fall on  Dubrovnik, a first after many decades.

Had they waited five days, filming would have been easier and less expensive, but who’s counting money when you have the Iron Bank behind you?

A 20-minute boat ride from the harbor of Dubrovnik is Lokrum island, used as the city of Qarth near the Jade Sea, where Daenerys’ dragons are stolen and kept in the House of the Undying. In Qarth, the Mother of Dragons proves once again she is the Unburnt and merciless to those who betrayed her, locking Xaro inside his own empty vault.

Breathtaking views of the old city and the islands surrounding Dubrovnik are from Srd Hill, accessible by cable car.
Outside the Ploče Gate of Dubrovnik’s walls is Banje Beach.

Most scenes in Qarth were filmed in Lokrum’s botanical gardens and former Benedictine Monastery, and also at Dubrovnik’s Minčeta Tower, which stood in as the House of the Undying.

* * *

And so two years later, in February 2019, I am flying to Seville, Spain on a budget airline to see Dorne, in real life Real Alcázar de Sevilla, a collection of palaces built by the Moors and then the Christians.

I’ve let my feet run wild again, booking flights without a real plan except to find GoT film locations, losing my phone on the first leg of the flight from Manila to Abu Dhabi.

Called “the frying pan of Europe” (it reaches 45 degrees in the summer),  Seville is the capital and largest city of Seville province and the autonomous region of Andalusia.

Real Alcázar de Sevilla or the Royal Palace in Seville is the setting of Dorne in Game of Thrones — a breakaway kingdom of sorts but an important ally to the Iron Throne nevertheless.
The Ambassadors Hall in the Royal Palace of Seville is where Prince Doran welcomes Jaime Lannister, who is sent to collect his daughter Myrcella.
Entrance to Real Alcazar. Never make the mistake of not booking online — as I did. Long queues in the morning.

In Sevilla without a phone, I have only rudimentary Spanish to communicate with my cabbie and Aibnb owner. My landlord is nice and welcoming, telling me she spent her honeymoon in Manila 25 years ago. She gives me the keys and a hug, and hours later the lights in her flat — my flat for a few days — have gone out. It’s shit but I don’t have the energy or the wifi to throw a hissy fit.

But I love this flat. It has a rooftop terrace, below the building are tapas bars and coffee shops — and most of all, the  Water Gardens of Dorne (or Alcazar) are just 200 meters away.

Dorne holds a curious place in Westeros — a sort of breakaway republic within the Seven Kingdoms, properly away from its politics and hypocrisy, but an important ally nonetheless.

Bastard children — the Sands — are not shunned. “We are everywhere in Dorne. I have ten thousand brothers and sisters,” says Elaria Sand when she and Oberyn Martell meet with Cersei and Tywin Lannister in King’s Landing.

In the Water Gardens of Dorne or Real Alcazar de Sevilla.
Moorish and Christian decorative motifs at Real Alcazar.
Sevilla’s warm climate is the perfect setting of Dorne. “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne,” says Oberyn Martell.

The intricately decorated Ambassadors Hall in Alcazar is where Prince Doran welcomes Jaime (after being imprisoned briefly for sneaking in on a fisherman’s boat with Bronn) .

In Dorne, the weather is warm and the people are ruled by passion. “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne,” says Oberyn.

Warm weather and passion are also fitting descriptions of Seville. There are palm trees in the palace grounds and the street parallel to Guadalquivir River. Cross the river and you’re in Triana, a neighborhood with such a strong identity it considers itself apart from Seville.

I didn’t book online for the Alcazar tour, so I stood in line for an hour.

GoT scene from the finale of Season 7, where the “summit” takes place between Team Lannister and Team Jon Snow/Daenerys Targaryen, filmed at the ampitheater of the Roman ruins of Italica in Santiponce, Spain.
GoT_Seville_12_by_Diego Delso
The real amphitheater of Italica. Photo by Diego Delso,

There is music everywhere in Seville played by street musicians and ordinary people who just seemingly woke up and took their guitars outside to play. If you go out of the Alcazar, you’d still think this was Dorne — warm, laid back and tropical — and you fully understand Oberyn’s disdain for King’s Landing.

Emilia Clark (Daenerys Targaryen) said in an HBO interview that shooting in Seville was a joy, that it felt like they weren’t working at all but were on vacation compared to cast members shooting in Iceland like Kit Harington (Jon Snow).

Another shooting location in Spain, an hour by bus from Seville, is Santiponce, a town with a population of just over 8,000. This is where they shot the final episode of Season 7’s summit between the northerners plus Daenerys and her dragons, and Cersei and her minions, to show to the Lannisters the white walker they had captured from beyond the wall.

The Dragonpit is actually the Roman ruins of Italica, an archeological treasure to Sevillanos and commonly believed to be the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. That scene where Jon Snow and Ser Davos, Tyrion Lannister and the Hound are walking to the Ampitheater is one of many cobbled streets of this ancient city that was once the third largest in the Roman Empire.

The path leading to Anfiteatro de Italica.
The pit from which the Hound carries the undead in a box.

In BTS interviews, the cast talked about how shooting in the Dragonpit was a sort of reunion for them — and for many characters it was the first time to shoot with each other, like for Cersei and Daenerys and Jon Snow who had never been together in a scene before.

As Game of Thrones progressed from its pilot episode in April 2011, previous shooting locations in Croatia were transferred to Spain. Scenes in King’s Landing, for instance, were shot in Girona even as the city doubled as Bravos where Arya Stark trained to become an assassin. Girona Cathedral doubled as the Sept of Baelor, previously shot in Dubrovnik.

Obviously, GoT isn’t the only reason to visit these places, but you do get a kick when you see a scene from this cultural phenomenon and remember your travels. And to be able to channel Cersei and say, “I was there, bitch.”

Communal latrine in Italica.
Santiponce is about an hour by bus from Sevilla.

Cruising the Danube River on Avalon Illumination

Melk City in Austria is one of Avalon Illumination’s stops on its Blue Danube river cruise. Photos by Tanya Lara
Sailing into Passau, Germany

When I look up, the night sky is filled with stars — something you never see in cities anymore because of all the lights and pollution.

This is when the Danube, a river that crosses 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, feels new to me again. It is the third of our seven nights on the river and the stars are so bright above this little town somewhere in Austria.

I am on a fam tour with top travel executives and media hosted by Baron Travel, the general sales agent of Avalon Waterways in the Philippines, and Turkish Airlines.

Our group is sailing on the Danube, bookended by two of Europe’s most beautiful cities —  Budapest and Prague — on Avalon Illumination, a beautiful river ship that glides on the water with the grace of a queen and the age of a pageboy (Avalon has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; Illumination is only four years old).

In every itinerant’s journey, new details push our sense of awe to the surface once again — that day passing through Spitz in Austria with the houses on the riverbanks taking my breath away; the misty morning coming into Passau in Germany, a mist so thick it covered the autumn colors on the hills and then slowly lifting as though in a striptease; that day in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic looking at the rooftops, something that had been on my bucket list for a long time; and the taste of a cup of hot chocolate between my freezing hands at the stern of the ship while watching the sun rise and enjoying the quietness.

Autumn colors
Yep, we love Turkish Airlines! Joining the fam tour are Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando, I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong, First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia, AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo, Pan Pacific Travel’s Kaye Cervantes, the author Tanya Lara, Baron Travel’s Wally Cervantes, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago, Our Awesome Planets Anton Diaz, and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura.

You’ve often heard the comparison of ocean liners to floating cities, and of river ships to boutique hotels. Both are accurate descriptions, but let me add that Avalon Illumination has the personalized service and intimacy of a bed and breakfast with our cruise director Tony as the host, giving talks in the lounge to what feels like a small, intimate group of travelers but in actuality is about 164 passengers in four decks.

The rooms feature floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, a good-sized bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries (important to women!), a sitting area and cable TV. It becomes a running joke in our group which fireplace channel they’re watching because there are 10. Yes, 10 different wood-burning fireplaces accompanied by classical music.

The 164-passenger Avalon Illumination is like a boutique hotel that floats on Europe’s most beautiful waterways. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways
The staterooms have a sitting area and floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Avalon Illumination has three dining options: the main dining room which serves buffet breakfast and lunch, and a la carte dinner (we order off-the-menu too because, well, everyone becomes a foodie on a cruise); the Panorama Bistro for light meals and Avalon’s signature healthy cuisine options; and the Panorama Lounge and Bar for drinks and a happy hour every afternoon.

The quality of food and wines is fantastic. The meals often feature local dishes and wines, depending on where the ship is docked. We had schnitzel in Austria, Nuremberg sausages in Germany; and porcheta, goulash, Riesling and Wachau Valley wines in between. And champagne every single day.

Oh God, the champagne! If you ask for a bellini or mimosa at brunch on a day when there’s no morning excursion onshore, they’re not going to say no —  because what’s a late breakfast without alcohol?

From Anton’s awesome 360-degree camera. Photo by Anton Diaz

The lounge I like best is the one at the stern of Illumination — it’s open round the clock, has coffee and tea-making facilities, cookies and hot chocolate. One night, a couple of the girls and I bring out a bottle of vodka and they tell the scariest ghost stories from all their travels (it’s the night before Halloween); some nights, it’s just me and several people reading their books.

At every stop, Avalon offers a free walking tour and optional tours for a fee of between 49 and 96 euros. If it’s your first time to Europe, it’s a great way to see more.

This is what Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura do as they take the free walking tour in Vienna and the optional tours to Schonbrunn Palace and Bratislava. Then First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia and I join them in the optional tour to Cesky Krumlov while the ship is in Linz.

Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, who befriended practically everyone on board, agrees that a river cruise takes out the hassle of traveling through several countries in one trip. “What I enjoy most is that you only have to check in once and at the end of the cruise you check out. We’re able to visit cities and towns that aren’t normally part of the itinerary, like the towns of Krems, Melk and Passau.”

The jaw-dropping Melk Abbey with its gilded statuary and frescoed library and church. To many of the travel executives I was with, this was a highlight of the river cruise.
Melk Museum starts out as a dimly lit space…till you see what’s inside.
Beer in Melk as the sun goes down.

In Melk, we explore the jaw-dropping baroque abbey and its magnificent frescoed library and church, and gold-plated statuary. Our Awesome Planet blog’s Anton Diaz and I are the only ones allowed to take pictures inside because you have to get a permit prior to your visit. Later, walking in the courtyard and still shookt from the opulence of the abbey, we joke about how the Benedictine monks took not having the vow of poverty to the extreme.

Melk is a charming town that seemingly grew because of the abbey, a smattering of souvenir shops and restaurants that glow at twilight with a forested area between the town and the Danube.

This small-town scene would be repeated throughout our stops and the vistas passing through Spitz, which is said to be the prettiest in the Austrian part of the Danube. Stopping at Durnstein with its vineyards and local spirits that we snap up from the shops; at Regensburg with its medieval stone bridge and gothic cathedral that’s the little brother to Cologne Cathedral; and Passau with St. Stephen’s Church’s period history of when the Catholic faithful were turning away from the church and the flood that devastated the city, which was eventually cleaned up with the help of young students who used Facebook to mobilize.

The fairy tale-like Cesky Krumlov. I wouldn’t be surprised if a princess rode through the cobblestone streets on a horse and rescued her prince from the evil witch.
Gaye, Zoe, Pia and I have some Czech beers, sausages, pancakes and goulash.
I wonder if homeowners ever get tired of tourists taking pictures of their homes in Cesky Krumlov.

The optional tour that I take is to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. It is a dreamy place, a fairy tale-like town of towers, gabled roofs and a palace — and the Vltava River that flows from Prague. Unfortunately the tower is closed because of strong winds, so I leave without a photo of the whole town as seen from the tower.

The architecture is a mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance styles — and then there are the riverside houses that somehow look like they’re from the pages of children’s books that tourists can’t take enough pictures of.

I wonder if the homeowners ever get used to this or if, every time they peer out the windows, they let out an expletive.

Regensburg in Germany is at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers. It’s a charming town with a gothic church that’s considered to be the little brother of Cologne Cathedral.
Gigibeth, Cyndee, Zoe, Pia and I in Regensburg with the spires of the gothic cathedral showing in the background.
Corporate International Travel’s Shan Dioquino David leads the charge to Pandorf Outlet Center, with Cyndee Wong and Gigibeth Santiago and their Uber ride back to Vienna. This is the first of many shopping expeditions.

In Vienna, Avalon Illumination treats us to a night of classical music at City Palace Billrothhaus. I am seated next to history buffs Wally Cervantes, SVP for Baron Travel’s Leisure Division, and his wife Kaye Cervantes of Pan Pacific Travel who are digging the Strauss concerto. Vienna is right up their alley, being the seat of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the greatest powers in history.

But there’s another wonderful thing about Vienna that Filipino travelers would love — its proximity to the outlet center Pandorf which has over 160 stores. Corporate International Travel’s Shan David, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago and I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong take an Uber to Pandorf.

In the evening they come back on the ship with a fleet of Rimowas (seriously, a fleet!) winter jackets, and a million other finds. Our jaws drop at the amount of shopping they did — accompanied by amazement at their finding things that cost thousands of pesos back home which they got for a couple of hundreds. And this is just the first shopping expedition!

Handcrafted Wieser gin, whiskey and vodka in Durnstein.
Vltava River in Prague. Charles Bridge, which brings you to Mala Strana, is oftentimes very crowded. An alternative is to take the modern bridge, then you actually get a view of Charles Bridge while crossing.

In this part of Europe with four capital cities that are always strung together on a trip, I’ve always thought of Vienna as an old lady in a fur coat, Bratislava as not exciting — but Prague and Budapest are like energetic, trippy kids with old souls to me.

In Budapest, where we begin our trip, which is cut short because of the low river level, I take our group to the city’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (more on Budapest in another story).

In Prague, where we are taken by coaches after disembarking in Passau, it is AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo that is our de facto tour guide, Prague being a city that he loves, in major part because of his devotion to the Sto. Niño. Walking through Stare Mesto and the medieval streets where Kafka hung out, where the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 took place, where Czech beer is downed like water (the Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world), we cross Charles Bridge with its baroque statues.

Through Mala Strana on the other side of the Vltalva River, Dondi takes us to the John Lennon Wall and finally to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the shrine to Sto. Niño.

Prague’s Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square is the third oldest in the world, first installed in 1410.

Dondi and Cyndee both love Prague in the same way I love Istanbul and Budapest — which is to say we will never get tired of these cities. We will always go back even when we get old and broke!

“Prague is a total package for me,” Dondi tells me. “It’s a time capsule of then and now. I enjoy its heritage buildings shouting at every corner, its food making its own statement, and I always say a little prayer in the church for our dear country. The Sto. Niño reminds me to be like a child — to enjoy and learn every day.”

We explore the city for two days — and outside the city for our champion shoppers. You can get dizzy in the old part of Prague with its hordes of tourists all day and night, in the bars and clubs, palaces, museums and shopping, the Astronomical Clock and Wenceslas Square.

Years ago when I was in Prague, there were puppets being sold that laughed like a witch when you waved your hand in front of their faces. This time near the square, I find a stall selling marionettes, and small wooden frames that reference John Lennon’s Wall with these words: “I’m a dreamer too.”

The John Lennon Wall in Prague has been welcoming graffiti artists since the 1980s.

* * *

In the Philippines, Baron Travel Corporation is the general sales agent (GSA) of Avalon Waterways. For December 2018 and 2019 itineraries and sailing dates, call 817-4926 or log on to

Turkish Airlines flies daily from Manila to over 300 destinations worldwide. Call 894-5416 or log on to

You may also book your flight and Avalon cruise through the following travel agencies: Manila — Airspace Travel & Tours, 522-3287; Binondo — I Love Travel, 232-1366/67; Quezon City — AllPoints Travel, 410-1527, 410-1538; Pasig — Geographica Tours, 994-8284, Corporate International Travel, 631-6541 to 44; Makati — Mondial Tours, 886-6300/47/48; First United Travel, 818-7181, Pan Pacific Travel, 810-8551 to 56.

Passau at twilight, sitting on the banks of the Danube.
At Turkish Airlines’ fabulous lounge, coming home with a layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
Melk town gives me the key to come back.
Passau in Germany was another town I had never been to. St. Stephen’s Church may look unassuming with its façade, but inside are spectacular frescoes and gilded arches.
Courtyard of Cesky Krumlov Castle. Unfortunately that day, the tower closed due to strong wind.
Groufies with Gigibeth’s “magic” camera and Wally’s long-arm selfie.



A scenic route of wines, truffles & rivers through the South of France

The luxury ship Scenic Sapphire starts its South of France river cruise at Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, which produces some of the most expensive wines in the world.  Photos by Tanya Lara

At some point on the train speeding from Lyon, France’s third largest city, the landscape changes into my mind and memory’s picture of the South of France — a scenic route of vineyards, wheat fields, farmhouses and red-roofed village houses.

And plenty of golden hay rolled under the gathering blue skies of July.

I am on my way to Chalon-sur-Saône, a commune in the wine-producing Burgundy region 130 kilometers away, to join a river cruise on the luxury ship Scenic Sapphire, starting in Chalon, sailing the Saône and Rhône rivers back to Lyon at midpoint (where I’m to disembark), and then continuing its journey further south to Nice.

Vineyards in Beaujolais grow gamay grape. Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November and is greeted with wine parties across France.

Having arrived in Lyon two days earlier, I’ve opted to take the TGV myself rather than the complimentary shuttle service that Scenic offers its passengers arriving at Saint-Exupéry airport or the train station.

It’s a one-and-a-half hour journey, and now that I think of it, the train ride is just enough time to adjust your eyes, like when you walk out into the blinding sun when you come out of the house for the first time during the day.

Except in this case, my eyes are adjusting from Lyon’s urban vistas to farmlands draped in a light that renders the landscape with such stillness it’s as if I’m looking at a painting. I don’t know why this is, in the South of France. I’ve been to the lavender fields of Valensole in Provence before and was struck by the singularity of its light, especially at sunset.

A rubber duckie race on the Saône river to raise funds for a children’s charity.

Arriving in Chalon, you have two choices — to walk 15 minutes to the docks or take a taxi from the train station. It’s now noon and the sun is blazing. There are three taxis on the curb outside the station, but there are no drivers inside the cars. A minute later, the driver approaches and asks where I’m going. It seems even they are hiding from the summer heat.

But you get my point — it’s not a busy town. It’s so slow and laid-back that their idea of a race to raise funds for a children’s charity — as I would find out the next day — is to release 10,000 rubber ducks downstream on the river and see which one would float to the finish line first. Apparently, it’s a thing in first-world countries, this rubber-duckie race.

* * *

Scenic Sapphire is one of the 20-ship fleet of Scenic Cruises, which offers itineraries around the world’s greatest rivers. In the Philippines Scenic Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours (0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540). Photos courtesy of Scenic Cruises
Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

Being onboard a Scenic Space Ship (that’s how the ships on their fleet are called) is like being in a floating luxury boutique hotel. Obviously, it’s much smaller than an ocean liner, plying on rivers around the world instead of the open sea — but the keyword here is luxury.

Scenic offers butler service to its passengers, the cabins are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and a sitting area.

It’s also all-inclusive — the land tours, meals, wine and drinks at the bar (we’re talking about top-shelf spirits here) and snacks.

The mezzanine floor with the reception lobby.
Scenic cabins (this one is on Scenic Eclipse, not Sapphire) are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and sitting area.

My friend Abbie Sandico, general manager of Acewin Travel & Tours which represents Scenic River Cruises in the Philippines, says, “Scenic has the best curated tours on Europe’s rivers. They’ve got your history covered if that’s your interest, but they are also strong with experiences: truffle hunting, a private concert in a palace, exploring on ebikes, etc. In a fast-paced world where everyone is busy, Scenic removes the hassle of planning and allows you to slow down and just enjoy the experience.”

Scenic Sapphire is only 135 meters long and 11.4 meters wide. It has 10 suites, 67 cabins and 28 crew cabins; and can accommodate about 160 guests, 43 crewmembers and seven nautical crew.

Founded in Australia by Glen Moroney, whose wife Karen Moroney designs the interiors of each of the 20 ships on their fleet, Scenic started 32 years ago with coach tours throughout Australia. In the 1990s they expanded to New Zealand and Southern Africa; in the next decade, they went pretty much around the world. And then they went into ship-building, constructing their own Space Ships.

* * *

The Sapphire Lounge serves drinks and snacks all day. At the front is River Cafe for light meals, and L’Amour serves a five-course dinner featuring French specialties paired with local wines.
A French cuisine lesson is held onboard every afternoon with each class limited to 10 passengers.

One of the great things about a river cruise is you’re never far from land. On Scenic, you get to choose from two to three tours to take in the morning, and the rest of the day you can go onshore on your own with Scenic Tailormade, a GPS locator that guides your own personal excursion. Think of those handheld devices in museums that are automatically activated with an audio commentary at each point of interest.

You can wander but you won’t get lost because the device has an interactive map.

The tours I choose in Burgundy are all wine and food-related (after all, this is the region that produces some of the best wine appellations in the world).

Is it any wonder that in Burgundy you can casually stop at a random restaurant and find that it has a Michelin star?

Chateau de Savigny les Beaune was built in the 14th century and has an unlikely collection of airplanes and motorbikes.
Scenic Sapphire’s main restaurant Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

Chateau de Savigny les Beaune, an hour by the arranged coach from Chalon, was built in the 14th century. During the wine tasting, we are told that Burgundy produces the most expensive wines in the world, and the region accounts for three percent of French wines and — surprise! — 65 percent is white wine. In Burgundy, vintners aren’t allowed to blend varieties — the pinot made here is 100 percent pinot grapes.

More than the wines, the chateau is known for its unlikely collection of  aircraft and helicopters, and motrobikes. The estate has a park lined with twin props and in the museum thousands of scale models of bikes.

On another day, we travel to Beaujolais to try the light-bodied red wine at Chateau Montmelas, and also white and rosé, all made form gamay grape. This variety allows for quick fermentation of just a few weeks and the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November is greeted with parties across France and tasting starts in bars, cafes and bistros.

Perched on a hill, the estate affords views of the vineyards growing gamay grape. It is a breathtaking sight.

* * *

Chateau Montmelas in Beaujolais is not a museum — but a castle where the owners live.
Turffle and butter on bread and some Burgundy wines at Cos de Piguet.

An Englishman living in the South of France is in financial ruin and so one day he takes out an ad in the International Herald Tribune looking for interesting and unusual work. “Anything considered…except marriage,” he says. What follows is a job to impersonate a wealthy gentleman who has the formula to grow truffles quick and cheap, and he’s soon plunged into truffle espionage.

If this story sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Peter Mayle’s 1997 fictional novel Anything Considered, the caper that kicked the door open for the public to have a look into the rare mushroom.

On a truffle farm in Tournus — a commune with only one four-star and one three-star hotel but with four Michelin-star restaurants — the story is not quite as dangerous.

This Burgundy truffle is not quite ready yet; they’re usually harvested in autumn.

Oliver, who quit his job as a soil researcher in Switzerland to farm the land he inherited in Cortevaix, is a truffle farmer. He started from scratch, reconstituted the forest on his estate and planted it with truffle and saffron trees to have long and short-term yields. He grew two species of Burgundy truffles, one of them historically served on the tables of the French kings.

Truffles are fungi found near the roots of trees and they’re expensive because they grow only in specific kinds of soil, such as Burgundy’s or Tuscany’s in Italy. It takes five years before you can harvest truffles and you can only do so with animals with an acute sense of smell.

Pigs were previously used to hunt truffles, but I read somewhere that the problem with pigs is they enjoy eating truffles, too — and you can hardly teach them to refrain (being pigs).

Enter dogs.

Oliver’s dog is 14-year-old Chinook, a female working dog whose only mission in life it seems is to please him. It’s a relationship that he knows will end in a few years given her age, and so he started training another dog — a hunting dog. But the problem with hunting dogs is that they’re too efficient and want to get the job done as quickly as possible. The new dog doesn’t wait for Oliver; Chinook, meanwhile, sits on her heels and waits as he gathers the fungi in his basket and then they walk together in the forest to hunt some more.

It melts my heart seeing Chinook looking up adoringly at Oliver as he is telling us about truffles and complicated French laws regarding land and farming.

The truffles Chinook digs up aren’t ready yet, as they are usually harvested in autumn. Oliver’s wife tells us that the best way to enjoy truffles is fresh — shaved on a dish like pasta or eggs. As for saffron, they should be in their stalks because you never know what’s been added to the powder form. A kilo of truffles can go as high as $50,000 (P2.65 million) and saffron $20,000 (P1.06 million).

At the end of our tour, Oliver scoops Chinook up in his arms and carries her back into the house.

On this truffle farm, at this moment in France, I suddenly feel homesick thinking of my own senior dog thousands of miles away.

* * *

Before sunset in Mâcon. By the time it’s dark, France will have won the World Cup and the whole city is partying. Photos by Tanya Lara

I was in Paris when the national team Les Bleus beat Belgium in the semi-finals. By  the time the final game is played and won against Croatia, I am in Mâcon.

Mâcon is known for its wine appellation and its riverside buildings painted in burnt sienna and buttermilk. Every April, Mâcon holds a wine fair of which two-thirds of its  production is white, made from chardonnay grape.

And tonight in Mâcon, bottles of wine and champagne are popping inside the houses, and then the party spills out onto the streets. In Paris, people are celebrating on the Champs Elysées; in Mâcon cars are honking around the river, being driven aimlessly and crossing bridges on the Saône, drivers screaming with joy and the French flag waving in the summer night.

Bands are leading impromptu parades, faces painted with the French colors, people are singing and chanting, children are carried on their fathers’ shoulders, and the party’s getting bigger as the evening progresses.

It’s impossible not to be carried away by the crowd’s happiness — the French have earned their second star, their second World Cup after 20 years.

It’s a truly wonderful time to be in the South of France.

* * *

In the Philippines, Scenic River Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours Corp. For inquiries and reservations, call Acewin Travel & Tours at 0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540, 729-66-88. Email or visit their office at the ground floor of LPL Bldg., 17 Eisenhower St., North Greenhills, San Juan.

Chateau de la Rochepot on the scenic route from Chalon to Chateau de Savigny.

Cathay Pacific flies cleaner, further with the new A350-1000

The A350-1000 comes home to Hong Kong: The world’s most modern aircraft will be used for Cathay Pacific’s longest route: the 17-hour nonstop flight from HK to Washington, DC, starting in September. Photos courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Airbus
Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo, flight operations director Anna Thompson, the four pilots who flew the A350-1000 from Toulouse to Hong Kong Evan Summerfield, Karl Lucas, Marcin Grzyb and Dominica Yung, and the flight crew at the Airbus Delivery Center.

An Airbus takes off or lands every 1.4 seconds. By the time you finish reading this story, about 500 will have done that all over the world; in 24 hours, 61,714 Airbus aircraft will have taken off or landed at any given airport on the map.

There’s a little bit of poetry in these numbers — one imagines airplanes carrying people home or taking them to adventures that lie ahead; the anticipation of a long-overdue homecoming, a reunion, or simply a weekend away to some island or a new city. Every single takeoff or landing is the beginning of a story for millions of people every day.

Last Wednesday, an Airbus made a special landing in Hong Kong. For the first time in the world, Cathay Pacific’s first ever A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse 12 hours before, landed at Chek Lap Kok International Airport, signaling the start of a new generation of modern and clean-fuel airplanes for the airline’s fleet. It is only the second such plane in the world, and the first in Southeast Asia.

The wide-body aircraft will be used for CX’s longest route in its network: the 17-hour nonstop flight from Hong Kong to Washington, DC, a distance of 8,153 miles (13,122 kilometers). The service begins in September, four times a week, as the airline expands its long-haul network and increases its capacity in its 206 destinations in 52 countries. The A350-1000’s first commercial flight will be to Taipei, and will serve Madrid, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Manchester and Zurich from winter this year.

The business class cabin features more comfortable seats that convert into flat beds with one touch, new personal stowage compartment on the side and a touchscreen remote control.
You can now pre-order your breakfast before you sleep in business class.

Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo who, six years ago, negotiated the carrier’s order of 20 A350-1000s to be delivered until 2021 (the next delivery is in August), says, “We already have one of the youngest long-haul fleets in the sky (an average of 5.6 years in service), and with the arrival of the A350-1000, our fleet is only going to get younger. The aircraft follows the successful entry of the A350-900 variant, which has enabled us to expand our long-haul network at a near unprecedented rate, providing our customers with a wider range of nonstop travel choices while at the same time strengthening Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s largest international aviation hub.”

Called “the future of air travel,” the A350-1000 is longer than its 900 sister in the A350 XWB family with 54 more seats (CX’s configuration is from 280 for four-class planes with first, business, premium economy and economy; to 334 for those without first class).

The business class menu has three more starter choices and up to six main course choices.

“From now until 2024, we still have 79 aircraft to be delivered in total,” says Loo. Though he wouldn’t say the investment for this particular aircraft, he says the “the total cost of our investment is more than what Hong Kong is spending on building a third runway,” which is HK$141.5.billion (US$18 billion).

Cathay Pacific general manager for corporate affairs Kinto Chan says the airline’s A350 planes are partly powered with biofuel to reduce the airline’s GHG emissions and to fly greener; this plane flies on 10 percent biofuel. “Fulcrum Bioenergy will supply the aviation biofuel produced from municipal solid waste.”

Author Tanya Lara with the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, the most efficient large aero-engine flying today. Cathay Pacific’s A350-1000 runs on 10 percent biofuel made from municipal waste.

Airbus head of A350-XWB marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena says that compared to previous aircraft generation, the A350-1000 is 25 percent better in fuel burn, CO2 emissions, and cash operating cost. “Its new wing, inspired by and acquired from nature, morphs to mimic a bird’s wing; it has a new fuselage design using 70 percent advanced titanium and composite material, which means no corrosion or fatigue, and lower weight and reduced maintenance.”

The A350-1000’s Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine is the world’s most efficient large aero-engine flying today with 1.8 million flying hours and 99.89 percent operational reliability.

* * *

CX 3510 or the ferry flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong had only 76 passengers composed of CX executives, engineers, and employees who had won a company-wide contest held by the airline, and journalists. Out of the 334 seats, only business and premium economy cabins were occupied.

Flying over the French Alps on the delivery flight to Hong Kong. Photo by Tanya Lara

As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, we were up and about inspecting the plane. Being a noncommercial flight, it was unlike any other flight of course. For one, the economy cabin was empty. Second, there was an atmosphere of celebration and for us journalists it was actually the only time we got to exchange business cards on this coverage, having done a series of interviews and tours at the Airbus factory the day before.

And third, the CX executives had loosened up as we were chatting on the aisles — finally, after six years, they were bringing this baby home! CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau even helped with the breakfast service, serving bread to passengers. “When else can you do this?” she says with a laugh.

With all the journalists taking pictures and videos of the crew as they served drinks and food, it took twice the amount of time than on a regular flight. Leslie, a flight attendant who’s been with CX for 22 years, corrects me. “No, thrice!” he says. Indeed, the very cheerful flight attended was very excited to be on the ferry flight. “It’s a privilege for me,” he says. “Every crew wants to experience this and it comes only once in a lifetime.”

Economy cabin: Throughout the plane are air and noise management systems and ambient lighting that help passengers relax.
The author Tanya Lara with CX chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo and wife Joy Loo, CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau and Cheche Moral of Inquirer in the economy cabin.

Cathay Pacific corporate affairs editor Alexander Jenkins says the airline held a contest among its employees and the winners were flown to Toulouse, had a tour of the Airbus facilities, and joined the delivery flight back to Hong Kong.

A brand-new plane is the norm for CX, which is receiving a new one every month as it retires some planes and adds to its existing 206-aircraft fleet — but a new-generation aircraft is a big deal.

It’s not only the hardware that makes the A350-1000 the most efficient aircraft today, it’s also the passenger experience. The cabins have a higher ceiling, a flat floor — no more bumps that cover wires running throughout the plane —  wide panoramic windows, HD screens,  more legroom, and LED ambient lighting with 16.7 million colors that make possible lighting scenarios to mimic natural sunrise and sunset and help reduce the effects of jet lag. Plus, what everyone wants — mobile and WiFi networks! The latter is especially good news for Filipino travelers who need to work on a long-haul — but who are we kidding? — it’s important to document their air travel on social networks in real time.

Flight attendants roll out main course selections and desserts in business class.

On the delivery flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong, we experienced just how intuitive the design is, and how much more comfortable the A350-1000 business class is compared to Boeing’s 777-ER of the same class, which the airline will be replacing in phases. The seat, which converts into a full flat bed, is longer and doesn’t have the bumps that I felt lying down — it felt like a true bed.

Also, there is a compartment beside the seat where you can store your handbag and other stuff compared to the net pocket in the 777. When you raise the armrest a water bottle cavity reveals itself so hydration is within easy reach at all times.

As for the entertainment system, the screen is full HD with a touchscreen remote control. Trying to find figure out the device, I was prompted, “Do you want to watch movie on this screen or main screen?” It means you can have one movie playing on your PTV and another one on your handheld screen.

Journalists on the ferry flight to Hong Kong.

In the economy seats, the headrest has been redesigned with a softer, leather- overed one that’s adjustable six ways, and it feels like a pillow now. There is also a mobile phone holder for when you want to watch movies on your phone or just a place to put it while you’re charging on the USB socket, and a cup holder.  They’ve added a metal stepper on the aisle seat for you to reach the luggage stowage (the plane has a higher ceiling).

“Have you noticed that it’s quieter than on other flights? Sometimes on older planes, I can’t talk to my wife, but here that’s not a problem,” says Loo.

“It’s nine decibels quieter than the 777-ER,” Airbus’ Marisa Lucas-Ugena, who incidentally started her career at Boeing, told us the day before.

CX’s A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse on June 19, starts a new generation of modern and clean-fuel aircraft for the airline’s fleet (the plane uses 10 percent biofuel mixed with jet fuel)

According to Airbus, “the air management systems help passengers to enjoy a more relaxing flight. Total cabin air is renewed every two to three minutes in a draft-free environment at the optimum temperature and with 20 percent more fresh air. In addition the A350 offers the unique possibility to install an active humidification system in business and first class to reproduce a private jet flying experience.”

Lucas-Ugena adds, “There are features on this aircraft that you cannot see but you can feel. And on a long-haul flight, you will feel better when you land.”

* * *

Cathay Pacific flies from Manila to Hong Kong seven times a day to connect you to any of CX’s 206 destinations in 52 countries; 12 times a week from Cebu, and four times a week from Clark on Cathay Dragon. Starting in October, Cathay Dragon will have four times a week direct flights from Davao City to Hong Kong.  Call the global center at +180014411011 for Smart/PLDT, +180087395117 for Globe. Log on to

Waiting for our flight back to Manila at Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge The Pier. What a treat to have a shower and a hot meal after a long flight!

Symphony of the Seas sails the ultimate adventure

The world’s biggest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas can accommodate 6,000 passengers and over 2,000 crew members. It is also the most technologically advanced — and most fun!  Photos courtesy of Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
Fireworks show as Symphony of the Seas departs Malaga.

When they said it’s like a floating city, they weren’t kidding. Royal Caribbean International’s newest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, is the biggest in the world. At 18 stories high, it’s taller than Mt. Rushmore and twice the height of the Washington Monument in DC. If you line up 17,000 African elephants and coax them on a scale, they’d still be lighter than the ship.

It can be overwhelming being onboard with so many choices in food and drinks, and sports activities and shows. In short, you will not be bored for one second, but if you just want to chill, that’s an option too, whether in your stateroom with balcony or on the boardwalk flanked by restaurants and cafes. Or maybe just grab a cold beer or frozen margarita and soak up the sun by the swimming pools.

Sure, it’s the biggest ship in the world, but that wasn’t RCI’s intention at the outset. It wanted to build the best in terms of efficiency, offerings and technology. So advanced is the ship that it literally floats on water using an air lubrication system that creates a reduced-friction layer of billions of bubbles, which means it uses less energy. Also, in terms of WiFi, RCI has satellite beams that literally follow each of its ships across the world’s seas. It’s a huge investment by RCI but as satellite technology costs get lower in the next 10 years so will the cruises’ Internet packages.

Royal Caribbean International’s representative in the Philippines is Arpan Air Inc. For inquiries, call 892 2701 to 03, 0955 213 3579,

Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard D. Fain says, “We set out to build the best ship in the world and it turned out to be the biggest. In the beginning, we said, no, don’t talk about it being ‘the biggest, talk about it being the best.’ It turns out that was a losing proposition with media. They wanted to talk about it being the biggest but that’s because there’s so many things to do on board.”

And we got to experience the ship’s offerings on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise to nowhere with Arpan Air, RCI’s international representative in the Philippines.

Arpan Air senior vice president and COO Joy Abrogar has seen the growth of cruising among Filipino travelers especially on European itineraries. “We now have families that hold reunions onboard especially if they live all over the world. They meet up in Barcelona from the US or Canada and the Philippines. It’s hassle-free, no need to fly from one destination to another.”

Symphony of the Seas.
The movements of the robotic arms at Bionic Bar are patterned after American Ballet Theater principal dancer Roberto Bolle. They can produce two drinks per minute for a total of 1,000 drinks per day — and no need to change shifts! Bestselling spirit? Vodka.

Allpoints Travel president and CEO Dondi Ocampo says, “RCI’s cruise ships are floating resorts. For a week, you get to see several countries and you don’t have to worry about transfers, luggage or even restaurants. It’s all here. Cruising is also great for incentive travel.”

Symphony of the Seas, which sailed its maiden voyage three weeks ago, will be starting and ending seven-night cruises in Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean until the end of October.

Barcelona is a fantastic port. Apart from its famous landmarks like Sagrada Familia, there’s so much to see, learn and eat in this beautiful Catalan city. Before and after the cruise, we explored Gaudi’s greatest love: the city he dedicated his life to.

Adrelanline rush on the Ultimate Abyss water slide and sugar rush at the candy store.


Symphony was designed from top to bottom to fulfill what RCI calls the Ultimate Vacation. Let’s start with the look of the ship first. It’s a beauty! Onboard, you’d feel like you’re in a high-end resort whose design is both playful and sophisticated. For instance, Symphony of the Seas has more works of art than the Louvre has paintings. It has over 20,700 plants, more than The Smithsonian Gardens has in its orchid collection.

Symphony can accommodate around 6,000 passengers and it has 2,759 cabins — the most on a cruise ship — in 30 categories, ranging from the interior rooms to the staterooms with sea-view balconies, staterooms with boardwalk-view balconies to suites, which are like luxury hotel rooms with the family suite equipped with slides for kids.

The ship has seven “neighborhoods,” each with a distinct feel. When you’re out at sea, explore each one because they offer so many different things.

My fave artworks onboard, “Meltdown” by Desire Cherish (left) and “Paradox Void” by Gregor Kregar (right)

For instance, Central Park, which runs in the middle of the ship on Deck 8, is a lush space with British chef Jamie Oliver’s Italian resto and a wine bar called Vintages.

At the Royal Promenade, there are two bars that draw everyone’s attention. First is the Bionic Bar with two bionic-arm bartenders that can do everything a human bartender can — shake, stir, muddle, strain — except frozen drinks.

The movements of the bionic arms are patterned after American Ballet Theater principal dancer Roberto Bolle. They can produce two drinks per minute for a total of 1,000 drinks per day — and no need to change shifts.

On a touchpad, you can order from the drink list (25 of bartenders’ favorites) — or customize your own, choosing from 30 spirits, eight sodas, six juices, three syrups, sugar, mint, lime and lemons. You decide how many shots you want to put in your glass (the robot bartenders will not judge you). Name your customized drink and the next time you order it, you don’t have to start from scratch because they already know what’s in it. The bionic arms will mix your drink (and wash the shakers between mixes) and then with a gentle push, they slide the drink to the end of the “bar” for you to pick up.

Made by Makr Shakr, the bionic bartenders are the fifth generation in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, starting in 2014 on Quantum of the Seas. Guess how many drinks they have made in the four other ships prior to Symphony? One million drinks as of last year.

Royal Class suite
The Ultimate Family Suite is practically is its own playground!

Also at Royal Promenade is the glass-enclosed Rising Tide bar, which lifts three decks from Deck 5 to Deck 8’s Central Park

The Boardwalk harks back to the 1950s with a candy shop called Sugar Beach and roaming around entertaining passengers are jugglers, clowns and other performers. It is also on this deck where Aqua Theater is located and where Aquanation divers and swimmers do their synchronized show — diving from 10 meters high or swimming in sync with the music. Most of the athletes are from Eastern Europe, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were former Olympic athletes.

Adventure and Youth Zone is where you drop your kids off while you relax at Vitality Spa and Fitness or play in the casino. Here, the kids have creative ad educational activities such as scavenger hunts and talent shows.

At the Pool and Sports Zone, get your adrenaline up with the Perfect Storm slides or practice your surf at Flow Rider or literally hang out at the Zipline.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
On the Boardwalk, you’ll run into clowns, pirates and jugglers.
Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
The festive Boardwalk is one of seven “neighborhoods” onboard. The carousel turns pink night.

The Ultimate Abyss, the most talked about slide in the cruising industry today, is the tallest slide at sea. Appropriately enough, its entrance is the mouth of a giant fish with menacing teeth. It’s a 28-meter serpentine drop with two 360-degree circles. It may feel that you’re sliding endlessly, but in reality it’s only 13 to 14 seconds.

Entertainment Place includes the Royal Casino, the largest casino at sea, where they serve the best frozen drinks while you’re trying your luck at the tables. A section of it is one of two designated smoking areas on board (the other is by one of the pools).

This neighborhood also has theaters where they stage the Broadway hit Hairspray and a 1970s ice skating caper.

Two things not to be missed as well are the Silent Disco, where people dance to music listened to on wireless headsets; and Laser Tag where you pick your own team and battle another.

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
Cotton candy and shots at Wonderland.
Playmakers servers classic sports bar fare.


What I love about the food onboard Symphony of the Seas is the variety of choices. Windjammer is the all-day restaurant where most people gravitate to, but there are also cafes that serve light food, Johnny Rockets for burgers and milkshakes, Jamie’s Italian for Italian cuisine, Izumi for Japanese cuisine, and new outlets Hooked Seafood for just-shucked oysters, El Loco Fresh for Mexican enchiladas, Playmakers Sports Bar for sliders and fries, and Sugar Beach candy store.

So how do you prepare food for 6,000 passengers who are likely to eat more than three times a day — across 14 specialty restaurants offering 350 dishes?

With a team of 1,085 culinary staff, that’s how. At a behind-the-scenes tour in the ship’s galleys, I met Royal Caribbean corporate executive chef Gary Thomas, also known as “the General.”

A veteran chef of 26 years, he commands more than 10,000 chefs across RCI’s fleet, and he’s part of the design team from blueprint to construction of the ship’s kitchens.

On a seven-night cruise, Symphony of the Seas serves about 9,700 lbs. of chicken; 60,000 eggs (“We only have one chicken, it lays eggs nonstop,” he jokes; 700 lbs. of ice cream, 20,000 lbs. of potatoes; 2,500 lbs. of salmon; 5,300 lbs. of bacon; 195 spirits and 450 cases of champagne!

Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley (center) and Arpain Air senior vice president and COO Joy Abrogar (second from right) with Simeon Aquino Jr. of Blue Horizon Travel, Abigail Avellana of Our Awesome Planet, Abbie Sandico of Acewin Travel, the author Tanya Lara, and Ferdinand Dondi Ocampo of Allpoints Travel at the Royal Promenade of Symphony of the Seas on a pre-inaugural cruise on the Balearic Sea.
Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
Wall climbing onboard — and after which you can do the zipline, play billiards or cards, or try your luck at the Casino Royale.

What about special diets? “Symphony has an allergy-wise program. By the time guests arrive on the ship, we know their requirements, whether it’s medical or religious or lifestyle. Veganism is way more common now than 10 years ago. We keep up with the times. We have guests that have really complex allergy requirements, so we have designated preparation areas like for gluten-free or for religious requirements. “

So how many times does the ship replenish its food supplies, say, on a seven-day cruise? “Everything is set at the start of the cruise. We take supply on every embarkation day and to keep the food fresh — vegetables, fruits, etc. — we get them at certain stages of cultivation.  We buy quarter ripe, half ripe and ripe bananas, tomatoes, and store them in facilities that are temperature-controlled and based on the length of the cruise. Food continues to grow as long as there’s certain light and moisture. It’s very technical once you get on a 10 to 14-day voyage.”

Thomas says they know they got the requisitioning right when, on embarkation day, the storage facilities are empty and what they see is just stainless steel — ready to take on new supplies that have to be loaded in five hours for the next cruise.

The supplies and storage facilities are run “exactly like a supermarket.” The chefs order their supplies the night before, he approves them and a team distributes them. Maritime law also requires every ship to have a hurricane plan, “which is to have enough of everything to sustain the ship for 48 hours. We have to account for every unforeseen thing. So we have all the basics — not just food.”

Main Dining room for formal lunch and dinner (left) or just chill in one of the Jacuzzi pools (right).
Sushis and sashimis at the new-concept restaurant Izumi.


One thing that I love about Symphony is that it is staffed with so many Filipinos. From deck managers to chefs, restaurant servers, bartenders, housekeepers — at every corner of the ship you can ask a question in Tagalog and be answered in Tagalog.

Joy Abrogar tells me that when they have a big group on a long itinerary, they arrange for local dishes to be served to the group. “One time, we surprised our group with tapsilog breakfast and they loved it.”

Speaking of itinerary length, RCI offers cruises designed for millenneals called the Perfect Weekend, a three-night cruise on their Caribbean itineraries.

Symphony of the Seas was built in the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard at Saint Nazaire, France. She is the fourth ship in RCI’s Oasis-class series.

RCI is changing with the times as passengers change, as tourism changes. Chairman and CEO Richard Fain says, “We keep getting questions about over-tourism, but the more appropriate term is sustainable tourism. As people become more affluent, they want to travel to great destinations and it’s their right. Rather than think about how to stop people from doing that, time and energy must be focused on investing in infrastructure. The growth is inevitable. We work closely with the communities we serve to help them generate economic activities. We’re also very sensitive that we need to do that in a sustainable way.”

When Puerto Rico was hit by hurricanes last September, RCI allocated many of their ships to humanitarian efforts, “transferring people from different islands including dogs, cats, birds, you name it. It was a very rewarding effort for us and we’re proud to be in the communities we serve.”

* * *

Royal Caribbean International’s representative in the Philippines is Arpan Air Inc. For inquiries, call 892 2701 to 03, 0955 213 3579, Like their FB page Royal Caribbean Philippines and visit their website at

Symphony of the Seas.
The Broadway musical “Hairspray” is just one of the entertainment offers onboard.

How Shangri-La Istanbul turned a tobacco warehouse into a luxury hotel

Shangri-La Istanbul is located on the banks of the Bosphorus and is only a five-minute walk to the Dolmabahçe Palace, home to Ottoman sultans, and in a lively neighborhood filled with bars and museums. Photos from Shangri-La Istanbul
The Lobby Lounge is a great place for afternoon tea and pastries.

When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.

Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.

Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.

Deluxe room with a view.
The lobby of Shangri-La Istanbul Bosphorus with its plush furnishings and Chinoiserie accessories.

Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.

Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.

With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.

A great breakfast spread at Ist Too restaurant with the freshest produce and cheeses from all over Turkey.
Ist Too restaurant. I was lucky that when I was there the hotel was celebrating the Gaziantep Kitchen.

For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.

A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.

Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.

The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.

The Turkish identity of Shangri-La Istanbul Hotel’s Chi Spa.
Corridor at Shang’s famous spa brand, The Chi Spa.

The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”

I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.

A kung fu tea master serves tea with a flourish and another checks the wedding banquet arrangements.
Indoor pool and gym
The bedroom of the presidential suite comes with a spacious terrace facing the Bosphorus.

So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.

“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.

I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.

View of the Bosphorus Bridge right outside Shang’s Ist Too restaurant. Photo by Tanya Lara

Marcel Wanders’ luminous space for Fairmont Quasar Istanbul

Dutch designer Marcel Wanders puts fantasy elements in and around the swimming pool of Fairmont Quasar, the newest luxury hotel in Istanbul. Photo by Tanya Lara
Wanders creates a lounge area surrounded by gazebos, greenery and stylized statues wearing red flowers for their clothing and hair. Photo by Tanya Lara

Don’t look for a reason behind Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ spaces, it may not always be there. But you can count on magic always being present.

While most architects and designers tout form following function as a design philosophy, Wanders has a different perspective. “Luxury starts where functionality ends and where the true value is personal and so has no price or reason,” Wanders once said. He also said that the things he creates are the kind that people would want to save if their house was burning down.

If I had his Knotted Chair, the design that catapulted Wanders to global fame, I’d certainly save that first, too. Or the Horse Floor Lamp that the design label he co-founded, Moooi, produces. But I don’t have either.

Instead, I experience his spaces and gain insights into his design. To be standing in the pool deck of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul and seeing the product of his fanciful imagination is a treat that every design enthusiast would love.

The hotel’s reception area mixes wood, leather, metal and stone. Photos courtesy of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul
The lobby with its décor looks more like a luxurious sitting room in a friend’s home — warm and welcoming.

In the glass-walled pool overlooking Marmara Sea and the red rooftops of Mecidiyekoy (okay, let’s call it by its other name, Şişli), Wanders put what seem like trees with globular fruits at the tips of the branches. It’s a fascinating element that pulls your gaze and then suddenly releases it for you to appreciate the panoramic skyline.

What’s on the other side of the pool will also make you smile. In the lounge area with white sunbeds, blue sofas and golden gazebos, Wanders created a garden space “guarded” by statues of ladies with red flowers for clothing and hair.

It’s weird but beautiful…and fascinating. It’s also a nod to whimsy and the designer’s proclivity for the extraordinary.

View from the balcony of a Fairmont Quasar suite.
One of the most comfortable beds I’ve lain on—with a nice leather headboard as well. The Fairmont Signature Rooms and Suites come with balconies.

US-based design firm Wilson Associates, which masterminded Quasar’s overall design, imagined two sisters coming together in the city. “The older sister brought her polished Parisian sensibility, while the younger sister brought her eclectic, contemporary New York flare. Together, they created a design jargon all their own: contemporary classicism.”

Located on a windy hill in the city’s Mecidiyekoy area (after three years, I still can’t pronounce it), the property where Quasar is now used to be a 1930s liqueur factory designed by world-renowned cubist architect Robert Mallet Stevens.

Today, it is the newest star here, a luminous modern ode to a city that prides itself on its thousand years of history.

My wonderful friend Esin Sungur, Fairmont Quasar marketing and communications director, takes us around the hotel. I haven’t seen her in two years but know well enough that on this Eid al-Fatir weekend in June, she’d make the time. And it is a quiet weekend in Istanbul—more so than Manila during Holy Week and Easter, which is saying a lot about the two mega cities.

Photos of present-day Istanbul line one wall of Stations restaurant.
Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie
A drink or two at the Marble Bar is always a great idea to cap a day in Istanbul.

Istanbuller who are staying for the holiday are at nearby beaches or swimming pools. Here at Quasar, they are enjoying a windy summer day and food trays from Ukiyo restaurant (Japanese for “floating world”) at their chaise lounges while working on their tans.

With the hotel located in busy Mecidiyekoy—a short downhill walk to Cevahir Shopping Mall and a subway skip to Nisantasi or Taksim—it’s a great fit for business and leisure travelers who like some style with their drinks (The Marble Bar just off the lobby) or their tea (Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie), and spacious suites overlooking the city.

It’s also for people who love contemporary design. “There’s nothing nostalgic about the hotel, it’s modern all the way. Except for the industrial inspiration from the iconic liquor factory in front of the hotel,” says Esin of the 209-guestroom and 25-suite hotel.

The Spice Library at Alia restaurant with its wooden drawers and shelves full of everything any cook would ever need.
Breakfast at Stations restaurant, which is designed to capture the legacy of the old liquor factory.

Even in a place where the city’s skyscrapers are located—there are office and residential towers in nearby Levent, the Trump Tower is a walk down the hill, and many more under construction—Quasar’s architecture stands out. The building is silhouetted against the distant yachts and ships crossing Marmara Sea, the view never letting you forget that you’re in one of the world’s greatest, storied cities.

For a property that doesn’t have wide gardens, the architectural firm Wilson Associates managed to create breathing spaces that extend into courtyards like in Alia, a restaurant that combines distinct spaces—the Spice Library, the Raki Bar and two dining rooms, one for mezzes and the other for traditional live grill.

It’s where we celebrate Ramadan Feast. While the holiday is also observed in the Philippines, it’s my first time to experience it with people who practice Islam and are fasting till the sun goes down, today for the last time this year. It’s a very hot summer, which means daylight is long, and so is the fasting.

But even when there are those who do not observe fasting, even when the restaurant’s servers have filled our table with mezzes, not a single fork is lifted, no fast is broken prematurely, until the clock strikes 8:40 p.m.

Apart from its outdoor pool, there’s the indoor pool (open all year round) with jacuzzis.
It was only my my friend Esin asked, “What does this remind you of?” that I realized this corridor at the Willow Stream Spa looks like a whirling dervish’s dress.

It’s not just Wanders’ whimsical design elements or the hotel’s attention to detail (the boiled eggs at breakfast in Stations restaurant are wearing knitted caps to keep them warm, which made me laugh like silly) that makes the place special, it’s also the service that makes you feel like you’re an old friend.

At the Gold Lounge, we have a long chat with Recep Kileoglu, the funny and lively manager who shows us how to make coffee from the tap (seriously, it’s like a craft beer tap).

There is an easy familiarity and warmth—like the skyline and the rooftops on the horizon that we watch from the terrace, as if I’ve known them forever.

The living room of the presidential suite.
The bedroom of the presidential suite with the bed directly facing the views.
The presidential suite’s dining room.


Waking up to the Ottoman Empire at Çiragan Palace Kempinski
Dating back to the Ottoman Empire, Ciragan Palace Kempinski blends heritage, history, luxury and Turkish hospitality. Photos courtesy of Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy. The Bosphorus Strait, he said, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that you can be walking in Istanbul’s historic streets and imagine yourself in the rich past of the Ottoman Empire and in the next block be jolted back to the reality of its modernity with hip coffee shops on both sides of the strait, gleaming shopping malls, and office towers.

Istanbul—a city where I’ve made friends and visited about 15 times in the past three years (sometimes just for the weekend when I’m coming from another city in Europe, sometimes for my annual vacation and then I head to Turkey’s coastline)—is a place I’ve come to regard like a second home. A friend calls me yenge (sister-in-law) as if I were married to the city, while another tells me that I should be granted honorary citizenship.
Two beloved landmarks in this image — the historic gate of Ciragan Palace against the Bosphorus Bridge.

As with any first-time tourist to Istanbul, you go to where all the guidebooks tell you: the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Eminonu and the Bosphorus Strait.

I did all that, but it was only when I set out on a tour of the Bosphorus that I fell in love with Istanbul. This strait that divides the city between Europe and Asia lends it romance the way the River Seine does to Paris, but in an entirely different way.

“To be able to see the Bosphorus, even from afar—for İstanbuller, this is a matter of spiritual import that may explain why windows looking out onto the sea are like the mihrabs in mosques, the altars in Christian churches, and the tevans in synagogues, and why all the chairs, sofas, and dining tables in our Bosphorus-facing sitting rooms are arranged to face the view,” Pamuk wrote.
The elegant structure of Ciragan Palace Kempinski on the Bosphorus — always a highlight on boat tours on the waters of Istanbul.

On that first Bosphorus tour, the guide pointed out the palaces of the sultans, the magnificent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe, which served as centers of the Ottoman Empire and are museums today. You can look at the bedrooms of the sultans and their collections but you cannot touch them or stay long because there is always a long queue behind you.

Then something caught my eye near the first Bosphorus Bridge. It was Çiragan Palace sitting on the shores, looking so magnificent—as if every marble column and gate rose out of the bottom of the waters of the Bosphorus fully constructed.

The palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz and designed by the era’s famous Armenian palace architect Nigogayos Balyan and constructed by his sons between 1863 and 1867. Before that, it was known as Kazancioglu Gardens at the beginning of the 17th century and a hundred years later, in 1719, Damat İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir built a summer mansion for his wife, the daughter of a sultan.
Even in winter, guests take a dip in the heated outdoor pool of Ciragan, the only swimming pool in the city that remains open in the cold months.

The guide said, “The palace is now Çiragan Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Istanbul. Its Sultan Suite costs about 33,000 euros a night.”

I thought, surely, that amount cannot be right—but it is.

The guide continued, “But superior rooms are affordable starting at 300 euros.”

And that was how, on my third time to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul, I found myself in this Ottoman Empire palace hotel—and I definitely did not book the Sultan’s Suite.

The Kempinski brand assures luxury and white-glove service— whether it’s a modern hotel such as Siam in Bangkok or a certain architecture, like the Selcuk-style The Dome in Belek—but more than that, I loved the idea of waking up, literally, to history. In Çiragan Palace Kempinski’s case, a faithfully reconstructed history.
The elegant atrium in the palace side of the hotel. Ciragan Palace Kempinski is the choice for Turkey’s most expensive and high-profile weddings.

Çiragan Palace was built during a period wherein all Ottoman sultans constructed their own palaces rather than using those before them. It is the last example of this period of extravagance. The inner walls and the roof were made of wood, the outer walls of colorful marble and a very high garden wall protected the palace from the outer world.

Sultan Abdülâziz did not live long in his palace. He was dethroned and succeeded by his nephew, whose reign lasted 93 days and lived here under house arrest until his death in August 1904.

Then the palace was used by the parliament until a great fire destroyed it in 1910 leaving only the outer walls intact and it lay abandoned for decades. Its third incarnation was as a football stadium.
The grandeur of the Ottoman Empire lives on at Ciragan Palace Kempinski.

And finally, in 1992, the Kempinski Group restored Çiragan Palace. Stones found still lying in the palace gardens through the years served as models for the master stonemasons to recreate the intricate latticework and marble colonnades by hand.

A mid-rise modern building was added (that’s where the affordable rooms come in!) and today it has 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel, and 11 suites in the historical palace.

I am told this amazing history by two lovely and sweet women, Ciaran Palace Kempinski’s director of public relations Neslihan Şen and her assistant Cansu Baş.

“It feels very special to be working here,” Neslihan says. “Apart from the Kempinski brand, you’re looking after a Turkish heritage that means a lot to everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility because it really is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel on the Bosphorus. And it’s a lot of fun because celebrities hold their weddings and celebrations at the historical palace.”
There’s nothing better than an outdoor meal during the warm months in Istanbul.
Bosphorus Grill as the sun goes down.

We are having tea at Laledan restaurant, which is famous in Istanbul for its Sunday brunch, overlooking the infinity pool and the Bosphorus. The hotel’s pool is famous as well—it’s the only outdoor heated pool in Istanbul and they tell me that in winter some guests come here, quickly disrobe and jump into the warm pool—while it’s snowing.

Cansu takes me on a tour of the historical palace, which is connected to the hotel via a walkway filled with pictures detailing its history.

I’ve seen and written about presidential suites before, but nothing quite like the Sultan’s Suite. The centerpiece here is the lobby with its grand chandelier and staircase, a favorite place of brides and for pictorials apart from the terrace facing the Bosphorus.
Ever wondered how the sultans lived? The hotel’s 400-sqm. Sultan Suite—at 35,000 euros a night—gives you insights into that with the plush and elegant furnishings.
The master bedroom’s bathroom has a hamam (Turkish bath) with a private steam room and rain shower, and gold-plated and crystal bathtub fixtures.

And then there’s the two-bedroom Sultan’s Suite. At 400 square meters, it’s one of the largest suites in Europe and certainly one of the most expensive. The furniture and accessories in the room date back to the 19th century; they sit side by side with state-of-the-art technology.

The master bedroom has a marble hamam and a Turkish bath with a private steam room, rainshower and bathtub with gold-plated and crystal fixtures. The guest bedroom also has its own bathroom with a specially designed bathtub and a large window overlooking the historical peninsula.

Chandeliers, columns, replicas of paintings from the famous palace painter Fausto Zonaro, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Bosphorus and classical Ottoman architecture all recreate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.

If that wasn’t enough, Çiragan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel on the Bosphorus reachable by car, yacht or helicopter and guests of the suite enjoy complimentary transfer to and from the airport—by land, sea or air.
The historical hamam in the palace side of the hotel.
The private hamam or Turkish bath.

Royalty, heads of state and celebrities have all stayed in the sultan suite, which has received numerous awards including the World’s Most Luxurious Hotel Suite and the Most Opulent Hotel Room.

Walking back to the hotel side, Cansu tells me, “My dear Tanya, you are very special because you are the last guest for the year that I have taken on a tour at the palace.” (What did I tell you about Turkish women? They’re so lovely!)

Back in my room, I do what Pamuk wrote about the chairs facing the water. It is a new year and the past 12 months have been difficult for this country with terror attacks, but I have never seen its people bow even when the city bends momentarily.

I am sitting on the balcony and looking at the Bosphorus Bridge outlined in red lights that perforate the dark sky. I have looked at Istanbul in a million ways, in all the seasons, under all circumstances, and I have loved it in each.
We spent New Year’s Eve at Le Fumoir, warming ourselves by the fire and with wonderful cocktails.
I will never tire of these waters, this view, this bridge.

The subversive art & life of David Cerny
In 2013, just days before the Czech Republic’s general elections, Prague woke up to David Cerny’s “Fuck Him,” a 30-foot purple hand floating on the Vtlava River, giving the finger to where Czech President Milos Zeman lives, the Prague Castle. Photos courtesy of David Cerny

(This story was first published by Esquire in 2015.)

I saw my first David Cerny sculpture on a spring day, a cold Labor Day on the first of May in Prague. I had rented an apartment in Staré Mesto, and every time I’d walk to the Old Town Square, I’d pass by this stainless steel sculpture of a giant woman kneeling on the ground with her legs spread…and people were climbing into her vagina.

Called “In Utero” and installed on Dlouhá St. in 2013, it is one of many  installations around Prague by the controversial artist David Cerny. It is also one of his many artworks in which the viewer completes the experience by inserting himself into the piece’s orifice.

Like his “Brown-noser” which, as the name suggests, is a pair of assholes—five-meter-tall sculptures of a person’s ass and legs bending toward a wall. A ladder leads directly into the anus where you stick your head in to  watch a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the music of Queen’s We Are the Champions.
The Czech Republic’s controversial enfant terrible David Cerny. “To be honest I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and just pleasant…but I am unable to see things the way other people do,” he says.

During my stay in Prague, I met a French expat and I asked him about the sculptures. “You don’t know who David Cerny is?” Gautier asked. I said no.

“But you must have heard of his work. He painted the Soviet Tank pink when he was an art student.”

He’s that guy?

In the early years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism neither went quickly nor quietly into the night for many countries in the Eastern Bloc. It was a long process of stripping away the hold of the Soviet Union, often by reluctant governments and an impatient citizenry.

When, in the dead of the night in April 1991, the young Cerny climbed onto the Soviet tank and painted it pink, the most feminine of colors to insult the Kremlin, he was just starting to discover his own sense of irony as an artist.

“The Pink Tank” (or “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”) got Cerny briefly arrested for civil disobedience. After the Czech government painted it back green, Prague’s citizens painted it pink again, and a tug-of-war ensued.
“Brown-nosers” at Galeria Futura in Smichov is a pair figures leaning towards a wall. The viewer climbs up the anus to watch a movie of politicians feeding each other slop.

It was Cerny’s first subversive art, and by God, it wouldn’t be his last! Today, Prague is culturally richer for it.

In later works, he would embarrass the Czech government, anger the Council of the European Union, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi among other European leaders, make fun of both Saddam Hussein and Damien Hirst in one piece, pull off one of the best hoaxes in the art world by inventing 26 artists for a group installation—and pretty much endear himself to all modern art lovers.

By the time I finished looking at his sculptures online in Gautier’s kitchen, I said, “I would love to meet and interview him!”

“I know him,” he said casually. Gautier is into Prague’s underground culture and clubs; he once took me to a bar that was guarded by Great Danes the size of ponies and, on another trip, he took me to a march to legalize marijuana in the Czech Republic.

But I was leaving Prague in a few days for Austria and Greece. I was on a two-week vacation that started in the UK and would have ended in Amsterdam except I kept cancelling my flights and rerouting my itinerary.

When I returned to Prague in the summer for a road trip to Poland with him, he had arranged for me to meet David Cerny.
This Cerny sculpture is not in Prague but in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Metamorphosis” is a motorized Kafka head that’s segmented in 40 layers that independently rotate 360 degrees.

* * *

The city of Prague has a very efficient public transport system. Like most European capitals, it has a network of subways, trams and buses, a cheap way to get around the city that relies on passengers’ honesty to buy a ticket, and when you’re caught without one  by random checks you’re slapped with a steep fine.

Most tourists get to know all the train lines leading to the historical center in Prague 1—a concentration of beautiful centuries-old buildings, museums, the Jewish Quarter, churches, monuments, Franz Kafka—and Charles Bridge, one that tourists love but locals loathe to cross because of…well, tourists.

David Cerny purposely located his studio away from all this. He wanted to be away “from cops who knock at your door after 10 p.m. and tell you to shut up.” Most importantly, his studio’s location is not only hard find if you’re not into the underground club subculture, but hard to get to as well for tourists.

Walking the distance from the tram stop to his studio called Meet Factory on a sweltering summer day, the weather makes me feel like I had never left Manila.

Meet Factory is a 5,000-square-meter warehouse beside railway tracks, a hybrid space that has a club, several studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, gallery and a music hall.
“Shark” is Cerny’s parody of Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” in which Hirst put a shark in a glass tank containing 4,360 gallons of formaldehyde. Cerny put Saddam Hussein in the tank instead.

The provocateur is dressed in his usual black sleeveless shirt and black pants when he comes to meet us.

He’s had this warehouse for seven years, he says. It’s perfect for him. They can hold parties or concerts here “without any idiot neighbors complaining about the noise” because there are no neighbors.

It is a place for subversives, rebels and artists. Here, Cerny courts his muses—deadline, music and film. Here, he hid the artists that he invented in his head for what he considers his most challenging project.

In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a rotating position among the EU countries and traditionally marked by an art installation. The year before, France erected a balloon in the French colors for its presidency.

Now, it was time for the Czech Republic to continue this tradition and Cerny was commissioned to head the project.

“Entropa” may be the art world’s funniest and most offensive hoax. Cerny headed the project to mark the EU Council presidency of the Czech Republic. He invented 26 other artists for a “collaborative” work, depicting countries by their stereotype. Bulgaria is a series of toilets, Italy is a football pitch with players masturbating, etc. For a time it was covered with black cloth.

Called “Entropa,” the project entailed a collaborative work by 27 artists from EU countries including himself. Except Cerny invented the 26 other artists, and with his assistants he wrote biographical notes that they released to media before the unveiling. In short, he created all 27 sculptures by himself to represent EU countries in one massive installation.

Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? No. But we’re talking about David Cerny here, whose every piece is infused with satire, humor and irony, and always a strong political statement.

The exhibit was formally launched on Jan. 21, 2009, a Wednesday, but it opened to the public the following Monday. To the shock of viewers at the unveiling, what they saw were unflattering stereotypes of each of their country. Italy is depicted as a football pitch with players masturbating; Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage; Sweden as an Ikea furniture box; France is draped with a banner marked “Gréve” (strike); the UK, which has been criticized for distancing itself from the EU, is represented as a missing piece on the map; and the Czech Republic is a LED display flashing controversial quotes by then President Vaclav Klaus.

“It was fun doing it but there was pressure every single day. It was one year of hell,” says Cerny. “There was no money in it and the moment of unveiling was really tough.”
As an art student, Cerny painted the Soviet Tank monument pink on April 28, 1991, the army repainted it green on May 1, and people painted it back pink.

Between Wednesday and Monday, angry EU leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi demanded an apology, and EU leaders were hunting down the 26 other artists.

“The Bulgarians were freaking out because their country is depicted as a toilet. When it was formally launched, that’s when we told people that the artists did not exist.”

Cerny likes to spring surprises like this in his own dramatic fashion.

In 2013, four days before the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, Prague woke up to a 10-meter purple hand floating on the Vltava River near Charles Bridge with the middle finger pointed at Prague Castle, home to President Milos Zeman.

Having been anti-communism all his life, it was Cerny’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president for supporting the Social Democratic party. You can imagine the flurry of phone calls to take down the sculpture.

“When I exhibited ‘Fuck Him,’ the President asked the city of Prague to remove it but he was told they could not do anything because the barge was privately owned. All the sculptures you see around Prague are mine except for the Peeing Guys in front of the Kafka Museum, which were installed before the museum. The sculptures are not owned by the city. I choose the spaces and most are installed on private properties.”
“In Utero,” located on Dlouhá St. in Prague’s Stare Mesto, is a six-meter stainless-steel sculpture of a kneeling woman. Viewers can climb up inside the statue through her vagina. Photo by Tanya Lara

Cerny’s artworks are either beautiful, bizarre, offensive or all—but whatever the viewer thinks of them, they can never be ignored. They have put Prague, a city that he both loves and hates, on the map of modern art. “It would be nice if my art really did that, but no one cares.”

Not many people these days probably tell Cerny he’s wrong. But he’s wrong to think that no one cares. Every single person who has been to Prague with a little bit of interest in art and contemporary Czech culture cares—they walk away from his work with a smile or an understanding or, better yet, very disturbed.

* * *

Born in Prague to a mother who was an art restorer and a father who was a painter, Cerny failed art school twice before being accepted on his third try as an industrial design student, a course he abandoned after a year to concentrate on art.

His childhood was “nothing exceptional,” and in fact he was very bad at drawing. “I had the lowest grade in drawing in elementary school. If the grading was one to five, and five meant you couldn’t continue, I got a four. ”
“London Booster” was made for the London Olympics in 2012. It’s a double-decker bus doing push-up with humanoid arms and installed outside the Czech House.

He had a lot of problems at school, he says. One of them was for criticizing Lenin when he was six years old and for which his mother was called in. But by his own account, he says it was an ordinary childhood of discovery (he lost his virginity at 15 to his girlfriend, who is now his dentist) and insists he didn’t have groupies even after he became famous.

Various accounts of his painting the Soviet Tank pink when he was 24 put his motivations as wanting to impress a Slovakian girl and a deep resentment towards communism and the Soviet tanks that rolled into the capital to quash the Prague Spring in 1968.

“It was both, of course,” he says now. And in the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, it was one big party. “I don’t think I’ve always been politicized. It’s just the nature of things, of me saying things from time to time that might be unpleasant for somebody else.”
St. Wenceslas sits on an upside-down dead horse in Cerny’s “Dead Horse.” One interpretation of this sculpture is the changing values of Czech society and how people can no longer depend on their heroes and legends of past.

Like Franz Kafka, Cerny is influenced by a city that he can’t leave and yet thinks of as a place that’s been left behind.

“I have that sense of irony that is part of the city. Prague is very provincial, it’s Old Europe. If you look at the trajectory of Berlin, you’d think too that Prague has unfortunately been left behind. It’s unrecognized and nobody cares about this city at all except for tourists. But we have to live with it. To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant, but sometimes I do things that are political commentary. You cannot avoid that. I am unable to see things the way other people do. If I had a choice, I would do beautiful stuff rather than react to things. But, what can I say, I’m a figurative sculptor.”

* * *

When he was on a yacht the year before, Cerny and his friends decided to rip the doors apart and use them for water skiing. He took a bottle of champagne in one hand and clung to the cables attached to the boat with the other.

A steady figure gliding on unsteady water. I watched this video many times before I met him and wondered how he didn’t get flung in the water or get into an accident.  “Oh, it was just for fun and we were so fucking drunk,” he says.

What else does he do for fun? “You mean besides sex? Yachting, flying, diving, sometimes skiing and snow boarding, listening to music, reading, watching movies.”

But it’s sailing and flying that are his two his biggest passions outside of art. He got his ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) in four months of intensive studying (which normally takes two years in a technical school) and for which he refrained from drinking his favorite Czech beer Matuska.
“To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant…But I am unable to see things the way other people do.”

What was the appeal of flying for him? “Maybe it could be a new job,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I will get tired of art. Flying is a pleasure for me.”

But there is a more serious side to his flying. He is in a relationship with a doctor and he thinks he can be very useful as a medical pilot, to fly doctors where they are needed. “There are organizations that have flying doctors and they have a Cesna which they fly as an ambulance, so that’s one idea.”

In the summer of 2014, the one thing that Cerny loves and the thing he hates the most collided. Malaysian Airline’s Flight17 was shot down over Ukraine by the Russians, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

He saw the news at 2 in the morning when he turned on his laptop and he seethed with fury. “That Russian asshole Putin should be executed,” he tells me.

It’s a tragic incident that no artwork could alter.

But you can bet David Cerny’s not going to shut up about Putin or the world we live in. After all, this is the artist that painted the Soviet tank pink and flipped his own government purple.

And really,  no one—not even the Czech government or any president—can do anything about it.
“Piss,” located in front of the Kafka Museum in Prague, came before the museum and is not connected with Kafka. Cerny did a piece for inside the museum though — a small model of a torture machine that’s featured in Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” The kinetic men “write” sentences with their piss on a basin in the shape of the Czech Republic’s map. Photo by TANYA LARA

Chasing Shakespeare—from Stratford to Verona

Verona is a city that Shakespeare set three plays in. And it hosts a very famous (fictional) house — Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s House (and balcony). Photo by Tanya Lara

There is a scene I love in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As the emperor is being stabbed by the senators, he recognizes his friend as one of the assassins and says, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?” from Latin).

“Stabbed in the back” is such a common euphemism for betrayal, but no matter how apt this Shakespeare scene is in today’s world, it’s probably not the most famous in popular culture. That scene comes from Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers that has spun a million parodies and analogies.

Because between betrayal and tragic love, people seem to prefer the latter, notwithstanding the double suicide that could have been avoided had there just been proper communication about the poison from the apothecary 450 years ago.

The house and famous balcony of Juliet Capulet in Verona.  Photo by Tanya Lara

In the autumn of 2007, I took the train from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK to see Shakespeare’s houses — where he was born and where he retired and died. Nine years later, in 2016, I would take the train from Venice to Verona in Italy to see the fictional house and balcony of fictional Juliet.

Scholars are divided about whether Shakespeare actually visited Verona in his lifetime, but he set three plays here — The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first of Shakespeare’s comedies where the heroine dresses as a boy. Rendering gender ambiguous and the resulting complications are themes that would repeat themselves in the Bard’s plays, most notably in Twelfth Night (one of my favorites).

The second Verona play is The Taming of the Shrew, where the headstrong Katherina is “tamed” by her suitor Petruchio until she becomes an obedient bride. (Anyone else remember that Moonlighting episode?)

Juliet’s bed. Not too far from the house is another tourist attraction — Juliet’s Tomb. Also on display are clothing from the Elizabethan period.  Photos by Tanya Lara

The third, of course, is Romeo and Juliet. Of the three plays, Shakespeare wrote this last (1597) with the first two written between 1589 and 1592. Romeo and Juliet is largely believed to be based on the English poet Arthur Brook’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which in turn was translated from an earlier Italian novella by Matteo Bandello, said to be from a French source. The list goes on and on because two lovers from feuding families is a tale as old as time.

But it is Shakespeare’s young, tragic lovers that endure, that have appeared before us on stage, in film, ballet and opera — and in our imaginations.

In Act 2, Juliet comes to the balcony and, no, she is not looking for him, rather she is questioning Romeo being Romeo — a Montague, the sworn enemy of her Capulet family.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Tanya Lara and Juliet’s statue in the courtyard. It’s a tradition to rub Juliet’s right breast if you want to get married. I stayed away from it as far as I could while posing.

So here I am staring at that balcony in Verona, an hour and half by Trenitalia from Venice. Called Casa di Giulietta, the compound dates back to the 8th century and originally belonged to the Capello family in the 13th century. Was it this surname that inspired Shakespeare’s Capulets? Or gave rise to the City of Verona that here, Juliet Capulet could have lived, that she could have stood on this balcony and delivered her soliloquy?

In the courtyard, surrounded by the open-brick exterior of the four-level house, there is a statue of Juliet (there are actually two, one is inside). For some reason, it’s a tradition for women to rub her right breast if they want to get married; men do it, too, but with a smirk befitting Petruchio rather than a lonely bachelor.

I didn’t know you could actually go up to the balcony till my friend Luca messaged me, “Vai su” (go up), and so I did. For 6 euros, you can enter Juliet’s house through the souvenir shop.

Visitors leave notes and letters to Juliet on the wall leading to the house.
The Capulets’ house gets with the program: you can write your letters on a computer (right) or scribble them on paper and drop them in this mailbox (left) on the second floor.

In contrast to the Elizabethan period and artifacts in glass cases around the house, the second floor has several computers where you could write a letter to Juliet. I wrote a short note and pressed “send,” and it’s now floating in some computer server somewhere in Italy.

If you saw the 2010 Amanda Seyfried-movie Letters to Juliet, you know that women really do write to Juliet and the letters are answered by the “Secretaries of Juliet,” composed of the women of Verona.

In reality, the letters are left on the wall leading to the courtyard.

On the third floor is the balcony, from which the architectural term “Juliet’s balcony” comes from to describe a small one just enough to fit one or two people.

The courtyard of Casa di Giulietta. For 6 euros, you can go inside the house and the balcony.
The 2,000-year-old Verona Arena is still used today for opera performances; outside is the Christmas Star sculpture. Photo by Tanya Lara

I’ve come to Verona to see this house, to imagine Shakespeare’s characters, but for some reason I am cranky when I actually peer down from the balcony and see couples posing. I want to yell at the people below, “You fools. Love is not real but tragedy is!!” But why ruin it? So I keep my mouth shut.

I leave the house and walk through the wonderful streets of Verona to find a good restaurant. The open market not far from the house is flanked by ristorantes and tratorrias.

Like everywhere else in Italy, pasta (or a cute Italian guy) always gets you in a better mood.

* * *

William Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon was the biggest house on Henley St. during The Bard’s lifetime. Photo from

I love trains and what I love more than trains is complaining about them.

My beef with the London Tube is that it is cold. And I have to take several lines and a regional train to get to Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, nestled on the River Avon.

It’s autumn in 2007 and I’m staying in a hotel just off Gloucester Road. I have to take the Circle Line at Gloucester station, then get off at Edgeware Road station and transfer to Marylebone station and on the Chiltern Railways, then on to Leamington Spa Railways station, take a bus which stops at a McDonald’s, and I’m on my own to find Shakespeare’s houses.

I’m alone in London and I write my friends at the Philippine Consulate that this is where I am going and the next day I’m flying to Italy — just in case I go missing.

Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s final resting place in Stratford. Poto from

I had been traveling to Europe for several years by this time, but I look back at this as the year of being young and carefree and really beginning to wander, of being footloose in the world.

I don’t know this yet, but this the beginning of finding my way by getting lost — of literally stepping onto the wrong platform and the wrong train, of being curious about other countries and going there to satisfy that curiosity, of almost crying at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate because there is a Starbucks on the eastern side where they used to shoot and kill people for trying to cross to West Berlin, going to Florence’s Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s David sculpture for the first time, hearing the church bells ringing at Giotto’s Cathedral in Florence, getting pickpocketed in front of Harrod’s in London and being mugged in Milan.

Anyway, back to Stratford-Upon-Avon… I find the place to buy the two-house ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the New House where he retired and died. Well, I don’t actually buy the ticket; I show my press ID and they give it to me for free.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a Tudor affair, the largest house on Henley St. He was born and grew up here, the third of eight children. He also spent the first years of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in this house. According to the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, “it was because of his father’s status as Mayor that William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education.”

Tanya Lara in Shakespeare’s Knotted Garden, 2007

The house was later owned by Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and later his granddaughter Elizabeth. When it became for sale in the 1847, the Shakespeare’ Birthplace Trust purchased it.

Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, whose family cottage at the edge of Stratford is also a museum, moved to New Place in 1597 (where he presumably wrote and finished Romeo and Juliet) and raised their family there. According to the Trust, “When Shakespeare bought New Place he was an established playwright and it is believed that he wrote his later plays there, including The Tempest.”

I don’t remember in which house I am told that it isn’t allowed to take pictures or touch the furniture (of course I do!). I run my hands on his bedposts, on his mantelpiece and desk, stomp my boot heels on the wooden floors and generally touch surfaces and take pictures of everything I could.

Shakespeare’s bedroom in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Photo by Tanya Lara

This was the Bard’s bedroom, this was his desk! Did he write Twelfth Night with a quill? Were his fingers darkened black by the ink? What the hell am I doing here alone?

You have to understand…I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare my entire life. In my grandfather’s house north of Manila, there was a book titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was printed in 1936.

It’s a hardbound book on thin paper (the kind you see in Bibles) that an uncle — I don’t know which one — stole from a library, and which I stole from my grandfather’s house. I’ve never read it completely, but it’s been with me since I left home as a teenager, through three apartments and two houses.

When I was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines, I fell in love with a classmate (a reject from engineering who thought journalism was easy), who knew Shakespeare like no one I’d met before. He studied at the Jesuit school Ateneo de Manila and took up two Shakespeare plays a year in high school. Two plays a year! This was no Cliff’s Notes, this was no Wikipedia summary; this was early memory embedded in his brain.

Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where she grew up with her family. Photo from

Whenever I forgot a character, it was he that I called. What was Othello’s crazy sister’s name? (Ophelia) Where did he say all lawyers should be killed? (Henry VI) What was the heroine’s name in Twelfth Night? (Viola)

So here I am in Stratford like a giddy fangirl about to meet her idol…except Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years.

I’ve been given grief for putting the movie Shakespeare in Love on my top five list. To me, this was like seeing Shakespeare as he was struggling and writing in the Elizabethan period, of being poor and drunk and in love. There is Gwyneth as a thinly veiled Viola, my favorite heroine, from Twelfth Night. There is a shipwreck that he will write as they say goodbye, a case of mistaken identity, there is confusion and complication, there is falling in love with a person who pretends to be someone else. What’s not to love about this story?

The Shakespeare Memorial by Lord Ronald Gower, 1888, in Bancroft Gardens. At each corner of the square is a statue of a Shakespearean character to represent his writing versatility — Hamlet (philosophy), Prince Hal (tragedy), Lady Macbeth (history) and Falstaff (comedy). Photo from

I sometimes look at the book from my grandfather’s house and turn it my hands the way people do for one last time at things they are about to toss them in a brick oven. I don’t do it, of course.

It will always remain with me. It’s not always the same with people you love, which is the real tragedy. I go like Ophelia sometimes, other times like Juliet, but most of the time like Viola struggling at sea. I try to forget that Julius Caesar’s Brutus will stab you in the back, and he would have done it in the heart if you just turned to look at him. And you did, didn’t you? Even when you were bloody and on the floor, you did turn.

This Shakespeare volume, written 500 years ago and printed 81 years ago, I will take it out of the bookshelf and read all of its verses someday. Because we go from Stratford to Verona in a span of several innocent years and we think that in another life — maybe not this one, but in that tightly constructed stage of a Shakespearean play — love really will endure.

Stratford on the River Avon, about three hours from Central London. Photo from

Raffles Istanbul: Asian hospitality & European timelessness

From the balcony of Raffles Istanbul Hotel, the Bosphorus Bridge sparkles at night — both from its dramatic lighting and the trail of headlights during rush-hour traffic. Photos by Raffles Istanbul
A mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier, who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire, adorns the grand lobby of Raffles Istanbul.

A funny thing happens over dinner the first time I am at Raffles Istanbul in Beşiktaş in October last year. I am craving mushroom pasta which I had seen in the in-room dining menu the night before, but the problem is that we are at the hotel’s Rocca restaurant which specializes in Turkish cuisine.

In this beautiful, contemporary one-year-old space where hundreds of wineglasses were used to create a translucent dividing wall, the menu is exclusively Turkish food — there is no mushroom pasta.
A huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name.

My (now ex-) boyfriend is chatting with the hotel’s assistant executive chef standing to the side of our table while I am making my order with a waiter standing next to the chef.

The waiter says, “I will have to ask the kitchen if they can make pasta for you, we don’t have it on our menu.”

“Well, the chef is right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I reply.

The chef turns to the waiter and says, “Go tell the kitchen to make it for her.”

This is chef Mehmet Ali, a man so charming and kind that when he offered to make me poached eggs with yogurt for breakfast on our first morning,  I couldn’t say no even if I was thinking “What? Eggs and yogurt?”
The indoor pool for post-summer guests features a jacuzzi on one side and glass pendants from the ceiling.

But how could this tapsilog-loving, sunny-side-up girl say no to this nice man?  He would come to our table every morning and ask if he could make us anything off the menu,  would chat with the bf in Turkish while I finished my eggs and yogurt.

Unlike the original colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which started as a private beach house in 1887, everything about Raffles Istanbul is very new (it opened only in 2014). It’s located at Zorlu Center, a new complex of office and residential towers, a performance art theater, and a luxury mall.

And yet the hotel is already gaining praise for bringing the tradition of Asian hospitality and impeccable service into this old city. Public relations manager Esin Sungur says with a laugh that the Raffles philosophy is that “even before we know the question, the answer is yes.”
Every Raffles Hotel in the world has a Long Bar, which serves the signature Singapore Sling.
Arola by the Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola offers creative tapas-style plates.

And, yes, Raffles Istanbul is very expensive but you do get what you pay for because luxury is indeed in the details — not just of the space or the well-appointed rooms but also in  how personalized the service is.

You don’t even have to ask. The hotel goes the extra mile with its team of butlers that are assigned to every room. One of them is Hulya Zengin, who says there have been guests she’s assisted for special occasions such as marriage proposals, anniversaries and birthdays.

For one guest,  Hulya and her team arranged a romantic dinner with music, flowers and candles on the balcony for the guy’s proposal.  Hulya herself is newly married and maybe it’s the romantic in her that makes her want guests to have their special time, too.

Raffles’ team of butlers go the extra mile to make every stay special. Our butler Hulya  Zengin decorated the room the first time with red balloons, flowers and candles. Photo by Tanya Lara
The second time we booked at Raffles, the reservations team remembered to assign Hulya again (middle photo). This time it was pink balloons, which we later released from the balcony. Photo by Tanya Lara

For us, because I had mentioned in an email that we were in a long-distance relationship, Hulya decorated our room with  balloons, flowers, handwritten quotes,  and candles on the two times we stayed last year.

I was wondering why they had asked me to email them pictures, and it turned out to be a surprise. When we got there, there were framed pictures of us in the spring and summer of last year all around the room, and red balloons, sparkling confetti and rose petals scattered on the floor and bed (the confetti was a challenge to clear up).

The second time we were there, he and I were talking about whether it was easier for me to move to Istanbul or for him to expand his family’s business in Manila. He said I would never find a job as a journalist in his city; I said that wasn’t my question.

He had sent me to Bebek while he was at work the next day, that beautiful waterside and quiet part of the city. He was messaging me while I was at Starbucks overlooking the Bosphorus, that he was excited to live in Manila. I said, wait, hold your horses — you have to see the country first (he would do so four months later, in March this year).
Some bathrooms have a dramatic view of the Bosphorous or cityscape.
Every time we stayed at Raffles, we would watch Istanbul turn dark and then a new day start with an orange glow. Photo by Sami Bas

The balloons were pink on our second stay. He met Hulya for the first time while she and I seemed like old friends by then.

The room’s decor made us forget the argument we had on the metro, when he dragged my  heavy suitcase to and from the long walk at the Gayrettepe stop to get to Zorlu Center.

“Why is this so heavy?” He glared at me, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. “When we reach the hotel, you will open your suitcase and I will throw away every unnecessary thing that you packed.” I had come from a five-day tour across Anatolya and did not actually buy anything, except for an overpriced leather coat for $800 in Izmir over which he was livid, but I had three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, two coats and several jackets in there. I laughed and said, “You will do no such thing.”

Surrounded by pink balloons, I opened my suitcase and handed him the chocolate-covered polvoron and dried mangoes that he so loved…and he forgot about his annoyance that I had over-packed yet again and his plan of throwing out my stuff.

On the TV’s audio selection, we found violinist André Rieu’s version of The Rose and we must have played it a hundred times in the time we spent there.

It was playing  when he brought the pink balloons out on the balcony in the cold November air later that night. “Make a wish and then let them go,” he told me taking a video on his phone.

And so I did. I let go of the strings and we watched the balloons float, carried by the autumn wind into Istanbul’s dark skies until we couldn’t see them anymore.
Rocca restaurant, where the most delicious breakfast buffet spread is served.
Turkish breakfast is one of the healthiest breakfasts I’ve ever seen with fresh and varied choices of cheeses, fruits and vegetables.

* * *

Designed by Sandra Cortner of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading firm in hospitality design with works from Atlanta to Moscow, Shanghai to LA, Raffles Istanbul at Zorlu Center was a unique project.

Istanbul itself was HBA’s main inspiration for the design with the “interiors reflecting the jewels of the Byzantine era, only worn by the Emperor and Empress of the time. These jewel tones are referenced throughout — in the palette and selected artworks.”

Cortner says, “The first question was, what would a guest coming into this landmark building expect? It would not be historical, classic interiors, for sure. Neither would the space be aggressively contemporary. It was decided to make it transitional, timeless. We needed to connect it with the destination to give the sense of place.”

“Art is part of the fabric of every Raffles hotel — incorporated into the overall design, seamlessly, which is how we came to our concept, ‘The Dream of Istanbul.’ Not everything has to be literal; you may have abstract sides to it, dreams, fantasies. You wake up in a room with a bed backdrop inspired by the chandeliers of the Hagia Sophia but they are not photographs; they are soft and volatile, painted on canvas.”

Roca restaurant takes on a different ambience in the evening.
Rich fabrics and textures in the modern bedrooms.

You see the references to the city’s history as you pass through the vestibule and stand under the crystal chandelier in the grand lobby: a huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name and a mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire.

The 181-room hotel remains true to its DNA with the signature Long Bar (yes, it has the Singapore Sling as well and this drink celebrates its centenary this year) and Writers Bars. It also has the very popular Spanish restaurant Arola by Michelin-star chef Sergi Arola, a favorite of the well-heeled.

Another space that’s show-stopping is the hotel’s award-winning spa. Designers at Hirsch Bedner Associates made this 3,000-sqm. spa a true oasis with dazzling details.

We so loved the facilities here. Above the indoor pool and cascading from the ceiling are design elements in geometric shapes, giving it a translucent feel. The spa has three Turkish hamams, seven treatment rooms, a male and female relaxation areas with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and ice fountains; and a fitness center, yoga and and pilates studios.

If sultans still reigned in Turkey today, surely this would be the hotel they would converge, because Raffles blends European timelessness and Asian warmth— in a city that is timeless itself.

(This story first appeared in the Philippine Star in 2015 and has been updated.)
Classy, calm and completely convenient, Raffles is part of Zorlu Center with its mall, cinemas, performing arts theater, and is connected to the metro stop Gayrettepe. 

Cappadocia & other Turkish delights

Gliding over the otherworldly Göreme Valley in Cappadocia on a hot-air balloon. During summer as many as 100 hot-air balloons do the hour-long tour in the morning and afternoon. It’s an awesome experience! Photos by Tanya Lara.
A closer look at the ancient cave dwellings in Göreme Valley.

So, this is how it feels like to be living out Instagram hashtags — flying 600 meters above a strange landscape that’s as old as time. It is 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly coming up on the horizon in freezing temperatures.

Author Tanya Lara in Hierapolis with its mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

Around us are 25 or maybe even 35 hot-air balloons, some of them wildly colorful and others very commercial and boring. They are slowly rising with their baskets or gondolas carrying about 20 passengers who have seen, just minutes before in pitch-black darkness, how hot-air balloons work (they operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated).

The experience of being up there is, in one word, “Instagrammable.” In three words, “It’s f*cking Instagrammable,” which is how we seem to be living our traveling lives these days — filtered, color-manipulated and viewed with awed but skeptical eyes.

But the hour-long experience of being in a hot-air balloon gliding over Cappadocia is everything that is and yet more than the pictures you’ve seen before on someone else’s vacation. For starters, the landscape is surreal and seeing it at sunrise makes the experience even more so.

I’ve seen these colors many times before since I first went to Turkey last year and fell in love with the country hard and fast. But in Cappadocia, the sunrise is something else. It is a slow gathering of pigments that start out in the distance — some light, some orange, and then it gathers strength and hits you in the face as the day progresses ever so slightly.

You don’t need a filter for this, but you do need to put down your phone and selfie stick…and just enjoy the moment.

Two different seasons (autumn and winter), one beautiful sunrise and landscape. Left photo by Tanya Lara; right photo from Huffington Post IG
How do hot-air balloons work? They operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated.

Cappadocia is not actually a city, but a region that’s routinely described as looking like another planet whose geography has been evolving for the past 60 million years, a result of volcanic tuff, basalt and andestine rock.

And that’s exactly how the Göreme Valley of Cappadocia looks from the ground or from the air — otherworldly.

Our pilot Buket, the Turkish word for “bouquet of flowers,” is one of only seven female pilots across the valley. She says that in the summer, you can have about a hundred balloons in the air in the morning or afternoon. The balloons operated by different companies take turns at the highest and lowest positions. The weird thing is, even if you fear heights — you’ll still want to take this ride. I can never walk across the glass floors of observation decks or towers, but riding the balloon, I didn’t feel my knees shaking as I looked down at the valley seemingly plucked out of science fiction.

To celebrate the touchdown back on ground, Buket and her crew pop open bottles of champagne and give us token medals for surviving. Because as our tour guide Altan and the crew at the holding area told us before we went up, “Hope to see you again.”

Damn right we deserve champagne before breakfast!

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins in Aphrodisias.
The House of the Virgin Mary where, Christians believe, she died before her assumption into heaven.

* * *

The Göreme Open Air Museum in the valley has Christian churches that date back to the 11th century and most frescoes inside have been defaced. While some paintings still have bodies, the faces of Jesus Christ, his apostles and the saints have been erased because Islam forbids the use of images in its practice.

Except in one called Dark Church (it has only one window) and hence protected from the elements across the centuries and marauders. Here, many of the frescoes have been spared especially the ones on the ceiling; they look as if they were painted just a few decades ago and not a thousand years ago.

Called Karanlik Kilise (literally Dark Church in Turkish), it has a cross-ribbed vaulting central dome and a central dome and one or two small apses — and it is entirely carved into the rock as the other churches in the Göreme Valley.

The paintings look so beautiful even though they predate the Renaissance Period when European painters were doing their best works with vegetable dyes. The other remarkable thing is — how did they create such frescoes when it was so dark inside? How did they illustrate the Transfiguration of Christ, the Nativity, the Crucifixion or Judas’ Betrayal of Christ on the walls, niches and domes? With polished metal sheets or mirrors to reflect light outside and in through the narrow corridor to light up the space inside.

In the background is the 11th-century Dark Church at Goreme Open Air Museum.

You wouldn’t think you’d find something like this in a cave, but there it is.You wouldn’t think either that Turkey, whose population is 99-percent Muslim and only one-percent Christian today, was so pivotal in the Christian faith because after Christ died, some of his apostles went to this land to spread the gospel. And so did his mother.

The House of the Virgin Mary, located on Mt. Koressos, is near the ancient city of Ephesus and Selçuk in the province of Izmir. It’s said that this is where John the Beloved spirited her away and where she spent her last days before, as Christians believe, her assumption into heaven.

It is a small stone house, now a shrine, overlooking the Aegean Sea that John was supposed to have built for her. The location was determined from a book based on the visions of an Augustinian nun,  Anne Catherine  Emmerich. Her visions were published after her death at the beginning of the 19th century in a book and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Catholic popes and pilgrims have been coming to this house for three centuries, though the Vatican has not officially declared it to be the house of the Virgin Mary.

The Melvana Museum in Konya where the mystic Rumi is enshrined.

What I like best about this small compound is the wishing wall, where people write their wishes on paper and stick them into the net or fabric. There seems to be no space anymore to put your own wishes as it already holds thousands upon thousands of rolled and folded paper.

Melvana Museum in Konya has world’s smallest (above) and largest (partly shown) Qurans.

But you realize soon enough that amid millions of wishes that have gone through this wall, you always find a space for your own personal intentions.

* * *

Another ancient site in the region is Aphrodisias, the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but in Anatolia (which forms the greater part of Turkey), the goddess is the Mother Goddess of fertility known as Cybele.

The Temple of Aphrodite was a focal point of the town, but the character of the building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and benefited from a plentiful supply of marble and much of their work can be seen around the site today. Some of the highlights in Aphrodisias include the Stadium, the Baths of Hadrian and the Theater.

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins. Called Tetrapylon, meaning “four gates,” it served as a ceremonial gateway. During the height of Aphrodisias, these grounds saw epic parades and shows mounted for visitors and residents.

Tanya with Michelle and Malou in Aphrodisias

We look at the incredible background, at the soaring columns and the gorgeous carvings at the top  — and promptly hand Altan 26 cameras.

Before we even get to the strange scenery at Cappadocia, Hierapolis leaves us awed. Located in Pamukkale or Cotton Palace in Turkish, it is made of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

It is getting cold in the late afternoon but some visitors are wearing beach shorts (and one girl is wearing a bikini) because the natural basins are filled with hot-springs water. Hierapolis is another Unesco World Heritage Site and its ruins include Roman baths, temples and other monuments.

It seems that every place we make a stop leaves us either in awe of their uniqueness, or at home for their familiarity — a spiritual one, if you will —that connects with us on a deeper level.



Blissful in Bodrum

Golturbuku Bay from Hilton Bodrum, with its private beach and island, sits on the calm Aegean Sea.   Photos by Tanya Lara.
Sun worshippers at Ersan Resort & Spa.

Two seasons after being in Bodrum, I still find myself dreaming of the place. Of the blue Aegean Sea dotted with yachts, their sails looking so white against the sparkling waters, the breeze that cools down hot summer days, beach loungers spread out across the sand in every private resort or public beach, and the fantastic food.

Widely regarded as the French Riviera of Turkey, it’s an hour’s flight from Istanbul and located in Mugla Province. Often referred to as a party island, the port city of Bodrum sits on the southern coast of Bodrum Peninsula and faces the Greek island of Kos.

Sami Bas and Tanya Lara wait for sunset on Rabbit Island in 2015.

Before this trip with Sami, who’s based in Istanbul, Bodrum was in the news nonstop. A little Syrian boy wearing a red T-shirt had washed up ashore trying to cross to Greece with his family and other refugees. The picture of the little boy so shocked the world and somehow made it more compassionate toward the plight of refugees.

This is the Bodrum we find ourselves in at the end of summer 2015, at the crossroads of its hedonism and conscience — and these two roads would quickly merge because Turkish people are kind and compassionate (the country has two million Syrian refugees within its borders). The rest of Europe, it seems, is just beginning to realize this.

You see a few refugees begging in the city center or selling pens at stoplights, but you don’t see the ones trying to cross to Greece because they do it under the cover of darkness and because of military and police presence on the streets, which was unheard of until the war in neighboring Syria exploded and crossed borders.

The public beach in Gumbet, just a few minutes from the private islands near Bodrum City.
The public beach in Gumbet, just a few minutes from the private islands near Bodrum City.
Formerly belonging to Greece, Gumusluk island still bears the colors of the Greek isles.
Formerly belonging to Greece, Gumusluk island still bears the colors of the Greek isles.

Bodrum is quieter at the end of summer, a little cooler at 30 degrees compared to the crowded peak summer months of June to August when the temperature averages around 34 degrees, the beaches are full and the parties are crazy.

When Sami and I were planning the trip, we decided to split our four days into two beachfront hotels: Hilton Bodrum Türbükü Resort & Spa, which is located in Türbükü Bay, and Ersan Resort & Spa, which is nearer the city center. Most resorts offer full board as did these hotels, because, seriously, once you’re in there you won’t ever want to leave except perhaps to have dinner or go clubbing in town.

It’s an unforgettable drive from the airport on the way here — on our left are mountains and hills, and on our right are the deep blue sea and posh white houses hugging the distant cliffs like in Santorini.

Our drive feels like we’re in a postcard except the scenery is moving along with us.

The bays of Gölköy and Türbükü are only two kilometers apart and form a cove, which makes the Aegean Sea at Hilton calm and perfect for swimming out to sea without having to worry about waves, and to do water sports like jet pack and fly boarding.

At Ersan Resort & Spa, the water is choppier because it is out on the open sea. On the second day, I muster enough courage to swim with him onto a floating sundeck about 50 meters from the shore (I don’t know how to swim properly, so I tried to simply not drown).

A pool ladder leads straight onto the Aegean Sea at Hilton Bodrum. With the island shaped like a cove, the water here if very calm.
A pool ladder leads straight into the Aegean Sea at Hilton Bodrum. With the island shaped like a cove, the water here is very calm.
Rows and rows of sun loungers at Ersan. In the height of summer, you wouldn't find an empty one, which is why it's probably better to go to Bodrum right before or after summer's hottest days.
Rows and rows of sun loungers at Ersan. In the height of summer, you wouldn’t find an empty one, which is why it’s probably better to go to Bodrum right before or after summer’s hottest days.

A lot less lush than Hilton, Ersan nevertheless spreads out across greens and cascading hotel rooms on hills with the ones facing the sea being more premium. This is a more family-friendly resort with crazy huge waterslides in two pools, while several pools are for adults only

Because I live in a country where it’s warm all year round, where we could go to the beach in December or pack an overnight bag on a whim, I never fully understood how people can spend days on the beach tanning, until I realized why. It’s simply because for countries with four seasons, warm sunny days really do have an expiration date. Before you know it, the last days of summer are here and then it’s suddenly too cold for flip-flops and Bodrum has shut down for the season.

But lying on the beach with Sami and reading the book he bought me in Istanbul (appropriately enough, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul), I am falling deeper in love with Turkey. Oh, how diverse its landscape is, how beautiful its seas and people!

* * *

Like any European seaside city, Bodrum has a lively tourism industry that attracts both the international jet set as well as domestic visitors.

On our second night, we take a walk along the marina, which is the city center. It is actually comprised of only several streets, some of them pedestrianized, which means that traffic and parking can be challenging.

The streets are flanked by bars and restaurants at all price points. Souvenir shops offer handicrafts made of seashells, and of course specialty foods such as Turkish delight, baklava, sweets, olives, nuts, and other foods.

The best thing we discover on this night is an ice cream place called Bitez Dondurma Waffle, a small restaurant toward the end of the marina which offers 18 flavors of dondurma or ice cream from Bitez.

St. Peter’s Castle was built by Christians during the height of the Roman Empire and to protect them from persecution during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it houses shipwrecks excavated in the Aegean Sea. Photo from
St. Peter’s Castle was built by Christians during the height of the Roman Empire and to protect them from persecution during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it houses shipwrecks excavated in the Aegean Sea. Photo from

It may very well be the best ice cream on the Aegean Coast! Flavors range from sour cherry to mulberry, walnut, pistachio, honey and almond, caramel and mandarin. Sami so loved the mandarin flavor that on our last night, after driving all over the peninsula, we went back to the city twice to get ice cream.

Apart from Bodrum’s beaches and clubs (Halikarnas being the most famous one), what was once this ancient Greek city also offers culture and history. Bodrum Castle, built in the 15th century, was built by the Knights of St. John as the Castle of St. Peter. The funny thing is that the construction workers were granted a “reservation” in heaven by a papal decree in 1409.

Enjoying an evening at Bodrum Marina with Sami.

The castle was once a refuge for all Christians in Asia Minor, but not long after, it was attacked during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, leading to its fortification. Today, Bodrum Castle is home to the Museum of Underwater Archeology, which displays shipwrecks excavated under the Aegean Sea.

Preceding Bodrum Castle was the Halicarnassus or Tomb of Mausolus, which was built between 353 and 350 BC during the Persian Empire. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the mausoleum was built by Greek architects. Only ruins remain now, having been destroyed by earthquakes from the 12th to the 15th centuries.

The complicated histories of Turkey, Greece and the Roman Empire are woven into the geographical and cultural fabric all over Bodrum and Turkey. You must visit the vestiges of this past to get a better understanding of Bodrum, like the small fishing villages and towns on the peninsula.

Topping the list are Gumbet, Gümüslük, Yalikavac, Gundogan and Bitez.

Gümüslük is a village which, if you didn’t know you were in in Turkey, you’d think you were on a Greek isle. The colors of the Cyclades islands are here — the bright blues and white and pastels.

We are going to Gümüslük for Rabbit Island, famous for its sunset. It’s said that the island was often visited by the King of Halicarnassos, King Mousolos, and his beloved Artemisya to feed the rabbits living on the island and to watch the setting sun.

You can actually walk to Rabbit Island across the bay because the water is very shallow and, luckily, we went to other places first and we arrive at Gümüslük just in time for the sunset and some lokma or pastries made of deep fried dough and soaked in sugar syrup or honey, and sprinkled with cinnamon powder or sesame seeds.

Breakfast fare at Hilon Bodrum, Bitez ice cream at Bodrum marina, grilled fish at Yalikavak, and Turkish coffee and tea at Hilton.

And of Gümüslük’s famous sunset that prodded a king to travel to watch it? It’s a sweet yellow sun that slowly hides behind the hills and mountains, bathing the bay in a soft golden hue as the waves rock the wooden boats on the water — as if to lull them to an early sleep. Crossing back to the main island on foot, with 80 meters of water in between, the tide has risen still only amazingly up to thigh level.

* * *

Our village-hopping route that starts from Bodrum is an almost perfect oblong. From the city, we dive to Gümbet first, then to Gümüslük, then for dinner we end up in Yalikavak, and pass by Gündoğan on the way back to Bodrum.

In between these towns we get lost only once. Gumbet is a short drive from Bodrum City and an alternative to the crowded night scene and traffic of Bodrum. The houses here sit on the hills facing the sea and it has along pubic beach where people can just park their cars across the street and walk over to the water for a day under the sun.

The sand is the color of latté and small pebbles wash up on the shore, and again the water is just so clean considering it’s a public beach. Often called a “miniature of Bodrum,” Gumbet is peppered with restaurants, bars and clubs. Like the other towns on the peninsula, tourist trade is active with boat rentals.

Sunset at Gumusluk Bay, belly dancers at Hilton; below, a new season is coming judging by the almost-leafless tree, reading Pamuk on the beach, and buying lokma.

After Gümüslük for sunset, we go to Yalikavak for dinner and pass by Gündoğan on the way back to Bodrum. We don’t get off at Gündoğan but it’s worth a visit because it’s an active fishing town known for its snorkeling and diving, and its bay is circled by sunbathing jetties.

With a population of only 4,000, Gündoğan is not often on tourists’ itinerary but they say many Turks have vacation houses here, preferring its rural quietness and old-world charm. It also has olive and citrus groves, and pine forests covering the hillsides for hiking.

On our last night, we have dinner in a seafood restaurant in Yalikavak Marina. Five feet from our table, the yachts are anchored, and the waiters are throwing leftover pieces of bread to the fish. As a stray dog mills around our table, we are talking about what we would remember most from this vacation — as if we had already left Bodrum.

Sun, sea and serenity.

Oh, so many things! There were the unlimited tequila shots at Hilton, the pool we had to ourselves, the fishermen gamely posing for pictures on Rabbit Island, the swimming pools and jacuzzi at Ersan, sitting on the balcony and looking out at the sea, the ice cream from Bitez, the seafood, my being the only Asian it seemed in Bodrum at the time, singing in the car, lying under the sun with a book, and swimming in the sea.

My heart is breaking between the main course and dessert because we have to leave this place the next day.

Some days, when I am driving to work along Manila Bay and I’m stuck in traffic, I look out to the brackish waters and the reflected sun. I close my eyes for exactly two seconds and try to imagine it’s as blue and as clear as the Aegean Sea, that I am standing in the water and I could see even the tiniest pebbles around my feet.

And then in my head, I am transported back to Bodrum’s lovely summer.

On the Aegean Sea, looking at an island we have to leave behind.
On the Aegean Sea, looking at the island we soon have to leave behind.


A week in Provence

The wildly colorful lavender fields of Valensole in the South of France. Photo by Steve Villacin
In the quietest of hours, the sleepy towns in the South of France come alive at sunset during lavender season. Photo by Steve Villacin

It is only on our third day in France, at around 7 in the evening, that I finally understand what this light is all about. Awash in a golden glow, everything looks exaggerated including the color of the soil.

It’s as if a painter had taken his paintbrush and let the bristles kiss the tops of the lavender fields in Provence, touching just the tips of the flowers with color, and then dipping it in his paint again and brushing the fields one more time, or perhaps even thrice.

The soil is now reddish brown, the lavender flowers brighter and deeper in color, and in the distance a tree beside a farmhouse looks greener.

It’s what the painters call “the clarity of light” and the famous ones all passed through this region of Southern France at different periods, for different reasons and lengths of time—Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso.

Often the first stop, the Notre Dame de Sénanque Abbey in Gordes is the gateway to lavender country in Provence. Photo by Steve Villacin.

Van Gogh was perhaps the most famous to set up his easel in Provence. He stayed here for two years and the paintings he did here were the ones that made him famous after his death, including “Starry Night.” He painted feverishly in Arles and perhaps even more intensely  in his year at the asylum of St. Remy de Provence.

I am standing in the same light on these fields in the village of Valensole, staring at a farmhouse with a tree beside it. I have never been here before but this dreamy scene looks so familiar, as if I were looking at myself looking at the tree, as if I were observing the whole scene out of my own body.

Then I realize that a cursory search of “lavender fields in Provence” will most likely turn up Valensole, along with the Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey in Gordes.

Had we arrived three days later, we would have completely missed these gorgeous lavender fields. Here they are being harvested and will soon be on their way to distilleries to be turned into perfumes and toiletries.

* * *

We could have easily missed the peak of the lavender blooms had we arrived a week earlier or missed them entirely if we arrived three  days later as they were going to be harvested on the weekend.

We arrived just in time in Paris several days before—on the morning, in fact, that a plane from the same airline we took was shot down over Ukraine. After taking the train to Avignon the next day my friends—CV Travel & Tours Corporation managing director Claudette Vitug and chef Steve Villacin— and I began our road trip through Provence.

As far as you can see are rows and rows of lavender and the fields are “clean” or without wild grass around them. If you stand south of it, you will some fields have already been harvested with only the shrubs left behind, and the flowers are already on their way to the many distilleries in the region, their essence to be infused into toiletries such as perfumes, soaps, shower gels, lotions, and even in food like tea, honey, macarons, breads and biscotti.

The hillside town of Gordes on way up and then down to Senanque Abbey.  Photo by Tanya Lara

And yet there are hardly people here on the Valensole plateau. In Banon and Manosque, you can spot tourist buses parked on the side of the roads with visitors (mostly from Mainland China) stopping by to take pictures deep into the fields. A week before, Claudette had sent me a link to a story about two Chinese brides getting into a hair-pulling fight because they were photobombing each other’s pre-nuptial pictorial. We decided to skip this field.

Our discovery of these fields in Valensole was by serendipity. We were on our way to Moustiers Sainte-Marie, a town in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, when we saw the farmhouse. In Moustiers, a town that is seemingly wedged between gorges, we take a walk around after a late lunch. It is a quiet place that  specializes in ceramics and outdoor sports. Tourist shops offer white-water rafting, hiking, and mountain climbing.

So after Moustiers, we drive back to the plateau.

Tanya Lara, Claudette Vitug and Steve Villacin in this dreamy scene of a lavender field with a farmhouse and a tree in Valensole—breathtaking at sunset.
In Banon—yup, that’s how happy Claude and Stevie are. Photo by Tanya Lara

* * *

The night before, I was on Skype with my friend Gautier Le Sann, a Frenchman originally from the north of France and now living in Prague, and I told him we were going to the plateau the next day.

He said, “Pourquoi?”

I said, “For the lavender fields.”

There was silence, then, “D’accord.”

His “okay” sounded more like “But why?”

It’s not only me that experienced this. Even Claudette and Stevie were asked the same thing by their French friends. It seems to confuse French people— especially those from Paris or those not from Southern France—that people would take the trouble to cross the Atlantic Ocean to look at lavender flowers. It was so ordinary to them, these fields—as ordinary as our green rice fields are to us.

From Moustiers, we get back to Valensole at sunset. There is no one else around. In this most gorgeous of hours, in this wildly colorful swath of land, I want to tell Gautier: This is why.

Another farmhouse, on another plain in Provence. It never gets old.  Photo by Tanya Lara
People told us, look for the fields somewhere in the South of France with sunflowers right beside lavender flowers. We found the sunflowers and lavender, but not together. Photo by Tanya Lara

* * *

The easiest way to go to Provence is to take the train from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon, a two-and-half-hour journey. Avignon itself is a lovely town with a bustling art scene. We happened to catch the theater festival for the summer, so the Medieval walls of the center are literally plastered with posters promoting more than a hundred plays, musicals and shows. There are contemporary plays alongside the classics by Shakespeare, Moliére and Camus, but unfortunately, everything is in French.

July is a lively time to be in Avignon.  The actors perform on the streets in full costume, entertaining visitors having lunch, or just positioning themselves in alleys or outside the medieval ramparts. The shops are all open, selling souvenirs, colorful jewelry pieces made by local artists, and summer clothing.

As lively as it is today, it was home to seven successive Popes during the Avignon Papacy hundreds of years ago, hence the center includes the Palace of the Popes, the cathedral and the Pont d’Avignon or Avignon Bridge.

From Avignon, go east to the Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey in Gordes. The abbey is usually the first stop for people chasing lavender. It is a community of Cistercian monks that have opened their fields to the public for free.

Avignon in the summer is a lively theatrical town with performances of French and Shakespeare’s plays. The actors mingle with tourists and put on revues all around town. Photos by Tanya Lara

A tour inside the abbey needs to be booked online (again it’s only in French) as it is scheduled every hour and for a fee. Even if you understand very little of the language or none at all, it’s still interesting to see the architecture inside and to know the Cistercian way of life.

The Cistercian monasteries across Europe were founded 900 years ago starting in Burgundy and were situated in remote places. The Sénanque Abbey is located at the bottom of the valley in Gordes for this reason and it is ironic that today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Provence.

The monks are secluded in their dormitory and go about their life of continual prayer, beginning at 2 a.m. when they do their first religious ceremony of the day. The Abbey does offer residential retreats to the public (except in January and February, and for a maximum of only eight days) for a modest fee and guests take their meals with the monks (eaten in silence because they follow St. Benedict’s vows).

The town of Apt has the biggest and oldest open market in the South of France. They sell everything—from takeaway paella to espadrilles, records, hats and toiletries. Photos by Tanya Lara

Further east of Gordes is the town of Apt, whose open market is the biggest of the Luberon markets and has been ongoing for hundreds of years. It offers food, local products, clothes, gorgeous tablecloths, flowers, toiletries, and many other things. Here we buy all sorts of things: paella, espadrilles, hats, spices and saucissons.

From Apt, our next destination is Banon, and we discover it is going to host the Tour de France on the same day we are planning to join the Lavender Festival in Valensole.

It is an easy choice for us. We came for lavender, this beautiful, fragrant plant of 39 species. But it isn’t the only flower here. Sometimes we spot a field of sunflowers, as tall as people, the flowers facing the sun and, in places where it is overcast, they are bowed as if in shame.

Aix-en-Provence has the quintessential French town square scene—a beautiful carousel that rivals the one put up on Champs Elysées at Christmas. Photo by Tanya Lara

It is raining when we get to the Valensole festival on a Sunday morning.

“Lá-bas,” we are told. Over there.

We walk from the muddy parking lot to the small buses that take people to the town center where the streets are closed to vehicular traffic. Everyone in this town and its surrounding areas, it seems, is out selling lavender-infused goods.

We say goodbye to Provence one lavender stalk at a time. On the same day as the lavender festival, the Tour de France was passing through these parts. The decision on which one to see was an easy one. Photo by Steve Villacin.

They are giving out stalks of lavandine for free. We rub the flowers between our hands and inhale. They smell wonderful, the whole place smells wonderful.

There are other places we visit after the festival, such as Manosque, Aix-en Provence, Les Baux de Provence (where we see a wonderful light production of Gustav Klimt’s art) and Marseilles, before returning to Paris.

But every place after the festival—our hotel rooms, our rented car, the restaurants—we leave behind by accident small clusters of flowers on the floor, which have fallen off from the stalks they gave us in Valensole.

It’s as if Provence is saying goodbye to us slowly, one lavender flower at a time. Or maybe it’s us saying goodbye to Provence.


Searching for Stalin’s Boots in Budapest
Budapest’s Chain Bridge on the Danube River — looking as blue as Strauss’ waltz at twilight — links what used to be two cities, the hilly Buda and the flat Pest. A cruise on the Danube is a great way to see the city.  (Photo from
Unfortunately, this was the weather I arrived to in 2009 — a snowstorm. But still, I went to Statue Park (Memento Park), an hour away from Budapest, to see what I came here for: Stalin’s Boots and other Cold War monuments.

In 1956, about 200,000 Hungarian students and citizens demonstrated in Budapest to sympathize with the Poles, who had just won political reforms from their communist government and the Soviet Union.

The Hungarians wanted reforms, too, and one of their sixteen demands was the dismantling of Joseph Stalin’s monument in a park in Budapest, installed just seven years earlier, ostensibly a gift from the Hungarian people to the Soviet leader.

The statue was eight meters high and stood on a base of four meters tall. Thousands of angry Hungarians chanting “Russia, go home!” toppled the statue, which broke into several sections.

What was left on the limestone base were the boots, over which the revolutionaries draped the Hungarian flag.

Fast forward to fifty-three years later, in 2009, and I was  in search of this remnant of Hungary’s October Revolution, the surviving piece of this sculpture now known as “Stalin’s Boots.”

I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.

The boots from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Monument, which was toppled by Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956. And Vladimir Lenin, one of the dozens of communist monuments at Memento Park or  Statue Park.  (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
A giant replica of Stalin’s Boots in the indoor museum.

People go abroad to shop, to eat, to visit museums and landmarks. I do that, too.

But on two occasions, I’ve traveled abroad primarily to see statues. One was to Savannah, Georgia to look at the Bird Girl statue, which I first saw in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and which used to be installed on a gravesite in  Bonaventure Cemetery.

And the other time was this — in Budapest for Stalin’s Boots.

My fascination with the Cold War began when I was a kid reading espionage novels. My head was filled with the sufferings of revolutionaries, spies who fall in love, heart-stopping border crossings, and betrayals.

Later, when I was already working and whenever I had saved just enough,  I would go to countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall came down when I was still in journalism school, and countries that I used to read about in fiction started to open up, and I followed every piece of news about this sea of change sweeping across Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, there was very little distinction between art and communist propaganda. After the Berlin Wall came down, and communism along with it,  other countries destroyed their monuments. Hungary scooped them all up and put them in an outdoor museum — outside Budapest.

Hungary was one of those countries. The cheapest way to get from Manila to Europe was — and still is — during winter abroad. It’s also the time when the newsroom is quiet after the Christmas rush and it’s easier to take time off from work.

So there I was in Budapest, which was in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm, in February 2009.

More than a decade before I went to Hungary, I saw a show called Lonely Planet. It wasn’t even a channel then, it was just a show (later called Globe Trekkers) on Discovery Channel hosted by a gap-toothed British guy named Ian Wright, who ate yak brains in Mongolia or something gross like that (long before Anthony Bourdain started doing such things).

In his Budapest episode, he went outside the city to Statue Park (or Memento Park), where Hungary put together all its communist-era statuary. Unlike other newly democratized countries that destroyed theirs, Hungary had the good sense to gather them in one park.

Except, even decades later, this outdoor museum was still not as popular as it should have been. Not a lot of tourists knew  about it or cared to visit it.

But I did.

I don’t remember anything else about that episode except for Statue Park. He showed Stalin’s Boots — the actual ones from the statue that was toppled in 1956 — and the giant plaster cast in the dark indoor museum. There were also several statues of Lenin and generic communist propaganda in the park.

How different the world was before communism failed miserably. And so many people suffered and died because of it.

And then Wright made me laugh my ass off. He pointed to a giant statue of a man running and holding a piece of cloth that could have been a flag…or a towel.

Wright said something like this bloke seems to be yelling, “Your towel, your towel! You dropped your towel!”

Budapest had me at towel.

* * *

I arrived in Hungary after a night in Zurich (there were no direct flights from Manila). And in booking this trip I found a secret to traveling between European countries — always take the poorer country’s airline even if they are code-sharing.

Between Swiss Air and Malév, the Hungarian flag carrier was so much cheaper. I would experience this many other times later, like between Dusseldorf and Prague (Czech Airlines — cheaper than Lufthansa!) or Amsterdam and Rome.

The House of  Terror or Terror Museum on Andrassy üt, an avenue that is often compared with Paris’ Champs Elysées, is a repository of how Hungary’s Secret Police terrorized and victimized its own citizens. The tank is both a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power during the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc countries’ suppression of their people’s freedoms — and on the wall are pictures of the dead and disappeared.
Day and night, people come to light candles and lay flowers for the fallen on a narrow ledge outside the Terror Museum.
Teletypes, interrogation rooms, cells and uniforms of the Secret Police are among the mementos in Terror Museum.

There was an unexpected snowstorm in Budapest when I arrived.

My hotel was only three blocks from the Danube River, which was partially frozen, but I persisted on walking to Buda through the beautiful Chain Bridge and then quickly sought shelter in a museum.

So I discovered Budapest through its classical art and contemporary museums.

I went to four of them in the next several days in between hopping on and off the red tourist buses, to places like the Castle District, the gorgeous Parliament House, the Gresham Palace, Vasarcsarnok or the Great Market Hall, St. Rita’s Church and other sights.

But it was the museums that quickly became my shelter from the weather, like the National Gallery located in one section of Buda Castle, the National Museum of Fine Arts on the flat Pest side at Heroes Square, and the Terror Museum, which details the Hungarian people’s suffering in the hands of their Secret Police and the Soviet Union.

Terror Museum is located on Andrassy üt, kind of like Paris’ Champs Elyseés. This comparison carries throughout the two capitals, as Budapest is dubbed “the Paris of the East.” This beautiful avenue is topped by Heroes’ Square with statuary of royals and leaders past, its kings, rulers from its seven ethnic tribes and their horses.

Unlike Champs Elyseés, Andrassy Avenue is not bursting with shops. Instead, you find here private villas, some of them now high-end restaurants and coffee shops.

It seems a sign of how the world has changed drastically post-communism, that on an avenue where there was once a prison and torture chambers for those who opposed the communist ideology and a government largely controlled and influenced by the Soviet Union, there is now a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

Hungarians still remember those times. Outside the musem, on every freezing night that I walked past it, people were lighting candles and leaving flowers on a narrow ledge for the fallen.

Roof outside the museum; and a section paying tribute to the priests that were persecuted and killed, accused of  inciting the peasants to rebellion.
Heroes Square has statues of the country’s Seven Chieftains of the Magyars (or the Seven Tribes of Hungary), other national leaders and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Photo from
It was colder than it looks, so I said, “Dear Weather, my name is Tanya Lara and I am here for the first time! Please let me enjoy Budapest without a snowstorm!” Behind me, at Heroes Square,  is the National Museum of Fine Arts.

They did it perhaps for family members or friends — or for the unknown people who were murdered and disappeared. It wasn’t only the intellectuals or students that suffered this fate, there were also priests and peasants who spoke out and were accused of treason and sedition.

How could such an ideology founded on equality and love of country be so brutal and inhuman? The answer is simple: the most egregious sin and ultimate failing of communism is that it took out human emotions and needs out of the equation, and then enforced its own beliefs. Just like most religions do today.

Inside the museum, where taking pictures is not allowed (I did manage to snap a few grainy ones), the victims’ pictures are stuck on the wall, from the floor to the ceiling across three or four levels, along with a Soviet tank on the ground floor, uniforms of the Secret Police, teletypes, paintings, mock dossiers and interrogation rooms.

In the basement are the prison cells and some are literally no bigger than a cupboard for solitary confinement. These cold stonewalls tell the story of Hungary’s struggle and heartache, of dissidents and their families who grieved. I walked these halls and rooms, thinking, some of them are still grieving to this day, searching for closure.

Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city. (Photo by Kitsune Misao/

* * *

Budapest has one of the most stunning parliament buildings in all of Europe, one of the most beautiful rivers that run through a city, and a bridge that crosses it.

In spring and summer, tourist boats ply the Danube with live music; a marathon starts on the Chain Bridge and goes around both sides of the river, one I had wanted to do before I quit running.

It is a bustling, modern city of cafes, business and commerce that I want to go back to — but not in winter again. I want to see it when it comes to life as any city living in the present and looking at the future.

And yet…all of us are really just drifting on memories — and what is art if not for that?

Thinking about those days in Budapest, I realize that I was fortunate to be forced by the weather to take part in its remembrance of an era thankfully gone.

This painful, Cold War past, not its older, glorious royal past, but the one that still touches personally some of its citizens in their everyday lives. When they pause in the morning while pouring coffee and their hearts stop for a second or two, or when they walk home alone at night, and they are suddenly taken back to the past, by the remembrance of someone who by every right should be there but isn’t.

Budapest’s Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall i the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.

Santorini without the crowds

Sunset from the balcony of my hotel in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini (Thira), overlooking the whitewashed villages facing the submerged caldera and Aegean Sea. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Breakfast for one is served in my room. I don’t  usually have breakfast except for coffee, but with this view, it’s very hard to not get up.

A funny thing happens on my way to my hotel in Santorini.

The taxi takes me up the hill till where cars are allowed and the driver tells me that I’d find it on the face of the cliff, that I should walk up the road and then turn right.

It seems simple enough instructions.

So I drag my small bag onto a wide lookout (I left my luggage in Athens ‘cause I’m coming back for a group tour three days later), and I look down.

Below are white rooftops around several blue-domed churches and beyond these is the famous, disintegrated caldera of Santorini. There must have been 50 rooftops hugging the cliff, how am I going to find  mine?

I am in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini, but there is no one around to ask for directions. I mean, seriously, the place is empty!

After a few minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I spot some locals and they direct me to a steep, narrow road with half of it open as it is being repaired in the off-season.

The rock formations on Red Beach, one of Santorini’s most beautiful beaches — and most crowded in summer.
Church at Red Beach. Santorini has a local population of 15,000 — and 400 churches. That’s one church for every 37 people.

A woman at my hotel’s roof deck takes my bag and leads me to a room below. I say, wait, I haven’t even told you my name. She says, “You’re the only guest arriving today — or for the rest of the week.”

* * *

There are times when, despite knowing what to expect, you’re still pleasantly shocked when you get to that moment.

This is one of them.

I open my balcony doors and step out into the chilly afternoon. And there it is — the caldera submerged in the Aegean Sea, dark clouds above, and in half a circle surrounding it are Santorini’s islands. All around me are whitewashed houses, Cycladic-style hotels and churches as if cascading 300 meters down from the top of the cliff, and on the zigzag path below are donkeys, their bells clanging as they make their way down.

In Perissa. The enormous rock formations behind are part of Mesa Vouno, which literally rises from the sea.

I feel like I’m inside a postcard.

This is exactly why I booked this place — for the caldera view. There are so many choices in Fira and, as it turns out, there is a difference between a “caldera view” and a “sea view.”

In the coming days, I would get this sense of wonder throughout mainland Greece, especially in Athens while standing in the old part of the city, and then you look up and see the breathtaking Acropolis.

A few minutes later, George, the manager of Thireas Hotel, arrives and I give him the forms I had filled up. He offers to walk me to the town center as he was going to another hotel he is running, and shows me where to book boat tours and other activities.

It is raining by this time.

Santorini (officially called Thira) in January 2014 is deserted with only 10 percent of the restaurants, bars and shops open as winter is the time when business owners pack up and leave the island for their own vacations.

It lacks the energy of other seasons and other Greek cities, but its beauty is unchanged.

I had heard from people who visited in summer that they had to stand in line to take pictures of the famous spots overlooking the Aegean Sea. I have no such problem, the scenery is all mine — after all, the caldera and whitewashed villages don’t take vacations — except there was no one to ask to snap a picture of me.

The excavated city of Akrotiri. Never have I been in a museum where I was the only visitor, but this is the case in Santorini in winter. So I felt guilty when I entered and saw that it was empty, having used my press ID. I should have contributed to the Greek economy.
Some of the artificacts in the archeological museum of Akrotiri. Like Pompeii in Italy, Akrotiri was preserved due to  a volcanic eruption (Thira eruption) that covered the entire city.

At a travel agency, the boat schedules are printed and displayed on the window and taped over with the word “cancelled” because of the weather; the sea is too rough. The wine tours are cancelled as well. Even the bus schedules are irregular because what’s the point? There are no tourists!

In the evening, I go to the café-bar I saw on my earlier walk. I order a mojito and get to talking with a Greek woman sitting two barstools away from me. Katerina and I had been talking for about half an hour before I realized she owns the bar. Dora, a Romanian who moved to Greece when she got married, is making me one mojito after another. (I remind myself to not get drunk or I’d fall into the open holes on the way back to the hotel.)

Katerina is a tour guide during the tourist season. In her raspy voice, she tells me that there are only about 15,000 local people and sometimes it feels like there are a lot more donkeys than men on the island.

Churches in Perissa and Oia.
Two locals I strike a friendship with over mojitos and personal stories, Katerina Giannatou (right), who owns the bar, and Dora Dobrea, a Romanian who makes fabulous drinks.

The three of us giggle like old friends, making plans to meet again the next night.

By the end of this night, we already know each other’s life stories, relationships and opinion of men. And Katerina gives me a list of places to see. “Be  careful driving, you might hit an ass.”

“And by that you mean the animal, right?”

During summer, the population of Santorini swells to nearly a hundred thousand, most of them coming from cruise ships for day tours. And on a winter day like today? There are about only 250 tourists on the whole island.

I mention that my hotel is surrounded by four churches and their bells are pealing nonstop. Why wouldn’t they let me take a nap? There are more than 400 churches on the island, Katerina says. Most of them are small family churches, built for celebrations and thanksgiving.

I tell her that in Manila, we usually just book a table in a restaurant to celebrate.

View of the Aegean Sea from the top of the cliff in Oia.
The best seafood pasta I have ever had in my entire life is at Lotza restaurant in Oia. Maybe the dramatic views helped.

* * *

The car I rent for under 50 euros a day is a yellow mini Chevy.

Does it have GPS? The rental guy laughs at me and says Santorini is so small I don’t need one. Anytime someone tells me to “just follow the main road,” I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I am going to get horribly lost.

He hands me the keys and a cartoonish map.

Okay, fine.

Belonging to the Cyclades group of islands, Santorini today is what remains of one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions. What was one island before has since become several of different sizes. There are a few places on my map that I want to see: the excavated city of Akrotiri, Red Beach, Perissa, Firostefani, and Oia.

The lookout in Fira with views of Santorini’s caldera and smaller islands in the Aegean Sea.

Red Beach gets its name from its sand and the red rock formations. The beach is closed so I park in front of a church to enjoy a walk . The only other car here is a white one that’s heavily tinted and parked facing the sea, and it’s shaking once in a while. I know better than to knock at their window and ask them to take a picture of me.

There is a café not far from here, where I order Greek coffee and the lady serves it with kourabides, a walnut sugar cookie that’s popular for celebrations like Christmas, weddings and Easter. She looks like my grandmother and she  wouldn’t let me pay for either the cookies or the coffee. She says I have a lovely smile. I tell her so does she and we hug when I leave.

Sunset on a cold winter day descends on the southern Aegean Sea.
Empty alleys and empty churches.

I’ve been to a lot of museums in different seasons and never have I been to one where I was the only visitor, not even in the small ones in out-of-the-way towns. Never.

But this is the case for me at the Archeological Museum of Akrotiri, the site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement that dates back to the third millennium BC. Like Pompeii, the volcanic eruption of Thira preserved the entire town, and excavations of Akrotiri began in the second half of the 19th century.

Back on the road, I see a teenage couple sitting on the side. I ask them if they need a ride back to town. They had been waiting for the bus for over an hour. They are Chinese exchange students studying in Stockholm, and are on vacation in Greece for a week.

Together, we go to Perissa. It is empty as well, save for stray puppies on the black-sand beach. We get lost for an hour going back to Fira, where I drop them off, and then I proceed to Oia via winding roads up to the cliffs.

Fira and Oia (pronounced ee-ya) have the most dramatic views in all of Santorini, but it is Oia that you see more in postcards and on book covers because it has the windmills. Some of them have been converted into houses or lodgings, but most remain simply windmills.

An all-white church, without the blue dome, is a rarity in Santorini.

The center of Oia sits on top of the cliff where, like Fira, shops and cafes and restaurants are scattered all around. Most are closed but thankfully the famous restaurant Lotza is open. I swear, this is the best seafood pasta I have ever had (yes, I have traveled to many parts of Italy and have had pasta in all those places). But this one is something else.

The terrace is covered with transparent plastic sheeting but you still have the stunning views of the caldera and whitewashed villages while eating. I can only imagine how lovely it must be in spring and summer, when the plastic sheeting is rolled up and you can enjoy the perfect weather and watch the cruise ships dock in the distance.

* * *

On my last night in Santorini, I get a call in my room from the hotel manager saying he didn’t want me to feel like I wasn’t safe.

Playing with stray puppies in Perissa, which has a black-sand beach and crystal waters

“Why would I feel that? Wait a minute! Am I the only one in the hotel?”

It turns out that I am. The Indian family that I had met when I arrived had already left and George was staying in the other hotel he was managing, in another part of town.

So this is how I enjoy Santorini — without the crowds.

Maybe I love it for that — the quietness, wandering alone and meeting locals who felt a bit protective of me.

I had never felt as free as I did on that tiny yellow car, driving on empty roads in a place that’s on so many people’s bucket lists, and seeing the landscapes that they line up for, for a selfie. I don’t really take selfies, so just seeing the scenery and storing it in my head is good enough for me.

For a few days, Santorini was mine. It was like being in on a secret that made me smile — and no one had an idea why.

Oia, Santorini
Oia at sunset with its famous windmills. (Photo from

Even in miniature, France is larger than life

Sitting by a French town at Miniature France, an hour and a half from Central Paris. It is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale. Easily one of my favorite trips to France. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Sainte-Croix d’Orleans Cathedral on Jeanne d’Arc street in Orléans, located on the Loire River in North-Central France. As you can tell by the street name, it is the church most associated with Joan of Arc.
The mini Eiffel Tower is true to the detail of  Gustave Eiffel’s iron lattice work.

My friend Nicole and I are going to France Miniature, which is, well, a park with France rendered in miniature models.

We have the directions on how to get there but we can’t find the right track for the train. Elancourt, where the park is located, is not linked to the Paris Metro, RER or the rail network that goes to the suburbs. Instead the nearest station from Paris is in the next town.

All in all, the trip is about an hour and half by train and bus from Central Paris.

It occurs to me the folly of this adventure when we get to the outskirts of Paris and there is an interminable wait for the bus in a desolate part of town, and I’m answering emails on my Blackberry (what can I say, I was a Crackberry even as late as 2012).

Why would I want to see a miniature Paris when I am already here…in life-size Paris, in real France?

Because miniatures are so damn cute, that’s why!

If only it were this quick and cheap to travel all of France in real life. My friend Nicole, who has lived in France for over 15 years, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and I at Le Mont Saint Michel in the Normandy region.
A typical Alsatian village in France’s eastern border and on the west bank of the upper Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland.
I don’t know which region is this…any idea?

France Miniature is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale.

Paris is in the North and Ile-de-France section. The East has the Alsatian villages, Nancy and Beaune, which is the capital of Burgundy wine (a year later, I would be in actual Beaune for the first time). The West has Normandy, Mont Saint Michel and the Breton coastline. The Center has the mountainous region and Limoges. The Southwest is Toulouse, Lourdes and Saint Emilion. The Southeast has the Alps and Saint Tropez.

I haven’t been to all the regions in real life and seeing the country in miniature, I realize that the Southwest was one of the regions I had seen on my first trip to France — on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as we went by coach from Paris; and some years later, on a short working trip, I went to Toulouse (I was on the plane longer coming to and leaving France than I was actually there), where I did a story on the Airbus factory putting together its first jumbo plane, the A380. One of those 24-hour work trips.

The section of the park I love best is North and Ile-de-France (Paris), one that I would grow most familiar with in real life and keep coming back to.

Southeast is a region I also love, having gone on road trips in different seasons to Nice and Marseilles, and last summer to Provence, where three of us friends literally drove across towns filled with lavender blooms.

The West is one I have never been to but I’ve been told by two Frenchies that this is the most beautiful part of France—the Normandy region. It’s famous of course for the Normandy beach landings in 1944, which helped turn World War II in the Allied countries’ favor. In modern life, my friends say, it’s still about fishing, cottages, farms and horses, and chilling.

Place Stanislas square in Nancy, Lorraine in Eastern France, which was built in honor of King Louis XV.
The Arles Ampitheater in the South of France.

The miniature models are very detailed, and not just the landmarks, even the small villages. Some vignettes have mini people, cars, boats in the Breton docks and yachts in the Saint Tropez marina—also an aqueduct, and a train line going around the park. They have boutiques and carousels—and children on the horses! Anyone who has ever been to France knows that their carousels are so pretty and fabulous, looking like they were gilded in gold.

By late afternoon, Nicole and I take the last scheduled bus to the next town and catch our train back to Paris.

Easily, this is one of the best attractions I have ever seen in France, but maybe it’s just because I love miniatures.

I never had elaborate dollhouses when I was a kid, but when I saw them in magazines, I always imagined little people living in those little houses with chairs you could push with your finger to rearrange, tiny teacups and plates on tiny tables.

Little people living perfect lives, content in the smallness of their world.

I wanted to live in a dollhouse.

When I asked a French friend to help me identify this cathedral, he said he couldn’t without knowing where it was. “It’s a typical Gothic cathedral found all over France.” Indeed, you see such grand churches all over the country, including in the small towns.
Now this one everybody knows: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris or Sacré Coeur, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Great bistros and an art market on the top of the hill too!

* * *

I am staying in Nicole’s flat for a few days. It’s a walkup in the 18th arrondissement and when I arrived a few days earlier, we struggled to get my luggage up the small winding staircase after she met me at  Garde du Nord train station from  CDG.

I was jetlagged; she was pregnant.

When she was a teenager, Nicole (or Timmy as she was nicknamed) took care of my young cousins when they were toddlers and then she lived with my lola (grandmother).

In Paris, where she has been living for over 15 years, she has a one-bedroom apartment that’s a good size for the city, where the prices are so ridiculous Parisians actually leave for this reason alone. Like with any other woman living in this city alone, her flat is filled with clothes, shoes and bags. They are in her closet and under her bed, in boxes and unopened shopping bags.

And the must-see cathedral in Paris, Notre Dame, and across it Place Vendome. In real life, they are not so close to each other. Place Vendome square is in the 1st arrondissement while Notre Dame is in the 4th arrondissement., close to the Seine.
Versailles Palace. Isn’t it so grand even in miniature?
France has so many lovely little villages, some of them dating back to the Medieval times with the fortifications and other structures preserved so well.

I tell her I’m the same but have vowed to not shop anymore because, seriously, what a waste of money that is.

We have coffee and madeleines, and after I settle in, we look at each other and say, “Shall we go shopping?”

We do this for a few days. We scour the shops on Champs Elysées and La Défense. I go to the museums and parks and walk around the city.

One night we are too tired to find a good restaurant that we simply go to a supermarket and load up on raclette and blue cheese, mushrooms, foie gras, shallots, mini gherkins, tapas, salads and baguettes, and wine (for me).

We sit on her living room floor and put a raclette grill on top of her coffee table. We tear pieces of freshly baked baguette and slide the cheese off from the grill to our plates, talking about our finds for the day and the men and friends in our lives. We finish an impossible amount of raclette cheese.

I wonder if the little people in miniature houses sometimes eat at their coffee table, too.

Who knows about imagined lives? But to this day, in my real life, this is still one of the best meals I have ever had in Paris.

The first miniature town you see when you enter the park. I want to grow small and live in this park for a week!

The Paris I love

Paris’ Eiffel Tower, autumn 2008. Ridiculed by the French when it was first erected in the 1880s, it became one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks. Photos by Tanya Lara
…and in the winter of 2013. Still beautiful under a blanket of snow.

Like Hemingway said of Paris, “And then there was the bad weather,” at the beginning of A Moveable Feast, the only book that I try to reread every year.

In this case, the weather is merde.

Flights are cancelled in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is buried in snow, cut off from the suburbs and the rest of the world. It is a city fending for itself for the weekend.

But Paris is unapologetic about its weather. C’est la vie. Deal with it.

This is Paris, after all, a city that is still so perfectly beautiful even under a heavy blanket of snow that falls softly from the sky and settles with resignation on the ground.

Paris02_by_peter rivera:wikipedia
The Opera House (Photo by Peter Rivera/wikipedia)

The city that moved Nietzsche to say, “An artist has no home in Europe except Paris.” This is Paris awash in a strange green color by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in a golden hue by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.

Even in this miserable cold in the winter of 2013, Paris has me putting her back on top of my list of favorite cities in the world (after a brief dalliance with Berlin).

Like many tourists, I think of Paris through a hopeful Hemingway and his merry band of creative misfits, through pop culture, through corny lines in film. I think of Paris when I was a younger writer and the smell of freshly baked baguette from the boulangeries gave me such hope.

Paris is a city for writers, lovers, artists, shoppers, wandering souls, and to borrow a literary phrase, for innocents abroad who, according to our local tour guide Mireille, pronounce Avenue des Champs Elysées as “Chumps Delysis.”

The arrondissement (district) that most tourists gravitate to is the 8th, home to Champs Elysées, inarguably the most beautiful avenue in the world with its wide footpaths and horse-chestnut trees (bereft of leaves in winter but still a breathtaking sight).

Champs Elysées is Paris’s busiest avenue, “12 roads and a circle in the middle,” and our Trafalgar travel director Hamish Wallace explains the 50/50 rule here. Since so many cars get rear-ended, the city simply imposed a rule that splits liability and fault 50/50.
The Louvre with IM Pei’s pyramid skylights. (Photo from
At Léon de Bruxelles on  Champs Elysées, Binky, Vangie, Gibbs, Anna and I — waiting for our mussels and fries. Winter 2013.

Talk turns to art when our coach snakes its way through the 1st. As we pass The Louvre, Mireille says, “The Italians are accusing the French of stealing the ‘Monalisa,’ but we say we didn’t steal it, we just lost the receipt.”

That French sense of humor!

Rodin’s stone sculpture “The Thinker”  looks to have become naked after a night of partying in Oberkampf and is now in deep thought as to where his clothing might be. “That’s why the Monalisa is smiling — she knows where it is.”

The Eiffel Tower, a stone’s throw away from our hotel for two nights, is in the 7th arrondissement. It is closed due to maintenance when we go in the morning, so we enjoy wandering through the snow-covered grounds instead.

Mireille says a lot of people used to commit suicide by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, so the city fenced off the platform.

“And tourists want to know, ‘Where can you commit suicide in Paris?’ They are very concerned about us,” she says dryly. “I tell them, ‘Just cross the street. If you’ve seen the traffic in Paris, you know what I mean.’”

Taken from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower — Central Paris’ 19th-century skyline, which hasn’t changed much even as its population has. The green park is Champ des Mars in the 7th arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower and Ecole Militaire. Photo by Tanya Lara
Lunch in 2012 at the Michelin-star Le Jules Verne restaurant by chef Alain Ducasse. The views are actually much better than the food.
Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral (Photo by Corbis/National Geographic)

Amid the sludge and snow on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, this is where we bond and laugh a lot — four Filipino girls and one guy from a group of 30. Binky, Anna and Vangie are from the travel industry whom I meet for the first time; Gibbs and I are newspaper journalists who have been bumping into each other at this or that coverage.

Two years later, we are all still trying desperately to see each other over lunch or dinner at least three times a year, because living in a city like Manila and having our schedules is like trying to find a Frenchie that doesn’t drink wine. It’s doable but close to impossible.

 * * *

For all the times that I have visited Paris, I literally followed the footsteps of the writers I worshipped as they walked all over the city in their books and during their lifetimes.

Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of  Montmarte, the highest point in Paris and part of the Right Bank.  Photo by Tanya Lara
Enjoying drinks with Olga and Alex in St. Germain, spring 2012.

From Montmarte’s cafes and bistros, the bridges on the Seine that connect the Left and Right Banks, the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the boathouses moored on the Seine.

Obviously, Hemingway wasn’t the first writer to love Paris, but to my heart he loved it best. He articulated it in the way Van Gogh did to Provence on his canvas: with such tenderness and affection even if neither of them knew of how massive their influence would become. Their deaths, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (Hemingway to his mouth and Van Gogh to his chest), would not deter generations of painters or writers later.

They would all love Paris through its sadness, joy and beauty.

You always remember the first time you visit Paris like you remember your first kiss. I always go back to when the smell of baguettes brought inexplicable happiness to me, or that first time at the Louvre seeing the Monalisa and I didn’t have to line up or pay because I had a press ID as a newspaper reporter, or the first time I saw the Opera House and not far from it Galeries Lafayette with all its designer brands.

This district has always amused and baffled me. That the beautiful Opera House, center of the culturati and the well-heeled, is a short walk to the red light district and its supermarket-like sex shops. I’ve always wondered if this was by design or happenstance.

Paris03_by_serge_ramelli: pinterest
Pont Alexandre III connecting the Grand and Petit Palais on the Right Bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the Left Bank. (Photo by Serge Ramelli/Pinterest)
Sunset descends on Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. @iamtanyalara

I remember the first time I went to Paris alone and it really didn’t matter because despite its being the most romantic city in the world, it is perfect for loners.

You don’t need anyone to enjoy or fall in love with Paris.

* * *

In 2014, I would visit Paris twice. The first is with good friends Claudette and Steve for our road trip through Provence. We land in Paris in July to news that Russia had shot down a commercial flight over Ukraine. We had taken the same airline and friends urge us to change our flight back to Manila. A week later, when they are leaving and I am flying to Prague again, another plane from a different airline would crash in Algeria.

It doesn’t seem the right time to be traveling, but the three of us agree that no one can really predict such tragedies.

The second is over the Christmas holidays. I fly to Paris armed with my laptop and my external hard drive. In Manila a few days before, I decided to launch this travel blog on Jan. 1, 2015.

Stevie, Claudette and I buy saucissons at Bastille Market in July 2014. (Photos by Steve Villacin)

Like I told friends after: never start a personal project when you are about to go on vacation because it will consume you.

Paris is this city outside the flat I’m renting in Bastille where I am writing like crazy, it is the bustling place in front of me as I write in cafes and drink wine until my fingers are frozen from the winter chill, as I walk along Champs Elysees and look at the Christmas markets and can’t wait to get back to the flat because I’ve suddenly remembered some things from past travels.

For the first time, writing gets in the way of Paris and me.

It feels like I have wasted my time with Paris, but my friend Marta, a Polish girl married to a Filipino friend, puts things in perspective. She says, “Maybe you wouldn’t have written as much as you did if you weren’t in Paris.”

She is right, of course.

At our lunch a few days after the New Year with Marta and Hendrik is my French friend Cedric, who helped me with the tech details of doing a blog. We met the year before and he was so generous and patient in explaining things to me.

With friends Hendrik, a Filipino diplomat in Paris, his linguist wife Marta and their daughter Sofia after the New Year 2015; and Cedric after Christmas at the Mojito Lab Bar.

The irony is, even as I fall deeper in love with Paris, he can’t wait to leave it for Tokyo. I am struggling to understand how anyone could ever want to leave Paris.

One day after I arrive back in Manila, the Charlie Hebdo shootings would occur, less than a kilometer from where I had been staying for more than a week.

It fills me with sadness and rage.

* * *

Around 2008, my high school friend June and I are in the same city (Geneva). He gives me a book on which he writes and misquotes Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tease him, “Dude, you can only use Hemingway as a pick-up line to girls who haven’t actually read him if you’re doing it wrong.”

Almost a year later, we would find ourselves in Paris, nearly missing each other by a day, but he redeems himself here having really read the book now. We spend the autumn afternoon walking around Trocadero and the Left Bank, go on a cruise on the Seine consuming a bottle of red wine each because it is so damn cold.

It is at this time that my crush on Paris becomes real, ten years after my first visit.

Hotel de Ville with the skating rink over the holidays, January 2015.
There is that one visit to a city when you fall completely in love with it. For me it was 2008, my fourth visit, when I realized that Paris is a place I will always find my way to.

Three years later, in the spring of 2012, I am in Paris for a work trip with Alex from the competing newspaper, Anna from a magazine, and Olga from the LVMH Group. Paris is a stopover. Olga and Anna have arranged lunch at the Jules Verne restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower.

I am looking out at the views from the top of the tower, and at some point during the Alain Ducasse lunch, say, “I wonder if Parisians realize how lucky they are to be living in Paris. Look at this!”

Below us is all of Paris, spreading its arrondissements outward like the shell of an escargot.

I realize, of course, that there exist two sides of Paris: one for those who live here, and another for those who visit. One for whom the French are an absolute nightmare, and another for whom they are darlings when you talk to them in your bad tourist French.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. The same Paris that Hemingway did before so many others like me, the Paris whose skyline hasn’t changed much even as its people and immigrants did.

Even have changed from when I was a tourist here for the first time in the 1990s, when Paris threw stardust in my eyes that I have never really been able to wipe away.

It is the same Paris even as I am older, a little wiser, not much richer because of this pesky need to travel.

But, unavoidably, still a writer.
I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. (Photo from


Istanbul: A story told in two continents
The majestic Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque sits on a hill in the historic part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. It was built one millennium or 1,079 years after Hagia Sophia and derives architectural influences from it. (Photo from
The blue tiles on the ceiling and walls inside the Blue Mosque (Photo by Ben Morlok/


I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.

Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”

It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.

But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.

That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)

The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.

Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor,  historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.
Hagia Sophia, first built as an East Roman cathedral in Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), which was later converted into an Imperial Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. (Photo from
The massive interior of Hagia Sophia with its hanging chandeliers and medallions (Photo by Ben Morlok/

The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”

“And which river is that?”

“The Bosphorus,” I said.

“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”

The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.

The author Tanya Lara at the Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi in December 2015, and with Sami Bas in Levent in February 2016.
A drive to the Asian of Istanbul in January 2016 with Sami.


I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.

From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.

On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.

Author Tanya Lara on the Bosphorus Strait in October 2014. Is there a cooler cruise than seeing two continents all at once? Probably not.

People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.

Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.

The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.

From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four.  Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.

Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.

Istanbul13_photo from
The Bosphorus Bridge connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Geographically, only three percent of Turkey is in Europe, but historically and politically this is where it seems to belong. (Photo by Jorge1767/
The waterfront House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion in the Ortaköy district. (Photo from

It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.

Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.

Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.

Eminönü, where three bodies of water meet: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. In the background is the 450-year-old Yen Cami, which means New Mosque. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance  churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).

Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.

* * *

Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.

Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.

Galata Tower overlooking the Bosphorus (Photo from
Sami buys roasted castañas in Sisli. This and simit vendors (like pretzels but dipped in molasses) are all over the streets of Istanbul in December 2014. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”

Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.

My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.

The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.

In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.

During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.

Manuel Deli & Coffee, a typical café in Cihangir (Photo by Ezgi Ünlü/

Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even  the waters of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of  the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.

I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.

But that’s another story.
The Byzantine-period Maiden’s Tower on the Bosphorus Strait. Turkish legend says it was erected by an emperor whose daughter was prophesied to die from a snake bite by her 18th birthday. So her father kept her there, away from land. On her 18th birthday, he brought her a basket of fruits to celebrate. And guess what? There was a poisonous snake in the basket, which bit and killed her. (Photo from