Whether they're small weekend trips, or week-long holidays, here's a blog to help you do more than two vacations!

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Shiraz

It’s my first vacation since I moved to Europe, and guess where I headed – back to Asia. Well, not that far – but halfway there. Iran! I never placed Iran in my list of places to travel, but it’s good to have a curve ball thrown at you when it comes to travel destinations.

After landing in Tehran, it was a mad dash to their domestic airport (Mehrabad), an hour north of Imam Khomeini International, to the western banks of the capital. If you’ve seen Argo, the departure gates a just two polishes ahead of the movie’s suspenseful finale.

Shiraz is located in the heart of the country – where it boasts of peaceful Persian gardens, regal mosques, and the ruins of world famous Persepolis.

You can get there on the cheap by taking a 12-hour bus ride (the highways are in quite good condition), but I took a plane for 50 USD and saved myself some time. Key places to visit would be Nasir-al-molk mosque, Hafez’s tomb, the citadel and their bazaars and caravanserais.

Inside the Citadel

 

Inside the Nasir al Molk mosque

The sand-coloured bricks are brought to life with vividly painted tiles.

Outside, one of the citadel’s towers leans  as the basement was a hammam whose water flows eroded the tower’s base.

 

It was the beginning of my trip around Iran – there’s a really nice blog post summarising our trip here. Well, here’s the part you missed Brenda. Special kudos to Golshan Traditional Hostel – it wasn’t free, but the hostel had a lovely courtyard, a fountain, and plenty of Persian rugs to sit on.

 

Golshan Traditional Hostel

 

 

Changes, and Not Changes

So the blog has been quite for some time, and to summarise the last 7 months, it’s nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Major changes in my personal circumstances have come to pass – family composition, education, work, and location. It’s been an insane amount of changes, some more welcome than others, but here we go.

So the change first: I have moved location and am now based in Western Europe, so expect more pocket trips from this side of the world. However, there’s enough material for me to feature my beloved Asia and other continents. I may be featuring a bit more on my new location and the nearby cities in the Netherlands, but will try to keep the content fairly balanced. What will not change: the title and theme of the blog. This blog will still be called TVAY, and though you may contest, I’m now tied to a desk job, which will really allow me just that (not more!).

So let’s start in getting to know my new location. To be honest, I haven’t done much sightseeing as I am still too busy sorting my personal arrangements, but if there’s one thing that stand out in Den Haag, it’s the surprisingly clean, novel, and efficient modern Dutch architecture. I will skip the usual brick-made canal houses, and show you the working and living spaces instead.

The city hall, built in 1995 was definitely ahead of its time – now, almost two decades after, it still is a futuristic beauty thanks to the vision of Richard Meier. Looks familiar? Check out his other work, MACBA, Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum featured here.

There’s more to see, but I’ll leave it at that for now. And definitely it won’t be another half year until I write something.

Visiting the Australian Open

Admittedly, my trip to Australia was to watch a tennis event – the so called “Happy Slam” or the “Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific”. Here’s a quick itinerary to get the most out of your visit to Melbourne Park.

Heading for Melbourne Park? Be prepared!

The Australian Open is the most conveniently located Grand Slam of the all; it’s a quick 20 minute walk along the banks of the Yarra river to the centre of the city, leading to the popular attractions such as Federation Square and Flinders Street Station. If you’re rushing to get to the stadiums, there are free dedicated trams that will take you directly to the venue during the course of the sporting event. Warning – Australia takes it sport seriously, crazily dressed (or undressed!) fans wearing flags, or spelling out their favourite players’ names will be all over the sport grounds, and in Melbourne.

Note: There is no tennis player named Ringo. Yet.

Ticket prices have gone substantially over the past couple of years – the 5-day grounds pass used to cost AUD 99, but for 2013 it’s now AUD 130 at the gates; with the appreciation of the AUD, the cost of the ticket is compounded further. My tip for tickets: be there on the first week – that’s when you’ll have the practiced courts filled with players before their actual matches. The 5-day grounds pass will let you choose any of the 5 days (does not have to be consecutive) within the two weeks. Do not use your grounds pass when you have a ticket to the show courts (Rod Laver Arena or Hisense Arena), as they show court tickets already have a grounds pass for the day it is valid. No tickets to the games? You can watch for free and still get the stadium experience (well, sort of) at Federation Square. They have a giant screen set up there, and particularly great to watch events in the night time while downing some beers.

Don't miss a game by hanging out in Melbourne's city centre at Federation Square

Speaking of drink, save a bit of money, and bring a water bottle to the event – there are plenty of drinking stations with free water; also the Ozzie Open is kind enough to let people bring in their own food to the grounds (although not sure if this has changed for 2013).

Picnic time!

There are plenty of things to do on the grounds itself – the usual picnic, games for kids, and oddball tennis ball costumed-guy on stilts; but when Garnier used to be a sponsor, there was a 2-hour wait to get a facial on the tennis grounds!

Inside Hisense Arena

Final note – when they shout “Aussie!” you say “Oi”, and they shout “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” you reply with “Oi oi oi!”. It’s catchy; enjoy the games!

12 Hours in Kota Kinabalu

If you only have 12 hours in kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia’s largest city you need to set your expectations straight. No climbing of Mount Kinabalu, and no diving off Sabah’s underwater gems. With twelve hours you have to be greedy and very selective. For me, the easiest sell of KK is its proximity to the beaches. Tunku Abdul Raman, named after the country’s first Prime Minister, is an easy speedboat ride away from Jesselton Port. Note it’s a speedboat – not those motorised pump boats you normally take island hopping in the Philippines or in Thailand. Part of getting to the islands is the bumpy, water-splashing good time on these bad boys.

There are plenty of islands to choose from, but stick to the main island – if you forgot to bring anything or to pack any food (which I did). Manukan Island directly faces the city skyline of Kota Kinabalu. The majestic mountain ranges were not on show that day, but you get the lush greenery and the deep blues of the sea nevertheless.
Entrance to the park is 10 MYR, and a return boat trip is about 40 MYR. It was a quick thirty minutes from the airport to the white sand shores, and am pretty sure that’s a great sell for any beach bum. Though one can’t complain, it was Hari Raya weekend hence the multitude of beach goers.

Tourquise waters off Manukan Island

If you’re short on time and just looking for a quick half day escape, you can squeeze in a day at the beaches in Kota Kinabalu. Local residents are so lucky. You can finish the day with a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk filled with seafood restaurants, and a great Malaysian food selection.

Hmmm, brothy Bak Kuh Teh...

Three Free Things To Do In London

Sure, London is an expensive city. A quick hop on the Underground is £2.20, and a usual pint is about £4. However, there are plenty of things to do around the city to fill up your time, with minimum, nay, zero damage to your wallet. Pretty sure that the folks who missed out on the 2012 Olympic Games had a piece of what the city had to offer beyond sporting activities.

1. Revel in antiquities in the British Museum

Treasures from the Assyrian, Sumerian, Egyptian and Greek civilisations come together in this massive complex filled with history, relics, and plenty of marbles. Lord Elgin brought the facades from the Parthenon and they are now housed in a special viewing room; the mausoleum of Alexander was reconstructed from the pieces retrieved from its ruins, and the temple to Zeus is on full display with its nymphs captured in marble during mid-dance.

Assyrian treasures as big as the wall!

Other important pieces from the ancient world are also kept within the museum rooms – including the Rosetta Stone, a full Easter Island moai, and other bas reliefs retrieved from the ruins of Mesapotamia and Sumer. A donation of £7 is requested, and if you have the luxury to donate, then please do so to keep the displays in good condition. As an ultimate paradox, London’s star architect Lord Norman Foster extravagantly welcomes all visitors with a stunningly modern ceiling in the Grand Courtyard.

Welcome to the British Museum!

2. Be in awe of the masterpieces at the National Gallery

Similar to the British Museum, a suggested donation is requested (£5), but it’s still generally a free museum to visit.

Sitting in the heart of central London, the National Gallery is a standout collection of paintings from such gifted artists such as Van Gogh (Sunflowers), van Eyck (The Arnolfini Marriage), Canaletto (various works depicting canal life in Venice), French impressionists Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, and my personal favourite, Georges Seurat (the US version of The Office recently spoofed his work of riverside picnickers).

At night, in front of the National Gallery

It will take in a good day to ramble around the gallery when London rain comes in to spoil the weather, but a well spent day with the masters. It’s beautiful inside and out, familiar you say, of course, it was patterned after Athen’s Parthenon.

3. Take in the London atmosphere with its usual meeting point in Trafalgar Square

A skip and a hop away from Houses of Parliament, theatre central Leicester Square, and seats of power (Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street) is London’s melting point – Trafalgar Square. The marvellous open area is adorned with two fountains, several lions, and on the top of a column, navy hero Horatio Nelson.

Take in the air of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan city while travellers, tourist, red double-deck buses whiz past. Before you head of to take a walk to the historic areas towards Westminster Abbey, or head off shopping to Covent Garden or Picadilly Circus, or visit nearby museums like The National Gallery, take the time to stay at the courtyard, watch the world go by, while see it all come together in this wonderful public square.

All of London is a skip and a hop (and a tube or two) away...

Plenty of other things to do in London when you’re short on time and money, more galleries to visit, more parks to saunter, in and plenty of historical walks to take it all in, it’s not enough to pull them in a short trip. More things to do and write about in future entries!

Two Walks In Beijing

If you’ve got several hours to spend in Beijing, I propose that you take a walk. Here’s a suggestion for a leisurely stroll of fancy, or a walk that will test your endurance but satisfy your craving for adventure.

Walk, don't run!

A quick walk of amusement will welcome you to Olympic Park, home of the sensational 2008 Summer Games. As with most of Beijing, the complex hosts a grand collection of architectural marvels, all of them in the modern style, all of them with the most fanciful names. The most popular one, the swimming venue, fondly called The Water Cube, has been converted into a water amusement park, so you can dip in and use the facilities yourself.

Ice

The centrepiece of the Games is the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Olympic stadium, or more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest. It’s normally closed to the public, but take a walk around it to capture the magnitude of the celebrations in 2008.

The other option is to take a hike outside the city. Despite not being in Olympic Park, the next walk will make you feel like a true champion when you finish it. Allot 4-6 hours to take the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai and enjoy some of the most wondrous views of the desolate scenery surrounding the Great Wall. Wear appropriate hiking/trekking shoes, bring just enough water, some packed food, and dress appropriately (whether it’s cold or hot).

The fourteen-kilometre journey starts out in Jinshaling (for more details on how to put together the logisitics, visit Great Wall Forum at http://bitly.com/RpfMkv) and ends up in SImatai with a cable car ride. If you want to avoid souvenir wielding touts, and droves of tourists, I would suggest to take this walk. I went on an organised trip with Couchsurfers in 2009, and it was a life-changing achievement that we’ve kept in touch with the people we travelled with.

Steep climbs

What’s in store – supreme isolated views of the Great Wall, and supreme sense of achievement after the hike, and a pretty good workout (so remember to stretch – the steps can be almost three-quarters of a meter high).

Walking the Great Wall

Gaudi and His Modernista Friends

After having exhausted your day in Montjuic lapping up Barcelona’s city vistas, there is another standout venue on the ArticketBCN list; and who else to pay homage to, but Barcelona’s favourite son, Antonio Gaudi. His work La Pedrera (The Mines) sits in the heart of the Barcelona’s city extension, L’Eixample. And by heart, we mean that it will have views of the port, the mountains, and La Sagrada Familia on a clear day.

Barcelona on top of Gaudi's La Pedrera. You can see La Sagrada Familia and Torre Agbar from here.

The facade is a single sweeping one of stone, a feat in itself as the self-supporting wrought iron structure curves along the corner. Inside, take some time out appreciate the arches that form the spine of the building. It’s like being in a whale, I guess. On top, take a look at the chimneys; not sure if they were supposed to be like monsters, but they do look funny.  Or scary.

Fairy chimneys abound

The Museu Picasso is on this list, but be warned: Picasso’s blockbuster hits are not here, only token works from his Blue Period (his masterpiece Guernica, sits in Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid).  However, take a look around, and I’m sure you’ll find several works that will catch your eye made during Picasso’s early years.

MACBA and CCCB are right beside each other and both house an excellent collection of modern pieces from sculptures to film. I never really understood modern art (Centre Pompidou is the best in the world, yet its content is still lost on me), so I ended up enjoying the kids skateboard around the concrete playground on its entrance.

Inside Museu PicassoMACBA

Fundacio Antoni Tapies is a modest two-storey building, famous not just for the doodles of the artist that bears its name, but also a library that’s closed to the general public (how useful). There are several dancers on the lower ground floor, and they’ll talk to the visitors in between performances (when they’re not crawling on the floor or running around).

One museum not on the ArticketBCN roster that’s worth buying: an entrance to the Palau de la Musica Catala. All tour are guided, so you’ll always get the insider information on why, how and when the building was constructed. It was under the direction of Luis Domenech y Montaner (our guide quickly snapped: Gaudi alone did not build Barcelona) to honour the city’s much loved choir.

My favourite part was on how Art Nouveau came to Barcelona via Modernisme – the Industrial Revolution brought about the grime, pollution, and destroyed much of the city’s natural beauty (generally same everywhere). And how did art respond to this? They decorated everything to the nines – ornamentation, ornamentation, and more ornamentation. Ceramic tiles, blown glass, mosaics of flowers,  bursts of colours – all of which are a tribute to nature that was quickly withering on all corners of the city.

As a result, Palau de la Musica Catalana, stands abloom away from the city’s main avenues, regaling in all its Modernista finery. Its majestic stained glass skylight, adorned ticket boxes, and multitudes of sculptures inside and outside the premises all helped in gaining its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1997.