Friday, December 25, 2009

Florence, Italy

Destination #14: Florence, Italy

Year of Visit: December 2007

Florence is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited and one of my favourite cities in Europe. It is the capital city of the Tuscany region in Italy 230km north of Rome. I'm glad we made it to Florence despite the Italian trip being very poorly organized. Italy was the first country I visited in Continental Europe.

We spent the nights in Rome and made a handful of day trips out of Rome to other parts of Italy over 10 days. To make things worst, the days are shorter in winter! Fret not, we managed to jump on the inter-city train to Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence just before sunrise and arrived there just in time for breakfast!

1. The girls at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence.

We had brioche with double shot espressos to keep ourselves warm before we set foot out of the station. "Veni, vidi, vici! - I came, I saw, I conquer!". With a map in hand, we were determined to conquer Florence!

2. Good morning, Florence!

This was our very first sight of this beautiful city from the main entrance of Santa Maria Novella Station.

3. Like other European cities, Florence is a pedestrian-centric city easy to navigate through its narrow alleys and side walks. Florence was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance hence the influence of art and architecture from the Renaissance period have a profound impact on the existing churches, piazzas, museums, parks, gardens and other buildings.

4. An alley in the historic centre of Florence.

5. The main street leading to the architectural landmark of Florence, The Duomo.

6. One of the many historical cathedrals in Florence. See how the pedestrians were dwarfed by the size of the building and its wooden door.

I remember the girls were then busy selecting postcards depicting private parts of the sculptures in Florence, up close! Scroll down towards the end of this entry to see an example of the popular postcards! [warning: 18 sx]

Our first stop in Florence was the Gothic style landmark, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore otherwise known as The Duomo. The cathedral is so massive that it can be seen from every corner of the city.

7. I was mesmerized by the sheer size of this 15th century cathedral.

The basilica is one of Italy's biggest churches and its dome is the biggest in the world!

8. The cathedral with its bell tower.

9. The cathedral is so huge and the ceiling so high. It looked like they were built for giants.

10. The cathedral with its landmark brick dome.

11. That's the bell tower seen from the side.

I was so impressed with the facade of The Duomo that I couldn't stop clicking my camera even when we were busy searching high and low for an Italian sim card just in case our group split up somewhere in Italy.

The cathedral is opened to public and there will be a long queue at the entrance during peak seasons but when we were there it was winter and Christmas was just around the corner so there weren't many tourists at the various places of attractions in Italy.

12. The nativity scene inside the cathedral in conjunction with the Christmas season.

13. More of the interior.

14. The painting under the dome wasn't completed until 1579.

The Duomo was still the subject of photography way into the evening.

15. A tourist searching for the perfect angle to capture the facade of The Duomo onto his camera lens while the other paused to admire this magnificent structure.

We left The Duomo in search of the famed Arno River which passes below the Ponte Vecchio and the Santa Trìnita bridge. However, we arrived at the entrance of the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and best art museums in the world before we reached the Arno River bank.

Sadly, due to time constraint we had to give Uffizi a miss and spent the rest of the evening exploring other parts of Florence. One of us voted to take a detour to a nearby designer brand outlet mall outside Florence to shop while the rest of continued exploring this beautiful city.

16. Finally, the Arno River!

17. Arno River and the Santa Trìnita bridge in the background.

It's a shame we didn't make it to Piazzale Michelangelo across the bridge for a magnificent panoramic view of Florence. If you are visiting Florence please don't miss it for our sake! The view is to-die-for!

18. My travel buddies for the 2007 Italian trip. Miss you guys!

19. And now this is the bridge that you should be interested in.

It's called the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge with shops built on it! It's amazing how this seemingly ancient bridge can withstand the weight of all those shops and people on it.

20. If you see more than two such scooters you know you're in Italy.

21. Locals doing their last minute Christmas shopping next to the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

22. Scooters zooming in and out of the narrow alleys of Florence.

23. Sunset fast approaching.

24. This was the gelato parlour where we had our first gelati.

The ones we found later on were much better though!

25. An Italian bakery selling brioche, pizza, panini and other Italian pastries.

26. G-E-L-A-T-O parlour!

27. Hmm, I don't remember taking this photo but seems like another bakery to me.

28. Yet another gelato parlour.

29. One of the many shopping streets in Florence.

From what I saw, Florence is a nice place to shop!

30. Christmas decorations along the streets.

31. Piazza della Signoria at sunset. Piazza is the Italian term for square.

32. Fountain of Neptune @ Piazza della Signoria at sunset.

33. Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.

Today, most parts of the building have been converted into a museum.

34. A replica of Michelangelo's David at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio.

35. This is my favourite statue among all the statues I have seen.

This sculpture is the work of a Flemish artist Jean de Boulogne known as The Rape of the Sabine Women. This marble and bronze group has been placed at its current site since 1583.

36. The Loggia dei Lanzi, also called the Loggia della Signoria, is a building on the corner of Piazza della Signoria adjoining the Uffizi Gallery. Many artworks and sculptures are housed in this building.

37. A nicely decorated taxi with the driver and steward in costumes!

38. Another street near The Duomo all lit up for Christmas.

39. I believe this belongs to Michelangelo's David (a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture)!

It was depicted on a postcard btw! HAHA!

Pray that I get to update my blog at least once a month after I start working!

Merry Christmas, my dear readers!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Brussels, Belgium

Destination#13: Brussels, Belgium

Year of Visit: 2008

Belgium, a nation synonymous with chocolates and its waffles! It is a relatively small nation in Western Europe sandwiched between France and The Netherlands. Both French and Dutch are widely spoken in Belgium and both languages are the official languages of Belgium.

The capital city of Belgium is none other than Brussels. There is a good mix of classical architecture such as those in the old town square and modern office towers and structures such as the Espace Léopold European parliament complex in Brussels.

I was there in Brussels for a night after our 10 days Western Europe tour.

The weather was overcast and gloomy throughout my stay in Brussels. The sidewalks were relatively deserted in most parts of Brussels save for the city centre. Office workers were seen rushing back to their offices after lunch time at Rue de la Loi. Further down the road, in the inner cities of Brussels, immigrants from Africa and the Middle East seem to outnumber the local community.

The Royal Palace of Brussels

Most are traders in make shift stalls selling jeans for €5 a piece and many other items to make a living. That part of Brussels looked dodgy with a lot of trash strewn all over the streets and graffiti decorating the walls. Cars and trucks owned by these traders were parked indiscriminately along the narrow streets causing unnecessary traffic congestion.

All that gave an unpleasant first impression of Brussels to most of us first time visitors but I'm sure every city has her fair share of bad areas. We headed down to the city centre and walked around a little. The old town square of Brussels is quite imposing and tourist oriented. There were busloads of Asian tourists in this area.

There were at least six chocolate boutiques at the Grand' Place-Grote Markt historic centre (central square of Brussels) and its vicinity for chocolate lovers, the most obvious ones being Godiva Chocolatier and Leonidas Fresh Belgian Chocolates. Make sure you buy some Belgian chocolates before you leave Brussels!

Guildhalls at the Grand' Place-Grote Markt. The central square is surrounded by imposing pre 19th century buildings, the very few that are still standing in Brussels. Most of the old town were destroyed to make way for development.

Brussels Town Hall

Architectural style: Gothic

Year completed: 1420 A.D
Grand' Place-Grote Mark a.k.a The Grand Place in English, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Seven guildhouses at the Grand Place which have been subsumed within one grand facade whose symmetries are set off by a curved pediment and narrow pilasters, sporting nineteen busts of the dukes of Brabant.

One of the many chocolate boutiques near the Grand Place.

The chocolate products here are very nicely packed but the price is comparable to that of Godiva Chocolatier, expensive stuff but we don't want to leave Brussels empty handed. Hence, we got a box of Godiva chocolates for ourselves and a few boxes of Belgian chocolates for our loved ones at home.

A stone's throw away from the chocolate boutique is the Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue of a boy peeing. The Mannekan Pis has been around since 1619 and the significance of it is associated with many different local legends.

The Manneken Pis

The Manneken Pis is dressed in costume several times a week. It has been dressed in hundreds of costumes representing the national dress of nations whose citizens come to Brussels as tourists, uniforms of assorted trades, professions, associations and branches of the civil and military services.

The author at Grand' Place-Grote Markt, Brussels.

One of the buildings at the Grand Place.

Besides Belgian's famous chocolates the mouth-watering Belgian waffles deserves a mention!

These are arguably the best waffle I have ever eaten.

It's not difficult to find them. The waffles are often displayed in front of the waffle joints near the Grand Place, often alongside other souvenir shops or chocolate boutiques. You will see a sea of tourists crowding the waffle joints just like tourists crowding the Gelato joints in Italy.

After a couple of hours wandering around the Grand Place and its vicinity we were ushered back to the tour bus as the rain got heavier. The tour bus took us to the Automium which is supposedly one of the attractions of Brussels for a photo stop. It serves as an exposition centre and observation centre but I have no interest in this modern structure.

The Automium

After the photo stop we were taken around the various European Union (EU) administrative buildings around Brussels that earned Brussels the title, 'the administrative capital of Europe'.

The Brussels Expo

I don't remember what it was.

These photos were taken from the bus as the rain poured outside.

Royal Palace of Brussels

After the day tour, our bus dropped us back at our hotel and we were free to venture out on our own but the rain did not stop. We stayed in until the next morning whereby we took the Eurostar and voila London, here we come!

I caught this interesting message on climate change by the World Wildlife Fund (I'm guessing from the logo of the panda) on camera in Brussels. Yes, let us stop climate change before it changes you!

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