Bullfighting

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One April evening, enthusiast and curious tourists from around the world enter the massive arena of Las Ventas to witness a bullfight. I was there too, sitting in the Sombra (shaded) section, quite close to the action.

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Bullfighting or a corrida is an ancient tradition that goes back four millennia, practiced by many different cultures. Three toreros (matadors) fighting six bulls, each with 6 assistants: two picadors (lancers) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (flagmen) and a mozo de Espada (sword servant). Together, they form a cuadrillo or an entourage.

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The trumpet sounds and in flamboyant bullfighter costumes, the entourage parades into the arena. The corrida starts with the first bull entering the field from the Puerta de las Toriles, where it waited.

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The picadors mounted on heavily padded horses follow. Bull attacks the horse, the picador stabs its neck, the bull weakens.

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Then three banderilleros enters as the picadors leave, plants spiked flag sticks into the bull’s shoulder.

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When the bull is deemed weak enough, the torero appears and works the bull with several runs at the cape. The whole spectacle comes to an end with the torero killing the bull with his sword. This was repeated six times.

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Did I enjoy it? Many times I cringed, especially when the puncture wasn’t clean. No, I will not watch it again. Just once, I told myself.   Hard as it may be to watch, I could not deny that it was a cultural experience hard to forget.

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The Palawan Mystic and A Coupon

Mystic-PalawanCredits: A quick page template  was created by Michelle Seizys / Shell 

It’s the middle of summer and I’m at my desk staring at the computer itching to be somewhere but the metro. Just a week after a long weekend spent outdoors, I’m missing the outdoors already. That’s what summer can do to me. So I reminisce. Of toes sinking in the sand, of the cold waves taking me by surprise, of the sun warming my body after, and of the sea wind blowing me dry.

Speaking of last weekend, a friend’s daughter tagged along. She does not travel much around the Philippines and is excited to see another part of the country outside of where she lives, which is Manila, and where she has ties, which is Pampanga and Boracay. “Boracay,” she said, “is where I go if I want to get away.” She’s there once or twice a year and knows it like the back of her hand. She needs a change of scenery (I thought) so we brought her to the river.

Pinacanauan

The Pinacanuan River in Peñablanca, Cagayan is a favorite in the area because it reminds of Palawan in a way.

The image in my mind of the sand and the sea usually come with karst limestone in the background.

El-Nido-Island-Hopping

Yes, Palawan. I love how it is diverse – white sand, blue sea, stunning landscape,

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incredible food scene, breathtaking underwater world,

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dense forests, waterfalls, a world-heritage listed cave, etc.

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El Nido is a top choice and will be for a while.

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I love it for its charming town, its ruggedness, its simplicity, its raw yet sophisticated food options.

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Then you have the outlying beaches of San Vicente off Port Barton for those who want to get away from it all—quiet, tranquil and serene.

If, like my niece, your idea of a getaway is limited to the same old stuff, a change of scenery will do you good. Why not Palawan? And here’s a chance.

For a limited time offer, Let’s Palawan is offering a $30 off on their packages. To avail, all you have to do is click on their “get a quote” page and type in this coupon code: zeal4adventureC003. I urge you to grab it if you can, try something new. Palawan will do you good.

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Madrid: On Second Chances

In the middle of Madrid’s historic center, his cab off limits, the driver dropped us off just outside a tree-lined, cobbled street.

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Across it is our hostal. Calle Mayor is filled with buildings of centuries past and within walking distance is Madrid’s main squares, Plaza Mayor, and Puerto del Sol.

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hostal-patria-2Hostal Patria

A good place to be, this part of the city is full of sprightly bars, restaurants, and shops, many of which are old and historical selling traditional goods.

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Definitely a perfect choice to get into its verve.

Madrid didn’t always dazzled. On a day trip en route to Seville some ten years ago, the capital of Spain failed to impress. Too cosmopolitan, my first impression was.

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But highly developed as it has become, Madrid’s art, and cultural heritage remains Intact and very much alive. A few days in the capital and I warmed up, I allowed it to dazzle me with its vibrant vibe, the second time around. So how did it change my impression?

 La Plaza Mayor and People Watching

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Although overpriced, Plaza Mayor is a marvelous place to while away time. We’d order a jug of sangria, a plate of olives and pass the time and people watch.

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Built during Philip III’s reign (the Habsburg period), it used to be the center of festivities… bull fights, royal coronations, and executions. It is still used today for public celebrations and is one of the famous squares of Madrid. It is a beautiful square that measures 129 by 94 meters. Three-storey residential buildings surround it.

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A fire led to the plaza’s renovation in 1790. Architect Juan de Villanueva lowered the building fronts and enclosed the square at the corners by building nine archways. The Arco de Cuchilleros with its steep steps leading up to the square is the most arresting among the arches.

In Calle Cuchilleros, you’ll find Botin Restaurant—the oldest restaurant in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. But more than its world record, do go for their specialty,

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the Cochinillo Asado (roast suckling pig) and Cordero Asado (roast lamb). Superb.

Delightful Cheap Eats

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Museo del Jamon (Museum of Ham). Just by the name, you are lured, yes? Legs and legs of ham hang from its walls, calling us from afar. This was the first place, after checking in, we entered.

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It was jamon heaven and an excellent brunch it made. A block away from the hostal, we found it to be a great place to soak in the local scene while sampling different kinds of Spanish ham at very affordable prices. Beer comes with a round of free tapas already.

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Another excellent venue for very affordable eats is Cerveceria 100 Montaditos. A fun place with many outlets across Spain, actually. A pint of beer and most sandwiches sell for €1. And these aren’t shoddy sandwiches either. How can you go wrong with that?

Mercado de San Miguel is my favorite.

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It’s a market and a tapas corner in one roof. Although somewhat of a tourist trap, I was captivated.

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The vibrant atmosphere, the turn of the century building, which was rebuilt when the Belle Époque fell into disrepair, the tapas and various foods are good enough reasons to be trapped here.

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It is described to be a culinary culture center that brings together the best traders, professionals and experts under one roof and I tend to agree. I truly enjoyed this place.

The Glorious Churros con Chocolate

A favorite of the Spaniards, chocolate and churros, they take very seriously. Made of thick dark chocolate, Spanish hot chocolate is almost always paired with churros. The thickness and richness work well as a dip but to drink it after the churros are gone is not a bad thing too.

churros

Highly recommended in guidebooks and online searches are San Gines Chocolateria. Believed to be the oldest place serving chocolate and churros. We found our way there one morning, a line already forming. The menu, if there even is one, only has a handful of items: café con leche, fresh orange juice, and churros con chocolate caliente. There are 2 versions of the churros – the traditional kind (has 6-7 pieces per order) and the thicker kind called porras. Lighter, I preferred the traditional one.

Our hostal host, on the other hand, recommended to Cafeteria Los Pinchitos. It is, to him, the best churros con chocolate in town. “A secret among Madrileños,” he said.

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The churros are light, the outside crispy while the inside soft. The chocolate appeals more to my taste – not as thick as San Gines’ but creamier. The place lacks ambiance, typically traditional, and the service leaves much to be desired. But the food besides the churros and the chocolate are excellent.

roasted-pork-earsOreja de Cerdo a la Plancha — Roasted Pork Ear 

Treasure Hunting at El Rastro

rastro

Unless it’s a flea market, a traditional market or a specialty market (for affordable art / conversational pieces that are easy to carry home), I try to avoid the shopping scene. But in Madrid, Sundays should be reserved for the flea market.

entertainment-at-the-rastroEntertainment at the Rastro

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The rastro is a street market from the medieval time.

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One can spend the whole morning looking at find practically anything, from books and toys, clothes, flowers, handicrafts, to antiques, paintings, and other works of art.

sievert-blow-torchA blowtorch made by Anton’s descendant.  How likely is that?

Held every Sunday and public holidays from 9am – 2pm, it takes up a large triangle area between Calle Embajadores and Ronda de Toledo, along Plaza de Cascorro and La Riberia de Curtidones.

 And suddenly I am charmed.

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The Trek to the Underground River

Underground-RiverCredits: Papers by Plum Dumpling Designs, Pri Rocha, The Design Girl, Trixie Scap Design; Ribbon by Design by Tater, Red string with flowers by Graham Like the Cracker, and String wrap by Haynay Designs. 

Elusive in the past, I became disinterested and eventually gave up the idea of visiting Palawan’s famous Underground River. Then they re-opened the Jungle Trail.

Initially slated for December but due to unforeseen reasons, we moved our Puerto Princesa trip to January.  We planned to simply chill out, visit our favorite jaunts and catch up with friends. Then, the grand idea— “why not go to Sabang for the day so you can finally see the Underground River?” Anton to me.  Me to him,  “Ok, but we will trek to the cave.”

Sabang-Pier

The Sabang Pier is the main jump off point to the Underground River or The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, once also called the St. Paul Subterranean River. Yes, it has many names. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave was provisionally chosen (through votes—and you know how we Filipinos can vote) as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Entrance-from-the-shoreEntrance from the shore

The usual way to get there is to take a 15-20 minute boat ride (I estimate) from the pier.

There are two trails to the cave, The Monkey Trail, and the Jungle Trail. The former has been closed for a time now and the latter re-opened only last year. Having heard of the Monkey trail from friends who did it some 10 years back, I knew that I’d do it at some point. Well, the jungle trail, I reckon, is good enough.

crossingThe trek starts by crossing the mangrove.

A recommended option for the active, the jungle trail meanders through a beautiful lush forest.

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It lets you hike through ancient trees, well crafted wooden staircases, bridges and benches made from confiscated wood that adds character to the trail

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and at one point, limestone formations becomes backdrop behind the foliage.

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Not only does the pleasant 2-hour hike enhance the experience but it also gives jobs to the 20 or so Tagbanua indigenous community members.

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reminder-before-the-trek

As “Park Wardens” they serve as guides and caretakers of the jungle.

path-to-the-riverthe path from the trail

The Underground River itself was not a let down at all. Having heard of so many mixed reviews, expectations were low.

paddle-boatsWaiting in line to enter the cave.

But to my surprise, the chambers especially the one called “the cathedral,” towering some 800 meters high, impressed me.

inside-the-cave

Truth to tell though, I fell asleep some part of the way, perhaps due to exhaustion and the fact that the only thing lighting the way was a flashlight held by the person in front. Our guide was adept and quite engaging in providing intelligent albeit elementary information about what a cave system is.

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My take on this experience: to go there just for the Underground River may not be worth the effort (it’s still a 2-hour ride to Sabang). The hikes makes the difference.  Having seen Sabang, I wish I had stayed a few nights to explore the quiet town.

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Queluz

Plan to stop at nearby Queluz on your way back to Lisbon from Sintra.

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The national palace is worth the detour.  Be sure though to buy a ticket to Queluz, or you won’t be able to get off at your end destination. That was what happened to us when we decided mid-way to get off at Queluz instead of heading straight back. When we arrived at the Rossio station, the tickets we had were void, and we couldn’t get out. Apparently, the time started ticking once we got on the train and what should have taken 45 minutes took us 2 hours. We should have bought another ticket back to Rossio when we got off at Queluz — explained Mr. Operator. With many apologies, we asked to be freed with the promise of paying what was due. Kind Mr. Operator let us out, even waved our arrears. Smiling and shaking his head, I wonder how many mindless tourists did the same thing?

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It was, however, worth the hassle. Queluz is a rather unremarkable suburb but its National Palace, in its pink Rococo glory, is a remarkable example of Portuguese Romantic architecture. Although smaller, it shares much of Versailles’ sense of grandeur in its ornate decorations and exquisite gardens.

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It is because Portuguese architect, Mateus Vicente Oliveira designed it in homage to the famous palace outside Paris France. Built as a summer retreat for Dom Pedro, the famous Duke of Braganza, who later married his niece, Queen Maria I.

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Famed for the glory of its gardens, which include a large topiary parterre, formal terraces and fountains at the rear of the palace. The interior’s attention to detail is no less than that of the exterior.

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The palace is a 10-minute walk from the Sintra train line, turning left out of the Queluz-Belas Station. Signs will lead you to a cobbled square with a statue of Queen Maria I. Facing directly into the plaza is the façade of the palace.

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Romancing with Sintra

Sintra-collageCredits: J Sprague Photo Collage Template version 3; Paper by Wimpychompers Creations

If you have an extra day in Lisbon, I suggest you head out to Sintra. It’s just a 45-minute train ride from the Rossio Station and well worth the trip.

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Walking into Sintra is like treading on fairytale land, more so on a gloomy day as when we were there. Known for its many romantic 19th-century architectures, Sintra is an outstanding reference for Portuguese culture.

fairytale town

Royal castles, mansions, and chalets scatter around the verdant rolling hills and peaks of the Sintra mountain range. The long sections of walls winding around the high peaks of the Serra reminds of century’s past.

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The Moors Castle high above Sintra

Here, at the Central Western Portuguese coast, at the northern-most stretch of the protected Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, history, archeology, architecture and natural beauty meld into a beguiling and magical town.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed center, the Sintra Vile is a 15-minutes walk from the train station.

Palacio-Nacional-de-Sintra

The Palacio Nacional de Sintra dominates the old town. Its iconic twin conical chimneys can be seen from far away. We, however, only had time to visit 2 Castles that day:

Sintra Castelo dos Mouros (The Moor Castle)

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A classic ruined castle set amidst the lush forests of the Serra de Sintra. Established by the Northern African Moors during the 9th century to guard the town but fell into disrepair after the Christian conquered Portugal. The castle was restored and transformed into a romantic ruin in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II.

Pena National Palace

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On top of a hill stands an eccentric palace built in the 19th century for Dom Fernando II, an artistic king who wanted the palace to resemble that of an opera. Despite the hodgepodge of styles, the castle looks surprisingly harmonious and the use of yellow, pink and purple colors completed the “fairytale” quirkiness of the palace.

Pena-interior

A Protected National Monument, the Palace is considered to be one of the world’s best examples of architectures from the Romantic era.

medieval-streets

The medieval streets of Sintra Vile lead to many treasures – craft shops selling a host of local artisan specialties, a range of cafes and restaurants or even townhouses that exude the air of past glories.

Cantinho-Gourmet

In one of the narrow streets, we found a small café (Cantinho Gourmet) for a pretty good lunch prepared by an old lady. In another part of town is A. Piriquitos.

traveisseros-and-queijadas

Here we had the famed delicacies of the village, Queijadas de Sintra and Travesseiros. Delicious treats not to be missed.

Pena-Palace

In this region north of Lisbon, the center town of Sintra is only half the story. A must-do day trip but if time permits, a few nights stay is ideal to spend time exploring the surrounding beaches and the many seafood restaurants. The other half is a spectacular stretch of Atlantic coast with rugged cliffs, crashing waves and near-empty stretches of sandy beach, which calls for another visit in the future, perhaps.

Useful Info:

A Piriquita: Rua Padarcias 1/7; +351 219 230 026

Pena National Palace: Estrada da Pena; +351 219 237 300

Castelo dos Mouros: Parque de Monserrate, Estrada da Pena; +351 219 237 300     Opening Hours: 9:30AM-8:00PM; shorter hours in low season

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Belem: The Glory days of Portugal’s Explorers

Wealth, fame, and fortune, along with spreading Christianity, were reasons why daring sailors like Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and the likes set sail in uncharted waters. This was from a period known as the Age of Discovery. From 1400 to 300 years later, European explorers, many of which are from the seafaring country of Portugal and Spain, visited and mapped most of the world. Portugal discovered the sea route to India while the Spaniards discovered America.

Portugal, a small kingdom whose economy relied on seafaring in the 15th century, had a visionary ruler in Henry the Navigator. He encouraged and paid many to explore the world. And so this nation once ruled the waves.

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Belem is where the Tagus River meets the sea. From its waterfront, many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyage to discover the world. During this time, Lisbon flourished and many great monuments were constructed.

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Belem Tower was one of those. A magnificent fortress also named Tower of St. Vincent, as it was built to honor Lisbon’s patron saint. The tower situated at the mouth of the Tagus River was initially built to defend the city. The 4-storey tower was originally constructed on an island in the Tagus River near the shore. It stands on land today because the riverbank’s location shifted through the years.

Belem’s main street and historical avenues are a strip of 160-year-old buildings that have survived changes and modernization. These include the famous pastry shop, Antiga Confeteria de Belem, known for a particular Portuguese confectionery, an egg tart called

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Pasteis de Belem—the flakiest pastry filled with creamy custard. Just across from Jeronimos Monastery, the shop is easily spotted because of the long line spilling over to the sidewalk. Many of which are visitors from the stunning monastery.

jeronimos-monastery

The Jeronimos Monastery is a classic example of a Portuguese late Gothic Manueline architecture. Along with the nearby Tower of Belem, it was classified in 1983 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the significant emblems of the Age of Discovery and the distinct maritime motif, which includes corals, sea monsters, and coiled rope, reflects that golden era.

jeronimos-monastery-details

The monastery was built in honor of the successful voyage to India of celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. This is also where De Gama, King Manuel, and other prominent figures were laid to rest.

Discovery-Monument

Sitting opposite the monastery, on the banks of the Tagus River, is another stunning iconic monument, the Discoveries Monument. Dedicated to the adventurers and explorers who helped established Portugal as a 14th-century superpower. Unveiled in 1960, on the 500th death anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator. The massive monument had Prince Henry at the prow of a caravel, backed by figures from Portuguese history that participated in the golden age of discovery.

I have to admit, Belem caught my attention because of one thing only—Pasteis de Belem. If this is the only thing you do, that tram ride to Belem will be worth it already. But it would be a waste to miss its historical sights, which are all within walking distance anyway.

Lisbon’s gateway to the Atlantic, Belem, is where the Tagus meets the sea and where the naval explorer of yore started their journey to the unknown. Take the effort to visit it when in Lisbon.

Useful Info:

Jeronimos Monastery: Praca do Imperio

Opening Hours: Oct-Apr: Tues-Sun 10AM-5:30PM May-Sep: Tues-Sun 10AM-6:30PM Admission: €7

Antiga Confiteria de Belem: 84/92 Rua de Belem

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