Celebrating the Botanics

5 08 2015

In a Singapore caught up in the frenzy of celebrating the abandonment of the past, being given an opportunity to celebrate a piece of our pre-independent history, the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), is a welcome distraction. The 74 hectare green space, recently inscribed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one that connects the generations as a community space, a constant in a Singapore in which change seems to be the only other constant, for which alone it deserves to be celebrated.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The inscription into the UNESCO list gives us a lot more reason to celebrate. The Gardens has long played a role not just as a community space, but as a centre for botanical research, it has made immense contributions even to Singapore’s (and Malaya’s) early economy. The rise of rubber as an economic crop and the spread of rubber plantations, once dominant across our island’s rural areas, across much of Malaya, owes much to the work carried out in the SBG and Henry Ridley, the SBG’s first scientific director. The rural landscape while now conquered by the sea of concrete, owes much of its green colouring, a product of the efforts to transform Singapore into a Garden City, also to the SBG.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Green is a colour that paints the Botanics is beautifully. Home to numerous heritage trees, it also is a showcase of more than 10,000 tropical plants. Offers an escape many seek from the insanity and clutter of the urban world, its wide open lawns provide our young with the space necessary to learn that life is not just about virtual play. The same lawns have given great service to society. One, was to provide the space for the first Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat or People’s Variety Show that drew a crowd of 22,000. The shows were an initiative to help unify Singaporeans in the early days of full self-government and started in 1959. 

Space to run free.

Space to run free.

One of several heritage trees.

One of several heritage trees.

My first acquaintance with the Gardens came about in my earliest of years. On the evidence of my childhood albums and the long lasting fascination I had with sundials and black swans, many of my early interactions with the SBG would have taken place in the Tanglin Core, the oldest part of the gardens. This part of the Gardens is where many of its heritage sites are to be found, including Singapore’s the first ornamental body of water, Swan Lake, which was completed in 1866. Several of the Gardens’ icons can be found close to the lake such as the famous tembusu tree that has found its way to the back of our five-dollar note, the Bandstand – a popular spot for wedding photographs to be taken at, and Swan Lake Gazebo. The cast iron gazebo harks back to a forgotten age and is one that graced the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief’s one time residence (at old Admiralty House on Grange Road, which was demolished in the 1960s to allow the 2nd Raffles Institution campus to be built).

My introduction to the sundial at the Botanical Gardens in 1966.

When I first met the acquaintance of the sundial.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Swan Lake, Singapore's first ornamental lake.

Swan Lake, Singapore’s first ornamental lake.

One of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A bamboo clump – one of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

Also within the Tanglin Core, is an old building that offers cool relief, especially on a hot day, Holttum Hall. Built in 1920, the two storey bungalow, one of four conserved bungalows found on the site (more information on which can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authorty (URA) Conservation Portal), now houses the SBG Heritage Museum.  The hall is close to the Botany Centre – one of the visitor gateways into the Gardens and holds a wealth of information in its interactive and multimedia exhibits on the work that went on in the gardens and its role in the proliferation of rubber as a crop.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

One of the things I was surprised to learn about the SBG, was that what is thought to be the oldest and largest orchid plant in the world, can be found on its grounds. The plant, a clump of tiger orchid, wears a rather undignified appearance. Measuring some 5 metres in diameter, it is thought to be the one planted in 1861 by Lawrence Niven, the SBG’s first superintendent who is credited with its development, just two years after the Gardens was established.

The oldest orchid?

The oldest orchid?

Flowers belonging to the world's oldest orchid plant.

Flowers belonging to the world’s oldest orchid plant.

Another interesting site is at Plant House. Here, arrows can be found marked into several of the red bricks of its steps, the significance of which only came to light in 1995, when a group of former prisoners of war visiting from Australia told of how the arrows got on the bricks. Apparently the arrows, a symbol then commonly used to mark government property, were marked by the POWs involved, as an act of defiance. More on this story (and also of Lawrence Niven) can be found here.

The steps of plant house.

The steps of plant house.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps - with arrows seen on some of them.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps – with arrows seen on some of them.

Adjoining the Tanglin Core and to its north is the Central Core. Here, laid out over the highest point of the grounds, one finds the National Orchid Garden. Opened by Singapore’s first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1995, the National Orchid Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary on 20 October.  In it, the visitor will find over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids on display, making it an especially colourful site. Nestled in the midst all that colour is is another of the SBG’s four conserved bungalows, Burkill Hall. A former plantation owner’s bungalow built in 1886, it now is rented out as an event venue. The National Orchid Garden is also where the most vandalised tree in Botanics can be found. As part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary, SG50 and SBG’s UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription, admission into the National Orchid Garden will be free until the 31st of August for all resident in Singapore (this includes Singapore citizens, permanent residents and others residing in Singapore such as EP, Work Permit and Dependent Pass holders).

Burkill Hall.

Burkill Hall.

The most vandalised tree.

The most vandalised tree.

A close-up of it.

A close-up of it.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

It seems these days that no attraction in Singapore is compelete without something to tempt the palate. The SBG these days certainly isn’t short of this with its range of gastronomical delights found in the abundance of the food and beverage outlets now found in the Gardens. One of these outlets can be found close to the National Orchid Garden, set in the tranquility of the Ginger Garden. This, the ginger themed restaurant Halia at Singapore Botanic Gardens, seems to have been caught up in the celebratory mood and has come up with a special SG50 menu of orchid inspired desserts and beverages. Orchid tea blends from the SBG Gardens Shop feature in the beverages, two cocktails, Yam Seng and 1965, and a mocktail, Singapore Jubilee.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

Halia at SBG.

Halia at SBG.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

White and Lapis.

White and Lapis.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

Nassim Gate Visitor Centre, which lies northeast of the Ginger Garden, are where another two F&B outlets can be found. One, the Casa Verde, which touts itself as a “casual trattoria”, offers casual dining. On its menu over the National Day period (from 3rd to 17th August 2015, served from 12pm to 2.45pm but not on weekends and public holidays), several local favourites curated by its chef Danny Tan, can be selected. The dishes, Singapore Laksa, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus, and Char Kway Teow, are priced reasonably and have a soft drink thrown in. Diners at the tratorria can also look forward to its National Day celebration when its fresh oven baked pizzas come with a 50% discount on 9 August from 11.30 am to 5.45 pm. Casa Verde will also run a Kids Pizza Making workshop on 7 August at 2 pm as part of the celebration.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

A stone’s throw away from the “green house”, we find Corner House, set in a beautifully restored conserved two-storey bungalow, E J H Corner House. The fine-dining restaurant offers the Gastro-Botanica creations of Chef Jason Tan and to mark the country’s 5oth birthday and the restaurant’s first anniversary, Chef Tan is presenting his Celebratory Discovery Menu (available until 16 August 2015 – for dinner only). The menu takes diners on an eight course journey that traces the various stages in the development of Singapore’s culinary scene. Each course reinterprets the chef’s favourite dishes along that journey, which I must say is pretty impressively on the basis of two items on the menu I got to have a taste of, one of which the Remembering Oyster Omelette. That does have me recall the flavour of the real hawker dish, and one with which I found myself transported back at first bite to that car park opposite Cold Storage that became known as Gluttons’ Square.

Corner House.

Corner House – The Verandah.

The Reading Room.

The Reading Room.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Chef Jason Tan.

Chef Jason Tan.

My Corner of the World - Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

My Corner of the World – Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

For those for whom only the real hawker fare will complete an outing to Botanics, one can, rather surprisingly, find a food court on the grounds of the SBG, Food Canopy. While it may not offer the same fare as the food centre at Taman Serasi many from my generation miss, the food court, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Bukit Timah Core (close to the MOE  Co-Curricular Activities Branch, CCAB), offers a choice of hawker fare with its seven stalls. One of these, is the Di Wei Teo Chew Restaurant, which offers Teochew classics such as cold crab, chye poh kway teow, pan-fried pomfret, yam rings and Teochew yam strips.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

Besides the food on offer, visitors to the SBG over the so-named Jubilee Weekend (7 to 9 August 2015), will find a host of activities to celebrate independent Singapore’s 5oth anniversary, including a carnival at the Bandstand and Orchid Plaza with activities and food offerings that include some that bring back the good old days.  There will also be a reenactment of the People’s Variety Show, movie screenings and concerts to look forward to. The SBG’s Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage will, on the evening of 9 August, provide an alternative site to catch a live-screening of the National Day Parade from. More information on the activities over the weekend can be found at the NParks SBG Jubilee Weekend page.

The Gardens Shop.

Offerings at the Gardens Shop – no visit is complete without dropping by.

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The old university town of Alcalá de Henares

21 04 2015

I love old university towns and I got to have a look at one of Spain’s oldest, Alcalá de Henares, quite recently. The university established there had its origins in 1293 as Estudio de Escuelas Generales de Alcalá and became the University of Compultense (Universitas Complutensis) in 1499 through the vision of a important church figure at the time as Spain was entering into its Golden Age, a move that was to transform the former college to one of Spain’s most important seats of learning and also lead to the expansion of Alcalá into a planned university town. Although the university has since been moved to Madrid, the city of Alcalá de Henares’ still retains much of the flavour of the old university town and has seen a revival of the old university as the University of Alcalá in more recent times.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

I arrived in Alcalá de Henares in the quiet of a Saturday morning and the first glimpse I had of the city was of its quiet, neat and ordered streets lined with brick and sandstone buildings coloured gold by the light of the morning sun. Alcalá, some 30 kilometres from Madrid, seemed distant enough to be isolated from the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city; the dignified air of calm unsurprising perhaps of a city that was reinvented as a seat of learning.

A peek at Alcalá de Henares.

There is much more than meets the eye in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

What does surprise in Alcalá is that perhaps there is much more of it than its early weekend demeanour does suggest,  the city’s glitter is one that glows not just due to to golden light of the morning, but the that of the city’s fascinatingly storied past.  The city’s rich history, which has been recognised by the listing of its historic and university precincts have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, goes back well beyond the university or even the Moorish origins of its name, Alcalá – derived from the Arabic Al-Qal’at or fortress. This I was to very quickly realise two hours into my stay in the city.

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning,

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning.

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My visit to Alcalá de Henares was the first stop in what was to turn out to be an amazing journey that also included visits to four other UNESCO World Heritage cities close to Madrid. The trip was made possible by the Spanish World Heritage Cities Group (Ciudades Patrimonio de la Humanidad de España), the Spanish Tourism Board and Thai Airways. Alcalá de Henares, located close to Madrid’s Barajas airport, made it a very convenient first stop.

City Hall.

City Hall as seen from Plaza de Cervantes.

Another view of the university precinct.

Another view of the university precinct.

One of the things that becomes very quickly apparent about Alcalá, is its association with Spain’s most celebrated literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes; Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote, an icon of a masterpiece that is considered to be one of the most important works in Spanish literature. Alcalá is where the famous writer came into the world during the days of the Spanish Golden Age and Alcalá’s heyday in 1547, and in Alcalá, we find all things Cervantes, including in and around the city’s main square that is very predictably named after him.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The main square, Plaza de Cervantes, is where the medieval town of Alcalá and the post-medieval university town meet. The formerly walled medieval town in which there was a Arab, Jewish and Chirstian quarter, lies to the east of the square. To the west is the university town and its ordered streets. In the centre of the square, the centre perhaps of Cervantes’ Alcalá, is where the writer is immortalised in a statue that stands high over the square, holding a quill in his hand.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

It was to the square that I headed out to almost as soon as I put my bags down at the hotel, resisting the urge to climb into the very inviting king sized bed in the beautifully furnished room of the hotel. This despite the lack of sleep having stepped off only hours before from  the 12 hour intercontinental flight.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The room in the parador.

The room in the parador.

The hotel, Alcalá de Henares’ is surprisingly modern as a Parador. Surprising because the limited experiences I have had of staying in a paradors, were of ones in which the tone of the decor of the rooms seemed to match the history of the buildings they would be found in. Paradors, luxury hotels run by the Spanish government, are usually found in historic buildings such as former palaces, castles and monasteries.

The parador in Alcalá.

The parador in Alcalá.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

In the case of the parador in Alcalá, while it is rather interestingly set up in a 17th Century former Dominican monastery, the Convento de Santo Tomás that has also seen use as a military barracks in the 19th century and a prison in more recent times, its transformation into a parador has given it an ultra modern feel. The parador’s beautifully furnished rooms and spa, does make it all that more difficult to want to leave its premises.

Another view of the cloisters - through a second level window.

Another view of the cloisters – through a second level window.

The roof top garden by night.

The roof top garden by night.

At Plaza de Cervantes, the gaze of a Cervantes is towards the the plaza’s north. Following his gaze and turning west is one of the main cobbled streets of the medieval Jewish quarter, the Calle Mayor, along which the house in which Cervantes was born is found. Furnished with furniture from the era, the two-storey house with an inner courtyard typical of old Castille, is now a museum that is a must visit, especially for all interested in Cervantes’ life and work.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

Furnishings for a sanitary  room from the period.

Furnishings for a sanitary room from the period.

The dining room.

The dining room.

It was just past Cervantes’ birthplace on the Calle Mayor that a link to pre-Moorish past was to leap out at me to the beat of of a march. Making its way down the street was a religious procession. While being one very typical in the sense of the Iberian traditions as well as one commemorating a post medieval event, the 1568 return of the relics of city’s patron saints, “los Santos Niños”, Saints Justus and Pastor, the procession also tells of Alcalá’s links to Roman times. The saints, both children, had been martyred for their faith in the year 304 AD, at a time when a Roman settlement, Complutum, was established there.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

Figures seen during the procession.

Figures seen during the procession.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Plaza de Cervantes being at the divide of the old and new Alcalá, is always a good place to start with orientating oneself with Alcalá, especially when one gets to do so high above it with an ascent of 109 steps to the top of the tower of Santa María (Torre de Santa María). Located at the square’s southern edge, the 15th century tower that was the bell tower of the Church of Santa María la Mayor, is one of the few parts of the church that escaped destruction during Spanish Civil War. The view it provides, besides that of a close-up of the storks that seem to be nesting and roosting on top of just about every red rooftop and the spire in the city, is unparalleled and provides a sense of how the city had evolved.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

A stork in flight.

A stork in flight.

A view south from the tower.

A view south from the tower.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of teh square and the university precinct to the right.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of the square and the university precinct to the right.

Lying in the shadows of the tower, are some of what has survived of the ruined church. One of the attractions the ruins contain is a reproduction of its destroyed baptismal font with pieces of the original font embedded into it. The original font was the one that featured in Cervantes’ baptism in October 1547 and its recreation can now found in the surviving El Oidor chapel. The chapel along with the Antezana chapel are where an Interpretation Centre for the Universes of Cervantes (Los Universos de Cervantes) is now housed. What is also interesting is that the archway that leads to the El Oidor chapel is beautifully decorated with a 16th century grille and beautifully executed Mudéjar plasterwork.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

Besides the ruins, there are also several other interesting historical structures around the square. One I was able to visit is in the south-eastern corner close to the tower, a two-storey Castilian courtyard building from the 16th century that served as a guesthouse or hostel for university students. The house’s structure has been well preserved along with the courtyard and its laundry well. Used by the municipality in more recent times, two rooms on the upper floor of the building have now been reoccupied by the university.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The laundry well.

The laundry well.

A structure of significance lies on the western side of the square. This, the Corral de Comedias, constructed as an open air or courtyard theatre or corral de comedias in 1601, is the oldest in the country to have survived and also one of the oldest theatres still in use in Europe.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

Modelled after Spain’s first purpose built theatre, the Corral de la Cruz, Alcalá’s corral was originally laid out as all early purpose built theatres in Spain were, replicating the layout and arrangement found in the makeshift theatres that preceded them. The makeshift theatres utilised courtyards of inns and houses and had a stage placed at one end and as with the makeshift arrangements, the purpose-built ones that were a natural progression also featured balconies and boxes on the upper levels of the three free sides, where the audience, segregated according to social status and gender, could watch the performance from.

Stage machinery.

Stage machinery.

The Corral de Comedias before restoration (source: http://www.corraldealcala.com)

Over time, the Corral de Comedias underwent several transfromations, including the addition of the horseshoe shaped theatrical seating facing the stage in 1831. From 1945 to 1971, the theatre saw use as a cinema, after which it was abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a massive effort was made to restore it, which was completed only in 2003 when the grand dame’s dignity was restored through its use as a theatre.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

One of the surprising things I learnt about Alcalá, was that it was here that the seeds of the Spanish sponsored adventure led by Christopher Columbus into the new world was planted. The city, serving as the location of the first meeting of the Venetian with Queen Isabella and where the expedition was planned, the events taking place in and around the very majestic Archbishop’s palace tucked away in an area of the city northwest of the main square.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop's Palace.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop’s Palace.

The palace is especially interesting in that it was built as a residence for the Archbishop of Toledo, the highest ranking member of the clergy in the Catholic church in Spain and through much of Castille’s and Spain’s history, one of the country’s most influential positions, in 1209. Its architecture bears the influences of its long history and within its walls resided not just powerful church men, bit also served as the residence of kings and queens, including Ferdinand and Isabella and in which their daughter Catherine of Aragon, the future first wife of Henry VIII and the Queen of England, was born in 1485. It the annulment of marriage to Catherine that Henry’ sought that was to lead to the split of the English Church from Papal authority in the 1530s.

The Archbishop's  Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Archbishop’s Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Church, or rather an important member of its leadership, was to have a significant influence on the revival of the city’s fortunes, which fell into decline following the expulsion of the Jews in 1496. Cardinal Cisneros, Queen Isabella’s one time confessor and a powerful member of the clergy, established a university in 1499 that was to become one of Spain’s most important seats of learning. The buildings of the university, which would be centered around the magnificent edifice of the Colegio de San Ildefonso put up by Cisneros east of the medieval town, to which I will devote more detail to in a separate post, has to be one of the highlights of a visit to Alcalá.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

A visit to Alcalá, as in the rest of Spain, would of course, not be complete without indulging in its gastronomic offerings. There is a mix of old and new, traditional and fusion that can be found along the city’s streets. The parador for one, offers two restaurants, in which a full meal can be savoured for a reasonable outlay and is great value for money. One is in the more traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante across the street from the main lobby of the parador at the former Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo. The other in a more contemporary setting of the Restaurante de Santo Tomás set in the cloisters of the former Convento de Santo Tomás.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

There is also the chance to savour the more modern interpretations of traditional dishes in more contemporary settings in Alcalá, with restaurants such Plademunt in the quiet streets of the new part of the city and Ambigú in the historic quarter, just by the Teatro Salón Cervantes. Both restaurants are helmed by  young culinary talents. On offer at Plademunt are the extraordinary tapas creations of Ivan Plademunt that feature some very traditional and hearty working class comfort foods from the region such as migas and atascaburras as well as pinchos of pintxos from the Basque country.

Plademunt.

Plademunt.

Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.

Pinchos.

Pinchos.

The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

Ambigú’s offerings include many favourites including grilled octopus, sardines and a dessert to die for, torrija. The utterly sinful dessert, traditionally served during Lent and the Holy Week, is made from a base of bread soaked in milk and is similar to the English bread and butter pudding, only better!

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Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

It was a pity lunch at Ambigú can on the back of a visit to Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor just around Cervantes’s birthplace . The proprietor of Esencias Del Gourmet holds a fun yet enlightening food and wine appreciation experience, which was to provide me not only with a much better appreciation of wine and how fine foods can complement wine and bring out its flavours, but also a full stomach that left me with little room for much more.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Unseen Alcalá - the former Women's prison behind the parador.

Unseen Alcalá – the former women’s prison behind the parador.

The entrance to the former women's prison after dark.

The entrance to the former women’s prison after dark.

 





My Shanghai Story: the arrival of Spring

8 05 2014

The arrival of Spring, Spring Airlines that is, did spring me a pleasant surprise. That came in the form of an to, quite literally as it did turn out, soak Shanghai up over a weekend, the weekend that coincided with the launch of the Shanghai based Low Cost Carrier’s Shanghai to Singapore route.

The iconic former Normandie Apartments in the former French Concession of Shanghai - a pleasant Spring surprise that did await me.

A survivor from the treaty port era of Shanghai, the iconic former Normandie Apartments in the former French Concession of Shanghai – a Spring surprise that awaited me in Shanghai.

The launch of the route, coupled with the no-frills carrier’s attractive fares (overall, Spring’s fares are said to be some 30% below their competitors), does make Shanghai, just five hours away, a rather appealing destination for that short break away from Singapore.

The attractive fares it offers does put Spring Airlines on your mind when it comes to a trip to Shanghai.

The attractive fares it offers does put Spring Airlines on your mind when it comes to a trip to Shanghai.

Spring, which was founded in 2005 and operates a fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft – one of the world’s youngest fleets, sells its tickets directly through their website and mobile apps. Flying over 50 routes, which are mostly domestic, it does have offer several international destinations in Japan, with the latest offering being Singapore.

A high-five to Spring.

A high-five to Spring.

More than any other city in China, Shanghai has a fascinating mix of the vestiges of what was a rather colourful past together with the emblems of its current renaissance driven by its position as the financial centre of a booming land of opportunity. Within easy reach of several other popular culturally rich destinations such as Suzhou and Hangzhou and several water towns, Shanghai does seem to have it all for the traveller, whether on a short break or on a lengthier trip. A big plus is the excellent public transport network does make travelling to many of its attractions quite a breeze. In its shops, cafés, and eateries, ranging from the trendy to the traditional, as well as its bazaars and markets, it does have an appeal for many especially so from Singapore.

On the Metro, a convenient means to move around the city.

On the Metro, a convenient means to move around the city.

Taxis, which are metered and are rather affordable, are also a good way to move around, although communication can sometimes be difficult, and many taxi drivers do often take tourists on a roundabout route.

Taxis, which are metered and are rather affordable, are also a good way to move around, although communication can sometimes be difficult, and many taxi drivers do often take tourists on a roundabout route.

I had two full days at my disposal. While that didn’t quite give me enough time to fully appreciate what the city and its environs did have to offer, the Shanghai I did see, even on what did turn out to be a rain soaked weekend, did have a huge appeal to both the photographer and the traveller in me.

Rain falling off the roof of Huxinting Teahouse.

Rain falling off the roof of Huxinting Teahouse.

The rain did bring an air of freshness and joy to the streets of Shanghai, offering an alternative perspective of Shanghai and its many sights from the umbrella painted pedestrian malls, vendors touting umbrellas at Metro station exits, to reflections of Shanghai’s famous lights colouring its nighttime streets.  The rain did not as well dampen any of what Shanghai is to me all about, a city rich in contrasts and with it contradictions in its mix of old and new, tradition and modernity, and in a heritage that tells us of the meeting of east and west, a meeting that has as much to do with the clash of civilisations as it has about the embrace the civilisations did also find themselves locked into.

The neon coloured glow of Century Square  along Nanjing Road in the rain.

The neon coloured glow of Century Square along Nanjing Road in the rain.

The traditional garden - the must-see Yu Garden in the Old City that dates back to the Ming Dynasty.

The traditional Suzhou style Chinese garden – the must-see Yu Garden in the Old City that dates back to the days of the Ming Dynasty.

A western style garden setting in Xujiahui Park with the building that was the former offices of the Pathé record company.

A western style garden setting in Xujiahui Park with the building that was the former offices of the Pathé (later EMI) record company.

The T'ou Sé Wé Museum, looks at the Jesuit run Orphanage that dates back to the 19th Century that is touted as the  cradle of western influenced modern Chinese arts and craft.

The T’ou Sé Wé Museum, looks at the Jesuit run Orphanage that dates back to the 19th Century. The orphanage is touted as the cradle of western influenced modern Chinese arts and craft – an example of the embrace of the civilisations.

The contrasts and contradictions that gives Shanghai its soul is indeed very much in evidence all around. It is in Shanghai that one can take as much pleasure from sipping tea in a traditional teahouse with centuries of history behind it, as in chilling out over a slice of cheesecake and a cup of espresso in one of the many hip cafés that line the streets of what is today a very Bohemian part of Shanghai in the former French Concession.

Ferguson Lane in the former French Concession and its modern cafes.

Ferguson Lane in the former French Concession with its modern cafés is one of the places to be seen.

Tea in the Huxinting Teahouse, which has a centuries old tradition.

Tea in the Huxinting Teahouse, which has a centuries old tradition.

The contradictions are very apparent in the tourist sites of the old city.

The contradictions are very apparent in the tourist sites of the old city.

The tree-line streets of the former French Concession does seem to transport you far away from China.

The tree-line streets of the former French Concession does seem to transport you far away from China.

The contrasts one will find does certainly not end in the places to chill-out at. From hairdressers, to eateries and places to shop at, sometimes just a few doors away from each other, to Shanghai’s public spaces; the collisions of time, cultures, and even ideologies, seemingly at odds with each other are very much in evidence. All of this does provide Shanghai with a rather unique flavour and one that for me is the Shanghai Story that the city did tell and it is this story I hope will come out in the posts on My Shanghai Adventure that will follow.

An old world hairdresser seemingly out of place in the now very chic former French Concession.

An old world hairdresser seemingly out of place in the now very chic former French Concession.

In contrast with shopping in less trendy settings at the Dongtai Road Antiques Market.

Shopping in the rough: Dongtai Road Antiques Market, which is full of atmosphere. Sadly, I am told the market will make way for redevelopment very soon.

Shopping at the brightly lit and trendy Nanjing Road.

In contrast, the the brightly lit Nanjing Road, provides a more sophisticated shopping experience.

Shanghai is a city that is comfortable with its many contrasts and contradictions.

Shanghai is a city that does seem at ease with its many contrasts and contradictions.


About Spring Airlines Shanghai to Singapore Route

Spring Airlines is China’s first and only low-cost airline, which was founded in 2005 by Spring Travel and has become a dominant player in the domestic travel market in China. Currently Spring Airlines offers flights on the Shanghai (Pudong Airport) to Singapore route three times a week. Each ticket comes with 15 kg baggage allowance (inclusive of cabin baggage). Do also look out for some of the really good travel deals Spring does also offer from time-to-time including a current offer for flights from Singapore (for travel up to 31 May 2014) that includes two nights free accommodation in a five-star hotel in Shanghai (more information including terms and conditions can be found on the Spring Airlines website).

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Spring Airlines has a huge online presence (in fact their website and mobile apps account for all of their ticket bookings), and besides their website, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and can also be contacted through Skype (id: springairlines001).

A view inside Spring's A320 passenger cabin.

A view inside Spring’s A320 passenger cabin (click to enlarge).


 





We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

28 03 2014

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

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Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as “hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who “pasang” – who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium – many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.





Borobudur in the light of darkness

13 12 2013

It was in the semi-darkness of a rain washed December’s afternoon that I first set eyes on Borobudur. Even through the dreariness of the semi-darkness, it wasn’t difficult to be taken by the splendour of the temple built over a hill – one that has been described to be the world’s largest Buddhist sanctuary. There seemed also to be an air of mystery surrounding the temple, heightened perhaps by the mood the fast shifting clouds overhead provided in painting the elaborately decorated stepped structure with changing patterns of darkness and filtered light.

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There is certainly much mystery about the age ravaged pyramid shaped structure that rises on the Kedu Plain some 42 kilometres northwest of the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java. Thought to have been built in the 8th and 9th century (between 750 and 842), well before the famed temples of Angkor took shape, not much is understood as to the motivation for what must have been a monumental effort – its construction involved bringing in and working some 60,000 cubic metres of Mount Merapi stone (some 2 million pieces in all). Fiction does accompany fact, in the many stories we do hear of its construction today.

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Legend, as told by a seemingly well-informed guide, Budi, does have it that Borobudur was the work of giants – one lies asleep to protect the structure from destruction in the near distance. A glance across the plain in the direction of Budi’s finger reveals the Menoreh range, the ridge line of which does appear to trace the outline of a gigantic sleeping man which some accounts say is Gunadharma, who has also been attributed as the architect of the temple.

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Whether it has been through a divine hand, or due to the protection offered by the sleeping giant, the monument has, quite remarkably, stood for well over a thousand years. This, despite the fact that Borobudur does lie in the shadow of what has been Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, and also in an area in which earthquakes are not an infrequent occurrence.

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It is also equally remarkable, that we do today get to celebrate the wonder that is Borobudur. Abandoned as far back as the 11th century, it was subsequently forgotten as Islam spread across Java. For over eight centuries the abandoned temple was to lie crumbling and well hidden from sight. Buried not just in volcanic ash from Mount Merapi’s frequent eruptions, but also behind a wall of overgrown trees, it wasn’t until 1814 that the then Lieutenant Governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, uncovered the long lost monument.

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The immense work of devotion sits on a base measuring 119 metres square over which the temple’s nine terraces rise – which takes the shape of a Mandala when viewed from above. The terraces, the first six are square and the three topmost ones are circular, are pathways around which a pilgrim circles on a journey of spiritual learning which takes the pilgrim around and upwards towards the summit. There are three levels on the journey the pilgrim takes, levels which correspond to the stages that the Bodhisattva must pass through in the journey to Enlightenment: Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu – the last being the stage when the soul departs from the body to unite with the gods in Nirvana.

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The path the pilgrim takes which provides a deeper understanding of how Nirvana can be achieved, would have been a rather long one. The journey involves a study of and reflection on reliefs which depict scenes which provide lessons in morality and spirituality, taking a pilgrim from the east on a clockwise path three times around each level. This would allow the study in sequence of three rows of reliefs on each of the two lower levels, Kamadhatu and Rupadhatu – one row lines the balustrade with another two lining the terrace’s inner walls, involving a total of 1460 reliefs (there are another 1212 panels of decorative reliefs).

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At the Arupadhatu level, the appearance of the three tiers which form it, departs from the relief heavy lower levels. Without the balustrades of the lower tiers, the level offers a magnificent view of the plain surrounding the temple, through the stupas arranged on each tier. There are 72 small stupas in all with a large stupa right in the centre which tops the structure. The smaller stupas are constructed with openings in them, through which the images of Buddhas can be seen and also touched. 32 are found around the edge of the lowermost of the top three terraces, followed 24 on the next tier and 16 on the topmost tier.

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One of the touristy things one can do is to join the popular sunrise or sunset tour organised by Manohara Hotel – the only hotel that is within the grounds of the temple (Manohara, which lies a short distance away from the temple, while not the best hotel around, is the place to stay if you do intend to visit Borobudur – rooms are taken up rather fast, and it will be best to book well ahead of your visit). This is highly recommended as you do get some rather stunning views against the colours painted by the rising or setting sun. Unfortunately the skies conspired not to allow me the pleasure of that, although I was able once again to capture the temple in a rather different mood.

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While I am not a very spiritual person, the visit to Borobudur did fill me with the sense of calm and perhaps a sense of contemplation – possibly in the same way it the sanctuary was to have imparted this to its pilgrims of a thousand years before. The visit did also fill me with a sense of awe for what could be achieved through the sheer determination of the human spirit – in erecting a monument of devotion, more so than gazing at the great cathedrals of Europe or the temples of Angkor have done. It is for this that I shall return one day to gaze once more at its splendour and perhaps walk the pilgrim path in search of the peace that comes with reaching its summit.

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Useful information on Borobudur:


COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Luchtfoto van de Borobudur TMnr 10015636
An aerial view of Borobudur

(source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


More photographs of Borobudur and its reliefs

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

Reliefs lining a lower terrace,

Reliefs lining a lower terrace.

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Globalisation in an ancient world

23 10 2013

The colours of Globalisation as seen in an ancient world – the Nepali city of Bhaktapur which dates back to the 9th Century. The city with its old squares and buildings is one which does otherwise take one far away from the modern world. It is also where an ancient festival, that of the Bisket Jatra, is celebrated every Nepali New Year in a way it might have been celebrated centuries before.

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Autumn in Kyoto

22 11 2012

What is undoubtedly one of the best places in Asia to catch the autumn colours is the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto. The backdrop that the mountains, rivers, streams that surround the city which is blessed with beautifully landscaped gardens and magnificent temple complexes, provides for a magnificent setting to view the brilliant mix of red and gold that colour the city each autumn, and it is just to view the colours that thousands from far and wide descend on the city every November. The best time to see the colours is during the second half of November and I was perhaps a little too early to catch the peak of the change of colours, I did however manage to see some rather spectacular views of the autumn colours in and around the city.

November’s a busy time in and around Kyoto when many from far and wide flock to the former imperial capital just to catch koyo (紅葉)- the autumn coloured foliage.

Grounds of the Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺) in the Arashiyama (嵐山) area.

Garden (南芳院) near the Tenryu-ji (天龍寺).

View provided by a boat ride along the Hozugawa (保津川) or Hozu River from Kameoka (亀岡市) to Arashiyama (嵐山).

Another view of the Hozugawa (保津川).

Higashiyama (東山区).

Higashiyama (東山区) outside Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), the Silver Pavilion

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

A view through the window at Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion with koyo and susuki (Japanese pampas grass).

Grounds of the Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

A view of Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion, from the hills in the grounds.

Another view of Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion, from the hills in the grounds.

An autumn leaf falls at Ginkakuji (銀閣寺) ,the Silver Pavilion.

Along the Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道).

Another view of the Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道).

Otani-hombyo (大谷本廟) the mausoleum of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhism).

The Main Hall of the Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple was established in 778. Most of the current buildings were constructed between 1631 to 1633.

Autumn evening illuminations at Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺). Many temples in Kyoto are illuminated during the autumn tourist season.

The grounds of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) with the three-storey pagoda.

Another part of the Kiyomizu-dera’s (清水寺) grounds.

Eikando (永観堂) Temple night illuminations.


Useful Links:

Viewing of Autumn Foliage in Japanese Culture
Kyoto Walks (JNTO)
The Philosopher’s Walk (Japan-Guide.com)
Sagano / Arashiyama (JNTO)
Higashiyama (JNTO)
Kiyomizu-dera
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)
Tenryu-ji Temple (Japanese)
Eikando Temple
Otani-Hombyo (Japanese)
Hozugawa River Boat Ride