The Spirit Of Christmas Remains In My Heart

Sunday, 23 December 2018

A few days ago at a Christmas dinner, a lady said to me, "Argh, it was very stressful coming here. In fact, the last few months have been really bad for me. I really cannot wait for this year to be over." Then she carried on and attempted to enumerate the bad things that has happened to her. But I held her hand, tapped her shoulder and I said, "Don't worry, you have made it through (to the dinner and this year). Not quite the latter because we have a few days left before the new year starts but I am confident that she will get through it. What hit me the most during our conversation was when she said that she was going home for Christmas, but she said it will be just as bad. I begged to disagree because to me, going home for Christmas only means that she will spend time with her family- one thing that I have not done in 17 years. But she looked at me without saying a word. Her pain became palpable, I could see it through her eyes.

Or perhaps... she was just the reflection of my own pain.

The truth is, it is quite a challenge to remain optimistic when you feel like the whole world is against you. It takes a lot of confidence to go out there, face the world and pretend that everything is okay when it's actually not. I know this because the last six years has taught me how to be that person. I have mastered the art of pretending er, maintaining  "positivity amidst adversity". You are indeed one lucky soul if you haven't needed to learn this, because I am telling you- it is one of the most difficult things that you will ever have to learn.

I am only sharing this story because just like the lady at the Christmas dinner, I know that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling emotionally at the moment, including myself. For the last few months, I have been living in anxiety and fear. Fear that something bad might happen to someone I love who is vulnerable and helpless. I have been good at managing my anxiety, but it will soon be Christmas and I am not sure if my anxiety will turn into a needless guilt. This is because I will be in a place where love, peace and harmony prevail, whilst someone very close to my heart will be in a broken home and will potentially be alone.

Tomorrow, we will be travelling up North to spend Christmas with J's family which we have done in the last four years. Whenever I am with his family, I always wish that I could turn back time so that I could try harder in keeping my own family together. As much as I am jealous of their harmonious relationship, I remain grateful for the family that I had or shall I say still have, regardless of how bad things have turned out to be. J's family has become my constant reminder that once upon a time, I too had a loving family, although not as solid as theirs. I am also very thankful that J's family has accepted me unconditionally because otherwise, I would have forgotten how to have a proper family by now. And if I can be honest and I mean no offence when I say this, J's family is like the family I never had. 

So you may ask, what is my purpose in writing this? In all honesty, I do not intend to spread negativity and ruin the holiday vibes. I just want to remind you(and myself) that no matter what emotional challenges we are going through right now, that we have a choice. It is either we give in to our emotions and be miserable this Christmas or choose to turn things around and have a Merry Christmas.

I choose to be happy and I am letting the spirit of Christmas win because at the end of the day, it takes a strong person to smile like they are winning despite all the pain they have to endure. I have been that person and I remain.

So, stay strong and have a Happy Christmas.


One Day In The Unbelievably Enthralling Ancient City Of Matera

Sunday, 16 December 2018

We were not supposed to go to Matera because we had Altamura on our list to visit instead. However, I came across the city whilst I was planning our route from Alberobello to Altamura. The photos I saw online took my breath away that I was forced to learn a bit more about the place. Suffice it to say that Matera became one of those places that we must visit whilst we were in Southern Italy. 

The drive to Matera was over an hour from Alberobello via SS172 then SP106 to SP235. Finding a street parking in the New Town was not that bad from what I can remember. From where we parked (the name of the street escapes me), it was only a short walk to one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited- the Sassi di Matera.

Matera is the third oldest continuously inhabited city and until the 1980s, was plagued by poverty, illness and high infant deaths. In 1993, it became UNESCO World Heritage Site and since then, there has been an increasing number of tourists visiting the city. 

The first glimpse of the Sassi drifted me away to some place quite difficult to believe existed. It was so surreal looking at the houses carved in stones.  I could easily see why they chose the city as one of the locations for the movie The Passion of the Christ

Admiring the beauty of this wondrous place from afar will never be enough. You actually have to roam around the place on foot to genuinely experience this magical place. In my opinion, this is the best way to explore every corner of the neighbourhoods of Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.

I must say that walking up and down the numerous labyrinth of uneven stone stairs of the world's third oldest city was a religious experience for me. It transported me back to thousands of years ago. 

From across the Sassi are the cave dwellings dating back to the Palaeolithic period. People lived there about 9,000 years ago.

Sassi di Matera was the biggest surprise of our Italian trip this year. The whole place was enthralling. It didn't feel quite real, it was almost like a dream being there. There is so much to love about this 9,000 years old city which is the European City of Culture in 2019.

I have been to some amazing places in Italy, and in Europe in fact, but no place has given me such a mind-blowing experience as the Sassi di Matera. This place is special because of its sorrowful history, and yet magical beauty. 

Where we ate:
1.Ristorante Borgo Antico- Str. Palazzo di Citta, 46 Bari
- My idea of Italian feast is a platter of my favourite seafood. This was exactly what Borgo Antico in Bari offered me. It was a well-deserved treat after that transcendent experience in Matera. Located in the centre of Bari, this restaurant is not easy to miss. We enjoyed our lunch here as it had that authentic Italian vibe. I ordered the Grigliata mare con scampi, gamberoni e polpo arrosto which was delightful.

2. Ristorante Hotel Grotta Palazzese- Via Narciso, 59 Polignano a Mare
- I had mixed feelings about this restaurant. Yes, it was a unique experience and yes, it was er, romantic. However, the service was disappointing and the food was mediocre. The serving was good for the price, but apart from that, there was nothing else about the food really. I didn't enjoy the service as it was too impersonal. It was haphazard and lacking some passion. I wondered whether the people who work there were genuinely happy to be there? For more or less than €130 per head, I would recommend the restaurant for its enchanting location. After all, how many times can you actually dine in a cave overlooking the Adriatic sea? And if you book carefully, you might also enjoy the beautiful sunset. So yes, Grotta Palazzese is one of those restaurants you should at least try- once.


An Overnight Stay in the Trulli Amazing Alberobello

Sunday, 2 December 2018

It took me a week before I could properly say Alberobello, a place I have never heard of before. Thanks to Farrah whose idea gave me the opportunity to visit one of the most unique places I have ever visited.

So after four days of nothing but amazing trip to the Amalfi Coast, it was time to say goodbye to its best kept secret, Praiano. From there, we hired a taxi (£100 for an hour drive) to Salerno to pick up our car from Avis. We didn't explore Salerno as it was not part of our itinerary but it felt like a big city. We grabbed a quick coffee and sfogliatella at a nearby cafe from the car rental then we headed to Puglia.

To be honest, I didn't enjoy the 3 1/2 hours drive from Salerno to Alberobello that much because of the numerous tunnels that we had to go through. They seemed endless and some of them were not even lit. Besides, the route that we took  was not as picturesque as I imagined it to be, hence easily forgettable. It was rather industrial and uninteresting. However, as we reached the town of Alberobello, things became more exciting. 

Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for its unique Trulli. Trulli are basically small huts made of limestone, with dry-stone walls and conical roof. They were originally built as temporary shelters, however, people started living in the Trulli permanently when Alberobello officially became a town.

Alberobello has two Trulli villages - the Rione Monti and Aia Piccola. We visited the Rione Monti first as it is the bigger one with about 1,000 Trulli. Both villages are walking distance from Palazzo Scotto, where we were staying. In fact, Aia Picolla is literally just behind our hotel.

We arrived at Rione Monti late afternoon and it was very busy. There was also some festival going on so every place was packed with tourists and locals alike. The Trulli were uniquely interesting. We went inside one and it felt so claustrophobic. It was cramped, I wondered how people actually lived there. 

We wandered around the village aimlessly until we reached the top of the hill where the Parrocchia Sant'Antonio is located. On the other side of the street from the church is the main town of Alberobello. It was quite uncomfortable walking around the narrow streets because there were so many people, but it was still a good experience nevertheless. The Rione Monti is very picturesque from Piazza del Popolo.

Aia Piccola is much quieter than Rione Monti  with only 400 Trulli. Aia Piccola remains a residential area and to be fair, they are really lovely homes. We took photos of private trulli and the owners didn't mind. They actually happily watched us take photos after photos of everything and anything pretty that caught our hungry eyes.

We stayed out until late evening that day. The Trulli were fascinating to watch at night, especially because they were illuminated.

The day after, I woke up quite early and was out of the hotel by 0630 to fulfil a tradition. It was Keith's 18th birthday and so I went to Alberobello Cathedral (Parrocchia Santuario Basilica S.S. Cosma E Damiano), lit a candle and said a little prayer for him. The church has an imposing facade, however the interior is quite plain and simple. I was able to hear a solemn mass that morning, although it was in Italian. I also saw an unusual image of the Madonna and the Child.

As soon as I got back from church, Farrah and I returned to the Trulli village, thinking that it would be quieter then, and we were right. We had the trulli and the streets to ourselves. I had a better experience wandering around the village as there was no one around. The calmness and the quietness  of the narrow streets was refreshing.

In the whole, Alberobello is a very touristy town, however it is a must see. I had a unique experience here and I am happy that I was able to visit a place that none of the people I know (except Farrah of course) have mentioned before. 

Where we stayed:
Palazzo Scotto - Corso Trieste e Trento, 30 , 70011 Alberobello
- Palazzo Scotto was an ideal accommodation for us- spacious, clean and tastefully decorated with antique furniture. The location was perfect for exploring the area. Valerio, the owner, was very helpful and informative. He delivered our breakfast in such a delightful manner. Breakfast was served fresh and aplenty. Their croissant was very delicious. In fact, I asked for more to bring to our trip to Matera. The balcony where we had breakfast everyday, provided us with a beautiful view of the Aia Piccola and the Alberobello Cathedral.
Photo by Farrah

Where we ate:
Il Poeta Contandino- Via Indipendenza, 21 Alberobello
- In my humble opinion, Il Poeta Contandino deserves a Michelin star. It was a perfect restaurant experience for me. The location, although on the main street, was not as busy as that of the other Trulli village restaurants. The interior decorations were quite old-fashioned but just right to provide that formal dining environment that I was looking for. The big tree at the entrance was certainly an eye catcher. The food was served in an exquisite manner.  The service was exemplary. This is definitely one of the dining experiences I will never forget. I would recommend the Fava bean puree with Cavatelli pasta and seafood, and the Orecchiette with turnip, dried tomatoes and walnuts. Even the selection of bread and the complimentary treats in between were amazing.


A Day In Pompeii: The City Frozen In Time

Friday, 16 November 2018

When I first visited Pompeii in 2009, I was a keen tourist who wanted to see as many famous places as possible just so I could say I have been there. However, my perspective on travelling dramatically changed in 2013 when I visited Venice for the second time. Since then, I promised myself to be more of a traveller and less of a tourist. I wanted to be that traveller who actually immerses herself in culture and develops a deep connection with herself and the places she goes to. I wanted to travel in a sense that I will still do "touristy" things and take photos of famous landmarks and all, but also make an extra effort to take the roads that are less travelled and take photographs of places that have not been photographed a thousand times before. I am only saying this because when I went to Pompeii in August, I was actually able to explore the historic place and truly experienced it, unlike the first time I went there. 

Pompeii is located near Naples in Southern Italy. As we were staying in Praiano, we took the SITA Bus to Sorrento for €2.40. From Sorrento, we took the Circumvesuviana train to Pompei Scavi- Villa dei Misteri. The fare was cheap at €2.40, but if we knew earlier, we would rather have taken the fast train. Although it wasn't really that bad because it took us less than half an hour to get there. We arrived at the archeological site around midday, and although it is apparently always busy, it only took me 10 minutes to get our tickets. The entrance fee was £15 per person. 

From the Porta Marina entrance of the archeological site, we walked towards the ruins on paved streets. I couldn't believe I was actually back in Pompeii, one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to. I remembered the Forum, which was the main city centre of ancient Pompeii. Towering behind the Temple of Jupiter is Mount Vesuvius, the giant volcano responsible for the demise of 2,000 men, women and children,  when it erupted unexpectedly in 79 AD. 

Excavation didn't commence until the 18th century and now, the 44 hectares of excavated ruins provide a glimpse of how life might have been during the ancient Roman civilisation. The Forum Granary was impressive the first time I saw it and still was the second time around. All the 9000 artefacts that are kept in here will give you a hint of the day to day life of the people back then. The massive jars are always fascinating to look at.

Some of the body casts are also found in the Forum Granary.

As we walked through Via dell'Abbondanza, the main street in Pompeii, my imagination was ignited. The ruins of the private houses, the brothels and other business establishments were mesmerising. Every villa I walked into, I imagined the set-up: where the living room and the kitchen were, how many bedrooms there were. I stopped and allowed myself to be transported back to about 2,000 years ago. Some of the houses have colourful wall paintings, beautiful columns and massive gardens.

Then there were the narrow streets that were ghostly, but beautiful nonetheless. 

We didn't actually plan to join a tour, however, J became very interested and sneakily joined a random group tour. Haha. We thought that he could get away with it, but the guide spotted him and asked him to pay €15 eventually. If you have plenty of time, perhaps a tour guide is helpful as there are honestly a lot of things to learn about Pompeii. Every ruin has a story basically, including an image of a male organ carved on a stone in the main street of the city. :)

And whilst J was enjoying the tour, Farrah and I wandered around freely. I took this opportunity to find little treasures that may not mean anything to some but somehow gave me a different , if not unique perspective.

Then we moved on and followed J's group to the Grand Theatre, which was built in 2nd century BC. The theatre has been used a few times during the modern times, 2014 being the most recent one when Puccini's La Boheme was staged here.

It was easy to get lost in history. As the evening grew closer, we decided to make our way back. However,J wanted to see one last thing- the Amphitheatre. The Amphitheatre is apparently the oldest surviving Roman Amphitheatre. And just like the Grand theatre, the Amphitheatre has also been used in the modern times. Pink Floyd had a concert there in 1971, and again in 2016, their guitarist performed there.

On our way to the Amphitheatre, we passed by the Garden of the Fugitives. Once an orchard, it is now where thirteen body casts lie.

We spent the whole afternoon in Pompeii and although this was my second time at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, I still have not seen everything yet. This archeological site is extensive, so it probably takes a whole day to see all of it. I really wouldn't mind to go back again one day. After all, Pompeii is one of those places that is worth visiting, over and over again.

Where we ate
1. Hortus Porta Marina - Piazza Porta Marina Inferiore,1, Pompeii
- Located just across the Porta Marina entrance of Pompeii, the restaurant was undeniably touristy but we had a very good experience there. As busy as it was, we were seated immediately and our food came very quickly. We ordered the Hortus and Napoletana which didn't disappoint.


The Unforgettable Boat Ride Around Capri Island

Sunday, 21 October 2018

I never dreamed that one day, I will be cruising around Capri island in Italy onboard a 40 feet private boat. But just like what I said before, even the things you never dreamed of will come true if you follow your heart. And so in August, I followed my heart and went to Italy for a week with two of the most important people in my life. I undeniably had one of the best experiences ever. 

We originally planned to take the boat tour on our last day in the Amalfi Coast, which was the middle of the week. However, when I checked the weather two days before, the forecast was rain. Therefore, we decided to move our boat trip forward and cancelled the boat that we initially booked via Capri Relax Boats. From what I have learned, it is better to book a boat tour at the beginning of your holiday week so that you have more opportunity to reschedule just in case the tour gets cancelled due to bad weather. 

We booked a last minute boat tour with Positano boats. The owner, Francesca was very helpful and answered all my queries. They only had two boats left when I called- the 22ft Corallina and the 40 ft Crowne (their biggest vessel). I initially booked Corallina (€350) as it was obviously cheaper, but J was worried that it didn't have enough shade and wanted the bigger boat instead. After discussing with Farrah, we opted for the Crowne. We paid €1,100 for a whole day private tour as we made the booking in less than 24 hours. Otherwise, it would normally be €675.

We met our skipper (or captain)Francesco in Marina di Praia at 1000. The Crowne was definitely beautiful. It had a bedroom downstairs and a toilet. It also had a bar. Drinks such as water, soda and prosecco were complimentary as well as some nuts and biscuits. Snorkelling gear was also available. Francesco was lovely and very knowledgable of the coast. He had answers to almost every question we asked. He made our boat trip very comfortable and enjoyable. And despite being seasick, I really had a great time.

As soon as we started sailing, I knew that this experience would be one for the books. Passing by Positano was one of the highlights of our boat trip, although we only berthed briefly to pay for the boat. Perched on a hill with pastel-coloured buildings, Positano is truly beautiful, more so from the water.

As we sailed on, Francesco went through our itinerary for the day. We would stop for a swim, sail around Capri island and then have lunch in one of the islands around 2 or 3 pm. I didn't go for a swim because I can't swim for my life, but J and Farrah did. 

We sailed through the Sorrento coast then to Capri island, passing by really fantastic sights like the dramatic Faraglioni rock formation and the Punta Carena lighthouse in Anacapri.

We made the wise decision to just stay on the boat and not stop by Capri island because from what I can remember from 9 years ago, there wasn't anything really interesting to do in the island unless you want to shop for expensive stuff perhaps. It was and still is, as far as I know, very touristy and expensive. So instead, we admired the lavish island from afar whilst our captain Francesco went through each and every house of famous people that we passed by, like Sophia Loren's villa. 
Photos by Farrah

We also wanted to see the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), but there was a long queue and the wait was up to 3 hours, so we decided to give it a miss. Besides, the entrance fee was €14 per head. Francesco reassured us though that there was an equally beautiful grotto not far from where we were called " The Heart Grotto", and it would all be ours - no boats, no tourists. It wasn't really the same, but to be fair, it was quite romantic. He took us to a couple more grottos after that which were very nice.

After about 5 hours cruising around Capri, it was time to go for a quick lunch in the small fishing village of Nerano. It seemed very busy in the island that day with numerous boats already moored in the marina. A complimentary boat from the restaurant came to pick us up as Francesco docked our boat quite far from the shore.
Photo by Farrah

After lunch, we headed back towards Praiano. We still wanted to sail through Amalfi town, however, Francesco suggested that we should go back as the rain was coming. He was right because as soon as we got off the boat, it rained cats and dogs. We were stranded in front of Trattoria Da Armandino for more or less than half an hour. When the rain settled a bit, we decided to walk up the hill to get a bus. When we got to the bus stop, it was ridiculously busy, so we thought we'd take a taxi instead. But there were no taxis passing by either. This was when Nonno Raimondo came to mind. Do you remember him? I mentioned him in my previous blog. Somehow, the universe sent him our way as J spotted him driving towards Praiano. And so, with my very limited Italian language skill, I called him and asked if he remembered me. He said, "Ah, Cristina. Si, si!". He said something like I drove you from Ravello to Praiano yesterday. After I confirmed that it was indeed myself he was speaking to, I asked if he could kindly pick us up from Marina di Praia. After roughly 10 minutes, he arrived.

The 10 minute journey from Marina di Praia to our Air BnB hotel went smoothly until it was time for us to pay. Nonno Raimondo asked for €90 for a 3.7km taxi ride. I was in shock so I asked him a few times whether it was €90 or €19. He had to write it down and when I realised he really meant €90, I was speechless. The three of us looked at each other and all we could say was, "this is total rip-off". I didn't see the point of arguing, so we amicably paid €90. As much as Nonno Raimondo was cute and sweet, he was crafty as hell. And because we trusted him, we didn't negotiate the price before we boarded his taxi. Oh well, another lesson learned.

Anyway, that evening, we travelled to Positano to try the Michelin-starred restaurant that a lot of people have been raving about. We took the local bus on our way to the restaurant for €1.30 per person, then hired a taxi on our way back for €35.

Overall, this day is truly unforgettable, despite the sea-sickness that left me feeling unwell until dinner, and being ripped-off by an old Italian man. First of all, the private boat ride was a once in a lifetime experience for me. I've always thought that cruising on a private boat in Capri was only for the rich people- (well, not anymore lol). It might be expensive, but once in while, we all deserve some luxury. And saying that, luxury is of course, better experienced with the right people.

Where we ate
1. Il Cantuccio- Massa Lubrense 80061, Marina del Cantone, Nerano
- This restaurant seemed like a tourist trap at first glance, but definitely not. The constant busyness of the restaurant is probably down to the fact that it has connections with boat companies and therefore, they bring all their clients to eat there. To be fair, there were also a few regulars when we were there. They seemed to know everyone and called each other by first name, so it was all good.

The service was friendly and quick considering the amount of people in the restaurant that day. We were seated as soon as we got in and our food came even before we realised it. J ordered the squid, Farrah the spaghetti alla Vongole (which is highly recommended) and I ordered the grilled shrimp. 

2. La Sponda- via Cristoforo Colombo,30, 84017, Positano
- As people who love to eat, we wanted to experience Michelin-starred dining in the Amalfi coast and so we booked La Sponda. With its grandiose interior lit up by some 400 candles and amazing views, it is no surprise that this restaurant is one of the most recommended in the Amalfi coast. Perhaps not that mind-blowing kind of food experience, but it was good nonetheless. Service was rather slow. There was a lot of waiting in between courses. My fish was lacking some spice and seasoning, but other than that, the rest of the food was good. There was also a complimentary tiered sweets and a take-away lemon sponge cake which was very thoughtful. On top of that, their musicians Franco and Andrea provided us with a very good entertainment. It was definitely a good night.
Photos by Farrah


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