Wednesday, December 31, 2014

10 things I learnt about Luxembourg on my recent visit there

Stained glass window in Saint Michael's Church
and what looks to be that of a French royal

One of two local beers I sampled in Luxembourg


Ten Luxembourg trip observations (presented in no particular order):-

1) One of the smallest countries in the world (and the seventh smallest in Europe), Luxembourg was larger when it was ruled by a count than a grand duke!

2) A landlocked country bordered by Belgium, France and Germany, Luxembourg most strongly affliates itself with Belgium even while having a linguistically demanding educational system that requires those who go through it to first learn Luxembourgish but, in later years, switches its primary language of learning to German and then, at secondary school, to French! :O

3) Although it had a formidable looking fortress (that was known as the Gibraltar of the North), Luxembourg has been occupied at various times by foreign armies, including the Spanish, French,  Austrians, Prussians and -- during the second world war -- the Nazis.

4) These days, while proudly independent politically, Luxembourg has a high percentage of foreign workers, many of whom live in nearby countries and regularly (daily, even!) commute into Luxembourg to work.

5) Luxembourg has the second highest GDP in the world but also some incredible travel bargains: for example, a day bus ticket (valid until 8am the next day) costs only 4 Euros, with unlimited rides possible to anywhere within the country's borders!

6) A number of its (public) museums have hours when admission is free -- and if my German friend's and my experience at the Musee Drai Eechelen is anything to judge by, it's possible to have a virtually private visit, with few -- if any -- other people about -- even during those times! :O

7) Another handy travel tip: the Wenzel Circular Walk offered twice a week by the Luxembourg City Tourist Office is really informative and interesting, and the 2 1/2 guided tour that goes through much of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed sections of Luxembourg City is a major bargain at 11.5 Euros (not 115 Euros as listed on the official website!); this particular when, as was the case for my German friend and myself, the tour one is on consists of just three people!

8) It can be quite the slog to walk between the upper and lower sections of Luxembourg city -- so it's great to know that elevators have been installed on both sides of the river flowing through the urban space!

9) It's easy enough to find Luxembourg beers in Luxembourg (and I ended up trying a glass of Diekirch as well as another of Bofferding), but it can be difficult to find eateries serving traditional Luxembourg food, especially ones that were open... ;(

10) Don't rush in Luxembourg, and expect such as waitstaff to do so.  The pace of life appears to be slower -- more relaxed? -- than in Germany, never mind bustling Hong Kong!  So don't rush when visiting, and have less stress by doing so! ;D

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The picturesque UNESCO World Heritage-listed sections of Luxembourg City (Photo-essay)

Upon returning from my recent European vacation, I had chops in my passsport showing that I had entered Germany on December 6th and left the country on December 14th.  Actually, I also had left Germany and re-entered it midway through my stay -- but because of the Schengen Agreement, my passport was not looked at, never mind chopped, when I entered Luxembourg from Germany and re-entered Germany from there.

This was my first visit to the landlocked Grand Duchy -- and, as it so happened, my German friend's too!  Despite its proximity to her home country, she confessed to not knowing that much about Luxembourg and even only realized after I told her that its capital city's Old Quarters and Fortifications are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  

Post visiting the area, we can see and understand full why.  As I hope the following photo-essay will show, the Old City of Luxembourg and its Fortifications are physically impressive and located in a natural setting that accentuates their visual splendor, and strategic location at various points in history:-

A scale model of the Old City of Luxembourg and a blown up photo
on display at the superb Luxembourg City History Museum

View of Luxembourg City, with the Centre Culturel de 
Renconre Abbaye de Neumuenster in the centre of the picture

Another view, this one with the Centre Culturel de Renconre Abbaye 
de Neumuenster on the lower right and St Michael's Church 
(the city's oldest church) on the upper left

 Interior view of St Michael's Church -- and yes, like
many places we visited in Luxembourg City and Trier,
we were the only people there when we visited!

Even on a gray day, the views are scenic thanks to the 
combination of the fortifications and bridges as well as 
buildings and dramatic natural setting

 I wish we spent more time exploring the lower sections of the city 
that line the Alzette River than we did, if nothing else than
because they did look so very picturesque
Still, it's not like the upper sections of the city 
aren't nice to look at either... :b

So, of course Puppet Ponyo wanted to have her photo 
taken amidst such splendid surroundings! :)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Image of the day: Lion Rock, with an Umbrella Movement banner on its face once more!

Seen on my commute to work this morning :)

Around 11am on October 23rd, a group of climbers announced to the police that they'd be unfurling a large banner on the face of Lion Rock, the most iconic of Kowloon's hills.  The sight of the yellow and black "I want genuine universal suffrage" banner -- heck, the very idea by a group of Hong Kongers to put it up there, and the successful implementation of that idea -- galvanised the Umbrella Movement and redefined the Hong Kong dream.

In the days, weeks and months since, similar banners have appeared on other peaks and many other places (including on people's faces!)  Yes, they've only been in place for a short period of time -- but the very fact of their existence has helped to lift spirits.

Up until today, I had only read about these banners and seen them in photos shared online as well as published in newspapers.  But this morning, on what turned out to be a surprisingly clear day (especially considering how low visibility it was for much of yesterday), it was with a start that I realized what I was seeing from the minibus I was taking to work: Lion Rock emblazoned with one more Umbrella Movement banner bearing the message of "I want genuine universal suffrage"!

My apologies for my photo not being as good as I'd like it to be -- and please go here to see a truly glorious photo taken this morning.  Nonetheless, I'd like to share what I saw earlier today that got me all energized and exultant: Lion Rock being used to show that the "can do" Lion Rock spirit is very much alive in Hong Kong!!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Noteworthy sights on a predominantly misty, low visibility afternoon

Call us crazy but my hiking buddies and I decided
to venture out into the countryside despite it being 
on the misty side for much of this afternoon! 

 An unexpected spotting on this hike: an egret in 
a stream running into Tai Lam Chung Reservoir

 Long live the Umbrella Movement!

For the second Sunday in a row, two friends and I went out hiking -- this despite this afternoon's weather turning out to not be as fine as the Hong Kong Observatory had forecasted that it would be.  What with visibility being on the low side for much of our hike as well as it having rained in the morning and also overnight and yesterday evening, we opted to go along a paved path and focused on enjoying getting some exercise and fun conversation rather than scenic and/or interesting sights.

Despite the temperatures being on the cool side, I actually spotted a couple of butterflies flying around this afternoon.  Even more surprising was my coming across an egret in the stream near Kat Hing Bridge -- the first time I've seen this kind of bird in Tai Lam Country Park, in fact!

Also beautiful as far as I was concerned was the sight of a yellow umbrella on a trigonometric station in the country park.  It may not be as noticeable as the huge yellow banners that have been hung in recent months from Lion Rock, Kowloon Peak and Victoria Peak but, to my mind, it helps reinforce the view that supporters of the Umbrella Movement may be everywhere in Hong Kong because there are more of them us around than often is realized. :)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

More than just Roman attractions in Trier! (Photo-essay)

A treasure trove of Roman ruins.  That's what I imagined that the UNESCO World Heritage listed German city founded in 16 BCE as Augusta Trevoronum and known for a time as the Rome of the North would be. And my German friend and I did make a beeline for many of Trier's Roman sites (notably the Porta Nigra, Kaiserthermen and Konstantin-Basilika) during our visit to the city.

In the end though, we forewent going to see a couple of the Roman attractions (including the Roman Bridge that we hoped, fruitlessly as it turned out, we'd be able to catch sight of on our bus ride to Luxembourg!) in favour of a more balanced itinerary that also included visits to monuments constructed in later but still bygone times.  For the fact of the matter is that and this city on the Mosel River has way more attractions than those from just one period of history!

 One more view of the Porta Nigra -- this time of a corridor on
one of its two upper floors converted into a church for a time

  The ruins of the Forum Baths are one of three Roman baths 
in Trier, and one of two that we visited (with the 
Barbara Thermen currently being close to the public)

 
Puppet Ponyo was impressed by the atmospheric ruins of the vast
Roman Amphitheatre that had a seating capacity of 20,000! ;b

 In the shadow of Trier Cathedral is the town's
lively -- and brightly lit -- Christmas market :) 

The architecturally Gothic, but Baroque decorated, Jesuit Church 
(aka Holy Trinity Church) was my German friend's favorite Trier attraction

The proximity of a sexy lingerie store to the Jesuit Church
and old Jesuit College made for a sight that amused me greatly ;b

Another day, another impressive church interior --
this one the entirely Baroque St Paulin's

Three of six delicious spreads -- including one largely of lard! --
I had with beer and five different beers at Trier's wonderful Kraft Brau ;b

Friday, December 26, 2014

Musings after a visit to the house where Karl Marx was born

The open upper floor hallway of a Trier house that's been 
turned into a museum about a man born there in 1818
 
 Built in 1727, this house is now home to  
 
Puppet Ponyo couldn't resist also posing for a picture
with (the statuettes of) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ;b
 
When I was little, I shocked my parents with the announcement that I wanted to be a Communist when I grew up.  And although the days are long gone since I believed that Communism is an ideology that human societies can put into viable practice, Karl Marx continues to hold a certain fascination for me -- and I've gotten a thrill from doing such as going and having a drink at the Museum Tavern, the Bloomsbury pub which Karl Marx regularly frequented while working on Das Kapita at the British Library!
 
So when I found out while visiting Trier that Karl Marx had been born in that German city, and his birthplace had been turned into the Museum Karl-Marx-Haus, I decided that I'd have to go check it out -- and this even though it was described in the local tourist literature as a magnet for Chinese tourists!  As it so happened though, when my German friend and I visited, not only were there no Asians in sight bar for myself but there actually were, at most, just five other visitors there during the time that we were inside the house!!

Although the museum contains few actual artifacts, we ended up spending at least two hours in it -- thanks to the fascinating information (supplied in English by an audioguide that translated at length the German texts on the exhibit panels) along with images found within it, and our being able to take in all this information amidst the kind of peace that would have been broken if there had indeed been hordes of Chinese tourists about the place! 
 
In retrospect, I realize how little about Karl Marx I actually knew, and only found out, in Trier: including his having been born into a bourgeois family, his father having been a lawyer and a Jew who had converted to Christianity (while his mother stayed a Jew but agreed to have her children, including Karl, be raised as Protestant Christians), and Karl Marx himself having fathered seven children -- four of whom died in childbirth while two out of the remaining three (all female) had gone on to commit suicide!
 
Also, I'm not sure if those behind the museum meant for it to be so but I came away from my visit to the house where Karl Marx had been born feeling that he had been a bit of a fraud -- in that even while he had championed the workers of the world, he had not only come from a bourgeois background but also had led a bourgeois life that had included hosting balls at his house in London, tending to rely on financial assistance from friends, benefactors and family, and being unable to live within his means!
 
In addition, while the museum does devote space to showing that the ideas propagated by Karl Marx has spread throughout the world, it also points out that, in his name, some countries have been terribly misgoverned.  Among the prime examples of these are Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the People's Republic of China -- whose dedicated panel includes photos showing the Cultural Revolution and tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Seeing that panel, I got to thinking: I sure hope that the tourist literature is right about many Chinese tourists visiting this Trier attraction. For especially if they are from the mainland and don't rush through the museum too quickly to miss seeing those striking images that I can't imagine being allowed to be shown in public in their homeland, what a valuable education they'll receive within this museum's walls! 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in Hong Kong :)

Hello Kitty gets into the spirit of the season ;)

Further proof, if needed, that Hello Kitty is big in Hong Kong :)

In my final years in the US, I'd spend my Christmas holidays visiting friends in Los Angeles.  And invariably, we'd go hiking on Christmas day.  This is a "tradition" that I've practiced with other friends in recent years in Hong Kong.  But due to such as bad weather, I didn't go hiking today.

Instead, the fun began for me this morning with a viewing of Big Hero 6 that was actually pretty enjoyable despite there being quite a lot of kids in the audience -- and has left me wanting to have a Baymax of my own.  (In the meantime, I console myself with the fact that I do already have many Hello Kittys, three Ponyos, etc., etc. in my menagerie.)

Afterwards, I treated myself to lunch at Sushi Fukusuke, my favorite mid-range sushi restaurant here in Hong Kong.  As per usual when there, I opted for the "self pick" sushi lunch set option -- and made sure to have some toro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin) and my favorite kani miso (crab...sperm) along with some in season ankimo (monkfish liver).  And for those who think it's too cold to eat sushi now: consider this -- in winter, the fish grow fattier because, well, it's colder.  Which makes them yummier to eat!! 

Then, post-lunch, I headed to the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo -- an annual event at which I make sure to pick up some discounted bottles of the multivitamins I take and also check out interesting new products being hawked.  (Among that which caught my eye this year: D24 and Musang King durian ice cream!) Sure, this event can be on the budget side but, in all honesty, that's part of its charm for me!

After heading home for a rest that included a nap, I went out again -- this time for what turned out to be a pretty satisfying Italian dinner with a friend at the surprisingly uncrowded Perbacco.  By themselves, the meal -- and pretty much every other activity I partook in, bar for the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo -- may not seem particularly "Hong Kong" things to do, but taken together, I think they made it all a very Hong Kong -- as well as pretty international -- Christmas Day, don't you? ;b

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In praise of Trier's Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady)

There's lots of beauty on view inside

Visitors to this church shouldn't rush in 
at the expense of checking its exterior though

The decorative section above the main entrance 
(seen in this blog post's middle photo) is one of the
more visually amazing sections of the church's exterior! :)

It's still half an hour before Christmas as I type this line in this blog post but it felt like Christmas had come early this year for me when I was in Germany (and, also, Luxembourg) earlier this month; this not least because my German friend and I visited our share of Christmas markets, and churches and cathedrals too!

Having learnt on my 2010 German visit that I am liable to get "churched out" if led on an itinerary that includes visits to more than three churches and/or cathedrals in a single day, my German friend and I spaced our visits to these Christian places of worship on my recent vacation.  Thus it was that we ended up visiting the neighboring Trier Cathedral and Liebfrauenkirche on different days.
 
Both of those places had been on our "must see" list due primarily to their being among Trier's UNESCO World Heritage sites -- but while I had been wowed by the Romanesque cathedral's age and size, I found myself being awed more by the sheer physical beauty of Germany's oldest Gothic church -- and the earliest church built in the French High Gothic Style outside France -- than its age or anything else.
 
Built in the 13th century, the Liebfrauenkirche is said to have a purity of style as a result of it having taken "only" 30 years to complete.  And while that which stands on the site of a Roman double church did undergo some repair and renovation work after World War II (and had to have all of its stainglass replaced), the original floor plan, said to resemble the 12-petaled rose that's a symbol of the Virgin Mary, remains -- and contributes much to the church's physical attractiveness.

I'm not normally a punny person but I can't resist pointing out that the Liebfrauenkirche's beauty almost floored -- teehee! -- me.  All joking aside, this Gothic church is one of those structures which I am proof that one doesn't have to be a Christian to be able to be appreciative of its aesthetic qualities and very existence.

Monday, December 22, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage-listed Trier sights (Photo-essay)

Prior to my 2010 German holiday, my German friend had sent me a list of towns and cities that I could consider visiting in the one and a half weeks or so that I'd be in her homeland.  While we ended up deciding against heading over to Trier on that occasion, the information I had gleaned about Germany's oldest city did intrigue me -- and so much so that this time around, I requested that it be our top priority with regards to destinations.

Although my German friend had visited Trier with her parents as a child, she confessed to having zero memories of the place early on our during our time there.  In retrospect, she and I are both glad that we did go there, and commit to spending two and half days and two nights there -- for not only is there plenty to see in this city (including a number of UNESCO World Heritage-listed monuments, such as those pictured in this photo-essay) but the city itself also came across as a generally pleasant place to while away one's leisure time in... :)

The 2nd century fortified Roman gate known as the Porta Nigra
(Black Gate) is a sight to behold...

 ...by day or by night, from the front or back, 
and with or without Puppet Ponyo posing nearby ;b

 The view from the Porta Nigra -- which one can climb up 
-- of Trier's Aldstadt historical city center isn't half bad either!

Also dating back to Roman times (and UNESCO World Heritage-listed),
the Imperial Baths (aka Kaiserthermen) was surprisingly large -- and 
bereft of visitors (Yes, we were the only people at the site when we visited!)

The Rococo style Electoral Palace catches the eye from across the 
palace garden, leaving the Roman Imperial Throne Room
(Konstantin-Basilika) in the shade -- at least from this angle

Venture inside the largest extant hall from antiquity, whose existence is
a reminder of Trier's past as the Roman empire's northern capital, however, 
and you'll get a good idea how impressive this single-room structure is!

 Physically connected together, Trier Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady
(aka Liebfrauenkirche) are both also UNESCO World Heritage listed --
and yes, this is how the creepy-after-dark crypt looks in daylight! ;b

 A glimpse inside the cathedral (that's also known as Trier Dom)

...and yes, there are more Trier photos to come, including of the inside of the Liebfrauenkirche! ;b

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tai Mo Shan from Route Twisk and then down to Tai Po!

On a beautiful afternoon, Hong Kong's highest peak beckoned...

A view of Tai Mo Shan from a different angle 
that takes in a more rugged landscape 
 
 It was wonderful to be back in nature and along 
Hong Kong's hiking trails after a three month absence :)

When a friend and I went on a hike in the middle of September, little did we know that it'd be our last hike in Hong Kong for 14 whole weeks.  But thanks in large part to the Umbrella Movement, I had been spending the bulk of my recent Sundays (and some other parts of the weeks) at Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Mongkok rather than in Hong Kong's countryside. 

With the clearance of all the last of the protest areas this past Monday, however, I've reverted to my pre-Umbrella Movement Sunday routine.  And even while my original plan was to get back to hiking in a gentle manner, today's blue skies and pleasant weather successfully tempted my two hiking buddies and me up Hong Kong's highest peak: the 957-meter-high extinct volcano called Tai Mo Shan (i.e., Big Hat Mountain)! 
 
I first went up Tai Mo Shan one hot summer's afternoon in 2012 -- and it was along the same route that began at Route Twisk to the west that we ascended up the mountain.  Upon finding the path much easier to get up on a cooler and far less humid afternoon, our party decided to opt against returning the same way and, instead, head five kilometers east along the Maclehose Trail downwards to Lead Mine Pass before going along another couple of kilometers or so along a section of the Wilson Trail that led us further downwards to Tai Po!

While the first and last quarters of today's hike were on trails that I had been on before, the middle part of the excursion went through parts of Hong Kong that were new to me.  Especially after another friend had told me that it was full of rocks that I'd find fascinating, I had long wanted to go along it -- but because it's some distance from any place that one can take any public transport to (or, for that matter, anyone can drive to), it wasn't a place I felt able to get there quite a time.

Upon finally having getting there and completed the hike, I'll say that it's not super difficult to do so -- at least on a cool and low humidity day.  Still, it's best to allocate at least four and half hours for the excursion.  
 
This way, you won't fear such as it getting dark before you complete your hike and consequently can allow yourself time to walk at a comfortable pace and, also, feel able to pause to do such as take photos and drink in some really nice views that, even on a day without super high visibility, can take in such as Pat Sin Leng to the northeast, Hong Kong Island to the south and the plains of Pat Heung to the northwest. :)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Frankenstein, and creepy sights and sounds in Trier!

Your eyes do not deceive - that's really 
the name of a train stop in Germany!

 The creepiest feeling place I was in on this recent trip

Yes, the cloister pictured in the middle photo is in a complex whose 
main building has door handles shaped like those of human hands... :O

As early as the first day of my most recent trip to Germany, I got the feeling of it being "deja vu all over again" -- and I'm not just referring here to the substantial breakfast that my German friend made sure that we would have shortly after I arrived at her home that morning.  Rather, while walking around her neighborhood, I noticed once more that things were so quiet that we could hear our own footsteps -- because there were so few people out on the streets, and ditto re any vehicles!

It was with amusement that we recalled how she had initially been quite agitated to learn that I found the quiet to be at times on the creepy as well as unexpected side.  And I do count myself very fortunate that my German friend doesn't only have a sense of humor but one that can be pretty similar to mine -- so that when one of the trains we took to Trier passed by Frankeinstein (Pfalz), she knew that that fact would tickle my funny bone and, also, that I'd want to take a photo of the railway station's sign for my record!

Incidentally, "frankenstein" means "stone of the Franks" in German -- and since the Franks were a confederation of tribes living in parts of what's modern day Germany, it makes sense that I'd spot such as a gravestone with the words "von Frankenstein" on it in Mainz, and belatedly discover that Frankenstein (Pfalz) is home to Frankenstein Castle (and that that edifice is said to have inspired Mary Shelley to write her Frankenstein).

In any event, I didn't feel scared at all in the brief moments that I passed by Frankenstein (Pfalz) -- and it was only later that day, when my German friend and I found ourselves in the cloister of Trier's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Trierer Dom (aka St. Peter's Cathedral), that I genuinely did feel unsettled and somewhat freaked out!

To understand why this was the case, try to imagine this: a very dark area where many shadows loomed, old (as in dating back to the 13th century) surroundings, lots of graves in the vicinity, a mysterious plume of smoke seeping out from an unidentified part of the building, and the sound of birds loudly cawing that caused my German friend to remark that she was getting reminded of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds!

So small wonder then that we made haste to get out and away from that area!  Still, to be fair, we did find much of the cathedral proper -- both its interior and exterior -- to be awe-inspiring... though I also will confess to not caring to spend any large amount of time in its crypt, where were installed the remains of a number of people, notably some of the institution's bishops!! ;(

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

After dark in Mannheim, for the most part! (Photo-essay)

Four and a half years after I last visited Germany (and, for that matter, any place outside of Asia), I ventured to that part of the world once more to holiday with my German friend who I met on a hike here in Hong Kong a few months after I moved to the Fragrant Harbour.

As before, I mainly stayed at her place, from where we would make day trips to nearby towns, but also went further afield a couple of times.  And like on my 2010 visit, I ate a lot, drank quite a bit too, attended a concert, and visited lots of churches and cathedrals, a palace, a few museums and a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites

However, the weather was a great deal colder on this visit -- thanks to my visiting in winter rather than summer.  While I wouldn't consider December the optimal time of the year to go to Germany (or, for that matter, Luxembourg too), there are some compensations: including there being Christmas markets in pretty much every town and city that I visited this time around!  Also, while winter days have too few hours of sunlight for my liking, it's also true that winter nights can yield beautiful sights (and photos!)... ;b

 Puppet Ponyo says: "Yes, my German friend was keen 
once more to ensure that we start off the day with 

 Guess what we had for dinner at the first Christmas market
ever that I went to (over in Mannheim)! ;b

 In addition to food and drink (think gluhwein!), there are
lots of stalls selling interesting items, many of them handmade

Among the stalls that I found fascinating were those
selling all manner of often surprisingly beautiful brushes!

Also pleasing to my eye was this night-time view of
Mannheim's landmark Wasserturm (Water Tower)

As this view of the grand Mannheim Baroque Palace shows,
I did spend some daylight hours in that city ;)
 
 An after dark shot of the same palace

Talk about novel: a concert (featuring Christmas carols and 
other songs sung a cappella) which took place in a working garage! :b