Barcelona churches

 

 

Barc Faith Tile

 

My trip to Barcelona was one of my lovely surprises in 2014. I had a big year of travelling for work – Bali, Taiwan, Silicon Valley – and didn’t really expect more. But in December, DAPHNE Diaries in Barcelona happened. This was the initiative of Lifestyle Network, supported by Samsung Digital Home Appliances, which I had been a long-time brand ambassador for. It is my first collaboration with a TV network as a blogger (I have been a presenter and producer before).

The days leading up to our trip, Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) was brewing near the Philippines. Reports said it would be another deadly storm. I was scared. I didn’t want to leave my family knowing that the storm could potentially directly hit Metro Manila. But I couldn’t bail out of the trip. A lot of prayers were said before, during and after. I believe a miracle happened. Typhoon Hagupit got weaker as it hit land.

I share this little anecdote because I really believe in the power of prayers. Ok the typhoon weakening may not have been due to divine intervention, but I have been blessed with a few real miracles already. I also think that everything happens for a reason. While I was full of anxiety as our plane took off before the storm hit, I was a picture of calmness on our first full day in Barcelona. The travel agent “coincidentally” planned our Montserrat visit on December 8th, the Feast of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, not knowing that I have a special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

My DAPHNE Diaries will give small portraits of the city of Barcelona – food, museums, urban life. I didn’t actually mean to do a whole story on churches in my blog. But as I was reviewing my photos, I found I had more than enough to piece this blog entry together. Don’t worry, I don’t get preachy. This is an architecture and design story… with a little history.

 

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The morning of December 8th, 2014, our car brought us to Montserrat. You can take the train or cable car to go up the mountain. Our car brought us right up to the monastery.

 

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Montserrat actually means “saw (serrated, like the common handsaw) mountain” in Catalan. Source.

 

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The mountain tops look so surreal with its many peaks, some look like silos.

 

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The monastery began in 1025 as the Hermitage of Santa Maria, the Mother of Christ. It became a very well known shrine in the Christian world. In the early 1800’s, most of the monastery was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars. The church and monastery we see now is a result of rebuilding.

 

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The short walk to Santa Maria de Montserrat. This is a good tip. Try getting there no later than 9am. Trust me, the crowds get thick.

 

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The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of Saint James). Montserrat is part of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela.

 

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There are some restaurants, a hotel and a museum in Montserrat. But we only went there for the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat itself and went back to explore the city.

 

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The medallion in the centre of the atrium has an inscription around that reads, “Only those baptized and born in the water like fish can understand the meaning of the fish of the Eucharist.” I had to wait 10 minutes for a group of tourists to get off the circle before I could get my chance. This exact spot is believed to be very powerful.

 

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The basilica has a neo-Plateresque design (a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance) and was rebuilt in 1900. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the French destroyed most of the abbey.

 

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We went along the right aisle past the altar to see the statue of the Virgin called “La Moreneta.”

 

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There is a giant clam converted into a holy water font — a gift of the the Filipino people to the abbey. (La Sagrada Familia also has one.)

 

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The La Moreneta or the Black Madonna is a 12th or 13th century Romanesque statue housed in this alcove behind the main altar. It usually is filled with pilgrims and tourists. The normal wait is over one hour. Our guide, Fabio Bugna, anticipated the crowd, that being December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception and a national holiday in Spain. We arrived at the abbey around 9am. As you can see, we had the alcove all to ourselves.

 

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There were no crowds. It was calm, solemn, and peaceful. I was so moved by the experience.

 

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And there she is. The Black Madonna. The statue is made of carved wood from the 12th century Romanesque period. It appears black because the varnish on the statue has oxidized from the effect of candle and lamp smoke. The Virgin has a ball in her hand, which sticks out of the glass compartment. I held it as long as I could until I shed a tear. I had enough time to say the Hail Mary.

 

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After my close encounter with the Black Madonna, I turned to the small oval chapel below the altar. It had a full view of the Black Madonna from behind.

 

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Again, the room was practically empty. Here, I was able to pray longer.

 

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And I lit candles for my friends and family.

 

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That morning in Montserrat was really magical. After my prayers at the altar, we even heard the Montserrat Boys Choir sing. They usually sing in the afternoons. But that morning of December 8th, they had a special performance. Nothing in life is a coincidence. I was meant to be there.

 

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Another church in the old town of Barcelona, Santa Maria del Mar.

 

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Santa Maria del Mar’s interior shows incredible Catalan Gothic architecture.

 

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The vaulted ceiling of Santa Maria del Mar.

 

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Santa Maria del Mar, 14th century.

 

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Santa Maria del Mar is beautiful despite and because of its austerity.

 

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Whether you are religious or not, Santa Maria del Mar is worth a visit even just for its architectural merit. It is a pure example of Catalan Gothic.

 

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I was so taken by this beautiful image of the Virgin Mary at Santa Maria del Mar.

 

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Santa Maria Del Mar is dedicated to the patron saint of sailors.

 

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Of course, no visit to Barcelona is complete without seeing La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s 133 year-old work-in-progress masterpiece. It has always been an expiatory church, which means that since its beginning in 1882, the church has been built purely from donations. I will save an entire post and video blog on La Sagrada Familia.

 

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Not many people highlight the chapel at the crypt of La Sagrada Familia. It was built by the diocesan architect Francisco de Paula del Villar in 1882. By the end of 1883, Antoni Gaudi was commissioned to take over the project, where he worked on his modernist masterpiece for over forty years.

 

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One can have a glimpse of the neo-Gothic chapel underneath the apse.

 

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A view of the apse above can be seen from the crypt’s highest arches.

 

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In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI dedicated the yet-unfinished La Sagrada Familia as a minor basilica, a place of worship.

 

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Antoni Gaudi is buried in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.

 

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Our walks in Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) led us to many sacred sites. I couldn’t stop being in awe. (My chukka boots have been getting a lot of FB and IG love. It is a two year old Cole Haan.)

 

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The church of San Felip Neri is in a quaint square with a fountain and some buildings dating back to the Renaissance time. Its facade shows shrapnel from a bomb thrown by Franco’s forces during the Civil War, killing 42 people, mostly kids.

 

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A definite must-see is the Barcelona Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Santa Eulalia, established in the 15th century. Couldn’t help but pose for a touristy shot in front of the Gothic facade.

 

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The cathedral’s cloister houses 13 geese at the Well of the Geese. This represents the age of Santa Eulalia when she was killed by the Romans.

 

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So much beauty in this 14th century cloister courtyard.

 

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The cloister of Barcelona Cathedral.

 

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While the cloister courtyard is charming, the interior of Santa Eulalia is majestic.

 

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The entrance to the crypt is right in front of the altar, at the centre of the church.

 

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Here at the crypt, you will see the tomb of Santa Eulalia of Barcelona, a young girl who died as a martyr during the Roman period when she refused to dismiss Jesus as the Son of God.

 

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Back up, I explored the different chapels surrounding the nave.

 

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There are 28 chapels flanking the nave of Santa Eulalia, all illuminated by beautiful stained-glass windows.

 

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As we walked around the Gothic Quarter, I found these little charming places of worship, such as the small cappella in Placeta d’En Marcús.

 

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Little chapel at Placeta d’En Marcús had a Romanesque figure of Our Lady in an outdoor niche.

 

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We chanced upon La Basílica dels Sants Màrtirs, though the caretaker was closing up.

 

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This pretty image of Our Lady at La Basílica dels Sants Màrtirs caught my attention. I just love the pop of her blue veil against all that gold. So pretty.

 

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One doesn’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate these churches.

 

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We were lucky that during the time of our visit, there was a 2-week Christmas market outside the Barcelona Cathedral and La Sagrada Famlia. I had lost sleep over these miniature hand sculpted terracotta Nativity figurines I saw at the market, so we went back another night.

 

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The little terracotta figurines wasn’t all about the Holy Family and Three Kings. The local artisans sculpted Catalan villagers and village scenes.

 

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I bought a miniature stable and nativity scene. The clay pottery was made by this woman. I asked her to give me her name and she wrote it on the brown bag packaging. But sadly, we were careless when we unpacked and I lost her name.

 

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There is our miniature Catalan nativity scene. I also bought a smaller matchbox nativity.

 

For my blog on Barcelona food and restaurants, click here.

 

 

Barcelona food

 

 

BARC FEAST TILE

 

Last December, just before the Christmas rush, I travelled to Barcelona with a 2-person team from Lifestyle Network. It was a surprise bonus from being Samsung Digital Home’s brand ambassador at the time. We filmed some interstitials called “DAPHNE Diaries” that will soon air in Lifestyle Network. I have quite a few stories about this trip that I’ll be sharing in future entries.

Barcelona is one of those cities you can just lose yourself at while wandering through its streets. There are the must-see sites for visitors, those listed in all travel guides. But the true beauty of Barcelona is in what you discover while walking around. This is what happened to us in terms of food. We had a couple of pre-planned dining spots, but we left a lot of our meals to whatever came our way, wherever we were. Hope you like my list.

 

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Our hotel Hotel Silken was located just off of La Rambla, the main tree-lined promenade with kiosks that sell newspapers, flowers and souvenirs. We were within walking distance from La Boqueria and other great spots.

 

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When in Barcelona, must have churros at any random xurreria. Found this stall while walking around Placa de la Sagrada Familia, outside the church.

 

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Thank you for our guide, Fabio Bugna, for showing us some his favourite spots in his beautiful city.

 

 

FEAST - EUSKAL

 

We arrived in Barcelona on an afternoon flight and found ourselves famished by 5pm, too early for dinner. Euskal Taverna was a random discovery on our way to the Picasso Museum. They had a pintxos bar! Pintxos (or pinchos)  are little snacks served in bars common in the Basque country. They are like tapas, but pintxos are spiked with a skewer or toothpick on a piece of bread. They are served and billed individually. You may either order them or just pick them up in a buffet setting. You are then charged for each pintxos based on the number of toothpicks on your plate.

 

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Euskal Etxea Taverna

 

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The pintxos are presented over the bar. You just get what you want. This is what I love about Spanish dining. It’s so casual and social.

 

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For my first meal in Barcelona… of course, jamon iberico and tortilla de patata.

 

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Euskal has over 80 varieties of pintxos, depending on what is available and what’s fresh.

 

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Happy tummies. Our producer Dianne Sibal and director/videographer Carlo Lina.

EUSKAL TAVERNA, Placeta de Montcada, 1-3_08003. Tel +34 933102185

 

 

FEAST LA BOQUERIA

 

I can just imagine living in Barcelona and having La Boqueria market right there. I’d be picking up fresh food every single day. There would be very little cooking done, just tossing of all the fresh ingredients in hot olive oil and everything would taste so good. This is a place that is frequented by locals and tourists.

La Boqueria’s full name is Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. The earliest record of La Boqueria dates back to 1217. It went through many names and changes. It wasn’t til 1826 that the market was legally recognised. The construction of the permanent market structure started in 1840 under the direction of the architect Mas Vilà. The metal roof from the 1914 fish market still exists today. .

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My happy place in Barcelona.

 

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Seafood

 

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Fresh catch

 

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Being touristy in the market.

 

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Then I found what I was looking for.

 

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Acorn-fed Jamon Iberico. This one’s from Salamanca. The ones I bought were from Jabugo.

 

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I was so happy just tasting all the different legs!

 

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Seriously. This is my joy. I could never give up eating jamon.

 

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There’s my baby. I bought a big chunk of this and had it sliced and vacuum packed. Bellotas means acorn. This Iberian pig ate only acorns. It came from a farm in Jabugo. The ham was aged for 5 years. That’s the story of my jamon.

 

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My precious jamon iberico 5 jotas. I still have one pack in my fridge. Hmmm.

LA BOQUERIA, La Rambla, 91, 08001 Barcelona. Telephone +34 933 18 2584.

 

 

FEAST -ELQUIM

 

One of my unforgettable meals was in this amazing market stall at La Boqueria. El Quim does not take reservations. We took our chances and got there in the morning before the lunch rush started. El Quim started in 1987 with a three-metre long bar and just five stools. It now is one of the most famous eating spots in La Boqueria.

El Quim specializes in fried eggs, hence the egg emblem on the chefs’ jackets. They also have sandwiches, seafood and basically whatever fresh comes in to the market that day.

 

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You won’t miss El Quim when you are at La Boqueria. It has a choice spot in the middle of the market with a 16-metre wrap around counter and 18 stools.

 

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Chef Quim and his fellow chefs in the open kitchen.

 

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A must!!! Two fried eggs with baby squid. Yes fried eggs. The best I’ve ever had!!!

 

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Totally simple but oh so good – fried artichoke with a drizzle of sea salt.

 

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With a glass of cava, early morning.

 

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With the gracious and famous chef Quim.

EL QUIM DE LA BOQUERIA, Stalls 584-585-606-607-608-609, La Boqueria Market, Rambles. Telephone 93 301 98 10

 

 

FEAST ESCRIBA 5

 

Escriba is a pastry and chocolate shop with a lot of history and awards. We visited its second shop situated along La Rambla. The main confectionery showroom is at Gran Via. This shop along La Rambla was formerly Casa Figueras, makers of pasta and semolina. The corner shop shows beautiful Art Nouveau decor, with the founding date 1820, laid out in mosaic. The shop was refurbished in 1902 by stage designer Ros Guell who supervised some of the best craftsmen in the Art Nouveau movement.

 

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Escriba’s pretty art nouveau facade.

 

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The original corner mark of the building.

 

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Beautiful chocolate shop.

 

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We zeroed in on the xuixo, the sweet pastry beside the croissants.

 

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Creations of Chef Antoni Escriba, which have been winning awards since the 1950s.

 

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An image of the Virgin Mary guards the main shop.

 

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Dianne, Carlo and I with our xuixo purchase.

 

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If you don’t have time to sit and have coffee and sweets at Escriba, just drop by and get some xuixo, a pastry filled with crema catalana that is deep fried and covered with crystallized sugar. It was so good, I had to snap this selfie while walking down La Rambla with some crema in the corner of my mouth! Oops.

ESCRIBA, Rambla de les Flors 83, 08001. Telephone 93 301 6027

 

 

Feast formatgeria

 

One of the most charming places we went to was Formatgeria La Seu in Barri Gotic. This was highly recommended by our guide, Fabio. Formatgeria La Seu, a lovely cheese shop, is run by Katherine McLaughlin who personally picks the variety of cheeses from all over rural Spain. Her passion has brought her to some of the best cheese farms in Spain. At Formatgeria La Seu, you are guaranteed carefully selected cheeses, presented in optimum conditions.

We sat at the tasting room in the back, where we sampled a couple of palettes of cheese and a glass of vermouth.

 

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A lovely cheese shop in the narrow streets of Barri Gotic.

 

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The cheese at Formatgeria La Seu are stored and displayed in a temperature and humidity controlled cool-room, which one can enter, to view and sample.

 

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The tasting room at the back still has equipment for churning butter as this was one of the first butter-making factories in Barcelona.

 

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It was a very cold morning. This is Fabio and me trying to warm up with a glass of vermouth. It took me a while to peel off my trench coat.

 

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Vermouth was having something of a revival in Spain. It was an old-fashioned aperitif that was eventually replaced by beer or wine. But now, it is again in vogue in the Barcelona brunch set. People drink vermouth straight up before a meal or on Sundays after mass. Some say, vermouth’s resurgence has to do with the poor state of the economy. Vermouth has 15% alcohol by volume, offering the best value for your euro. The vermouth at Formatgeria La Seu was homemade, sourced though Katherine’s exploration of rural farms in the region.

 

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Each cheese in our palette came with a story about the farmer, the farm, the region. I was amazed.

 

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The backroom was kept as close to authentic as possible, with the old tiles and dairy-churning equipment.

 

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Wine and vermouth decanters in every shape.

 

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We really enjoyed this stop. I could have stayed longer. I’ll definitely be back. This is so Patrick’s thing.

FORMATGERIA LA SEU, Carrer Dagueria,16,08002, Barcelona. Telephone 93 412 65 48

 

 

FEAST - NACIONAL

In one of our walks home to our hotel, we stumbled upon El Nacional. At the time, it was just newly opened. El Nacional is located in a huge warehouse-like structure that dates back to 1889, the height of the industrial revolution in Barcelona. It used to house a cafe, a theatre, a fabric dye factory, a car dealer’s shop before the Spanish Civil War. Then it became a garage.

The building of El Nacional has now been converted into this beautiful dining hot spot with six different food specializations that reflect various recipes from the around the Iberian Peninsula. Loved the interiors!!! We didn’t get to try anything here, so feel free to let me know in the comments section how the food was. I just wanted to show photos of the stunning space.

 

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Narrow path that leads to El Nacional

 

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The cocktail bar.

 

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The oyster bar.

 

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La Llotja, specializing in fresh seafood.

 

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There is a mini seafood market where diners can choose their catch of the day and request for it to be cooked.

EL NACIONAL, Passeig de Gràcia, 24 Bis 08007. Telephone +(34) 93 518 5053.

 

 

FEAST - STOP MOS

Stop & Mos was  random find while shopping at the Mercat dels Encants, one of the oldest markets in Europe, dating back to the fourteenth century. After going through stalls of peddlers in the antique market (I will share with you my finds later), we went up to the mezzanine and looked for a place to eat.

Stop & Mos is one of those market stalls that caters to people on the go. Their logo says “natural take away food.” So this is not your typical fast food joint. We found a picnic table and seats, where we ate our food in take out containers outdoors. It was December and it was cold. Everything we ordered was so good.

 

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Mercat dels Encants.

 

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There was a fantastic view of Torre Agbar from the market.

 

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Me and Fabio ordering our tapas and pintxos.

 

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The chef himself was taking our order while preparing our food.

 

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We had tortilla, tapas, croquettas, sardines and these amazing fried peppers. I could have eaten the whole dish.

 

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Layers of aubergine with goat cheese, tomatoes and olive oil.

 

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And my favourite Spanish comfort food, tortilla de patatas.

STOP & MOS, Castillejos 158, Fira Bellcaire Mercat dels encants, Barcelona.

 

 

feast casa 1

 

Casa de Tapas is an interesting concept restaurant that put together award-winning, Michelin-starred dishes from other Barcelona restaurants and chefs, all under one roof. It’s like being able to have a sampler of all the best dishes at one time. This was our only scheduled meal in Barcelona where we actually had reservations. Excellent.

 

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We started with bruschetta using fresh tomatoes and garlic and a bottle of award-winning olive oil from Tickets.

 

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Casa de Tapes staff demonstrated how to rub fresh garlic and tomato on toasted bread. Then we drizzled extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled salt and pepper on our toasts. Delicious.

 

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Salad with burrata.

 

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Steamed tomatoes. So simple yet so out of this world amazing. What’s in their potatoes in Barcelona?

 

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Beef stew that just fell off the bone.

 

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Dani Garcia’s Burguerbull, with two Michelin stars. Oxtail burger, beef, arugula, havarti, cheese and Dani’s magical mayonnaise.

 

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Chocolate cake

 

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Russian roulette chocolate by Escriba. One of these chocolates is filled with pepper. Dianne was the lucky one.

 

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A memorable farewell dinner with new friends Fabio, Dianne and Carlo.

CASA DE TAPAS CANOTA, Calle Lleida 7, Barcelona. Telephone +(34) 93 3259171.

 

 

Taza Fresh Table

 

 

TAZA FRESH

 

We recently spent a weekend at Taal Vista Hotel. My parents had been in Manila since January and since they were about to leave soon (they left a few days ago), we thought a stay in Taal Vista would be a guaranteed special time. Our last stay there was in 2012, and both my parents were with us too. This time we had an extra treat. We got to sample the hotel’s new restaurant Taza Fresh Table.

 

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It was a foggy couple of days. We didn’t get a clear view of the volcano, but we loved misty the atmosphere.

 

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There’s something magical about fog settling in like this.

 

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No rain. Just dew drops and lots of mist.

 

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This is TAZA Fresh Table, located right at Taal Vista Hotel, just off the garden.

 

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It is a hexagonal structure surrounded by glass walls, giving diners a wonderful view of the ridge.

 

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Before our dinner at TAZA, we got comfortable at our hotel rooms.

 

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The rooms were spacious and comfy. The highlight was the balcony with a gorgeous view of the lake and volcano.

 

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The hotel staff surprised me with a cake. My birthday had passed a couple of weeks before this. But I thought it was so nice and thoughtful.

 

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A very special touch.

 

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My dad and mom taking a selfie with the volcano behind them.

 

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TAZA is a country garden-inspired restaurant with a 180-degree view of Taal Lake and volcano. TAZA is derived from the Arabic word “taaza” which means fresh.

 

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The idea of TAZA Fresh Table is to offer innovative international cuisine using the best locally-sourced ingredients — duck from Laguna, lobster from Batangas, mangoes from Cebu, coffee beans and black rice from Negros Island and organic herbs and vegetables from Benguet, Cavite, Batangas, and the Taal Vista Hotel Garden.

 

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We started with the Mezze, usually served in smaller pots. The chef gave us bigger servings because we were a family of seven. Mezze is served with glad breads and a choice of four dips/sauces. We had Spinach Bacon Jam,  Boquerones, Chorizo with Garlic, and Sauteed Chicken Liver and Garlic Confit.

 

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The Spinach with Bacon Jam was incredible.

 

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The kids shared a Four Cheese Pizza -Tomato sauce, Laguna kesong puti, Pato quezo de bola, Laguna mozarella, homemade ricotta, olive oil. The girls couldn’t stop raving about this.

 

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Chef Jayme Natividad made a special papardelle that was not in the menu, for my girls. He told me he’d whip something up for them with butter and cheese. And my goodness, the kids loved this. They are asking to go back.

 

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Mushroom Soup, Trio of Tagaytay mushrooms (oyster, shitake and button)

 

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Duck and Mushroom Lasagna, Laguna duck, Trio of Tagaytay mushrooms, Bechamel sauce, parmesan cheese

 

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Tomahawk Pork Chop, caramelized onions and banas

 

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Braised Oxtail, seared and braised in red wine, onions and rosemary.

 

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Moroccan Chicken, braised probiotic chicken with spices, served with couscous.

 

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Cannoli with Ube Ricotta and Langka Cream, puff pastry cylinders stuffed with purple yam and jackfruit pastry cream.

 

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Olive Oil Ice Cream with glazed Tagaytay pineapple.

 

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Chef Jayme Natividad

 

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The mariachi trio even sang “Happy Birthday” for me.

 

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And we witnessed the first proposal in Taza. She said “Yes!”

 

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TAZA Fresh Table is a wonderful addition to Taal Vista Hotel’s charming atmosphere.

 

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The next morning we were greeted by more fog and mist, making the place seem more magical.

 

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TAZA Fresh Table is located at that pavilion on the left of this photo, just a walk down from the lobby of Taal Vista Hotel. For reservations, call +63 (2) 917-8225, +63 (46) 413-100 or +63 917 809-1254. Or visit www.taalvistahotel.comFacebook.com/taalvistahotel, or Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Hotels in Bhutan

 

 

Bhut- Tiles Hotel

 

 

Our trip to Bhutan was designed around three valleys – Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. We were to take our journey for eight days. Halfway through, an opportunity came up to visit Gangtey in Phobjikha Valley, a three-hour car ride from Punakha. All the different towns are about two to three hours away from each other by land. Amala Destinations, being a bespoke travel service, adjusted our itinerary and brought us to Gangtey. This explains the many hotels we got to stay in. Each one different but each reflects so much of the culture and architecture of Bhutan.

All new buildings in Bhutan, whether residential, commercial, agricultural or for tourism are mandated to follow the form of traditional Bhutanese architecture. A royal decree in 1998 mandated all buildings in Bhutan must be constructed with a mud brick structure (or the appearance of), either whitewashed or left as terracotta, multi-coloured wood frontages and cornices, small arched windows, and sloping roofs. You will see how the hotels and resorts have adapted this very unique architectural style and translated it into their own.

In our eight days in Bhutan, we stayed in a local inn, a luxury lodge, a hip hotel, a forest lodge and a luxurious mountain. Getting from A to B was quite an adventure and sometimes a test of patience. There is only one main highway in Bhutan – a one-lane meandering road that zigzags up, down, and around mountains. The country is predominantly Buddhist, and part of their belief is that mountains are sacred sites. There are still unexplored mountains in Bhutan. Needless to say, they will not be blasting mountains to make way for tunnels ever. Bhutan has a strict environmental stance and believes in protecting the country’s 72 percent of forest cover.

I loved the balance of our trip. Though the terrain was tough during the day, all our accommodations were more than comfortable, even luxurious. Amala Destinations chose a beautiful range of styles and services for us. By the way, there’s wi-fi in all the establishments we went to in Bhutan… except the dzongs and temples, of course.

Here’s what our journey from town to town looked like.

 

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Our Amala journey began in Paro. We went as far as Phobjikha. Amala’s Ee-Cheng gave me a wonderful book about Bhutan written by the Queen Mother of Bhutan.

 

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The cure for altitude and motion sickness… beautiful vistas that just don’t end.

 

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The Dochula Pass with 108 Stupas, elevation 3,000 metres above sea level. These stupas were constructed as a memorial by the queen, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, to honor the victory of the Bhutanese army in the 2003 war of Southern Bhutan.

 

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Bhutan roads are currently under construction for widening and repair. They have a system of closing the roads for thirty-minutes a few times a day. We ran into a couple of these road closures and though our driver and guide from Amala were very apologetic, we actually loved this little “inconvenience.”

 

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It gave us time to stretch our legs and taste authentic home-cooked food.

 

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The local vendors sold momo, milk tea, rice porridge with ginger.

 

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We had cheese momo (dumpling) with chili sauce.

 

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Patrick loved everything.

 

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In one of the stops, I ate the packed breakfast given by our hotel when we checked out early.

 

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Love from the “kingdom of happiness.” Little boy in blue gho looks like my nephew.

 

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You know you’re in high elevation when you see a yak. We were at 3,000 metres, which is considered low altitude for the yaks. Usually they’re at 5,000 metres above.

 

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Fun stops.

 

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The kind of traffic jam that we don’t mind.

 

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We were there in the tail end of winter. During spring and summer, these trees and entire valleys are filled with lush foliage and flowers.

 

GANGTEY GOENPA LODGE (5-Star)

Originally unplanned, our trip to Gangtey or Phobjikha Valley proved to be the prettiest and most unforgettable. This is where we visited the small village where Amala Destinations’ guests donated a monastery roof and where we interacted with the local villagers. It is in Gangey where I felt like I was in a really special faraway place cut-off from the outside world. It was almost magical.

There are very few structures in Phobjikha Valley – just some farm houses around Gangteng Monastery, a few local inns and a couple of luxurious resorts – the Amankora and the lodge we stayed at, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge. The reason for this exclusivity could perhaps be that Gangtey only got its electricity three years ago. This vast valley is the home of migratory birds – the almost-endangered black necked cranes. Gangtey is also 6 hours away by land (rough roads) from the Paro international airport.

From the outside, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge looks like a typical Bhutanese farm house with whitewashed mud brick walls, small arched windows, carved cornice, and wooden roofs anchored by big stones. But once you enter, the space opens up to an informal lounge and dining space with a wide view of the valley below. The lounge and rooms are decorated with heated stone floors, exposed mud brick walls, wooden beams and an earthy palette of leather sofas and woollen blankets. There are only 12 guest rooms. .

Our room had a stunning view of the valley, as all rooms do. And to maximize this special vista, the designer of the lodge set the enamelled cast iron bath tubs right by the windows. Amazing! Note that we were here in the beginning of February, the tail end of winter. In the spring and summer, Gangtey valley is filled with greenery and colourful flowers. Each room also has a bukhari fire place which provided warmth physically and visually. It was my favourite spot in the room – the couch beside the fire place.

Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, rated 5-stars, had all the beautiful design details and amenities of a luxurious resort. What set it apart for me was the impeccable service and personal touches — the welcome surprise when we entered the lodge, the five-minute back rub when arrived, the lovely staff that served us tea and lit the bukhari in our room, the turn down service with treats under the sheets, the friendly and very well-trained staff, the delicious food during all meals, the free laundry delivered on the same day, and priceless view from all corners of the property.

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DHENSA BOUTIQUE RESORTS (5-Star)

Dhensa Punakha, a new boutique hotel opened in March 2014, has successfully merged contemporary design with Bhutan’s traditional architecture. I loved the clean lines and modern, minimalist feel. Our room was quite generous and provided the perfect backdrop after a few days of trekking and rough roads. I loved our balcony, surrounded by pine trees. We loved it so much, Patrick and I sat out every morning to have coffee in our pyjamas (and coats). The mini-bar is complimentary in all rooms.

I took a lot of pictures of the main structure. I love how the designers translated traditional Bhutanese farm architecture into this unimposing modern hip hotel. I hope to use this as a reference for our future weekend cottage.

Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is also one of the warmest valleys, being lower than others at 1,200 metres above sea level.

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BHUTAN SUITES (3-Star)

Our first night was spent in Thimphu in the quaint boutique hotel, Bhutan Suites. I found this to be the homiest of all the lodges we stayed at. It also had the most local feel of all the hotels. Our room had a full kitchen and a separate living room. There were TVs in the room, but we honestly never turned on the TV during our 8 day trip. At nights we enjoyed slow dinners, nice conversations and read books. I particularly loved the wide balcony that had a stunning view of Thimphu valley. The food at Bhutan Suites Cafe was excellent. I loved that they served me chilli cheese (as in green chillies) at breakfast.

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NAK-SEL BOUTIQUE HOTEL & SPA (3-Star)

In Paro, we stayed one night at Nak-sel Boutique Hotel & Spa, with lovely mountain cottages surrounded by a forest on one side and a view of the vast Paro Valley and Mount Jumolhari in the distance. Every room, cottage, and suite of Naksel Hotel features dramatic views of Jumolhari. While we were there, the clouds broke a short time and afforded us a glimpse of the snow-capped mountain. Mount Jumolhari sits in the border of Bhutan and Tibet. Also visible from the cottages and the main chalet were cliffs where Tiger’s Nest Monastery sits. We were to climb Tiger’s Nest the next morning.

We had a wonderful experience wearing the traditional Bhutanese attire — the Gho for men and Kira for women. Amala Destinations sent spa staff to our room to help us get dressed in the ornate silk robes. We all wore them to dinner.

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AMANKORA (5-Star)

This small landlocked kingdom in the Himalayas has five (yes FIVE) Aman resorts under the brand Amankora set throughout Bhutan’s central and western valleys.  Aman means peace in Sanskrit, and kora refers to the  ‘circular pilgrimage’ in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. We were fortunate enough to have had lunch, hosted by Amala Destinations, in Amankora Paro. This happened right after our climb up and down Tiger’s Nest monastery.

Amankora Paro is located in Balakha Village, 30 minutes from Paro International Airport. There are 24 suites in Amankora Paro with contrasting rustic elements and contemporary design. “Its architecture features natural rammed-earth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-panelled interiors. Centred by a large flagstone courtyard, a lime-washed stone pavilion houses the living and dining room facilities, library and outdoor terrace, all warmed by fireplaces.” I don’t think I will look at corrugated iron the same way again. Its chic factor just went up.

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UMA by COMO, PARO (5-Star)

Our last night in Bhutan was spent at Uma Paro, a luxurious 29-room resort with private villas in a beautiful spot in Paro Valley. The architectural style of Uma Paro combines local craftsmanship with COMO’s contemporary style. The Bukhari restaurant is a beautiful space with a semi-circular view of the forest.

We had a Valley View room, which was perfect as I said farewell to Bhutan from our room balcony. The airport was just 10 minutes away from Uma Paro. From all over the hotel, one can see the distinctively traditional Bhutanese wooden roofs anchored by big stones. Very charming.

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Bhutan Phobjikha Valley Gangtey Goenpa
After our trek through Gangtey Valley, with our driver Sangay and guide Mani from Amala Destinations. All hotels, treks and tours within Bhutan were arranged though Amala Destinations. For inquiries regarding our hotels, tours and itinerary, pls email info@amaladestinations.com.

How to get to Bhutan, visa and other requirements, click here.

 

 

The Kingdom of Happiness, Bhutan

 

 

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A couple of weeks have passed since Patrick and I got back from our Bhutan trip, and we still can’t get back to our normal lives. It was one of those trips that was (as much as I refuse to use cliches) life-changing. Bhutan has set the bar for our future travel choices.

One of the last countries to open its doors to tourism, Bhutan is a small kingdom that sits in the Eastern Himalayan mountain range, flanked by China and India. It was ruled by absolute monarchy until 2008 when they had their first democratic elections. It is one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world. A trip to Bhutan will require commitment, planning, and some saving up. But once you get there, you get to experience a small piece of an unspoilt environment, culture, and people.

The Royal Government of Bhutan has adapted a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism. This means no mass tourism, no budget travel deals, no big chain establishments. They are very cautious about growing and developing their tourism industry and have decided to promote Bhutan as a high-end destination. This way, they can preserve Bhutan’s pristine environment, culture and society. Every visitor must spend a minimum of $250 per person per day (or $200 per person per day in the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December). This rate covers hotel accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay, internal transportation, tours, camping and trekking. A portion of this fee goes to tourism royalty to fund free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and infrastructure projects. Your licensed Bhutanese tour operator should be able to explain and arrange everything for you including your visa.

I knew that at some point in our lives, we would go to Bhutan. Patrick has been very fascinated by this “kingdom far, far, away.” So it was a complete surprise and a major blessing that I met Amala Destinations’ founder Ee-Cheng though a common friend, Ole Eugenio of Options Studio. Amala Destinations, licensed in both Bhutan and Singapore, is a “bespoke travel service” that focuses on unique and authentic experiences in Bhutan and other locations. Ee-Cheng invited me to Bhutan to experience Amala’s very carefully considered and personalized service in order to prepare me as the spokesperson/ambassador for Amala Destinations. Patrick came along to help me shoot videos (yes, we will have Video Postcards!).

I’ll be writing a quite few stories about the 8-day journey we took to Bhutan. Now I know why it’s referred to as “the last Shangri-la” and “the kingdom of happiness.” The minimum daily package is actually a small price to pay for the gift of seeing a pure, untouched world.

 

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We arrived in Paro on a flight from Bangkok. Bhutan has two airlines — Drukair and Bhutan Airlines.

 

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Most incredible landing experience. Our plane had to zigzag between mountains. I’d never seen hills up-close from a flying plane before.

 

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Mount Everest as seen from our airplane window (this was taken during our departure).

 

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Back in 2009 only 9 pilots were qualified to fly in an out of Paro, Bhutan. It has a short landing strip nestled between mountains. Planes can only fly during the day. And much of the flying relies on actual sight and not computer instruments.

 

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Loved the casualness of Paro International Airport. Everyone was posing for pictures on the tarmac.

 

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Airline personnel wearing the traditional costume, the gho for men and kira for women. Bhutanese are mandated by law to wear the national attire at work and official activities.

 

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At the airport, we were greeted with this beautiful billboard of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck.

 

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The immigration gate. All visitors need a visa to Bhutan, pre-arranged through a licensed Bhutanese operator. One cannot just go to Bhutan on their own. It is government regulation that all visitors be assisted by a licensed Bhutanese guide during their stay.

 

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Upon arrival in Paro, we visited the Tachogang bridge, a hanging iron chain bridge built by Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo in the late 1300s. He is said to have built 108 of these iron chain bridges around Tibet and Bhutan.

 

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The iron chain from ca 1300.

 

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The bridge was surrounded with colourful prayer flags.

 

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I was a little nervous crossing the bridge. But the sound of the clear water and prayer flags flapping in the wind calmed me.

 

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There was a newer bridge, with wooden floor boards. Apparently that’s what is used by cattle and those who want to cross easier.

 

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The prayer flags, stamped with Indian sutras, come in sets of five different colours arranged in this specific order – blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements — blue symbolizes the sky and space, white for the air and wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.

 

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Bhutanese prayer flags trace their roots to Tibetan Bonism. Not all Buddhists practise the hoisting of prayer flags. Generally, in Bhutan, prayer flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings. When the wind blows, the prayers and mantras stamped on the flags will spread good will and compassion into everyone within that space. Prayer flags are believed to benefit all, not just the person who raised them.

 

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This is downtown Thimphu. No traffic lights, just a traffic cop in an ornate gazebo.

 

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We visited a nature reserve where the takins live.

 

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The takin is Bhutan’s national animal.

 

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More prayer flags over Thimphu

 

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Patrick and I at Thimphu lookout point. Sometimes, the 4th King of Bhutan (the father of the current king) can be seen riding his bike in this path.

 

Bhutan is marketed as the “Kingdom of Happiness.” This is not to be confused with the “happiest place on earth,” for that we have Disneyland. Do not expect to see Bhutanese people laughing and smiling all the time. It’s not that kind of happiness.

Bhutan has a unique concept for development. Instead of only measuring the GNP or Gross National Product, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck created the concept of GNH or Gross National Happiness in the 1970s. It basically means, they will lead the country to development and progress, but they will give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being.

There are four pillars in Gross National Happiness – good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. GNH is the reason why Bhutan is developing its tourism policy for only “High Value, Low Impact.” Yes they want to develop and be accessible to the outside world, but not at the expense of their culture and environment. The King has put a lot of importance on the preservation of their culture and the well-being of each Bhutanese. Example, all Bhutanese farmers own their land. Farmers children are given scholarships to good schools. I encourage everyone who is interested in local governance, urban planning or strategic planning to study this concept.

On New Year’s Day my brother in law, Fr Dennis Paez, in his homily, asked us to contemplate on the meaning of the greeting “Happy New Year.” We spend a lot of time on the pursuit of happiness through people, things, thoughts, places — always looking for the key to happiness. He said the true key to happiness is when you give it away – when you make someone else happy. He encouraged us to do something to make another person happy, and not expect anything in return.

In Bhutan, I witnessed that kind of happiness. Amala Destinations took us to Gangtey, one of the prettiest valleys in Bhutan. There we stayed in a luxurious lodge, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, overlooking the valley. Amala’s founder, Ee-Cheng asked if I wanted to see the village where they donated a new roof for a small monastery, an informal project initiated by one of her guests. Apparently her guest felt so moved by Bhutan that he wanted to give something back to the community. With no formalities, the guest donated cash. Amala’s co-founder Phub Dorji personally took charge of buying roofing material at the border near India. Dorji was able to hitch a ride with an empty truck and got the iron roofing material delivered to Gangtey.  The villagers did the construction. Amazing.

This little act of kindness and generosity went a long way for the monks and villagers. At the end of our visit, the village elders served us tea and biscuits. I was moved to tears.

 

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We drove down rough roads across the Phobjika Valley.

 

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Our destination.

 

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Amala’s Ee-Cheng and I walking through this village. Bhutan’s economy, one of the smallest in the world, is predominantly agricultural. The major contributor to their economy is hydroelectric power, which is exported to India, and tourism. Majority of the population still live in farms, which they own.

 

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This is the monastery and the new roof donated by Amala Destination guests. All structures – homes, farm houses, temples, monasteries are made from mud brick. Typical roofing material was made of wood, kept in place by stones (they didn’t have metal nails). Recently, the government has started to encourage home owners to choose corrugated iron, as it is more practical and environmentally sustainable (wood has to be replaced regularly).

 

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These are slate shingles. Also used as roofing material, kept in place by heavy stones.

 

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Here’s what the new roof of the new monastery looks like. Corrugated iron, anchored by wooden planks and stones.

 

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Here,  Amala’s founder, Ee-Cheng and I pose for a photo with village leaders.

 

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It was quite cold for me, though nothing like Arctic weather we get in Canada. During the day, the sun cancels out the cold alpine temperatures of the Himalayas. Note that the villagers were just wearing rubber slippers while I was in double layers, thermal socks and trekking shoes, haha.

 

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Traditional Bhutanese architecture uses stacked earth or mud bricks as construction material. Roofs are made of light material, traditionally wood planks held in place by stones. Metal nails were not available. Here you can see the new roof, donated by Amala guests.

 

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This is the kitchen of the monastery.

 

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Monks’ kitchen.

 

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Monks’ pots and pans. Notice they have electricity. This valley only got electric power three years ago via underground cables. This was done in order to protect the habitat of the once-endangered migratory black necked cranes.

 

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The bukhari, a wood-burning stove, is the typical heater in this region of the world.

 

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In another room, they have open fire stoves made of mud brick.

 

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During our 8 days in Bhutan, we saw their grandest temples. But this modest temple in a far-far-away village in Gangtey left the biggest impression on us.

 

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As a sign of respect, tourists are asked not to take pictures inside temples. I was “allowed” to take photos in this one, but I decided not to. I wanted to keep that respect. I just documented whatever was outside the holy room.

 

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The very steep ladder that lead to the temple.

 

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Monasteries and temples are so important to the Bhutanese life. It is actually the centre of their village life. This small temple probably dates back to the 16th century or earlier. It was touching to see how much importance the local villagers put in caring for their temple.

 

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Centuries-old murals depicting Bhutanese ornamentation and Buddha’s life.

 

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Centuries-old iron bowl used to light incense

 

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The monastery and the temple.

 

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After our visit to the monastery and temple, the village leaders invited us to sit behind the temple structure.

 

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Turns out they had prepared some snacks for us.

 

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The village leaders served us hot milk tea and crackers.

 

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There were no expectations from both donors and recipients. There was no ceremonial hand-over, no speeches, no thank yous. And yet this simple act of serving us tea spoke volumes of both the sincere generosity and deep appreciation that went on. It reminded me that if you want to do good, you can do good.

 

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I was so honoured and humbled to have experienced this. I wish the actual donors could have been the recipient of the villagers’ gratitude.

 

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Thank you, Amala Destinations, for taking us on this incredible journey.

 

I still have so many stories to tell about Bhutan. There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments like stunning views, luxurious hotels, and bucket-list architecture like Tiger’s Nest monastery. But it is the silence and simplicity in the ordinary Bhutanese villages, that left Patrick and me so enamoured by this pure and untouched culture.

It was a real privilege to have been given a chance to be with them.

 

Read about the hotels we stayed at in Bhutan here.

 

Disclosure: This trip from Bangkok to Bhutan was sponsored by Amala Destinations, a bespoke travel service delivering authentic experiences to enrich and enlighten, with focus on Bhutan, Bali and other special journeys. I am now the spokesperson/ambassador of Amala Destinations in the Philippines.