June 9, 2006

Travel Special for 2006

TRAVELS, 2006
May-June 2006

June 3, NAIA
Thinking about this trip makes me go, “Yes! Another vacation/journey to the great unknown/chance to drink unbelievable amounts of free Bailey’s!”

Looking at the list on the left [with the names of people I have to give gifts to] makes me wonder if I brought enough shopping money. Then again, there’s the credit cards and the assurance of plastic salvation, so – I fear for my savings.

It’s a Saturday, so I’ll be missing Mass tomorrow and next week. Maybe I can go to that Church near the Termini? The one under the Salesians? That would be like ordinary Mass – minus PS.

I miss –
NOT ANYMORE!!! We’re in Business Class!

GUANGZHOU

Well, the only thing I miss right now is Oreo.

Make that the DOG, not the dessert. Business Class does us great, Paz and I. We have an early dinner of rolls, as well as a salad of lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes, young corn, turkey, and beef strips. We have strawberry cheesecake for dessert, laced with syrup and sitting on a moist graham cracker crust. I’ve been dreaming of cheesecake for ages now, so I take the entire meal down with tomato juice and just totally forget all the stress I’ve been through.

Business Class also gives each passenger a monitor and remote control, so I get to watch a bit of James Blunt’s concert. This is the life – something I’d like us to have, as a family, regularly.

That, of course, will happen after I get my books really published and promoted. This should be fun – the dreaming part, I mean – especially since it usually comes with an imagined appearance on Oprah along with the rest of the cast of The Romantic.

This is getting out of hand. Must think of how to savor every moment of San Giovanni Rotondo, Vienna, and Prague, without getting distracted.

In the meantime, we’re in Guangzhou, on a scheduled stop and crew change. Let’s hope we catch up with the FRA-ROM flight!

June 4, FRANKFURT AIRPORT
As we speak, there is a 12:30 PM mass happening in Don Bosco, in Makati, Philippines. I may not be there (darn) but I’m enjoying the current state of things, jetlag and all.

It’s early morning here in Frankfurt, a gray, sunny, here-comes-the-rain-and-wind-but-not-quite morning. I have a nasty headache, and I’m not exactly in the best of moods. I’m also sleepy (again) and I want to sit, lie down, and rest all the livelong flight.

Italian always sounds lovely. It’s one of the loveliest languages in the world, and I love it.

I wonder if I still have any charm to charm the socks off Italians? (ahem, ahem)

June 4, TRAIN TO TERMINI, ROME
The whole day will be Travel Day for us. This first Roman leg will take us through the roads from the airport to the cultural center of Rome. That means a non-stop trek through stations, hills, sheep, and Cinecitta! Site of studios where “Rome” is being filmed! Now if I could only remember the names of the characters (aside from Julius Caesar, of course). Oh, lovely, what this Roman Air can do. Here come the names! Lucius Vorenus, Titus Pullo, and – some other people.

Roman air really does carry a lot of history and memory for me. I’m here and breathing in all the old sites once again. Welcome back to me – welcome back to the city I’ve missed for a year.

June 4, TRAIN TO PESCARA (STILL IN ROME)

Rome is there, right beyond the walls of the Termini, ready to be re-explored. Too bad I can’t – but the alternative is much better.

Daddy’s friend Ana and her friend Virgie take us on a quick food tour of the Termini before we make our way to the Pescara train. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to eat something other than McDonald’s. We have Spizzico pizza, Roadhouse fries, and deep fried Rice Balls – and rich hot chocolate. We have muffins and cheesecake for the road, and jetlag to go with the travel hours to Pescara. We also have a compartment of cub scouts with enough noise to drive me nuts. Too bad I know a bit of Italian. There’s always, “No somos Cinese, per favore, per il amore di Dio!” to set them straight. What happens next will (hopefully) be solvable by “Parle Inglese?”

(later) I never thought I’d see the Apennines still bathed in snow. I also never thought I’d understand Kiddie Italian. Must be that Rachel bit of me now warming up to the idea of existence.

June 5, SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO

We arrive near midnight at San Giovanni Rotondo, after a long train ride, a brief train ride, and a brief bus ride. It’s a real bed and bath for us at least at Pensione Bianco, conveniently situated in front of the basilica.

The next day is brief, as there is nothing much to see here aside from places and things associated with Padre Pio. We visit Padre Pio’s tomb and cell, as well as the room to which he was moved in his last years. Within the basilica are smaller museums, housing vestments, cups, stoles, and other articles that were used by Padre Pio. Alongside these are pictures of the people he cured, his books, and minor things he owned. His tomb is encased in malachite green marble, bound to be chipped as people throw in bills, prayers, and coins.

One rather disconcerting highlight of the tour is the new shrine for Padre Pio, which features a very Novus Ordo lesser church, and a superbly Novus Ordo higher church. There are no kneelers, the walls are staid and blank, and the architecture is all too modern for a traditionalist’s taste. Gone is the splendor and sanctity of a real basilica; a church wrought of stone, brick, marble, and gold; a shrine that calls to memory the quiet life of a saint.

It’s lunch after (or much, much later, after a run in with a tour group that keeps us from getting a decent Italian meal) and we have sandwiches, then ice cream and granite. Everything has to be done in haste, or we risk missing a train ride out to Bari.

June 5, TRAIN TO BARI

It’s only the start of the trip, but we don’t have much to see – or at least, not yet. We’ve also met only a few happy, friendly people – it seems as though the people here have never seen Asians or have a natural animosity toward them. Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s any news from back home that’s supposed to alarm Italy and make it hate everyone in the Philippines (or China, as all the world seems to think we’re from there). Maybe it’s the bird flu. Must stop coughing.

This train is supposed to leave, but we’re not moving. Looks like we’ll have to spend a night in Bari. Either that, or we’re on the wrong train.

Now that I’m getting more downtime, I’m starting to think, what if –

Never mind. Train is starting up.

June 5, BARI

I never expected we’d spend some time in Bari, let alone explore it. We’re tired, but we make a good round of the city (and get a pretty good hotel too, thanks to daddy). Although many of the major sites are closed, we get to see Bari’s streets, its major come-hither-shoppers-of-expensive-tastes avenue, and its seaside. It’s the first time we’ve seen any sign of ocean on a European tour – make than an Italian tour – so the warm sea breeze is most welcome after days of freezing our BLEEPS off from the mountain cold.

Thanks to the help of enthusiastic Italian kids – who mistake us for Chinese, — we get to see the facades and piazzas of St. Nicholas and Gesu, two churches stuck in the middle of an entanglement of roads and alleyways. Rumor has it that Bari’s cathedral is beautiful – too bad I don’t get to see it, as I don’t know which one it is.

We’re tired, however, so we head off to a pizza fast food and get ourselves a heavy dinner of pizza and sandwiches. It’s off to bed at the hotel Costa in a while, all with the notion that we’re in big trouble come the morning if we’re not up early enough to catch the plane to Rome.

June 6 (Damian’s Birthday), BARI AIRPORT

We’re up a bit later than usual, but all in good time, as we eat leftover muffins and cake with some freshly brewed coffee. Now, it’s aeroporto time to catch a plane to Rome by 3:15. We also have to rush for another flight to Munich after, which translates to: Munich Airport Hotel.

That doesn’t sound like such a big problem now, as we have a little lunch of pasta, salad, and fruit. Looks like we have hours and hours of down time (writing time!) ahead.

June 6/7, FRANKFURT AIRPORT

Writing time not going as bright as first expected. Dinner was McDonald’s shake and tomato and mozzarella salad. Sleep was sorely lacking, as was resistance. Now down with hybrid of allergies and colds. Luck also out, as change of itinerary (from ROM-MUNICH to ROM-FRA) also necessitated change of ticket, resulting in getting appropriate flight.

Thus, stuck in Germany for over 12 hours, but holding out, as flight finally assured. Now in plane on way to Austria.

Lovely – on plane, still partially deaf, with potential Jonathan (by looks, mainly) sitting in same row, with middle seat between us. Cannot strike up conversation for many reasons, one being that he is apparently too young, another being that he is concentrating all energy on apparently staring down the wing to a fiery end; and last being that I am water and cannot be moved to make any first move unless completely assured that I shall not be total failure.

Consolation comes in the promise of sleep, as well as lovely sticker showing my family name in its complete glory. Very royal, it is – thank God for great ancestors.

Do not know why am taking Bridget Jones type of tone. Jonathan on same row, maybe? Brother Zeth and Brother Andreus in 19E and F?

Cold must be going to head. Sniff.

June 8, VIENNA

It takes so long to get back to writing if you are confronted by grandeur. You need the time to take it all in, appreciate it, and make your words do it justice. The most difficult part of the entire chronicling, I believe, is finding time to take a seat and write it all down.

There’s something about Austria that makes me want to give up writing altogether – and that’s not because it’s ugly. It’s because the country, all its own, is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, the only thing you could wish for is lower prices.

Expensive things aside, Vienna is a dream world, a universe of art echoed and surpassed only by Florence. If Florence is home to the visual arts, Vienna truly is home to music, and you can see the art’s influence everywhere.

We get a great hotel, which is within walking distance of the city’s cultural center. I’m still sick, so my first Vienna afternoon is spent in recuperation while mom and Paz go get something to eat.

I don’t remember the name of this place. But it’s in Vienna. Getting old, I know.

Right in front of our hotel is a sprawling night market, [naschtmarkt, actually, which is, well, a place to “nasch”] occupying the entire street and filling it with stores and restaurants offering Persian, Chinese, Japanese, and even Korean food. I get a bit of Chinese courtesy of mother and sister, right before I head off to bed for ten hours of sleep.

In the morning, it’s a buffet breakfast, followed by a walking tour of the major sights. We head for the Museum quarter; then the churches, first St. Michael’s, then St. Peter’s.

We’re off to Schonbrunn the next day, which translates into humongous museum fees, so we save our money and don’t enter any of the museums. The Leopold, Natural Art, and Modern Art museums are but facades to us, as we have pictures taken in front of building after building, garden after garden. It’s picture after picture, marble statue after marble statue, until we leave the museum quarter and head for the world-famous Demel café.

Demel is sinful, in a word. It’s something we contemplate (i.e. chew on) as we drink down steaming cups of rich, whipped-cream-topped chocolate and coffee, and have our palates caressed by napoleones (filled with thick custard and whipped cream), apple strudel, and chocolate truffle cake.

St. Michael’s church, newly (and still being) restored, is home to a crypt, paintings in small chapels, a lovely, simple sculpture of the Virgin Mary, and a marble altar filled with figures right out of Devil’s Advocate. The church organ is ornate, and glittering and gleaming in the noonday sun.

A famous poet (whose name I easily forget, so somebody IV me with coffee) also rests in St. Peter’s crypt, although humidity has forced him out and into a side chapel. He occupies a favored place, as librettist and poet laureate during Mozart’s time.

St. Peter’s, on the other hand, is an Opus Dei church, so it’s more traditional and grand (at least that’s the reason, according to Inez’s edition of How to Stereotype Everybody). There are paintings all over the church: St. Josemaria Escriva is here, along with paintings and sculptures of the archangels, saints, and the Virgin Mary.

We enter in the middle of Mass, and a very traditional one, if I might add. It’s in German, but everyone’s kneeling in all the right places, communion included. After more prayers, and exploring, it’s out onto the streets once again.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral (stolen shot!)

Vienna, like Salzburg, has art, innovation, and fashion spilling out of its buildings and into its shops and cafes. Prices are good, according to my mom and sister, who get me a blue and gold bag for my birthday. We stroll down the avenue of shops indeed, where mimes and balloon sculptors entertain tourists – and they (the tourists) come in droves, speaking a great deal of languages and making an even greater round of purchases. Salzburg and Vienna are both centers of art, but Vienna is a larger, more colorful melting pot.

At last, we enter the famed St. Stephen’s, a Gothic cathedral filled, this time, with spires, wooden sculptures, and pillars fanning upward into a vaulted ceiling. In it are various altars dedicated to St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the Divine Mercy, the Virgin Mary, and various saints. What makes our visit special is a trip to the cathedral’s spire, which allows us to see the whole of Vienna. We even glimpse its giant Ferris wheel (which is not moving, sad to say) and other churches and castles that are now too far to reach.

From St. Stephen’s, we proceed to the streets and try to breathe in an increasingly hot Vienna. There are souvenir shops showing off magnets and costumes. There is Mozart’s house, three levels of history, where the composer lived during his stay in Vienna. There are ice cream parlors and Italian restaurants alongside Chinese take-out and McDonald’s. Vienna is a melting pot that is hard to get tired of.

We’re in the park soon enough, where we — despite my meeting with Tour Enemy #1, pollen – get to stroll about, rest, and even have our pictures taken by a gold statue of Strauss. A few more steps, and it starts to rain, so we take refuge under the arches of the Opera House.

The rain is milder, so we head underground, where we finally get the chance to buy souvenir items. More bargains are up ahead: we return to the Naschtmarkt, and have ourselves an ultra-heavy dinner of lamb, vegetables, and wild rice. It’s a hefty meal we have to walk off, so we search for some water to buy. The trek leads us to two new, unusual discoveries.

First, a museum of modern art, as it were, in what was once an office, where a creative artist has taped blue ball pens on every inch of ceiling, wall, and window.

The second: according to our hotel desk manager, Austria has the best water in Europe. This makes me drink as much as I can from the faucet and shower (silty but good, goes well with fresh strawberries). Good ending to a night that has me excited about Friday. We’ll be going to Schonbrunn palace tomorrow, and a Novus Ordo music festival is happening in all of Vienna’s churches at the same time. More stuff to tell the Roman Catholics group!

June 9, VIENNA

It took me a long time to get an entire narrative out of our Schonbrunn experience, and simply because, in its entirety, Schonbrunn is difficult to describe.

With the gold and grandeur of Linderhof, the sprawling parks and ground of the Pitti palace, and the history of tragedy and sadness, Schonbrunn is the fitting setting for the next great novel about the Hapsburgs. Within the acre-wide grounds are fountains, a tall, glass framed gloriette, a garden maze, a zoo, and the palace itself.

Our first tour takes us around the main castle of Schloss Schonbrunn, where we view one grand chamber after another, all of them part of the history that saw the formation of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as the monarchy that shaped it. From Maria Theresa’s know-how of politics, to the strong-headed Elisabeth, to the tragic, heroic Blessed Charles, Schonbrunn has been witness to lives and characters that make its finely-wrought walls all the more beautiful, and yet all the more sad.

Of note are the bedrooms shared by the empress Sisi and her doting husband Franz Joseph. The two may have kept the bed, but their marriage was of no greater strength nor loveliness, apparently, than their silken bedsheets and drapery. Their only son is portrayed everywhere as a strapping lad on horseback; in reality, the portraits are in homage to a young man who took his own life at the age of 31. [Incidentally, the Mayerling incident, as the apparent suicide was called, remains a mystery to this day. Sisi’s son was found dead with his mistress, with six bullet holes in him, and one to the head. Not quite a suicide, it appears.]

Also in the grand tour are drawing rooms and dining halls, the former finished in various themes fitting the fashion of the age, the latter still set in the manner in which the royals would have wished.

The crown jewel of the tour is the mirror ballroom, as grand as its counterpart in Versailles. The ballroom overlooks the palace grounds, which seem to sprawl with sculpted oaks in every direction, before ending at the foothills leading to the faraway gloriette, or at the gardens that spread with roses and violets upon the palace park.

Once done with the grand, beyond-words palace, we head (run off) to the bakery for a live Apple Strudel Cooking Demonstration and a free sample. Over coffee and hot chocolate, we watch how strudel dough is kneaded and thinned, the filling mixed in, and the entire pastry molded and baked.

We’re soon on our way back to the palace grounds to witness a parade of marching bands. Marches are daddy’s especial favorite, so we hang around for a moment to listen to a bit of Souza and John Williams, while watching the bands march about in their Austrian costumes. There’s even a special band from Japan that gets to strut its stuff in Schonbrunn.

We’re soon marveling at the expanse of grass, flowers, and trees in the gardens, as well as the symmetry and artistry that come with them. “Beautiful” still stops way short of the real description of the grounds, which have been well-maintained and well-trimmed from their exquisitely-designed origins.

Paz and I on the veranda of Schonbrunn. That’s the glass gloriette all the way there at the back.

The afternoon is heating up fast, so Paz and I run into the Schonbrunn Zoo, the oldest, but most modern zoo in the world. You’d think that the facilities are outdated, but Schonbrunn Zoo is spick, span, and full of the nicest animals you ever did see. For the first time, I actually get to see (and openly – probably annoyingly – gush about) my favorite Emperor penguins. Also out in the open and of note: polar bears, seals, lions, tigers, jaguars, and scores of fish, jellyfish, and other strange creatures.

Sadly, Paz and I have only two hours, so after photographs and videos, as well as some minutes with a rather quick tortoise and a photo-savvy bactrian camel, we head back to the palace grounds.

We ender the garden maze this time, which is a whole lot of fun, as it’s something I’ve never tried before. So, for the good part of fifteen minutes, we scream for clues, laugh, and shout as we encounter dead ends or run into each other around green bends. We do reach the end though, and head out of the gardens and straight for the front of the palace, where the bands are already striking up their song.

The next few hours are spent simply watching and listening to the bands. We’re on our way home soon enough, though not without a bit of Chinese food to tide us down for the day.

In a few more hours, we will be off to Prague and a whole other city and cultural milieu we have never encountered.

PRAGUE

We’d waited for years to go to Prague. The visa was once too expensive for our means, it was too out of the way, and the fact that it was not a Schengen state made us go for the conventional “museum” countries that fell under the one-Visa-fits-all scheme. Little did we know that Prague would be the greatest surprise of the trip – the Prague we barely knew as the quintessential movie backdrop and location was larger than life, more beautiful, and grander than we had ever imagined.

If Vienna was beautiful, Prague was grandly overwhelming, hence my struggle to remember everything and note it all down now, over one month later. All I could do back then was gaze and gawk, as we strolled on the Charles’ Bridge, as we waited for the astronomical clock to tick-tock its way to the hour, and as we navigated the alleyways and byways of Prague. Never was I able to sit down and meditate, or savor all I had seen so that I could properly write it down while I was embedded in the moment. There was no time to sit; there was time, however, to stroll, to look, to observe, and to vow to remember.

We expected to meet up with a damp, rain-soaked Prague: our taxi driver to Vienna airport lamented Vienna’s lack of sun, and was short of chiding the whole of Europe for being the same. The adventure started there, actually: the expecting of the expected, the cringing and preparing for more rain (which, in my case, is actually excitement, as I love rain).

The adventure went on with a lovely plane, which we were to take from Vienna to Prague; and most likely wind and operate ourselves, by the looks of it. The propellers could well have been fashioned out of balsa wood, and we wouldn’t have been more surprised. “Sounds of Silence,” the plane body said, and as we lifted up to 35,000 feet, we couldn’t help going…

The flight was uneventful, and so were the airport and ride through Prague’s outskirts. But as we emerged from the train station, Prague descended upon us like a glorious, maddening fury. And I mean that in both bad and good ways.

For the bad part: we had to walk a good deal from the station to our apartment, as we didn’t know Prague all too well. This was done with kilos of bags on our shoulders, and a great deal of heat coming on. Mr. Taxi Man was NOT Mr. Weather Man.

And for the good part: everything else.

First off: the apartment. Now we had been through hotels: S. Giovanni Rotondo’s dorm-like pensione, warm-and-close-to-the-Basilica; Bari’s simple, luxurious hotel, partnered with drat-where’s-our-free-breakfast?; Vienna’s cozy and convenient room for everybody; and now…well, we had a house to ourselves. We had three floors of pure goodness, with our own kitchen, bathroom, attic, and bedroom. We even had satellite TV, which meant only one thing to me then:

The socceryte in me was resurrected, big time!

Now before I launch into complete and utter insanity, let me describe the apartment. At first glance, it seemed out of the way, secluded, and stitched deep into a sidestreet, with only the Pizzeria Don Giovanni to tell us that there was, indeed, civilization in the outside world. On closer scrutiny, and as the days went by, we found out that we were in the middle of the old town, near enough to the Charles Bridge to do our own Mission Impossible stunts, and so close to everything that made Prague special.

Paz and I were tempted to tickle this guard at Prague Castle, just to see what he’d do.

The apartment was truly a home away from home, and in the few days that we were in Prague, it became a great place to be in.

Our first day consisted in simply walking around and looking at the sites. First on the menu was…a menu. We had to eat lunch, so after admiring the apartment, we set off for our soon-to-be favorite restaurant, the Pizzeria Don Giovanni, for a meal of seafood pizza and creamy pasta, and a dessert of tiramisu and baked apple. The prices weren’t bad, especially for a restaurant in the city center; and we got ourselves a great waiter (Dragoslav, from Yugoslavia) who made sure we were comfy and happy.

Come to think of it, everyone in Prague seemed to be nice and friendly. In fact, they seemed warmer than the Italians – something new to me, Signorina I-Love-Italy-Forever. Someone even wished me “Buenas dias!” which, for me, simply meant that these people know the difference between Latin-American-looking and Looks-Something-Like-Chinese-But-Certainly-Not-Quite-Not-In-The-Least.

With lunch done, we decided to take a little helping of Prague for dessert. This, by far, was a thrilling, filling dessert that was topped with more than enough to digest. We waited for the on-the-hour exhibition of the Astronomical Clock, a lovely piece of machinery that looks down on the Old Town Square (and hordes of waiting tourists). Instead of sporting a single watch dial, Prague’s Astronomical Clock also tells the day and month, as well as the zodiac period that you’re in. At the top of the hour, the clock’s window opens, revealing the twelve apostles looking out on the crowd one by one, heralded by a skeleton ringing a bell, then nestled back into their closets by a cockerel’s crow.

[According to WikiPedia, the Astronomical Clock displays “the current state of the Universe.” It doesn’t say a thing about the bombings in Lebanon, the current price of oil, and my lack of love life – but fine, the current position of the stars, horizon, and sun will do.]

The Old Town Square has served as the site of many a movie and music video, and we were expecting to find a piazza of pigeons and a fountain or two. The World Cup, however, made sure that we would see little of the Square and more of Football. There were booths set up, along with a giant monitor for people to watch the games live. Despite the lack of Old Town Square goodness, this was paradise all the same.

At first whiff, Prague was instantly charming. There were stalls all around the Old Town Square selling everything from traditional painted Easter Eggs to decorations, to watches, to Russian dolls (My favorite: the Terrorist Special, with Bin laden on the outside, then Bush on the inside, then the Ayatollah, then Saddam, then finally, Hitler. Very insightful.).

From a brief shopping sojourn, we made our way through the streets of Prague, with Daddy carefully steering us away from the Charles’ Bridge. It was all to save the excitement for later, so we strolled through the city’s main avenue, gawked at the mixture of architecture and history, then promptly shopped for food. After all, we had a kitchen that was so pretty, it was just calling out to be used.

We promptly had a kitchen-free dinner, which was rather funny, considering that we ended up eating sausages. Dinner was still good, however, as we were tired, but had a lovely home to rest in, and lots of strawberries to crunch on while we explored the hundreds of channels on satellite cable. That, of course, was just insomniac me, who insisted on staying awake while everyone else slept.

That night, however, despite an allergy-ridden throat and snot-filled nose, I slept like there was no tomorrow.

We finally crossed the Charles’ Bridge the next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and, um, roasted toast. We finally felt like we were living the high life: breakfast, pretty apartment to wake up to, World Cup Games, cobblestoned streets, World Cup Games, ice cream, World Cup Games, a beautiful city – and WORLD CUP GAMES!!!

There is nothing like culture on the Charles’ Bridge. From painters, to puppet masters, to musicians, to singers, to earrings and necklaces – there was everything and anything to be had or purchased, all under the watch of statues of the saints and angels. On each side of the bridge flowed the Vltava River, and before us stood Prague castle. Culture reigned all around us, architecture reared its glorious head, and we, the first-time tourists, were awed.

Now mind you, this was a sunny, hot day, and everyone was clad in nearly nothing. Still, temperatures did not stop us from crossing the bridge and making our way to more of Prague.

Our first stop was the simple, but grand church of Our Lady of Victories, the home of the Holy Child of Prague – the Santo Nino de Praha. Clad in gold and decorated by angels, the church felt like a little home for the child Jesus. Small wonder it was, then, when we discovered a lot of Filipinos attending the mass we found ourselves interrupting.

It turns out that Prague is home to Filipinos aplenty, with most of them surprised at how impressed and awed we were by Prague. It also turns out that a lot of the church decorations in Our Lady of Victories are from the Philippines: a painting of the Virgin and the Child Jesus in native Filipino costume, a Santo Nino in farmer’s breeches, a Santo Nino wearing a police uniform, a Santo Nino wearing a fisherman’s shirt…

We seemed to be sucked into in a half-Filipino, half-Czech universe, which was lovely, actually, considering that the Filipinos started to cluster around us and talk (while inside the church, shame on our group). There had been an Independence Day celebration at the embassy that morning, they said, and we had barely missed the cultural show (and kare-kare! I thought, with a sigh). We all parted ways just in time for a real Sunday Mass, in Spanish, which I loved, as it allowed me to exercise my lessons and try to make out the homily. It was something about applying our love for Jesus in whatever we did, which, I suppose, would be the subject of every other homily as a reflection of every other gospel reading. Then again, I’m proud of my Spanish, so there (cue maniacal laugh to self).

From Our Lady of Victories and a long time of prayer before the miraculous Santo Nino de Praha, we walked out into the sunshine and began our walk to Prague Castle. We stopped at a few gift shops on the way, including one where I was addressed as “Senorita,” and greeted with “Buenas dias.” Go me!

Is there anything I can say about Prague Castle that hasn’t been said? Well, the walk to it was exhausting, but the view was exhilarating. The prices of everything, from souvenirs to maps, were sky high, but apparently worth it. Oh, and at the top, before we entered, we got treated to musicians and a trio playing a bit of Mozart. Oh, and we had guards in their blue-and-white guard houses, all frozen and tight-lipped and just allowing everyone to pose with them.

Now before I end up gushing illogically, let me sum up Prague Castle: awesome, beautiful, overwhelming. Hence, I could be either wordless, or chaotic.

And before I mislead the reader into thinking that I observed and poked my nose into every nook and cranny of Prague Castle, sorry, I didn’t. I wish I did, if I had more money, as everything had to be paid for.

We still saw what we could, however: glimpses of the main hall of Prague castle, with its vaulted ceiling; glimpses of the stained glass windows of St. George’s, and the beautiful St. Vitus, where we took many a stolen shot.

St. Vitus’ cathedral is a salad of past and present, restoration and as-is. While most of the stones and stonework were kept, the stained-glass windows have been refurbished or completely replaced, hence their brilliance. There were tall windows of the apostles, a rose window similar to the one at Notre Dame de Paris, and windows with angels, or martyrs, or the Virgin – the whole cathedral was flooded with violet-warmed, yellow-brightened, red-infused light.

St. Vitus’ cathedral is gothic in architecture, with an outside cleanly, impressively detailed, and the inside filled with even more sculpted columns and graceful arches. From nave to nave, chapel to chapel, St. Vitus’ is a thing of beauty. It’s also been used to film movies in, too, so that says a lot about how pretty, and how medieval it looks.

Now how, in the name of mighty Prague, did we get all the pictures, even if we weren’t supposed to? The cathedral’s security allowed pictures, but with “no flash,” which is funny, because there were flashbulbs bursting out in every direction anyway (followed by a frantic, last-minute, too-late-the-hero, “No flash please!” from a rushing security person). In other words, sorry, we cheated, and we got pictures, but I’ll post only a few and I’ll optimize this part of my chronicles for the search engines, so that everyone will go to St. Vitus’ one day.

St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague is a very pretty place. St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague has beautiful stained-glass windows. You can’t take pictures inside St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague, but here they are anyway.

St. George’s and Prague Castle, though undoubtedly pretty and filled with lovely things, were also off-limits to us, simply because they had entrance fees and were too expensive to go to. No matter – we hung out for a while in the castle’s gift shop, where I caught glimpses of a vaulted ceiling in the receiving hall every time the doors chanced to open to let tourists in. That, to Medieval Mistress Inez, was enough.

The nice thing about Prague is that you can run smack into anything beautiful without paying a lot, so we steered clear of the pay-per-views and walked into the castle gardens. What we saw would have been even more glorious had we been situated higher (i.e. inside Prague Castle on a high parapet facing the city): the sprawling, blushing, brick-rich rooftops of Prague, interrupted occasionally by glass, white stone, or marble – beauty as far as the horizon could take our eyes.

All around us, on the peak overlooking Prague, was greenery: grass spread out through the battlements, ivy crawled up into the ancient stones, and trees shaded us from the afternoon sun. We rested for a while, tired and overwhelmed as we were; but we were soon on our way out, up a few steps, into a square, and down to the city once again.

It was time for a late lunch, so we headed off to a nearby café, bent on real Eastern European cooking. We had a bit of it, in the form of goulash, plus dumplings that seemed to be flattened, shrunken versions of man tao, or siopao dough. That, however, was on daddy’s plate, while the ladies had the generic salad and sandwich – plus a rather odd dessert that was simply labeled as coffin-shaped éclair on the menu. It turned out to be a bit of biscotti with whipped cream, but we took a picture anyway (snicker snicker).

Again, it was back to the bridge for us, on that waning afternoon, and the sun behind us. Still imbued (and constantly absorbing) the World Cup spirit, I bought a bottle of Pepsi Gold, a commemorative drink and bottle for what would soon be Germany’s triumph (or so I thought then). Sipping on the nearly flavorless concoction – and taking consolation in the pretty bottle – I made my way back to Charles’ Bridge, eyes wide but energy dying. The vendors were still there, joined this time by singers, violinists, and more puppeteers.

This was certainly Prague at its best, in the sunset, and, though lovely to look at, it was more tantalizing and mocking than inviting. We were tired, after all, and to be held up with such beautiful bait was actually torture.

The long walk through the city had been tiring for everyone – but not enough for mommy and me, apparently. While Paz and daddy dozed and rested, we headed down to our favorite Pizzeria Don Giovanni for some pizza and creamy pasta – and a glass of wine each. I spotted an Orvieto, which I wanted to try, and which I vowed I would – one day – if I could go to the restaurant before the end of our trip. Or if I could go back to Prague and say hello to our favorite waiter Dragoslav, who graciously split the would-be-full wine glass into two, for my mom and me; and who recommended what pasta and pizza would go together.

[Incidentally, I recently got a good sip of Ruffino’s Orvieto White, 2004. A sweet dessert wine as sweet as my heroine Rachel Everdene. Ha! I so rule. Moving on…]

We had more rest that night, after dinner and a bit of TV, and the thought that we had a real warm apartment to go home to. It was time for dessert. Never mind that it was nighttime: we were off to take more pictures, of Prague at night, or a shining, lamp-illuminated Prague Castle, of a family of four caught between the vivid excitement of the moment, and the disbelief that we were in a historic city that we had long dreamed of visiting.

Needless to say, our night excursion through the Charles’ Bridge, and our late hours of photo-ops brought us quickly to bed that night.

The World Cup was heating up – there had been World Cup-themed parades since we had arrived, all proclaiming that the first game for the Czech Republic would be on the next day, and that they would be battling it out with the U.S.

We had just been marinated in a city so beautiful, it took us in mind, body, soul, and sports sense. We would promptly cheer for the Czech Republic!

Now don’t get me wrong here. I wasn’t dismissing the U.S. just because we were in Prague. Czech Republic was (well, last year’s) number 2 in all the wide world; they have Milan Baros and Dado Prso on their side. They have great players. The U.S. just can’t do much against that.

And yes, Prague is pretty, so I cheer for the Czechs.

Before I scatter my tenses to the four winds, let me go on with my story. The game was going to start late in the afternoon, so we had a lot of time to kill while waiting. After a breakfast in the corner café – scrambled eggs with ham, and tomatoes, lettuce, and another serving of “roasted toast” on the side (don’t ask) – we walked off in the direction opposite the Vltava, where we met up with – brunch.

This is the nice thing about traveling with my mom: she knows when to stop to eat – which is, well, every two hours. This time, it was the Kavarna (at least that’s what I think the sign said), a grand, roaring 20’s café located next to the opera house. Prices were good, I believe: we had crepes and strudel, with some rich coffee and orange juice, all beneath the shimmer of crystal chandeliers and the crisp whiteness of linen tablecloths. We promptly snapped up pictures, of course, as here was yet another side of the historically diverse, architecture-rich Prague.

When we exited, we were also promptly greeted with the prospect of a rich musical dessert.

For the grand fee of 700 Czech Crowns each, we could watch a string quartet perform the complete Four Seasons, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Mozart’s Adagio from A Little Night Music (I think), and an Andante from Handel (titles don’t come naturally to me, so I beg your pardon, as I really don’t have the tickets anywhere near me now). Seven hundred is a steep price, but we were in Prague, and mommy pointed out that we had never watched any concerts while in Europe – seat of music, birthplace of the Renaissance, still flourishing and growing art capital. My bills were out before she could even breathe “birthplace.”

So, 1400 crowns short (I took care of Paz’s ticket), and filled with brunch, as well as excitement for all the events about to come, we took off and explored a few more churches, a few more towers, a few more monuments, before we ran back to the apartment to watch the Czech Republic teach the U.S. to eat grass.

But before we reach that brutality, let me say that we took a good long walk on the main street again, until we reached the end and entered the National Museum. Yet again, we were confronted with entrance fees; but the building was grand and pretty on its own, so that we promptly snapped up more pictures, then went on our way. Again, we passed more shops, and more of a sunny, cosmopolitan Prague that was ready to give the U.S. a good dessert of Football Field Soil.

AND before we reached that moment of triumph, we camped out at a Chinese restaurant and most certainly won the place a few more customers. (That’s according to the adage, “If the Chinese eat there, then it must be good.”) Despite my inward annoyance at being labeled the wrong race YET AGAIN, I still had a good enough lunch of, er, strange flavored things before I hied off to the apartment to see the U.S. get a mighty good thrashing by the Czechs.

To the unacquainted with this year’s World Cup, I’m sure that was a major spoiler. But no matter: when we plopped down onto our sofa and beds and turned the TV on, we found ourselves face to face with a potential party: on-screen, the players gathered, sang their national anthems, and faced a rocking, rollicking football crowd in a German arena. Off-screen, there was Prague’s Old Town Square, where the games were being broadcast live, to a shouting, screaming, cheering audience – mere meters from our apartment.

With every attempt at scoring came a shout from our apartment (all four of us) and from the square. With every goal – all three of them – came jumps from the square, and the now insane-with-excitement family on the third floor. When the Czech Republic won 3-0, we emerged from our apartment, heady with anticipation – and careful, as there were American tourists around.

But no matter. This was the closest I could come to watching a World Cup game live: jumping and cheering for a Czech team that wasn’t really playing up to par, but was up against a poor USA team. Never mind who was the underdog, and never mind who was really good or playing well or what-not. Our current home had just won, and boy were we excited to be out in the streets, in the middle of the party!

Sadly, there wasn’t any hint of Filipino celebrations. If this had been a boxing match won by Manny Pacquiao, there would be dancing in the streets, drinking in the streets, singing in the streets – noise and partying in the streets, really. There was a bit of it now: Prague was tame in its triumph, even with all the streets ablaze in light and color. World Cup or not, Prague will always be pretty.

So, armed with smiles and happiness, we, insane family, made our way to the strings concert. For an hour, I was dreamy with the music, and almost tempted to sing the opening lines of Handel’s composition, if not for the thought that I would bring my family to eternal shame by doing so.

All strangeness aside, I wish I could upload Paz’s recording to share and relive the experience of real live classical music in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. For an hour, I sat with a string quartet, as the notes it played danced and pranced through history: through Mozart’s famous opening, through Handel’s solemn work, through Pachelbel’s Canon for All Weddings, and through all Four Seasons.

When we exited the concert hall, we were even more giddy. We walked the streets, catching glimpses of exquisite Bohemian crystal, and having a bit of ice cream before retiring for the night.

The next day would comprise our last full day in Prague, so we rose early, had the same breakfast, and walked to the tram station to go to Loreta church. It was easier planned than done: the ticket counter was miles away from the station, and we stood for half an hour while poor daddy walked through what seemed like half of the Czech Republic. At last, we got onto a tram, and at last, we made our way up to the mountains overlooking the city.

One missed stop and a hundred steps in the heat later, and we were in Loreta church, famous for its carillon. The bells would toll every hour, on the hour, with a Marian song; and, as it was too early to bask in the sunshine and wait for the songs to play, we decided to enter the church – and promptly pay an entrance fee.

The payment was more in resignation than anything; after all, we had journeyed for an hour to the hills of the city. Surely we needed to see what Loreta had to offer?

Truth be told, the payment wasn’t worth it. I don’t remember how much we paid for it actually, but our entrance fee included a tour of a little church with rather monstrous cherubs decorating its side chapels; hallways with glass-guarded images of various saints; a display of various church relics, including some Blessed Sacrament vessels laden with diamonds and gems; and a warning that I should not take pictures.

Well then, I shall be a trifle cruel and post one picture, and tell everyone to go visit the church – but not take pictures. See – no profits made. Come on, people of Prague, be nice to tourists, and don’t glare at Inez, because she can immortalize you in a novel, and she can be naughty about it, too.

We were out in the sunshine before long, and listening to the carillon play a Marian song we didn’t quite know. Never mind; we were quite tired out from the heat, so we decided to return to the city by tram. We stopped by churches on the way, even before the tram had crossed the Vltava; their names escape me now, though I do remember the Church of St. Nicholas, and seeing a statue of St. Methodius – and cheering inwardly, as the good Patron of Constantinople is also my patron saint.

As it was our last afternoon in the city, we proceeded to look for gifts, and thus went through the fruit and souvenir market. I promptly snapped up Russian Doll wooden ballpens, a decorative egg, and even Absinthe from the nearby liquor store. All for gifts, and all while I counted down to my 27th birthday.

We had missed lunch, so we trooped off to a novelty: a vegetarian restaurant. I had a salad, as well as a substitute steak in the form of a slice of barley mush. It wasn’t all that bad: for 100 crowns, I had a big lunch that sent me and Paz on the way to even more shopping at the Old Town Square.

For the first time in the entire trip, Paz and I were left to our own devices (and to our own cash). This, to me, should have been exploited for all its worth, which should have spelled restaurant tours, longer walks, and more food for the apartment. We, however, had only a few hours before the sun completely set on Prague, so we spent in buying a few gifts, touring the shops and stalls near the Old Town Square, and finally, having a cup of coffee in a nearby café. This last one was the fun part, as we shared a large cup of cold coffee between us, and promptly hid in a corner of the vast coffee shop and laughed ourselves silly.

Now, as it was June 13th, 6 hours before midnight also equaled my birthday back home, and we celebrated it by going out that night for a late dessert. We had some mashed potatoes and sausages for dinner – courtesy of mommy, who was having fun in the kitchen, as well as with the great Czech potatoes – then went out and explored Prague for the last time. My birthday night began – or ended, depending on which side of the world you’re on – with cake and ice cream, a Florentine biscuit, and a whole lot of sweets.

The next day was June 14th – my real birthday, and the date for our departure. It was also a day for being down on our luck: as we are chance passengers, we have to wait for the planes to give us some seats before we can actually board. And as we, like any other passengers, had to line up before the check-in counter, we were treated to low efficiency personnel who didn’t quite catch the meaning of “I’m going to miss my flight.”

After half an hour of standing by the counter, we finally made it to the gate, only to find out that the first flight out of Prague had only two available seats. Daddy and I had to stay behind to catch the next flight, and we contented ourselves with a sandwich each in the meantime, as well as a bit of football. I also walked around a lot, and had enough time to snap up a picture of Coke Point, a Coca-Cola Only restaurant that, I thought, would appeal so much to Clem my Coke Bottle-Collecting Fellow Blogger.

Football-wise, it was Spain vs. Ukraine, and I caught glimpses of nasty, red-card worthy moments, sprinkled with yet another sighting of Prince Felipe and Princess Laetitia. There was a red card handed out, eventually, and boy were daddy and I laughing as we watched the action! This was real dirty football – and it was fun to see, especially since everyone in the gate was stuck to the TV screen, waiting for a goal.

See, this was fun – a sport that brought people of all nationalities together, a sport that made people go “Yeah!” and “No!” And a sport that made one of the businessmen look at me in surprise as I stifled a gasp, as I watched a goal bounce off the crossbar.

At last, we were on the flight – and boy did we get a load of more football! There were football pins given out, along with football chocolates, and more scorecards to keep track of the games (I’ve kept my copy, complete will all the scores, to this day). To top it all off, I saw the Croatian team when we landed in Frankfurt Airport. The Croatian team that bravely kept Brazil off until the end of the 1st half in their elimination game! The Croatian team in their red and white uniforms! I was ready to whip out my diary and have them sign it, but we were in a hurry to get to the check-in counter for our flight back home, so I had to rush through immigration and leave the team, with two of its fans posing for the cameras, behind.

So that was my birthday: a missed flight, not getting to sit in business class, getting tired, having a sandwich, watching a bit of Spain and Ukraine, getting football things, and seeing the Croatian team. Well! That – wasn’t so bad, now, was it?

It was a long way to the finish line, but at last, we jumped over the final hurdle, and I, though very unwillingly, had to resign to going back home. I was pleading to be left behind in Prague, of course, as I had a strange feeling that I could write a novel set there while there. Then again, there was work back home, and the sense that I usually write novels when I am either not in the place, or when I haven’t visited the setting at all. I decided to accept my unhappy fate and drown myself in football, which was thankfully showing at the gate live, as Germany battled it out with Poland.

The funny part was that the plane was already due to board, but everyone in the gate didn’t want to leave – they were all glued to the TV screens, the pilots in the cockpit included! It was a great fight, too: full of offense, attempts at scoring, and last-minute defenses that saw balls bouncing off crossbars and Oliver Kahn diving for a save like there was no tomorrow.

Or that was simply me dramatizing the game and how it reflected the delay I forced on the situation – a delay everyone seemed to be forcing upon themselves. No, we didn’t want to go just yet, because Klinsmann’s boys were slugging it out pretty good. No, we didn’t want to board just yet, because Podolski was kicking like a genius. No, we didn’t want to go just yet, because the game was—

That was when the screens went blank, thanks, no doubt, to concerned airport personnel who didn’t want a delayed flight on their hands.

So that was how it was, on that final hour, as we boarded the flight that would take us back to Manila. I remember little of the flight back home, only that I slept through most of it, and remembered that I was going to root for Germany in the World Cup. Thanks to a host country that had enough World Cup Fever to set the world rolling, I was reawakened to the beautiful game, and had the chance to relive all the excitement once again.

And Frankfurt Airport? With all its football tables, football memorabilia, football promotional materials – what else could a fun want? This was a trip full of euphoria and fun, and it was simply GREAT.

But that’s still the World Cup aside, see. All the excitement came from an entire trip that was unpredictable as it was fun. There were the Apennines, once but shadows, and now looming high before me as our train ran its steady way through Italy. There were the hills of San Giovanni Rotondo, and the sea of Bari. There was the grandeur of Vienna, and the grace of Prague. There were the airports, the sleepless nights, the hotels, the planes, and the hours of travel. And there was the World Cup, all part of a package that I would certainly remember for decades.

Beautiful game, beautiful trip, beautiful obsession. I was ready to get back to work, to try to forget about our summer, and the World Cup, and football altogether.

And, oh yes, Germany won that night, 1-0. It went on to get 3rd place, which was fun for me as I stayed up night after night, watching the games. And did you know that FC Bayern Munchen lost recently to a Japanese team? Gads, how could they? With Podolski, who was one big winner, one big scorer in this year’s Cup, where in Heaven’s name was…

Let’s forget about forgetting, shall we?

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