My lovely memories of Siena

Siena from the distance

Siena from the distance

We were in Tuscany three years ago and what a great time it was to spend two glorious weeks of summer in the almost magical Tuscan countryside.

I’ve blogged about this Tuscan holiday some months ago but not about the lovely city of Siena which my husband and I explored one hot summer day (without Francesca and my parents-in-law who opted for the soothing waters of the swimming pool back at our agriturismo apartment). I can fully understand them as a busy and touristic city is no place for a child and the grandparents on an extremely warm day, with the temperature soaring beyond 40 degrees Celsius.

Siena first came into my consciousness as a 9 year-old, not because of Geography lesson but religion because my parents transferred me and my brother and sister to a Catholic school run by the Dominican sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. I am not a very religious person but it was still mystifying to be in a city which I have always known to exist and more so, to pray inside the basilica right in front of relics of St. Catherine’s earthly existence.

My husband and I enjoyed the whole adventure. The drive to Sienna through a beautiful countryside was something straight out of a movie setting turned a.k.a. Reality — inviting sunflower fields, charming hilltop Medieval villages, vineyards and olive orchards, rolling hills turned golden by the ripening wheat fields dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees.

It was fun to see and experience a bit of Siena. From the Basilica of St. Catherine, we proceeded to have lunch at a restaurant where we had a good vantage point to observe the city. The restaurant’s interior still boasts of those old days’ charm from the dried peppers hanging on the wall together with the ham, dried sausages, garlic, etc.

Lunch was excellent. I opted for beef carpaccio as a starter and risotto for main course. The carpaccio which was well chilled was simply perfect to have on a very warm day. My husband loved his pizza. Our dessert of an almost melt in the mouth chocolate cake was divine.

We headed next to the centre of Siena. I love the narrow streets, the well-preserved architecture, colorful flowers on pots suspended in the air and the lively atmosphere of the city. I wanted to see the inside of the Duomo but decided not to as there was a long queue and the entry tickets were being sold elsewhere, a typical Italian complexity that is baffling for visitors like me.

We checked some interesting shops — galleries featuring Tuscan landscapes, leather shops, ceramic shops and the most interesting was one whose alchemic practices date back to the Renaissance. This shop’s history even goes back to the time of Catherine de Medici whose use of perfumes and scented soaps was an influence she brought to France when she married Henri II. I couldn’t resist the urge to try some of their products and bought some scented lavender soaps and bath salts to share with my mom-in-law who loves these things a lot.

After a few more ins and outs to the shops, it was time to head back to our agriturismo. A dip in the pool was becoming too irresistible before starting the dinner preparation.

Siena is one city that I’d love to visit again in the future, albeit at a much more pleasant temperature than the 42 degrees Celsius that it was.

Sunflower fields and hilltop Medieval villages from afar

Sunflower fields and hilltop Medieval villages from afar

Sunflower visited by a buzzing friend

Sunflower visited by a buzzing friend

Hubby and me on our way to Siena

Hubby and me on our way to Siena

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Rolling hillsides turned gold from the ripening wheat grains dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees

Rolling hillsides turned gold from the ripening wheat grains dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees

Olive orchards

Olive orchards

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

The Basilica of St. Catherine of Siena

The Basilica of St. Catherine of Siena

The Duomo

The Duomo

The restaurant where we had a very nice lunch

The restaurant where we had a very nice lunch

I always find this type of display very inviting

I always find this type of display very inviting

Beef carpaccio starter

Beef carpaccio starter

Pumpkin risotto

Pumpkin risotto

Monstrous pizza ordered by the hubby

Monstrous pizza ordered by the hubby

Melts in the mouth chocolate cake

Melts in the mouth chocolate cake

Cappuccino to keep us awake after the very nice lunch

Cappuccino to keep us awake after the very nice lunch

Can't resist getting a little refreshing relief under the 42 degree Celsius heat

Can’t resist getting a little refreshing relief under the 42 degree Celsius heat

Gallery featuring Tuscan countryside sceneries

Gallery featuring Tuscan countryside sceneries

Shop of leather goods

Shop of leather goods

Shop of religious goods

Shop of religious goods

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Masks

Masks

Travel guides

Travel guides

Perfumes whose formulas date back to the Renaissance era

Perfumes whose formulas date back to the Renaissance era

Couldn't resist some of these perfumed soaps

Couldn’t resist some of these perfumed soaps

These perfumed bath salts smelled divine

These perfumed bath salts smelled divine

Soaps from the days of the Medicis

Soaps from the days of the Medicis

Dried Italian herbs

Dried Italian herbs

One of the many ancient narrow streets

One of the many ancient narrow streets

At the Piazza del Campo where the Palio de Siena is held twice a year

At the Piazza del Campo where the Palio de Siena is held twice a year

Siena and its famous Torre del Mangia

Siena and its famous Torre del Mangia

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

The Basilica of St. Catherine from Siena's city centre

The Basilica of St. Catherine from Siena’s city centre

Drive through Grossglockner High Alpine Road

Spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains and carpet of wild alpine blooms

Spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains and carpet of wild alpine blooms

Many say that driving through the hairpin bends of Grossglockner High Alpine Road is the ultimate test for a good driver. There must be some truth to that because this road that goes up to about 3,798 meters above sea level through some 36 tricky bends and steep mountain cliffs is no laughing matter. It is a tall order to negotiate through such challenging conditions and not fall under the spell of amazing mountain sceneries that can make one lose focus which even for just a matter of seconds can be catastrophic.

We made two attempts at Grossglockner with the first one characterized by poor visibility. We were told that we could come back another time without paying the €33 toll fee. When the weather improved a few days later, we were back again and certainly it was worth the effort. The drive was exhilarating — what with the amazing sceneries of snow-capped mountains, scented pine forests, meadows blanketed with colorful alpine blooms, mountain tarns with turquoise colored glacial waters, waterfalls and culminating at the glacier that is Pasterze.

We brought our picnic basket with us and stopped by a nice picnic area close to a waterfall. Nothing can be far nicer than that, to have our meal in such a surrounding and savor all that beauty. Along the way was a restaurant with a lovely children’s playground and flower garden teeming with wild alpine blooms.

I’m looking forward to another trip up Grossglockner this summer. I am already imagining my little girl in her nice summer dress running around in that flower garden, picking a bloom or two to clip in her hair and singing the “Doe a dear” from her favorite movie, “The Sound of Music”.

Glacial mountain tarns

Glacial mountain tarns

Pine-scented forests, meadows carpeted in wild blooms and snow-capped mountain peaks

Pine-scented forests, meadows carpeted in wild blooms and snow-capped mountain peaks

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Our family

Our family

A tunnel

A tunnel

Inside the tunnel

Inside the tunnel

A map of Grossglockner

A map of Grossglockner

Little Francesca at Grossglockner

Little Francesca at Grossglockner

Grossglockner

Grossglockner

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

At the children's playground:  "Let's go this way, Francesca."

At the children’s playground: “Let’s go this way, Francesca.”

"No, I go this way, Papa."

“No, I go this way, Papa.”

Beautiful garden of wild blooms

Beautiful garden of wild blooms

Lovely sign

Lovely sign

A butterfly

A butterfly

Forget-me-not blooms

Forget-me-not blooms

Alpine bloom

Alpine bloom

Some bugs

Some bugs

Alpine blooms

Alpine blooms

alpine blooms

alpine blooms

alpine blooms

alpine blooms

Mountain huts

Mountain huts

The Mr.

The Mr.

Hotel in Grossglockner

Hotel in Grossglockner

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Me

Me

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery

Me

Me

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Hiking in the land where the hills are alive…

Up high in the mountains we do realize how much beauty there is that we oftentimes overlook back in the busy rat race that is every day life...

Up high in the mountains we do realize how much beauty there is that we oftentimes overlook back in the busy rat race that is every day life…

As the month of June inch its way, the excitement for the coming summer is starting to gather pace. The past week of glorious sunshine is also fueling that summer holiday feeling.

Still lots of patience needed as there are several more weeks to go before the school break. In our region (Middle Netherlands) will be the last to have the school break — only on week 30 (from 20 July to 1 September) which is pretty late this year. Because of this late holiday, we are going to Austria and hopefully, good weather will be on our side this time. The last time that we were there 4 years ago at just the onset of summer, we had a week of just rain and chilly if not freezing temperature.

On this post, I’m taking you high up in the alps on one of the very few days that we saw the sun on this holiday. Near our camping site was this cable lift that took us up the mountains but we opted to hike on the way down. Francesca was then a 20-month old toddler and fitted well in a backpack baby carrier. The hike down the mountain was a very rewarding adventure as we were able to witness first hand the incredible and beckoning beauty of this part of the planet — alpine cows grazing in the meadow, wild blooms of amazing colors, tarn that on a clear day reflects the infinite blue sky, incredible vantage point to view the picturesque villages in the valley and many more.

While the good weather days were few and far between, moments such as this trip we had up the mountain and down were worth the holiday in the Alps. I can hardly wait for another hiking adventure.

Picturesque villages in the valley as viewed from the mountain

Picturesque villages in the valley as viewed from the mountain

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Father and daughter inside the cable car

Father and daughter inside the cable car

Little girl can hardly wait to check out snow remnants

Little girl can hardly wait to check out snow remnants

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Mountain tarn -- on a clear day reflects the blue sky above

Mountain tarn — on a clear day reflects the blue sky above

Alpine cow by the alpine shelter

Alpine cow by the alpine shelter

Alpine cows

Alpine cows

Our family

Our family

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine blooms

Wild alpine bloom

Wild alpine bloom

Amber-colored mushroom

Amber-colored mushroom

Path of the cable car

Path of the cable car

Even as a baby, Francesca loves adorning her hair with flowers

Even as a baby, Francesca loves adorning her hair with flowers

Picturesque alpine scenery

Picturesque alpine scenery

Me

Me

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Little girl having fun playing with water

Little girl having fun playing with water

Francesca

Francesca

Me by the mountain tarn

Me by the mountain tarn

Alpine cow

Alpine cow

Tree-line part of the mountain

Tree-line part of the mountain

Wild flowers carpeting meadows

Wild flowers carpeting meadows

Butterfly

Butterfly

One lovely spring day at the flower fields

Our family at the tulip fields in the Noordoost Polder

Our family at the tulip fields in the Noordoost Polder

One thing that spring affords me generously is a cost-free trip to seemingly endless floral wonderland. In the Noordoost Polder, there’s over hundred kilometers of flower fields to drive through and the whole journey doesn’t cost a thing except for the car’s petrol needs.

On Ascension Day (a Dutch public holiday) almost three weeks ago, we made this annual foray into the flower fields with my friend Elsa as well as my parents-in-law joining us. The trip was very Dutch as we brought our picnic basket and had our picnic lunch just beside the flower fields. Who needed a fancy restaurant lunch when we could have ours in the open with the seemingly endless fields of tulips right before our eyes.

We had a great time going from one field to the next and finally capping our floral wonderland tour at the exhibit of hundreds of types of tulips where I went crazy for macro shots despite the very windy condition.

Fields of pink tulips

Fields of pink tulips

Francesca with oma

Francesca with oma

Field of white, yellow and red tulips

Field of white, yellow and red tulips

Tulip fields

Tulip fields

Me and my friend Elsa ... Francesca was not keen to pose with us

Me and my friend Elsa … Francesca was not keen to pose with us

Tulip fields

Tulip fields

Little girl among the tulips

Little girl among the tulips

Little girl at the tulip fields

Little girl at the tulip fields

Yellow tulips

Yellow tulips

White tulips

White tulips

The Mr. and me

The Mr. and me

Tulips

Tulips

Yellow tulips

Yellow tulips

Light pink tulips

Light pink tulips

My little girl among purple tulips

My little girl among purple tulips

My very sweet mom-in-law

My very sweet mom-in-law

Tulips

Tulips

A strange mutation of red and yellow

A strange mutation of red and yellow

Pink tulips

Pink tulips

Little girl in the tulip field

Little girl in the tulip field

Red and yellow petaled tulips

Red and yellow petaled tulips

Yellow tulips

Yellow tulips

Yellow and red petaled tulips

Yellow and red petaled tulips

Peach colored tulips

Peach colored tulips

Multi-colored tulips

Multi-colored tulips

Parrot tulips

Parrot tulips

Parrot tulips

Parrot tulips

White and red petaled tulips

White and red petaled tulips

Orange tulips

Orange tulips

Pink tulips

Pink tulips

Pink tulips

Pink tulips

Tulip fields behind the trees

Tulip fields behind the trees

Pink and green petaled tulips

Pink and green petaled tulips

The exhibit of hundreds of types of tulips

The exhibit of hundreds of types of tulips

A tulip up close

A tulip up close

Multi-petaled orange tulips

Multi-petaled orange tulips

Pink tulips

Pink tulips

Pink tulips against the blue sky

Pink tulips against the blue sky

Red tulips

Red tulips

Red tulips with white edges

Red tulips with white edges

Yellow tulips

Yellow tulips

Tulips

Tulips

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Yellow tulips

Yellow tulips

Red and pink tulips

Red and pink tulips

Market day in Sarlat-la-Canéda

Lunch in Sarlat-la-Caneda

Lunch in Sarlat-la-Caneda

On this particular warm summer day, we were celebrating a special day, my father-in-law’s birthday. In earlier years when they still live up north in Holland in the Friesian farm house which has a very beautiful garden that my mom-in-law lovingly tended, this birthday celebration was usually on home ground with a barbeque party. For the first time, we celebrated this happy occasion abroad and on a completely different atmosphere.

Not wanting to waste opportunity to see as much during their few days in Dordogne, we decided to visit Sarlat-la-Caneda which on a Saturday in summer, also has its open market. Sarlat is a very alluring town, still well-preserved and very much representative of 14th century France. Being there is like taking a step back in time given its many impeccably restored stone buildings from that bygone era. No wonder then why it is the third most popular location for movies in France after Paris and Cannes.

Comparing the open market in Sarlat to that of Le Bugue which we visited earlier, Sarlat has more to offer and there was more to see too. I enjoyed checking out the stuffs on offer from stall to stall but resisted the urge to do my usual panic buying especially of those wonderful dried sausages, terrine, macaroons, cheeses, etc.

As with any birthday celebration, cake and coffee are a must so the first item on our itinerary was to find a nice pattisserie. We found one along the busy main street and enjoyed our cake and cappuccino. Then it was off to see more of the city and for my mom-in-law to also buy her French basket.

Lunch was a simple fare. We found a quaint little restaurant in the city centre where it was amazingly cool on this very warm day. They opted for omelets and salad while I found the prawn flambee in brandy more appealing especially with the little rice on the side.

Dordogne as we experienced it was spectacular. On the trip back, we were beckoned by the picturesque sunflower fields to make a stop for a few pictures.

Sarlat's city centre

Sarlat’s city centre

Sarlat's city centre

Sarlat’s city centre

Sarlat's city centre

Sarlat’s city centre

Cake and coffee celebration of Dad's birthday

Cake and coffee celebration of Dad’s birthday

My little girl wanted this toy so much

My little girl wanted this toy so much

Walnut cake

Walnut cake

Raspberry cake

Raspberry cake

Lemon cake

Lemon cake

Dordogne's cakes and pastries

Dordogne’s cakes and pastries

Dordogne's cakes and pastries

Dordogne’s cakes and pastries

Admiring the macaroons

Admiring the macaroons

Cakes and pastries

Cakes and pastries

A stall selling dried sausages

A stall selling dried sausages

Dried herbs and spices

Dried herbs and spices

Spices

Spices

Dried spices

Dried spices

Bags

Bags

And more bags

And more bags

Walnuts

Walnuts

And nutcracker

And nutcracker

Cheeses

Cheeses

Bamboo-based utensils

Bamboo-based utensils

Old books

Old books

Dried fruits

Dried fruits

Honey

Honey

A local artist

A local artist

Sarlat Cathedral

Sarlat Cathedral

Ivy-covered old house

Ivy-covered old house

Sarlat

Sarlat

Sarlat

Sarlat

Pink roses

Pink roses

Outdoor restaurants

Outdoor restaurants

My little girl

My little girl

Ivy-covered building

Ivy-covered building

Narrow streets

Narrow streets

Outdoor restaurant

Outdoor restaurant

Former church turned market place

Former church turned market place

Narrow street

Narrow street

Sarlat

Sarlat

Facade of an old building

Facade of an old building

Sarlat

Sarlat

Sarlat

Sarlat

My little girl

My little girl

A taste of Holland in Sarlat

A taste of Holland in Sarlat

Summer outfit

Summer outfit

My little girl

My little girl

French bread

French bread

French omelet

French omelet

My prawn flambee

My prawn flambee

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Dad buying mom's French basket

Dad buying mom’s French basket

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

Sunflower and its bee friend

Sunflower and its bee friend

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

Me and my little girl

Me and my little girl

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

Enchanting Bruges

Romantic Bruges at night

Romantic Bruges at night

To those who are hopeless romantics like me, there’s one city that never disappoints… Medieval Bruges in Belgium certainly has all the elements of a perfect romantic setting. A stroll through its narrow streets make you step back in time, its many canals are perfect for the moonlight boat ride with the melodies of Moonriver gently playing in the background.

I visited this city for the first time way back in 1997 and it is still a favorite after many trips thereafter. A week before Christmas, we were back again for the Christmas market and a much needed me-time after very busy months both on the home and work fronts.

Because Bruges is a very popular tourist destination, the weekend before Christmas is always very busy. Scouring the internet for hotel deals was quite a pain as even very small 2 or 3 star hotels were just too pricey at around the Eur 200+ price range. We found another option which turned out to be a great alternative — airbnb.com. We stayed for two nights at a renovated old house just a few yards away from the city centre. Weather was unusually warm (close to 10 degrees Celsius) so we enjoyed our evening walks without freezing.

Bruges by all accounts, has many things to offer — Chocolates and pralines, hand-woven laces, amazing choices of beers, etc.

The Mr. and me in Bruges

The Mr. and me in Bruges

Canals at night

Canals at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges

Bruges

Bruges

Bruges

Romantic canals and bridges

Romantic canals and bridges

Bruges

Bruges

Centuries-old buildings

Centuries-old buildings

One can explore the city on horse-driven carriage

One can explore the city on horse-driven carriage

Centuries-old buildings

Centuries-old buildings

Canals

Canals

A favorite bridge

A favorite bridge

Boat rides

Boat rides

Us

Us

Signage at the entrance of the Begijnhof

Signage at the entrance of the Begijnhof

The Begijnhof was the place where women and children stayed while the men went on to fight in the Holy Land during the Crusades.  Today, nuns are its residents.

The Begijnhof was the place where women and children stayed while the men went on to fight in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Today, nuns are its residents.

Inside the church in the Begijnhof

Inside the church in the Begijnhof

The market square

The market square

One of the many streets leading to the market square

One of the many streets leading to the market square

Chocolates and pralines for which the Belgians are known for the world over

Chocolates and pralines for which the Belgians are known for the world over

A few of the hundreds of beer choices

A few of the hundreds of beer choices

Belgian beer

Belgian beer

Belgian beers

Belgian beers

Beer flavored cheese

Beer flavored cheese

Beer-flavored eggnog

Beer-flavored eggnog

Belgian pralines

Belgian pralines

Cupcakes

Cupcakes

Horse-drawn carriages near the Begijnhof

Horse-drawn carriages near the Begijnhof

Bruges

Bruges

Hand-woven Bruges laces

Hand-woven Bruges laces

One of the many churches in the city

One of the many churches in the city

Us

Us

Nature-tripping at Pelagaccio

Busy bee in action

Apologies for the long absence on my blog. Busy times on both the home and work fronts leave me with hardly any time to sit in front of the pc these days. My husband have to work a great deal of time these days in Belgium so I had to cope with many shared parenting duties single-handedly.

I bring you back to Tuscany which I still remember with so much fondness. The days when we were not out sightseeing were spent lazily by the pool or in my case, indulging in nature-tripping. I love observing the many butterflies and bees out there which are busy hopping among the lavender blooms. The various flowers and ripening fruits also find their way into my camera as well as the simple sight of the Tuscan landscape.

I miss those days under the warm Tuscan sun and the simple pleasures of lunch with bruschettas downed with chilled Italian white wine to the dinner of grilled chicken and beef. The little girl misses the long days of playing under the sun and into the night together with her new friends.

Pale yellow Tuscan roses

Red Tuscan roses

Tangerine Tuscan rose

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Busy bee

Busy bee

Another sort of nectar sucker

A dragonfly

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Butterfly with wings wide open

Busy bee

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Yellow blooms against the blue sky

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Bruschettas

Bruschetta topping – chopped ripe tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley

Chilled white wine to down the lovely bruschettas = perfect lunch

The Grill Master

Grilling T-bone steak marinated in finely chopped garlic and rosemary together with salt, pepper and olive oil

Grilled chicken and T-bone steak

Fun on the swing

Fun with friends

Sunday stroll at Renswoude Castle Park (March 2011)

Renswoude Castle

There’s nothing more exciting than to have that confirmation that spring has arrived. The moment the crocuses come out of the ground and burst profusely like nature’s floral carpet, there’s nothing more enjoyable than to be out for our usual Sunday stroll.

One year ago, we were blessed with a lovely Sunday weather of bright sun and blue skies. I always like a good walk but I make sure that we go to a place with lots of atmosphere as well. This time, I found a very nice castle not so far from our place (about 25 minutes drive). Renswoude Castle was built in 1654 in the classic Dutch style. In 1708, the castle park was changed into geometric French baroque style with straight lanes, grand canal and a star forest. Between 1816 and 1818, the park has been modernized in the English landscape style where many straight elements were altered with undulating and curved lines.

This castle which was named after the town itself is privately owned but its park is open to the public. We enjoyed the stroll, Francesca loved the sheer space and the freedom to run around. The park is planted with centuries-old trees through which the sun rays shone through its bare branches. The onset of spring was already evident from the patches of crocuses in full bloom. In a month or two, the rhododendrons there will be bursting in profusion too.

The little girl at Renswoude Castle

Renswoude Castle

My family

Crocuses

Father and daughter

Spring bloom

Renswoude Castle

My family

Father and daughter

Chasing game

Father and daughter

Renswoude Castle

Me and my little girl

The castle from across the grand canal

My little girl

Swans at the grand canal

Posing for picture

Me and my little girl

Fun among the trees

The little girl and the tree

Hide-and-seek game

A duck in the grand canal

Father and daughter hiding from me

The castle

The sun through the trees

Chasing game

The beauty of rain

Geraniums in the rain

We can plan our lives in careful details, at times down to every bend and turn. We want that perfect holiday with sunshine and blue sky but what if we get the exact opposite?

On a holiday to Austria way back in early June 2009, that was exactly what happened to us. Instead of the beautiful alps where Maria from the Sound of Music is singing “Doe a deer” with the Von Trapp children, we arrived to a gloomy Salzburg and the mountains were hardly visible from the mist. The weather forecast was very discouraging too, cold and wet in the many days to come.

Instead of staying in our tent as we have booked an already assembled tent and we just needed to step in, we had to stay in the camp apartment for a week in our 2-week holiday because of the sheer cold and dampness inside the tent. Going around was in most cases, dampened by the not so cooperative summer weather of rain and more rain.

This holiday…not turning out the way I envisioned actually gave me an altogether different perspective. I learned to appreciate the rain and its nurturing role in the environment. I learned to appreciate that in life, our plans may not always work out the way we wanted but we can always make the most out of it.

An inspiration for jewellers

A rain-soaked daisy

A moth caught in the rain

Edelweiss

Rain-soaked flowers

Butterfly

Edelweiss

Chasing royal footprints at Paleis Soestdijk (Soestdijk Palace)

Paleis Soestdijk

The palace from the other side of the lake

Last Friday at noontime, we waited in bated breath for the news conference by the surgeons of the University Hospital Innsbruck to learn about the condition of Prince Johan Friso, the second of the three sons of Queen Beatrix. A week before the news conference, Prince Friso has been buried in an avalanche while skiing off-piste in Lech together with a childhood friend (the son of the owner of the posh Gasthof Post where the royal family has been staying for about 50 years of skiing in Austria). It was said in the news that he was not wearing the safety vest and that it took about 20 minutes to find and dug him out of the snow. From that time onwards, we did not have any news except that he is in critical but stable condition.

The news conference brought out the most feared prognosis on everyone’s mind. The prince who lay in coma may never regain consciousness again. The brain damage was just so severe due to lack of oxygen from the 20 minutes that he was buried in the snow and the further 50 minutes it took to resuscitate him. The doctors hoped that the mild hypothermia might have prevented that brain damage but that was not the case. A grim news to everyone and extremely much more to his mother, his wife, 2 little daughters and his brothers and their families.

Life is so fragile and happiness can be clipped in an instant. Here is a young and smart guy (he’s got MSc in Aerospace Engineering from TU Delft, who has the world at his feet and in an instant, everything has been transformed in such a nightmarish tragedy. I feel so sorry for his mother who I actually met in person last November at an affair in my former school. She attended the conference where President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali gave a lecture on the democratization process in his country and in Africa. I was standing close to the queen in the ensuing cocktail reception and much to my surprise, we were sipping the same wine and eating the same snacks. She was not a snob, much to my amazement as she listened patiently and chatted animately with the MA students who were also in attendance.

So much for my sad news, I bring you one lovely place where we normally go for our Sunday walks especially in spring. We happen to live a mere 15-minutes away from this simple royal palace with a lovely garden.

A royal palace that used to be the residence of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernard (parents of the reigning monarch, Queen Beatrix), Soestdijk reverted to state ownership and was transformed into a museum after the death of Prince Bernard a few years ago (Princess Juliana died a few years before him).

This is a very simple palace (we’ve made a tour of its interior in 2009), testament to the simple taste of Princess Juliana in her lifetime. A place full of happy memories as this was the place where she raised her 4 daughters, received foreign heads of states as well as the Dutch people who came in droves to greet her on her birthday on the 30th of April with her husband, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. Happy occasions in the family were also celebrated here like the engagement of her daughters.

Late spring is the best time to be here at Soestdijk. On this visit almost 2 springtimes ago (May 2010), the weather was fantastic and the various types of rhododendrons were in full bloom.

Francesca had a great time today running around, doing her imaginary fishing and simply smelling the flowers. I love the sight of the lake lined by those rhododendrons of various colors. After a good walk through the palace grounds, I always enjoy a cup of cappuccino and some piece of cake at the Orangerie.

the lake

The enthusiastic little fisher and her father

Rhododendrons in full bloom

Rhododendrons

Ferns

The bridge

Red birch tree

Father and daughter

The chasing game

The little girl and the big tree

Orange rhododendron

Nature coming back to life

The fountain

One of the few sculptures inside the palace grounds

Trees coming back to life in spring

Father and daughter

Palace grounds

The little girl can be happy with just twigs

Father and daughter

The little girl and the palace

Palace grounds

Rhododendrons

Lilac rhododendrons

The Orangerie

An insect at work

The patient fisher

Yellow rhododendrons

Rhododendrons in full bloom

The little flower picker

Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons

Me and my little girl

Paleis Soestdijk

Disneyland and a side trip to the Chateau de Fonteinbleau

The upside of a trip to Disneyland Paris is that it is possible to combine other activities in the visit which we did. No, it is not a sightseeing of Paris itself because that deserves a separate and dedicated trip but some shopping and a castle visit can be on the itinerary. We took a side trip to Chateau de Fontainebleau which was just a half hour’s drive and then we also went to La Vallee Village, a chic outlet shopping complex just a mere 5-minute drive from Disney park.

Our little princess in Chateau de Fonteinebleau

Our family

Trees in full bloom

The little princess inside the chateau (we just went to the loo)


Being not such big theme park enthusiasts, we were soon bored by Disneyland. The little girl was also intimidated by most of the rides and the park started to become very busy as the day progressed. Long queues to the rides were also very discouraging. Thus, we opted to drive to Fonteinebleau to see the castle which I have read about in Catherine de Medici’s biography by Leonie Frieda. I’m very curious of the Renaissance French chateaus and palaces.

The town of Fonteinebleau was very charming especially in spring when the trees are in bloom and so are the many spring flowers. The weather was pretty pleasant when we arrived in the afternoon though later it became a bit chilly and cloudy.

We went to the chateau but debated whether to take the guided tour or just explore the castle grounds. Guided castle tours were of no interest to a 3-year old girl so we opted to just explore the castle grounds. Our little girl in her princess outfit was just so happy to run around, feeling ever bit the princess of this former royal haunt. We will definitely be back to this place another time and will explore every nook and corner of this castle.

Inner courtyard

She's fond of picking flowers

The horse-drawn carriage

The driver of the horse-drawn carriage has this well-groomed moustache

Inside the carriage while waiting for more passengers

The little princess fell asleep during the carriage ride

The garden looks pretty bare but this must be spectacular in late spring to summer

The chateau was huge and it has a garden which must be spectacular in late spring and summer and a lovely lake. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage that took us around the sprawling estate that also leads to a adjoining forest. My daughter loved the ride (but eventually fell asleep). Later we just went around the castle and viewed it from across the lake. It was a picture-perfect sight!

The chateau from across the lake

Found this sight of the boat with the chateau in the background so enchanting

El Nido, our little paradise on earth

El Nido at dusk

With the snow and ice gone, this last bit of winter is just such a drag. There is still more than a month to go before the official start of spring but I can hardly wait to move on into the new season. Even my little girl is already longing for the time when she can go outside and pluck some flowers because at the moment, there is hardly anything of color anymore.

The weather is not helping either to cheer me up. Today it is wet, windy, cold and grey. Thus, I am going down memory lane to a wonderful holiday we had way back in 2006 in the Philippines. This particular place is called El Nido (or the nest) in Palawan and is so-called because of the limestone cliffs that are so typical in this area which are home to a special type of swift, the cave swift that are renowned for building the saliva nests used for the Chinese bird’s nest soup.

This place is special to me and the Mr. because this is where our love story started with a coincidental meeting on its shores over 15 years ago. We call this place our own little paradise for being here is like no other from the wonderful things to see — beautiful uninhabited islands, pristine beaches, scenic limestone cliffs to amazing things to do — island hopping, snorkeling, scuba diving or simply relaxing on the beach listening to the gentle to and fro sway of the waves on the shores and the chirping of the birds and crickets in the trees (or at times being pelted with fruit stones by monkeys who do not like intruders). Add to that the pleasantly warm weather, the friendly people and the relaxed if not lazy pace of life which is a comforting interlude from the busy lives we lead back here in the west.

We enjoyed our almost one week stay in this paradise…island-hopping every day and having our simple meals by the beach. Though I have this fear of the deep water, I was caught up in the magic of snorkeling, oftentimes forgetting the time while observing the amazing world beneath the waters…schools of colorful fishes, beautiful corals, sea turtles, clams, and many more.

My husband when he first came to the Philippines has really made it his goal to see El Nido because Jacques Cousteau has remarked that it was the most beautiful place he ever explored. He described El Nido as having one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world.

I miss El Nido and I look forward to returning one day…that time with the three of us. I am sure that our little girl will in a heartbeat get fascinated by these islands and its limitless charm.

US on one of the many uninhabited islands

Early morning on the shores of El Nido town

El Nido at dusk

Island scene -- pristine beach, wild plants and flowers

Typical feature of the islands - white beach, coconut trees and limestone cliffs

Coconut trees

Mangroves

White sandy beach, coconut trees and limestone cliffs

Sea shell

a local fruit (not sure if edible)

Limestone cliff

Approaching an uninhabited island

Limestone cliff island

A local flower

Coconut trees

Wild orchids growing abundantly on the limestones

Fruit-laden coconut tree

A local plant

a lovely shell

Sea shell

Coconut trees along the beach

The limestone cliff up close

This monkey was maybe not happy with intruders to his world - he kept on pelting us with fruit stones ;-)

Lazy pace of life in the islands

An uninhabited island

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