12 Hours in Porto, Portugal

I had the opportunity to visit Porto in May – just as the summer began to hit Portugal. While I did not get to spend as much time there as I did in Lisbon, Porto has definitely left behind a lasting impression.

When it comes to beauty, few cities match Porto. It is so maddeningly beautiful. A feast to the eyes.

The streets are charming and not too busy. The old, historical inner quarter exudes the vibes that are very typical of any other Southern European city – weathered buildings, slightly corrugated window bars, laid-back ambiance, cobbled streets, and al fresco cafes. The main streets are not as touristy as in Lisbon, and the cafes and restaurants cater to the locals, so they are quite affordable.

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Portugal is significantly cheaper than Western European countries – you can get a cup for coffee for EUR1.5 here, and a decent no-frill meal at EUR5. Pastries are plentiful in Portugal, and in Porto, you must try the codcake. It’s EUR3.5 each. Very tasty, especially with the melted cheese filling.

Cod cake, Porto, EUR3.5
A lavish squid stew, EUR10

Bom Sucesso is a popular food market in Porto. It’s quite upmarket, so prices are slightly higher here than other smaller, less known markets in the city. However, it’s still quite affordable – EUR10 should be enough for a decent 2-course meal here. There’s a lively seafood section as well, and you should try the barnacles – locals seem to love them.

Bom Sucesso MarketPorto also has a medium-sized railway station – rail infrastructure in Portugal isn’t as developed as in France/Benelux/Italy, and the railway station caters to regional trains. There is a regular service between the city and Lisbon too.

The railway station is stylishly decorated with some really impressive artworks depicting Portuguese history.

Porto Railway Station

Porto’s subway system isn’t very complicated – it consists of several light rail lines, mainly at-grade, but with underground sections in the city centre. It’s quite cheap too, fare starts at EUR1. The light rail is very extensive and it takes you to nearly all of the popular tourist attractions in the city. The system is also very easy to navigate – much easier than the relatively poorly signaged and convoluted Lisbon Metro.

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Porto also has its share of modern architecture, and the most impressive display of this in the city’s new opera house. Designed by Dutch maestro Rem Koolhaas, Casa da Musica is an impressive performing art centre, surrounded by a very attractive urban square. Critics raved about this building -Nicolai Ouroussoff of NYT called it “one of the most important concert halls built in the last 100 years”.

Too bad my visit to Porto was so brief – it would be nice if I could go there again to catch a performance at this impressive venue.

Casa da Musica

And here’s the best part about Porto.

Its dramatic setting.

No trip to Porto is ever complete without a stroll across Ponte de Dom Luis I. The walk gave me vertigo – the bridge is as high as 85m. Completed in 1886, the bridge was, at one point, the world’s longest.

Just have a look at the pictures below. The view from the bridge was so brilliant I ended up coming to the same spot twice. The breathtaking view, soft wind blowing on my face, the slowly changing hues of the skies as the sun began to descend – I felt calm and very much at peace just sitting there at the bridge. So simple, yet so beautiful.

Definitely the highlight of my Portugal trip.

FH

Photo Story: London, May 2017.

I was in London for a 3-day visit last month. It was a pretty much a standard jaunt, filled with lunches and catch-ups with friends, pleasant strolls along the city’s thriving streets (the weather surprisingly happened to be gorgeous for the large part of the visit), gallery visits, and the obligatory nights-out in Soho.

Museums and Galleries

I got to visit the new London Design Museum, housed in a formerly derelict structure in Kensington for the first time. Everything in the museum smacks of brand new, it opened its doors in December 2016. There was an interesting ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition going on – it basically chronicled the Soviets’ use of grandiose architectural statements to propagate communist propaganda, especially during the era of Stalin. Interesting stuff.

I also spent some time at Tate. It’s a huge modern art museum, and one of the exhibitions highlighted the use of arts as means of anti-Nazi resistance during the earlier days of the Third Reich. John Heartfield defied threats of arrests by creating satirical pieces and photomontages that exposed the follies of Hitler’s propaganda. One of the pioneers in using art as a political weapon, Heartfield, facing an imminent deportation threat to Czechoslovakia, fled to the UK in 1938.

If you’re looking for a good time to visit London, now is probably the best time to do so.

Nothing much has changed in the city, except for the fact that things have become slightly more affordable (albeit still fairly expensive, it’s London after all), thanks to the post-Brexit vote GBP depreciation.

Food markets, as usual?

I also spent some time at the Portobello Market, which has grown far too crowded to my liking – there is still an interesting array of shops selling quirky collectibles and antiques, so if you’ve never been there, it’s worth checking out. The street food scene there is still as vibrant as usual, however, except for the fact that at Portobello, everything is at least 20% more expensive than in other parts of London. If you’re into food markets, Borough Market is definitely a much better option.

Danke, Syafiq!

Major shoutout to Syafiq, for lending me his room throughout my stay in London this time (last year it was at Izuan’s, also shoutout to him!). His apartment is located just next to the Bayswater tube station, so getting around is tremendously easy. Bayswater is traditionally a popular area for Malaysians, with its high concentration of halal eateries and shopping options – Malaysians love shopping after all.

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9 Things: Berlin

Berlin is one of the most exciting European cities that I’ve been to. Being one of the cheapest cities in Germany (prices here are much lower than London), Berlin attracts young artists and start-up entrepreneurs from all over Europe, contributing to its youthful vibes. The city has a long history of being a hub of counterculture movements and alternative lifestyles, even as far back as the 1920s when Magnus Herschfeld conducted his research on human sexuality, giving birth to modern day gay rights movement.

I adore Berlin. These are 9 essential facts that I found out about the city:

Berlin is a new city

Yes, it is new, especially when compared to other European capitals. While the history of Berlin dates back to a few hundred years ago, much of the city was reduced to rubble at the end of World War 2. After the war, the city was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin. Berlin was reconstructed, and while some prominent structures were rebuilt to its pre-war design, other parts of the city were rebuilt in accordance with the mid-20th century design sensibilities. Urban landscapes in what was then East Berlin are still dominated by huge concrete apartment blocks befitting the socialist ideology of DDR.

Fernsehturm
Fernsehturm

While you don’t see any semblance of WW2 ruins anymore in Berlin, the Germans thoughtfully preserved the ruins of Gedächtniskirche to remind future generations of the extent of destruction and devastation a war could bring to a nation.

Gedächtniskirche
Gedächtniskirche

Berlin is cheaper than other major European capitals

If you’re looking for a relatively affordable experience in a world-class European city, Berlin is the place for you. Prices here are lower, to the tune of 30-40%, than London. Post-reunification construction boom in 1990s also culminated into real estate oversupply, the effects of which are still felt today. This means that the rent here is much cheaper than the rest of Germany. You may find street food for EUR2.5 here, or a sit-down meal for EUR7. A nice AirBnB accommodation in a good area of town may cost you EUR70, a fraction of what it would cost in London or Paris.

Berlin has an amazing public transportation system

Berlin’s public transportation system is impressive, and surprisingly cheap. One-day pass costs you EUR7. Tourists, however, may get confused as Berlin’s many metro lines make for a convoluted system- so it really pays to know what S-bahn and U-bahn trains are for.

U-bahn trains are akin to Metro trains, they have higher frequencies, and stations are located closer to each other. The S-bahn trains work like suburban trains, or in Malaysia, KTM Komuter trains. The frequency isn’t as high as U-bahn trains (but still much higher than our KTM Komuter), and the gap between stations isn’t as small as the U-bahn, but they make for excellent option if you wish to commute longer distance across town.

A trains station in Berlin
A trains station in Berlin

As with many other facilities in Berlin, the city’s metro system has ample capacity to serve the city of 3 million inhabitants, so chances are you won’t find yourself in a very packed train, even during rush hours.

If you don’t feel like taking the trains, Berlin taxis and uber cars are much cheaper than in London. A trip from the city to the Tegel Airport shouldn’t cost you much more than EUR20.

Berlin has an amazing ethnic food scene

Germany’s openness after World War 2 has made the country an attractive destination for migrants from all over the world. This makes it an amazing destination for culinary adventure. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are very popular, and they are pretty cheap, with a meal costing you around EUR7. I even had one of the best pad thai I had in a restaurant in Schoneberg.

Best Pad Thai ever!
Best Pad Thai ever!

For a more local experience, head to a German gastropub. Portions are huge here, and prices are upward of EUR10. If you’re a drinker, beer is extremely cheap here, often cheaper than mineral water.

One of the must-haves when in Berlin is their traditional breakfast set. I had a hearty breakfast of gravax, poached fish, eggs with caviar on top, local cheese, and fresh fruits for EUR9.

Delicious breakfast, Berlin style
Delicious breakfast, Berlin style

If you miss spicy food and sambal, head to Mabuhay, an Indonesian restaurant next to the Mendehllson-Batholdy metro station. Their ayam balado memang cukup pedas, and they make great soto too.

Berlin museums are impressive

Berlin has some of the best museums and galleries in Europe. Pergamon Museum even features the Ishtar Gate, reconstructed using actual material excavated in Iraq. Apart from the gate, the museum also boasts a wealth of other artefacts from the Middle East, from the ancient days to the Islamic era. There’s even an exhibition that features ancient Quranic manuscripts, some of them among the oldest in the world.

The Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate
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An old Islamic Manuscript, Pergamon

If you’re a fan of visual arts, head to the Altes Museum for its impressive collection of paintings, with a floor dedicated to artworks by German painters.

What I love about Berlin museums is that these museums are much less crowded with tourists, even during summer months, compared to those in Rome or London. You get to take your time and enjoy the exhibitions in relative peace and quiet.

If you’re a museum buff, it’s worth spending EUR24 on a museum pass, valid for three days.

Commie Berlin is worth a peek into

Prior to reunification, East Berlin was the capital of DDR, or more commonly known as East Germany. The communist East Germany was relatively isolated from the non-communist world, so life there was pretty different back then.

The DDR Museum is worth checking out. Walking into it is akin to delving into the everyday life of a DDR citizen.

The Trabant
The Trabant
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR

It’s a fun exhibition, you may even sit inside the Trabant, a popular car model produced in the DDR, and “drive” the car. The Trabant is so flimsy that East Germans used to call it a “plastic car”. To get the most out of the experience at the museum, I suggest that you watch ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ beforehand.

Germans are very frank about their dark past

Germany has really come to terms with their dark past. Yes, they were instrumental in starting two world wars and were responsible for the destruction that these wars brought to Europe, but today’s Germany has learnt its lessons and is a very different nation.

There’s a big monument, recently constructed in Berlin, to remember Jews who were murdered in Europe during Shoah. The Nazis, in its plan to annihilate the Jewish civilisation, murdered six million Jews. Hitler didn’t stop there; he also sought to eliminate the Gypsies, who were deemed to be racially inferior, and systematically murdered homosexuals.

The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe
The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe

I’ve been to Auschwitz, which was a sobering experience, and this monument in Berlin is a manifestation of Germany’s regret for the sins of her past. It’s an excellent place to reflect on not only Holocaust, but also issues facing our world today too, from the rise of fascism in the West to the problem of racism still prevalent in many places, including Malaysia. Hate empowers humans to do inhumane things, which is why hate in any form, be it racial prejudice or homophobia, is dangerous.

Germany coming to terms with its past
Germany coming to terms with its past

Berlin has a large Muslim community

Yes, and they live pretty well here, with many of them taking up productive jobs in the economy. I was in Berlin a week before Eid, and the main shopping district of Wittenbergplatz was full of shoppers, many in their hijab, doing their Eid shopping. There are also plenty of refugees in the city, and many of them take up productive jobs in the economy. I went to a falafel shop in Schoneberg, and talked to the owner, a middle-aged Arab guy, who came to Berlin to flee war and violence in Iraq. The falafel was delicious, an upon finding out that I came from Malaysia, he warmed up to me instantly. At least, amidst the multitude of issues our country is facing currently, Malaysia is still looked up in the Muslim world as a success story.

The Muslim community here is also integrated, there are even female police officers donning the hijab here; which is definitely not a common scene anywhere else in Europe.

The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.
The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.

Summer in Berlin is just lovely

Berliners love summer days, and the city looks its best when the sun shines bright. Put your sunnies on, bring your picnic basket and sit on the lawn facing the river Spree, and trust me, you’ll instantly fall in love in Berlin (if you haven’t).

Summer by River Spree
Summer by River Spree
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Yours truly, Berlin.

Speak soon,

FH