Thursday, 9 October 2014

Culture & Nature in Dubai & Europe with Parents as VIPs - Part 1

By Gloria Seow
Trip Participants: Gloria Seow, Timothy Pwee and Gloria's Parents
Trip Duration: 25 April to 18 May 2014
The first half of this trip was organised around my parents. It has always been my father's wish to visit Europe, but somehow that never materialised. So my two sisters and I pooled our resources to sponsor our parents for this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the West. Our family used to travel together when we were younger, with our last major trip to the US (LA and Hawaii) in 1995. Of course there were scattered mini-trips to Tioman and the like in the interim years. So, almost two decades later, things have come full circle. I volunteered to be the planner, chaperon and guide for this 14-day adventure with Tim as my most supportive co-chaperon and co-guide. To play it safe, we chose a packaged tour (yes, horrors!) from EU Holidays to United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Germany (Munich and Titisee), Switzerland (Lucerne, Bern, Interlaken, Montreux, Gstaad, Leukerbad, Zermatt, Geneva etc), France (Burgundy and Paris) and the UK (London). The main objectives were for my parents to experience snow (ie. in the Swiss Alps) and to see Paris and London. Thankfully, even though we zipped through five countries in two weeks, we still spent a decent amount of time in each spot. Yes, the tour agency experience was not as bad as we had anticipated. 

Of course the second half of the trip (10 more days) was when we could be in our element. After seeing my parents off in London, we flew to Ireland, visiting places like Dublin, Belfast, Giant's Causeway, Cliffs of Moher, Galway and Killarney National Park. We then returned to the UK for a whistle-stop tour of Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Oxford, as well as London's museums. We even met up with my youngest sister Junie and her hubby Michael for lunch in the Natural History Museum (they only embarked on a France/UK tour at the last minute), as well as our UK friends Weng and Eileen for dinner in London. Talk about squeezing everything in!

The trip started off in the lovely (yes, I actually loved it) city of Dubai, courtesy of Emirates Airlines as they had sponsored the three-night hotel stay as well as a half-day city tour through our tour agency. Here, you can see some of Dubai's numerous skyscrapers that scream for attention at every turn. I have never encountered such a huge concentration of high-rises, ranging from twin towers to twisty tower (see the fifth building from the right), all with distinctive and attractive architecture. This particular stretch even has a sandy beach, blue seas and luxury boats to complete the picture of scintillating (and hopefully sustainable) development. I last visited Dubai in 1998. Things have progressed by enormous leaps and bounds since then. I can understand why Singapore is so concerned with keeping up with the world. Just look at Dubai and one can feel the intense heat in more ways than one. 

Out of curiosity, I googled for the top 10 list of cities by number of completed or topped out skyscrapers from Wiki as of 8 October 2014. The majority of international organisations define a skyscraper as a building that reaches or exceeds 150 metres. As predicted, Dubai is numero uno with 343 skyscrapers compared to Singapore's 79!  

# of Skyscrapers at 150 m and more

What I loved about Dubai is the fact that it has not snuffed out its cultural heritage in favour of 'progress'. The city has made room for it, juxtaposed to full effect in its themed souks in the Bur Dubai area. Here is a merchant in the Spice Souk selling all manner of fragrances and spices including frankincense, saffron and myrrh. Emiratis do not work the 'lower' trades, leaving them to foreigners such as Indians. Note the goat's head hanging above the colourful cases – not sure of its significance. Attractive souvenirs that can be had here include decorative Alibaba lamps, jewelled camel figurines, Arabian coffee pots, shisha pipes and more. We also toured the Gold Souk, Textile Souk, Dubai Creek (quaint Iranian boats off-loading their trade) and Deira in the older parts of town. Contrasting the old with the spanking new, our city tour also covered Palm Jumeirah, Atlantis The Palm (gold vending machines!) as well as Jumeirah Beach with stunning views of the Burj Al Arab. Even as my eyes were dazzled by the splendour, I was still on the lookout for birds. Picked up three lifers in Dubai: Pale Rock Sparrow, Streaked Scrub Warbler and Common Swift. Full bird list can be found at the end of Part 2 of this trip report.

A land of superlatives, this is the 'Dubai Dino' (Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus), a real specimen on permanent display at the world largest shopping centre Dubai Mall.

My parents enjoyed the ginormous three-storey aquarium teeming with sharks, rays, reef fishes and corals. This was located within the shopping area of Dubai Mall, ie. it was completely free of charge. I suppose it acts as a teaser to the paid-entry Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo also housed within Dubai Mall.

Yes, Dubai Mall again. Note that it has incorporated elements of its Emirati culture in the form of decorative lamps, arches, and even model camel and carpet within the facade of modernity.

We started the morning at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Our Emirati guide espoused the practices and virtues of Islam vis-a-vis other religions inside the Bastakiya Mosque no less. The ladies on this tour had to don a scarf and robe to cover up our heads and bodies. We then did a short walking tour of the historic Bastakiya Quarter, and returned to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Arabic coffee and dates. We also took the opportunity to tour the centre proper, as it is one of Bastakiya's most elegant buildings renowned for its airy courtyard, wooden lattices, dangling oil lamps, decorative grilles and traditional furnishing. On our own, we strolled through the Bastakiya district, visiting the Old City Wall built in 1800. Here is a roof-top view of the Bastakiya Mosque and its minaret, as well as the area's traditional houses complete with wind towers (an ancient form of air-conditioning designed to funnel cool air indoors).

Bastakiah Nights is a recommended restaurant decked out in atmospheric wooden furniture and artefacts set in a traditional courtyard house made of coral and gypsum. Note the date palm in the middle shading a giant dallah or Arabian coffee pot. There is also a wind tower on the top left corner of the photo. We had a light lunch here.

At the Dubai Museum, I was super lucky to notice that this beautiful Common Swift had flown indoors. It rested just one feet off the ground, allowing me confiding views of a bird that otherwise can only be seen feeding aerially in sizeable numbers. 

Pearl traders, a life-size diorama in the relatively small but impressive Dubai Museum. The museum is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort built in 1799. Before black gold (ie. oil), Dubai was a pearl diving and trading centre. 

At Dubai Creek, I peered into the waters hoping to spot some life. Was glad to see these pretty crabs on a bed of seaweed in the sandy area. The piers even had coral growing on the walls. Shows that the Creek is relatively unpolluted. We crossed the Creek on an abra (traditional workhorse transport boat) to the Deira side of town for dinner.
Following Dubai, our tour group of 16 folks and one Singaporean guide flew into Munich, Germany. Our Polish driver then scooted us in a nice coach to the picturesque lakeside town of Titisee in the Southern Black Forest area. We managed to attend a cuckoo clock 'making' demonstration given by a Chinese national (our group elected to use Mandarin instead of English as the main mode of communication) before the day was over. Was intrigued by the sheer variety of cuckoo clocks on sale (average SGD$3,000 each!), and the creativity involved in working decorative elements such as nature, farming and homey scenes into them. 

At Titisee, we dined on Pork Knuckles with Sauerkraut and finished off with Black Forest Cake. It was a fitting welcome dinner to Europe for my parents, in time to celebrate my dad's birthday. One good thing about this tour package when it came to meals – it included a fair share of local specialities such as a four-course European dinner and Swiss Fondue in Switzerland, as well as Escargot in France.

After dinner in Titisee, we walked along the lakeshore but did not spot any wildlife. 
Early the next morning, we found a path through a small patch of woods alongside a 
river near our hotel (Maritim Titisee). Despite a cold drizzle, I had two lifers – Fieldfare 
and Blackcap. Other birds seen here included the Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit and Nuthatch.

This outdoor cuckoo clock takes up an entire wall! Every hour on the hour, the figurines will pop out to do their act.

A handsome Great-crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus), seen at the Rhine Falls (Rheinfall in German), the largest plain waterfalls in Europe. It is located near the northern Swiss town of Schaffhausen. There was a small patch of lovely Lavender in bloom, as well as several types of fishes swimming in the waters. 

At the Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal in German) in Lucerne, etched with the words HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI (to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss). Carved in 1821 in a former sandstone quarry, it commemorates the Swiss Guards who were killed in 1792 during the French Revolution when the Tuileries Palace in France was stormed by revolutionaries.

The scenic Old Chapel Bridge in Lucerne. In the waters are Mute Swans, Mallards and Coots. Also saw a Jackdaw here, which landed right in front of me along the railings.

Was charmed by the Mannerist fresco paintings in the neo-Gothic Dornach house (1900) at Hirschenplatz in Lucerne. There were many other buildings in Lucerne with frescos on their facades, a distinctive feature indeed for this town.

In Interlaken, we stayed at the tallest building there, the 15-storey Hotel Metropole. I loved
the ring of snow-capped mountains that define the boundaries of town. Interlaken is located
between two lakes (Thunersee and Brienzersee) in the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss
Alps. It belongs to the Canton of Bern and is a hop-off point to mountain and lake resorts
in the area.

This stunning bed of flowers was found next to the Interlaken Ost railway station. 

Most of Interlaken is built in the valley area, but some buildings are perched high above on the rocky slopes.

A typical Swiss/European buffet breakfast. We got to indulge in our favourite cheeses, hams and fruits. However, being birders, our breakfasts were always rushed affairs post-birding, no more than twenty minutes to half an hour to stuff all that food in. In contrast, my parents (and the rest of the tour group) always had plenty of time to linger over the goodies.
My father was game enough to attempt to blow the Alphorn. Everybody who tried failed. We were in Bebbis, a tourist restaurant for lip-smacking Swiss Fondue wine cheese (with bread), chocolate (with fruits) and oil (with different meats). The most memorable meal for me. 
We broke away from the group for one day. They went to Jungfrau, but we chose to go to the nearby 1,950 m Niederhorn (it overlooks Interlaken's Thunersee). It was supposed to be spring weather with promises of good alpine birds such as Black Grouse, Rock Ptarmigan and Alpine Accentor, as well as mammals such as the Alpine Ibex, Marmot and Chamois. To my great disappointment, when we arrived at the cable car station after a bus ride, the attendant pointed to the video footage indicating a snow storm at the summit. Nevertheless, we took the cable car upwards since we had nowhere else to go. That was how my parents got their first exposure to snowing (not just snow), howling winds, poor visibility and the rather unpleasant wet-cold sensation. Still, we enjoyed trudging around the visitor centre, making snow angels, feeding a couple of Alpine Choughs during lunch, and downing hot beverages indoors. There were only three other people at the top, not counting the sole staff who served us.

When the mists finally lifted, we were rewarded with views of Thunersee (Lake Thun) below.

More views of Thunersee and the cable cars. 

Alpine Chough, the only bird we saw up at the 1,950 m Niderhorn. Down at Beatenberg (at the bottom of Niderhorn), the sun had come out. While waiting for the bus, we had a soaring Red Kite in the valley below, as well a singing Green Finch.
We walked the festive cobbled streets of Bern, lined with Swiss flags and interspersed at intervals with decorative fountains.

The 295 km Aare River is the longest river that starts and ends within Switzerland. Here, it cuts a pretty picture as it flows through the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town of Bern. We also visited the Bern Bear Pit (Bärengraben). It held a few Brown Bears, the city's heraldic animal found on its coat of arms, housed in a 6,000 sqm enclosure along the Aare. 

Lake Geneva in Montreux turned out to be the quintessential alpine lake for me. It was ringed by majestic mountains, a riot of blooming colours (just outside our hotel - Eden Palace), and a town built on steeply-rising slopes. Its placid waters hosted birds like the Black-headed Gull, Red-crested Pochard and Grey Heron. 

Another view of Lake Geneva in Montreux.

A classic 'village' scene with coniferous slopes, distant snowy peaks, church, farm houses and open pastures...a snapshot from out of a speeding coach. 

As the coach weaved upwards, we were greeted with this tantalising landscape. 

The most beautiful coach park in the world, located at the bottom of Glacier 3000 or Les Diablerets in Gstaad, Western Switzerland. It is at the Col du Pillon mountain pass (1,546 m) where the cable car station is. We had perfect blue-sky weather that day compared to the snow storm of the previous day.

The snow cover thickened as we ascended towards Scex Rouge at 2,950 m in a huge but crowded cable car/gondola. 
At the very top of Glacier 3000 (Scex Rouge) was a Winter Wonderland with (from left to right) Ski Run, the world's highest Alpine roller coaster (unfortunately this was closed as it was snowed in), chair lifts to the glacier park, and miles of snow, cloud and rocky precipices. Snow activities that can be had here include skiing, tobogganing, husky dog sledge, snow bus ride, glacier walk and glacier flight. 
We took the chairlift down to the glacier park. It was a surreal and stupendous top of the world feeling to be suspended over snow, clouds and mountains. 

Had some fun 'tobogganing' or what Tim calls 'traybogganing' down the compacted snowy slopes.

The happy faces of my parents knee deep in snow made all that effort worth it.

It was this 'toblerone' precipice that did it for me –  a towering snow cone glistening in pure white, against a backdrop of blue skies, sweeping mountains and billowing clouds. It took my breath away and made me sigh deeply with pleasure. 

Snow confectionery served up by God's own hands.

I walked up this long flight of stairs for a closer look at my 'toblerone'. At the top, there was a compacted snow heap that that had been cut open to reveal a marvellous icy blue cross-section.

In car-free Zermatt, we walked by a church cemetery that had been blessed with a magical sprinkling of snow. Most serene and spiritual.

We waited for half an hour by a Zermatt bridge for a view of the Matterhorn, but she did not reveal her shy face.

I love this sort of scenery too –  quaint wooden homes built up a hillside enshrouded in mist. This early morning photo was taken in Leukerbad where we had spent the night.

Wood Pigeon in the streets of Geneva.

In Geneva, we had a local guide take us on a tour of the offices and headquarters of an impressive list of International NGOs based here. Such IOs include the United Nations, International Red Cross, World Health Organisation etc etc. Here, the Broken Chair is a monumental sculpture in wood that is 12 m high, erected in 1997 by Handicap International. It symbolises an opposition to land mines and cluster bombs. Broken Chair is strategically placed across the entrance to the UN Office at Geneva (Palais des Nations). There were several protests taking place when we were there.

An orange slug that we came across in a small patch of woods when the coach was at a pump station. We also encountered slugs of other colours in our day and night walks - brown, cream-mottled, black with yellow trimmings etc. This was the most beautiful.

At the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile (Arch of Triumph of the Star) in Paris, France with my mum. This triumphal arch stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

If you look closely at the bas reliefs on the Notre Dame de Paris (main entrance), you will find this Judgement scene (I think) depicting angels on one side and demons on another. 

Also at the Notre Dame de Paris, one can find this bas relief of Saint Denis holding his own head. He is one of the patron saints of Paris. According to Wiki, he was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after 250 AD. Denis is said to have picked his head up after being beheaded, and walked 10 km while preaching a sermon of repentance the entire way. Indeed, the stuff of legends.

We went up a 50+ storey building in the Marais district for our first glimpse of the Eiffel tower.

We had umpteen photo stops at different view points of the Eiffel Tower as we drove around Paris. Here, this masked stranger photo-bombed us. Kinda freaked me out. Not sure what his or her intent was. I was thinking pickpocket (we were forewarned of the gypsy kids), but we lost nothing. The person also did not ask for any payment. 

The package tour was really a touch-and-go affair especially in Paris. Our tour of the Louvre was only to the free portions - we did not enter a single gallery. Really frustrating. Here, we saw the inverted pyramid light show. We were supposed to go to the Palace of Versailles on our free day, but the guide claimed that he could not get group tickets at the last minute. Going on our own would entail a three-hour queue for public tickets, so of course we opted out. It just means that we would have to see the real Paris sometime in the future. 

Finally a good shot of the Rook at the Louvre compound. Saw most of the crows in this trip. The Rook has light-coloured bill. The Carrion Crow is small and all-black including its bill. The Jackdaw has white eyes. The Hooded Crow looks like a two-toned Carrion. The Raven is huge and all-black with a thick bill. The Alpine Chough has a yellow bill and red feet. My best crow to date is the Flores Crow (endemic to Flores, Indonesia) - its call sounds like a baby's cry - very endearing.

We were given a couple of hours in Montmartre. We climbed the hill to the highest point in the city where the Sacré-Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris) stood. It was the only church that my parents entered throughout the Europe tour. They were suitably impressed.  

The four of us took the Eurostar to London on our own as the group tour had ended in Paris. To pander to my parent's needs, our first stop was Harrods. Tim and I walked through the place quickly and saw that everything was over-priced. I bought only the Westie Harrods bag. Then we went for a tea break (and Wifi), and scooted over to Hyde Park for some respite while my parents shopped on.  Just outside Harrods, we were lucky to come across a gold-plated Ferrari - the only one in the UK. Here is a shot of the invasive Eastern Grey Squirrel (introduced from the US). It was super cute - came to the ground several times, but it has largely out-competed and displaced the native European Red Squirrel across most of Britain. One measure to control its burgeoning population apparently involves shooting and eating it (sold at butcher shops)!
The Magpie can be seen across Europe. The Wood Pigeon is in the background. Both were strolling the lawns of Hyde Park. Plenty of waterfowl in the lake, including Greylag Goose, Mute Swan, Moorhen and the ever-present Mallard.

Instead of more Western fare, we opted for a Lebanese lunch. Since March 2014, I started a 'Unique Food Quest', to eat 100 new dishes by year-end. Greedy me - I am almost there! Was inspired by this person featured in the local papers - he set out to gobble 250 unique dishes in one year which saw him make numerous forays into next-door Malaysia. Yes, this is just an excuse to enjoy good food!

Wanted to show my parents what two-star accommodation was like, since we only stayed in four-star hotels during the group tour. We tried the Holland Park Hotel in Shepherds Bush - converted from a regular townhouse. Its breakfast place was across the street in another unit. The hotel's mom-and-pop operation intrigued my mum. She was impressed that the Indian man who served us as receptionist on Day 1 also doubled up as breakfast cook on Day 2. It was also a blessing in disguise as the hotel was just a five-minute walk from Westfield Shopping Centre, Europe's largest urban mall. My parents shopped there on the day Tim and I left for Ireland.

Visited the Tower of London, did not quite enjoy it as we arrived late and had to rush through the sights. Here is the classic Tower Bridge in the background. 

Tower of London as seen from the river cruise. 

The enjoyable river cruise came with 'The Original Tour' - a hop-on, hop-off bus route that we took. This is an opportunistic shot of the snipped-off Big Ben/Palace of Westminister as the boat made a U-turn. In all, we had a good time throughout the first 14 days. Most importantly, my parents enjoyed themselves tremendously. Pat on the back for us!

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