Ostuni, The White City

Ostuni, The White City

Ostuni white city

Photo credit: http://www.masseriatutosa.it

In Puglia, we chanced upon a tiny, but wonderful city called Ostuni. Just eight kilometers from the Adriatic Sea, some call it La Città Bianca, or the White City.

 

What made seeing Ostuni even more of a delight, was that this stopover wasn’t even planned. After seeing Genoa, Pisa, Rome, and all the western coast, we headed to Stromboli.

 

Then, after Sicily, we made our way up the inner arch of Italy’s “boot”, towards the heel and eastern coast. Looking for a place to spend the night, we just happened to choose Ostuni on Google maps. The apartment we found promised a “local experience”, in a traditional stone house, in a city I’d never heard about before.

Photo credit: www.relaxpuglia.com

A 2,500-Year-Old Marvel

 

The road leading from the coast to Ostuni is lined with lush olive groves. Approaching the hilltop city, it gleamed a brilliant white in the sun. If you’re not expecting such a sight, it’s simply stunning.

 

 

Once inside the low-roofed stone house, we realized the “apartment” was tiny and overpriced—but too late to cancel our booking. The bathroom floor sloped downwards, and shower attempts ended up with the bedroom pavement getting soaked. The even tinier kitchen lacked cooking equipment, but we made do. Buying fresh seafood from the local fish market, we cooked dinner in the stone house and declared an early bedtime.

 

Ostuni travel

 

Of course, my kids didn’t mind–it was all a new, fun experience! When the two had settled down for the night, I left them in their capable dad’s watch, and made my way alone to the centro storico, exploring on my own.

 

Midnight Markets and More

 

sketchbook journeys nyx martinez ostuni

 

Soft, soulful jazz music drew me to a wine bar near the main Piazza, where I found the perfect corner to sit, sketch and people-watch. The waiter told me how the city came to be painted all white.

 

“Because of the Plague,” he said. During the Plague of 1657, it was believed that the city was preserved because of the lime mixed with white-wash, with which the homes were painted. “But now it’s just more a tourist thing,” he quipped.

 

Ostuni’s labyrinth of mazes presents the perfect place for journeyers to get lost. They say the city was built with no real plan, as is evident in the way that many paths lead to a dead end, while others continue in spiraled mazes and webs.

 

I loved the chance to explore the city by night, alone, with only a wine glass for company. Being a mom means my days and holidays are hardly “peaceful and quiet”, so the effort to enjoy even just a few hours on my own is happiness.

 

Leaving the wine bar later, I passed by the fish market where we’d been in the late afternoon. Whereas before, it was quiet and empty, now it was buzzing with life.

 

A new truckload of fresh fish—giant lobsters, tuna, and mussels—had been delivered, and the open freezers were overflowing with the catch.

 

People crammed the Pescheria to place their orders, while inside an adjoined restaurant, diners lingered over seafood delicacies. The market was the perfect place to peek into local atmosphere, and having no expectations of the city meant I was in for a pleasant surprise.

 

How could I resist the chance to have a midnight snack? I selected cozze gratinate alla pugliese, the local breaded and baked mussels delicacy.

 

Again alone, I dined, scribbling notes about our journey; both the mishaps and marvels. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, traveling the world by myself again…for a few moments, I enjoy the solitude…

 

nyx martinez art ostuni

 

But then, just as suddenly, I miss my children and husband and look forward to going home to them.

 

The fantasy of solo travel lasts only a few minutes and is replaced with the wonderful realization: the blessing it is to discover the world together, as a family.

 

Ostuni Puglia travel

 

 

 

Ostuni Travel Puglia

 

 

 

Ostuni Puglia travel

 

(Getting to Ostuni:)

 

We approached Ostuni by driving up from the south near Taranto. But if you’re flying into Italy, you can reach the white city easily from the Brindisi or Bari airports. Brindisi is about 30 minutes drive, or 25 km away, while Bari is an hour with a car, or 100 km.

 

Fun Fact: The city of Matera, just 124 km from Ostuni, was the setting for Mel Gibson’s controversial film, Passion of Christ. Its white walls, similar to those of Ostuni’s resemble the Biblical Jerusalem.

 

The actor/director said: “Certain sections of the city are 2,000 years old, and the architecture, the blocks of stone, the surrounding areas and rocky terrain added a vista and backdrop that we [used] to create the backdrops for our lavish sets of Jerusalem. We relied heavily on the look that was there. In fact, the first time I saw it, I just went crazy, because it was so perfect.” (Source: http://www.iitaly.org)

 

Visiting Pompeii, A City Captured in Time

Visiting Pompeii, A City Captured in Time

Pompeii travel

Gates to the ruins open at 8am. Best time to see and feel the ancient city.

It’s a very eerie feeling, stepping into an actual ghost town.

Everything is as it once stood…rows of identical homes…mazes of stone streets…water fountains which once quenched the children’s thirst. The temples, dedicated sanctuaries…the markets, common meeting-places. The etched graffiti, ancient forms of social networking. The amphitheater where gladiators fought and died.

Pompeii travel

Mount Vesuvius in the background of Pompeii ruins.

And looming above it all, Mount Vesuvius, still active and trembling to this day,

The Pompeii ruins are an entire city, excavated and preserved in the Campania region of Italy. Buried by the volcanic eruption in 79 AD, it lay covered for over 1,600 years. In 1748, the first big excavations began. But of the settlement’s 66 hectares, only 44 have been revealed.

The best time to see and experience the ruins of Pompeii is at 8:30 in the morning. Try to get there when its gates first open. You’ll escape the crowds that tend to gather at midday, the tourists with selfie sticks and tour guides waving flags.

The early light also has a dramatic effect on the giant sculptures, buildings and crumbled stones.

In those early morning hours, you’ll also escape the intense summer heat which pounds the city by 10am. The glory that was once Pompeii may be mostly in ruins, but from the stone ovens and common baths, the temples and gardens, you’ll get a sense of life that once was.

Pompeii frescoes

Of all the frescoes, mosaics and art in Pompeii, this portrait of a child on the walls of one home, impacted me most.

Pompeii was one of the places in Italy I’ve always wanted to see. It was with awe and reverence that I stood, sketched and tried to grasp the reality of this place.

Pompeii streets

You’ll see giant stone slabs everywhere. These were the old pedestrian crossings, to enable Pompeii’s inhabitants to walk without soiling their feet when rainwater muddied the streets.

My children skipped between the giant stones which create passageways and bridges between the streets. They explored the mazes of houses, aware that in the background, stood Vesuvius. That powerful, destructive volcano.

Pompeii travel

Standing on Pompeii’s grounds felt surreal.

Large stones, fitted together, made up Pompeii’s streets .

Pompeii Travel

A part of a home in Pompeii–colorful art, mosaics and frescoes still adorn some walls.

 

 

From Pompeii, we continued along the Bay of Naples. Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum of Naples, following the buried city’s treasures.

Pompeii Travel

Things to know before you go:

  • Wear good walking shoes. Luckily, I’d picked up a super comfy pair of Flexx sandals in Rome the day before. What a good investment!
  • There is one cafeteria onsite, but you can save by bringing bottled water on your walk.
  • Go early. In Summer, the sun is very hot already by 10am.
  • Lucia is a professional tour guide, who gave me some great tips via phone the night before. If you book a tour, expect 2-3 hours tour. The city is huge, and we only got to see a fourth of it.
  • Bring an ID—passport or driver’s license. You will be required to deposit your ID in exchange for an audio guide.
  • Where to Stay: We booked “Apartment Pompei Wellness”, just walking distance from the city ruins. They have a gym, modern amenities, and a terrace. (Viale Giuseppe Mazzini, 108)
Pompeii mosaics

Detail of a floor mosaic in one of Pompeii’s homes.

modern day Pompeii

View of modern-day Pompeii City (outside the ruins) by night. e had a great rooftop terrace view to have dinner and watch the sun settle over the lively city.

…Next stop, Naples!

Seeing Italy: The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Seeing Italy: The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning tower of Pisa

Up close with the leaning tower of Pisa, one realizes the iconic structure is pretty tiny. Tourists with selfie-sticks, groups of stumbling visitors, and street-sellers add to the busy hum in the Piazza dei Miracoli. We’d paid a one-hour parking ticket just to see it but then ended up getting lost on our way back out the complex.

Traveling through Italy is both familiar and foreign.

Our kids both speak the language fluently but have to follow their inter-racial, tongue-tied parents around. When we really can’t communicate or get lost, we send them to ask questions and directions. It works out pretty nicely.

Folks are usually confused/amused and then relieved and pleasantly surprised when they hear the kids.

The city of Pisa is like many medieval cities this side of Italy. Romanesque churches, clusters of bars and pizzerias lining the streets, peddlers, and tourists. We only stayed for a couple of hours, because the rest of the country’s coast is calling.

 

Travel, An Awakening

Travel, An Awakening

Philippine Beach Nyx Martinez

Travel didn’t always thrill me.

The first memory I have of an airport was that ugly tarp in the old Philippine International Departure Terminal. It was muggy and gray, just like my memory of that particular day.

The year was 1985. I was five years old, and my parents had told me that we were flying to India!

How exciting! It would be my first time out of the country; probably my first time on an airplane.

But what they didn’t tell me, was that they were also breaking up that day.

My mom and dad sat on separate seats in the giant jet plane. I can’t remember which parent I sat with. I was too excited, looking out at the vast sky, soaring through the clouds. I remember chatting with some other kids on the airplane, eager to make new friends.

I had no clue. No warning of what would happen next.

When the plane touched down in crowded Bombay (now called Mumbai), my parents went their separate ways. They had decided that when they parted, I would live with my mother. And so I did, for the next five years.

Funny thing is, that day at the airport is the oldest clear memory I have of life.

It must have been the shock of that single incident: the old airport tarp, the rush of the plane flight…

And then, life as this five-year-old knew it, changing forever.

We spent the next 12 months in India. It was a culture-rich country filled with mythical gods and swarms of people, exotic markets and potholed villages. We moved around a lot, eventually living in Madurai. Memories of India are still crisp in my mind: finding quartz stones in the neighborhood; passing holy cows on the road; loving Masala Dosa; learning Tamil, my first foreign language.

I do remember coming back to Manila, this time with only my mother—the sad old tarp staring back at me from the ground.

Maybe that’s why airports always have a bittersweet feeling for me. Every time I returned to the Philippines, and there was still that ugly tarp, my heart would hurt a little.

I was to board many planes again in life—how many exactly, I’ve lost count. For leisure; for work; for love.

Every time I’d return to Manila, I’d never stop checking to see if they’d finally gotten rid of that ugly old tarp. It’s no secret it’d been called one of the “World’s Worst Airports” many times, and yes, I shared the sentiments.

Then, one day, a couple of decades later, I stood in the Arrivals Terminal, clutching my son’s hand in mine.

And this time, the color of the carpet beneath my shoe soles was a beautiful, beautiful blue.

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Image Credit: Within Striking Distance Blog

I just stood awhile, gazing and smiling.

It’s hard to explain to someone why you’re thrilled when an airport gets an upgrade. I remember sheer happiness washing over me.

That day in 1985 set the stage for everything else I was to learn about travel. And essentially, about life:

That, travel is so much more about just changing places, or going somewhere else.

Travel is a wake-up call. It shines the spotlight on other worlds, the ones outside our own. Travelling can make us feel so small, yet so strong at the same time.

Travel teaches us that sometimes, we get left behind. We fall. We must journey alone. And it’s up to us to get up, catch up, and keep on going.

My life today is wonderful. In part, because of the painful decisions my parents made decades ago, which led to circumstances I had no control over. But that’s okay. Cliche as it may sound, it was meant to be. I remain grateful for life’s unpredictability.

This month, we flew over 6,000 miles, from Europe, back to Asia. Yes, right back to the airport where my journeys began that day in 1985. My dad had suffered a mild stroke in December. I took the kids back to visit the Philippines after four long years.

air travel by Nyx

This time, coming back was a joyful feeling. The blue airport carpet in the Arrivals terminal was warm and welcoming.

We skipped, hugged, took selfies. We created new memories and I re-framed old ones.

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My kids, too, have been learning, throughout our travels, that home is not a single place. It’s not a country; not a concrete house; not even an association of people.

Being home—and coming home—is a state of mind.

And that incredible state of mind still thrills me.

Anitun Tabu by Nyx Martinez

Anitun Tabu by Nyx Martinez


Hire Me On Scripted

Travel with Kids: West Bohemia in the Czech Republic

Travel with Kids: West Bohemia in the Czech Republic

 

wikipedia

On my second visit to Western Bohemia, I should’ve known better than to ask the waitress if the restaurant offered anything that “wasn’t so heavy”.

“Evry-zing in Czech Republik iss e-vee!” came the curt reply.

It was Easter and we were in Františkovy Lázně, a small but charming spa town just beyond the German border, in the Karlovy Vary region. As we journeyed past the autobahn, forested highway lanes opened up to beautiful, spacious, bright green plains.

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None other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described this town as “heaven on earth”. And driving through its historical center, you can see why. In the 1700’s, Austrian Emperor Franz I (after whom the town is named) founded it, and at the height of its popularity, even Beethoven and Johann Strauss visited. It became known for its mineral springs and mud baths. Even today, those from neighboring Germany love its wellness resorts and therapeutic treatments.

Here are some lovely photos of Františkovy Lázně.

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Photo: Czech Tourism

Photo: Czech Tourism

Through tried-and-proven Booking.com, my husband found a fantastic marine-themed BnB called Penzion U Námořníka. It had a huge but cozy dining hall and outdoor pub/drinking area. Bonus points for its garden playground with a mini lighthouse and pirate ship.  Oh, and a petting zoo with ponies and geese! (Scroll down to see the unbeatable cost for an overnight stay.)

Penzion

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Petting zoo at the Pension. Photo: Nyx Martinez

Petting zoo at the Pension. Photo: Nyx Martinez

The next day, we headed for the Aqua Forum, the town’s spa center indoor swimming pool.

Its legendary thermal waters filled the indoor and outdoor pools. And although it wasn’t as huge or exciting as other water-parks in Europe, its 80-meter-long toboggan slide was thrilling enough for our 6-year-old to enjoy a thousand times.

Photo: Czech Tourism

Photo: Czech Tourism

aqua forum

By evening, I’d warmed up to the fact that a journey to the Czech Republic meant one could (must!) throw out all dietary preferences.

Hearty, heavyweight meals included giant slabs of juicy roasted or stewed meat (beef and pork) with creamy sauce over a pile of knedlík (local doughy dumplings, similar to the German knödel). The kids loved the ice-cream-and-Nutella laden crepes for dessert. (which, incidentally, we eat a lot of at home on weekends—get a recipe for palacinky here.)

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Roast duck with Knedliky dumplings

Roast duck with Knedliky dumplings

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If you’re going to the Czech Republic, I now know, you’re going to eat—and eat a lot. Not just because the food is loaded with deliciousness, but because the cost of their massive portions are so affordable. (Would you believe, all of the above including wine and beer for just 20 euros?!) As we say in the Philippines, “Good for five!”

We’ll talk about the tasty Czech beer next time…that one needs a whole dedicated travel journal post!

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Next Stop: Pulled over by the police in Budvar City (České Budějovice) and tour of the Budweiser Budvar Czech Brewery!

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Recommended Family Budget BnB:

Penzion U Námořníka (Cost: €60 a night for four, incl. Breakfast buffet)

(Družstevní 203/5 a 202/7, Františkovy Lázně, 351 01, Czech Republic)

 

What to do in Františkovy Lázně:

Swimming/Spa in the Aqua Forum

(5. května 19, 351 01 Františkovy Lázně)

+420 354 206 500

aquaforum@frantiskovylazne.cz

http://www.frantiskovylazne.cz/cs/aquaforum

Venice Carnival 2016: Travel Tips & Video

Venice Carnival 2016: Travel Tips & Video

Nyx Venice

 

Carnevale Venezia 2016 comes to its grand finale on Sunday, February 10. The world-renowned festival itself is said to come from the Italian words “carne” (meat) and “levare” (to remove or withdraw). In former times, Venetians went all out partying and feasting just before the somber fasting of meat during the long period of Lent.

I’ll never forget my first trip to Italy and the romantic route to Venice from the north. Each day, we stopped at a small village for the night, watch the sun set, and drink good Italian wine. To save on costs, we simply parked our camper van in the paid parking across the harbor before heading on the boat that would take us to the magical city. Once there, we strolled the many bridges and got lost in tiny, dim alleyways. I took lots of pictures, of course.

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In the old days, masks disguised the city’s citizens, hiding the identity, social status, and even sex of the wearer. Traditionally, they were crafted from paper mâché or leather. Original masks and costumes can be pricey; make-up artists around the city offer face-painting for less.

If you’re feeling lucky, fill out this form for free entry to the Best Masked Costume Contest. Final awarding happens on Sunday, February 7.

Or if you’re travelling with a group of friends, a fun idea is to join the Pub Crawl organized by Venice Events. Come in costume and be led through some of the city’s best bars.

On the EuroCheapo Travel Blog, find out more ways to enjoy the Venice Carnival and have a grand time.

Below is the official video from the Carnival of Venice 2016 Tourism Department.