Rothenburg ob der Tauber: a Medieval gem you can visit now

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Photo credit

I love places that makes me feel I am in one of the pages of a fairy tale book. I love old German inner cities that I have only seen through books, magazines or travel blogs and Rothenburg ob der Tauber could be my favorite. The architecture is very well preserved, you can’t help but ask yourself whether time has stood still.

Rothenburg is named in part after its location on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is translated in English as:”Red fortress above the Tauber”.

WHERE IS ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is situated in Bavaria, halfway between Frankfurt and Munich.

HOW TO GET TO ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER (from Munich)

bayern ticketWe were based in Munich, coming from a direct 6 hour flight from Dubai. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is three and a half train ride away from Munich. It’s not near but heck, we were already there so better take this opportunity to visit!

The German railway offers several regional tickets to travel around the country on a budget. We got the Bayern ticket, this ticket is valid for as many journeys as you want in Bavarian region during its period of validity, regardless of the connection indicated. Children/grandchildren (any number) aged 14 and under can travel with you when you buy for one or two people. Discounts are available for up to four people travelling with you, paying only an additional 6 Euros per person. For example, 2 adults would pay only 31 Euros total.

I only paid 25 Euros, my kids aged 13 and 5 travelled for free.

From Mon-Fri, the Bayern ticket is valid from 09:00 to 03:00 of the following day; on Sat, Sun and public holidays, it is valid from midnight to 03:00 of the following day.

TIP: Check timetables and connections using the German public transport app, DB Navigator (Android, iOS).

We left Munich early and arrived three and a half hours later to Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s small train station around 11:30 am. To get to the charming medieval Old Town, we need to walk for about 10 minutes before arriving at this walled village, with thick walls at the entrance. We crossed the wall and this was our first glimpse of Rothenburg.

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Now, this is not a theme park with cute houses built for entertainment. These are normal houses where normal people live. Most of the houses had been here for hundreds of years yet when you see these buildings, it seems that it has been untouched by time.

We headed to the Rothenburg Tourism office at Markplatz to take brochures and guides on how to navigate this small town.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber is only a day trip in our itinerary. After all, our main destination was Austria but we happen to just have chosen Munich as our landing airport and Rothenburg just happens to be in the same region as Munich and the picture perfect town is worth the long train ride.

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p an b at rothenburg

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER?

We were in Germany on the last week of August when most of Europe is still enjoying the last days of summer. However, the day we were in Rothenburg (August 26), it seems that we have brought the Dubai heat with us. The mid day temps were high, it was actually so hot! Still, it was beautiful and fascinating to wander around. From the half timbered houses, to the uneven cobbled stone streets, to the ancient walls that surround this city, there is so much to explore.

I can imagine how beautiful this town will be during winter especially on Christmas time.

So in short, I believe this place is beautiful any time of the year!

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us in rothenburg 1

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The views around the town are tremendous, from the main square, to the towers to the alleys. We were only there a day, but would have loved another!!

CLIMBING THE CITY TOWER

Upon the suggestion of the Rothenburg ob der Tauber tourism office, I gathered all the courage to climb up the 65 meter city tower. I have climbed towers and love the views from the top. This tower though is perhaps the most interesting and most treacherous so far! The kids seem to be enthusiastic about it, in fact, I didn’t want to but they insisted! We entered a wide spiral staircase in the Rathaus, just off of the main square. Soon the stairs start to get narrower and steeper. By the time we arrived at the last stairs it’s shocking to see that it is less like stairs and more like a ladder. The inclination is almost 90 degrees!

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city tower 2
city tower 1

The viewing platform at the top can only hold only a few visitors at a time. Benjamin was delighted to be at the top but Pristine was scared. She actually froze and cried. Me? I don’t like heights but I had to take pictures.

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THE PLONLEIN (“Little Square”)

One of the most famous postcard images from Rothenburg ob der Tauber is definitely the Plonlein. A narrow half-timbered building with a small fountain in front, it is framed by the Kobolzeller tower and the higher Siebers Tower, with lovingly restored townhouses to the right and left, creating a charmingly picturesque effect.

plonlein 1

The Plonlein Rothenburg ob der Tauber

You can say that people who come to Rothenburg come here to take pictures at this very spot. It’s the place that I had specifically searched out because I have seen so many photographs of it and wanted to capture one of my own.

By the way, can you imagine Belle from Beauty and the Beast coming out from one of these houses and belting out the song Provincial Life?

HOW MANY HOURS SHOULD YOU SPEND AT ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER?

rothenburg 5

We were at Rothenburg for a day trip from Munich and calculating the total of seven hours train journey to and fro, we were at Rothenburg for only four hours tops. It was enough to see the major streets and sights (the ploinlein!) but if I had to do it all over again, I would choose from the list of charming hotels or inns at Rothenburg and I would gladly spend a night or two so I could explore it more/travel slower.

Rothenburg Tourism suggests Hotel Rappen, a hotel located right before you enter the gates to the town. We had lunch at the restaurant’s beer garden and can’t forget the delicious bratwurts, spinach & cheese pancake and of course, German beer that we had!

Now, I have this uncurable addiction of scrolling through booking sites to see prospective hotels and I’d probably choose Romantik Hotel Markusturm or Hotel Reichs Kuchenmeister next time. I see there will definitely be a next time!

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We loved, loved, loved our time at Rothenburg ob der Tauber – old, classic, historic, clean, quaint, just lovely. I loved feeling like I had been transported to another time and place, so different than my life back home.

It is definitely worth a stop if you’re in Bavaria region because nowhere else will you find such a wealth of original buildings dating from the Middle Ages. We just roamed around the cobblestone streets, visited the Christmas store (it’s surreal to see vast collections of Christmas decorations in August), checked the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments (!), climbed the city tower, and peeked through windows of souvenir shops.

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torture museum 2
I saw my favorite chocolate shop!

lindt store

Though it could get touristy at peak times during the day when the tour busses arrive, it’s just so lovely to wander around and walk around the wall and the main square is picture perfect. There are lots of lovely little shops, bakeries and restaurants and the atmosphere of this place is just wonderful.

I am glad we went, thankful both my kids weren’t bothered with the long train ride. As for me, I am so happy to be able to fulfil one of my travel dreams with them at my side.

Lastly, there are several “Rothenburgs” in Germany. Make sure you are going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber as it seems that people really do sometimes drive or ride the train to other, nondescript Rothenburgs by accident.

Do you like charming little towns? Which one is your favorite?

Is Wadi Rum worth it?

Wadi Rum 6

When Ridley Scott was directing the blockbuster film The Martian, he knew he needed a landscape that closely resembled Mars in order to keep the film as realistic as possible. He settled on filming in the Wadi Rum desert region of Jordan.

I have not seen that movie but when I got to Wadi Rum myself, it’s easy to see why this location was chosen.

Initially, Wadi Rum wasn’t in our itinerary because given our very short time in Jordan (fly in Friday morning and fly out Monday night). We covered the Dead Sea on our first day (Friday) and Petra on the second (Saturday). We rested on the third day spending just a few hours strolling through the shores of the Red Sea, visiting the city center at Aqaba and hunting where to eat the traditional dish mansaf and just chilling at our very fascinating accommodation at Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay. On our last day (Monday), we checked out at 9:30 am and headed to Wadi Rum.

WHERE IS WADI RUM?

Wadi Rum lies in the south western corner of Jordan 58 kilometers north of the coastal town of Aqaba. It can be reached easily by main roads from Amman (3.5 hours), Aqaba (1 hour) and Petra (1.5 hours). Car-hire and bus tours can be arranged through hotels and travel agents and taxis can be negotiated from Aqaba and Petra.

* We had a private van arranged by Amani Tours for the entire time we were in Jordan, including to Wadi Rum

HOW TO TAKE A TOUR OF WADI RUM

Wadi Rum 1

The first stop to Wadi Rum is at the Visitor’s Center. It overlooks the Seven Pillars of Wisdom – an imposing rock formation with seven enormous folds, named after the autobiography by T.E Lawrence of the same name. There are several tours to choose from, depending on the amount of time you can spend. Two hours, three hours…the staff at the Visitor’s Center contacts the local Bedouin drivers as required.

The best way to enjoy Wadi Rum is to get on the back of a 4×4 pickup truck. Our guide contacted a Bedouin driver she knows personally to take us around. The Bedouins are still the people of the desert and you can trust them to show you everything there is to see. Just hop on one of their jeeps and enjoy the view.

We paid JOD50 + tip for a three hour excursion (that stretched into four hours in actual).

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The truck is improvised to have ‘seats’ for four people at the back. There are no seat belts which could make you think twice about doing this – if so, you can sit beside the driver inside the truck. Otherwise, be a little adventurous (and face a little danger). The driver won’t drive fast so I never felt unsafe.

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Prepare for a bumpy ride, but it will be well worth your aching bones. Don’t worry, you will have plenty of opportunities to get off the vehicle and admire the place on foot.

p with camel in wadi rum

There is nothing more exhilarating than speeding through a desert landscape in the back of an open-air pickup truck. We were there on the 2nd week of December when it’s winter and though the glaring sun makes it look like it’s hot, it’s not! On the contrary, it was very cold. See my daughter’s thick jacket! She wished she could fix the hood to cover her head but alas, the oncoming wind keeps on blowing the hoodie off.

I loved the feel of the crisp, cold wind on my face.

back of truck in wadi rum

Jordan’s desert is, in a word, MAJESTIC. Its lunar-like landscape (Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon), crevice-riddled cliffs and ever-evolving light took my breath away.

It was quite an experience but a word of caution: photographing out sitting at the back of a fast moving truck travelling in uneven pathways is so challenging – with both feet needing to anchor for safety, looking for the perfect timing and clicking the camera, trying hard not to throw it over or throw myself over.

Most of the “good” photos I have taken at the back of that moving truck is accidental, but I loved them all anyway.

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camel in wadi rum 4
Wadi Rum 3

The desert can seem at first to be an empty expanse, save for some camels in the wild.

camel in wadi rum 1

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SHOULD YOU HIRE A GUIDE FOR WADI RUM?

I suppose finding the right guide for your Wadi Rum tour is not easy. I did a lot of research before our flight to Jordan and still didn’t have a clue where to find a good guide and just left it all to ‘fate’. However, the best way to keep ‘fate’ on your side is by asking other travellers who had “been there, done that”, to read their stories and personal recommendations.

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We got lucky with our guide and she made our trip to Wadi Rum even more wonderful. She did not only got us a good driver, she took us to places in Wadi Rum that isn’t in the list staple points of stop for tourists.

WADI RUM ADVENTURE

Before we got on the truck, our guide told us we will be doing a “little” climbing. One of my favourite parts of our Wadi Rum tour was the stop of at a rock bridge-arch structure. Yep, its pretty dangerous looking so I wasn’t really keen on climbing, lugging along my camera but I’m glad I did because once we were at the top the precarious looking arch, it really did feel like we were in an adventure movie.

arch bridge from far

arch bridge 2
arch bridge 1

I gave my camera to our driver, a local Bedouin, who, despite his outfit, could climb up and down the steep rocks as fast a cheetah! (The third one on the pic, in white is our guide)

Next, our guide took us to a rock formation that she calls, “The Titanic”. Of course she invites us to climb again!

wadi rum titanic

So to come back to the essence of this blog post, is Wadi Rum worth it?

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T.E. Lawrence elegantly described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing and God-like…” and I could not agree more. Wadi Rum is a stupendous, timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and its destructive forces. Here, it is the weather and winds that have carved the imposing, towering skyscrapers.

If you want to experience what I and other travellers refer to as “other-worldly”, include Wadi Rum in your Jordan itinerary. The scenery is truly out of this world. Miles of solitary sand dunes and rocky hills open up in front of your eyes, making you feel as if you were walking on Mars without having to set foot in a spaceship. There are options to stay for the night at the Bedouin camps. I can imagine the dark, starry skies sans light pollution in the big cities and howls of desert wolves or just the stillness of the night here.

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I live in Dubai and I have been and seen deserts. However, if you ever thought that once you’ve seen a desert you’ve seen them all, think again. Wadi Rum, the red desert of southern Jordan is a marvel you shouldn’t miss.

* I tried hard to take decent photos to share the beauty of Wadi Rum but I think even the best photographers, not one photo would give justice to the actual beauty of the place. You simply need to go there and see it with your own eyes.

Japanese shrine

Things to do in Japan: Visiting shrines and temples

Japanese shrine

Thinking about it, I’m frequently asked: “What are the top things to do in Japan?”

I’ve lived there for more than ten years so people expect me to blurt out answers faster than Google. But actually, I always get stumped when asked that question.

I tend to over-think things. So I ask back, so many questions.

What part of Japan do you wish to visit? Tokyo?

Are you going to Japan with children?

When will you go? Summer? Winter? Spring? Autumn?

Do you prefer the modern, high tech face of Japan or the subtle laid back countryside?

Do you like sushi?

There are many, many things to do in Japan that it simply deserve another (long) post. Today, I’m going to go with: temples and shrines because this easily goes into my top ten list of things to do while in Japan. And it should be in your list, too.

First, it’s something cultural and historical. Maybe something you wouldn’t even find in your home country so it’s an adventure, a discovery. Then there’s something about these places that calms me, makes me sit in one corner and put things in perspective. I find quiet and solace and get out feeling better.

Always.

Japanese shrine

Looks dramatic, no?

When we were in Japan in the summer of 2013, Benjamin and I frequented shrines and temples while Pristine was at school. It has a great open space he can run around and as I have said, I really like the stillness of the place.

Japanese shrine

Summer in Japan is tough (coming from someone who live in Dubai, I know that sounds really weird!) so we sought refuge in the shrine premises. It’s cooler inside the shrines (called “jinja” in Japanese) because of the lush trees. You can hear the rustle of the leaves on a windy day which is kind of soothing. This particular shrine is very close to where we lived and I always took Pristine here when she was small.

Japanese shrine

In my ten years of stay in Japan, I’ve visited a lot of shrines and temples and friends and family would ask, what is the difference? To a foreigner,  yes, they can look all the same.

But they are different.

Japanese shrines (“jinja”) are generally based in Shintoism which is a set of Japanese spiritual beliefs. So many of these shrines have features and designs that are unique to Japan. For example, you’ll find torii archways at shrines.

Torii in shrine

The torii symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. I’ve seen Japan’s most photographed torii some years back – this is in Miyajima, Hiroshima.

torii itsukushima

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Looking from the sea, this torii serves as the gateway to Itsukushima Shrine.

itsukushima

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Itsukushima jinja is a UNESCO world heritage site on Hiroshima prefecture’s Miyajima island. The shrine and its gate are regarded as one of Japan’s great views because of its large torii which stands over 16 meters tall.

Japanese temples (“otera”) on the other hand, are based in the facets Buddhism rather than Shintoism. Because of this, you can find similar temples in countries that practice Buddhism (i.e. China, Japan, and Korea). In the same fashion as the shrine, the name can be a dead giveaway as to whether you’re in a temple or a shrine. Simply listen for the ji sound at the end of the name.

One of the most popular temples I have visited are Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) in Kyoto…

kiyomizudera

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…and Todaiji in Nara.

Todaiji

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Instead of finding tori archways, you have pagoda, the cool-looking multi-tiered towers that are often associated with Asian architecture. A small temple near our place (big temples have more lavish entrances):

Japanese temple

It’s very quiet in here.

Japanese temple

This one’s in Niigata, my husband’s home town when we last visited in the summer of 2013.

Niigata otera

These statues? They have their story.

Japanese temple

These statues are called “Jizo” or more endearingly “Ojizo-san”. It was believed that “Ojizo-san” would guide dead soul to heaven or the kingdom of Buddha and not to hell.

Statue in Japanese shrine

Now, this photo above intrigued me for years when I was new there (the time when there was no Google or Wikipedia!) – so I had to ask around. Why do the Ojizo-san wear a red bib and with children at his feet?

Japanese temple

The Ojizo-san is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents. He has been worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses.

In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that the Ojizo-san saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe.

You often encounter Ojizo-san in temples and graveyards and it is not unusual to see the idol adorned with a red bib and a red baby hat. The reason for this, is parents put it there to either thank him for saving a child from illness or to ask him to protect a child in the after-life.

So folks, so much about Japan’s temples and shrines. Sorry, I got carried away! Nevertheless, if you happen to visit Japan, a country in my opinion, that you should visit at least once in your lifetime, be sure to stop by those little temples and shrines. They are always worth your time.

Bohol Countryside Tour in one day

countryside tour featured image

After our tour of Panglao island and our wonderful time at one of Bohol’s finest resorts, The Bellevue Bohol, next up on our itinerary is the not to be missed “countryside tour” of the island. We moved to Bohol island’s capital city of Tagbilaran after checking out from our Panglao island accommodation, staying at a simple, boutique hotel near the city center, had lunch and rested the whole afternoon.

It was pouring that afternoon, which is totally normal since July is the start of the monsoon season in the Philippines. Thankfully, we did not have anything planned out that day, maybe just to go out to a mall to buy souvenirs and Bohol’s famous delicacy, the Kalamay.

To be honest, I was a bit anxious – will it rain like this the next day when we do the countryside tour? I surely hope not!

When morning came, luckily, the sun was out and prayers do help – it did not rain the whole day!

The van from the travel and tours company recommended by the Bohol Tourism office and guide, (she’s licensed by Philippine Department of Tourism) arrived on time just before 9 am. We’re ready for our countryside tour!

Related post: Bohol Travel Guide

Here are the places we visited. The Bohol countryside tour can be covered in one full day, however, if you would like to see and experience much more like the zip lines at Loboc or the hanging bridges at various parts of the island, you might need an extra day.

1. Tarsier Sanctuary at Corella

tarsier santuary

When you say “Bohol”, the tarsier automatically comes to mind. The Philippine tarsier, the world’s smallest primate is endemic to Bohol island (though there are some sighting in the islands of Samar and Mindanao). Tarsiers are small with very large eyes, elongated hind legs and feet, a thin tail and long fingers.

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Tarsiers are arboreal (tree living) and jump through the trees to catch their food, which is mainly insect based, although can include lizards, snakes and birds. They are nocturnal (active at night) although some species may move around in the daytime.

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Photo:outcast85/Shutterstock

Oh my God, how cute is this? Or am I weird for thinking Tarsiers are cute?

Before, tours at the Tarsier Sanctuary included touching these animals but not any more. Tarsiers are very shy creatures and do not like human contact. Our guide says, you can’t keep them in a cage as they’ll commit suicide. They’d rather die than be captured and kept. So intense.

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The most noticeable thing about tarsiers are their eyes. They have the largest eyes relative to body size of any mammal. And their heads can turn to almost 360 degrees just like owls.

The Tarsier Sanctuary is a “sanctuary” for a reason. The majority of Tarsier species are now endangered or threatened, and some are designated critically endangered. They only breed once a year and gestation period lasts up to six months and a female can only bear one young every birth.

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When we entered the sanctuary, which is a mini forest, there are guides who, in whispers, show us the way where a tarsier is resting (it’s daytime, they’re either sleeping or just chilling out). Guests are not supposed to make any noise and camera flash is a total no no.

In the above photo, Benjamin (almost 5 years old) looks extremely excited. He is, but we’ve been instructed to be quiet as not to scare the animals in their natural habitat. Tarsiers are very shy animals that prefer to stay away from human contact. Heck they are so solitary, they don’t even get close to other tarsiers. It is said that territory wise, it’s one Tarsier per hectare* of land.

*1 hectare = 2.5 acres = 10,000 square meters

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The specific needs for tarsiers in both habitat and prey make captive breeding programs essentially impossible, and only around 50 percent of tarsiers put in captivity are able to survive. Habitat conservation is their only hope.

2. Chocolate Hills, Carmen

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The Chocolate Hills of Bohol is nothing like any other geographical wonder you’ll see. Conical mounds, almost identical, rising from the Earth, sprawled across a lush green landscape 50 square kilometers wide. It is located in the middle of Bohol island.

HOW TO GET THERE

From the Tagbilaran port, you ride a tricycle to the bus terminal in Dao. At the terminal, you ride a bus/van headed to Carmen. The travel time is 45 minutes to one hour. The bus will stop at the Chocolate Hills. (Or you can also hire a van from travel and tours companies for a private tour)

The hills are not huge; the highest one barely reaches 120 meters in height. Even so, most hills are between 30 and 50 meters. There is one main hill with an observation deck at the top. Be prepared to climb 200+ steps. We were there around 11 am and it was hot and humid. The climb was exhausting but the view from the top made it all worth it.

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I’m so lucky to be travelling with my brother who helped me with Benjamin so I can take photos without worrying he’d fall or something. And Uncle Jay also carried him at some point, especially when we climbed up.

chocolate hills with uncle jay

This extraordinary landscape is unique to this small island. It is said that there are 1,776 of these hills sprawled in 50 square kilometers.

MORE THAN A THOUSAND OF THESE HILLS. Let that sink in in your system for a while.

What a wonderful, mysterious planet we live in. The hills looked almost artificial with the uncanny symmetry that it’s hard to believe they are a product of erosion and time.

chocolate hills 1

The observation deck at the top is still undergoing lots of construction/restoration after the devastating earthquake that struck the island a couple of years ago.

Mystery still surrounds how the Chocolate Hills were formed. One of the more popular local legends is that long ago, two giants fought for days, hurling earth and stones at one another, until they fell exhausted, friends once more, into each other’s arms.

What it really is: The Chocolate Hills are thought to have been formed as uplifted marine limestone was cracked by tectonic movements and then weathered away by water and wind.

chocolate hills 2

At the climb down, Benjamin wanted to see the other side. The hills are not too visible from here but I guess if you live and grew up in the desert, the massive greenery right in front of your eyes could get you a little excited, yes?chocolate hills with uncle jay 2

It was hot and humid at the top, alright but I spent the next few minutes in silent awe, watching the rolling white clouds against the mounds of earth. Here’s an aerial view of the area. (Photo not mine.)

chocolate-hills-bohol-aerial

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By the way, the name “Chocolate Hills” comes from the brown color the sun-burnt cogon grass transforms during the summer months.

3. Bilar man-made forest

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The plan was to have lunch at Loboc river aboard one of those floating restaurants. To get there, we passed by Bilar man-made forest.

This spot is a favourite stop for tourists going to and/or from the Chocolate Hills in Carmen town. You’ll see a lot of cars parked on the road side and people taking photos or just stop and breathe in fresh mountain air. You can also see tourists taking risky shots, like in the middle of the highway. It’s extremely dangerous as so many buses, trucks and private vehicles appear out of nowhere with ample speed. Don’t do it if you’re there!

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This man-made forest is a forest with mahogany trees planted by the government in order to restore green spaces damaged by excessive logging. This 2 kilometer stretch of densely planted Mahogany trees is located in the border of Loboc and Bilar towns.

That’s my father, by the way, in the picture.

4. River cruise + lunch, Loboc

Loboc river cruise 7

We arrived at Loboc just in time for lunch at midday and our guide led us through the docking area whre the Village Floating Resto & Cruises boat awaits. There are a lot of floating restaurants available but this was the one we used.

The river cruise with buffet lunch was priced at PHP450 per person, as of this writing.

When the cruise started, the views were nothing short of enchanting. I fell for it. Hard. Because, who wouldn’t? I thanked God the weather was clear and good, making the cruise so much more wonderful and everywhere you look is just lush green trees and the blue sky.

Loboc river cruise 2

Buffet lunch is served on these floating restaurants but I tell you, when you go on Loboc river cruise, you do not go for the food (me, at least, that what I feel). Imagine having lunch while cruising slowly down a this calm, scenic river.

Loboc river cruise 1

That said, food aboard the floating restaurant we were in was great. We loved it. I wasn’t expecting very much from the buffet at all but actually was good – plenty of choice and delicious.  There were several boats cruising along the river but ours was full, which meant it is better than the others.

Loboc river cruise 5

Loboc river cruise 6

The cruise will last for an hour and will make a few stops along the way. First stop is at the river choir station where the locals serenade the guest with traditional Visayan songs. They will also perform a “Tinikling” dance, a traditional dance in the Philippines. There is no fee to watch the show but, it’s very much appreciated to give a tip.

loboc river

What a gorgeous, verdant river! The unspoiled greenery meant one thing; there is a very healthy ecosystem that is preserved in this part of Loboc River. Also, our guide said there are absolutely NO factories of any kind in Bohol island. The fresh air will vouch for that.

The Loboc River Cruise was my favorite part of the countryside tour that I am going to write a separate post why.

5. Blood compact site, Tagbilaran

blood compact site 1

On our way back to Tagbilaran City, we stopped at the Sandugo or Blood Compact Shrine monument, a landmark at the site of the first international treaty of friendship between Spaniards and Filipinos.

This site will be meaningful to those who recognize the significance of this historical event. I remember my history class – the ruler of the native people of Bohol, Datu Sikatuna, and the Spanish explorer, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, sealed their peace treaty in the tradition of the native people – sandugo, or blood compact in March 16, 1565.

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I explained to my kids that these people, when they were alive hundreds of years ago, poured some of their blood into a cup filled with liquor and drank it to seal a friendship or treaty. “Sandugo” is a Visayan word which means “one blood”

There wasn’t much to see. It’s just a really a monument, my daughter said but I told her: imagine standing on the same ground where the blood compact happened.

Then she thought they were suddenly cool for standing on such a historical site!

The monument, with the bronze statues of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, Rajah Sikatuna and several other witnesses, was a masterpiece of the Boholano sculptor and National Artist for Sculpture, Napoleon Abueva.

Behind the monument is a magnificent view of Bohol Sea.

Blood compact shrine

That concludes our Bohol countryside tour. We still had plenty of time to catch the ship leaving at 7 pm from Tagbilaran port to take us home to Mindanao island.

There are several travel and tours offering this countryside tour and it’s not really easy to say which one is good. It requires research and scouring the internet and weighing so many factors: price, inclusions, positive reviews, etc. We did the safest way – by contacting the Bohol Tourism office. They recommended Travel Village and Tours who picked us up at our hotel in Tagbilaran. This travel and tours company was fab and made our tour of Bohol memorable and worry-free with a very professional local guide, very cautious driver, clean van. Ms. Cecille, our guide was jolly, warm and all knowing about everything in the tour and had interesting stories to tell. She can even speak a little Japanese!

If you’re going to visit Bohol island in the Philippines for the beaches (mainly that’s what most tourists do), please spare at least a day to do the countryside tour before you go back to your concrete jungle in the big city. You won’t regret it. And there’s one thing I can guarantee you: you would be dreaming about this unspoiled piece of land for days.

mountains in Fujairah

A trip to Al Bidyah Mosque, oldest mosque in the UAE

mountains in Fujairah

When you live in Dubai, it’s easy to miss things as natural as rain or trees (other than date palm) or the sight of mountains. It was our second day in Fujairah and after exploring the coast by boat courtesy of Fujairah International Marine Club, we wanted to look around and show the kids some things they won’t see in Dubai (mountains!) and visit the Al Bidyah Mosque, (sometimes written as Al Bidiyah or Al Badiyah) reputed to be the oldest mosque in the country.

Novotel Hotel, the budget and family friendly hotel in Fujairah where we spent our short out of the city getaway offers tours to the city and nearby historic spots.

Our driver and guide picked us up after breakfast and we went straight to Al Bidyah Mosque. It was a longer ride from Fujairah city proper where Novotel is located but the sights along the way has something we do not see everyday. There were no bored souls inside the car.

al bidiyah mosque poster

Al Bidyah mosque is located 8 km north of Khor Fakkan in the mountainous coastal region of the emirate of Fujairah. The mosque is a charming earth-coloured structure of stone, mud brick and gypsum built between 1446 and 1668. The mosque is unique to the UAE but not the region. It was built about the same time as similar mosques in Yemen, Oman and Qatar.

Al Bidiyah Mosque

I have been to this mosque before but that was way back in 2007 with my mother and if I remember, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Now, visitors can take a peek inside as it now functions mainly as a tourist attraction. Non-Muslims may enter if they are appropriately dressed and have taken off their shoes, but women must cover their heads.

abaya in mosque

Its structure has been kept true to its past. Apart from the welcome introduction of two air-conditioning units and four fluorescent lights, and some restoration work a decade ago, the mosque of mud and bricks remains much as it did in the mid-15th century.

inside al bidyah mosque benjamin

Here, my 3 year old son is looking at a wall that existed centuries and centuries before him. It’s heartbreaking though to see all the vandalized walls on this old, small building near the mosque.

inside mosque

al bidiya mosque

Locals says that they don’t know who built this mosque. There were no books or historical studies on who built it. There’s some sort of fort at the top of the hill behind the mosque. And there’s a pathway to it.

Al Bidya Mosque Fujairah

Way back in 2007 when we first visited, we did not have much time to explore around the area. Now that we didn’t have to rush back to Dubai and the weather was really great, we asked the kids if they wanted to go up.

Fujairah mosque fort

I guess you know what they said next. The older one was too excited to show the place to her little brother as if she owns it, as if she has been there a hundred times. Those mountain silhouettes in the horizon, aren’t they beautiful?

fort 2

The climb to the top wasn’t too much of a struggle but I guess for the little one, it was quite an effort. He loved it though and looked forward to reaching the top.

p and b to the fort 1

“Those mountains…where do they start and where do they end, mama?” I get overwhelmed by the questions Pristine asks during our travels because sometimes, the answers to those questions I can’t find in Google.

at fort looking out

fort 1

I am proud of my (little) young travellers. We’ve taken them everywhere we wanted to them to see and not once they complained or threw a tantrum (no jinx!). If at all, they are so eager to see more and always the reason why we need to linger more at a certain spot.

at the fort

From the watch tower above the mosque you can view more of the magnificent scenery of the coast. If you’re thinking of doing something different on a weekend, you can drive to Fujairah from Dubai via the new road, stay a couple of nights at a city hotel (there are a lot of affordable hotel options!)  and experience this piece of history and natural beauty in a country so focused on moving forward, with most buildings not older than cheese. Sorry for the mention of cheese, I am getting hungry.

overlooking

Seriously, Fujairah is a must visit and you’d be more enticed to do so in my next post. We had a short stop at the beach on our way back to our hotel!