Welcome to Singapore!

Welcome To Singapore - Cover

They say that good things come in small packages and our next destination illustrates that idea to a tee. Our next port of call in the “Welcome to” series is South East Asia’s smallest country, Singapore. My former neighbour, dear friend and food blogger, Gina, aka Fatsochef, is kindly going to show us around. If, for you, travel is as much about the food as the sightseeing, read on!

The last time I wrote about my country, I was probably just ten years old! I don’t remember but I’m sure it was nothing but praise for this little island I call home. There really isn’t much not to like about Singapore. It’s beautiful, clean, modern, efficient and safe, from both crimes and natural disasters! It’s got great infrastructure, well-built roads, a first-class airline, and as for the buildings, we’ve got some pretty awesome architecture here on our little space of barely 130 square kilometers.

Singapore cityscape during sunset

The Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer

If you’ve ever had the chance to see a picture of the famous Marina Bay Sands building and thought to yourself, “Well, that’s nice”, just wait until you see it in person – the structure will blow you away! The building houses a hotel, casino, theatre, countless restaurants, bars and a mall to meet every shopaholic’s demands, plus there’s a magnificent view of the city skyline from the rooftop which is a staggering 193 meters high. It is a must-visit!

As if being known as the Garden City wasn’t enough, we went and built a garden within the garden city! Even if you’re not into flowers, you’ll be mesmerized by the towering futuristic solar-powered Supertrees and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall here at Singapore’s Gardens by The Bay.

Singapore Gardens By The Bay

Gardens by the Bay

We’re a young country, just celebrating our fifty-third year of independence in August this year, but we’ve come a long way the past half a century. Watching the country grow and evolve in such a short time is the pride of all Singaporeans.

Speaking of evolution, my own backyard has seen some mind-boggling changes! Built in 1920s, Tiong Bahru is the oldest housing estate in Singapore; also my family home for the past thirty years… and counting! As recent as the early nineties, our walk-up apartment sat amidst mom-and-pop shops selling everything from eggs to haberdashery supplies to freshly handmade noodles. Today, barely a handful of these old businesses remain, and the rest have been converted to hipster cafes, swanky barber shops, lifestyle shops and even spas! Despite the change, Tiong Bahru still exudes an old-world charm that silently refuses to budge! Is it the old-fashioned buildings? Or the quiet elderly couple at their rundown back alley shop that still helps reupholster our equally old couches? I don’t know! But people come from all over to capture and take in this fusion of old and new!

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Tiong Bahru

One of my favorite places in Singapore is Haji Lane. Known as the narrowest street in Singapore where hip meets culture, Haji Lane is touted as a must-see in every tourism guide book. Tucked in the center of Kampong Glam, Singapore’s Muslim quarter, this barely 300-meter-long street is lined with vintage shops, ice cream parlors, taco stands, coffee joints and even tattoo studios. And what started out as graffiti in the early days on sleepy Haji Lane evolved into some of the best street art you’ll see in Singapore.

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Stunning murals grace the walls and shopfronts in Haji Lane

My personal blog, fatsochef.com, revolves around the greatest pleasure of Singaporeans: eating! So it’s definitely on my agenda to talk a little about food here! Although we have a huge variety of local and international cuisines in Singapore, we are truly proud of our local fare.

Every Singaporean has his or her own idea of our national dish. For me, Hainanese Chicken Rice reigns! Singapore chefs adapted the dish from the early Chinese immigrants from Hainan province. Don’t ask me what was wrong with the original but we decided to tweak it to what it is today and it has become more Singapore than Hainan ever since! You will find chicken rice in every corner of Singapore – from neighborhood hawker centers, to five-star hotels and even on board Singapore Airlines! A serving could cost a mere SG$3 to a whooping SG$25, depending where you choose to dine!

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Hainanese chicken: fragrant jasmine rice cooked in aromatic chicken stock, served with freshly poached tender chicken

Think a whole chicken, gently poached to succulent tenderness, drizzled with sweet savory soy sauce and served with fragrant jasmine rice that’s been cooked in the broth from poaching the bird. It all seems rather simple but a good chicken rice hits you with its deep, aromatic flavor!

Of course there will be other claims on our national dish – from Char Kway Teow, to Laksa, to Nasi Lemak. Nonetheless, there’s no starting a food war with a bunch of food-loving people! In fact, when friends are visiting, the first thing we do is treat them to a Singaporean food fest. Believe me when I say they always enjoy it as much as we do!

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Laksa – Silky smooth rice noodles in a creamy spicy coconut broth, bean sprouts, prawns, fish cake, and if you’re adventurous, raw blood cockles!

 

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but never quite pursued it. Starting my food review blog was totally unplanned but it’s been really fulfilling, especially on days when I discover something delicious! In or outside Singapore, I love hunting down hidden gems… discovering a quiet beach, or a secret bar always makes my day! When I travel, I always eat what the local people eat. I love chatting to the locals, learning about their culture, their language, and their favorite places to eat and party. My other passion is skiing. Rare for someone that lives in the tropics! But yeah, every chance I get, I’m on the slopes. It’s probably something I’d like to do until I’m 100! But we’ll see about that!

Go here for a peek into my food adventures. Or share your thoughts on my IG, account. Better still, point me to YOUR favorite place to eat and I’ll be sure to put it on my list!

Singapore skyline, Marina bay and Merlion fountain view at dusk

Singapore skyline, Marina bay and Merlion fountain

Welcome to Bilbao!

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Hello and welcome to the second instalment in my “Welcome to…” travel section where I’m inviting friends to give us a little tour of their hometown or local area. This time we’re heading to the Basque Country with fellow teacher Onintze. Bidaia on! Bon voyage!

I’m from the Basque Country, which lies in northern Spain, on the French border. This fabled place is a land of diversity, where awesome mountains mix with picturesque coastal villages and lively cities still keep deep-rooted traditions. And to add to its charm you’ll find magical places, secret spots and cozy hideaways scattered here and there.

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My kids on Ogoño hill overlooking Laga Beach and the Bay of Biscay

Another important forte is its gastronomy; Basque food is known worldwide. If you’re a foodie person, this is your place. The Basque Country is home to some of the world’s best chefs, such as Pedro Subijana, Juan Maria Arzak, Martín Berasategi or the young Eneko Atxa. In actual fact, there are twenty-two restaurants with one or more Michelin stars. Basque cuisine is not only famous for its meats and fish grilled over hot coals, but also for its salt cod in many forms, such as kokotxas al Pil-Pil and salt cod omelet.  And thanks to the wealth of the land, all the ingredients used, such as vegetables and legumes, are top quality. So there’s always a tasty reason to visit the Basque Country!

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t warn you about the weather, which has been especially crazy in recent years. For example, we’ve just had a really mild and pleasant autumn with lovely sunny days and on the contrary, although it’s now May, there’s no trace of spring yet. Still, I can’t reproach the weather because rain makes this landscape green, astonishing and unique.

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Gorbea nature park

Before I talk about my hometown, let me tell you a little bit about our unique language, Basque, known also as Euskera or Euskara. It’s a language isolate. It doesn’t come from the Indo-European family. I find that rather enthralling. There are a few dialects and, believe it or not, these dialects can differ to such an extent that people from different regions can find it difficult to understand each other! That’s why we have a standardized Basque, created in the late 1960s, which is used in official business, media and education.

So now I’ve given you a little introduction to the Basque Country, come let me show you around my hometown, Bilbao. In truth, I live in a tiny village near Bilbao, but I’ve always considered myself a great defender of this amazing city. Being from a small town, Bilbao meant freedom when I started university, a place to have fun in my twenties and now it means a vibrant city where I feel alive, I feel at home.

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Bilbao, La Salve Bridge and the Guggenheim

Do you remember when color came to our TV screens? Maybe you’re too young so let me give you another example: Have you ever seen a caterpillar turning into a butterfly? That’s Bilbao. Once a dull grey city where iron, steel, and shipbuilding industries reigned, it has evolved into this colourful, culinary and arty hub. You can see this astounding metamorphosis with these pictures I took a few months ago.

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A glimpse of Bilbao’s metamorphosis

Bilbao can be every bit as charming and exciting as the big cities in Spain. It has so much to offer: architecture, food, urban culture, art, and music too – I really recommend you check out the BBK Live Festival, which takes place every July. Besides, everything’s compact so the visitor can cover most of it on foot in just a couple of days.

Bilbao’s big draw is of course the Guggenheim Museum. It’s no wonder this bulky, undulating, titanium boat put Bilbao on the map, it’s impressive! You can also enjoy walking around the museum or have a drink at the nearby bar, where if you’re lucky enough, you can take in some great live music.

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The Guggenheim Museum on the river Nervión

The Guggenheim is just the tip of the iceberg, though. I seriously recommend you get lost in the Casco Viejo, and walk around “las Siete Calles” (the Seven Streets). You’ll see the sun’s rays play hide and seek with the shops and corners; a place full of life where you can go shopping. It’s a pedestrian area and you’ll find not only clothing, shoe shops, fabric shops, wine shops but also some hundred-year-old establishments that sell traditional Basque berets and the famous salted cod. Nearby you can enjoy the huge transformation of the Ribera Market where life and work come together. It’s the perfect spot to gather strength and enjoy some of the city’s best pintxos. Here you can taste our gildas (white anchovy, olive and pickled pepper skewers), enjoy some soft boiled quail egg with black anchovy and Piquillo peppers, delight in some fried eggplant with honey and goat’s cheese and  savour our wood-fired chorizo with pickled carrots.

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Top: Bilbao’s Casco Viejo and the Ribera Market. Below, left to right: Alhóndiga Bilbao, Doña Casilda Park, the Jeff Koons “Tulips” sculpture at the Guggenheim

It’s not easy to focus on just one place, there are so many places worth visiting! Alhóndiga Bilbao will delight all architecture lovers with its forty-three columns of different styles and materials or perhaps you would like to take a stroll with the kids through Doña Casilda Park and feed the ducks or rest under the trees (there are around a thousand!). Head to Calles Pozas and Ledesma if you want to satisfy your curiosity about Basque food. Take a stroll by the river from the Town Hall to the Guggenheim Museum to recharge your batteries. Arriaga Theatre and Euskalduna Palace will make you feel alive with their performances. All in all, a perfect city for a long weekend where everything’s a stone’s throw away. Bilbao is like a small box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get but…you can have them all!

 

I quit my job in an office to follow my dream of becoming a teacher. I’m trying to make those little rascals love English as much as I do, I’m trying to instil my passion in them. I’m not alone though, my children are my allies, my guinea pigs and my reason to try harder. I love nature and the awesome landscapes of the Basque Country. My perfect day would require a book, a good run in the mountains and a movie with my kids.
You can find me on Twitter at @OnintzeP.

Onintze Bio Pic - Cropped

 

If you’ve still got the travel bug, check out Dan Feist’s “Welcome to La Crosse, Wisconsin”.

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to La Crosse, Wisconsin!

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Welcome to my new travel section “Welcome to…”!

I’m always harping on about the importance of reading when you’re learning English. And since travel is a subject dear to most people’s hearts, I thought it would be nice to have some travel essays on my blog for you to read.

So I’ll be inviting friends to show us around their hometown or local region. And first up is fellow teacher and Wisconsinite, Dan Feist. Happy reading!

“I grew up in America’s northern Midwest, in a small, but bubbling city nestled in the Mississippi River Valley. Because of its location on a narrow plain sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and limestone bluffs that rise 150 metres above my hometown, La Crosse is chock full of outdoor activities.

La Crosse - Bluff view

Bluff-top view over La Crosse

Local residents practically live outside in the warm and humid months of summer. We take every chance we can to get out on the river to go boating, sailing, waterskiing, fishing, or to just to sit back and enjoy the view and a cold brew.

And when we’re not on the river, we’re in the woods that cover the bluffs. We go hiking, mountain biking, or camping, or we just sit back and enjoy the view and a cold brew.

Our outdoorsy-ness slows down only a little bit during the brutally long and cold winters. Between early December and late March, we get out our skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, and hockey skates. You can actually find outdoor ice rinks in several public parks and private backyards!

In the fall, our deciduous forests turn both the bluffs and the riverside into an impressionist painting full of golds, oranges, and purples where fox, deer, raccoons and their friends run wild.

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Perhaps the most impressive part of our ecosystem is the birds. Not only is the area a regular stop for up to 40% of migratory waterfowl crossing the US, it’s also one of the best places to watch bald eagles in their natural habitat.

The city was founded in 1841 by a fur trader who set up a post on the river’s banks, and the town’s name comes from an instance when Native Americans were seen playing a sport similar to the French sport, la crosse (like field hockey, but the sticks have small baskets which are used to throw, catch and carry the ball).

Among the different tribes in the area, you would’ve found the Sioux and Winnebago (a.k.a. Ho-Chunk) nations. As kids, we often found Native American artifacts, like tools and arrowheads, while we were on our nature hikes.

Despite its French name, the city’s heritage is markedly German and Irish with a splash of Scandinavian and Polish. African Americans, Hispanics, and Hmong (an ethnic group from Laos who was partially forced into exile after the Vietnam War) have also left their fingerprint on the area.

A river city with German and Irish heritage? Yep, it’s time to talk about making beer.

When I was a child, my hometown boasted America’s 3rd largest brewery. While it’s still fermenting the good stuff, its biggest claim to fame now is its holding tanks, shaped like the world’s largest six-pack. Today, the real kings of brew are the microbreweries that supply local supermarkets and regional establishments, like the bars and restaurants in the old-fashioned brick buildings downtown.

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“The World’s Largest Six-Pack”. Circa 1990

Speaking of restaurants, let’s talk food. Wisconsin is the dairy state, famous for its outstanding cheese and beef, and also for its grilling culture. Practically any weather is barbeque weather for us, but we especially love to fire up the grill in the fall. The fresh corn, the bratwursts, the burgers, the wild game…I could go on for hours.

By the way, if you’re ever in a restaurant in the area, you have to try the cheese curds. These little balls of batter-fried “baby” cheese are to die for! With all the beer, beef and cheese, it’s a good thing we have a ton of outdoor stuff to do!

Looking back, I feel lucky as hell to have been raised in such a spectacular spot.”

Dan Backyard sunset

Sunset over the Mississippi from the backyard


Dan Feist is a communications coach, content creator, and comedian
who has been living in Madrid since 2002.  Apart from coaching CEOs from Ikea and Huawei, the Secretary of State of Economy and the Secretary General of R&D, among others, he’s been published by 20minutos and El País in collaboration with Cambridge University Press. Additionally, he’s made appearances in sketches on Late Motiv with Andreu Buenafuente. Go and follow his English learning account: @breakbadenglish, and his comedy accounts on FB, IG or Twitter, @freshlycomedy.

Dan Feist Photo