Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Original Spa

Spa: n. 1 A mineral spring or a place where such a spring is found. 2 A resort area having mineral springs.

If you ever wondered where the word spa came from, look no further than in Belgium. Spa is a small town in Wallonia, tucked in the rural surroundings of the Ardennes, in the province of Liege. Spa has held a prominent place in history, coining the term spa to name any resort place with mineral springs with healing properties and claiming to have had the first casino built in the world. Any other than that, Spa is a very quiet town with some elegant buildings, cosy brasseries and cafés, a couple of parks and green surroundings.

Before leaving the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago Boyfriend and I decided to drive to the town of Spa for a day. We wanted to give its historical spa a try and we knew that once we moved out of the Benelux, we would never consider a trip to Spa - even though we might eventually relocate to Belgium or the Netherlands again, you never know, but not in the next couple of years. Les Thermes de Spa is located on a small hill overlooking the city. You can drive and park there directly or get there via an elevator from the centre of the town. Photos looked fine in the website, prices were affordable and even Lonely Planet mentioned it on its guidebooks. However, Les Thermes de Spa was a big disappointment for both of us. There were only two big swimming pools, an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, a couple of bubble tubes and a sauna and hamman complex. Of course, there were also a restaurant, a lounging room and beauty treatments galore, but we didn't try those extras. Maybe we didn't explore the facilities enough or maybe we've been too spoilt in Switzerland's top class thermal baths, but whatever the reason we felt quite deceived by the simplicity of the complex which gave rise to the spa trend worldwide. At 20€ for three hours it didn't sound expensive, until we found out that there was not that much to do in three hours and for the first time we left the spa facilities before out time was over.

Besides the thermal baths, Spa is also renown as the home of one of the most prestigious Formula 1 circuits, Spa-Francochamps. Once a year and usually in August, Spa is flooded by car enthusiasts from all over the world who pay a small fortune to enjoy a two hours adrenaline rush. I also passed by the circuit to take a look and I cannot say I was impressed either. In a very Belgian state of things, the circuit seemed to be almost abandoned. There were no signs to reach the parkings and no directions at all on how to enter the part of the circuit open to visitors. We slipped through a half open fence and made our way among containers and a couple of construction workers. Eventually we found a tunnel for pedestrians and some arrows pointing us to the restaurant and gifts shop.

That was our day in Spa and actually the second time we had been there. A couple of years ago we had already stopped there to take a look at the town and we had been curious about Spa's spa ever since. Almost two years later we we went back to Spa and tried the spa and I can now tell you that it is probably a very overrated spa complex. I guess it can happen!

Do you also enjoy thermal baths when on holidays? Or treat yourselves from time to time? Any recommendation?
Have a lovely weekend!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Icons of the Netherlands: Windmills

Canals, polders, windmills, wooden clogs, tulips are some of the images most frequently associated with the Netherlands. All this sounded incredibly cliche to me while living in Maastricht, as tulips are mostly sold in supermarkets, wooden (or furry) clogs are only a tacky souvenir and canals, polders and windmills are nowhere to be seen. However, a train ride to the randstad, the northwestern conurbation including Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht among other dutch cities, would bring all these stereotypes alive. Last July, just before leaving the Netherlands, I discovered one of the prettiest parts of the country between Utrecht and Leiden. The train rides along flat lands made of hundreds of polders and every now and then an old windmill will appear on the side, each of them with its own personality and draining water in the same way the have done for centuries.

When I was in Leiden I visited an old windmill that is open to visitors as a museum. Molen de Valk dates from the 18th century and is lies where the old city walls used to be. Inside you can learn - or guess - how life in a windmill used to be and also get superb views of Leiden. De Valk has seven  floors and is made of stone with a wooden interior. The lower floors used to be the miller's home while the medium floors served as storage room and the upper floors contain the whole machinery that made the mill work. Nowadays, the ground floor depicts a living room and a kitchen in the same way they used to be a couple of centuries ago. The first floor has a basic media room playing a film about the history and importance of windmills in the Netherlands. The second floor shows dozens of objects related to the daily life in the mill while the third floor has several scale models of historical Dutch mills.  From the fourth floor it is possible to go outside to take a closer look at the sails, get some fresh air or view the city from above. The next floors house the whole mechanism of the mill and from the third floor onwards the wooden stairs are so steep that they're almost vertical. Going upstairs is manageable but going downstairs is not as easy as it seems.

Molen de Valk was a rather interesting sight and a quite affordable one, especially for Dutch standards (entrance fee was 4€ for adults). It was only a pity that it was cloudy and that the views from the terrace weren't as good as they would have been on a sunny day.

Have you ever been inside a mill? Do you enjoy cultural sights?
Have a lovely week!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Scared of flying? So am I but I got some advice

I have a confession to make: I'm scared of flying. Read TERRIBLY scared of flying, which doesn't come very handy when you come from a small island at least a two hour flight away from continental Europe. The first time I boarded on a plane I was barely two months old and I really used to enjoy flying when I was a child. I even have fond memories of the tasteless meals I was served on planes. But as grew up so did my flying phobia and the moment the airplane close its doors I start getting anxious, almost panicking. People usually tell me in a very casual way that flying is safe, the safest mode of transportation actually, but that doesn't help. Fear is something irrational and as much as people might try to explain you the reasons and facts why you shouldn't be afraid, the fear monster won't let them sink in and you'll remain as scared as you were before. Unless you come up with a few reasons yourself to conquer your fears. Being afraid to fly has never prevented me from flying and over the years I've developed my own strategy to relax while on a plane. Most of the time I'm fine and sometimes I even enjoy myself up in the air as I did when I was a careless seven year old girl. Until there's the slightest movement, that's it. Then I find myself gripped to my seat, clenching my teeth and on the verge of crying. But as I said, most of the time I'm fine. So if you need some advice to help you enjoy the terrifying experience of flying, take it from me.

Sleep, sleep, sleep: this is probably the most simple tip I could give you but it works wonders ... if you're the kind of person who can sleep no matter where or when. I usually manage to sleep at least a couple of hours on a plane. If it is an early flight I simply close my eyes as soon as I sit down and it doesn't take me a long time to slip into slumberland. Otherwise, I turn on my iPod mid-flight, plug in my earphones and let the music lullaby me.

Read, read, read: even if you manage to sleep a couple of hours, that won't usually cover a long-haul flight - not even a five hours flight - so having something to read will always take your mind away from any worries you might have. I always buy some magazine, light to carry and packed with images, as I rather flick through the pages and get some fashion inspiration than diving into the pages of some dense read. Also, I usually carry a destination guide with me to read a bit about the place I'm going, even if I've been there before.

Visualize the happy ending: especially during the take-off I tend to close my eyes and picture the airplane landing safely. I also think of all the fun things I'll do during my holidays or when back at home and try to anticipate the joy. I see myself swimming in the ocean, giving hugs and enjoying the food I haven't tasted for a while. And as I usually have a travel guide, I read it during the flight and make a mental list of all the places I'd like to visit and try to imagine them.

Learn how aircrafts work: I was once sat beside a guy who was passionate about aircrafts and aviation. He had taken many courses on aircrafts dynamics and how motors and turbines work (all that technical stuff, you know) and he was more than chatty so he didn't stop talking for five hours. He would explain  every sound or movement the plane did and while that made me nervous at first, I've eventually realized that knowing what's going on around me helps to control my anxiety. Now I listen and know that the plane is still speeding off to get to a higher altitude or braking to maintain its speed when up above.

Realize that it isn't called an accident for nothing: seldom, an unfortunate event that wasn't bound to happen occurs, though most of the time it doesn't. Or as the mathematical geek in me would say, landing safe is an event with probability one - which means that it will ALWAYS happen - though some time it might not happen because of the Law of Big Numbers. Whichever way you shape it, what it all means is that flying is safe, and statistically proven to be the safest mean of transportation. But wait, isn't that what everyone says? Yes, but while someone's empty line might not help, you can always find the right words for you and rephrase them in a way that will work for you. Then make it your mantra and repeat it as you fly safely.

I hope all this advice helps. I just got to Tenerife a couple of days ago and the first thing I did in the evening was going for a swim. And it felt so good!
Do you love or loathe flying? Any advice to make flying a more enjoyable experience?
Safe flights and happy travels!
Have a lovely Thursday!

Monday, August 19, 2013

My camera upgrade

Two years ago I took a photography course and I used to borrowed my dad's DSLR camera for the practice sessions. Even though most my first photos were totally blank because I wasn't able to choose the right combination of shutter speed and aperture, I had so much fun and I quickly fell in love with that beauty. But my joy was soon to be over, as I left Tenerife barely a month after the course and I was left with my plain point-and-shoot digital camera. I found it hard to go back to my old camera and to take simple pictures without the possibility to control the speed, the light or anything that would give me some control over the creative process. I wasted a couple of weeks in Switzerland and a great month in the Netherlands during which I didn't take almost any photos. I blamed it on the weather, but truth is I was kind of heartbroken and I knew that my photography wouldn't get any better, as I would forget most of what I had learnt in the previous months.

Now, two years laters and after months of saving and weeks researching the market and asking friends and family I'm finally the owner of my very own DSLR camera. I first planned to buy it while still on the Netherlands but warranty issues delayed my purchase and this weekend I went for it - and mind you, I even managed to save enough for a camera bag as it was cheaper here in Switzerland thanks to the Swiss franc being so strong right now!

I bought a DSLR Nikon, which I even feel that it's too much for me at the moment. But after having read quite a lot and gathered more than enough opinions I thought it'd be better to get something as good as I could afford than saving now and be willing to change again in a couple of years. Besides, as the one I got  might be out of the market any time soon, prices were quite low and the difference with low range DSLR was not that big actually, so it was probably the time to make this investment.

Anyways, that don't mean that I will stop using my trusted and beloved point-and-shoot. In fact it is the only camera I'm taking with me tomorrow for my two weeks holiday in Tenerife (I can always borrow my dad's camera there to practice). Point-and-shoot cameras are a lot more handy as you can slip them in your bag without much care and are the right thing for a night out with friends - at least for a clumsy me! And don't believe me when I said that photography skills don't get any better with them, there's still a lot to be learnt with a plain point-and-shoot camera. Most of the photos I've published in Away from Tenerife were taking my digital compact Fujifilm and I'd like to think that in the past two years I've improved a bit, specially when it comes to composition, and I've also tried to make the best use of natural light. And if you want some ideas to improve your photography skills with a basic camera, like the Fuji I have, here are some ideas from some talented ladies who take amazing photos.

Hope you enjoy these reads and let me know if you have some further advice or interesting posts.
Have a lovely week!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Baseldütsch: A Brief Introduction

"Irene, wi göhn assen", told me a couple of the days ago the lovely three years old niece of my boyfriend. Whenever she or her brothers talk to me in German I automatically tell them that I don't understand so that they feel somehow obligued to speak Spanish at home. "Irene, wi göhn assen", she repeated. I usually can guess what they mean when they blurt something in the German dialect spoken on this area but this time I was literally lost for words. "I really don't understand," I insisted, "you have to tell me in Spanish." And by the third time she realised that I wasn't following at all and then she said that we were going to eat. Oh, wir gehen essen, I thought. How could I have not guessed?

German is one of the four official languages of Switzerland and is actually the most widely spoken with French, Italian and Romansh way far behind German. However, it must be noted that Swiss people do not really speak German but Schwitzerdütsch or Swiss German, which is a collection of dialects that too often are not mutually intelligible with standard German. I studied German for five years and I'm able to understand more or less everything when in Germany but Switzerland is a very different story. Here I can only understand what's being told if I know what it is about, otherwise I usually find it very difficult to follow a conversation. And I'm not the only one, I've even heard Germans complain after their holidays in Switzerland that they had real difficulties to understand Swiss German, especially in rural areas where some people do not even speak standard German properly. Every canton has its own caracteristic dialect and Swiss people can usually tell where someone comes from just from hearing his or her speech intonation and pronunciation. Swiss people really pride themselves on their language and strongly regard it as a unique identity feature of their culture.

Should you ever find yourself in Switzerland  and not able to get a word despite having learnt some German before, here's a brief guide for beginners of Baseldütsch, the dialect spoken in the region of Basel. The dialect might differ from other regions' dialects but you can't go wrong with this basic expressions. You can find in brackets the correspondent expression in standard German and then the translation to English.

Grüezi! (Hallo!) - Hello!
Wie göht's? (Wie geht's?) - How are you?
Gueti, merci (Gut, danke) - Fine, thank you.
Merci vielmal (Danke schön) - Thank you very much.
Adeu (Tchüss) - Bye.
Ein guete (guten Appetit) - Enjoy your meal.

I apologize beforehand for any possible misspelling. I haven't had any formal training in Baseldütsch and I'm not planning to in the near future. Hopefully I'll be able to pick up more words from my everyday conversations. But what I do plan is to polish my basic Russian skills. I've already enrolled in a Russian course starting in September, so maybe in a year I'll be able to finally put more than three words together in Russian!

Ever faced the inconvenience of language barriers? Do you also enjoy learning foreign languages?
Have a lovely Wednesday!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lounging by the Rhine

Sunday morning and the sun is shining brightly. The sky is bluer than blue, almost cyan blue, and some clouds roll fast from time to time. It is nicely warm and many people are already outside enjoying the nice weather. Summer days in Basel are something glorious! With temperatures around 30ºC most days in July and August, it is definitely the time to stay out late and make the most of the long days filled with sunlight. Some spend their days in the park and even barbaque there in the evenings, some take their bikes out for a ride, others sip a chill drink at a terrace and some others sit by the Rhine to soak up some sunrays or even dare to take a swim in the fast-flowing waters of the river.

Ah, the Rhine, probably my favourite place in town! The Rhine divides Basel in two parts, Grossbasel and Kleinbasel, and Basel is the only Swiss city lying at both sides of the river, as for the rest of the country the Rhine marks the natural border with Germany. Ever since I visited Basel for the first time three years ago I have been fascinated by the Rhine. I absolutely enjoy my walks to the Rhine even if it's just to take a look at its water, sometimes blue, sometimes brownish and some days even emerald green. Any stroll along the promenade will let go of all my sorrows, sitting on the banks of the Rhine reading a book will make me forget any worries I might have and having a cold freshmade ice-tea at any of the terraces around will refresh even the hottest days. The Rhine comes alive during the summer. Everyday people go for a swim in the part of the river where it is allowed, the banks are crowded day and night and a special boat carries passengers, mostly tourists, from one side to the other (I don't know how much a trip costs). Special events and live concerts are also organized at the Rhine, there was once a representation of Aida, the famous opera by Verdi, on a platform on the river.

I really like spending some time by the Rhine during the weekends and this weekend the weather was simply amazing here in Basel. I lounged around both Saturday and Sunday and had fun taking some photos and listening so some music on Saturday, as this weekend was the Open Air Basel (in German), a small festival that brings together lesser known bands to play on the Rhine. Here are some photos of this past gorgeous weekend!

Did you have a good weekend? What were you up to?
Have a lovely week!

Friday, August 9, 2013

... Hello, Basel!

Basel, my new home. Somehow so similar to Maastricht and yet so different. Both are small cities right at the heart of Europe. Both Basel and Maastricht lie at the border of Switzerland and the Netherlands respectively and have a cosmopolitan feel to them. Basel and Maastricht are actually quite close, around 600 Km from one to another, and yet they're so far from each other. Maastricht was a quiet, charming town where people enjoyed a relaxed existence while Basel, with only 50000 inhabitants more, looks like a proper city with people running busy from home to work and from cafés to home. Traffic lights are not a rarity in Basel, cars drive all throughout the city and there are even trams, quite a lot of trams, and buses as well. There are supermarkets in almost every corner and museums abound. Cultural activities seem to have a very important place in Basel as hundreds of posters announce dozens of upcoming concerts and exhibitions and there are at least a handful of multi-screen cinemas. People, especially youngsters, do not seem afraid to let their personality shine through their clothes. Everyone wears whaterever they feel like, from sexy to laid-back and preferably with some Louis Vuitton or Longchamp candy in their arms. Even if some go really OTT or totally underdressed it's kind of refreshing to see so much individuality, unlike in Maastricht where almost everyone seemed to wear the same style of clothes, always on the safe side. Luckily for me, some of the things I most appreciated from my life in Maastricht stay the same in Basel. People might work a bit more here but they still enjoy their life the best they can. As soon as the sun begins to shine everyone rushes outside to pack a place in some terrace. Or even better, they go for a swim in the Rhine. Locals also know how to relax and sport regularly or indulge in art treats and delicious dining outside. And the food is sooo tasty - and I'll really have to keep an eye on my diet.

Last week was a weird one. I arrived in Basel last Saturday and even though I'm more than happy to be here I'm finding it quite hard to settle in. I think my clothes won't leave my suitcase for a while, probably until Boyfriend and I find THE apartment to move in together, and now I'm really stressing about my job-hunting. But at the same time, I'm really in the mood for holidays and I know that I won't be doing any effective search until I come back from holidays in September. So, until then, I'll try my best to enjoy Basel, even if I'm spending this weekend alone. Here are some photos I've taken during this first week back in Basel.

Thank you all for your lovely and encouraging comments in all my recent posts. They mean a lot to me and lift my spirits when I'm feeling a pale shade of blue. And it always makes me happy to know that you enjoy dropping by Away from Tenerife.
Have a fabulous weekend!!!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bye bye, Maastricht ...

Bye, bye, Maastricht,
het was gezellig en ik zal je missen
maar het wordt al tijd voor een nieuw avontuur *

It seems only yesterday that I arrived to Maastricht and now my time there is definitely over. Two years ago and with only a couple of suitcases in the car Boyfriend and I drove nervously to Maastricht. We were moving together to a foreign country and we had little idea of what to expect, even though we both had already lived abroad. We soon realised that we had nothing to worry about and started to enjoy our time in this new home to us. After two wonderful years filled with hundreds of happy moments leaving Maastricht has been a hard thing to do. Goodbye became a bittersweet word and I was almost grieving when driving away. I even shed a tear or two but as soon as Maastricht was fading in the distance I was back to my usual happy self. I will miss Maastricht but I truly believe that we'll be back someday, even if it's just for a holiday. In the meantime I'll try my best not to forget too much of the Dutch language and I'll treasure all the happy memories I've made in Maastricht.

I will never forget the delicious brunchs at Coffelovers or the lovely sunny days laying on the grass. I know that sipping ice-tea outside will never compare to the many afternoons spent on the many charming terraces on the cobbled streets and squares of Maastricht with a glass of sparkling ice-tea - yep, you read well, sparkling ice-tea, something I've only found in Belgium and the Netherlands so far. 

I will always miss my cosy studio with its three big windows which flooded my days with light from dawn till dusk. And I'll always have a place in my heart for all the nice people and lovely friends who made my life in Maastricht so enjoyable and filled my arms with so many unexpected presents before leaving. I was speechless and deeply touched.

That was all for now!
* Bye, bye, Maastricht
It was a lovely time and I'll miss you
But it is already time for a new adventure.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

August 2013: Switzerland Inspiration

Every first of August Switzerland celebrates its national day. I have never been there on that dat yet so I cannot tell you much you about it - actually I cannot say anything at all. But as I'm moving there in just two days maybe next year I'll have some interesting stories to tell about the way the Swiss folk display their national pride. In the meantime, I've decided to put some Switzerland-inspired videos together that probably sum up Switzerland's most cliche images.

Heidi! That tender orphan who moves to the Swiss mountains with her grandfather and enjoys a serene existence in the Alps with her grumpy grandpa, her friend Peter and the many animals that live with them until she´s taken away to the city to receive an education and befriend Clara. I never really liked that cartoon series as I always found Heidi to be a dull girl. Based in one of the most successfull Swiss novels of all times, this is the opening of the cartoon series, in German to make it sound a bit more genuine.

The Big Bang Theory, a big favourite of mine. Valentine's Day is drawing nearer and as Leonard is given the chance to visit the CERN facilities and the large hadron collider in Geneve he decides it's about time to spend the first loved-up valentine's of his life. He asks Penny to join him on a romantic trip to Switzerland but Sheldon will not make things easy for the couple.

Switzerland and its infamous banks. Many blockbusters have been partially located in Switzerland, including several Bond films, Angels and Demons (again at the CERN facilities) or The Bourne Identity. It might disappoint you to know that the sleek Swiss bank agent Jason Bourne visits doesn't exist in reality and the scenes in Zurich were not even filmed in Switzerland but in the Czech Republic. But Matt Damon is still in it, anyways!

The next video is a short ad by Switzerland's official tourism board. Every now and then they come with really funny videos to promote their small country outside their borders. This is one of those videos and eveytime I watch it I wish I was holidaying anywhere in Switzerland.

Finally, a tv ad from one of Switzerland's main supermarket retailers. When I was living in Switzerland a couple of years ago this would ad was always on tv and it always put a mile on my face. So sweet!

Enough with videos for a while. It is already August and I can't hardly believe how far this year is rushing toward the next one. I can't believe either that my time in the Netherlands has finally come to an end. August will be a very busy month as I'm driving in two days to Basel with Boyfriend. And by the end of the month I'm flying to Tenerife to visit my family. Two and half weeks of holidays, bring it on! I'll try to make myself feel as much at home as possible in Switzerland in the upcoming weeks but I'm afraid that I won't be fully settled until later this year. Still, this is a move I'm really looking forward to!

My 365 project is still very much alive and I'm excited about chaging locations and adding some novelty to my photos. Last month wasn't a particulary easy one as at some point my camera decided to stop functioning. And not at any point but the day before going to Amsterdam and  right the moment I sat down in a lovely Indonesian restaurant with some friends and I wanted to take some pictures of the exotic parasols hanging from the ceiling and colourful mats on the table. A week later my camera came back from its impromptu holidays but I'm finding it hard to forgive that. This is my favourite photo of July, a lovely vintage shop I came across one day in Maastricht. It is called Retro & Chic and was full of pretty dresses, classic shoes and eye-catching scarves with French chançons playing softly in the background. Really delightful! You can check my whole month here.

Have an inspiring August!
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