Surprise Trip to Belgium

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday – I only found out I was going to Belgium when I was already at the airport! I revisited cities like Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent and visited Leuven for the first time. Best gift ever!

 

Brussels

Interesting facts about the city:

Belgians do not share one common language. In fact, there are three official languages in Belgium. In Brussels, people mostly speak French, but all public signs and documents are in French and Flemish Dutch. The third language is German.

The city is home to 40,000 EU employees, 4,000 NATO employees and hosts about 300 permanent representations: lobby groups, embassies and press corporations.

Opened in 1847, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels are the oldest shopping arcades in Europe. Today the Galeries remain one of the most visited spots in the city, where one can find beautiful stores like Meert and Tropismes Libraires.

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday and I didn’t know where we were traveling to – I only found out the surprise destination was Belgium on the departure day, already at the airport!

We flew to Brussels Charleroi, which is located in the south of Brussels and it’s not the main airport. Since we arrived at night and our idea was to go straight to Bruges the following day, we stayed close to the airport, at the Hotel Ibis Charleroi Airport.

After coming back from Bruges, we stayed for the last two nights at the Marivaux Hotel, which was much better! It is very well located, I recommend it.

On Saturday night, after coming back from Bruges and Ghent, we went out for some beers and explored Brussels nightlife. Famous bars like the Delirium Bar are overrated in my opinion, as they are always too crowded and noisy. We just bought some beers at a mini market and some waffles on the street and walked randomly around the city, visiting famous places like the Grand Place, Manneken Pis (the famous peeing boy) and Jeanneke Pis (the peeing girl).

On Sunday the weather was terrible because there was a storm passing through Europe. It was super windy and rainy. We ate brunch at Le Pain Quotidien. This is a sweet, nice place where one can enjoy coffee and bakery goods. To be honest I didn’t like what I ate that much. Alejandro ate a salmon and avocado sandwich which was really good though. I liked the fact that they seemed to be ‘bio’ conscious in everything they do.

Then we spent that entire day with our friends, Florian and Kostas. They used to live in Malta as well, and last year they moved to Brussels. It was so nice seeing them again! It’s nice to see that even though some time has passed, the friendship stays the same 🙂

The four of us went for a walk around the city and stopped at Mont des Arts, amongst other famous touristic spots.

We had lunch at a food court called WOLF Food Market. I really liked this place, especially on a rainy day! Taking its name from the street, the Wolf complex provides space for 17 different restaurants to dispense their gastronomic wares to the public in a magnificent hall that used to be the public banking hall.

One can have anything from anywhere – Asian, Syrian, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese and more. I ate a very good pizza from the Italian place and the guys ate at the Syrian place. Flo and Kostas didn’t have any problems with the food, but Alejandro had to wait a long time for his, despite the fact that he was the first one to order! That was not cool, so I do not recommend the Syrian place.

After eating, we all went for a couple of beers at Bar des Amis, close to our hotel. This pub had a great atmosphere and decor. The music selection was also great!

On our last day in Brussels, we had lunch at Beat. I ate a mushroom toast that was divine and Alejandro ate a burger that looked like a waffle. Very nice!

After lunch, we headed up to the Charleroi airport to catch our flight back to Malta. We had to pay 17 euros for a shuttle bus from Flibco, but if you reserve your tickets online in advance they are cheaper – around 14 euros.


 

Bruges

Interesting facts about the city:

Thanks to its large number of canals and bridges (more than 80) Bruges is often referred to as Venice of the North and was considered one of the major commercial centres of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The city is known for its exquisitely beautiful lace products. Bruges makes some of the most luxurious lace pieces in the world.

There are more castles per square inch than any other country in the world. About 50 of the 470 castles in the Flanders region are based around Bruges.

The famous pop singer Gotye, the author of the hit song Somebody That I Used to Known, was born in Bruges. This is also the city where the movie In Bruges was shot. The main roles were played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes.

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As I mentioned before, we landed on a Thursday at night and decided to take our first full day to visit Bruges. So we took a train from Brussels to Bruges on Friday, which takes approximately 1 hour and costs around 15 euros each way.

I had visited Bruges before, back in 2014, and it has been my favorite city in Europe ever since! It’s very charming and beautiful, with its well preserved medieval architecture. When you’re in Bruges, you feel like you’re in a true fairy tale. I’m glad I got the chance to introduce Alejandro to this beautiful place.

We stayed one night at the Hotel Ibis Brugge Centrum. This Ibis was way better than the one in Brussels. It was very well located and I really recommend it.

We started by visiting the Burg, the main square of the city, where the Town Hall and the Belfort are located. The Belfort was erected in the 12th century and has been rebuilt several times due to fires. During the past four centuries, the 83-meter-high belfry lurched to the left by as much as one meter. To reach the top, you’ll have to climb 366 steps, but we decided not to do it.

I don’t remember seeing the Halve Maan (the half-moon) brewery last time, but this time it really caught my eye! This place has built a pipeline from its Bruges brewery to its bottling plant 3 kilometers away. The brewery was facing criticism as beer lorries struggled to get down the narrow streets to transport the beer. There were suggestions that the brewery should move out of its central Bruges home. However, they were there since 1564 and up until very recently, it was the only brewery left inside the city walls.

The current owner didn’t want to lose that historical connection with the city and came up with a unique solution – a pipeline! Completed in late 2016, it takes forty minutes for the beer to make the journey along the pipeline, which cost 4 million euros to build. Really interesting story!

We continued our walk around the city and visited the Basilica of the Sacred Blood. This church is famous for having a venerated relic of the Holy Blood of Christ. Last time I didn’t enter, but this time we paid two euros to see the relic. After that, we walked all the way to Jan Van Eyck Square.

Another place I loved seeing again was Rozenhoedkaai, a part of the main canal with amazing views of the city. I think this must be the single most photographed place in Bruges! Next to this place, we discovered a really cool shop with Belgian products and comic strips merchandising and a cool bar, with a wall full of beer bottles, called 2be Beer Wall.

Another touristic spot I revisited with Alejandro was the Beginhof. This corner of Bruges is out of bounds to men after 6.30pm. In the 13th century, groups of women – often those who had been widowed by war – founded these places around Belgium. These were enclosed communities designed to meet the spiritual and material needs of these women. Today a group of nuns lives in some of the houses, while other houses offer social housing for women who are by themselves.

I didn’t want to leave Bruges without visiting my single favorite place there – the Bonifacius Bridge. This bridge is kind of hidden, but we managed to find it. It is right next to the Church of our Lady – that one is hard to miss, with its huge tower.

After visiting the entire city we were extremely tired, so we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. We were getting really hungry, but it was so cold outside that we were feeling lazy to go out. We ended up walking to a restaurant located close by and ate a seaweed pizza at La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant.

The following day we had breakfast at That’s Toast, before catching a train to visit Ghent. This place was AMAZING! I give it 5 stars and really recommend you go there for breakfast if you have a chance to visit the city!

There was a huge queue when we got there, so the place must be kind of famous already. Amazing food, nice staff, cool branding. Loved it! After that, we headed to the train station and said goodbye to Bruges.


 

Ghent

Interesting facts about the city:

Back in the 11th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Northern Europe after Paris, with its growth driven by its leadership in cloth production and trading.

Ghent promotes a meat-free day every Thursday called Donderdag Veggiedag. Vegetarian food is promoted everywhere and Ghent is said to have the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.

Ghent’s medieval architecture remains well preserved and cars are banned in the city center, which is Belgium’s largest carfree area. The streets are filled with people biking. Much like it’s neighbor, the Netherlands, everyone has their own bike and most short-distanced trips are done with it.

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After visiting Bruges, it was time to visit another beautiful Belgian city – Ghent. I had also visited Ghent before, back in 2016, on my own. I remember it was the first and only time I traveled alone. I had forgotten how amazing and lively the city is!

We took the tram from the train station to the city center and did the same walk as I did last time. This time we paid to climb to the top of Belfry of Ghent, the huge clock tower. The 91-meter-tall belfry is one of three medieval towers that overlook the old city center – the other two belonging to Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church, two other places we also visited. The belfry of Ghent is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

We went to Korenmarkt, crossed the bridge Vleeshuisbrug and walked all the way to the Gravensteen Castle or the Castle of the Counts, which is a medieval castle situated in the middle Ghent. While the top of the castle offers superb views of the city, the inside today houses a torture museum. We didn’t pay to go inside the castle though.

There is also a special graffiti street that I missed last time. It is called Werrengarestraat and it is a legal graffiti street. It’s full of great art which means that the wall paintings change a lot.

Lastly, we went to my favorite place in Ghent, called Korenlei. From there you have the most amazing view to a canal with several beautiful medieval buildings and to Saint Michael’s Church. The views from there, especially from the bridge Sint-Michielsbrug, are just breathtaking!


 

Leuven

Interesting facts about the city:

Leuven hosts Belgium’s biggest university – Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and it is Belgium’s #1 student town: 1 out of 4 citizens are students.

Leuven is home of the world’s largest brewery group, Anheuser-Busch In-Bev. Their portfolio includes Stelle Artois, Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s, Hoegaarden and Leffe.

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On our last day, despite the fact that the weather was still not amazing, we decided to take a train to visit Leuven. This was my first time there.

Leuven is located very close to Brussels – around 30 minutes by train – and it houses the oldest university of the Benelux. Having the highest student density of Belgium (1 out of 4 inhabitants), it can’t be a coincidence that Leuven calls itself the ultimate beer city. Leuven’s soul is young, hip and vibrant.

We walked from the train station all the way to the Town Hall (Stadhuis). Built in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, it is Leuven’s most impressive building by far. Whilst the city suffered heavily from both world wars, the town hall survived. During WWII, an Allied bomb barely hit the façade.

In front of the Town Hall and also in the city’s Grote Markt, is the amazing Saint Peter’s Church. Built mainly in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style, the church has a cruciform floor plan and a low bell tower that has never been completed. It is 93 meters long.

The Academic Library is another gem in the city. Actually, it’s not that old, because it was destroyed and rebuilt twice. But Belgium wasn’t Belgium if they wouldn’t rebuild the masterpiece in the same authentic way.

In Leuven, one can also enjoy the longest bar in the world. At least that’s what Belgians call the Oude Markt (Old Market). It’s a market place where almost every building is a bar; You will find at least 37 bars, and each bar has something unique to offer. Leuven will keep you busy at night.

On our way back to the train station we walk along a shopping street named Diestsestraat. Once we were back in Brussels, we went back to our hotel to get our stuff and then we went to Charleroi Aiport to catch our flight back to Malta. I loved this extended weekend! Since Monday was a public holiday in Malta, with only 1 day off, we managed to stay there from Thursday evening till Monday evening.

This was the best birthday surprise ever, and the best gift someone could ever offer me! I love traveling, and it was amazing feeling the thrill of not knowing where I was going to till I was about the get on the plane. Thanks for the surprise feito – I LOVE YOU ❤

Alone in Switzerland

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This year my mom had some health issues and I had an unplanned trip to Portugal. Since it was not booked in advance, the best option for the return flight was to have a connection flight from Geneva, Switzerland. Last time I was there it was in 2011, to visit my sister. This day-trip definitely brought some memories back!

 

GENEVA

Interesting facts about Geneva:

Geneva’s English Garden has the world’s largest Flower Clock. Its face is five meters in diameter, and consists of 6,500 live flowers that grow and bloom at different times, making the clock periodically change in color.

Geneva is the birthplace of Internet as we know it today. The World Wide Web was created in a laboratory in the city. Today millions around the world log on to this innovation to get the latest information, news, trends and keep up with their contacts via social media.

With Switzerland being politically neutral, it is no wonder that Geneva is home to the headquarters of the European branch of the United Nations, the European branch of the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization. It is also the place where the Geneva Conventions were signed.

With 40% of its residents coming from outside of Switzerland, Geneva is the most international city in the world.

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This year I had to fly to Portugal to check on my mom and had to book a connection flight with a layover of 8h in Geneva, Switzerland. I thought this could be a nice opportunity to see my sister who lives there, as we haven’t seen each other since I moved to Malta. However, she was in France that weekend so we couldn’t meet.

The last time I was in Geneva it was in 2011. I was a kid. I remember that I went with my mom to visit her, right after our father passed away. However, last time my sister was working the whole time and we didn’t have a lot of time to see the city properly. This time I did, and it was nice wandering around the city alone. The city looked more bright, as now it was sunny and warm and last time I went it was cold and snowy.

There is never a shortage of things to do in Geneva as the city has a history that dates back more than four thousand years. There are monuments, many museums and dazzling architecture to take in, not to mention the many gardens and botanic sites throughout the green city where nature walks and marvelous views abound.

As the second largest city in the country situated on the banks of Lac Léman, Geneva is home to many cultural, historical and natural attractions while also being the hub of banking, technology and tourism.

 

The famous Lac Léman claims the distinction of being the largest lake in Europe. This lake brings the drama and awe-inspiring natural splendour of the Alps to the centre of the city. The lake’s beauty has affected the design of the city itself, as a promenade was built around the shore in the mid-19th century. Next to the water are tree-lined promenades with palatial townhouses or serene parks.

In this lake you can find the Jet d’Eau, which is one of the world’s tallest water fountains. The Jet d’Eau is five hundred litres of water per second propelled to a height of 140 metres. This water fountain has become one of the best known symbols and landmarks of Switzerland.

 

If you do want to get a closer look, take care as the plume is susceptible to the wind and you may get wet. The jet has been at its present spot since 1951, and originally had an important practical use: It started in 1886 as a safety valve for the hydraulic power plant, and became a permanent monument as the city loved the way it looked.

Close to the water jet, you see a big bridge. The locals of Geneva consider the Mont Blanc Bridge, stretching over the River Rhône and Lake Geneva, to be of symbolic value. There are 27 flags of Switzerland’s regions, symbolizing the country’s unity.

 

After resting next to the water for a bit, I started climbing to visit the old part of the city – Vielle Ville. The Vielle Ville twists around a hill capped by a cathedral and was once enveloped by defensive walls. Getting around on these steep cobblestone streets and stairways is tiring but worthwhile: The old centre is densely packed with intriguing little corners, fountains, terraces with lookouts, as well as places of real historic value.

 

There I visited the Cathedrale de St-Pierre. This famous cathedral is best known for its historic significance as the church where John Calvin gave his inspiring sermons during the mid-16th century.

 

One of the oldest architectural structures in Geneva – the Tavel House – has also been attracting curious travelers from around the world for over nine centuries. Today, it hosts a history museum with expositions that reflect the local people’s everyday lives from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

After visiting the shops close to the Vielle Ville, I walked back to the lake shore and visited the Flower Clock, located in the English Gardens. This was first built in 1955 and is an ode to the watch industry, of which Geneva sets the standard.

 

The centerpiece of these gardens is the fountain, cast at a foundry in Val d’Osne in France in 1862. The park’s curving paths radiate off this monument, out to the promenade where you can get a photo of the Jet d’Eau and contemplate the lake.

After all the walking, it was time for me to head back to the airport and wait for my final flight back to Malta. It was nice to see the city again and to have some time to wander and be alone.

Portuguese in Luxembourg

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This year Alejandro and I decided to visit Luxembourg. This country has fascinated us ever since we watched an episode of Madrilenos por el Mundo in Luxembourg and saw how well people live there and how beautiful this small country is. Luxembourg also has a huge Portuguese community and I truly felt at home there!

 

LUXEMBOURG

Interesting facts about Luxembourg:

Luxembourg is the only Grand Duchy in the world. Which means they have a Grand-Duke and Grand-Duchess, instead of a King and Queen.

Foreigners account for nearly half of Luxembourg’s population. Portuguese represent 16% of the total population and make up the biggest group of the foreigns.

Luxembourg is the richest country in the world, according to the projections for GDP per capita for 2019. Luxembourg has the highest minimum wage in the EU: 2,071 EUR per month.

Nearly half of Luxembourg’s workforce commutes to work in Luxembourg from another country. Most non-Luxembourg nationals traveling across the border are French, Belgians and Germans.

Luxembourg is home to many stunning castles. Several castles have been preserved and restored, and are very much worth visiting.

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We’d been meaning to visit Luxembourg for quite some time, as it always felt to us like a fascinating little place in the middle of Europe where we could even see ourselves living in a few years time. This year Ryanair opened a direct new route from Malta and we saw it as a sign and decided to book a trip right away.

We stayed at Melia Luxembourg for three nights and paid a total of 310 euros. The room was very comfortable and it was at a walking distance from the historical city centre. There was also a free gym and sauna.

Next our hotel there was a big park and an old fort with a lovely view. One thing we loved about Luxembourg is the amount of green and nature you see everywhere. Even in the city centre, next to monuments, you can find always a park or a small forest.

We explored the narrow cute street on our way to the city centre and took a lift to go up, as Luxembourg is surrounded by valleys and stands tall on top of a hill. The views from the lift were breathtaking as well.

Once we got up there, we started by visiting the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter in Luxembourg is the perfect place to kick off a trip to this delightful country and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The center was surrounded by graceful ancient fortifications that once were known as the Gibraltar of the North but were destroyed in 1883. Nowadays you will find tree lined cobbled streets as well as lush parks and gardens. As you wander around you can check out scenic bridges and winding alleyways.

We stopped at Place d’Armes. In this square there’s the Cercle Cité Luxembourg, which is an early 20th-century palace and former government building, now used for exhibitions & events. There was this piano on the street, for everyone to play, and this random guy started playing Queen songs and was truly amazing! We stayed there a bit just listening to him play. In this square there was a street market, where people were selling second-hand things.

We continued walking and saw another nice street market in the square where the Monument of Remembrance is located. This monument has a golden statue on top which is the symbol of the city. There we met a dutch guy who’s married to a Portuguese woman that was selling Portuguese Delta coffee and pastéis de nata. He even had chocolate pastéis de nata, which were divine!

This street market was really close to the Notre Dame Cathedral, so we went there to check it out. This cathedral was built in the 17th century by Jesuit priests. One of the signature features here is the north gate which is baroque in style and is covered with pretty stained glass that dates from the 19th -20th cent.

As well as traditional structures you will also find modern pieces of sculpture as well as a famous statue of the Madonna and Jesus in miniature form that sits over the altar. It is also famous for its crypt which contains graves of members of the Luxembourg royal family and which is guarded by two lion statues.

After that, we decided to cross the valley through the main bridge and check the other side of the city. The views are incredible. And on the other side we saw all the Portuguese banks and shops. I really felt at home!

On this side of the city we had lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant called Nhân Nhân. We went to this place out of despair, as we were starving but it was already 3pm and all the places had stopped cooking meals. It was an amazing choice, the food was unbelievably good. Totally recommend it.

Once we were done with exploring the other side of the city, we took a bus and went back to the old town. Over there we visited the Palais Grand-Ducal, which is the official residence of the Grand Duke and royal family of Luxembourg and is one of the most stunning feats of architecture in Luxembourg City. It dates from the 16th century and mixes a range of style including romantic touches and medieval and Gothic designs.

Close to the Palais, we saw the Place Guillaume II. This square is known for its spacious open areas that used to be the location of a Franciscan convent. However, when we went there we didn’t see any open spaces, as some construction works were going on and because there was also a food market happening there that weekend.

In the middle of the square there is a famous statue here of William II on horseback who was the King of Holland and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and also the Town Hall. We also randomly found a nice park with lots of colourful flowers close by.

We stopped to have lunch in a Portuguese restaurant called Resto Cafe Bodega. I ate octopus and drank our national beer Super Bock. Again, felt super at home. At the end I started speaking the the owner and she was very lovely.

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All the Portuguese people we met there were very lovely – they made me proud 😉 Pretty much all the businesses we saw on the streets were owned by Portuguese people, I was amazed! From fancy restaurants to tobacco & convenience shops. And all of our drinks and food products were available in all supermarkets. Crazy!

During our stay, we went to visit Alejandro’s friend from Venezuela – Anghelina. She moved to Luxembourg two years ago, and already has her life in order. She’s working at Amazon and just had a baby and bought a house. She told us that living there is amazing – the quality of life, salaries, services, etc.

We had dinner at her house with her family, and ended up sleeping in her couch, as we got a bit tipsy and lost the last buses to go back to the centre. She lives in a place called Esch-sur-Alzette. According to her, this place is pretty much ‘owned’ by Portuguese people. Even in governmental institutions, things are written in Portuguese as well, as if it was an official language 😮 

When we woke up the next morning we went to explore this city a bit. It’s really close to the French border. Then we took a train to go back to the centre and rest a bit at the hotel.

Later that day, we visited the Walls of the Corniche, which look over the city down onto a valley. This is also the spot where the Gate of the Grund is located which was built in 1632 and there are a range of houses and other curiosities in the area such as St. Michael’s Church and the Abbey of Neumünster which has a famous pipe organ as well as a ‘black virgin’ from the 14th century.

After that, we visited Bock Cliff, known for its cannons and its fortifications. It is here that the Casemates du Bock are located and we went to explore them. These are a series of underground passages in a 17 kilometer long tunnel, initially carved out of the rock by the Spanish between 1737 and 1746.

Being a shelter for more than 35,000 locals and thousands of soldiers during the WWI and WWII, the Casemates is known for its historical importance in Luxembourg. Consisting of atmospheric passages, different levels and impressive rock stairways, the historic tunnel of Casemates is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For our last day in Luxembourg, we decided to take a bus and visit a different city – Echternach. This city sits on the banks of the pretty River Sûre which is also on the border with neighboring Germany. The town is famous for a few of its festivals such as an international music festival that is run from May to June as well as a dancing procession that has been held here for centuries on Whit Tuesday. In the town itself you will find old fashioned houses, winding streets, and medieval architecture that hark back to another era.

If you visit the town of Echternach then make sure to check out the Benedictine Abbey which dates from the seventh century and has an adjoining museum. It is made up of four buildings and a central courtyard and the basilica here has a huge amount of religious significance throughout Luxembourg. One of the reasons for this is that it contains a crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Willibrord which is made of white marble and the vaults here are covered in colorful frescoes that were painted in the 10th century.

The next day, we flew back to Malta. We definitely enjoyed our trip in this small but interesting country! It is definitely worth a visit.

 

 

Charming Germany

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One month after we visited Berlin we went back to Germany, this time to visit Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bonn. That European old charm that Berlin lacks, these cities definitely have it.

Cologne

Interesting facts about the city:

The city is home to the headquarters of the most significant national and regional TV and radio companies, and the country’s largest university. Cologne is also second in the world after New York in terms of the number of galleries.

From time immemorial, it’s been one of the biggest European transport centers: on average, it’s crossed by 8 trains every minute.

Cologne has one of Europe’s oldest perfume factories. The Cologne Museum offers its visitors to buy a bottle of the world’s most famous cologne – the Eau de Cologne (which gave birth to this type of perfume). The famous perfume was initially a medicine against the pox.

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In March, only one month after visiting Berlin, we decided to visit Germany again – this time Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bonn. Since all three cities are located very close to each other, we stayed in Cologne and moved around by train.

We stayed at Chocolate Museum a-partments CologneCity. We paid €184 for three nights (€61 per night). It was very nice and central, only 12 min walking to the Cathedral.

Speaking about the cathedral, it is very impressive. The Cathedral of Cologne – the main symbol of the city – has been under construction from 1248 to 1888 (more than 600 years!) and it’s the third tallest cathedral in the world.

The Cathedral of Cologne is the final resting place of the Three Kings, whose remains are stored in a reliquary, which took artisans as many as 10 years to make. Furthermore, the cathedral also guards St. Peter’s Staff and his pyx. The world’s largest functional bell, called Peter, can be found in the belfry of the Cologne Cathedral. It weighs 24 tonnes.

Close to the Cathedral, we also visited Cologne’s Old Town, with its narrow streets with pubs and bars and its colourful old houses. Next to those houses, we visited the church Gross St. Martin as well.

The city is also home to the Chocolate Museum of Lindt, which not only acquaints its visitors with the history of this delicacy’s manufacturing process but also invites them to get a taste – degustation takes place on the museum’s roof. This museum was right next to our apartment. We didn’t do the tour but visited the shop and bought some nice chocolates for us and for our friends.

On the other side of the street, we also visited the Mustard Museum & Shop. We could try for free different and exotic mustards that Germans eat with their sausages, pretty much like curry. My favorite was the garlic mustard. Alejandro liked a citric one, that tasted like orange.

We also visited the Heumarkt on our way to the commercial streets of the city. This nice square is where Cologne’s Christmas market takes place every year. The Schildergasse and Hohe Straße are the most popular shopping streets in Cologne. We spent some time there, doing some shopping.

One thing I recommend you to do if you ever come to Cologne is to cross the famous Hohenzollern Bridge by metro and pay to go to the top of a building called KölnTriangle, where there is an observatory deck from where you can see the whole city. The tickets only cost €3 per person, so it is well worth it.

After seeing the panoramic city views, we crossed the bridge on foot back to the city center and saw all the love locks that couples left there over the years. I’ve seen many bridges in different cities with locks, but none with as many as this one!

Cologne has a top-quality array of cultural attractions. It is home to over 40 museums and more than 110 galleries. We didn’t have time to visit any, but I do recommend you visit Ludwig Museum. This museum includes works from Pop Art, Abstract and Surrealism, and has one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe. It holds many works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Another thing you should do while in Cologne is to try Kölsch, their local beer. Compared to any other German beers, it tastes sweeter and more refreshing than any other German beer.


Düsseldorf

Interesting facts about the city:

There are 400 advertising agencies in Düsseldorf, including three of the largest in Germany. With international agencies based there too, it makes the city a hotbed of creativity.

Düsseldorf’s Altstadt (Old Town) is often referred to as ‘the longest bar in the world’ due to the concentration of over 300 bars and clubs in the relatively small area.

The custom of turning cartwheels is credited to the children of Düsseldorf, who celebrated with them on 14 August 1288. Today, an image of the Düsseldorfer Radschläger (‘boy who does cartwheels’) can be found on many souvenirs and landmarks around the city.

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We spent a day in Düsseldorf. We paid €11 to go by train, a trip that takes about half an hour. Düsseldorf is in constant competition against Cologne. Both towns hate each other and compete whenever possible and in every matter possible against the other one.

Other reasons include rival football and ice hockey clubs, mostly in the lower leagues recently – only Köln has a team in the First Bundesliga at the moment. On the other hand, Köln got a shock when it didn’t become the capital of NRW – let alone Germany – after WW2. Düsseldorf instead became the capital of the state they are both located in.

After we left the train station, we walked along Königsallee, which is noted for both the landscaped canal that runs along its center, as well as for the fashion showrooms and luxury retail stores located along its sides.

Then we walked all the way to the Embankment Promenade. The sun was out and it felt like the whole city had decided to come for a wander at this promenade on the right bank of the Rhine. The view is very nice. You can see some houses on the other side of the river and the famous Rhine Tower. This tower is the tallest building in Düsseldorf. Next to this promenade, we visited the St. Lambertus church.

We met our friend Nicole in Burgplatz, next to the riverside. She’s German and lives close by. We met her in Malta, as she is dating a Venezuelan friend of ours and is currently traveling back and forth between the two countries because of that. She took us to this cozy coffee place called Rösterei VIER.  We drank cappuccino and ate banana bread, which was very good.

This coffee place is right in front of the Old Town Hall. This building’s architecture is amazing, super cute. It is located in the Marktplatz. The square is edged on all sides by rows of buildings that are listed monuments, all facing one of Germany’s most feted equestrian statues.

Later on, Nicole took us to a bar called Kürzer, where we tried the typical beer from Dusseldorf, that competes against Kölsch, the one from Cologne. This beer is called Altbier and it is darker. Even though Nicole prefers Kölsch, this one was our favorite.


Bonn

Interesting facts about the city:

Haribo is a German confectionery company known in the whole Europe for their gummy bears. The company was founded in 1920 in Bonn by Hans Riegen and its name comes from an abbreviation of Hans-Riegen-Bonn. The famous Haribo Factory Shop is located in Bonn and there are thousands of jelly beans. Colorful candies will make your day!

It functioned as the provisional seat of government of reunited Germany until 1999, when the government moved to Berlin. Some government functions remained here.

Bonn is the birthplace of the famous classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven, born in 1770. His birth house is now a museum.

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On our last full day in Germany, we decided to take another train, this time to visit Bonn. Just like Dusseldorf, it took us only half an hour to get to Bonn. This is a good day trip, as the city is very small, and you can see the main places in only one afternoon.

The first thing we saw as we entered the city center was the Bonn Minster. This is a Roman Catholic church in Bonn. It is one of Germany’s oldest churches, having been built between the 11th and 13th centuries. At one point the church served as the cathedral for the Archbishopric of Cologne. However, the Minster is now a minor basilica.

We then strolled around the commercial streets that lead to the market place and did some shopping there. While we were shopping, we saw a gate called Sterntor. It was built around 1244 at the end of the Sternstraße and was part of the medieval city fortification. At the end of the 19th century, the former city fortification gate was demolished, in order to improve the traffic flow.

Next to these commercial streets and to the market place, there is the Old City Hall, built in 1737 in Rococo style, under the rule of Clemens August of Bavaria. It is used for receptions of guests of the city, and as an office for the mayor.

Bonn is known for being the birthplace of Beethoven. Beethoven’s House is located in Bonngasse, also near the market place. The museum is actually an annex of two buildings; the street-front facade and the building around the back in which Beethoven was born and grew up.

In low-ceilinged rooms at the back are captivating artifacts from his time in Bonn up to 1792, like his baptism entry or original portraits of his family. The front building delves into his move to Vienna and has hand-written sheet music, instruments played by Beethoven, ear trumpets for his deafness and even his death mask. In the city, there is also a large bronze statue of Ludwig van Beethoven that stands on the Münsterplatz.

We continued walking and headed down to the riverside, to see the boats. When we came back to the city center, we passed in front of Kurfürstliches Schloss, built as a residence for the prince-elector and now the main building of the University of Bonn.

It was a very short visit, but we definitely enjoyed our time there. Close to Bonn, there is a very nice castle called Schloss Drachenburg. We didn’t have time to visit it. I recommend you go there though.

We came to Malta more tired then we left, as we walked a lot during these few days in these three different cities. However, as always, it was worth it. It felt good to be out of our normal daily routine again.

Another brick in the wall

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We traveled to Berlin, Germany, for Valentine’s Day this year. It was an interesting trip, with lots of different activities, like a Twenty One Pilot concert and a football match.

BERLIN (GERMANY)

Interesting facts about the city:

There are more museums in Berlin (180) than rainy days per year (106).

The city has half a million foreigners who hail from 185 countries. Every day, 435 people move into Berlin.

Berlin Subway systems’ (SBahn and UBahn) combined length equals 473Km. Add another 120Km of tram lines and you have one of the most impressive public transportation systems in the world.
Currywurst has been called the city’s “culinary emblem” thanks to its popularity, and about 70 million servings are consumed every year in Berlin!
Berlin has more bridges than Venice – around 1,700 – and more waterways than Amsterdam, Stockholm and Venice combined. The most famous and instagrammed bridge is the Oberbaumbrücke.
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Alejandro and I flew to Berlin with Ryanair and flew back to Malta with AirMalta. We decided to stay in a flat with kitchenette in order to save some money by avoiding eating outside everyday. The place where we stayed is called Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin Aparthotel. We paid €293 for four nights (€37 per person, per night). The apartment was nice and the location was amazing as well, close to the famous Kurfürstendamm, which is the largest and most famous shopping street in the city, with around 200,000 square metres of shops and restaurants.

We walked around that commercial street and went crazy with the huge Primark shops they have in Berlin. At the end of this street, there’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The original church on the site was built in the 1890s. It was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943. The present building was built between 1959 and 1963. The damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall.

We also visited Alexanderplatz, which is a large public square and transport hub in the central Mitte district of Berlin. One of city’s the most visited squares, Alexanderplatz is the site of many attractions and sights in Berlin.

We were walking around the city when we saw a nice street market in Hackescher Markt square. There, I saw this family selling Portuguese pastries called ‘Pastéis de Nata’. I missed them so much! 😀 In Malta unfortunately there are no Portuguese food places so I take every chance I get to eat food from my country. We spoke with them a bit – he is Portuguese and she is Brazilian, and they are planning on opening an actual Portuguese cafe soon.

On our second day, we went to see the Museum Island. This is the name of the northern half of an island in the Spree river in the central Mitte district of Berlin. It is so-called for the complex of internationally significant museums, all part of the Berlin State Museums, that occupy the island’s northern part. In 1999, the museum complex was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

On Museum Island, there is Berlin Cathedral. This place has a long history starting as a Roman Catholic place of worship in the 15th century. The current building was finished in 1905 and is a main work of Historicist architecture of the “Kaiserzeit.” The Berlin Cathedral has never been a cathedral in the actual sense of that term since it has never been the seat of a bishop. We paid €7 to visit the interior of the cathedral and to go up to the rooftop, to see the view.

After that, as we were walking around the museums of Museum Island, wondering whether we should buy a ticket to see at least of them, a nice couple approached us and offered us their ticket, which was valid to visit all museums until the end of the day. They were leaving and didn’t need the ticket anymore, so they just offered it to us. We were lucky! 😀

Since we got this free ticket, we decided to visit some museums. The first one we visited was Pergamon Museum. This museum houses monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Market Gate of Miletus, reconstructed from the ruins found in Anatolia, as well as the Mshatta Facade.

After that, we went to visit the Atles Museum (altes means old). One of the most striking buildings in Berlin, the Altes Museum houses a vast range of ancient artefacts from the Greek, Roman and Etruscan eras.

Last but not least, we went to the Neues Museum (neues means new). Exhibits include the Egyptian and Prehistory and Early History collections, as it did before the war. The artifacts it houses include the iconic bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.

After seeing all these museums, we were tired. However, since it was Valentine’s Day, we went to a concert of the famous band Twenty One Pilots. The concert took place in the famous Mercedes-Benz Arena, close to the East Side Gallery. We paid around €60 for the tickets, per person. We listened to their biggest hits, like ‘Stressed Out’ or ‘Heathens’ and had fun. Twenty One Pilots is not exactly our cup of tea or one of our favorite bands or anything, but we decided to go because of the date. Alejandro didn’t like the concert that much, but I enjoyed it.

The next morning we went to visit the Brandenburg Gate. This get is Berlin’s most famous landmark. It is an 18th-century neoclassical triumphal arch built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II. Built according to the plans of Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791, the Brandenburg Gate is modeled on the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis. The monument is 26 meters (85 feet) high and 65 meters (213 feet) wide, with 12 Doric columns, six to each side measuring 15 meters (49 feet) in height.

I had booked in advance a tour inside the Reichstag building, which is located right next to the Brandenburg Gate. If you want to visit it and go up to the cupola on the rooftop, you should book it in advance as well, free of charge.

This impressive building is the seat of the German Parliament. It was constructed to house the Reichstag (“Imperial Diet”) of the German Empire. After its destruction by fire in 1933 and in World War II, much of the former structure was rebuilt in 1970, but with the decision to return the seat of government to Berlin from Bonn after reunification, the Reichstag underwent a complete renovation in the late 1990s.

We were given some headphones to hear the history of the city, as we climbed to the very top of the glass dome in circles. The view is very impressive from up there, one can see most of the city’s landmarks. I totally recommend this tour.

After the tour, we made a quick stop to see the Holocaust Memorial. This is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It consists of a 19,000 square meters site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. It was inaugurated on May 10, 2005, sixty years after the end of World War II, and opened to the public two days later.

On our way to the Topography of Terror, we passed by Postdamer Platz. The Topography of Terror is a free museum located both in and outdoors on the former site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters and the Reich Security Main Office.  These were the principal security agencies responsible for policing, forced labor and maintaining despotism under the Nazi regime. Nowadays, little physical evidence of its dark past remains on the site, as allied bombs damaged the buildings in 1945 and its remnants were torn down by 1956.

A visit to the Topography of Terror can be a truly chilling experience, as one must confront the evil that took over Germany while standing at the site of countless abuses against human dignity.

We ended the day with a visit to the famous Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. After the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the reunification of Germany, the building at Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction.

We also visited Charlottenburg Palace. One of Berlin’s most famous and best-loved sights – the rococo palace, built for Sophie Charlotte, Queen consort in Prussia.

We started our full day in Berlin with a visit to the famous East Side Gallery, the longest open air gallery in the world with a little over 1.3 Km. The East Side Gallery showcases over 100 murals from artists from all over the world on the remainings of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the most famous is “The Fraternal Kiss”. The section was painted by 118 artists from 21 countries with 101 works.

The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier in and around Berlin, Germany, that physically and ideologically divided Berlin (in East Berlin and West Berlin) from 1961 to 1989 during the era of the Cold War. It was thrown up overnight, on 13 August 1961. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, its destruction was nearly as instantaneous as its creation.

After seeing the Berlin Wall, we went to a place called Gendarmenmarkt square, that houses several monuments: the KonzertHaus in the middle,and two identical churches on both sides – the French Cathedral on the right side and the New Cathedral on the left side.

At night we went to see a Football match – Hertha BSC vs. SV Werder Bremen. We paid €21 per person. The match took place at the Olympiastadion Berlin. The game ended 1-1, but we missed the last goal, as we were already walking to get to the S-Bahn. Even though our seats were not the best ones (we were siting too low, in one of the corners), it was still a very nice experience.

The next morning we returned to Malta. Alejandro was lucky that people from Air Malta didn’t notice that his name was wrong in the boarding pass, and he didn’t have to pay any extra fees.

This trip was a nice break from the routine. When we arrived in Berlin we were both super sick, but we were lucky with the weather there, and actually got well after only one day there.

Berlin is a city that is very alive, with lots of cultural events happening all the time, and with a very efficient public transportation system. Even though it is not one of the prettiest European capitals, as it was destroyed by the war and rebuilt in a modern style, it seems to be, however, a very good city to live in.

Back to the land of beers and waffles

In January 2018 me and some friends from work decided to go on a weekend trip to Brussels. The four of us came from such different countries, but we all enjoy the same things: belgium beer, chocolates and waffles.

Facts about the city:

About 27 percent of the residents in Brussels are not Belgium citizens.

Chips, also commonly known as French Fries were invented in Brussels. In fact, in almost all the eateries in the city, you will find a variation of French Fries being served.

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It was my third time in Brussels. Me and some colleagues from work – Rina (from Japan), Florian (from France) and Sherif (from Egypt) – decided to buy a cheap weekend trip together with Ryanair. We left work on a Friday to go straight to the airport, to come back on a Sunday night, ready to work again the next day. We stayed for two nights in a nice hostel called Brxxl 5, located in Rue de Woeringen 5, 10 minutes away from the Grand-Place.

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We arrived at night. We left our stuff at the hostel and went for a walk to see the Grand-Place at night. This is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city’s Town Hall, and the King’s House or Breadhouse, a building containing the Museum of the City of Brussels. The square is the most memorable landmark in Brussels and it’s considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.

After that, we went for some typical frites (french fries, that were invented in Brussels) and for some beers in a nice pub. Brussels is a major trader of beer, waffles and chocolate. There are more than 800 brands of beer on sale in Brussels. We passed many walls on houses in Brussels that are covered with comic book references.

The next day we woke up early in the morning and had breakfast in a nice coffee place. At 10.30 am we started a free walking tour around Brussels, that started in Grand-Place, organized by Bravo Discovery.

The tour took us to many places like the Galleries Royales Saint-Hubert (Europe’s oldest shopping arcade), the Manneken Pis and the Jeanneke Pis, among others.  The Manneken Pis is a landmark small bronze sculpture with 61 cm, depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. It was designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy and put in place in 1618. The statue embodies the sense of humor of people from Brussels and their independence of mind.

The Jeanneke Pis is similar, but it’s the statue of a girl peeing. They say that if you throw a coin there, she will make your partner be faithful to you. The guide also showed us a nice place to eat waffles, from 1829. After the tour, we went to have lunch at Quick and then we spent the afternoon shopping at Primark, Sports Direct, etc.

At night we went to have dinner in a really nice restaurant called Chez Leon, where we tried the famous mussels. After dinner, we tried to go to Delirium bar but it was packed so we ended up in two other pubs, once called Brasserie Lombard and the other one I don’t remember the name but it was amazing because the music selection was awesome (class rock hits). After that, we went to a famous chocolate shop to buy some famous Belgian chocolates for ourselves.

The next day we woke up went to take a look at a flea market close to our hostel and had an amazing breakfast there. For this last day we decided to have lunch in a Thai restaurant where the food was delicious.

In the afternoon we went to see Manneken Pis again and then we walked to the Petit Sablon garden (very beautifully decorated with some nice statues) and to Mont des Arts. This area, situated between the Royal Palace and the Grand Place, offers one of Brussels’ finest views. After that, we had some rest in a cosy coffee place called Les gens que j’aime.

We visited the Chocolate Museum, where a man explained us how they make the real Belgian chocolate. The chocolate demonstration is quite satisfactory as you watch the chocolate go from liquid to hard shell and then taste the result. It lasts for about 15 minutes and you are offered chocolate to taste throughout the routine – he speaks English and French throughout the demonstration.

After a last walk in the center, we went back to the airport. It was a nice weekend trip that allowed us to have a break from the routine and to get to know each other better.

BUDGET:

  • Flights: 49€
  • Accommodation: 50€
  • Chocolate Museum: 6€
  • Dinner at Chez Leon: 20€

 

Team building in bella Roma

I was fortunate enough to travel to Rome with my company EC this year. They decided to do a team building event in Italy, everything paid for. It was my first time in Rome and I had a lot of fun getting to know the city and my coworkers.

 

Facts about the city:

Modern Rome has 280 fountains and more than 900 churches.

The mascot of Rome is a she-wolf that cared for brothers Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. They were abandoned as babies and put into a basket in the River Tiber. They were discovered by a female wolf, who nursed them until they were found by a shepherd. When Romulus and Remus became adults, they decided to found a city where the wolf had found them. The brothers quarreled over where the site should be and Remus was killed by his brother. This left Romulus as the sole founder of the new city, Rome. The date given for the founding of Rome is 753 BC.

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I cannot complain much about my company EC. This year they decided to take us on a paid trip to Rome, as a team building event. I never had this type of opportunities in Portugal, so I’m very grateful. Also, it was the first time I was in Rome and that city was in my bucket list for a long time.

We were 22 people from the Admissions department. My best friends from Admissions couldn’t come so I had to be opened to make new friendships which was good. I shared the room with Keiko from Japan. She’s a sweetheart. Also, I got to know Florian, a french new guy, that I loved. He’s super funny! Rina and Mo were also there. We went on a Friday after work and we came back on a Sunday afternoon. It was short but good.

On Friday we just arrived to the hotel and had some rest. We stayed in Hotel Nizza, in Via Massimo d’Azeglio 16. The hotel was OK, but not that great. However, the breakfast we took the next morning was very good!

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We started the in Piazza VeneziaPiazza Venezia is the central hub of Rome, in which several thoroughfares intersect, including the Via dei Fori Imperiali and the Via del Corso. It takes its name from the Palazzo Venezia, built by the Venetian Cardinal, Pietro Barbo (later Pope Paul II) alongside the church of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice.

One side of the Piazza is the site of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Altare della Patria, part of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy. The square is at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. The main artery, the Viale di Fori Imperiali begins there and leads past the Roman Forum to the Colosseum.

Then we walked until Fontana di Trevi. I always wanted to visit this place and throw a coin to make a wish! It’s very beautiful. Fontana di Trevi is a fountain designed by the Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Pietro Bracci. Standing more than 25 meters high, it is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. It was completed in 1762. The central figures are Neptun flaked by two Tritons.

The fountain has appeared in several notable films, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Three Coins in the Fountain or Roman Holiday. An estimated 3,000€ are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated US $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy. However, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain, even though it’s illegal.

After that we walked to Piazza di Spagna. Since we went to Rome during the Black Friday weekend, we did that. I bought a nice jacket from Zara. Piazza di Spagna, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, is one of the most famous squares in Rome. It owes its name to the Palazzo di Spagna, seat of the Embassy of Spain among the Holy See. Nearby is the famed Column of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The imposing 135-step staircase was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XIII in 1725, in order to connect the Bourbon Spanish embassy to the Church of Trinità dei Monti. The Spanish steps, once a year, host a famous fashion show and they are used as a catwalk. All the shopping streets lead to this square so it’s an ideal point to start shopping.

Later that afternoon, some of us went to the Vatican City. We didn’t go inside but it was worth going there to see the impotent cathedral. St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica represent the most Christian place in the world and the home of the Pope. The Vatican city is the smallest state in the world. The Vatican was built over the tomb of Saint Peter.

The Vatican’s position as a sovereign state within a state was guaranteed by the Lateran Treaty of 1929. It’s has 920 inhabitants and an area of approximately 44 hectares. Inside the Vatican there are 11 museums and some of the most famous art in the world, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Pieta.

Then Keiko, Florian, Irina and me went to have a closer look at the ColosseumThe Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built. It was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian and completed by his son in 80. Vespesian ordered the Colosseum to be built on the site of Nero’s palace, to dissociate himself from the hated tyrant. His aim was to gain popularity by staging deadly combats of gladiators.

The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas based on Classical mythology.

On Saturday night we went to have dinner all together in an amazing restaurant called Alfredo alla Scrofa. This is considered the restaurant of the celebrities and they even have a lot of pictures of famous people that went there on the walls (Greta Garbo, Dean Martin, Andrea Bocelli, Jimi Hendrix, etc.). The food was amazing and we tried the famous Fettuccine Alfredo. The restaurant was funded in 1907.

After dinner we stopped for some pictures in Piazza NavonaPiazza Navona has three amazing baroque fountains. The central one is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, designed by Bernini in 1651. At the southern end is the Fontana del Moro with a basin and four Tritons sculpted by Giacomo della Porta (1575). At the northern end is the Fountain of Neptune (1574) also created by Giacomo; There is also the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and the Pamphili Palace.

We went to some bars and pubs close to this square and then we headed back to the hotel. The next morning we had breakfast again in the hotel and then we took a flight back to Malta. It was a very nice weekend!