“How Democracies Die” (Part 2)

It is interesting how Levitsky and Ziblatt are on point with autocrats and authoritarianism.  They point out former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s rise to power as a case in point.  Fujimori is described as a demagogue.

Although some elected demagogues take office with a blueprint for autocracy, many, such as Fujimori do not.  Democratic breakdown doesn’t need a blueprint.  Rather, as Peru’s experience suggests, it can be the result of a sequence of unanticipated events — an escalating tit-for-tat between a demagogic, norm-breaking leader and a threatened political establishment.

The process often begins with word.  Demagogues attack their critics in harsh and provocative terms — as enemies, as subversives, and even as terrorists…Fujimori linked his opponents to terrorism and drug trafficking…These attacks can be consequential: If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.  

The assault rarely ends there.  Though observers often assure us that demagogues are “all talk” and that their words should not be taken too seriously, a look at demagogic leaders around the world suggests that many of them do eventually cross the line from words to actions.  This is because a demagogue’s initial rise to power tend to polarise society, creating a climate of panic, hostility and mutual distrust.  The new leader’s threatening words often have a boomerang effect.  If the media feels threatened, it may abandon restraint and professional standards in a desperate effort to weaken the government.  And the opposition may conclude that, for the good of the country, the government must be removed via extreme measures — impeachment, mass protest, even a coup.

They use a soccer game to explain to the reader on how elected autocrats can subtly undermine institutions.  To consolidate power, would-be authoritarians must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players, and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, in effect tilting the playing field against their opponents.  

The referees are usually independent bodies that provide a check and balance in the democratic institution of the country.  They can be the judicial and law enforcement agencies of the nation.  It is, a referee’s job, after all, to prevent cheating.  If these agencies become controlled by loyalists.  Rights and the constitution violated.  Governments acting with impunity.

Capturing the referees provides the government with more than a shield.  It also offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies…

To entrench themselves in power, however, governments must do more — they must also change the rules of the game.  Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals.  These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favour of incumbents. And because they involve legal and even constitutional changes, they may allow autocrats to lock in these advantages for years and even decades.

These events do not happen overnight.  They are interplayed with other events in society that make the citizens lose track of what the real objective is.  For example, one can create a fictitious war or claim dissent and sow terror or economic crises and natural disasters in order to rationalise their next political moves.  Citizens are slow to realise that their democracy is being dismantled — even as it happens before their eyes.

We do not have to look at other countries as examples to how to kill a democracy.  Ferdinand Marcos is cited as a homegrown reality.

In 1969, after winning reelection to his second and final term in office, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines began to consider how he might use an emergency to extend his rule.  Marcos did not want to step aside when his second term expired in 1973, as the constitution dictated, so he drew up plans to declare martial law and rewrite the constitution.  But he needed a reason.  An opportunity arrived in July 1972, when a series of mysterious bombings rocked Manila.  Following an apparent assassination attempt on Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos, blaming communist terrorists, enacted his plan.  He announced martial law on national television, insisting somberly, “My countrymen…[this] is not a military takeover.”  He argued that “a democratic form of government is not a helpless government” and that the constitution — the one he was suspending — “wisely provided the means to protect it” when confronting a danger like insurrection.  With this move, Marcos ensconced himself in power for the next fourteen years.

Many constitutions allow executive power to be used during a crisis.  When civil liberties are threatened, elected autocrats will often need crises to stay in power.

There was a backstory to Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972: His “crisis” was largely fabricated.  Acutely aware that he needed to justify his plan to skirt the constitution’s two-term limit in the presidency, Marcos decided to manufacture a “communist menace”.  Facing only a few dozen actual insurgents, President Marcos fomented public hysteria to justify an emergency action.  Marcos wanted to declare martial law as early as 1971, but selling his plan required an act of violence — a terrorist attack — that generated widespread fear.  That would come the following year with the Manila bombings, which U.S. Intelligence officials believed to be the work of government forces, and the assassination attempt on Defense Secretary Enrile — which Enrile later admitted was “a sham”.  In fact, he said he was “nowhere near the scene” of the reported attack.

Constitutional safeguards are not enough to secure a democracy.  Even the most well designed constitutions fail.  With changing times, and circumstances, the constitution should be revisited every so often.

Note that the Philippines’ 1935 constitution has been described as a “faithful copy of the U.S. Constitution.”

Drafted under U.S. colonial tutelage and approved by the U.S. Congress, the charter “provided a textbook example of liberal democracy,” with a separation of powers, a bill of rights, and a two-term limit in the presidency.  But President Ferdinand Marcos, who was loath to step down when his second term ended, dispensed with it rather easily after declaring martial law in 1972.

The need to educate the people is a vital step in assuring that majority understand the meaning and value of democracy.  Dynastic rules in local governments are the most dangerous kind of power.  Perpetuating allies of the ruling party through dynasties kill democracy and a nation.  Unfortunately for us, no one in Congress or the Senate would be willing to throw the hat into the ring to show their sincerity in keeping democracy alive and well.  All rhetoric is spat into our face while back channeling happens within our very eyes.  After all, there is a saying that “what we don’t know won’t hurt us”.

Until it is too late.

“How Democracies Die” (Part 1)

That’s the title of the book authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (copyright 2018, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York).  Politics is not my kind of read. When a friend had told me about this book, I was skeptical at first. The long weekend was a perfect time to pour over the 312 pages of discourse on “how democracies die“.

It’s an interesting read, and yes, hard to put down.  The historical data were on point (with appropriate references).  It comes at a time when populism is on the rise, not only in the United States, or the Philippines, but with reference to the world.  How fragile democracy is in the hands of a few.  Who the gatekeepers and players actually are.  And the destruction of not only an institution, but a nation and its people.

In their introduction alone, the argument that many of us think of the “death of democracies in the hands of men with guns” through military power are only one end of the spectrum.  These are cases where democracies “dissolve in spectacular fashion”.

But there is another way to break a democracy.  It is less dramatic but equally destructive.  Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.  Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany.  More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.

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Blatant dictatorship — in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule — has disappeared across much of the world.  Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare.  Most countries hold regular elections.  Democracies still die, but by different means.  Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine.  Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.

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Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.  They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy — making the judiciary more efficient, combatting corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process.  Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship.  Citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles.  This sows public confusion.  People do not immediately realise what is happening.  Many continue to believe that they are living under a democracy…

Because there is no single moment — no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution — in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells.  Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf.  Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.

If these few lines sound familiar to you, it should interest you in purchasing the book in order to get a clearer grasp of power and how rulers use existing laws to change the world.

The first litmus test of a democracy is “not whether figures emerge but whether political leaders, especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place — by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.”  Why do you think there are new alliances and dalliances that we have to contend with? “Isolating population extremists requires political courage.  But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

The second test is once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power.  “Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organised citizens, but also by democratic norms.  Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.  Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponising” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents.  The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.

How does one detect an authoritarian?

Political scientist Juan Linz in a small but seminal book published in 1978 entitled The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes highlights the role of politicians, showing how their behaviour can either reinforce democracy or put it at risk.

There are four (4) behavioural warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one.  We should worry when a politician:

  1. rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game
  2. denies the legitimacy of opponents
  3. tolerates or encourages violence
  4. indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents

A politician who meets even ONE of these criteria is cause for concern.

It’s an interesting discourse on what kind of political candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism.

Very often, populist outsiders do.  Populists are antiestablishment politicians — figures who, claiming to respect the voice of “the people”, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite…They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite.  And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people”.

This discourse should be taken seriously.  When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions.

Recognizing the issue is the first step at reckoning the problem. The second step is addressing — how to avoid it.

At any point in our history, or even in the future, there will be players who will want to kill democracy. Today, technology plays an important role. Nevertheless, no matter how one looks at the means — people will always be behind the political ploy in the death of democracy.

70

That’s the number of episodes of this one season Chinese series which landed on Netflix last August 2018, entitled Rise of Phoenixes.

The series is based on the novel Huang Quan written by Tianxia Guiyuan, whose central plot resolves around the Tiansheng Empire and the brothers who desire to succeed the Emperor. Intertwined in this series is the story of love, treachery, education, religion, betrayal, sacrifice, loyalty, and being filial. There’s also martial arts in between.

The historical details are precise and the setting, costume, photography and cinematography is spectacular. Not only is the script well written but the acting is worth an accolade of awards.

The rollercoaster plot is suspenseful and addicting. I couldn’t get enough. The final episode left me aghast for days. It wasn’t an expected ending but one where it was the best ending to this beautiful story.

If you have Netflix, this is a must watch especially this very long holiday weekend.

We start them young

Are cartoons good entertainment for children?

While seemingly unharmful, cartoons may apparently have its downside, especially when the adults don’t actually screen carefully the contents of what their children watch. The so-called presumption that a “cartoon” is just a figure of imagination may actually be portrayed differently by the young mind.

Not all cartoons are appropriate for age. There are those whose languages and behavior are left for adult viewing. (As a matter of fact, even pegged to be farcical sarcasm takes on politics or life in general, the adult-themed cartoons carry heavy parental guidance or for adults only restrictions.)

Bob’s Burger, Family Guy, The Simpson’s (and a lot more lately on Netflix) are examples of cartoons that are not suitable for young children.

As parents or caregivers, we need to screen what the kids are watching. Just because it’s a “kids” show and that it sells a lot of “kids toys” does not mean that the show is appropriate for a young audience. (I have a lot of “adult” friends who collect various paraphernalia from Funko Pop to Marvel heroes to Anime, as a collectors item). Even the harmless LEGO has become a “toy” for collection and interior design.

And not just because it’s rated aired in a family channel, the contents are appropriate for ALL children regardless of age group.

There’s a reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics has updated in the Fall of 2016 their recommendation of the use of digital media in children. It includes not only how much time, but why, how, when and where it is appreciate to use.

For children 2-5 years old, media should be limited to 1 hour a day and involve high quality programming or something the parents and child can view together.

Except for video chatting, those less than 1 1/2 years old, should avoid any form of digital media.

I get the fact that we all want a little “me time”. After all, it is a handful having to handle one (or a bunch of) rambunctious toddler who’s beginning to explore the world.

In this world where we need to juggle career and family, I applaud parents who take raising a family built on personal supervision as a priority. When you place some of your priorities in the backseat, and care for the overall welfare of your kids more, we start teaching them to discern right from wrong while they’re young.

The British cartoon Peppa Pig is a classic example of an ambiguous cartoon disguised as harmless. Let’s look at it from the angle of what message it sends to a young child.

There’s fat shaming. Yes Peppa repeatedly fat shames her daddy. And the father isn’t much of a role model because he allows Peppa to call him names. Really! Allowing your child to get away cursively at fat shaming you takes the cake at saying, “it’s alright”! And Peppa talks back a mouthful too. Just like the child actress Raissa in the local noontime show on Eat Bulaga, kids think that it’s okay to be “astig” and answer back “wittingly” with adults.

We need to remember that children absorb a show different from adults. While we may find it funny, our entertainment is their learning process. Their brains are like sponges. At that age, they absorb anything and everything. That’s why they try to get their way while they’re growing up. Who they are today, is because we let them.

Solid research demonstrates that in children more than 3 years old, high quality programs like Sesame Street, that teach new ideas are advisable.

Early childhood is a time of rapid brain development, and kids need to balance sleep, learning and playing, and emotional and relationship building. Too much time spent on digital media curtails these other learning processes.

The next time you think that it’s okay to just switch on a seemingly harmless show, I suggest you sit down and watch them with your child.

Discernment, after all, is a virtue.

After all, we shape and mold these young minds from the get go. What they become tomorrow, is how we raise them today.

‘he sleeps in a storm’

Eight years ago, I wrote a book review for “Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Albom.

Albom is renowned author to “Tuesdays With Morrie”, “Five People You Meet in Heaven”,  “For One More Day”, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”, “The Time Keeper”, “The First Phone Call From Heaven”.  On October 9, his new book entitled “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” will hit the bookstands.

So far, “Have a Little Faith” was his best.

While the book was published in 2010, its message is as timely as when I wrote it’s review eight years ago.

Perhaps, it has come at no better time when we come to grips with our faith.  The conversation between Albom and the dying rabbi is an awakening  to what inner faith many of us lack or what many of us lost.

Timely and moving are the two words that best describe the 254 pages that drove me to a deeper understanding of my humanity.

The book begins with a task.  The 82 year old rabbi has asked Mitch to deliver an eulogy for him when he passes on. Here, Albom seeks out to find not only the story of the life of the rabbi, but his life and many of those whose lives he crossed path with in his search for the “right words” to say to fittingly describe one of the greatest eulogies.

The story spans eight years between two men – Rabbi Albert Lewis and Pastor Henry Covington. In Alboms’ search for the right words to put together, their stories would cross paths in the search for the meaning to life and happiness.

On page 93 is a short excerpt of how beautifully written the sermon of Rabbi Lewis (Reb) is:

From a sermon by the Reb, 1975:

“A man seeks employment on a farm.  He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply – ‘he sleeps in a storm’.

The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.  

Several weeks pass, and suddenly in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.

Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for the new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

So he dashes off to the barn. He sees to his amazement, that animals are secure with plenty of feed. 

He runs out to the field.  He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and wrapped in tarpaulins.

He races to the silo.  The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.

And then he understands, “HE SLEEPS IN A STORM”.

“My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in our life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight.  We will never wallow in the agony of  ‘I could have, I should have’. We can sleep in a storm.”

And when it’s time, our goodbyes will be complete”.

There will always be stories of despair. Or of inspiration. Albom puts reality into perspective by engaging us in a story of finding meaning in our faith.

As the story draws to a close, Album finds that the lives of two men from two different religions profoundly find something bigger than oneself.

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Have a Little Faith is a book about life’s purpose. About losing belief.  And finding it again. About the divine spark inside each of us.

You will smile.

Shed a tear or cry.

Because this one man’s journey, is everyone’s story.

The writing is on the wall

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The travels written so far, were within an 8 years look back period. There are more places I have not written about. I’m still trying to sort out the pictures from my phone. It’s quite difficult to blog from an app (and the editing isn’t that easy either. Thankfully, technology provides me the chance to update the blog posts.)

And I will pause the travelogues as I sort out the scattered pictures and diaries. Surprisingly this segment had tremendous feedbacks from friends and followers. Thank you for liking and sharing.

The poster on the wall of this blog post is the reason why I am sharing some of my travels with you.

We play hard at work to make a living. The fruits of our labor should make a life.

We need to explore the world in order to find ourselves. And while it is not an opportunity provided to everyone, to those it presents to, we need to grasp that moment while we still can, in order to find ourselves.

The photos are mine. The places we stayed at, the flights we took, the food we ate, everything we did in these vacation spots were personally paid for. Even if at the end of the day, it left me having to work triple time and with empty pockets, the memories were worth it all!

They are unbiased reviews of the adventure I and my family or partner took. There were no sponsorships to my vacations. Positive and negative points were highlighted. You see, every destination has its own story. And I am telling you mine.

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The take home message? The writing is on the wall…

Bienvenue au Canada

Vancouver

Lonely Planet opens its description as

Don’t tell Toronto or Montreal but Vancouver is the real culinary capital of Canada. Loosen your belts and dive right into North America’s best Asian dining scene, from chatty Chinese restaurants to authentic izakayas…from farm-to-table movement…

And yes, I agree.  Not even Chinatown in downtown San Francisco could compare to the culinary spectacle that Vancouver brings to the table.

But Vancouver isn’t all about food. Our hotel against the backdrop of Stanley Park was enough to make us fall in love with both the hotel, the chilling in the city experience in this lotusland metropolis.

On our travel to Vancouver, we took Delta Airlines.  It was actually the last time we took Delta.  The travel on a US Carrier had become so costly you can fly to North America and Canada with their rates on biz class with other Asian or middle eastern airlines on the same biz class for 2! It was a Manila-Narita-Seattle-Vancouver leg (I know right? We were punishing ourselves). It’s sad that I’ve always loved Delta Airlines, unfortunately, economics would tell us to follow what is right.  The shorter flights.  The ones with less stops. The miles accumulated on the airline and its partner airlines. And of course, the cost.

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We stayed at the Loden Hotel, which was conveniently located near Stanley Park.

The perks of the hotel was having bikes to use to get around for free! And what a welcome treat for those like us who took physical activity seriously.

If there’s one place that you should have dinner, it’s at Ringyo.  This hole in the wall Japanese restaurant packs one mean authentic Japanese fusion cooking! Even the salt came in three servings – Japanese, Utah, or Himalayan.

Aside from downtown Vancouver (which you can practically go around in a day), renting a car was the best way to go beyond the city to those snow-dusted mountains peeking and beckoning at you from the glass windows of your room. So off to Whistler Blackcomb we went.  The quaint town to the mountain peak alone was breathtaking.  And this was the site of the 21st Winter Olympics.

After a couple of days of debauchery and meeting some friends in Vancouver, the next destination was Toronto, on Air Canada.  And I thought only Philippine Airlines was “late”.  The plane we were taking had a delayed arrival from Sydney.  After getting delayed for over 3 hours we were finally boarded for Toronto.

Toronto

Le Germain Hotel was home for the next few days in the most multiculturally diverse city in the world.

Interestingly is how this city alone is so culturally different with over 140 languages spoken and half the residents here born outside Canada live in harmony with one another.  Some call Toronto the New York of Canada.  Well, I guess to some degree you would say that, but it’s more of a sleepier laid back New York.  Unlike New York where life begins after dark, Toronto is more somber in its mood.  And like its sister Vancouver, the gustatory delights of Toronto will wow you!

Casa Loma, the CN Tower, St. Lawrence Market, and the Eaton Shopping Centre we definite musts in downtown Toronto.  Of course, why go to Toronto if you don’t drive to Niagara Falls.  That breathtaking view alone is enough reason to pass by Toronto! Thanks to my friend who took the time to drive us through the US Border (one throw to Buffalo, New York) for some retail therapy (the US is just plastered with so many outlets that there’s one right in the heart of Buffalo) as well.

When you’re in this side of Toronto, don’t forget to wine and dine at the Distillery District for a smorgasbord treat of what it’s like to welcoming the diverse cultures in the heart of Toronto.

Truly, Canada is one country that greets everyone Bienvenue!

Stereotypically wowed in Spain

Our final destination on the European trip was Barcelona.

Two years later, Barcelona, Madrid and Toledo were part of our itinerary on our return trip from South America.

Passionate. Sophisticated. La Vida Loca! y más!

Barcelona

Home to Catalan culture, modernism and the gastronomic feast of pure indulgence in eating with gusto! And as if traveling to one of the liveliest cities this part of the world isn’t enough, this city that rests its laurels on the architect Antoni Gaudi is home to Casa Milà, Casa Battló, and the famous Sagrada Família church.  The 1992 summer Olympic Games was hosted by Spain and held in Barcelona.

During our first trip, we stayed at the Ohla Hotel.  Swank and weirdly modern, the bathroom and shower was right in the middle of the room and the water closet hidden on a wall behind the bathroom.  It smelled so good and they serve champagne on check-in.  Their food at the Gastronomic Bar served excellent food!

Let me put it this way, every place we ate made our tastebuds tingle for more.  Your palate wrests on local Cava, sirloin steak in sea salt and pepper, tapas, mussels in white wine sauce, Sangria…what isn’t there to love when it comes to food in Barcelona? The word “diet” has no place in Spain.

There is a subway station right in front of Ohla Hotel and is in a more quiet area of Barcelona.  It is walking distance to the Hop On/Hop Off bus stop and located one block from the back of the hotel is the Barcelona Shopping Line, where you have over 5 Km of design and creativity.  It is Europe’s largest retail area and literally just a stone’s throw to the words “shop till you drop” district!

On our second trip we stayed at another boutique hotel called Omm.  This one was at the other end of the Barcelona Shopping Line and right in front of all the noise, chitter chatter, and night life of Barcelona! What better location than to be right beside Prada and Diagonal Exit Metro Subway. Of course, we got to explore more of Barcelona including La Rambla, where the Philippine Consulate is located.

The icing to the cake on this trip was courtesy of Hotel Omm.  They had a special feature for dinner during our stay.  And no, it wasn’t at their hotel.  We took a cab to get to Barceloneta Beach, where dinner was at the Pez Vela of the W Hotel.  And my God, what a spread.  This was dinner for two!

No wonder gluttony is so sinfully good.

Madrid

Because technically, Madrid was a stopover en route to and from Singapore to Brazil, we made sure that we spent a couple of days in Madrid as well.  And it did not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, we loved Madrid more than Barcelona.  While Barcelona has that eclectic feel, that radiant vibe, that chutzpah as a city, Madrid is an artist’s palate of a city.   If you love the food in Barcelona, none of that matches the food in Madrid – and rightfully claiming the culinary capital of Europe. And the evenings in Madrid are made for fine arts and fine dining.  Never have I spent so much to taste food this great, and not regret a single Euro!

But eating is not the only thing that will captivate your hearts in Madrid.  From medieval mansions to royal palaces, from the lazy markets to the lovely garden Parque de Buen Retiro, none of the cities in Spain compares to how beautiful the city of Madrid is.

Toledo

This can be either a day trip or a half day trip.  Take the bus from the market place in Madrid for this destination which is about 30 minutes by high speed train or a little over an hour by bus.  We took the bus.  And I would recommend just the half day walking tour.  Go first thing in the morning (so it’s not too warm), have lunch there and get back to the city.  The buses are every hour on the hour.

Dramatically set atop a gorge overlooking Rio Tajo, the stories have it that once upon a time, Christians, Muslims and Jewish communities co-existed peacefully in this place.  And you can tell during the walking tour of Toledo how deep that culture is. The forte of Toledo is the art of El Greco.  An impossible to classify painter, as synonymous as the city of Toledo.

If there is one country that one should just travel to (without having to hop from country to country), Spain is definitely among those on the top of my list.

The other two – Canada and Japan.

When in Rome…

The capital of Italy is home to one of the world’s most romantic and inspiring cities.

It was also the first stop in our whirlwind summer vacation going from Italy to France then finally Spain.

From Manila, Philippines, we took a night flight on Emirates Airlines with one stop in Dubai and changed aircraft to an A380 (double decker) for our flight from Dubai to Rome, Italy.

All flights from Manila were on a 777-300.  Unlike the lounges in Manila, the Emirates lounges in Dubai were sprawling.  And the upper deck of the A380 had its own access during boarding.  It was an experience on its own.  Food was good, amenities were great, entertainment was non-stop, and yes, this plane had a bar on its own for its first and business class passengers. Emirates is also the first airline to offer limousine service for passengers flying on biz or first class to and from the airport, to your final destination on arrival (in our case, our hotel).

Sofitel Hotel Villa Borghese was home to us for the next few days.  While it may not seem too fancy, it was comfortable enough because of its accessibility on foot to many of Rome’s quaint destinations. The Hermés bath amenities were two thumbs up!

For a country that is deeply rich in history and artistry, a trip to Rome is about living dolce vita lifestyle and embracing the arts and culture, people watching, sitting by the cafes and watching people drift by.  Oh, and yes, for the tourists like us, from the Fontana of Trevi to the Colosseum to the Pantheon, appreciating Rome on foot was an exhilarating experience.

It’s a great reminder that in the midst of the grandeur of Rome, lies a grander city, the Vatican City, where the seat of the Catholic Church lies.  St. Peter’s Basilica is the Vatican’s epic showpiece of Renaissance architecture. Take one whole day to appreciate the Vatican City (which is a country in itself with the Pope as its titular head of state) and immerse yourself with the history and feel of being at the pulpit of Catholic religion.  A guided tour is a must in order to appreciate your trip here.

A few tips from me.  Don’t eat in any crappy sidewalk cafe.  It’s really not worth it.  We had dinner of one pizza and one pasta for 50euros for two on our first night. Insanely, it was horrible food.  In short, don’t short change yourself with a lousy meal by eating on the roadside cafes.  Never again. Second, be careful of gypsies.  They’re all over.  They will distract you, and before you know it, your things are gone.  And they’re good.  Very very good. And that is part of the story of this European trip. Finally, make sure you have great walking shoes.  Rome is a small city.  And transportation is most efficient by taxi…or walking.

When in Rome…don’t look and act like a tourist.  When in Italy, be uber careful with your belongings.  And no matter how careful you get, here’s one country where you can’t get much help with the police.  Know the address and contact number of your embassy.  Believe me when I say that this will come in handy…in Italy.

Edgy with grace in Athens

This is one of two parts on our vacation to Greece.

Arriving at the world’s ancient capital, we decided to spend 3 days and 2 nights in Athens before traveling to Santorini.

We figured that traveling during a European summer would be the right weather.  Not! It was scorching hot when we landed in Athens, at 36 degrees centigrade. Not only was the weather not cooperative, the taxi drivers decided to go on strike the same day we arrived! (Which meant that we would need to do a lot of walking, and carrying, while we’re here!) Of course, as mythology would put it, curses come in threes.  We arrived on a Monday! After checking in the hotel and decided to have lunch and do a bit of sight seeing around in the early afternoon, lo and behold, the shops were closed. In Athens, most of the stores are open only from 9AM – 3PM.

What was there to do but enjoy our hotel in the scorching heat?

Home was the Grande Bretagne Hotel. It is one of the most grand (if not the grandest) hotel in Athens.  It faces the Parliament House, where you can literally see from the hotel lobby the hourly changing of the guards.

The location of the hotel was well within a few blocks walk of most of the places one should visit in Athens.  Kolonaki (about 2 1/2 blocks from Syntagma Square) was a perfect place for dining! Lunch at Pritanlon was excellent.  Servings were good enough for two people.  The evening was not as hot and dinner at Cibus in the National Gardens was the perfect choice to watch day change into night after 9PM. In the evening, the Parthenon on the Acropolis literally lights up for a perfect view.

The sweltering weather at 40 degrees Centigrade the following day wasn’t kind to the weary traveller.  And with the layers and layers of history, the remnants of Ancient Greece get the most attraction from its myths, dramas and philosophy.  One cannot forget what Greece had to go through in 2009, as its political and economic drama unfolded for the world to witness at how clearly one country can get  severely affected from an economic crisis. Lives had changed and businesses had become bankrupt.  I would have ventured that, had it not be for the thriving tourism industry particularly in the islands of Greece, the economic crisis may have been catastrophic to the Greek people.

Like many places in Athens, the perfect views from city had to be the Acropolis.  And at the 8th floor of Bretagne Hotel, where we had our breakfast, this was a sight to behold.

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One train ride from the Syntagma Station (right under our hotel, thank God!, it would have been difficult to travel in the sweltering heat), to the Acropolis Station was our final destination.  As you alight from the landings, the Acropolis Station has many quaint boutiques and restaurants.

The trek up the Acropolis seemed it.

But looks can be deceiving.  If you don’t have the cardiovascular strength to complete this, you can simply photoshop yourself and say – you were here. But here’s some shots to show you that we did our cardiovascular share for the day.  And while all the sunblock (SPF50++) had eventually disappeared from all the sweat that drenched our clothes (literally drenched with sweat), that trip up and personal to the Acropolis was so worth the trek.