Monday, 31 August 2009

Outlet shopping in Tuscany

Yep, the three of us trekked down to Toscana to check out the outlets! First on the list, was to rent a low-priced car and lo and behold, we got what we paid for - a teeny-weeny stick-shift Cory-yellow panda Fiat, where the distance between the back passenger seat and the trunk was an arm's length. Thank god our luggage fit! The cost was 45 Euros a day, 50 for the GPS and an additional 50 to return the GPS back to the original pick-up point.

Getting to Pisa, our side trip before hitting the outlets, was not easy. The last time we drove a stick shift was ages ago and there was a slight delay in receiving GPS satellite signals and thus, we kept missing the turns. We now know the SS1/A1 motorways like the back of our hands and spent a small fortune in tolls. Pisa was teeming with tourists and boiling at 40 degrees when we arrived. Despite the tourist trap warnings of Andy M., we ended up having lunch in an A/C restaurant right at the square which served us scaled down estiva (supposedly, family portion) salad and pizzas with minuscule toppings.

After lunch, we drove eastward to Lo Spaccio , the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. However, as soon as we hit the A1, the GPS went haywire and blanked out! We detoured to the nearest car rental office, which is at the Firenze Airport to have the GPS replaced. The guy at the rental office said to just press reset and off we go,back on track on A1.

It's a bit tricky to get to Lo Spaccio as it is located in an industrial area and there's no directional signs. The outlet is right behind the Prada factory. Unfortunately, it was closed that day.

We headed back up north to Reggello, to the next outlet called The Mall. It is famous for high-end designer brands like Gucci, Armani, Bottega Venetta, La Perla, Tods, etc. Alas we only had less than two hours to look-see-shop as the outlet was closing.

After The Mall, we drove to Villa Olena, a converted farmhouse which was only 15-min away up a winding road. The villa is right on top of a hill overlooking the Pratomagno range. It has a swimming pool, tennis court and seven apartments; each equipped with a stove/oven, dishwasher, satellite TV, iron and board, blow dryer, heater.. everything except an A/C!!

The best thing though, the villa is a short distance to a family-owned restaurant called Osteria Massacio where the father is the chef, the mother is the maître d', the siblings are servers. We started with a summer salad with feta cheese and nuts served in a gigantic bowl (mind you, we didn't order estiva)and prosciutto with arugula; then, fresh-marketed squid (black-ink pasta) and a huge steak topped with arugula seasoned with fresh olive oil; a bottle of Cipresseto Rosata di Toscana rosé; and ended with a panacota and pudding for dessert. Simply divine!

The next day, we were an hour early in Lo Spaccio. There are only two restaurants in the area - one was closed for the whole of month of August and the other opens at noon. We found a nondescript deli on the main road where we ate breakfast. At 10am, we headed back to the outlet and again, found out it was chiuso!! Was this a sign?!?

We decided to drive up to Firenze to drop Pinky's luggage in her hotel in Dante Alegheri (next to where Dante was born) before checking out the last outlet called Barberino Designer Outlet in Barberino. It's an American-like outlet with popular mid-range brands and very touristy since it's close to Firenze.

By the time we were to ready to return the car, the GPS finally conked out. It was the same guy who reset the faulty GPS who was at the return office. We were very lucky since he deducted the cost from our bill which saved us 100 Euros!!

Here's some tips to enjoy outlet shopping in Toscana:
1. Rent-a-car and book a villa to enjoy Tuscany's sights, food and drink (it's the Chianti region). If you haven't been to Sienna or Pisa, try to do a side trip on the way to or from the outlets. Make sure to fully-charge your GPS unit and buy a map, print out directions from google map in case the GPS conks out on you.
2. Try to avoid tourist trap restaurants. The food is pricey and taste so-so. Bring snacks, fruits and drinks in the car.
3. Before heading out to Lo Spaccio or any of the outlets, CALL first to make sure its open especially during the summer months. Lo Spaccio is difficult to find and the farthest eastward.
4. Most of the shops in the outlets participate in EU's VAT-refund scheme. Check the minimum value of purchases to qualify. Normally, it's E125 total in a single receipt. If you don't make the minimum, try to pool your purchases. The shop will fill out a form and put it together with the receipt in an envelope. At the airport, visit customs first to get an export validation stamp. Present the refund form(s) together with your boarding pass and passport. Bring your luggage with you because the customs officer may request to see the goods purchased. Then proceed to check-in your luggage at the bag drop. Before going through immigration, head to the bank to claim the refund which is about 16% to 20% of the sale price.
5. If you haven't been to Firenze, you must stay at least two days to explore this Renaissance capital.

The Outlets (farthest from Florence):
1) Lo Spaccio: Via Levanella Becorpi, Località Levanella, Montevarchi 52025 (Exit Valdarno on A1) Call to check if open: +39 55 9789481
2) The Mall: 8 Via Europa, Leccio Reggello 50060 (Exit: Incisa on A1), Tel +39 055 8657775, open from Mon-Sat 10-7pm and Sun from 3-7pm
3) Barberino Designer Outlet: Via Meucci 50031 Barberino del Mugello (right at the Barberino exit), Tel +39 55 842161, open from Tue-Fri from 10-8pm and Sat-Sun from 10 to 9pm.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

"Ich bin ein Berliner"

That's what John F. Kennedy said when he visited Berlin in 1963 during the Cold War, 22 months after the Soviet-supported communist state of East Germany built the Berlin Wall. The wall was 155km long and the height was 3.6 meters. He said "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner."
After biking around the city, I must say that Kennedy would be thrilled to see Berliners enjoying their freedom. The country was reunified after the tearing down of the wall on November 9, 1989.
I dared cross Check Point Charlie to see DDR or then, the dreaded Deutsche Demokratische Republik, when I was backpacking around Europe in the 1980s. I remember it being grey and gloomy, a complete contrast to the punk, vibrant and rebellious West Berlin. I was frightened when the border police wouldn't let me cross back since I didn't use all the DDR money. I had to go back to spend every Deutsch Mark and panicking when it was nearing dark.
Now there is not much left of the wall except in the East side where it it is now fenced (right photo) to fend off rummaging souvenir hunters and in the Freidrichshain area where the open air gallery called The East Side Gallery use the remaining part of the wall to exhibit about 100 paintings (murals) by artists from all over the world.
This year 2009 is a great time to visit Berlin as it marks its 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution that led to the fall of Berlin which precipitated the reunification of East-West Germany and Europe and the end of the Cold War.
Some paintings from the East Gallery:

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Knowledge Channel turns 10!!

Knowledge Channel, the country's only all-educational TV channel on cable kicked off its 10th anniversary last Friday in Strums. It was a fun, relaxed gathering of friends and partners in education.
A lot of people still think that Knowledge Channel is another Discovery or National Geographic channel. What they don't know is, it is the flagship program of Knowledge Channel Foundation Inc. (KCFI), a Filipino non-stock, non-profit organization. Knowledge Channel is a curriculum-based and life skills programming channel made accessible primarily to public schools for free through broadcast (cable TV).
Rina Lopez-Bautista, co-founder and president of KCFI said "we believe that EDUCATION provides HOPE. For every school reached and with each Filipino student benefiting from Knowledge Channel, they are provided a better chance to extricate themselves from a life of poverty. This educational intervention paves the road towards the realization of their dreams for a better way of life."
Right now Knowledge Channel is already in 2,000 public schools in 52 provinces, benefiting about 2.6 million students in the public school system all the way up North in Itbayat, Batanes down to Sitangkay, Tawi Tawi. I am very fortunate to be part of KCFI’s 3-year USAID-assisted program called Television Education for the Advancement of Muslim Mindanao or TEAM-Mindanao for short where some 78,529 students located in the remotest and isolated areas of Mindanao are now getting the quality education they rightfully deserve. I've been to “No man’s land and where no one dared to tread” in North Cotobato (Nov 2007), Tawi Tawi (2006) and Maguindanao (2005).
There will three more intimate gatherings for the next first Fridays of the month. 21-year old preppy-rocker Yeng Constantino sang the new theme song of Knowledge Channel "May K ako!" and I think will be present in the next shindigs.
With a target of more than 40,000 public schools and 17 million student beneficiaries all over the country., there is still a long way to go and I hope you can help KCFI keep it going for another decade or so!
Here's Yeng singing "May K ako":

Saturday, 1 August 2009

All roads lead to La Salle, to Tita Cory

Its a sad sad day in in Manila and the heavens are mourning too with this downpour. The traffic in my hood in Greenhills has been bad since this morning where it seems like everyone is headed to La Salle to pay tribute to Tita Cory.
The remains of the former president of the Philippines and national hero is now in the school for public viewing.
She passed away this morning at 3:18am of cardio-respiratory arrest. She has been suffering from colon cancer for more than a year.
I remember this People Power icon, great woman-power role model, my hero who was hurled into politics when her husband ex-Senator Ninoy Aquino was murdered at the tarmac of the airport. I was studying in Brussels then and would be glued on TV to find out what's going on back home while my sisters would march to EDSA and be part of history.
Quotable quotes of Cory (from Boo): “I could have rigged the 1992 elections for my successor. Instead, I directed the chiefs of the military to do the country proud by assuring a fair and free election, whatever the result. Better still, I could have run myself. The constitutional limitation of a single presidential term did not apply to me. But that limitation was a cornerstone of the new Constitution I had caused to be drafted and for which I vigorously campaigned. How could I serve as the first example of its moral violation?”
"June 30, 1992 was therefore one of the proudest moments of my life. I was stepping down and handing the presidency to my duly elected successor. This was what my husband had died for; he had returned precisely to forestall an illegal political succession. This moment is democracy's glory: the peaceful transfer of power without bloodshed, in strict accordance with law.”
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy and human rights in 1986 but lost to Elie Wiesel. We will surely miss Tita Cory!