Winery Visit: Pio Cesare

June 8, 2016

“Ah, the masters. You are fortunate.”

Such was Giacomo Conterno’s response when I mentioned Pio Cesare was up next. Founded in 1881 and the only winery still based in central Alba, it is not a stretch to suggest Pio Cesare is a pillar to Barolo’s winemaking tradition with an established track record that’s unrivaled in the area. Now run by the fifth generation, Pio, as it is commonly known, isn’t opened to public but somehow I managed to secure an invitation after a few email exchanges with David, who was in charge of business development.

Pio is obviously proud of its heritage. Certificates of competitions won a century ago decorated the walls of its meeting room. “We do have the history here. What we don’t have is a systematic approach of showcasing our heritage like the French,” explained David, “When Bordeaux came up with its classification system Italy was not even a country yet. Slowly we are storing our older vintages but we are still decades away.”

Like many producers in the area Pio is a family business; daily operation is run by four people while harvest is outsourced to a contractor that mainly hires Eastern Europeans. Under Pio’s control are more than 50 hectares of vineyards in Barolo, represented by Ornato and Colombaro in Serralunga d’Alba, Gustava in Grinzane Cavour,  Roncaglie in La Morra and Ravera in Barolo- Novello. It also owns Treiso’s Il Bricco and San Stefanetto crus in Barbaresco. Pio grows 90% of the grapes used for its wine production. 80% of its wine is exported mainly to the United States, Great Britain and Switzerland.

Cellar

A century-old heritage could be both a blessing and a burden, as David repeatedly pointed out while leading us around the maze-like cellar which he labeled “a logistical nightmare.” The cellar was composed of two parts — the original building, constructed during the Napoleon era, retained sections of a wall that dated back to the Romans. An extension that handled fermentation was built in the early 2000s.

During production the unfinished wine is constantly on the move; fermentation in the new section; aging is spread across the entire estate depending on which barrels and barriques are used; at last bottling and storage take place in the new wing. For Barolo the fermentation lasts between 15 – 20 days. The wine ages in both large casks and new barriques, both made with mildly toasted French oak.

Towards the end of our tour we came across a cabinet full bottles of wine that were decades-old. None was drinkable anymore. Without much branding value they sat in the darkest corner of the cellar, any drawing the rarest of attention when the occasional outsiders like us gave them a curious glance.

Wine tasting

We began our tasting with the 2014 L’Altro Chardonnay, a blend from crus in Treiso, Serralunga d’Alba and Trezzo Tinella. 75% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and the remaining 25% in new French oak barriques. Lees were kept for 5 months until bottling.

A classic Burgundian style Chardonnay, the wine had a clean palate with a touch of oak and lees. A simple and light wine good as a pre-dinner drink.

“There is no such thing as a basic Barolo,” David shook his head while pouring the 2012 Barolo into our glasses. “Those who label their Barolos as basic are disrespecting the standard of this premium wine. Would Prada ever release a line of bag calls basic?”

With a cold spring followed by hailstorms in summer, the 2012 vintage was a challenging one that varied greatly depending on the producers. This Barolo was fermented with skin in stainless steel tanks for 20 days then aged for 3 years with 70% in casks and 30% in barriques.

Not yet its peak, this medium-bodied Barolo had high tannin and medium-plus in red fruit with a medium-plus finish. I found it fruiter than expected and could be consumed within a decade.

Seeing we were not exactly in awe by the Barolo, David revealed his trump card and came back with the 2012 Ornato Barolo. The namesake cru is located in Serralunga d’Alba and is considered one of the top vineyards in the area. Fermentation lasted 15 days and then aged in casks and barriques, 30% and 70% respectively.

The Ornato Barolo cost about 50% higher than the Barolo in retail, but the difference was substantial. The palate included a sweet dose of cherry, along with a minerality and an earthiness that distinguished Barolo. This wine was far from its peak and could age for a long time.

 

Tuscany Beyond Florence

June 2016
Photo set on Flickr

One can easily spend weeks in Tuscany and not see everything, a region blessed with historic hilltop villages, iconic landmarks, world-class vineyards and mesmeric landscapes. We had a week split between Montefollonico and a farm near San Gimignano and managed to visit (and in some cases revisit) the following places.

Siena

For those who doesn’t plan to hire a car, Siena makes a good home base for Tuscany. Granted, Siena does not process nearly the same amount of attractions as Florence, but this medieval hilltop town has a more inviting atmosphere. It is touristy though not nearly on its more famous neighbor’s level. And since most of them are half-day trippers (they only spend an hour or two at each town before tour buses ship them to their next destination), Siena begins to quiet down in the late afternoon.

For four centuries until 1555, Siena was an independent republic and a prominent rival to Florence until it was defeated by an alliance of Medici’s Florence and Spain in the Italian War of 1551–1559. The main plaza, Piazza Del Campo, is very photogenic, and I find Siena’s Duomo to be as impressive as Florence’s. Surrounded by centuries-old buildings, getting lost in Siena’s narrow alleys was more enjoyable than anything we did in Florence where the inescapable crowd made a simple walk a tiring and unsatisfying experience.

A local festival took place when we were at the top of Torre del Mangia, the clock tower at the main plaza. Drumbeats echoed through the entire town and the surrounding hills. When we got back to the ground, we followed the drumbeats and reached a gathering of paraders, each dressed in traditional clothing and holding either a flag or a drum. The drumbeats were deafening at such close range. We trailed the parade crowd and without prior planning reached the plaza where the bus from Florence dropped us off earlier in the day. The sky was getting dark, yet the parade showed no sign of slowing down.

San Gimignano

Many hilltop villages dot the landscape around Siena. We only had time for one and we went with San Gimignano because of the simple fact that it was the closest to where we were staying. Famous for its fourteen well-preserved medieval towers, San Gimignano was once a thriving stop along the Via Francigena pilgrimage route to Rome until Black Death wiped out half of its population. Neglected as backwater, San Gimignano saw little development over the next five centuries, which was the main reason why its towers remain intact while those in Florence and other cities were destroyed by war or urban renewal. After the unification of Italy, the town reemerged as a resort and artistic haven thanked to its unscathed historic core.

Besides its towers, San Gimignano is also renowned for its saffron and white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano. We had our best meal in Tuscany at Ristorante Dorando, a member of Slow Food, and some decent gelato at Gelateria Dondoli. The town is quite touristy as it almost completely depends on tourism, but with plenty of decent restaurants it makes a fine if nonessential half-day stop.

I only took one photo — on Via Giacomo Matteotti close to the main car park where the entire town can be captured in one frame.

Pisa

Pisa is mass tourism at its worst. Alright maybe that’s a little much — nothing can actually beat cruises — but it is right there near the bottom along with the likes of Time Square, Hollywood and Madame Tussauds. The real pity is, unlike those other tourist traps, Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli is an architectural gem that deserves anyone’s focus and time, but two factors make any visit a frustrating experience.

Without a doubt, Pisa was by far the ugliest town we came across in Tuscany and Umbria. The Leaning Tower is the only attraction in town and nothing else is there to divert the crowd. No matter your method of travel, whether you are traveling on your own or joining a tour, your impression of Pisa will invariably be the same as everyone else’s.

The majority of people has one goal in mind in Pisa — take a generic photo where they appear to be propping up the tower from collapsing. They leave. Then a new wave of people show up to do the exact same thing. Soon your perception will change — what’s standing in front of you is no longer a seven-century-old medieval masterpiece but one of the world’s tackiest photo background.

Even if you want to leave the scene as soon as you have taken your mandatory photo, at least go visit the Romanesque baptistery, the largest in Italy celebrated for its excellent acoustics.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Forget about pasta and pizza — in Tuscany Bistecca alla Fiorentina rules. This local variation of porterhouse uses one of the oldest, tallest and heaviest breeds of cattle — the Chianina, one of two indigenous beef breeds of Italy. Haven’t heard of it? While the Chianina breed is exported to other countries, unlike Angus or Wagyu there is very little marketing around Chianina that’s not raised in Italy, and there are only less than 50,000 registered heads in its native country, the majority of them in Tuscany and Umbria. They are fed on grass, slaughtered at 16-18 months once they reach 650–700 kg and almost all consumed locally.

While there are restaurants in most towns that serve this dish, it is generally cheaper outside of Florence or Siena. We chose La Taverna di Vagliagli in Vagliagli, 30 min north of Siena in the heart of Chianti. Served at cold rare traditionally, the thickly cut steak was grilled over wood for about 4 min on each side and 5 min on its bone. Seasoning was kept to a little salt and pepper along with a generous dose of olive oil. The flavor was subtle because the meat was so raw, but the texture was firmer than the typical grain-fed beef. Cold rare was too raw for me — I learned about the local culinary culture more than how much I really enjoyed the meal. The bill for four was €100 including 16 oz of beef, some starters and a glass of Chianti.

Crete Senesi

South of Siena along SS 438 from Taverne D’arbia to San Giovanni d’Asso is a hilly area referred as Crete Senesi. The soil in this area is heavy in clay and gives the landscape a distinguished grey and brown tone compared to the greenery of Chianti or Val d’Orcia. Along with the latter this is where most of the classic Tuscan landscape photos are taken.

We drove along SS 438 to Asciano, onward to SP 451 to Monte Oliveto Maggiore, then back north to Siena on the same route. I personally find Crete Senesi’s scenery to be a little more diverse than Val d’Orcia’s due to its wider range of colors.

Val d’Orcia

Travelers are always at nature’s mercy and our luck ran out during our two days in Val d’Orcia. Rain poured incessantly aside from a brief respite of morning sunshine on the first day. Not only did the weather fail to cooperate, nothing much went according to plan. The Benedictine monks at Sant’Antimo Abbey were AWOL. Restaurants closed their doors because of heavy rain. Supermarkets ran out of stock on basically everything. We even experienced an afternoon of hail that might have damaged some of the prized Sangiovese vines in the area.

The landscape, especially the stretch between San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino, was photogenic, though not demonstrably superior to Crete Senesi’s. I am definitely biased from what I had endured, but unless you are a big Brunello di Montalcino fan I would suggest sticking to the area around Siena for more choices of activities and sights.

Pienza

Not many people had heard of the little town of Corsignano, located in the middle of Val d’Orcia, before a certain poet with a particular interest in erotica was elected pope in 1458. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, born in this humble town in 1405, ruled as Pius II for six years. His reign resulted in only two accomplishments — the only autobiography ever written by a reigning pope and completely rebuilding his hometown into his papal summer retreat and renaming it Pienza. He sure did spend most of his energy on securing his own legacy, but he would always be known first and foremost for his passion of pornographic poetry.

Enlisted the help of the Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli, Pius II’s vision of his “ideal town” incorporated Renaissance humanist elements like civic engagement and the revival of arts and philosophy of classic antiquity. What looks like a typical Italian Renaissance town to us was in fact a pioneering attempt back in Pius II’s days. After enduring the Middle Ages’ centuries of chaos, urban planning was a novel concept at the time and it quickly spread to other parts of Italy and subsequently much of Europe.

Pienza’s main sights such as the Duomo and Piccolomini Palace congregate at Piazza Pio II. We didn’t go inside of any of the sights, but we found Pienza to be a pleasant town to stock up on food and take a casual stroll along its one main road where all the shops were located.

How to Manage Florence in 10 Hours

June 3, 2016

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Florence. I much prefer taking day trips to the Tuscan capital from Siena or a rental house in the countryside, which was what we did this time. We did this day trip with friends who had never been to Florence, and they had followed my suggested itinerary of some of the greatest hits with a few lesser known sights. A little rush, a little tiring by the end, but entirely doable for those who don’t want to pay the Florentine price for food and accommodation.

9:00 – Piazzale Michelangelo

The best view of Florence is located on the other side of Arno River from the town center at Piazzale Michelangelo, and this is where we began our day. A little known fact about Florence — for six years from 1865 – 1871 it was the capital of the recently united Italy and the city underwent a period of urban renewal to match its newfound status. One of the creation of this period was Piazzale Michelangelo, designed by Giuseppe Poggi to commemorate the legendary artist.

9:30 – Boboli Garden

On the way from Piazzale Michelangelo to town center you will come across the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the House of Medici, whom between the 15th – 18th century ruled Florence and bankrolled much of the Renaissance movement.

Behind the palace is the Medici’s former private garden, a lavish 11 acre of green space with an expansive view of the city. Its name Boboli is actually a corruption of the word “Bogoli”, the original owner of the land before being purchased by the Medicis. What looks like a simple garden from our modern perspective is in fact a groundbreaking creation back in the 16th century, starting from the fact that the location had no natural water source and required the construction of an intricate irrigation system to carry water from the nearby Arno River. Many elements that defined the 16th-century Italian garden style, such as wide gravel avenues, a heavy use of stone, the employment of statuary and fountains, and the garden’s general spaciousness, were first introduced here.

The Boboli Garden might not merit a detour and the €15 entrance fee is steep, but acting as an along-the-way stop it does offer a glimpse of the Medici’s former influence over Florence. This is also your last chance of some open space before crossing the Arno into the city’s tourist heart.

10:30 – Uffizi

Don’t say I haven’t warned you — the area surrounding Florence’s three principal sights of Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Duomo is one of the most congested places in Europe. 16 million tourists descend upon this city of 350,000 annually and most of them never venture away from the Uffizi or Duomo.

One month in advance you should have ordered the tickets for both the Uffizi and Accademia. These two world-class museums completely justify this slight hassle. Don’t be spontaneous and arrive without an online reservation — the queue easily lasts for more than an hour and sometimes tickets are even sold out. The Uffizi’s online ticket costs €23 each. Or if you intend to follow all the stops on this itinerary you can purchase the €50 Florence card that will cover most of the city’s attractions and public transport for three days. The queue is shorter for Florence Card holder but not as seamless as reserved ticket holders.

Constructed in 1581, the Uffizi Gallery was initially designed to be the offices of the Florentine magistrate, administration and state archive. Display of the Medici’s prominent art collection was designated to the main floor and a room called the Tribuna degli Uffizi. Eventually the building served solely as the Medici’s art gallery and after the fall of the family it became one of the world’s first public museum in 1765.

Just like the Rijksmuseum is to Dutch art and the Museum of Cairo is to Egyptian antiquities, Renaissance paintings equals the Uffizi. After enduring centuries of stagnation during the Middle Ages in which art was not viewed as a creative expression but rather a monotonous devotion to the faith, artists in 15th century Florence reevaluated how art should be defined. What emerged was the Florentine School, led by the likes of Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, which emphasized on depicting subjects in a naturalistic manner with realistic proportion, lighting, space and form. Bankrolled by the banking family of the Medici, art was expanded beyond the religious realm and included subjects like human portraits and Classical antiquities. What resulted was an artistic movement that transformed the western world to this day.

Allow two hours for a greatest-hit tour highlighted by Luppi’s Madonna and Child (c.~1450) and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1480s), onward to Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (1506) and The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo (1507), and conclude with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Caravaggio’s Medusa (1596).

13:15 – lunch at Trattoria Sostanz

Florence has a few iconic dishes — tripe sandwich, Bistecca Alla Fiorentina and butter chicken. I find most of the sandwich joints to taste about the same. As for the t-bone steak, you should head to Chianti or Siena. So that leaves us with one choice — Trattoria Sostanz’s butter chicken.

Located on Via del Porcellana a few blocks from the Duomo, this unassuming eatery has been serving simple local dishes for decades. Patrons are crammed to every remaining space of the tiny interior sharing the few available tables with strangers. Despite some raving this is where locals eat, during our visit we only came across other fellow tourists. Let not kid ourselves — it is impossible to get off the beaten path in Florence.

One order came with two pieces of chicken breast (€20) that was served in a small metal pan. The chicken was first deep fried then put into an oven with a generous portion of butter. The meat was tender and not as oily as expected. Seasoning was kept to a minimum and the flavor that stood out was the chicken itself. A good experience but one that I am not eager to try again — the butter, while not a negative, doesn’t do much to the overall taste of the dish.

15:00 – St. Marco

An underrated aspect of Florence is its huge wealth of Renaissance arts. If you can tolerant the crowd you can easily spend days here without seeing everything. People from all around the planet come to see the works of Michelangelo or Botticelli, but how many have even heard of Fra Angelico, one of the best celebrated artists during the Early Renaissance?

In most other cities, St. Marco, a former convent and home to the largest collection of Angelico’s frescoes, would be a top draw, but in Florence it is a relatively obscure afterthought. Which is the perfect place for a post-lunch stroll without bumping shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. Its €4 ticket is also lighter for your wallet than the hefty fees you have paid at other attractions thus far.

Angelico’s works are scattered around the convent with frescoes dotting its many rooms and halls. His style was simple and direct, fit for a setting like a convent and revealed the artist’s own humility and piety.

16:15 – Accademia 

Enjoy St Marco’s tranquility? Good, but now is time to rejoin the crowd and pick up your second reserved ticket at the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David (c.1504) since 1873. Initially planned as a museum dedicated to the Renaissance artist, the Accademia only manages to secure a small collection by Michelangelo, yet its single drawing card is so famous the gallery is one of Florence’s most visited sites.

Many people wonder, as there is a replica of David next to the Uffizi in the Piazza della Signoria, why pay €16.5 for ticket to see the exact same thing? I am not an art expert who can point out the differences between the two, but the 17 ft tall marble original, squeaky clean and free from erosion, appears to stand prouder than its outdoor counterpart. €16.5 is a small price to pay to marvel at mankind’s closest attempt to a perfect sculpture.

17:15 – Giotto’s Campanile

You won’t be able to see everything on this day trip, and one of the things you will miss is going inside the Duomo to glance at Federico Zuccari’s magnificent frescoes. Unfortunately the Duomo doesn’t have an online ticketing system and queuing lasts for hours on average.

Although you won’t be going inside, you can climb the 414 steps at the adjacent bell tower for a sweeping view of the cathedral. Completed in 1436 after more than 140 years of construction, the Duomo’s most striking feature is no doubt its brick dome, the largest ever built and an engineering breakthrough at a period when Gothic buttresses were the norm.

The €15 combined ticket also includes entry to the Museum Opera del Duomo and the dome but it is highly unlikely you will have time for them.

19:00 – Ponte Vecchio

On a bridge along the Arno River facing the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, is an unexpectedly peaceful spot on top of a stone support over the fence. If you are lucky you will find it unoccupied and for once you can enjoy an iconic Florentine view without being surrounded by others.

Romans had first built a bridge across this narrowest section of the Arno, and after a few incarnations the current structure was rebuilt in 1345. It was the only intact bridge in Florence after German retreated from Italy during World War II and today it is lined up with gold merchants.

That concludes the day trip. If you find yourself wanting more of Florence, you might be one of millions who call the Tuscan capital their favorite city in the world. I, on the other hand, only want to get out of town after seeing its main sights and have a reasonably priced dinner in Chianti.

Seoul’s Traditional Side

Recently I have found myself in Seoul at least once a year for work. Much destroyed during the first half of the 20th century, contemporary Seoul is a concrete jungle mostly indistinguishable from other East Asian metropolises and lacks appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore K-pop fan, gambler, shopaholic or prospective face job recipient.

Even after several visits I have yet to warm up to Seoul, but the one thing besides its eating scene I admire about the city is its frenetic energy, most visible at midnight in Dongdaemun when the entire district is abuzz with engrossed buyers trying to get some stock of the latest fast fashion. The fabled Korean work ethic is on full display here — most stalls are opened 10 am – 5 am, 365 days a year. Taking a walk here reveals a glimpse of the good and bad of modern Korea; the collective effort that drives the country into a global economic power in only a few decades’ time and the tremendously high social cost which follows.

Behind Seoul’s breakneck pace of modernization is a city that remains fiercely proud of its past and has painstakingly rebuilt some of its physical heritage that was razed during the Japanese occupation and Korean War. Today within day trip distance from the city are five World Heritage Sites, a majority of them from the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). Confucianism, one of the great ancient Chinese schools of thought and in Mao’s mind the leading cause of China’s decline, inexplicably finds a home in contemporary South Korea and manages to influence every trace of South Korean life. This traditional side of Seoul, a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and folk culture, is easy to discover, even during a short visit.

Gyeongbokgung

Five palaces were built when the Joseon established Seoul as its capital in the late 14th century – Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung, all of which were recently rebuilt after suffering severe damages during the Japanese occupation. Gyeongbokgung, the main royal residence and the most important of all the palaces, also is the most popular tourist draw due to its daily changing of the guards ceremonies.

The 40-hectare complex houses some of South Korea’s most important buildings, including Geunjeongjeon (Imperial Throne Hall), Gyeonghoeru (Royal Banquet Hall), National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea.

Changdeokgung

The only of the five royal palaces bestowed with the honour of World Heritage Site, the 45-hectare Changdeokgung was long a favorite of Joseon princes and differentiated itself by, according to UNESCO, “integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting” and adapted “to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover.” Heavily damaged in the last century, today only 30% of its current buildings precede the 20th century.

Housing notable buildings such as Donhwamun (Main Gate) and Injeongjeon (Throne Hall), the palace’s real highlight is its Huwon (Rear Garden), a 32-hectare garden reserved for the royal family and concubines. This area in particular expresses the blending of architecture with the natural topography.

Jongmyo

After the wholesale calamity that was the Cultural Revolution which uprooted millennia of Chinese heritage, it is often said Confucianism is today best preserved in South Korea. One prime example is Jongmyo, located next to Changdeokgung and according to UNESCO is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and annual ritual ceremonies have continued since the 14th century.

I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia. Beyond its Confucian heritage, also in full display at this park is one of the dark secrets of modern Korean society — elderly poverty.

Insa-dong

If you are tired of shopping in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Sinsa-dong or Sinchon-dong, try dropping by Insa-dong, a district famous for its traditional craft shops, bookstores, gallery, tea houses and flea markets. Like most of central Seoul this district is quickly gentrifying but you can still find some traditional elements that have already disappeared elsewhere.

Occasionally on weekends there are performances of Nongak, a form of folk dancing that revolves around drums.

Hwaseong Fortress

Located an hour south by train in the city of Suwon, Hwaseong is a 18th century-built wall that completely surrounds the city centre. Long been obsolete, the wall is a rarity in modern Asia which prizes urban development space as a premium. Nowadays instead of the wall protecting its city, it is a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and low-rises that stretches out to the end of the horizon.

Slot five hours to reach and walk around this World Heritage Site.

Eating like a Tourist in Seoul

Korean food might not appear to be the most innovative in the world, but like the country itself, Korean food has undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades. Even kimchi is under threat from globalization and changing diet pattern as Koreans are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines, which prompted the Agriculture Ministry to try to promote a less aromatic version of its national food.

Helping me navigate Seoul’s food scene was my not-quite-reliable local colleague, who introduced me to some of the most touristy joints in town, because in his mind that’s what tourist should do. He did have a point though — these places are all close to major tourist hot spots so I didn’t have to go out of my way to find them.

I have checked out a few of those places over several business trips.

Gwangjang Market

Seoul’s most famous food market and popular breakfast spot. You can get popular snacks like bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), tteokbokki (rice cake in chili sauce), gimbap (rice roll), jokbal (pork hock) and porridge for about 20% more expensive than less-heralded street stalls.

Supposedly every local has their favorite stall but I just randomly tried one. I had pumpkin porridge and bindaetteok that tasted just about the same as the stall near my hotel — former was tasteless and latter oily.

Deliciousness: 2/10
Value: 2/10
Recommendation: N/A (small sample size)
Address: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00

Noryangjin Fish Market

Watch Oldboy and you would know one of the delicacy of Korean cuisine is live octopus, and Noryangjin Fish Market is the place to be if you want to get your hands on some waggling tentacles.

Besides octopus you can get all kinds of seafood here, such as clams, shrimp, blue crab, sea cucumber, halibut, salmon and snapper. After buying your seafood on the first floor you can bring them to one of the several restaurants on the upper floor.

I can only testify to what I had — a plate of salmon and flounder sashimi bought from a random vendor. The price was USD 10 for about twenty slices of both. Quality was not the highest but fair enough given the price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 9/10
Recommendation: 8/10
Address: 688 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: open 24 hours

Myeongdong Kyoja

In 2012 Korea Tourism Organization conducted a survey with a sample size of 12,000 tourists, asking them where was their favorite destination in Seoul. Myeongdong, the capital’s prime shopping district, came out on top. This is Seoul’s Causeway Bay or Oxford Circus; locals might disdain it but invariably everyone comes here.

Taking the district’s name in stride is Myeongdong Kyoja. First opened its door in 1966, it now has two locations in the area and has established itself as one of the most frequented eateries in town by both locals and tourists. At most times patrons are queuing up for a bite of its meat sauce noodle and steamed dumpling. The former is standard stomach filler; the signature dumpling, originated from China’s Shandong province, is a juicy ball of minced pork and shredded cabbage wrapped with a thin wheat dough.

Many people find the kimchi here to be too spicy. I personally thought it was a little too sour.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-guSeoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:30 – 21:30

Jeonju Jungang (main store)

Arguably the most recognizable Korean dish for foreigners, I am of the ilk who believe all bibimbap (stone pot rice) tastes pretty much the same as most of the flavor derives from doenjang (fermented soybean paste). While bibimbap originates not from Seoul but Jeonju it is not hard to find this dish in the capital. One of the more popular outlets is Jeonju Jungang in Myeongdong. As the name suggests it emphasizes on using traditional recipe and ingredients from Jeonju.

The key to eating bibimbap is eating bibimbap is to allow the rice to cook for at least a few minutes before mixing up the ingredients. This will add some texture to the dish when the bottom layer of the rice turns crispy. Jeonju Jungang’s bibimbap is certainly beautiful to look at, a colorful composite consisted of red (kimchi), green (lettuce, cucumber, spinach), brown (mushroom), black (seaweed), white (bean sprout), yellow (egg yolk) and purple (radicchio). The taste of doenjang still dominates but not overwhelmingly as its fresh ingredients manage to stand out.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 19 Myeongdong 8na-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 8:30 – 22:30

Tosokchon

When I asked my Korean colleagues what is their favorite dish, most said barbecue. As for comfort food? Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) easily took the crown. The main ingredients are a whole young chicken, stuffed with glutinous rice, boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng and herbs like jujube fruits, gingko nuts, garlic, ginger and wolfberry. For Koreans, this dish is almost the antidote to all ailments, from hangover to common cold to restoration of energy during the dog day of summer.

My colleague strongly recommended Tosokchon near Gyeongbokgung. This is clearly a tourist institution — most tables were occupied by people carrying guidebooks. Tosokchon only serves one dish and it charges more than its competitors, but there is a good reason why it is so popular. The broth here was more flavorful and clear compared to the few samgyetang I tried near my office.

Deliciousness: 8/10
Value: 5/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:00 – 22:00

Kyochon (Dongdaemun)

Perhaps no other nations, U.S. included, indulges in fried chicken as much as South Korea. No less than eight national chains specialize in this dish, with Kyochon being perhaps the most well-known and definitely the most expensive. I tried its Dongdaemun branch and ordered the original (honey garlic) and spicy recipes. ₩17,000 for 24 pieces of chicken.

Unlike KFC, Kyochon takes a long time to prepare because they are made-to-order using fresh chicken. I waited 30 minutes for my order. The thighs and wings were crispy but the white meat was too dry. This is not your typical fast food — while quality is much higher than a typical western fast food joint, so are the waiting time and price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 6/10
Recommendation: 6/10
Address: 294 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 24 hours

Dive Report: Moalboal

November 21 – 24, 2015
Photo set on Flickr

Turtle Bay Dive Resort

Cheap and easy, Cebu is my go-to destination whenever I want a quick fix of diving. This time I was back with my dive buddy to Moalboal, 90 km west of Cebu and famous for its sardine run. After a quick search on Google and Scubaboard, we booked four nights and a total of nine dives each with Turtle Bay Dive Resort.

Our check-in took longer than expected because the reception couldn’t find our room’s key. Once finally inside we were taken aback by the strangest interior layout – a television was installed above the door touching the ceiling. Kind enough to save our necks from unnecessary stress a small note declared the television was not working. Wifi was down across the complex and the shower had barely any hot water. To cap everything off the dive shop had mixed up our booking so we could only do one dive on our second day.

Someone once told me the sign of quality service is bouncing back to satisfy a client’s need after mishap, and while Turtle Bay was not exactly running as a well-oiled machine, its staff was friendly and tried hard to fulfill our needs. We received our own portable router and recommendation on when was the best time to take shower. The dive shop, under the watch of CJ the son of Turtle Bay’s owner since only last year, was clearly still a work in progress, but the crew was flexible on where we dive and how long we could stay underwater.

The food was mediocre but some decent eateries were located on the nearby Panagsama Road. Overall we had a decent stay in Turtle Bay.

Nov 22
14:30 – Talisay Wall 

We could only fit in one dive on this day because our dive shop Turtle Bay was at full capacity with a group each from Taiwan and France, respectively. Since my buddy had only completed Open Water Diver we would be diving at no more than 18m.

Beforehand I had a chat with both groups and heard very different opinions on the quality of diving in Moalboal. The former was disappointed with the poor visibility and the lack of diving option except for wall dive. I understood the first complaint but a quick google search would reveal the Moalboal area is one giant wall, and if that’s not your thing then just go somewhere else. The French on the hand compared Moalboal’s visibility favourably to Malapascua’s and were generally satisfied with the healthy corals and bountiful reef fishes.

Sadly, for our first dive at least, the Taiwanese were right. The visibility was around 5m, the worst I had seen in the Philippines, and the only notable marine life I saw in 50 minutes was a turtle. Back on shore the Taiwanese sarcastically wished me luck for my remaining dives.

Dive time: 44 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Pipefish, Razorfish, Starfish, Turtle

Nov 23
8:30 – Basdaku Wall

Today was much quieter as the Taiwanese had gone home. Our first dive at Basdaku Wall was 10 minutes north from Turtle Bay close to the White Beach. It was like déjà vu to our last dive – poor visibility, average-quality coral and a lack of marine life variety. We did see another turtle. Hooray?

I was starting to worry what the Taiwanese said was true.

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Razorfish, Turtle

10:30 – Panasagma 1 

“When will we see the sardines?”

By this point Turtle Bay’s lack of foresight on upcoming dive schedule was starting to get under my nerve a little. I had been asking for days when would we see the whirlwind of sardines that put Moalboal on the diver map, and each time the reply was “we will see”. The divemasters were only able to decide our dive sites right before each dive. I could understand if the condition was treacherous; we were blessed with sunny weather and no current these few days. This was a reflection of Turtle Bay’s inexperience. On all my previous dive trips my dive operators would share their dive itineraries before I confirmed my bookings with an understanding that everything was subjected to the actual condition on dive day.

When the reply was again “we will make sure you see the sardines before you leave”, the French and I exerted some pressure on CJ to understand what’s the purpose of waiting? Turned out there was none and we were off to Panasagma 1, where the sardines have stayed since migrating from the nearby Pescador Island (Fisherman Island in Spanish) a few years ago. Panasagma 1 is located halfway between Turtle Bay and Basdalu Wall.

I was taken aback by how cloudy was the water, caused partly by the sardines but mainly by some construction sites by the shore. The visibility was no more than 3m and fared no better than Hong Kong’s notoriously muddy water. I knew my fellow divers were close-by but they were camouflaged into the water. Adding to the challenge was the presence of a smack of jellyfish; I decided to stay close to the wall at 10m depth and wait.

Never, as a novice, had I felt completely relaxed while submerged in the ocean. Even now, with nothing visually to focus, I was concentrating on my breathing and buoyancy, but my mind was slowly slipping into the void like a stoner watches paint dries for too long. Unaware of how much time had past, I was snapped back into consciousness when I saw, just barely, a black tornado forming in the far distance close to the surface. By the size of the blackness there should be tens of thousands of sardines, but with everything blurrier than the grainiest streaming video I couldn’t tell for sure. The only way to find out was to swim closer to the eye of the sandstorm.

I should be getting closer. I should, if my eyes could only confirm by seeing what’s hiding behind the particle-filled water. I could see the black cloud turning left, and suddenly, a beam of sunlight shone through the blackness. The sardines were actually almost within touching distance. I quickly snapped a few photos. Before I could contemplate the scale of what was in front of me, ten seconds later I was thrown back into a state of morass when the sun was covered up once again.

Dive time: 45 min
Max depth: 17 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 3 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Sardine, Grouper, Jellyfish

14:30 – Pescador Island

Pescador island, even in its current sardine-less state remains Moalboal’s most well-known dive spot, but to the locals it is not what it used to be. On our 15-minute boat ride to the island CJ tried to manage our expectation.

“Ten years ago Pescador was great. The sardines were there everyday. The reef was pristine, and sometimes we could even see thresher sharks. The quality of the reef degraded rapidly over the past few years due to fishing and hurricanes. Outsiders still flock there be there are much better spots around the area now.”

We began from the southern shore and followed the drift west. Visibility was an acceptable 15m. Immediately after I had descended to 12m I was surrounded by anthias and the most vibrant corals I had seen. This went on for the duration of my dive – I felt like swimming in a borderless aquarium.

Hearing my thought that this was the best dive I had done in the Philippines and how vastly superior Pescador was compared to Apo Island, CJ grinned sheepishly and replied, “Well that was nothing compared to ten years ago.”

It might not be. But Pescador is still a top notch dive site.

Dive time: 49 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish Idol, Black Bar Chromis, Scorpionfish, Turtle, Sea Fan

18:00 – House Reef

Night diving is mostly about seeing marine life that is more active after dark. This was a shore dive through the house reef to the wall on the southeast and then followed the drift west. Except for a few crabs, a moray eel and a sea salp we didn’t see anything different from our day-time dives, and it ended being another wall dive with limited visibility.

Dive time: 52 min
Max depth: 16 m
Water temp: 24°C
Visibility: N/A
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Goby, Lionfish, Crab, Sea urchin

Nov 24 
14:30 – Pescador Island

CJ suggested Tongo Point, but we were dead set on returning to Pescador for our last dive. Given we were the only divers doing an afternoon dive on this day, CJ gave his only customers what they wanted. This time we began from the south again but headed east. There was no current and the visibility was around 15m.

Pescador’s west wall was in slightly better condition; on the eastern side there was more dead coral but still provided ample of marine life sighting opportunities. On top of the usual reef fishes and turtles I saw a school of convict blenny. The dive ended on a plateau with the highest concentration of reef fishes I had seen over the two dives at Pescador.

After diving Pescador, I wondered why the Taiwanese had such a bad time in Moalboal?

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish idol, Convict blenny, Black Bar Chromis, Turtle, Sea Fan

Note: Here are two sites that help me tremendously in identifying the marine life I have come across in Moalboal.

Diving with Whale Sharks in Oslob

November 24, 2015

Getting there

We took a day trip from Moalboal to Oslob on the south-eastern tip of Cebu Island, about 30 minutes north of Liloan. This obscure, sleepy seaside town was put on the map when the UK’s Daily Mail published an article in 2011 about fishermen riding on the back of whale sharks and feeding them by hand. This caused a sensation internationally, and a few businessmen took advantage of this publicity and employed a group of fishermen to feed the whale sharks with the intention of keeping them in Oslob for as long as possible. Almost overnight Oslob was transformed into a busy tourist attraction, and the serenity of the past was thoroughly shattered in the process, replaced by tour buses and several dive resorts.

We left Moalboal at 6am. Cebu Island was mainly undeveloped outside of several small urban areas – we passed by wooden shacks, free range chickens and unsupervised kids playing curbside. At 7:30 our car made a right turn and pulled into a gravel lot next to the shore. Some people congregated on a small pier waiting to get on the boats. Whenever one was filled to its capacity of around ten passengers, it sailed out to the shallow sea where fishermen were feeding the whale sharks.

Snorkel

You could choose to either snorkel or dive – our dive shop charged ₱6,100 and ₱7,300, including transport from Moalboal, respectively. We chose to do both (₱7,300 plus a little additional fee) and we began with snorkeling. Our boat was filled with snorkelers; there were around forty in total. Once in the murky water filled with bits of brine shrimps, I immediately felt besieged from all directions; up top were boats and paddles, and my fellow snorkelers to my left and right. When I finally settled down a giant black object swan straight towards me. I quickly ducked to my right and an 8m long whale shark and its 1.5m mouth just missed me by a few centimetres. Just as I was making sense of what just happened, the whale shark made a U-turn and charged towards me again. Another two were looming in the background. In this frenzy everyone was attempting to avoid each other and the boats while concentrating on the whereabouts of the whale sharks without colliding with them.

Dive

A short break later we began our dive a few metres from the shore. The sandbar was around 10m deep and we headed northeast for five minutes until we reached the boats. Excluding my buddy, myself and our divemaster there were only three other divers. Even though we were back at the same spot the experience was entirely different – similar to finding a seat in the back of a cinema after watching half a movie on the very first row and at last being able to see the whole screen. A short while ago we were active participants to the chaos on the surface but now we had taken a back seat and observing the action from afar.

Three whale sharks were in a vertical position with their heads above the water. Much to my surprise a 10m long one was disinterested in food and was continuously circling at a depth of 5m. Along with the other divers I stayed at 7 metres for the next half hour shooting photos and videos of this gentle giant. With higher visibility, better maneuverability and much less people, unequivocally the diving experience was superior to snorkeling.

Afterthought

Seeing whale shark up close is an amazing experience, but clearly this entire enterprise is not sustainable. This practice of feeding impacts the whale sharks in a myriad of ways; adapting to an unnatural vertical stance to keep their heads constantly at the surface level; physical injuries from bumping into tourists and boats; an incomplete diet that now consists of solely brine shrimps; an alteration of migration path and a decline in survival ability in the wild. 

It is possible to see these gentle giants in the wild without the assistance of feeding, but that’s always a crapshoot. Most people I met in Oslob were fully aware of the negative impact of our collective presence, yet all of us couldn’t wait to get into the water to see the whale sharks up close. The result was one of the most exhilarating and guilt-ridden experiences I ever had while traveling.