The World Cup is much more than a sporting event. It is a world of inspiration for travellers as well.
While Russia outperformed expectations by making it into the quarter finals, its horseback-riding Cossacks – a semi-military community akin to Japan’s samurais – captured the world’s attention as they guarded stadiums and fans. From Mexican fans in sombreros to Japanese fans tidying up the stands with blue trash bags, the tournament is a chance for countries to showcase their culture and, implicitly, the possibilities for travel.
The 63 matches played so far have been spread across 11 cities in expansive Russia, bringing viewers to lesser-known cities such as Samara and Kaliningrad. And as France and Croatia gear up for Sunday night’s final, French Ambassador Marc Abensour and Croatian S-League football coach Marko Kraljevic and his wife Linda Loke-Kraljevic introduce cities they love, and what their country is known for.
SEE PARIS’ LIVELY LATIN QUARTER
Who: Mr Marc Abensour, 52, ambassador of France to Singapore. He and his wife, Mrs Veronica Abensour-Nilsson, have lived in Singapore for 11/2 years. They have two children.
Destination: Paris, France. I love the diversity and liveliness of Paris.
Each of the 20 districts in Paris has its own distinct character and everything in Paris is within walking distance.
I grew up in the Latin Quarter, located in the 5th and 6th districts. The area got its name from Latin-speaking students and academics of the 12th century.
This is the oldest part of Paris, boasting mediaeval and Gothic architecture with many buildings dating back to the Middle Ages.
Located on the left bank of the Seine river, the Latin Quarter is home to some of the oldest and most prestigious universities in France, such as La Sorbonne. I like how Paris is committed to the well-being of its population and to sustainable development.
The city is encouraging citizens and visitors to reduce the use of cars by promoting innovative public transport such as electric tram-buses, driverless electric shuttles and electric taxi boats. Paris is also striving to be a bike-friendly city, with plans to double the distance covered by bike lanes from about 700km in 2015 to 1,400km by 2020.
Art lovers will be right at home in Paris.
The Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr/en) is Europe’s largest modern art gallery and one of the most renowned in the world.
It contains more than 50,000 works of art, including masterpieces by Picasso, Duchamp, Ernst and Miro.
The building itself is an architectural feat as it features all of its internal facilities – air-conditioning, lifts and pipework – on the facade.
The Centre Pompidou also hosted National Gallery Singapore’s first travelling exhibition on South-east Asian art earlier this year. The Grand Palais museum (www.grandpalais.fr/en) is located in the heart of Paris, on the iconic Avenue des Champs-Elysees.
It hosts large-scale exhibitions and international events such as the International Contemporary Art Fair.
Recently, the museum held an immersive exhibition where robots made art before visitors’ eyes.
To get away from the crowds, hot air balloon rides by Le Ballon de Paris (www.ballondeparis.com/en) offer a wonderful view of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower.
The rides take off from Parc Andre Citroen, a public park built on a former Citroen factory. It is within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower.
I suggest going in the morning, when weather conditions are optimal and the balloon can reach an altitude of 300m – just slightly lower than the Eiffel Tower.
Strolling along the Seine river is another relaxing experience. During summer months, people usually gather along the river to have picnics.
Hop on a bateau mouche, or sightseeing boat, to cruise down the Seine just before sunset.
After the cruise, head to Berthillon (www.berthillon.fr) on Saint Louis island. It is the oldest and most famous ice-cream manufacturer in Paris, and makes some of the best ice cream in the city.
Nature lovers will enjoy the Jardin des Plantes (www.jardindes plantes.net), a beautiful botanical garden. It also houses a zoo, giant hothouses and the Natural History Museum (www.mnhn.fr/en).
The museum features a gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy with loads of impressive dinosaur skeletons.
The Paris Half Marathon (www.fit bitsemideparis.com/en) is known as one of the most beautiful and scenic half-marathons in the world.
The route meanders along Bois de Vincennes park and the streets of the 12th district before entering the city centre for a loop round the Hotel de Ville, or city hall.
In summer, the Festival Paris l’ete (www.parislete.fr/en) features an affordable line-up of dance, theatre, concerts and circus performances, held at monuments and parks around Paris.
There are more than 70 performances in 30 locations.
To fully experience Paris, I would recommend a visit to one of its markets.
Foodies should head to Rue Montorgueil, one of the oldest market streets in Paris renowned for its patisseries.
For an authentic food shopping experience in the heart of Paris, visit Rue des Martyrs in the 9th district.
The street is lined with small shops and counters where you can pick up souvenirs such as cheese, olive oil and jams.
Try the famous Steak Tartare at Brasserie Balzar (www.brasseriebalzar.com/en). Mustard and capers lend a sharp zest to the rich beef.
Other good restaurants include Le Rostand, which has a beautiful view of the Jardin du Luxembourg gardens.
It is a peaceful place to relax and read the newspaper while having a coffee and croissant for breakfast.
Angelina (www.angelina-paris.fr/en) is a nice tea house where you can enjoy hot chocolate and Mont Blanc dessert.
The original cafe is at the Tuileries but you can find other boutiques at Galeries Lafayette or at Musee du Luxembourg.
It even has boutiques in Singapore now.
MORE THAN GAME OF THRONES
Who: Linda Loke-Kraljevic is a senior manager at Marina Bay Sands and has been married to her Croatian-born husband Marko Kraljevic, 52, for 19 years.
Mr Kraljevic, the head coach of Balestier Khalsa FC, is now a Singaporean permanent resident and the two have visited Croatia more than eight times together. They share some of their favourite spots to visit, experiences as well as foods to try.
Destination: If your idea of a holiday is balmy days, surrounded by turquoise waters and the shade of a mediaeval walled town, then look no further than the Mediterranean paradise that is Croatia.
The recent furore surrounding the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones has brought the European beach destination to the fore, but there is so much more than television sets to experience in this beautiful country – everything from its cultural sites to its stunning coastlines and smorgasboard of local delights that will make any foodie swoon.
If you are visiting Croatia for the first time, one of the places you have to go to is the Plitvice Lakes National Park (np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/ en/).
It is a beautiful forest reserve in central Croatia, which is best known for its formation of natural dams that were developed as the water flowed over the limestone in the area.
Over time, this created a series of connecting lakes, with caves and waterfalls within the park, making it a place full of natural beauty.
The surrounding areas are also home to a wide range of wildlife, including wolves, bears and rare birds.
The Old City of Dubrovnik (whc.unesco.org/en/list/95) is globally famous, thanks to Game Of Thrones being shot there.
And though it might seem touristy, it is well worth visiting because the walled city was once a flourishing maritime republic – and the only city in the Adriatic that was able to rival Venice – and today it is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Besides the walled city, the Diocletian Palace (www.diocletians palace.org) in Split and the Pula Amphitheatre, located in Pula, are two of the most important historical and cultural sites in Croatia.
The palace was essentially the retirement home of the Emperor Diocletian and much of it remains intact today, despite being built in the Middle Ages.
Similarly, the amphitheatre in Pula is one of the finest of its kind still remaining. It overlooks the Adriatic, and the complete ring of its outer wall is still intact, making it a truly magnificent structure.
Lastly, one of our favourite attractions is the Zadar’s Sea Organ, which is located on the western end of Zadar’s Riva.
On the surface, it looks like a series of stairs that descend into the sea, but in fact, underneath, there are 35 musically tuned tubes with whistle openings on the sidewalk.
When waves crash onto the steps, the movement of the sea pushes air through the tubes, which create harmonic sounds.
And since no two waves are ever alike, the sounds are always changing, creating undulating chime-like notes.
It is a really fascinating masterpiece of acoustics and architecture, created by expert Dalmatian stone carvers and architect Nikola Basic in 2005 and is a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Besides just soaking in the beautiful landscapes and the blue seas in Croatia, there are some activities that we highly recommend, one of which is to watch a donkey race.
It usually takes place in the small Dalmatian town of Tisno at the end of summer and is a special event because donkeys were very important to Dalmatian people in the past, providing them with a means of transport and working in fields.
The races are a way to showcase their value in the community and it is a fun and spirited event, even though it is not as intense as horse-riding.
Foodies should not miss truffle hunting in Istria.
The tours take place in the steep Motovun forests and you are asked to keep your eyes open, while dogs sniff around for black and white truffles.
Whether you find any truffles or come up short hardly matters, as you will get to enjoy the beautiful Istrian nature and will end your tour with a feast of truffle delicacies, such as cheese, honey and pate.
Our favourite thing to do when we are back home is to just relax, especially when we return to Osijek, which is Marko’s home town.
We chill out at Hotel Osijek (www.hotelosijek.hr/en) with a cup of coffee and people-watch over a piece of Kremnita, which is a local chantilly and custard cream cake.
There is so much good food to try in Croatia. Some of our favourite dishes include Goveda Juha, which is a beef soup and a favourite dish of the typical Croatian grandma.
Also enjoy octopus salad, cheese from the Pag Island and burek, which are pastries made of thin flaky phyllo dough and filled with various ingredients.
Do not miss trying out lamb traditionally roasted on a spit and Punjena Paprika, which are peppers stuffed with a mix of meat and rice in tomato sauce.
Sarma, which are stuffed cabbage rolls; Ćevapi, a grilled dish of minced meat; and Crni Rizot, which is cuttlefish and squid ink risotto, are also delicious local delicacies.
If you are in Zagreb, head to one of our favourite restaurants, Boban Restoran (www.boban.hr). It hand-makes all its pasta and bread and has more than 140 wine labels on offer.
CHANGING FACE OF RUSSIA
For travellers, Russia has a reputation for impenetrability. Blame it on the long-over Cold War and its vast size. But these are also the underplayed reasons to discover the country.
While Russia was the Evil Empire of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric in the 1980s, the Soviet bloc has fragmented and travellers will sense the thrill of a country in transformation.
Its immensity means that travel possibilities abound, from ritzy Moscow to Arctic Circle wilderness to hip coffee scenes hidden deep in Siberia.
The World Cup has placed Russia on a flood-lit global stage, drawing an estimated one million visitors for the games. But there is much space for wanderers, as the world’s largest country curiously under-performs in tourism.
In 2016, it received 24.57 million international visitors, according to the World Bank. Croatia attracted 13.81 million – half the Russian figure, though it is 300 times smaller. France, a beloved destination, pulled in 82.57 million.
From my trio of trips to Russia, these are three experiences that convey extraordinary facets of the land.
TRANS-SIBERIA TRAIN JOURNEY
The Siberian cities of Kazan and Yekaterinburg, though remote, have been among the 11 in Russia hosting the World Cup. On a Trans-Siberian train journey, I stepped into these dreamy cities with culture rivalling St Petersburg and Moscow.
Siberia is replete with local pleasures too: a lakeside barbecue in a hamlet or a musical soiree in a manor that once belonged to an exiled 19th-century aristocrat.
Trains are an intimate way to traverse Siberia, an epic Russian territory that covers nearly a tenth of the planet’s land surface, and which appears to be endless birch forests.
In the Red Square, the grandiose, glass-domed GUM Department Store is an emporium of fine goods, from live lobsters to vodka to exquisite Chinese tea. Miu Miu and Montblanc are there and also Levi’s jeans, once the repudiated symbol of capitalism.
When I first visited the store in Moscow in the waning days of the Cold War, it purveyed an underwhelming choice of Lenin busts and souvenirs, though I loved the majesty of St Basil’s Cathedral nearby.
On a bridge, a teen with haunted eyes asked if I had jeans, cigarettes or US dollars, for sale on the black market.
Moscow was bleak yet soulful then. A friendly footballer who was curious about Singapore bantered with me, and a stern babushka thrust daffodils into my hands. Today, the city’s light-hearted jeans-garbed residents have the sheen of affluence, dramatising for me Russia’s story of profound change.
In the Russian far east, Kamchatka is like a lost world.
I remember a mysterious landscape of volcanoes and communing with nomadic reindeer herders on the tundra. Far from civilisation, a family of herders invited us into their tent beside a stream, and said they scoffed at the sound of piped water in apartments.
My friends and I trekked on a caldera with difficulty as it was robed in summer snow.
But the thermal pools soothed the aches and it was sweet to watch locals relax, including a playful child who tossed a tadpole at us.
Out in the ocean were migrating orcas. I was on a fishing trip and anticipated only the sashimi from our local catch and lots of salmon roe, but memorably, the whales soared through the waves.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.