Spain

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My family hates going on tours because it goes against everything a holiday should be. A holiday should be relaxing, full of good food and getting lost. Tours have the most hectic schedule, I remember sleeping at 12am and waking up at 2am in Cairo to catch a domestic flight when I went on an Egypt tour, and provide shitty chinese food when there’s amazing Italian food next door. After our bad experiences with tours, my family has sworn off tour groups and always goes free and easy on every single trip.

Free and easy in Spain was a bit of a challenge for us because my father had never driven on the right hand side before and we had to plan for all 15 days. So we took the easy way out. We copied the Chan Brother’s itinerary hahahahaha and tweaked it a bit.

Here’s how we traveled: Barcelona –> Alicante –> Granada –> Cordoba –> Sevilla –> Segovia –> Madrid –> Barcelona We drove in the end which was really fun because you get to see the different sides to Spain, like how some parts are near the ocean while other parts are dry and very Mediterranean like. A road trip is always fun. So here are the highlights of my trip and places you definitely should go to if you are visiting Spain!

Top 10 highlights

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia Exterior

Sagrada Familia Interior

1. Sagrada Familia {Barcelona}

Carrer de Mallorca, 401,
08013 Barcelona, Spain
+34 935 13 20 60
Nearest Metro: Sagrada Familia

When you visit Barcelona, you definitely have to visit this gothic church. When you see the construction scaffoldings, don’t freak out. The church is not undergoing renovations, it’s being built. This unfinished church was designed by Gaudi, an extremely talented Spanish architect, in the 1800s and everything is so intricately designed. If you think the exterior is stunning, wait till you see the interior.

Retiro Park

Retiro Park

2. Parks {Barcelona & Madrid}

Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona
Nearest Metro: Arc de Triomf

The Retiro Park in Madrid
Nearest Metro: Retiro

Maybe it’s because I come from Singapore where we do not have large parks to laze around in but I love European parks and always make it a point to visit them. They are fascinating, especially on Sundays when the locals gather for some fun under the sun.

Alhambra

Alhambra scenery

Alhambra

3. Alhambra {Granada}

Calle Real de la Alhambra, s/n,
18009 Granada, Spain
+34 958 02 79 71

The Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage site which has a limited number of tickets everyday, so it’s best if you could either reserve online or buy the tickets as early as possible. There’s a specific timing each person is allowed to enter the Nasrid Palaces so be sure to take note of yours. The grounds contain a mix of Muslim and Catholic influenced architecture, reflective of Spain’s past. All the intricate geometric designs representative of Muslim art and carved onto walls and ceilings were mind-blowing. The craftsmanship and splendour of the palaces kept me constantly intrigued the entire time I was there even though I was tired from all that walking.

Mezquita

Mezquita

Mezquita

Mezquita

Mezquita

4. Mezquita {Cordoba}

Calle del Cardenal Herrero, 1,
14003 Córdoba, Spain
+34 957 47 05 12
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

This is another place which captures Spain’s history. What is so special about this place is that a cathedral is built inside the mosque. Forgive me but it gets a tad boring seeing cathedral after cathedral so the Mezquita fascinated me.

5.  Attending mass in Sevilla Cathedral & Cordoba Cathedral

We didn’t have time to see both the Alhambra in Sevilla and the Cathedral so we did not have the chance to see the cathedral during normal opening hours. After dinner, we saw a bunch of people standing outside the cathedral holding candles and became curious of what they were doing. Turns out there was a mass for youth being held and haha we decided to join in the fun because we could also see the insides of the cathedral (for free). We sightsee in unconventional ways haha.

We were in Cordoba on a Sunday and being Roman Catholics, we can attend mass anywhere which meant that we could attend mass in the cathedral. The mass was held in a small chapel with only 10 people and we were the only tourists. You have to try attending mass in a foreign country because the feeling is totally different from mass here in Singapore, perhaps because of the murals. It really is an experience.

Aqueduct

6. Aqueduct {Segovia}
The massive scale and splendour of the aqueduct just blew my mind away. A Unesco World Heritage site, it is well preserved. It transports water from the mountains 17km away into the city and there are signs carved onto the ground for you to follow the route of the water.

7. Museo del Prado {Madrid}

Paseo del Prado, s/n,
28014 Madrid, Spain
+34 913 30 28 00
10:00 am – 8:00 pm

If you appreciate art, then Museo del Prada is your place. If you don’t appreciate art, you still have to visit the Museo del Prado simply because it boasts one of the finest collection of European art and is considered one of the greatest museums in the world. I spent hours wandering the galleries of del Prado and especially enjoyed the royal paintings of Velaquez; I can’t imagine the number of layers he painted for the skin to look so life-like.

8. Museu Picasso {Barcelona}

Carrer de Montcada, 15-23,
08003 Barcelona, Spain
+34 932 56 30 00
10:00 am – 8:00 pm

I’m being biased because Picasso is one of my favourite artists. This small museum, located along the alleys, houses collections that provide great insight into the beginnings of Picasso as an artist. There were sketches and oil paintings Picasso did as a student and also clay work which we seldom associate Picasso to. The collections document the various phases Picasso went through, such as the Blue period where all his paintings were blue. A really fascinating museum for all Picasso lovers.

Casa Batllo

Mosaics

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9. Casa Batllo  {Barcelona}

Passeig de Gràcia, 43,
08007 Barcelona, Spain
+34 932 16 03 06

It stands out from the regular buildings in Barcelona in a funky way. One of the most renowned masterpieces of Antoni Gaudi, it was designed to reflect nature, as seen from the roof arch resembling a dinosaur’s back. The audio guide was comprehensive and explained every feature of this unique piece of art.

10. La Ramblas {Barcelona}
Shopping!!! ZARA, Stradivarius, Bershka.  Need I say more?

Top 7 food highlights

Salad

Bamboo Clams

Grilled Cod

Collage

1. Tapas at Cerveceria Catalana {Barcelona}

Cerveceria Catalana
C/ Mallorca, 236,
08008 Barcelona, Spain

In my opinion, the best tapas in Barcelona. It was so good, we went there thrice. After trying other tapas restaurants along La Ramblas, we felt that Catalonia was the most value-for-money. This place is constantly crowded which means a high turnover rate and freshly prepared food. Most of the dishes were cooked on the spot and had just the right amount of seasoning, not too salty but not too bland. My favourite dishes were the grilled cod, the bamboo clams and the grilled cuttlefish. Just keep ordering their grilled seafood because it is reasonably priced and fresh. The cuttlefish was so tender and juicy.

Appetizers Main Course

2. La Catedral {Madrid}

Carrera de San Jerónimo, 16,
28014 Madrid, Spain
+34 915 23 35 56
www.la-catedral.es

Admittedly, the decor of this restaurant put my mother and I off. One look at the wooden furnishing and we branded this restaurant as ‘traditional’. That, to us, meant that it was probably a dirty place which should be shunned. But the menu drew us in. It charged 13 Euros for a 3 course set meal, inclusive of wine, a deal unheard of and the place was brimming with people (mostly locals), indicating its popularity. Each course was delicious and came in large portions, another plus point. Try their mixed fish platter and the seafood pasta! Also, choose their yogurt for dessert because it tasted so amazing that I wished they gave me a tub.

Yog & Bluffin
3.  Froyo {Alicante}

Yog & Bluffin
Calle San Ildefonso, 11
03001 Alicante, Spain
https://www.facebook.com/YogBluffin

This frozen yogurt may not be part of a chain but it has the right amount of creaminess and sourness that I love. It’s not icy at all. The best part is that it’s about S$2 for a small cup of yogurt, just enough for one person, with a free topping 🙂 How awesome is that!!! Cheap and good froyo makes me very happy.

Los Diamentes

4. Free tapas in Granada

Los Diamentes
Calle Navas, 26
Granada, Spain

Getting free tapas with drinks somehow only happens in Granada. You order a drink and you get a free plate of tapas. It’s that awesome. Los Diamentes is famous for its seafood and the place is always packed. Although you can’t choose what free tapas you get, everything’s probably delicious. It’s strange to be served red wine in a cup but fine dining isn’t what you’re looking for in Los Diamentes. It’s the experience that you’re going for when you come to this place- squeezing together with the locals just to drink and eat. Pray hard that you get the simmered clams in white wine, they were delicious.

Sardines

Grilled Squid

Grilled Sole

5. Seafood in Alicante

Miramar
Calle Juan Bautista Lafora, 9
03002 Alicante, Spain

The sardines here were so delicious that we ordered them twice. Spanish squid is amazingly tender when grilled. Top it up with that smoky smell, it’s one of the best and simplest seafood dish Spain offers. Once again, just keep ordering their seafood! If you want to enjoy the sea breeze and sunshine and people watch, you’ll love sitting outside.

Recommended Hotels 

1. Hotel Jazz {Barcelona}

Carrer de Pelai, 3,
08001 Barcelona, Spain
+34 935 52 96 96
www.hoteljazz.com/‎

It has a great location being situated in La Ramblas and being near the train station. The beds are comfortable and the rooms are clean. It’s a new modern hotel worth staying in for the few nights you spend in Barcelona.

2. Alhambra Palace {Granada}

Plaza Arquitecto García de Paredes, 1,
18009 Granada, Spain
+34 958 22 14 68
www.h-alhambrapalace.es

Alhambra Palace is within walking distance of the Alhambra, which is to your advantage if you would like to visit the Alhambra multiple times (day and night) or you would like to be early in the queue for tickets that are quickly snapped up, especially during Summer. The best part of staying in Alhambra Palace was definitely the view. It is situated on the hill and overlooks the entire town. It was really relaxing sitting at the cafe, waiting for the sun to set and for darkness to blanket the entire town.

3. AC Hotel Cordoba by Marriot {Cordoba}

Av de la Libertad, 24,
14006 Córdoba, Spain
+34 957 76 83 80
www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/odbco-ac-hotel-córdoba

I love how its just opposite the Jewish quarters which means free time is spent wandering around the Jewish quarters. Once past the Jewish quarters, you will arrive at the Cordoba Cathedral, another tourist attraction. The breakfast in Marriot was one of the best throughout my holiday, as expected of a 5 star hotel.

If you wish to maximise the money you paid for your airplane ticket, you could also travel to surrounding countries like Portugal and Morocco, a little something we learnt from other travellers. There’s still so much more to explore in Spain, especially Northern Spain. But I have enough of cathedrals for now (never enough of tapas though), so another holiday to Spain would probably happen later.

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Singapore: Eastern Coastal Park Connector Network Cycling Trail (I)

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I just bought a new foldable bicycle, the Tern Link C7, and am on a quest to conquer all the Park Connectors in Singapore. There are only three, the Northern, Western and Eastern one but NParks is building more 🙂

For those who do not have their own bicycles, do not fret because there are 6 PCN Pit stops along the Eastern PCN that rent bicycles out. You can rent a bicycle from any pit stop and return the bicycle at another pit stop which means you do not have to back track.

I started at Pasir Ris Park because we (my friend Bridget and I) didn’t know that there were PCN Pit stops so we thought that Bridget had to rent her bicycle from the bicycle shop in Pasir Ris Park. From Pasir Ris Park, you have to cross the wooden bridge that leads to the mangroves. You can dismount and take a stroll through the mangrove boardwalk. There are clear signs indicating the direction of the park connector. You can either choose to head to Bedok Reservoir or Changi Beach. We headed to Changi Beach and it’s a 7km ride from Pasir Ris Park.

Changi Beach

Along the way, there are bumpy pavements that make your ass hurt but there are long stretches that are downhill which is just plain awesome. It takes about half an hour to cycle from Pasir Ris to Changi Beach and you will be rewarded with the sea breeze and shady coconut trees.

Coconut Trees

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Japan: Kyoto & Nara

JR train

In January, I visited Kyoto & Nara with my friends, Sandra and Qy, as our post A levels trip. It’s the mandatory kind of overseas trip that you have to make with your friends before everyone parts ways and heads for university. We decided on Japan because it was not a usual destination (us being hipster haha) and we love Japanese food. Everyone thinks that Japan is an expensive destination but it really isn’t if you manage to find the cheapest flight and the cheapest accommodation.

We took Malaysian Airlines, which on hindsight wasn’t a very good decision, but it was the cheapest full service flight and only a hundred bucks more expensive than a budget airline flight. I dislike taking budget airlines because the price they state isn’t always the price you pay. I’ll still have to pay for the luggage and the airport taxes; all the miscellaneous fees makes me go mad. The Malaysian Airlines flight was one of the cheapest because it had to stopover at KL International Airport, which is a really basic airport. The only thing you can do there is eat and drink coffee but wasting 2 hours with my friends didn’t feel that long because of the company. If you’re wondering, we paid about $500 for our roundtrip air tickets.

Although we landed in Osaka, we decided to give sightseeing in Osaka a miss because it was just another city filled with shopping malls and shopping in Japan isn’t one of the most exciting things in the world. We headed straight for Kyoto, formerly the imperial capital, a city filled with cultural sights and good food (as with any part of Japan). We spent 4 days in Kyoto before heading out to a small town called Nara, famous for its deers, near Kyoto and spent 2 days there.

For all those planning to travel to this part of Japan, I’m sorry I can only advise you on these two towns but sometimes discovering things for yourself makes the trip more exciting as well 🙂

Here are the top five things you should do when in Kyoto:

Bamboo Forest

1. Arashiyama
It is really easy to take a train from JR Kyoto Station to Arashiyama so there’s no excuses for not doing so. Arashiyama is a small area that can be walked so take your time to spend a day here. We didn’t have a particularly good meal here since everything was pricey with it being a tourist attraction but the sights made up for it. The bamboo forest was breathtaking, the only thing missing was a cute fat panda bear. It’s not a very long stretch of bamboo but long enough to get the peaceful feeling of being amidst the green. We also visited a Unesco heritage site for a temple which was just like another Japanese temple, I’m sorry I can’t appreciate such cultural treasures. Arashiyama has a river in the middle where you can paddle boats or just sit at the bank to enjoy the beautiful scenery. We didn’t pay to enter the monkey forest since we have so many monkeys in Singapore and we can see them for free anyway, but we stopped in our tracks for a musical box shop, contemplating whether we should buy a pretty Japanese musical box back home. I mean it’ll be cool to have a Totoro spinning round while playing the Totoro theme song right?

Kamo River

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2. Cycling along Kamo River
Sandra and I rented bicycles from Kyoto Cycling Tour Project because they rent helmets too and we, being afraid of dying in a foreign land, had to find a shop which rented bicycles and helmets at the same time. In my opinion, renting the bicycles wasn’t too expensive, it was 1000yen for a day. Being amateur cyclists, we didn’t cycle to travel to places because we wanted to avoid cycling on the roads. Instead, we just wanted to cycle to enjoy the scenery so we chose to cycle along the Kamo River. Well, we had to cycle along the streets and try not to kill pedestrians along the way but cycling along the river was easy peasy. It’s a different way to see Kyoto and a calorie-burning way as well so that you can make way for more sushi to come.

Kinkakuji

3. Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
It’s just a really pretty temple, that’s all. When you go to Japan, you’ll have to visit one temple at least and the best temple to me would be the Kinkakuji. If you’re not a temple fanatic like me, just visit this temple and be on your way to your sushi restaurant.

Fushimi Inari

 

Fushimi Inari

4. Fushimi Inari Taisha
What makes this place unique is the thousands of red wooden shrines. The first time we saw it, we took photographs with it at any opportunity that we could but after that, it got very repetitive and we became quite bored. This place is situated on a hill which means a lot of walking. There also appears to be some mistake with their maps, we walked for quite a bit already but the map showed that we only walked a very short distance. When all of us saw the map, we were like WHAAAT and we gave up. We weren’t the only ones daunted by the map, a lot of other tourists turned back too.

Gion at night

5. Gion

Try spotting a real geisha. It’s easier if you walk the back alleys of Gion during dusk to see the geishas shuffling from one house to another. Don’t worry if you don’t manage to spot any geishas. There are plenty of matcha tea houses around for you to drown your sorrows in green tea.

Here are the top five food places you should try in Kyoto:

Kyoto station sushi

1. Kaiten Sushi in JR Kyoto Station

Apologies for the inability to find the name of the restaurant but it’s difficult to miss this place because it is packed no matter what time it is- morning, afternoon or night. This meant that we ate our sushi whenever we wanted to, for tea, dinner or supper 🙂 Furthermore, it’s in Kyoto Station which makes it convenient for you to eat it any time.

Kaiten Sushi

2. 130 Yen Kaiten sushi
Near JR Nijo station

I’m sorry that I do not have the exact address of the shop because it really isn’t a very famous touristy restaurant. QY was crazy over kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) and wanted to eat cheap and good sushi so we asked the waitress in this cafe near Nijo castle where we could find good kaiten sushi and she directed us to this place. It’s a place where locals frequent, we were the only tourists around and there’s a long queue to enter this huge restaurant. You have to get a queue number, sit and wait for your turn. For 130 Yen, which is about S$1 something, sushi can’t get any cheaper. The quality of the sashimi is really good, as with most places in Japan but one thing different about this restaurant is that it serves really delicious cooked sushi. The beef sushi with some special Japanese mayonnaise on top was perfect and so was the seared salmon belly sushi.

Tacos


Quesaedilla

3. Lajolla

http://www.lajollagrill.jp

536-8 Waraya-cho,kamigyo-ku,Kyoto,602-8144
075-821-4745

I know it’s very strange to eat Mexican food in Japan. To add to how strange we were, we actually reserved a seat at the restaurant before we even left for Kyoto haha. That’s what Singaporeans do when there is a lack of proper Mexica
n food here. This is a really small Mexican place that serves really good quesadillas (cheese cheese cheese!!!) although it is really difficult to find this place. If you don’t look carefully, you’ll just walk right pass this restaurant. It’s more ideal to find the place when it’s bright because I think you’ll get really scared walking down dark alleys trying to find this place.

Nishiki

4. Nishiki Market

Go ahead and try all the different Japanese food this market has to offer. Don’t bother paying 400 yen for that fishcake, I regretted paying so much for it. If you are an oyster lover, you have to visit the shop that sells oysters at the start of the Market. There will be this guy shucking and barbecuing oysters outside. At first glance, I thought no one visits the shop because there seemed to be no one from the outside but I was so wrong. To eat the oysters, you have to be seated in the restaurant inside, and the restaurant is packed full of people indulging in oysters. Try both the barbecued and fried oysters, you won’t regret it. I love the barbecued oysters more though because of the smoky smell and how the oyster is half-cooked. Another hit for me were the tofu doughnuts. The last time I went to Kyoto, there was a long queue for the doughnuts and I didn’t get to try it but this time, there was no queue at all, probably because it was winter and a weekday. The shop selling tofu doughnuts is quite conspicuous, probably around the middle of the Market. If you are still feeling hungry after your food adventures in the market, you can go try Ippudo ramen near the start of the Market. It’s a huge bowl of ramen but they serve the thin kind of ramen which didn’t satisfy me. I love my chewy thick ramen!

Parfait

5. Gion Kinana
570-119 Higashiyama-ku
Gion-machi Minami-gawa
Tel: +81 75 525 8300
Daily: 11am – 7pm
Nearest Station: Gion Shijo (Keihan Line)

I’m warning you first, this place is expensive for the budget traveller. You bust more than ten bucks on matcha parfaits but it’s worth it for the experience and the amazingly smooth ice cream. Their black sesame ice cream was the best I ever tasted. One thing to note is that each person has to order one dessert which means everyone’s wallets die together 🙂

Here is a list of my favourite food places in Nara:

Unagi Don

1. Edogawa, Naramachi 
43 Shimomikadocho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8365, Japan

The unagi rice is really so damn good. It’s pricey, I admit, but it was the one meal that we all decided to splurge simply because you don’t get fresh eel anywhere in Singapore. It was also quite an experience to sit on tatami mats and watch the waitresses turn large tables into smaller tables simply by moving the bamboo screen that separates one table from the next. There were many locals, a sign of good food, and the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, another sign of good food, so be sure to go early because there is sure to be queue in the restaurant during meal times.

2. Mahoroba Daibutsu Puddinghonpo
Nabeyacho, Nara, Nara Prefecture, Japan

The pudding is to die for. I tried the original caramel flavoured one and only bought one small tub, a decision I deeply regret in hindsight )’: There was a huge bottle of pudding on sale, I guess it’s a family size for everyone to dig in and share or just the right size for a greedy pudding lover. Anyway, when the first spoonful of pudding slipped into my mouth and melted, I was in bliss. I was depressed that it was my last night in Nara which meant that I couldn’t go back to buy more pudding to eat. It was really that good. My friends tried the cheese flavoured one and said it was good. Yup, they have a whole range of quirky flavours you can try. I doubt you’ll ever get sick of that sick pudding.

 

Udon with Tempura

 

Tonkatsu

3. Kanoko
Tel: 0742-27-5036 / 1307-1 Takabatake-cho, Nara / Open: 11:00-15:00 (reservation only for dinner time) / Closed: Thurs.

I can’t stress how much you have to go eat at this place, it’s probably about S$13 for a set that consists of noodles, rice and tempura. They are good with their udon noodles, most people order it in a huge clay pot and you eat it with a huge spoon too. Also, you have to try the tonkatsu simply because the way they cook it is so fascinating. The fried tonkatsu comes in a cast iron kind of pot, you lift up the lid and pour the raw egg in, coating the pork with all that eggy goodness, place the lid back on and wait, rather impatiently, for that tonkatsu to be ready with his fellow eggsmen.

Tea

White Chocolate Cake

4. Patissier Karaku
http://p-karaku.sakura.ne.jp/about.html

Compared to Singapore cafe prices, this place is really reasonable for their cakes. Their cakes are priced at about $3 something Sing :O And the best part is if you sit there and eat their cakes, they serve you a free pot of tea (or two). Anything free for a Singaporean is a plus point. I tried their white chocolate cake (good) and the mont blanc (so-so). But if you’re looking for a tea time place to rest your feet after walking round the town, here’s the place to relax. There are only two tables but in the 3 hours that we were there, no one else sat down. Everyone else walked in to take away cakes. We were also the only tourists there, which made them quite fascinated with us I guess, so go enjoy this gem near the JR Nara Station!

Hostels we stayed in:

Piece Hostel

1. Piece Hostel
www.piecehostel.com
21-1 Higashikujo Higashisannocho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 601-8004, Japan

All we could say for this hostel was “Spoil market.” For a private room for two, Sandra and I each paid about $40 per night which is competitively priced and so worth it because it is such a hip place to live in. Furthermore, this hostel just opened in April last year which means it is new and clean. I love the modern minimalistic concept that is welcoming and homey at the same time which is a balance really hard to strike in interior designing. I guess since we were the youngest lone travellers in the hostel, no one wanted to make friends with us except this 40 something year old lady with her two children. The hostel serves both Western and Asian travellers but on some days, we seem to be the only Asians and on some days, we blend into the Asian crowd. The hostel offers free movies which you can choose to watch while eating your supermarket dinner/supper. There is also free breakfast in the morning, the cheese buns are really good! Although toilets are shared, I never once had to wait to use the shower which surprised me. Also there are toilets on every level which makes you less nervous when you get ‘the feeling’ (of pooping). Don’t worry, the toilets are so clean, you’ll poop in peace. The location of this hostel is also superb, a 5 minutes walk away from the JR Kyoto Station. Although it’s difficult to find this place, you can always ask friendly Japanese people for directions. This man cycled all the way with us just to show us the hostel 🙂

2. Nara Guesthouse Komachi
41-2 Surugamachi, Nara, 630-8357, Japan
Tel: +81 742-87-0556

We took about an hour to find this place because the woman at the information counter gave us the wrong directions. Basically, google maps this place out before you go on your trip. This guesthouse is only a 5 minute walk from the JR Nara Station which made it an ideal choice for us because we had to leave at 6am to take a train to catch our flight home. The rooms are comfortable and clean, fulfilling the two most important criteria I have. There are bunk beds for 4 in a room and a double bed and tatami mat for 3 in a room. They have a PlayStation 3 in the common area and a TV where you can choose from a whole selection of movies. We watched The Matrix there. The receptionist was really helpful with all our questions and you have to take their map which states where all the good food is.

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