When borders gradually eased up some four to five months ago, the decision of whether or not to hop onto a travel site and purchase tickets to somewhere — anywhere — was met with excitement, but also reservation. On the one hand, the urge to jet out after a travel-starved two years was definitely arresting (no thank you, COVID-19), yet the risk of travelling amidst the pandemic’s waging war had any likelihood of a trip sliding to hell in a handcart.
In between the internal struggle, what tipped the scale for me was when a group of friends initiated a trip in December, and what would be our first time travelling together. We didn’t know just where yet (though the two countries turned out to be France and Germany), but we knew we wanted to do it together. During the same period, my colleague Christabel also made two trips to Spain and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia separately.
Berlin & Frankfurt, Germany (December 2021) — Vera
General restrictions & COVID-19 situation
Before leaving for the trip, my very meticulous friends made sure to keep an eye on the ever-changing restrictions for each city and country, especially seeing how Singapore had just become a red-zone under Germany’s travel list a week prior to our flight.
Back then, the EU had also just announced that they would recognise Singapore’s TraceTogether app as valid proof of vaccination. But of course, in true kiasu fashion, we applied for the more widely-recognised vaccine passport via Notarise and even printed hard copies beforehand.
Though unconfirmed, we had observed that mask-wearing in outdoor spaces seemed to be optional (for we spotted quite a number of maskless locals roaming around, but it may have well been outliers refusing to conform to regulations). Though, in highly populated areas like Christmas markets and indoor quarters like malls, it was mandatory to mask up. While they didn’t have red polo tee-donning safe distancing ambassadors to enforce the rule obviously, the polizei, or police officers, would be the ones to see to that.
Like Singaporean clockwork, I’d find myself searching for the QR code to scan whenever stepping foot into an establishment. Instead, we’d be asked to present not only our vaccination proof but also ID — in which case, flashing your digital NRIC on your SingPass app works just dandy. After a few tries, we soon came to realise that providing Dose 2’s QR code works universally on German devices at least, compared with Dose 1 or the code for both doses, ironically.
Perhaps you’re better off googling the top touristy things to do when in Berlin and Frankfurt, but these recommendations come in the context of COVID-19 restrictions, so that might help in terms of recency.
Despite the truckload of research, travelling amidst a pandemic still spells unexpected changes, and being prepared to adapt along the way helps greatly. For instance, the majority of the Christmas Markets were closed due to COVID-19, which is a real bummer considering how we’d intentionally planned the trip around Christmas.
Nonetheless, here are some of the German attractions that I enjoyed greatly, and that I think you will too:
1. Frankfurt Cathedral Christmas Market (year-end only)
We stumbled upon this Christmas market on our first full day out and about in Frankfurt, tucked just behind the Frankfurt cathedral. It was here where we got our first taste of the Kartoffelpuffer (German potato pancakes) served with applesauce, and where we also got to drink mulled wine from mugs in the -8 degree cold.
Even more magnificent at night, the spirit of the Christmas market just swelled as it got later, and the truckloads of locals gathering around standing tables eating cheese raclettes and drinking apple wine really nailed the holiday spirit that I was craving.
2. Cycletic Indoor Rhythm Cycling
I may or may not have taken the liberty to sign my (unwilling) friends up for a spin class with me, and our experience at Cycletic was extra magical because our instructor for that day was — wait for it — Singaporean. Ambika had lived in various cities before Frankfurt, and she was aware that four Singaporeans had signed up for her class just days before Christmas and was grateful for that little bit of home that was brought to her, especially since it was the first year that she couldn’t travel back for the holidays. It brought a really nice touch to the class, and a great start to the trip for us.
3. Espionage Museum
While there’s no shortage of museums to visit in Germany, the German Spy Museum particularly stood out to me, and appealed especially to seven-year-old Vera who was certain she’d grow up to be an agent. Not only will you get to learn about Germany’s rich Espionage history, but the interactive museum also tells of state heroes and their bravery.
4. Day trip to Potsdam
Initially sceptical of day trips, my mind was changed with Potsdam’s gorgeous views, frozen lakes, and just miles and miles of greenery to explore in general. We spent Christmas day in Potsdam because there was literally nothing else to do in the city that day (a bunch of other locals felt the same and also made the trip), after which we went home when the skies got dark at 4pm and cooked a cosy Christmas meal for ourselves in our apartment.
Challenges we faced
A language barrier is to be expected anywhere in the world without English as its primary language — although a travel mate of mine did dedicate a large portion of his free time to picking up some vocabulary on Duolingo.
Getting around is still manageable with the help of Google Maps and select-few friendly staff members around train stations. What shocked me the most is the fact that subway stations didn’t have gantries and that ticket purchases were solely integrity-based.
Contrary to the many words of warning from our friends, we were, very thankfully, free of racism and small crime during the entire two and a half weeks in Europe, despite our very Asian faces sticking out like sore thumbs amongst a sea of caucasian locals and tourists alike. The closest we came to experiencing assault was when said Duolingo friend received a kick to the shin by an assumed homeless man who’d tailed our group, asking for money.
Paris, France (December 2021) — Vera
General restrictions & COVID-19 situation
Moving from Germany to Paris, the restrictions in terms of safe distancing and vaccine checks were definitely a lot more relaxed — in fact, we found ourselves striding into restaurants, no questions asked, more often than not. A local whom we made small talk with told us that as France’s general elections were drawing near, the relaxing of measures were all in a bid to curry favour with the citizens — this, however, is unverified, and should not be taken as fact.
While generally trying to steer clear of crowds, we also very much did not want to pass up on key activities like visiting the Eiffel Tower, for example. While the tower was without a doubt the most crowded space we visited with the highest area to visitor ratio, what scared me more than that was the fact that I was 300m above the ground, trying desperately not to look down with icy cold wind blowing in my already-freezing face.
1. Day trip to Versailles
If you caught a glimpse of Versailles in Emily in Paris, the town is every bit as gorgeous as it appears on screen. For starters, there’s a farmer’s market that runs until 2pm on weekdays, with vendors selling the most interesting produce — dried pasta, jams, mustards — that make excellent gifts for friends back home.
The sheer size of the palace aside, there’s also much to marvel at within the inside of the walls, and even more in the garden which spans for miles and miles. I was extremely bummed out that we didn’t get to paddleboat through the waters of the garden because the boats were sent away for maintenance during the winter, but if you’re there any other season, you should most definitely catch a ride.
2. A croissant (or 10) from La Maison d’Isabelle
As the winner of the best croissant in Paris in 2018, La Maison d’Isabelle lives up to the glory that comes with the prize. Equal parts flaky, buttery, and oh-so light, I would’ve said the perfect croissant doesn’t exist — until I met this one. The best part is that they’ve retained the low price of 1 Euro per croissant since their win, a remarkably humble gesture on their part, seeing how croissants typically cost upwards of 1.20 Euros at any given bakery.
It’s located in the 5th arrondissement, right in the heart of popular attractions like the Notre-Dame and the Panthéon.
3. See works by Vincent Van Gogh & Claude Monet at the Musée d’Orsay
To say that it’s surreal to be able to view the works of Vincent Van Gogh & Claude Monet for yourself is an understatement. Apart from the renowned paintings, however, the Musée d’Orsay is also home to many brilliant sculptures and works that’ll easily leave you in awe. Spend the entire day here, if you can.
Challenges, testing & actually catching COVID-19
Much like our experience in Germany, getting around the city of Paris was pretty manageable via online maps and guides (I even took an afternoon off away from the group to visit the National Museum of Natural History on my own).
Testing wise, here was our situation: Up until France, we hadn’t taken a single ART/PCR test, even prior to flying. Singapore was taken off the high alert list for the EU, so it wasn’t required of us. On our second last day just before leaving France, we popped into a local pharmacy to take an ART test, which would be valid for up to 72 hours. All our tests turned up negative, and we were cleared for flight as well as to transit through countries.
The second and final test, which we’d pre-booked before the trip on Changi Airport’s website, was the on-arrival test at the airport. The testing facility was set up to a tee, and we’d each spent a grand total of less than five minutes from the time we entered, to getting swabbed in both our noses and throats, and leaving. I got straight into a Grab, and headed home.
A jet-lagged nap and a few hours later, I received a message notifying me that my test result was positive. Strangely enough, it took a varying amount of time for the positive result to show up for my group of friends and I. Two of us had tested positive at the airport, while the other two had only tested positive a few days after, when they had gone to a nearby facility after experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The variant was never revealed to us, but looking at the situation in Europe back then, it was likely to be Omicron.
Ironically, I don’t think that we caught the virus from anyone in the crowds in France, but from a Singaporean whom we’d met up with on various counts. The last we saw of him in person was when we’d invited him to our apartment to countdown into the new year. He also tested positive a few days later, just before we did.
Thankfully for me, the only symptom of COVID-19 I’d experienced was a very bad throat, and I’d managed to escape the usual fever, cough, and flu. I tested negative by day five and was back on the spin bike in my room by day six. I know others who weren’t as lucky, however, but as long as the viral load remains relatively low and symptoms are mild, you can take comfort in knowing that you’ll emerge with immunity to the virus, and healthier than ever.
Of course, we were taking a risk with the decision to travel, but I don’t regret making the trip. I know many who’ve since travelled and avoided infection with extreme precaution. It’s possible, but first, you’ll have to sort out the trade-offs and how risk-averse you’re going to be.
Barcelona, Spain (December 2021) — Christabel
General restrictions & COVID-19 situation
Aside from the fabulous food and weather, Spain was at the top of my dad’s travel list for two reasons: high vaccination rates and a generally low number of COVID-19 cases. The pre-travel requirements were simple enough; we had to take a PCR test 72 hours before arrival in Spain and fill out an online health declaration. Surprisingly, getting through Spanish airport customs was also a breeze. They paid no heed to our vaccination certificates or PCR test results — we were out in minutes.
Out in the streets of Barcelona, masks were mandatory indoors and on public transport. You needed to show a QR code for contact tracing before dining in at F&B establishments. Although it was announced that Singapore-issued COVID-19 certificates were equivalent to the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EU DCC), none of our QR codes were working at the time. Thankfully, most restaurants just waved us in, probably because we looked like tourists, while others were fine with hard copies of our Notarise vaccine passport.
We took extreme precaution, to the point of masking up throughout. Sounds kiasi of us, but mask-wearing also protected our faces from the biting cold winds. We were also equipped with “pandemic travel essentials” like ART kits, propolis throat sprays, and lots of hand sanitiser. It all paid off — this small family trip proceeded smoothly without any of us catching COVID-19.
As Vera mentioned above, these recommendations are based on prevailing COVID-19 restrictions. However, given the ever-changing situation in these countries, it’s always best to do a bit of research beforehand. Here are some of my favourite things to eat, see, and do in Barcelona.
1. Eat your way through La Boqueria Market
Situated along the famous Las Ramblas is La Boqueria, one of Barcelona’s oldest tourist landmarks. This huge food market is well-stocked with an interesting variety of local produce and traditional specialities. Be it cheese, candied fruits, or olive oil, you’ll be more than tempted to buy a couple of things home. Jamón and catànies (chocolate-coated marcona almonds) are souvenirs you can’t go wrong with. I made sure to buy back a good mix of the cheaper jamón serrano and top-quality jamón ibérico de bellota.
Never eat at any of the tourist traps lining Las Ramblas; you’ll find plenty of good local fare at the numerous bars and restaurants within the market. We sat down to a satisfying lunch of assiette de jambon, petits calamares frits (fried baby squid) and creamy cod croquettes at Quisoc Modern, a little tapas bar.
2. Explore the Sant Antoni neighbourhood
Aside from the obligatory visits to key attractions like La Sagrada Familia and the Gaudí buildings, self-guided walking tours around some of the less touristy areas in Barcelona are a must. We stayed in Sant Antoni, a trendy, working-class neighbourhood in the L’Eixample district with an authentic old city charm. Mercat de Sant Antoni, a market off the beaten tourist track, was a great spot to observe the locals going about their day. It’s a pity we missed out on the Sunday Market, a haven for collectors of second-hand books and vintage memorabilia.
I can’t tell you how much I miss the food at Bar Alegría, a tapas bar just minutes away from our Airbnb. The tortilla with truffles and the bikini sandwich (amusingly named el bikini de mi padre, or “my father’s bikini”) appear in my dreams from time to time. Unsurprisingly, we returned for a second visit.
3. Day trip to Girona & Costa Brava
I’m a complete sucker for day trips — I think it’s one of the best ways to venture out of the city without having to worry about logistics. We booked a small group tour with direct pick-up and drop-off from our Airbnb. There were only six of us, excluding our guide and the driver, which made me feel a lot safer.
Our first stop was Girona, a charming old Catalan town and tourist hotspot. We visited a couple of Game of Thrones filming sites, admired the view of the Onyar River from Eiffel Bridge (constructed by the same architect behind the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel), and traversed the Jewish Quarter’s tiny cobbled alleyways.
This was followed by the medieval town of Pals, and then lunch at Calella de Palafrugell, a coastal village cum holiday resort with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. The latter is usually packed with locals in the summer and was mostly empty when we visited — social distancing at its finest. “This looks straight out of a postcard”, I thought to myself, a glass of rosé in hand. And in that moment, everything was perfect.
4. Immerse yourself in art, history & culture
Barcelona is home to a barrage of museums and galleries — you’re bound to find one that suits your personal interests. I managed to snap several shots for the ‘gram at the Moco Museum Barcelona, which features works by Banksy, KAWS, teamLab, and other contemporary artists. We took a chance with MUHBA Plaça del Rei, under the Museum of the History of Barcelona, and explored the remains of the Roman city of Barcino. And of course, my solo visit to the Erotic Museum of Barcelona was equal parts amusing and informative.
Challenges we faced
As we had to take an ART two days before our flight back to Singapore, finding a reliable, conveniently located clinic was imperative. We got swabbed and went for breakfast at a nearby Australian cafe while waiting for our results. Alas, the digital certificates we received had our names misspelt.
We rushed back to the clinic, and much to our dismay, a long queue had formed. The locals were confused (and even worse, angry) to see a trio of tourists trying to “cut the queue”. I did my best to explain the situation, before coming face to face with an equally frustrated clinic assistant. The language barrier was in full swing, and I was a chaotic bundle of nerves. Things did get resolved in the end, but wow. Hello, anxiety.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (January 2022) — Christabel
General restrictions & COVID-19 situation
Believe it or not, I’d never been to KL prior to this trip. It was also my first time travelling together with my partner, and I was determined to have fun, COVID-19 be damned. We had to take a PCR test two days before our flight, and another on-arrival PCR at KL airport. As we obviously didn’t opt for the costlier express swab test, we waited two and a half hours for our results.
Masks are mandatory in all public spaces, and everyone has to check in via MySejahtera, the Malaysian version of TraceTogether, before entering malls, restaurants, and shops. Same same, but different. My partner’s vaccination status wasn’t properly reflected in the app, but carrying hard copies of our vaccine passports with us at all times helped.
I didn’t notice any limitations in group sizes, and there were hardly any social distancing measures in place. It seemed as though some semblance of normalcy had returned, and best of all, COVID-19 didn’t rear its ugly head. All was well and good.
Recommendations (you probably already know)
I have no shame in being that “basic” Singaporean who looks forward to the usual makan and massage sessions. Let’s embrace it. We’ve been deprived of trips across the border for too long.
1. Embark on a day of self-care
Upon stepping foot into Malaysia after two long years, I went all out. Got a haircut. Did my nails. Visited the dentist for a much-needed scaling and polishing session. Being able to finally get a deep tissue massage was also one of the most shiok experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Note: The tension has returned to my back and neck, but it was a treat while it lasted.
2. Take the cable car to Resorts World Genting
Our Malaysian friend suggested an impromptu trip up to Genting Highlands — heck yeah. Making the 620-metre ascent on the Awana Skyway in the foggy and rainy 19-degree weather was such a thrill. As true blue tourists, we did a bit of shopping at SkyAvenue, played arcade games at Skytropolis Funland, and even explored Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, the gimmicky museum of oddities I’d always wanted to visit.
3. Go for karaoke
Singapore’s karaoke ban has certainly put a damper on the spirits of many. Naturally, one of our main intentions was to sing our lungs out in KL. We made a beeline for Manekineko, one of the most affordable karaoke spots around, and somehow managed to pass off as students. That’s a mere RM10 per person for a Student Special — a three-hour singing session with free-flow drinks and tidbits.
4. Feast, feast, feast
No vacation is complete without an extensively well-researched food itinerary, which I always take pleasure in curating. From cafe-hopping in Bangsar to group dinners in Petaling Jaya, here are some recommendations, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
- Raju’s Banana Leaf New Branch – fluffy roti canai
- The Tokyo Restaurant (LOT 10) – both the 6th Avenue and Yuri Matcha cheesecakes
- Jaslyn Cakes – Pistachio Cake (and any of their bakes, really)
- Kyoto Bijin Yakiniku – Pork BBQ Set
- Little Yum Yum – Ikan Gulai Tumis, Yum Yum Pandan Chicken, Yum Yum Brinjal
Challenges we faced
At the time, we had to take a professionally-administered ART on days three and five, and self-administered tests on the remaining days, with results to be reported on the MySejahtera app. We scoured pharmacies to find self-test kits approved by the Malaysian Health Ministry, which proved to be a challenge. Having to deal with early morning swab appointments was also a minor inconvenience, but we managed to plan our schedule around them. I have absolutely no regrets — travelling in a pandemic was a risk I was willing to take, and I’m so glad I did.
Now that borders are opening up even more, will you be travelling in 2022?
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