Saturday, November 24, 2007


In an article contribution to last week's The Sunday Times, in the CATS Recruit Page, Nido Qubein, an international speaker & consultant, wrote that "The experts tell us that human knowledge is doubling every 32 hours."

Unfortunately, he did not mention the source of that particular fact.

Nevertheless, he offered ten suggested strategies to cope with the information explosion.

Here are essentially his main points:

1) Have a concise information plan;

2) Focus on action (&/or accomplishments), not on reports;

3) Simplify to ensure relevant information for your decision making;

4) Teach your staff to clarify information in clear, precise language;

5) Qualify your information for applicability to your business;

6) Systemise your routine tasks & spend time on thinking;

7) Process incoming papers with response & action;

8) Update, then eliminate the information if it is of no value;

9) Constantly synthesise your information for action;

10) Educate your staff to manage your information;

If readers are interested to read the whole article, it is available at the author's corporate website.]


"What do you think about...?"

"How do you feel about...?"

"What would you suggest...?"

"What would be your reaction to...?"

"What would happen if...?"

"What do you think is a better way to...?"

"What's your biggest concern about...?"

"How important is that to you...?"

"Why is it being done that way?"

"Could you give me an example of...?"

"What do you like most about...?"

"What do you like least about...?"

"Where do you find signs most effective for you?"

[Source: Nido Qubein's 'Questions to help You Comunicate'.]


Here are some good pointers from David Goldwich, a trainer in communication & presentation skills, who wrote an article in CATS: Recruit Page to today's Straits Times:

1) Make the first move & greet the person with a smile, a warm handshake & a prepared introduction; also, make him interested in talking to you;

2) Build rapport through eye contact, body language & a suitable topic of conversation - to create a feeling of similarity; Be polite, friendly & welcoming;

3) Ask questions to sustain the conversation & let the other person shine, while the conversation on track, confirming understanding & maintaining rapport;

4) Show interest in the other person by making him feel good about himself & of course you;

5) Listen attentively;

[For more information, email]


A man was arrested by police for swimming in a private beach and was brought to court.

The judge addressed the defendant, "The sign clearly said that there was no swimming allowed. So why did you?"


"I read the sign a little differently, your Honor."
"And how did you read the sign?"

"Private Beach? No! Swimming allowed."


Here is a list of my personal favourite books, which share many interesting ideas, tips and strategies on the art of mixing serious work with good fun - I call it 'plorking', combining letters from the words, 'play' and 'work'!

The author of 'FunWorks', Leslie Yerkes, calls the phenomenon, 'The Work/Fun Fusion'.

The author of 'Laffirmations', Joel Goodman has dedicated his corporate website to show readers how to infiltrate fun and humor into the workplace. It's called 'The Humour Project'. It has a host of interesting articles and wonderful resources.

Here is one amusing quote from his book:

"If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide." (Mahatma Gandhi)

The author of 'You Don't Have to Go Home from Work Exhausted!', Ann-McGee Cooper, explodes the myths that so many of us have lived with life on the fast lane. Her zesty ideas on 'Energy Engineering' offer the opportunity of exponential payout. Her other book, 'Time Management for Unmanageable People' is also worth reading!

The author of 'Up Your Productivity', Kurt Hanks, not only writes but draws or doodles very well too in his book. His many other books are also worth exploring, e.g. 'Wake Up Your Creative Genius', 'The Change Navigator', etc.

Steve Wilson calls himself America's Joyologist, and Cheerman of The Bored. He has apparently traveled the world to learn and share methods for using laughter and humor as the best medicine for staying well, healing illness, and enjoying life to the maximum. These methods are captured in his book, 'The Art of Mixing Work & Play.'

Well, here is my personal power pack to share with readers:

1. Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love to Work, by Leslie

2. 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work, by Dave Hemsath;

3. 301 More Ways to Have Fun at Work, by Dave Hemsath;

4. Get Weird! 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work, by John Putzier;

5. Laffirmations: 1001 Ways to Add Humor to Your Life and Work, by Joel Goodman;

6. You Don't Have to Go Home from Work Exhausted!: A Program to Bring Joy, Energy, and Balance to Your Life, by Anne Mcgee-Cooper;

7. Humor Works, by John Morreall;

8. The Art of Mixing Work & Play, by Steve Wilson;

9. Humor at Work: The Guaranteed, Bottom-Line, Low Cost, High-
Efficiency Guide to Success Through Humor, by Esther Blumenfeld;

10. Up Your Productivity (Quick Read Series), by Kurt Hanks;

All these books drive home one important point: Change is Possible!...& the joy as well as energy that come from living fully are worth the effort at the end.


"In his explorations of the world, the individual finds out what needs doing. In his attempts to do some of it, he finds out what he can do and what he cannot. He also comes to see what he need not do. From the intersection of these possibilities there emerges a new imperative, his sense of what he must do. How "it needs" and "I can" give birth to "I must" remains enigmatic."
(Howard E. Gruber, psychologist & author of 'Darwin on Man: A Pyschological Study of Scientific Creativity')


Yesterday's Straits Times featured a story about a St Hilda Primary School's pupil, Natasha Nabila Muhamad Nasir, who scored 294 at the recent PSLE.

Today's Straits Times continued with the story of how her parents took parenting very seriously.

Her mother, Ms Zaharah, quit her job as a flight stewardess with Singapore Airlines during her pregnancy to focus on her child. Her husband, Muhamad Nasir Atan, a technician with the same airline, read fairy tales to his unborn daughter every night.

The couple also bought Natasha an encyclopedia when she was three months old, put her in a play group when she was two & took her for piano classes when she was three. They also bought them assessment book & test papers - usually the demanding ones - for Natasha, who has not had a day of tuition.

These activities may sound like hot-housing, but the point here is that the parents really dedicate themselves to their children with love & encouragement, & only want to give them the best education they can get.

I always hold the view that parents are the children's first teachers.

In the course of my strategy consulting work, I have come across a lot of such similar success stories.

A lady lawyer, who contacted me through the net, quit her job to dedicate herself to her three young kids. She was interested in various learning methodologies, which I readily shared with her.

A lady corporate executive, in a well-known Japanese firm, gave up her job as a local Director, to focus on her two teenaged boys. Both of her children had attended my program. In fact, her youngest son attended my program when he was still in K2, but the kid really impressed me because he could match a P3 kid, in terms of command of the English Language, in the same class.

What was the mother's success secret? She told me, in spite of her busy work schedule, that she would spend at least half an hour every evening before bed to talk to her two boys, individually, by posing thess simple & yet powerful questions:

What have you learned today? Do you have any questions?

With these questions, the boys had learned to articulate their thoughts. She also encouraged her two boys to read widely & to ask questions, which explained their inquisitive minds when I encountered them in my program.

A father left the public service as a security officer to be a self-taught student of accelerated learning. He then applied Glenn Doman learning methods to his two daughters even before they were born, who later excelled in the local university.

One mother, a very successful entrepreneur in the culinary arts, continues to use teleconferencing every evening at 10pm to communicate with her two grown up kids studying in the United States. When the two kids were growing up in Singapore, she was always there for them, in spite of her own busy work schedule.

I realised that many parents in Singapore like to outsource part of their parenting responsibilities to house maids, tuition teachers as well as service providers, like motivational speakers who dabble as success coaches.

I am not professing that parents should apply hot housing methods, but rather parents should spend quality time with their children, especially during their growing years.


If you have read the recent issue of 'Mind Your Body' supplement in the Straits Times, you would have come across a composed part-image, part-text picture, showing the numerical number of '12' adjoining the clipart image of a baker holding his roller, on page 16.

If you think you know the answer to this brain teaser...or if you have given up trying to solve it, here is the appropriate answer:

A Baker's Dozen

This is a simple example of combinatory play and random juxtaposition, which are practical tools to revv up your lateral thinking processes.

In terms of creativity, combinatory play and random juxtaposition can help to put your sensory impressions into productive thoughts.

In the real world, you probably have read how Einstein had put together various ideas from other brilliant people to come up with his famous equation.

If you get the hang of it, please proceed to for more of these brain teasers.

Personally, I had met Patrick Chan, the creator of Word Juxtapoz, during the early nineties, when I had my own small retail store, aptly called The Brain Resource. In fact, I had sold his debut book, 'Word Juxtapoz', in my store.

His corporate website is worth visiting, as he has written a reasonably good article, 'How To Become A Creative Genius', amidst all the usual sales pitches of an internet marketer.

Enjoy your paradigm shifting experiences with combinatory play and random juxtaposition!

[If you are still trying to figure out the word play in the above picture, I suggest readers to pay a visit to Patrick Chan's Word Juxtapoz for the appropriate answer.]

Friday, November 23, 2007


A few days ago, in the Straits Times supplement, 'Mind Your Body', freelance writer, Gary Hayden, wrote a very interesting as well as highly relevant piece as Part 6 of The Love Series.

He drew two particular episodes from Robert Pirsig's 1974 book, 'Zen & The Art of Motor-cycle Maintenance'.

In episode 1, he referred to 'Monday Morning Blues'. I often see this phenomenon in our MRT trains every morning, especially on Mondays.

In episode 2, he referred to 'Chimpanzee Mechanics'. I also see this phenomenon in many workplaces everywhere in the city, in both private as well as public sector, particularly those that deal with customer service.

The principal point behind these two episodes: They tell a lot about work, & about how we approach our jobs.

I like the author's use of a quotation attributed to French philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville:

"Our lives - private & public, domestic & professional - have value only in proportion to the love we invest in them & find in them."

The author asserted that, the way to find value in your job is to invest love in it.

His anecdote of the toilet attendant, Willie Jack, whom he had encountered during a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland, was really heart warming.

His ending summary: "I am not suggesting that every job is - or can be made - lovable. Some people work long hours at arduous jobs, & earn poor wages from unappreciative employers. I would not presume to lecture them about job satisfaction. But for many of us, the simplest way to get more out of our jobs is to put more of ourselves into them."

All Singaporeans out there in the rat race, please pause to reflect on your life pursuits !


For some strange reasons, my blog covering the first day of my holidays in Italy happens to be the last ending blog covering the whole itinerary. Please don't ask me why because it just happens that way.

Rome was actually my first stop, after landing at the Fiumicino Leonardo da vinci International Airport (Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino) during the wee hours of 26th October 2007.

Checking through immigration as well as customs was surprisingly quite a breeze.

I recall my first trip through the airport twenty five years ago. That was a real hassle as it was the peak summer holiday time in Europe. I recall that my second trip through the airport sometime in 2000 was not that smooth either.

The group consisted of 23 passengers. The first thing that went seemingly wrong for the group was that the pick up coach was designed for only 17 people. Among the group, there were a few heavy weights, including yours truly.

According to our tour leader from Singapore, Johnny of Tradewinds, there was an apparent "communication breakdown" with the Italian ground partner. In fact, he asserted that, in his eighteen years of leading groups to Europe, this was the first 'screw-up' he had encountered. He promised that a much bigger coach would greet us the next morning from the hotel.

Somehow, all of us in the group managed to squeeze into the small coach since, luckily, there were four young kids in the group.

The highlights of the city itinerary had already been laid out as follows:

- The Church of St Peter's in Chains;
- River Tiber;
- The Colosseum;
- Roman Forum;
- Vittorio Emanuele II Monument;
- Castle of the Saint Angels (Castel Sant Angelo);
- The Vatican City;
- Basilica of St Peter's;
- Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel;
- Trevi Fountain (Fontaina di Trevi);
- Spanish Steps;

To our surprise, the local tour guide was a spirited old lady, who sprang around like a spring chicken while leading the group, up the stairs and down the stairs.

I will endeavour to do a short write up of each spot, based on my own personal observations with snapshots as well as what I had read about.

The city of Rome lies between the hills and the sea, across the confluence of the Tiber and Aniene rivers, and encompasses about 1,285 km2. It was originally built on the famous seven hills that still form part of the city. Within the city limits, the population is about 2.5 million, with 3.8 million living in the urbanised areas.

From her beginning as a tiny village in central Italy, to her current status as a top-ranking city for the arts, fashions & cuisine, Rome has seen it all.

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, who - along with his twin brother, Remus - was a son of Mars. After the young boys had been abandoned on the Palatine Hill, they were suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus, thereafter, founded Rome atop the Palatine Hill, naming after himself. Today, the she-wolf remains the symbol of Rome.

History's version of this delightful tale is that the hilly region around the Tiber and Aniene rivers were inhabited by various hill tribes as early as the 8th century BC. These hill tribes were gradually dominated by the Etruscans, who built the settlement that would one day become Rome.

Frustrated by the Etruscans' dominance over the affairs, in 510 BC, the Romans rose up and overcame their oppressors to establish a republic.

Through the centuries that followed, Rome rose as a mighty empire, decline as famine and plague set in, made it through the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, fought through foreign domination and made her way to the 21st century, even stronger and more beautiful for all her experiences.

No city in the world really reflects the history of human ingenuity and artistic endeavours quite as much as Rome. From her ancient ruins dating back to Imperial times, to her modern day galleries and shopping districts, everywhere in the city there are magnificent traces of timelessness.

Imperial, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Modern - all these historic periods are represented in her arts, paintings and architecture.

[to be continued in the next post :)]


While waiting for the doctor attending to my wife at his clinic last night, I happened to browse a three-week old issue of Newsweek, which carried an article on the above subject.

To test the technology, I took out my Nokia N93 3G SmartPhone to photograph the one page article as instructed, and emailed it immediately to the company behind the technology, ScanR.

The company had just launched its technology in April last year. It is one of the leading entrants in an industry that's making use of the increasingly sophisticated cameras included in mobile phones. The idea is to use the device as a portable scanner that makes it easy to enter written information in computer-readable form.

Once the data are captured on the handset, ScanR can use high-powered computers to run high-powered optical-character-recognition (OCR) technology.

According to the article, racks of servers process the sent image, then another set of servers grabs all visible text, cleans it up and drops it into a PDF file. The process, which takes about 30 seconds, is totally automated, so "no humans ever see it."

If users want to edit the text within the image, they can go to ScanR's site and download it as a text file.

At this moment, ScanR, is offering the service free for up to five uses per month and charges US$3 per month for unlimited use.

In my simple test case, the returned .pdf file from ScanR came back via my home PC as a relatively good product. However, the returned text file was completely garbled. I will need to explore this technology further.

More information about the technology and its usage can be found at their corporate website or blog.

Interestingly, by 2010, there will be a billion camera phones in the world, half of them with a resolution of two megapixels or more, according to the research firm International Data Group.

Well, whether camera phones used as capture devices will eventually replace scanners, fax machines and photocopy machines, is something to think about by marketers.


"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
(Albert Einstein)


More than 2,700 years old, the city of Milan is not just the capital of Italy's northern region of Lombardy - it is also the country's epicentre of fashion and finance. [Milan is the seat of the Italian Stock Exchange.] It is also a magnetic point for designers, artists, photographers and models from all over the world.

In fact, the city of Milan, with a population of almost 2 million people, including the suburbs, shares with the city of Paris as the fashion capital of the world.

Today, Milan is the largest industrial city in Italy, with many different industrial sectors as manufacturing of textiles & garments, car manufacturing (including Alpha Romeo, and the other fancy Italian sports thoroughbreds), chemicals, mechanical tools & heavy machinery. Tourism as well as fashions are also important sectors. It has also a thriving book as well music publishing industry.

Historically, Milan has been a rich and important city all the time. It was always a place for famous artists of the various eras, from the early Gothic and Renaissance, through Baroque and Romantic, right up to the contemporary. As a result, it offers a particular assortment of churches, buildings and monuments as magnificent traces from those artistic periods.

For the international tourists, Milan offers a vast variety of beautiful artistically crafted buildings, comprising churches, monuments and museums.

The most important church is the Duomo (The Cathedral), which is the third largest church in the world. In Milan, most major streets radiate out from the Duomo, which is generally considered the epicentre of the city. This Gothic cathedral took more than 500 years to complete, and is able to seat more than 40,000 people.

Therefore, it was the first stop of the group itinerary for the day.

Commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Duomo started being built in 1386.

It is the third largest church in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome and after the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.

Overall, it is made of marble, with immense statues, arches, pillars, pinnacles. The statues are about 3500, including the 96 gargoyles.

The highest pinnacle is at the height of 108.5 metres, and it has on its top the statue of the Virgin Mary, best known as the “Madonnina”, covered of gold.

Inside the church, there are many interesting works of art: the tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici di Marignano, known as “Il Medeghino”; the crypt and St. Carlo Borromeo’s statue; the wooden choir-stails; the Tivulziano candelabrum; the Egyptian porphyry basin.

There also old stained-glass windows of the 15th century. They are rumoured to be the largest in the world.

Inside the Duomo, it is possible to go on the roof where you have a overview of the city landscape.

[Because of the tight itinerary normally associated with group tours, we did get a chance to visit Santa Maria delle Grazie, another historic church which housed one of the most famous paintings of Leonardo da Vinci: the “Last Supper”. The works of the fresco was started in 1495 and finished in 1498.

Likewise, there were many other interesting symbolic places in Milan which we could not visit, e.g. the magnificent Sforza Castle, just to name another one.]

We had a good glimpse of the nearby Teatro alla Scala (The Scala Opera House) from an exterior standpoint. In fact, this is also one of the reasons why tourists come to Milan. It is one of the world's most prestigious opera houses.

It was opened on the 3rd August 1778 under the will of Maria Teresa d'Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre which was destroyed by a fire in 1776. Later on, it was destroyed during the second World War, but was rebuilt.

The next point on the itinerary was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (Victor Emanuele II Gallery, named after the first king of united Italy).

It is a gigantic masonry building fitted with an arching cast iron & glass roof, a popular design for nineteenth-century arcade buildings.

[For example, the Burlington Arcade in London; the Saint-Hubert Gallery in Brussels; the Passazh in St Petersburg; the Galleria Umberto in Naples].

The arcade building, reputed to be the world's oldest of its kind, was designed in 1861 by architect Giuseppe Mengoni, and built between 1865-1877.

Aesthetically, two intersecting streets, linking the secular Piazza della Scala (The Scala Square) on the north to the spiritual Piazza della Duomo (The Cathedral Square) on the south, make a cruciform plan with a domed octagon at the center. [They therefore serve as a covered urban link between the Scala Opera House and the Cathedral, the two famous landmarks of Milan.]

Below the large octagonal dome, is a large shopping mall with elegant designer boutiques, e.g. Gucci, LV, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, and expensive cafes as well as bars, all spread out on the inlaid mosaic concourse.

Interestingly, the ultra-luxurious Park Hyatt hotel, offering the city's most luxurious (and most expensive) rooms and facilities is also directly connected to this shopping gallery.

According to the local tour guide, many new and massive construction projects were now underway, which would probably give the city of Milan a new skyline no longer dominated by the Duomo.

A short while after sightseeing and shopping, we had a quick lunch - in fact, an expensive McDonald's meal - at the gallery, before regrouping at the coach for a northbound trip to our next destination: Lugano in Switzerland.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


“Romeo! Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” This is perhaps the most famous line from the most famous love story in the English Language.

But amidst the passion, the true love and the heart wrenching tragedy, one seldom pays any attention to the city where the drama unfolds.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s Verona. Verona is believed to be the setting of Romeo and Juliet, made famous by William Shakespeare.

It is situated 114km west of Venice, and 502km northwest of Rome - between the rolling plains of the Veneto, Lake Garda and the Dolomite mountains.

The city of Verona was founded in the 1st century B.C. It flourished under the rule of the Scaliger family in the 13th and 14th centuries, and as part of the Republic of Venice from the 15th to 18th centuries. Verona has preserved a remarkable number of monuments from antiquity, the medieval and Renaissance periods, and represents an outstanding example of a military stronghold. [It was once occupied by Napoleon during the 18th century, because of its strategic intersection of many roads.]

The principal highlights of our short visit to Verona consisted of two areas:

Arena di Verona

This elliptical Roman amphitheater on Piazza Brà, resembles the Colosseum in Rome. It is one of the best preserved Roman monuments in Italy, and dates back around the first century AD. It was originally used for gladiator fights.

A popular legend says it was built by a prisoner condemned to erect the arena brick by brick.

What is most remarkable is that an earthquake hit this area in the 12th century, and the structures survived. Four arches of the "outer circle" and a complete "inner ring" still stand.

Today, the arena plays host to operas and theatrical performances.

Juliet's Balcony (Casa di Giulietta)

There's no evidence that any family named Capulet lived here. But that hasn't stopped millions of visitors from flocking to this contrived sight. People see the small home, with its balcony and courtyard, and immediately imagine Romeo saying, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”

The house was acquired by the city in 1905. Many local folks believe that in the 19th century it was a bordello.

You'll notice that the right breast on a bronze statue of Juliet is much more brightly polished than the left. That's the result of a tradition (having nothing to do with Shakespeare) that calls for visitors to rub this breast as they pass.

After sightseeing, we make a quick beeline to the nearby shopping district, just off Piazza Bra square, a stone's throw from the famous Roman arena.

By 5pm, it was time to regroup and depart for our next destination: Milan, located in the Lombardy region, which was an hour's drive away.

Lombardy has the most extensive waterway system in the whole of Italy, with its ten flowing river and many streams. One big river is the Po River, which has a length of 260 km and, which is the most important river cutting through Lombardy. Another river is Ticino, which marks the region’s western border, and which is the region’s largest protected area.


In the early years, at the beginning of the nineties when I had just set up my own strategy consulting business, under the trade name of 'Optimum Performance Technologies', followed by the establishment of a small retail outlet, aptly called 'The Brain Resource' in the central business district, my comprehensive repertoire covered books, audios/videos, tool kits, posters, construction sets, games and puzzles, all pertaining to brain-based learning.

As a vendor, I would then considered myself a pioneer in the field. That was well before the advent of the Internet, more specifically, which has now became an integral part of one's life in today's techno-savvy world, and also Borders as well as Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City were still raw ideas in some body's heads.

During that period, I had many wonderful experiences - sourcing books and resources internationally, particularly from the United States, as well as meeting customers, many of whom had become my good friends today.

My first office/store location was actually quite a run-down, two-storey shop-house at 121 Beach Road. My small outfit operated from the back of the shop-house. At the front, my fellow tenant was a diesel & kerosene retailer.

The whole area was eventually pulled down in 1994, by which time I had relocated to a bigger 3rd floor unit inside the North Bridge Centre on 420 North Bridge Road.

In both locations, I had a large wall poster with the portrait of Albert Einstein. Every customer who had walked into my office/store would have to face this great icon.

On the poster, there was this quotation attributed to Albert Einstein:

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

As a matter of fact, I had also sold copies of this poster - in fact, it was one of my top sellers -, together with many other poster selections, to all my customers.

Invariably, in the course of my business, I had often bumped into a handful of 'prospective customers' - I believed they were, with due respect, Christian fundamentalists - who seemed to annoy me with their truncated perspective about the dangers and risks of:

- using the powers of the inner mind to chart out one's life pursuits;

- applying creative visualisation as a problem solving technique;

- applying ritualistic meditative routines as part of stress management;

- listening to New Age music selections;

A few of them had even blatantly referred the foregoing routines as "Satanic" processes.

Whenever I thought we would run into a seemingly unending debate about the above perspective, I would always prefer in the first instance to adopt a non-confrontational approach by just pointing them to the particular Einstein's poster on the wall.

Then, I would just walked away, and rested my case.

By the way, I am a free thinker.


What stop us from creating more ideas & better solutions?

What makes us so satisfied with the one answer we usually can find?


"The important thing is this: to be able to at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."
(Charles DuBois)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


The next morning after arriving for a one night stay in Mestre on the Veneto mainland, we took a brisk ferry ride to the city of Venice located on the Venetian Lagoon.

Venice is actually composed of more than a hundred tiny islets, packed closely together around canals.

In the lagoon, the city is protected by the longer island of Venice Lido.

As a whole, the lagoon is almost as large as the island of Singapore.

The ferry cruised past the Palladium churches as well as 13th century palaces before disembarking quite near the St Mark's Square to see the Doge's Palace, connected to the prisons by the Bridge of Sighs. [This was the place where the legendary Casanova made his daring escape during the 18th century. He was in fact a Venetian by birth.]

St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is the central landmark as well as a gathering place for visitors to Venice. It is one of the few great urban spaces in Europe where human traffic prevail over motorised traffic, which is confined to its waterways.

According to history, the Venetian Lagoon began as an enclosed, shallow embankment of salt water in the 6th century, during which it gave security to Romanised people fleeing the invaders (mostly the Huns).

It became a major maritime power and a staging post for the Fourth Crusade, as well as a very important centre of commerce (especially for silk, grain and the spice trade), and art in the Renaissance era up to the end of the 17th century.

[The famous explorer, Marco Polo, together with his father, Niccolo and uncle, Maffeo, who were among the first westerners to travel the ancient Silk Road to China (to visit the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan), was believed to have set his foot in Venice upon his return in 1295.]

In a small area at the water front, known as Piazzetta dei Leoncini, and leading into the St Mark's Square, two tall and giant columns stand facing (and seemingly guarding the entrance to the public square) the Venetian Lagoon:

- one is Marco, the Winged Lion of St Mark;
- the other is Todaro, the statute of St Teodoro of Amasea (Santodaro to Venetians) who is stand
ing on the sacred crocodile of Egypt;

As patrons of the city, these two columns constitute the official gateway to Venice. In the old days, public executions were carried out at this location.

The Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), with its Gothic architecture of the 9th century, has two most visible facades looking toward the Venetian Lagoon as well as St Mark's Square respectively. This was the residence of the Doge or Chief Magistrate of Venice.

In the old days, it contained the offices of a number of political institutions of the Republic of Venice, arranged around a central courtyard. Today, it is preserved as a museum.

The other notable architectural landmarks in the area include:

- The Basilica of St Mark's or Basilica di San Marco (the most famous among the churches in Venice; it represents one of the best known examples of architecture from the Byzantine period);
- The St Mark's Campanile (a bell tower, which is actually part of the Basilica, but located quite far apart; technically, it is a reconstruction of the old one which had collapsed);
- The Correr Museum (or Museo Correr; adjoining the Doge's Palace; it's Venice's main historical museum for documents, weapons, coins, and other artifacts relating to the city over the centuries );
- The Clock Tower (or Torre dell' Orologio);
- The Royal Gardens of the Giardinetti;

There were also the famous bronze horse statutes on the facade of the Basilica, which were believed to have been looted from Constantinople during the 12th century. [In reality, they are replicas as the actual ones are kept in the nearby museum.]

The tight scheduling of the group itinerary, as usual, did not give members enough time to explore these beautiful Venetian sights in greater depth.

Following the sightseeing, the group adjourned to see an ancient Murano glass blowing demonstration. The displayed range of hand-made costume jewelry made out of Murano glass was very beautiful and exquisite.

Following the demonstration, the group was give some free time to have a quick lunch and to browse around the nearby shopping district - packed with designer boutiques and expensive cafes, which encircled one perimeter part of St Mark's Square.

This outer perimeter and adjoining areas are apparently dissected by a labyrinth of narrow passage ways and alleys in resonance with small meandering canals punctuated by delicate bridges.

Some members of the group went for a gondola senerade ride along the Grand Canal of Venice.

The Grand Canal is the most important canal in Venice. It forms one of the major water traffic corridors in the city. It starts from the Lagoon (at the nearby train station) and makes a large 'S' shape through the central district, and ends at the entrance to the St Mark's Square.

Public transport is provided by public water buses and private water taxis. Its banks are lined with some of the most beautiful buildings, including palaces and churches, of the city.

The city is still threatened by frequent low-level floods that creep to a height of several centimeters over its quays, regularly following certain tides. [The most extreme being the spring tides known as the acque alte ("high waters"), which regularly flood much of city.]

In many old houses, the former staircases used by people to unload goods are now flooded, rendering the former ground floor uninhabitable. Thus, many Venetians resorted to moving up to the upper floors and continue with their lives.

Some recent expert studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking, but this is not yet certain.

A few years ago, the then Italian Prime Minister inaugurated the Moses Project, which will lay a series of inflatable pontoons across the sea bed at the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 100 cm, the pontoons will be filled with air and block the incoming water from the Adriatic sea. This challenging engineering work is due to be completed by 2011.

For memory, Venice, the city of canals and gondolas, was certainly a very enchanting city.

It was almost 2pm by which time we had returned by ferry again to the Veneto mainland, where the group was picked up by the waiting coach to head westbound for our next destination: Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet.


The group began the visit in Florence with a brisk walking tour of the city. The city began as a settlement established by Julius Caesar in 59BC.

We visited the Academy Gallery to see Michelangelo's monumental figure of David.

Then, we continued to the multi-coloured marble Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (The Cathedral or Duomo of Florence) to see the notable orange-tiled dome - the famous symbol of Florence - designed by Filippo Brunelleschi as well as Giotto's Bell Tower, with the adjoining Baptistery.

The baptistery is particularly famous for its three sets of artistically crafted bronze doors.

Michelangelo had referred to these doors, each fitted with twenty-eight beautiful panels, as fit to be the Gates of Paradise.

The South Doors depict scenes from the life of St John the Baptist; the North Doors depict scenes from the New Testament; while the East Doors depict scenes from the Old Testament pertaining to the 'Story of Joseph'.

The Baptistery is crowned by a magnificent mosaic ceiling.

According to our local guide, what the group saw was the end result of years of work that stretched over six centuries of history, starting at the end of the 13th Century.

The last stop was the Piazza della Signoria. This is a large L-shaped square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which had served as a palace as well as a fortress. In fact, it has been the centre of Florence's political and social life for centuries.

Its architectural appearance was apparently the result of at least three successive building stages between the 13th and 16th centuries.

From afar, the group had the chance to see the Ponte Vecchi, an old bridge straddling across the Aro river. It is noted for having retail shops built along it. It is believed to have been built in Roman times. Today, it is one of Europe's oldest segmental arch bridges.

In reality, Florence is considered the birthplace of Italian Renaissance.

It began in this city in the late Middle Ages and eventually spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th century.

It is said that of the 1,000 most important European artists during the Renaissance era, 350 of them had lived and/or worked in Florence.

Renaissance, which means 'Rebirth', encompassed:

- renewal of learning;
- rise of courtly & papal patronage;
- development of perspective in painting;
- advancement in science;

It also coincided with the beginning of the powerful and influential Medici banking family in Florence.

[In fact, the Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and most respected in Europe.

From this base, the family acquired political power initially in Florence, and later in the wider Italy and Europe.

Interestingly, the Medici family had produced three popes, numerous rulers of Florence, and later members of the French royalty.

Additionally, the most significant accomplishments of the Medici family were in art and architecture, as they were were prolific collectors. Today, their acquisitions form the principal core of the Uffizi Museum.]

The principal highlight of the visit was actually the Uffizi Museum, which is one of the oldest & most famous art museums in the world. It contains one of the most important and richest art collections of all times, from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

The Uffizi Museum, with all its great treasures, are housed in the Palazzo degli Uffizi, a majestic palace building in Florence, built by Vasari and completed by Buontalenti.

The museum was originally built in 1560 for the Medici banking family. It had been open to visitors by referrals since the 16th century. In 1760, it was officially open to the public.

Today, the museum houses over 45 exhibition galleries with 1700 paintings, 300 sculptures and over 40 tapestries.

Frankly speaking, although we visited the Uffizi Museum, what we actually saw was only a tiny fraction of the exhibits, due to the time factor as often associated with group tours. Worst of all, photography and video taping within the museum galleries were restricted.

An interesting note: The museum played a significant role in the 2001 movie, 'Hannibal', being the place when Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) had stowed himself after escaping from prison (in the 1991 movie, 'The Silence of the Lambs') and when he had murdered two more of his victims.

Another interesting note: Amerigo Vespucci, 1454-1512, famous Italian cartographer and explorer, was born in Florence. He was believed to have discovered America long before Christopher Columbus did in 1492.

In the late afternoon, just after a quick shopping spree, we departed the city of Florence, and began our northbound journey into the Veneto region. Our next destination was Venice.

Our coach crossed the Apennine mountains, passing Bologna and the flood plains of the river Po for a scenic drive along the famous Brenta riveria with its magnificent classical villas that were the summer residence of the Venetian nobility.

[More information about the Uffizi Museum and its important collections in more than 45 galleries can be found here.]


After a one night stay in Perugia, we departed from the hotel by coach early in the morning for our next destination, the city of Pisa, located in the Tuscany region.
The undulating hills, austere rows of cypress tress, terraced vineyards, olive groves and rural villages form the backdrop of our scenic journey through the Tuscany region.

The principal highlight of the visit to this city was the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The free standing bell tower, with its uniquely slant perspective, is an architectural phenomenon. The surrounding area consists of a large partly-paved, partly grassed square, known as the Square of Miracles.

Besides this famed structure, the group also visited the adjacent cathedral, the baptistery and the compasanto (a walled cemetery, decorated with frescoes), which reflected the beauty of Romanesque architecture.

Surprisingly, the bell tower began leaning soon after the onset of construction in 1173 due to a poorly laid foundation & shifting substrate. Many experts from Italy as well as from other parts of the world had in fact contributed to the re-strengthening of the foundation. Currently, the top of the 8-storey structure had leaned some 4.5 m from the center line.

Galileo Galilei was said to have carried out physical experiments with falling objects at the tower.

After saying good bye to the city of Pisa, the group continued its journey to the city of Florence for a one night stay. Florence is also located in the Tuscany region.

Upon arrival in Florence late in the evening, we had the famous Florentine T-bone steak (bistecca alla fiorentina, in Italian) for dinner. It was a huge, juicy and chunky steak, from the Chianina cattle breed, grilled to perfection over charcoal fire and garnished with parmesan cheese and lemon wedges.

Originally, it was supposed to be served very rare, but the group had the tempered version, just as a safe measure.

The dinner was nevertheless accompanied by a song & music routine from a native singer. It was quite fun to watch some group members doing their fancy antics on the dance floor with the singer.


On the next early morning, we left the city of Naples by coach again for the Umbria region. Our next stop is the city of Assisi, located about 90km north of Rome.

Assisi, which is actually a well-preserved medieval walled city, is located on the slopes of Mount Subasio, 400 m above sea level.

Built entirely in white and rose stone of Mount Subasio, the city is characterised by narrow, steep and winding alleys which have preserved their look and their charm over the centuries. The visual impact of the shimmering white stoned buildings is magnificent.

Being the birthplace of the founder of the Franciscan Order, (St. Francis of Assisi, 1182-1226 AD), Assisi has from the Middle Ages been closely associated with the cult and diffusion of the Franciscan movement in the world, focusing on the universal message of peace and tolerance even to other religions or beliefs.

Today, Assisi is apparently a famous pilgrimage destination inextricably linked in legend with St. Francis, and shares honours with St. Catherine of Sienna as the patron saint of Italy.

St. Francis is known by many as a lover of nature and his preaching to an audience of birds is one of the legends of his life.

The principal highlight of the visit is naturally the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, with the glory of its magnificent frescoes by Giotto.

According to our local guide, the basilica complex is composed of two churches built one above the other, the lower one dating from 1228-1230, and the upper one from 1230-1253, plus a crypt dug in 1818 to house St Francis' tomb.

The Lower Basilica was decorated by the greatest painters of the 13th Century and 14th Century: Cimabue, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini. The stained glass windows are extremely beautiful.

The Upper Basilica is adorned by Giotto's frescoes illustrating the life of St. Francis. There are also works by Cimabue, Cavallini and Torriti. The monastery houses a remarkable "Treasury" composed of rare illuminated manuscripts and the Perkins collection.

We also visited the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, a church located on the plain at the foot of Mount Subasio. It was constructed between 1569 and 1679.

It was actually here that the young St. Francis understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor, and then eventually started the Franciscan movement.

Personally, I found the life story of St. Francis very warm and inspiring. As a young man, and despite the fact that he was born in a rich merchant family, he apparently devoted himself to a life of poverty and public service, especially after listening to a particular sermon and receiving an angelic vision.

In the evening, we proceeded to Perugia for a one night stay. Early next morning, the group had planned to leave Perugia and head for the next destination: the city of Pisa.

[Some biographical information about St. Francis, his early life & his religious vision, can be found here.]