My brother and I drove from deep southern Bavaria to Innsbruck for a day out and to have a spot of lunch with a friend, at the popular ski resort of Innsbruck in #Austria. It was late summer, so we also got to enjoy the city’s other attractions on offer.
I was surprised at just how much character this picturesque capital of Tyrol had, nestled deep in an Alpen valley. My favourite attraction was the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), in the old town. The photo below doesn’t quite do it justice. It has over 2000 gilded copper tiles and was built in 1500 to commemorate Emperor Maxmilian the First’s, marriage to Bianca Sforza (Italian noblewoman and daughter of the Duke of Milan). There are wall murals and impressive reliefs line the bottom edges. It’s pretty extraordinary and each tile glowed radiantly as a sunbeam caught it, shining out from behind a cloud. We walked around the Old town and got soaked in its medieval charm.
I loved visiting the Jesuit church, which was built in the mid 1600s and is decorated with paintings and memorials dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. It’s also a part of the working University for Jesuit teaching. I remember my uncle, who is a Jesuit himself, telling me about his visit to Innsbruck over fifty years ago when he was there as a student. It felt a little uncanny walking around the church, knowing that my uncle had once spent a brief time living there himself. If you find yourself at this church, there’s a chapel inside dedicated to the ‘Lightbringer of the Far East’ or St. Francis Xavier, a well-known name in Goa.
We took the funicular or ‘Hungerburgbahn’ to visit the Bergiselschanze ski jumping facility, which goes upto 860metres above ground, rising above the valley and providing stunning views across Innsbruck city against the background of the surrounding Alps. There’s a beer garden on the top, where you can relax with a Weissbeer (white beer) and take in the views in a relaxed atmosphere. Just don’t attempt this if you’ve got vertigo! An additional reason to go up is to see late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s fabulous UFO-like station halfway up the mountain. It’s typical of her well-executed style entered around organic curves.
We couldn’t walk past ‘Cafe Kroll’ without grabbing a strudel (okay, two) and it is honestly the best strudel I’ve had to date. I ordered the ‘Plaume und Mohn’ which is German for Plum and Poppyseed. We also split a rather staid and traditional Apple strudel with coffee. Heaven!
The mother of a good friend of mine was going on and on about how I should visit Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, if I ever had the chance. So, when I did get the chance a couple of years later, I went without knowing what exactly to expect.
For example, I didn’t expect my first approach to the island to be so fascinating. It’s a tidal island, which means that high tide blocks the entire island from the mainland as it is surrounded by water on all sides. The most fascinating aspect of the island is Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, which crowns the top of the island and has been an integral part of the island’s characteristic skyscape, since medieval times.
For obvious reasons, the entire island is navigated by foot only. Wandering up the steep, rambling alleyways that coil around the island and eventually lead you to the Abbey, you realise pretty quickly that the island still preserves most of its medieval character. Over time, as local merchants, suppliers and servants relied more heavily on the Abbey’s finances to provide them with a living, they moved onto the base of the island so that they were less reliant on the tides to give them access to the Abbey and provide the monks that lived there with the support they required.
The Abbey is a strange mix of Norman and Gothic architecture and there’s now a bridge connecting the mainland with the island. I visited it around 2002 when one still relied on knowing the tides to get there, or risked being trapped on the island overnight. Just be warned that those quaint medieval narrow streets on the Mont also get packed full of tourists very quickly and you’ll feel like you’re in a crowded cattleshed. Still, it’s a pretty special place and I’m very glad I got to visit it when I did. This unique UNESCO World Heritage site is definitely worth a visit, just be warned that’s it’s one of Normandy’s premier tourist attractions.
The medieval Breton town of Dinan is a short drive away from Mont Saint-Michel and is worth a poke around if you’re exploring the area.
I visited Warsaw, in #Poland, for work in 2013, but made time to visit two of the city’s attractions on the weekend: The Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the Frederic Chopin museum.
If you want to learn more about Warsaw’s significant and historically important role in World War 2, the repercussions of which resonate with Warsaw residents even today, this is the only museum you need to visit in the city. Here, you can read about the story of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto (largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe) created by the Nazis and see original landmines from the war in glass display cases. There’s also a fascinating video that was playing, of aerial film taken over the city just after the war ended. It showed how a city of 1.3million at the start of the war in 1939 was reduced to a few thousands condemned to living in the rubble of their bomb-ravaged city.
I then made it to Frederic Chopin’s museum where I saw things like a bronze cast of his left hand, his death mask, sketches of him made on his death bed. Granted, it was morbid, but someone actually made these. I think it was the custom for celebrities to have these things done in those days. I’m a big fan of his music, so it was interesting to stroll around the Museum house, reading interesting displays about his life and listening to audio recordings of his work.
Apart from work and visiting these two museums, I found the city unattractive. It has all the qualities of an urban centre in a coal-reliant country that lacks the proper investment in infrastructure and development. I thought it was brooding and formidable. Warsaw’s complex history of suppression and annexation, deceit and despair lingers over it like a dark cloud that it’s occupants seem unable to shake from their spirit. It seems the city and its people will need more time to rise out of their economic need and feel the air of prosperity around them. Not a place I’d visit again anytime soon even though its historical and cultural heritage was fascinating.
After Venice, Florence is one of the top five cities that I absolutely love, love, love. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the city that I love. The gentle light that spreads over the city bathing it in a soft yellow glow every morning and at the Golden Hour in the evenings? The first view of the stunning Duomo as you stroll round the street corner and see it for the first time? The sweet stickiness of a cornetto filled with jam that wedges itself into every molar in your mouth?
It helps that before setting off for a long weekend (3 nights) there with my brother, I went online to check out what we absolutely had to see and do. A friend of a friend happened to be renting out the decrepit one bedroom flat she’d inherited from her grandmother, located in the heart of Florence, complete with framed vintage pictures of horse-riders and their racing horses. The rent was just right and besides the double bed, we were told there was an extendable sofa-bed. Their neighbour, who didn’t speak a word of English, gave us the key and pointed to the bed in the bedroom, the coffee in the kitchen and the switch for what I presumed was the hot water in the oddly shaped bathroom, and then left. The bathroom was narrow and had the odd shape of a coffin – wide at one end and tapering into a narrow end at the other. It was papered with dull 70s design wall paper from floor to ceiling. The bathtub was clean enough and as long as there was hot water coming out of the small hand-held shower head attached to the tap, I didn’t care. We were in Florence. I didn’t plan on staying in much.
We woke up early our first morning and wandered out in search of a café for breakfast. A rather dark, poky, empty one hidden in the recesses of an alleyway caught our attention. Caffeine and one ham croissant later, we walked down a street that turned straight into the imposing, stunning façade of the Duomo, the most popular sight to see in the city that’s world famous for its architecture and art.
The 13th century Gothic style church with Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome has become the most iconic structure in Florence immediately associated with this great, vast city nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I have to admit, that a first sight of the church façade integrating white, pink and green marble together, is pretty jaw-dropping. The interior is imposing and beautiful, though stark by comparison. Vasari’s famous frescoes of The Last Judgement are a 16th century addition that definitely liven up the interior.
The Il Duomo di Firenze complex consists of the Baptistry and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), along with the church. If we’d had more time in the city, we might have joined the long lines to get to the top of the campanile. But we didn’t, so we didn’t. As it is, we had to stand for about twenty minutes in line, early in the morning, to get into the church! I can only imagine how long the lines got later on as more tourists strolled in from their late breakfasts.
Don’t miss seeing the East doors of the Baptistry. The panels are in gold and represent the Gates of Paradise. This is one of my favourite things to see in the city. The scenes come alive in exquisite detail, with faces coming out of the panels in vivid scenes embossed on stretches of gold. You won’t be the only one queuing up for a selfie with the door.
My brother had downloaded a DK Eyewitness app on his phone, that indicated all the eateries in whichever area we were walking in, as well as their reviews and starred-rating. That’s how we came across the arched doorway of ‘Il Latini’ one evening for dinner. Sure, it was supposed to be a popular tourist haunt, but one that everyone assured we would love. It had lots of rooms inside and we were led to an available two-person table.
We ordered a la carte and in all, must have been there for 3 hours eating primi piatti, secondi piatti, dessert and the staff gave everyone a dessert wine and a plate of biscotti for free. We had no idea about the portion size when we ordered and asked for whatever was most popular. We ended up labouring through getting hunk after hunk of meat brought to us on a platter. True, it was succulent and tasty, but our bodies would take months to digest all of it! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. But, vegetarians, be advised. This is NOT the place for you. This isn’t the place for a quick meal either. We thought we’d be done in an hour and a half tops. Nope! If you visit here, be prepared to slow yourself down to Tuscan time. It’s got a great communal atmosphere. You’ll find yourself chatting with others under the dried hams hanging from the ceiling, and laughing at the waiters who seem determined to make you eat as much as you can manage. Chalk it down to them wanting you to have the true experience of eating at a Tuscan family table, and you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy yourself at ‘Il Latini.’
The next morning, we decided to head to the world class, world famous Uffizi museum. It’s where Western classical artists go to have a religious experience. To get tickets at the Uffizi, without waiting in line for close to an hour, pre-book them online and join the much shorter queue which should take you inside within ten minutes. Yes, there is a LOT to see and I was struck by the rather modern 15th century renderings of some of the lesser known Italian artists using vivid colours in the style of Titian but combining them with modernist designs – favouring fine geometric design though picking romantic style subjects and scenes.
I didn’t know that Botticelli’s iconic ‘The Birth of Venus’ was in the Uffizi and was thrilled to see it centered in one of the museum’s vast rooms. This museum, of course, is THE place for fans of all the great Italian renaissance artists from Bellini and Piero della Francesco to Titian and Mantegna. I quite enjoyed Caravaggio’s Medusa which isn’t easy to spot, as it’s placed in a small room on your way out. After a couple of hours (hardcore fans will need a full day at least) of walking through corridor after corridor of greats (including Leonardo da Vinci, by the way) we got out, had a quick lunch and then kept on sight-seeing.
Which brings me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. There are lots of churches you could visit in the city, but there’s only one that contains the grandest tombs of the infamous Medici family in the apse of the chapel – multi-coloured marbles and imposing grandiosity in one of the best ever examples of Pietra Dura style.
Then, there’s the Laurentian library designed by Michelangelo, in the church cloister. The library is an interesting study in the Mannerist architectural style that was popular in Italy at one time, both in its painting and its famous buildings. The red and white terracotta floor of the Reading room is supposed to demonstrate the principles of geometry. The library was built to house the Medici’s private collection of manuscripts and printed books, collected over centuries and was supposed to establish them as an academically-inclined, scholarly and educated family to extend their status beyond the power-hungry image they were known for.
If, after wandering around the city, you feel the need for a bit of space and greenery, stroll through the romantic Boboli gardens, which is littered with sculptures, walkways, grottoes and has a wide, landscaped terrace with a fantastic view over the city that’s great for scenic photographs.
The Ponte Vecchio is an arch bridge over the River Arno, known for having shops built along it in typical pre-medieval city style. If it wasn’t for the 1666 great fire of London, there might still be shops lining London bridge as well. We tried to find out how to gain access to the Vasari corridor, which is an aerial walkway built by the famous architect Vasari for the powerful Medici family so that they could walk safely from their Palazzo Pitti to their Palazzo Vecchio without the threat of assassination in the open street. It’s only open at certain times and through timed guided group tours, I read online at the time. Thanks to limited time, we gave up on that, but got to walk directly under it instead.
Not far from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the city’s historical centre, is the Galileo Museum. I have to admit that I’m a fan of this guy ever since I learned that he was asked by the Inquisition to recant his scientific claim based on observation and evidence, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of adhering to the religious view that the earth was the centre of the universe. He stuck to his view, inspite of being threatened, and was under house arrest until his death. The museum has Galileo’s main telescopes on display and a variety of other instruments both used by him and from the Medici’s vast collection of astronomic instruments. There’s also a great display of the prevailing theories and how the instruments work.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the Piazza della Signoria is probably the best square I’ve seen in all the cities I’ve been to. It’s an L-shaped ‘square’ (?!) in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the political hub of Florence. Among the most famous statues there are ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello and ‘David’ (a copy, but…still) by Michaelangelo. There’s a gorgeous fountain of Neptune…. Then there’s the rather odd Loggia dei Lanzi, that seems rather out of place with the rest of the area but makes for a very interesting little corner of the Piazza with Cellini’s ‘Perseus holding up the head of Medusa’ and ‘The Rape of the Women of Sabine’ by some guy called Giambologna. It’s like a parade of the grotesque on display in the tucked-away corner of a prominent place.
What I love so much about this Piazza is probably the great location for people-watching and the fact that it connects so many significant structures together in one place. The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the town hall, the Uffizi and the Loggia. Then, there’s the fountain of Neptune in the centre of the L-shape. It’s not a massive fountain, like Rome’s impressive Trevi, which almost, sort of, arches across the street corner where its wedged in. But, I do love the theme of the Roman god Neptune and his nymphs coming out of the water and looking down and over the people in the street as they walk past. It’s just cool.
Now, let’s be honest. We’re in Florence, in Italy. So the chance of coming across bad gelato isn’t that high anyway. However, there are some gelaterias that are better known than others and the locals swarm there, swearing by the creamy texture of the ice-cream. The Vivoli gelateria in Santa Croce, is just one such place on a not-so-easy-to-find side street. It is narrow inside and a popular tourist and back-packer hang-out, with ice-cream lickers pouring out onto the sidewalks and just lounging in the side street happily licking away at one flavourful scoop before ordering seconds. Personally, I think locals choose their favourites based on their favourite flavours, which are exotic and even extreme, like the Cheesecake flavor or the radical stinky Gorgonzola (yes, you read it right!) flavor. And no, I didn’t try either!
All I can say is, extreme gelato aside, I cannot wait to get back to that city for a longer visit someday!
Note: These are just a few of the highlights from my trip in 2011.
Nestled in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg is the almost mythical and enchanting Black Forest, laden with waterfalls, moss-covered trees, rolling hills and plunging valleys. This is the place where fairy-tale writers the Grimm Brothers imagined their characters, from Hansel and Gretel to Snow White, ensconced. The beautiful spa town of Baden-baden is located at the foothills of the Black Forest. It was known during Roman times for its thermal springs that had curative abilities. I visited with a friend while I was still in my twenties and young enough to enjoy a day at the spa exploring the different kinds of saunas on offer– semi-precious stone saunas, herb saunas and aromatherapy ones with invigorating scents were the ones I can vaguely recall. There were really a lot of them at Freidrichsbad – seventeen in all. I tried the amethyst stone one and an aromatherapy one. In the end, energy vibration aside, a sauna is as hot and steamy as its supposed to be and somehow I found the courage to take a flash cold shower in between sauna-hopping to clear out my pores and improve my circulation, as recommended. The gently heated open pool was a treat in the slightly cool weather.
But more than enjoying the spa, I loved the huge 170 year old Roman-imitation building in which the spas were housed. It was a day out at the spa for my friend and me so we didn’t take the time to see the rest of the elegant town known for its luxury. Maybe, next time!
I was about twelve years old and in Rome with my parents, on holiday. We were there during the hottest (and worst) month – August. Roman houses and pensiones don’t have air conditioning. At night, the oppressive heat entered every corner of the little hotel room we were staying in. I remember lying in the sweltering heat, feeling the sheets stick to me with sweat, while my mother fanned us to sleep so that we could get some rest before we were dragged around the city sight-seeing. I remember my parents buying me a porcelain brooch in the shape of a carnival face mask and me being amazed at the sight of 1 million lire notes in my father’s hands. Yep, this was before the Euro came into being.
I remember my father being tempted by chess sets carved out of wood, stone and marble where the chess pieces were all unique characters like monks or fairy creatures and other oddities, to move around.
I remember walking into St. Paul’s cathedral and being in awe. It was the first time I’d ever walked into something that huge, grand and imposing. The cool red and white marble provided such relief from the heat outside. I remember staring at Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Then later, outside, laughing at the sight of the ridiculous Swiss guards costumes, originally designed by Michelangelo but apparently, now simplified. Slivers of blue alternating with yellow, red and white plus a conquistadors hat atop their heads. Busy, is a kind word for it.
The Last Judgement and the Birth of Man were both covered in scaffolding that year, so was the Trevi fountain. It was a disappointment, but I threw a coin into the fountain anyway, determined to return one day and enjoy Rome on my own terms. Still waiting to return…
Antwerp was a city of many firsts for me: my first Rubens, the first time I tried fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, my first Red Light district.
One warm, summer evening, when we were both living in England, my brother asked me if I wanted to tag along with him and two of his university friends, Steven and Hans-Georg, on a road trip from the East Mid-lands region in England to Antwerp, in Belgium, for a couple of nights. I was 21. I put clean underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, one change of clothes and a hairbrush into a small bag and threw it into the car with the rest of the stuff. We drove across border control onto the ferry at Dover and at some point, many many hours later, were parking in Antwerp. I probably would never have visited the gorgeous city if it wasn’t for local Belgian Steven wanting to see his girlfriend, who worked at the Sofitel hotel in Antwerp.
My memories of my time spent in that city are few, but distinct. I remember being in awe inside the hallowed, deeply Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which has four large Rubens paintings inside it. I only learned much later that Rubens, the famous 17th century Baroque artist, lived in Antwerp and had his home here. Now, if I ever returned, I’d visit his house and amble through his gardens.
We didn’t visit any museums or such, being poor university students (I was an undergrad and they were post-grads) we preferred to see what we could for free and save up for a nice meal and drink somewhere before we spent the night somewhere warm and cosy. Steven’s girlfriend was able to get us a couple of rooms for an overnight stay. I do remember enjoying my first taste of fries parcelled up in a brown paper cone with dollops of mayonnaise on top to dip into. That was my first experience of a ‘fritkot’ (takeaway fries shop).
Not far from the cathedral was the town hall and an impressive statue of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier who supposedly ripped the hand off of a giant that was tormenting the locals here and threw it at him.
I do remember strolling along some canals and insisting on visiting the red light area after drinking lots of fruity Jenevers and getting quite ‘happy’ on them.
I’d never seen anything like it before. Sandwiched in between the usual dimly lit residential streets was Antwerp’s red light district. Prostitution is legal in Belgium, which means that the woman have access to some protection and can exercise their rights if they dare to. But nothing quite prepared me for the reality of streets lined with box windows, where young girls – some probably still teenagers – were dancing and twirling in said windows and men were cruising down the street in their cars, yowling at the girls. It brought a whole new meaning to the word window-shopping. I had been the one who insisted, so the guys kind of formed a protective cocoon around me as we walked down the street. Almost at the end of the street, when we were in the clear, the guys broke away and walked ahead. Just then, a curvy dark skinned woman reached out for me from a doorway, wrapped her hand around my wrist as I walked past and tried to pull me towards her muttering something with a smile on her face. I pulled away and ran towards the guys. I thought it was ironic that walking down the street I thought I might be accosted by men, but it was a woman reaching out for me that had scared me.
Still, if you do visit Antwerp, the Red Light district is something to behold because of how organized it is. However, don’t be fooled by its glitzy lights in the windows. They’re still covering up the sheen of sixteen year old girls wearing tired old faces.