Bavaria’s concentration camp in Dachau

Warning: This is not an ‘upbeat’ travel tale.

Deep in upper Bavaria is the unassuming German town of Dachau.  Unfortunately, it’s only claim to fame is its international notoriety for the concentration camp set up in the east of the city that was responsible for about 32,000 documented deaths during the Second World War.  Thousands more were undocumented.

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Memorial sculpture erected in 1968 within the camp

Visiting Dachau was a heart-breaking experience.  As you enter, the sterility hits you and it seems that the starkness has been cultivated on purpose, to convey and hide the horrors that occurred here.  But, after a minute walking around you’ll feel it.   It’s hard to escape the intensely sad feeling that settles over you, mostly because of the combination of a weird melancholic energy that lays low and heavy over everything.  Add to that the deathly stillness and silence that everyone who visits seems to immerse themselves in and you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head with imagining what it feels like to walk around here.

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My friend Maria standing in the vast empty spaces of the camp grounds

The shock begins from the gate itself as we imagine all ‘workers’ passing through these gates saw these words ‘Work will set you free’ also loosely translated as ‘Virtue through labour.’  The incredible lies that bound these spaces of incarceration together still resonate throughout politics today, perpetrated by politicians of all race, creed, colour. The stark reminder lies here for us all.  History is doomed to repeat itself.  Politicians still lie.  We have not learned the lessons, only how to cover them up better.

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‘Work will set you free’

 

The eeriness spread across the camp is magnified by the exhibitions inside one covered space which outlines a narrative history of this death camp.

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As I read through the narrative, I found myself stopping only towards the end when I started reading through a few of the explanations of photographs of the scientific experiments that were carried out on inmates.  There were stress experiments on people to test the extreme effects of hypothermia and ways to revive as well as high altitude experiments to test affects and potential ways of recovering from unconsciousness.  The prints said that the original documentation was burned or lost after the Nazis heard the Allies were coming for them.

Walking around the camp, we saw the dormitories where we learn that inmates slept five or six to a bunk with barely a blanket to cover them.

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Bunk beds in the overcrowded dormitories
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Bathroom water taps

The worst thing to see at Dachau is these chimneys which one could easily walk past without realising they were a part of the furnace that incinerated the bodies of those inmates who were killed in gas chambers and then piled into furnaces to be incinerated.

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While the preservation of these camps seeks to keep alive in our memories the atrocities that human beings can rain down upon their own species, the hope in creating this ‘museum’ was that we would learn the lessons and pass them down through generations.

The harsh reality of our lives today is that genocide is alive and thrives in countries across the world.  There are no memorials for their dead.  Have we not yet learned the lessons? Obviously not.  In some countries, those who have perpetrated genocide through complicity and other means are still handed power and have been handed power time and again across the world.  Like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia under Pol Pot in the 1970s which wiped out at least a quarter of the Cambodian population.  Think Rwanda 1994.  And of course, most recently, the ongoing mass genocide of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people in Myanmar which is continuing to shock people across the world as visual images of the atrocities perpetrated by its regime are starting to be released.

And so it continues.

Visited in 2009

 

 

 

 

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Communing with Stonehenge

I can’t explain why a bunch of upright stones is such an integral part of English heritage.  However, I could join loads of historians in speculating. Something to do with Celtic ritual, Druid worship, lay lines in Salisbury? Are they part of an astronomical clock, a religious temple or a burial ground?  Historians can agree on one thing – no one knows for sure why people dragged these forty ton rocks across the plains to Salisbury hill.  Maybe the stones were meant to mark where UFOs should land (I just love conspiracy theory).  Whatever the reason, they’re ancient, they’re protected and well, I finally got to visit them.  So here they are:

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And, boy, is there a lot of study and speculation about it all!  Luckily there are also some concrete facts too, like these below:

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I was told that there was a time when the stones were just lying about and visitors could wander amongst them.  Now they’re protected and you can only view them from a distance.  So, there we are.  If you don’t drive, the best way to see them is by a group tour bus of some sort.  It’s about a two-hour train journey to Salisbury from London.  But then, you have to get to the site which is quite a distance from Salisbury and that will be the challenge without transport of your own.  In any case, it was worth a peek and if you’re in the lovely town of Salisbury, make sure you visit the historic cathedral.

 

Visited in Sept 2012

#stonehenge #england #greatbritain #salisbury

Titian and Tiramisu in Venice

I’m so glad that I visited Venice with my friend Maria when we both had the chance to. She knew a smattering of Italian, much more than my meagre ‘Capuccino’ and ‘Pizza’ abilities anyway. So, she was in charge of booking accommodation at a modest three-star bed and breakfast family run hotel, and figuring out the transport basics to get us there by train from Marco Polo airport.

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Venice was one of the top ten cities on my bucket list. Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the city’s popular Harry’s bar, author Henry James wrote ‘The Aspen Papers’ here and poet Robert Browning’s last home was a palace in this little lagoon. If that wasn’t enough for this writer to dream of rocking gondolas then watching movies like ‘Summertime’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ clinched it. There’s nothing quite like the beguiling backdrop of Venice to bring out the best in tragi-romantic storylines.

As our train slid past deluged sandbars scattered around the city before crawling into St. Lucia station in Venice, I couldn’t help wondering how such a tiny lagoon of a city, apparently drowning in the Adriatic Sea, had managed to become the seat of financial, trading and religious power for so many centuries.

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Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

With 160 canals running through and around Venice, one can’t help but realise that it’s the delicate latticework of its 400 or so bridges that keeps the city stitched together. Thank God for the solid foundation of larch pikes drilled into the muddy seabed, mounted by thick marble slabs on top of which the brick and wood structures of Venice are built. The candy striped and plain wood markers outside house entranceways and windows help residents mark the level of rising waters every year, when Venice has seasonal flooding. That’s how they keep track of danger points when they know they have to evacuate their homes to higher ground. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of water damage that ground floors in all homes and hotels have to suffer often during the year.

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Note the seasonal water damage on beautiful, old buildings

There are only two ways to explore Venice – by foot or by boat. Vaporettos, or water buses, are an effective way to get to all the major attractions and a much cheaper option than the black and blue Gondolas sliding their way up and down crowded canals. Venice is the first place where I learned that waterways get clogged up with traffic too.

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Tourists boarding a gondola for a ride

You can buy a ticket on the vaporetto or get anything from a three-day to a week’s pass from one of the launch stops dotting the city’s main waterways.

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A vaporetto stop

Of course, the only way to see the city’s guts is to slip on your most comfortable shoes and traipse up and down those bridges of Venice, which will make you wish you had spent another half hour on the stairmaster at home. Right away, Maria and I decided to walk around the city and promptly got lost after an hour. But, it was only our first day there, and everything was sign-posted so we wandered around enjoying the atmosphere and the spirit of Venice all around us.

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Church of dei Frari in the background, containing Titian and Canova’s imposing tombs

It’s a haunting city, besieged by a host of moods from melancholic fogginess to sun-drenched optimism. You’ll find yourself picking up the city’s ever-changing mood of the moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss taking photos on Rialto bridge…

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That world famous view of the Grand Canal from Rialto bridge

…and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponti dei Sospiri). When we visited, unfortunately the Bridge was being ‘renovated’ and was almost entirely covered in tarpaulin with Chopard advertising on it. By the way, the reason for its name is because this bridge connects the Doge’s palace which was the seat of justice, to the prison. Prisoners convicted and sentenced at the palace court were led across this bridge into incarceration and legend says that their sighs were the result of their last view of Venice before they entered the prison.

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The Bridge of Sighs shrouded by advertising while renovation work was being done

Whether it’s agony or ecstasy you’re feeling, make sure you don’t miss the art and architecture of Venice that brings students and established professionals of the same over to this soaking city time and time again.

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The multi-scalloped basilica of St. Mark’s

From the decadent Baroque folly that is St. Mark’s basilica to the neo-classical lines of the Doge’s palace, both at San Marco’s Piazza, you’ll be transported to a place that no picture postcard could have prepared you for. Track down Tintoretto’s ‘Stealing of the body of St. Mark’ in Venice’s museum of art ‘Accademia’ which illustrates the story of how the city of Venice came to adopt St. Mark’s Lion as its own emblem. If you look closely at the detail on one of the basilica’s entrances, you’ll find a painted etching of the story.

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Painted detail of St. Mark’s body being smuggled out of Alexandria

The story goes that in 828AD two merchants smuggled the body of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering it with pork to get past Muslim custom officials. When the body arrived in Venice a chapel was built to house the saintly remains. That chapel was gradually built over into St Mark’s Basilica where the saint’s remains are apparently buried under the altar.

Paolo Veronese was brought before the Inquisition in 1573 to answer the charge of irreverence in a painting intended to represent the Last Supper. Instead he changed the name of the masterpiece to ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ which can also be found at Accademia.

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Veronese’s painting ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ in Accademia

This museum also has a great collection of Titians, Tintorettos, Canalettos and Canovas. If you’re an early bird who wants to avoid the jostling crowds, take advantage of the early morning opening hours of the museums and galleries. By 11am all of Venice is coffee-ed up and pounding the cobblestones in search of their own Muses.

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Late morning crowds of people at St. Mark’s plaza

A couple of interesting sightings for us included Tintoretto’s humble house along the canal in Canareggio and Canova’s tomb in the Church dei Frari.

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The Italian sculptor Canova’s massive tomb facade at the Church of dei Frari

If the inundation of Italian Renaissance art and architecture leaves you longing for something more abstract, expressionist, realist or surrealist instead– visit Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of 20th century modern artist’s works at her palatial home in Venice, now converted into a museum housing her own personal art collection of Brancusi, Picasso, Duchamp and Max Ernst (her husband). Peggy was a patron of Jackson Pollock – the American abstractionist most famous for his series entitled ‘One’ and you’ll find two rarely seen Pollocks on display here.

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Jackson Pollock’s ‘Alchemy’ at the Guggenheim in Venice

We even found Peggy Guggenheim’s grave in the palace garden where her ashes are interred, next to the graves of her dogs.

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We were tired of walking around all day and through Peggy’s palatial home turned art gallery, so we refreshed ourselves at the museum café with home-made Tiramisu and freshly pressed Italian coffee.

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Fresh Tiramisu at the Peggy Guggenheim museum cafe

If you’re looking for something special to buy as a memento beyond postcards of the incredible sights you will have already seen, the information point opposite the Vallaresso boat stop past the gardens facing the canal of the Piazza San Marco will have books on Venice aplenty, translated into English. You could grab a carnival mask to adorn your wall at home – they’re available to suit any budget, or pick up a wad of Venetian paper, famous for its quality and raw texture. Then again, you could easily take a boat trip from Piazza San Marco to the island of Murano to watch the art of glass-making and pick up a set of exquisitely blown, Venetian glass goblets for your dining table.

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A shop that sells nothing but Venetian masks for carnival or as mementos

You can’t go wrong with Venetian coffee, keeping in mind that this is the real, full-bodied, sun-soaked flavour of Italy infused into every sip you take. But, you must have it Venetian style, standing up at a coffee bar.

If you must sit down at a cafe, then do it in style at Cafe Florian on the Piazza San Marco. Around since 1720, some claim it is the oldest cafe in Europe and was a favourite hunting place of Casanova. Be prepared to pay an exorbitant 10 Euros for a cup of coffee with more on top if the musicians are playing. For the cheapest and the best coffee, stand up at the St. Lucia train station’s bar for the best espressos and cappuccinos at 1.50 Euros (2009 prices) a pop.

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Coffee at the train station

While in Venice, we decided to stop and relax over long, leisurely dinners only, trying out some of the restaurants in Canareggio and Castello, and avoiding tourist traps as much as possible. Keep in mind that you’ll only find Italian food in this city – like a Panini lunch at one of the sandwich bars dotting the city.  But infinitely preferable is a slice of pizza and a coke for all of 4 Euros (2009 prices) – not the healthiest option but definitely filling when you need to replenish all the calories spent waiting in lines to get into the Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica San Marco or the Campanile on the Piazza, which I was told has the best views of Venice from its bell tower.

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Lucky to get a seat at the hole-in-the-wall pizza stand

We went in search of Venice’s five hundred year old Jewish ghetto, mostly because I wanted to see the seat of so much intrigue in medieval Venice. Shakespeare’s work was influenced by this Venetian community, which had a reputation of its own in his time. Read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ if you want to know what I’m talking about.

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Square in the Jewish Ghetto

After visiting Academia, I finally understood why people make such a fuss about Titian, after seeing his grandiose, large-scale paintings on display.  Here’s his first Venetian commission that forms the altarpiece inside the Church dei Frari…

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Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Titian

…which incidentally also houses Titian’s tomb, grand-arch included, not far from Canova’s.

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Titian’s imposing tomb

Venice is one of the few places that I’d love to visit again, along with Florence, Washington DC and Bali – all of which are on my list of top five places I’ve ever visited.  I’m glad I got to go when I did, and the next time I’ll make sure to spend more than just 3 nights there, so that I can take in more of the city.

Visited in May 2009

My London Loves

A sunny Summer’s Saturday in London is precious purchase when you live on a landmass oft-swept in mad maritime climate. Here’s a visual representation of one of my favourite Saturdays, from when I lived in London aeons ago:

1) There’s nothing that quite comes close to spending a couple of leisurely hours of brunch with one of my closest friends – someone whose creative spirit and sense of joie de vivre always seems to stimulate me. I strongly recommend the Huevos Rancheros at Giraffe, with fried egg, chorizo, black beans, avocado and jack cheese to line your stomach for the rest of the day.

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Huevos Rancheros for Brunch at Giraffe restaurant on South Bank, Waterloo

2) A stroll along Southbank especially when its sunny, is always a lovely treat. We had to stop by the second-hand bookstalls in front of the National Theatre, of course and spotted prints of old maps and some lovely old editions of books.

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3) One of the things I love so much about Southbank is that it is full of surprises. We were treated to a display of the Red Arrows spurting Britain’s glorious colours.

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4) The sun was feeling a bit shy that morning, so occasionally the grey vista of London’s skyline exposed itself to us. We walked to Temple station where I bade my friend farewell and decided to go exploring on my own. I wasn’t far from the Templar church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code so went in search of it. I came across the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.

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5) And found myself on Fleet Street, which was the established collective name for British broadsheets for about four hundred years until the 1980s when their headquarters began to shift to cheaper locations around London.

 

6) While taking photographs I spotted the easy-to-miss alleyway entrance to the Templar church’s courtyard

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7) Unfortunately it was closed for a private event. I’ll definitely come back again though.

 

8) I then caught a bus back past the Strand to Trafalgar square and the National gallery

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Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.

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‘Powerless structures, Fig 101’ by Elmgreen and Dragset

10) I remember the first time I walked into this particular room in the gallery and saw my first living, breathing Van Gogh painting. It was sunflowers.  Over time though, I grew to fall in love with these two little fellas below:

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Two Crabs by Vincent Van Gogh

11) And my first Monet – the Waterlilies. I couldn’t believe that I could walk into this gallery any day for free and sit in front of the actual paintings of Great Masters, meditating on how close I was to them, although separated from them in life by centuries.

12) I strongly recommend taking the free tours offered at museums.  I decided to go on the 2.30pm one where you are taken around the gallery for an hour, learning about 4-5 key paintings in the collection. Here’s a little about the National gallery –

  • Built in 1838
  • Contains only Western European paintings from the mid-13th to early 20th century – all modern paintings (ie 20th century onwards) are housed at the Tate.
  • has a collection of about 2300 paintings on display at one time.
  • Sainsbury wing (newest wing) opened in 1991 to house the early Renaissance collection

Here are a few tid-bits from the tour for your reading pleasure:

Why was Caravaggio considered so avant-garde for his time?

We looked at the example of The Supper at Emmaus, painted in 1601. Unlike paintings at the time, Caravaggio put the two disciples in this painting in tattered rags, dressing them like peasants instead of in regal robes. Jesus himself was portrayed without a beard, appearing almost effeminate. The open arms showing broad gestures and emotion were too controversial for Caravaggio’s critics and gained their dislike. But, the most surprising element of all was the artist’s ability to structure the perspective of the painting so that the viewer felt like a participant in the painting.

What’s Michaelangelo’s style doing in every other Italian painting?

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was drawn from original designs by Michaelangelo. Art historians know this only after discovering the drawings in archives. This is how they came to realise that, at a time when Michaelangelo and Raphael were the most sought after artists in Rome, Michaelangelo was probably producing drawings for a number of great artist’s works, without getting the credit for it. There are certain giveaways, like the muscular nature of the figures and the sometimes odd perspectives of the figures and how they are laid out in the picture. For example, Lazarus in this picture, if he stood up, would be abnormally taller than anyone else in the picture because of the extended length of his legs and torso.

How did the French painter Claude (Gellee, not Monet) make it big in Rome?

Claude came to Rome, like so many other artists, to make his name. But, he first began as a chef to earn a living while he built up his career. Over time, he became known for his landscapes and seascapes. At the time, pictures of landscapes and seascapes weren’t valued above historical pictures, which required a certain amount of learning and education plus understanding of the world from the artist. It was believed that any fool could paint a landscape. Claude couldn’t paint figures well, but he kept on doing them so that he could convert his land/sea scapes into historical paintings by including figures from biblical stories and myths in them. His paintings became so prized in their time that fakes were reproduced at an incredible rate. Claude began keeping a diary of his drawings so that, if asked, he could confirm whether he had actually painted something or not. Turner and Gainsborough learned about elements of light in painting from studying Claude’s paintings.

Why does England have so many Canalettos in the country?

There were so many brilliant artists in Venice at the time that Canaletto decided to specialise in order to make a living out of his art. He painted scenes of festivals and big events in Venice to sell to a particular audience: young, English gentlemen who were completing their Grand Tour in Venice, to round up their university education.

So, there you have it, a few of the things that makes one of my favourite London weekends.

June 2012

Pretzels and Schnitzel

What do Lederhosen, Swiss army knives and Weinerschnitzel have in common? You can find all three in the medieval, island town of Lindau.

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Lindau harbour

On the eastern edge of the freshwater lake Bodensee in southern Bavaria is the beautiful island town of Lindau. This German town is one of the most beautiful locations on the Bodensee (also known as Lake Konstanz) which also touches Swiss and Austrian borders. On a hot summer’s day, there’s not much that beats sitting on the promenade of Lindau harbour watching yachts and ferries coming in on the glistening waters while sipping a cold Weissbier. The wonderful thing about this island town, connected to the mainland by only a narrow strip of road, is its collection of historic buildings which bring alive the medieval feel of the town. The island is small and can be enjoyed as a full day trip. From the train station, head over to the marketplace first, where you can view the churches and the state museum before walking around the rest of the island.

The marketplace’s atmosphere is dominated by three main structures surrounding the fountain of Neptune, the King of the Seas in the centre. St. Stephan’s church, in one extreme corner of the market place, was built in 1180. Enter quietly to note the contemporary feel brought on by the cream coloured walls with pastel green embellishments, modern stained glass windows and use of open space that flows between the pews, the altar and the baptismal font behind it.

In sharp contrast, the inside of the Catholic church of St. Mary’s is a breathtakingly kitsch, Baroque vision of Italianate marble, gold and silver work. I was enamoured with the intricately carved wood ends of the pews which formed an ornate fantasy of flowers and leaves entwined against a background of fish scales and shell-like motifs. The massive silver organ at the back-end of the church is impressive and fully functioning.

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Baroque church interiors

At the opposite end of the marketplace is the 18th century House Cavazzen that once belonged to a wealthy merchant and is now the city museum (Stadtmuseum). It has a rich facade of colourful frescoes on the outside and contains collections of glass, pewter, paintings and furniture from the past five centuries. If you’re an Art Nouveau fan, the 3 Euro entry fee is worth the visit to the two rooms containing furniture and collectibles from the Jugendstil period.

From the marketplace, head west to the Diebsturm or ‘Thieves tower’ which was built around 1370 and housed prisoners in medieval times. It’s a curious structure with four mini-towers built into the pointy roof. The roof tiles sparkle in brilliant multicolour, making an otherwise plain tower rather attractive.

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Multi-coloured tiles of the Diebsturm roof

Next to the Diebsturm is the Peterskirche church and war memorial. This is the oldest church in the region, dating back to 1000 AD. However, what makes it truly remarkable is what it contains. I walked through the entrance into complete darkness. There was a button to the right of the entrance to switch on a light. Not knowing what to expect, I pressed it and gasped at the sight of the 15th century fresoces by Hans Holbein the Elder that came to life when the lights came on. These are the only wall frescoes by him that are known to exist in the world.

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Close-up of Han Holbein the Edler’s wall fresco inside Peterskirche

From the church, head toward the harbour via the Old Town hall, a large box-like structure crammed into one end of Reichsplatz. The brightly coloured frescos have been refreshed and contain wonderful detail.

Lindau harbour is only a stone’s throw away from this spot. You’ll easily spot the yellow and green tipped Mangturm, which once formed a part of the island’s fortifications and served as a lighthouse for some years. It was built in the 13th century and was in use until 1856. Don’t miss the Rapunzel plait lowered from the tower window. For Euro 1.60, you can climb up the tower for a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

The promenade goes all the way around the harbour entrance, where you can get a closer look at the magnificent lion statue, the heraldic emblem of Bavaria, and the ‘new’ lighthouse flanking the mouth of the harbour. From here, you can catch day ferries to other lakeside towns in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants along the promenade. The Marmosaal cafe and cocktail bar serves a great selection of food from breakfast to regional specialities and everything in between. They have tables outside for you to enjoy the harbour view with a Weissbier or if it’s wet and windy, the inside is a combination of chandeliered luxury with brocade-covered sofas and high-backed wooden tables and benches.  There’s even a mock altar behind the bar.

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A lion guarding the entrance to Lindau harbour

After your meal, you’ll want to digest with a quiet walk from the promenade along the west side of the island. The old wall runs around this side and at the westernmost point, you’ll find the Pulverturm or ‘Powder tower’ dating from 1508 AD. It forms a part of the island’s fortified wall.  The views from here stretch across the lake to the Swiss and Austrian alps in the distance.

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View from Lindau Pulverturm

The final must-see item is one that many tourists miss, simply because it’s just off the island on the mainland. It’s the local cemetery in Aeschach, where people have been buried since the plague came to the island in the 16th century. This beautiful, old cemetery has mausoleums dating from 1510 to 1915, in a range of styles including Baroque, Renaissance, Neo-classical, Gothic and Jugendstil. They are laid in a beautiful park, shaded by tall trees. Not far from the cemetery entrance are the remains of a Roman villa dating back to 200AD when the first settlers came to Lindau. Stones from the Roman ruins were used to build the cemetery.

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Jugendstil design on a tomb in Lindau cemetery
Baroque tomb in Lindau cemetery
Baroque tomb design in Lindau cemetery

 

Lindau is two hours by direct train from Zurich and three hours away from Munich.  The best time to visit is from May to August when the weather is warmer and great for walks along the promenade. Food and drink-wise, Bratwurst (sausage), kasespatzle (cheese noodles) and Maultashcen (dumplings) are the regional dishes to sample. Pretzels or Flammkuchen (flatbread) go very well with a local Weissbier (White beer).  Drink up and enjoy a hot, summer’s day out at this character-laden town the next time you’re in the area.

#jugendstildesign #lindau #allgau #germany #bodensee

 

Visited in Sept 2012

 

Period drama with Jane Austen in Bath

Calling all Jane Austen fans!  One of my favourite day trips ever in England was when friends drove me to Bath in Somerset for a day out.  We were lucky that an otherwise wet season kept itself in check for us and the sun came out to bless our outing.  I think my friends were quite amused to see me go ga-ga over the spaces that Jane Austen wrote about and the whole time we walked around the city, I was in a bit of a daze as I’d remind myself that Austen had tread the same cobblestones I was stepping on.  I visited The Pump room which was mentioned in Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ and tried to get into ‘The Assembly Rooms’ which she mentioned both in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and in ‘Persuasion.’  They were shut for a private party when I visited, but there was plenty of other stuff to see so I wasn’t too disappointed.  I also heard that these rooms were used in film locations for movies of the same names.

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The Roman Baths

Only an hour and a half out of Paddington station, Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. The natural hot springs were the site of a Celtic shrine before the Romans built their temple and the baths over them. A visit to the Roman baths should be at the top of your list of things to see in the city. Unfortunately, it’s probably THE most popular attraction in the city, so make sure you get there first thing in the morning to avoid the queues. You won’t want to spend all of your time just queuing as there’s plenty more to enjoy in the city. For the price of a ticket you’ll get an audio guide to talk you through the 43 AD foundations of the temple site of Aquae Solis, Bath’s Roman name, the Sacred spring and the original sites of hot and cold baths that were excavated in the 20th century.   If you look carefully at the surface of the water in the protected hot springs area, you’ll see it punctuated by water bubbling up at 46 degrees centigrade, from the limestone aquifers deep under.

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Actors dressed as Romans and answering questions from visitors about the period

Of course, it does take more than that for an entire city to get on the World Heritage list. You’ll see why as you amble through the city streets, revelling in spectacular Georgian architecture reflecting the mellow sand coloured hues and tones of the stones from local quarries. Sunshine reflected off the beige buildings gives the city a welcoming warmth and energy that will brighten up any visit. The entire city forms a perfectly preserved example of Georgian architecture in Britain today.

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The Pump Room – exterior

This leads me to the next must-see on your list. The Royal Crescent – a visually impressive semi-circle of thirty residential houses atop a hill. Visit house No.1 which is open to the public as a museum exhibiting Georgian-style rooms, interiors and objets d’art. Its lesser relative, The Circus, is only a stone’s throw away. It isn’t as impressive but is equally worth a visit if you have time.

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The Pump Room interiors enjoyed best while having a spot of afternoon tea

For the price of a traditional English Afternoon tea of cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and mouth-watering pastries at The Pump Room, you can relax in surroundings immortalised in Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Let your mind drift away to imagine high society sitting in the Pump room all abuzz with gossip, discussing the latest fashion and eyeing up eligible men as they walked through the entrance.

The Assembly Rooms I mentioned earlier are another exquisite example of Georgian period style, also made famous by Austen. Visit the ballroom where the five original crystal chandeliers still dangling from the ceiling would have scattered little rainbows of light against the powder-blue walls as one thousand of Georgian high society danced to an orchestra. British period art fans will spot Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings in the Great Octagon Room.

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The Assembly Rooms

A visit to Bath Abbey, just across from the Roman baths exit, is another must see if only for its unusually stunning ‘fan vaulting’ on the ceiling, which bears a light contrast to the ornate perpendicular Gothic facade. Italian-looking Pulteney Bridge over the river Avon is another ambitious project by Robert Adam, characteristic of the 18th century city’s momentum to convert Bath into a showcase of period splendour.   Stroll down Grand Parade and take in the sounds of the river streaming over Pulteney weir.

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Fan vaulted ceiling of Bath Abbey

Pop into the Jane Austen Centre only if you’re a hard-core fan. For the value of the over-priced ticket, you’ll get a brief talk about Austen’s family tree and background, see the only hand-drawn authenticated portrait that exists of her and see an exhibit of furniture and fashion of the time. There is next to nothing here that actually belonged to Austen and the museum is housed in a house that is the exact replica to Number 25 up the street, where she actually lived and is now a dentist’s office. There is a lovely letter hand-written by the actress Emma Thompson when she sent memorabilia to the Jane Austen Centre after the filming of Sense and Sensibility.

 

If history, architecture and period interiors are your thing, you may want to spend more than just a day in Bath. It’s full of themed museums to cater to all tastes and interests. If an overview of the main city sights is all you are looking for, the Mayor of Bath has honorary guides who offer free, two-hour walking tours at 10.30am and 2pm daily from Sunday to Friday and at 10.30 on Saturdays. Tours begin in front of The Roman Baths.

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The Circus, one of the most famous streets in Bath

EXTRAS-

Shopping: For gifts for loved ones back home or for that special little something that you just must have, wander the lanes around Bartlett and Brock Street, check out the Guildhall Market or for something more upmarket, visit Milsom Place.

Food: Bath is filled with gastro-pubs, cafes and restaurants, but if you’re looking for something trendy sample the Wild Truffle Tagliatelle followed by a to-die-for Tiramisu dessert at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant.

Bed and Breakfast: The Henry Guest House located in the city centre has comfortable rooms to lay your head while getting a taste of family-owned B&Bs (prices start at 85 pounds per night) or for a cheaper option try Bath YMCA.

Visited in 2011

Kefalonia in #Greece

Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands, was the fulfilment of every vision I had of what a Greek island should be like: clear, azure waters perfect for diving, stunning salmon pink sunsets, olive trees around every bend and warm, open hospitality from everyone we met, all making for a lovely, quiet beach holiday.  I visited with a friend in 2007 and stayed near Skala beach.  The geology of the entire island is unique and filled with caves, rocky shores and sandy beaches.  Even before Myrtos beach was made famous by the 1994 Hollywood movie ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ it was the most photographed beach in the world thanks to the unique limestone pebble sediment that slopes off from the beach into the Ionian waters, giving them a bright turquoise glow.

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I also visited Melissani Cave lake, which is a large underground lake with a part of the roof open to the sky where it caved in years ago.  Sunlight streams in from here, onto the waters below giving them a curious, shimmering blue hue that immerses the lake in a sense of mystery and enchantedness.  From here, you can climb down into the lake’s edge where, for a fee, boatmen will row you around the small lake so you can see the bowels of the cave. The most fascinating thing about the lake is that archaeological revelations found in the lake sediment, dating back to 3-4th century BC, confirm that a cult of Pan and the Nymphs had once worshipped at this site.

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The Drongarati Cave is another famous tourist spot, that was discovered about 300 years ago after an earthquake revealed its present entrance.  It has a large central chamber where concerts are sometimes held, because of the exquisite acoustics the cave provides. There’s an arresting array of stalactites in the chamber, but I was curious about what looked like bullet holes dotted around the walls of rock.  I was told by a guide that during World War II, German soldiers used the cave for target practice and some of the bullets are still firmly wedged into the rock.

A few days before 12th August 1953, some villagers recalled that their dogs had been barking all night for no apparent reason and others noted that their donkeys, sheep and other animals had been restless and agitated without cause.  On Sunday 9th August, at 9.40am, the first of a series of earthquakes that was to ravage the island, hit Skala village and its environs.  Stores and shelves collapsed, walls cracked but no lives were lost.  On Tuesday 11th August, at 5.30am the ground began to convulse and opened up to swallow houses whole into large gaping holes that appeared in the Southern part of the island.  Houses and their outer walls collapsed outwards onto streets killing people, instead of inwards in the way earthquake resistant housing should be built.  People didn’t realise until later that the entire Southern part of the island, including the nearby islands of Ithaca and Zakynthos, had been affected.  Those who survived watched in despair as their homes, families and livelihoods disappeared into craters that opened up in the ground or as rubble fell atop everything.  The villagers across the island believed that the worst had been done and fell into the rhythm of burying their dead and trying to deal with the losses they’d incurred.

On Wednesday morning 12th August 1953, an earthquake with a measure of 7.2 on the Richter scale, rocked the North of the island leaving even more vast areas of rubble and death in its wake.  This time, all the buildings and other structures in the Northern part of the island were destroyed.  Geologists have recorded that there was a 60cm rise in Kefalonia’s land area upwards, thanks to this earthquake.  Between 500 and 800 people died, many were missing and many others were severely injured.  An Israeli military ship was the first to respond with relief and other assistance when the SOS was sent out, followed by the British Navy soon after as they were recalled to port, stocked up with emergency aid and sent to Kefalonia. A worldwide appeal was sent out with graphic images of the effects of the devastating earthquake on the island.  Australia, Canada, the USA and South Africa responded by offering Greek refugees who had lost all their possessions and means of livelihood, migration opportunities and many of the islanders literally shipped out, causing a brain-drain of sorts on the island as Kefalonians escaped to countries where they believed the ground would never shake.

Oddly enough, as a direct consequence of this earthquake, there is a handful of villages, including the quaint town of Fiskardo, where traditional architecture is still intact and a huge tourist attraction now.  The lovely harbourfront is lined with expensive restaurants and high-end jewellery and crafts shops.

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If you visit the Korgialenos museum in Argostoli, Kefalonia’s capital city, you’ll see a fascinating display of pre- and post- 1953 earthquake photographs showing the scale of devastation on the island’s landscape, villages and structures.  They also show the huge ships that docked into broken ports with relief for refugees who were living out in the open without facilities or fresh water for days on end.

One of the reasons the island is a diver’s paradise is the clarity of the surrounding water; the calm, clear water gives visibility about 50 metres deep which means that snorkellers can see beautiful coral and colourful fishes of quite a variety.  Kefalonia will always be a place that holds a fond memory for me because it was the first time I went snorkeling (and I enjoyed it so much!) and also, the first time I tried Planter’s Punch and decided to make it one of my favourite summer cocktails to order whenever I’m on holiday.

Lord Byron lived for four months in Metaxata in Kefalonia, where it is said, he wrote ‘Don Juan.’  If you visit the town’s central square, you’ll see a bust of Lord Byron and next to it a plaque that commemorates the site of his house, which was destroyed in the 1953 earthquake.

Stunning natural beauty, an intriguing history, great food, and comfortable accommodation made this a really great holiday.  Writing this vignette reminded me of how quickly this wonderful break actually flew by and made me wonder if it isn’t time for another Greek holiday.

Visited in summer 2007

 

Plum and poppy seed #Strudel in #Innsbruck

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.

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The city of Innsbruck behind me in the valley below, and the Alps in the background

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.

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Posing in front of The Golden Roof

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.

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St. Francis Xavier’s memorial chapel altar

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.

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Station stop by Zaha Hadid, on the ski jump station

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!

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Apple strudel with a dollop of cream at Cafe Kroll
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Plum and poppy seed strudel at Cafe Kroll

#innsbruck #austria #cafekroll #zahahadid #apfelstrudel

Visited in 2011

Mad about #MontSaintMichel in #France

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.

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Front approach to Mont Saint-Michel at low tide

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.

 

Visited in 2002

Visiting #Chopin in #Warsaw

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.

 

Visited in 2013.