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:
And, boy, is there a lot of study and speculation about it all! Luckily there are also some concrete facts too, like these below:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.
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:
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.
What do Lederhosen, Swiss army knives and Weinerschnitzel have in common? You can find all three in the medieval, island town of Lindau.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jane Austen Centre
Period Clothing inside the Jane Austen centre
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.
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.
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.
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!
It’s known for its American film festival but we only visited it for a few hours for a brief respite before my friend had to go home and dress up for his wedding! We had strict instructions from his wife-to-be to keep him occupied for the morning and away from the house as he was hyper-excited and getting in everyone’s way while they were getting ready for the wedding J We visited the famous boardwalk, glanced at older women strolling down the beach, keeping their plastic faces out of the sun and trying to be seen without being seen in fashionable swimsuits, beach wraps and wide-brimmed sunhats. It’s a town for the rich and the famous – where one is to dress a certain way to be seen. Striped beach cut a pretty picture of the beach promenade. But, to be honest, there’s nothing very interesting about the place. It looks manicured and set, the beach looks terribly boring and bare, except for a few posers around. One point of interest is the line of beach cabanas with entrance posts that are named after film stars like Burt Lancaster. Note how they misspelled Harrison Ford’s name! We took pictures as a reminder of the morning of the wedding, before loading ourselves into the car and high-tailing it back to the house to get ready for the afternoon’s celebrations.