A Travellerspoint blog

Weekend in Helsinki

An architectural delight

semi-overcast

Helsinki southern harbour from Suomenlinna ferry

Helsinki southern harbour from Suomenlinna ferry

As a birthday treat, I tacked a weekend stay onto a business trip to Helsinki. I was curious about the Nordic countries but hadn't yet visited so this was a great opportunity. And what a treat - a compact and visually amazing little city. Anyone who loves design must visit - and it is easily connected by ferry to other cities so I've got a self-made cruise itinerary already percolating for a future trip.

I stayed in a small hotel in a former 'castle' (really more of a townhouse with Art Nouveau castle touches) called Glo Hotel Art. Perfect location for walking - there are trams and a Metro but I never had to make use of them. But they would be useful on a longer stay to get out to the Olympic Stadium and some of the further districts. Walking meant lots of photo ops to suss out the interesting details on so many of the apartment blocks and commercial buildings.
Here's a sampling of some of the best ones I found:

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Design museum

Design museum

Street signs in Finnish and Swedish

Street signs in Finnish and Swedish

There was great shopping - both in stores like the Marimekko mothership and various high-end department stores, as well as the outdoor Market Square and indoor Market Hall near the southern harbour:

Market square at the harbour

Market square at the harbour

Market Square at the harbour

Market Square at the harbour

Market Square - ready for winter

Market Square - ready for winter

Market Hall

Market Hall

Market Hall

Market Hall

AKA the Donner Donair

AKA the Donner Donair

Also near the harbour are the two major cathedrals, highlights of the skyline in this very low built capital.

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

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Uspenski Orthodox cathedral

Uspenski Orthodox cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral


Helsinki harbour

Helsinki harbour

Helsinki harbour

Helsinki harbour

In the afternoon, I boarded the short ferry over to Suomenlinna fortress which is now a public park spanning a number of small islands. although very peaceful with lovely vistas there are still many remnants of the former past as a military base for Sweden and Finland (as well as a brief stint as a prison for Russian communists).

Entrance to Suomenlinna fortress

Entrance to Suomenlinna fortress

Suomenlinna fortress

Suomenlinna fortress

Suomenlinna park

Suomenlinna park

Suomenlinna fortress

Suomenlinna fortress

Vesikko museum - 1933 Finnish Navy sub

Vesikko museum - 1933 Finnish Navy sub

Gulf of Finland archipelago

Gulf of Finland archipelago

On Saturday evening, tired from a long day of walking, I decided to take an evening harbour cruise which circled around through the many small islands with summer cabins and private docks.

One-cabin island

One-cabin island

Harbour cruise

Harbour cruise

Ferry to St. Petersburg

Ferry to St. Petersburg

Gulf of Finland islands

Gulf of Finland islands

There were many great buildings in such a small area - the Post office, the Parliament, the contemporary art museum, and a 'Glass Palace' with restaurants and cafes.

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Parliament

Parliament

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Kiasma contemporary art museum

Kiasma contemporary art museum

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But without a doubt my favourite building was the Central Station designed by Eliel Saarinen. After Grand Central, the most beautiful train station I've seen yet.

Helsinki train station

Helsinki train station

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Central station

Central station

Central station - restaurant

Central station - restaurant

Central station - ticket hall

Central station - ticket hall

Central station

Central station

Posted by hdparker 01:25 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

Welsh getaway

Vale of Llangollen

semi-overcast

Vale of Llangollen

Vale of Llangollen

For the bank holiday weekend in August, Darren and I went north for a few days in the Welsh countryside. We rented a quaint barn conversion with a loft bedroom and, most fascinating to me, an Aga cooker.

World's End cottage - converted barn

World's End cottage - converted barn

World's End Cottage

World's End Cottage

My first Aga

My first Aga

The cottage was four miles from a small village called Llangollen, just across the border of Shropshire.

Llangollen

Llangollen

Llangollen

Llangollen

Primarily catering to tourists now, they have a steam railway and canal tours by horsedrawn boat (previously used them to carry out slate).

Llangollen Canal

Llangollen Canal

The canal leads to an impressive aquaduct nearby, which we walked across on a windy (and busy) afternoon.

Pontcysyltte Aquaduct

Pontcysyltte Aquaduct

Aquaduct looking towards Llangollen

Aquaduct looking towards Llangollen

Pontcysyllte Aquaduct

Pontcysyllte Aquaduct

Another highlight: the remains of the abbey called Valle Crucis (another ruin courtesy of old Henry VIII).

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Valle Crucis Abbey ruins

Welsh Prince's heraldic slab in the abbey ruins

Welsh Prince's heraldic slab in the abbey ruins

I also had a small thrill to see a mountainside covered with my namesake purple shrub...

Heather-covered mountain, Horseshoe Pass

Heather-covered mountain, Horseshoe Pass

Posted by hdparker 01:22 Archived in Wales Comments (1)

Christmas in Prague

semi-overcast -8 °C

Prague is a fairytale place to spend Christmas. I particularly loved the architecture and the food - perfectly satisfying for the time of year.
They celebrate on the 24th (the day we arrived) so we had a pricey but tasty dinner at our hotel, Le Palais and an early night after a day of travel - Donna from Calgary, Robin and Blair from Berlin and of course my short hop from London.

So Christmas Day was our first real look at the city, and we were dropped by the hotel shuttle in Wenceslas Square (named for the Good King, of course - very fitting). We wandered from market to market then found the big one in Old Town square. A setting so charming you could hardly believe it.

Old town square

Old town square


Old town square and Our Lady of Tyn church

Old town square and Our Lady of Tyn church


Chilly Christmas Day - Donna, Robin and Blair

Chilly Christmas Day - Donna, Robin and Blair


Christmas market

Christmas market


Old town hall

Old town hall


Astronomical clock, town hall

Astronomical clock, town hall


Old town hall

Old town hall


Mmmm smoked ham

Mmmm smoked ham


Christmas market nosh

Christmas market nosh


Trdelnik - traditional pastries baked on a rolling spit

Trdelnik - traditional pastries baked on a rolling spit


Old town square, Christmas day

Old town square, Christmas day


Old town square - carriage stand

Old town square - carriage stand


Old town square

Old town square


Sisters

Sisters

From old town, we wandered through the streets and emerged at the river and Charles Bridge, with a great view towards the imposing Prague Castle. The bridge was lined with vendors and a cute blues trio, keeping the many tourists amused. There was a sea of fur hats along the bridge and streets leading away and up to the castle. It was only about -8C but nippy!

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge


Prague Castle

Prague Castle


Blues trio - Charles Bridge

Blues trio - Charles Bridge


Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

Prague Castle from Charles Bridge


View From Charles Bridge

View From Charles Bridge


Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge


Mala Strana

Mala Strana

We stopped for a hearty Czech lunch just past the bridge in the Mala Strana district - goulash, roast duck, dumplings, gravy...and mulled wine to fight the chill.
Then we popped around the corner to check out the memorial to Prague's favourite revolutionary, John Lennon.

Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall


Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall


Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall


Lennon Wall

Lennon Wall

Just beyond a little bridge was covered in love padlocks

Love locks - view toward Charles Bridge from Mala Strana

Love locks - view toward Charles Bridge from Mala Strana


Mala Strana

Mala Strana

From there, we took a tram up the hill to see the castle just as it was getting dark (and windy) but it was a beautiful time of day to catch our first glimpse. We saw the guard changing ceremony then decided to come back again during the daytime to really get a good look around.

Prague Castle - St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague Castle - St. Vitus Cathedral


Prague Castle

Prague Castle


Prague Castle- (courtesy of Donna)

Prague Castle- (courtesy of Donna)


View from Prague Castle

View from Prague Castle

We headed back down the hill to our dinner reservation but a fortuitous wrong turn took us to a quaint little square below Charles Bridge with an unusual nativity scene.

Nativity scene - Mala Strana

Nativity scene - Mala Strana


We backtracked, found our restaurant along the river and enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner overlooking the bridge and the water.

One of the features that most fascinated me was the decorative doorways - so I had to snap a few shots of the most impressive ones:

Doorway 1

Doorway 1


Doorway 2

Doorway 2

Doorway 3

Doorway 3

There are also endless beautiful buildings, especially those with intricate sgraffito facades:

Sgraffito building

Sgraffito building


Stare Mesto building

Stare Mesto building


Old town square - Storch house

Old town square - Storch house


Stare Mesto

Stare Mesto


House of the Black Madonna - Cubist museum

House of the Black Madonna - Cubist museum


Powder gate

Powder gate

It was a great 4 day getaway - any longer and the pounds would have really piled on with all that rich food!

Dumpling time in Stare Mesto

Dumpling time in Stare Mesto

Posted by hdparker 11:23 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Summer Days Out

sunny 19 °C

I've been delinquent in posting these, but with the weather turning colder I suddenly remembered these lovely days out in August.
Won't bore you with much commentary - they are simply some very scenic spots perfectly situated within an hour of London. Enjoy!

Brighton
A famous seaside resort ('London by the Sea') known for its liberal stance, large gay population, hard candy ('Brighton Rock') and scene of 60s battles between the Mods and the Rockers (later depicted in the The Who's Quadrophenia, the movie of which featured Sting). Also famous for a crazy royal palace modelled on the outside after the Taj Mahal, and inside is all Asian decor. Totally over the top.
Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier


Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier


Brighton

Brighton


Brighton beach

Brighton beach

Old west pier

Old west pier

Brighton beach

Brighton beach

Friendly flag, Brighton pier

Friendly flag, Brighton pier

Quadrophenia fan was here, the infamous alley location from the 1979 movie)

Quadrophenia fan was here, the infamous alley location from the 1979 movie)

Royal Pavilion, built by the Prince Regent (later George IV)

Royal Pavilion, built by the Prince Regent (later George IV)

Royal Pavilion, sold off by Queen Victoria who hated Brighton

Royal Pavilion, sold off by Queen Victoria who hated Brighton

Royal Pavilion

Royal Pavilion

Bath
Lovely town (World Heritage Site, actually) with strict building codes to maintain the pleasing look of its Georgian architecture. Famous for the Roman spa built here around 43 AD, and as a fashionable setting of Jane Austen novels (she lived here in the early 1800s).

River Avon and Pulteney Bridge

River Avon and Pulteney Bridge

Georgian townhouses on Jane Austen's street

Georgian townhouses on Jane Austen's street

Royal Crescent

Royal Crescent

Inside Assembly Rooms

Inside Assembly Rooms

Inside Assembly Rooms

Inside Assembly Rooms

Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths entrance

Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths entrance

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

The Great Bath

The Great Bath

Roman baths

Roman baths

Great Bath

Great Bath

Remains of Roman heated floors at the Baths

Remains of Roman heated floors at the Baths

Bath

Bath

Cotswolds
I took a guided tour, starting out by train then switching to a coach with long walks interspersed throughout the afternoon. We drove through several villages, but mostly explored Chipping Campden, and 'the Slaughters' villages. Totally adorable and not too overrun with other tour buses like us - good planning on the part of London Walks!
Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Market Hall

Market Hall

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden


St. James Church, Chipping Campden

St. James Church, Chipping Campden


St. James Church and boneyard

St. James Church and boneyard

Country manor, The Slaughters

Country manor, The Slaughters

Hiking between Upper and Lower Slaughter

Hiking between Upper and Lower Slaughter

Hiking between Upper and Lower Slaughter

Hiking between Upper and Lower Slaughter

Old Mill, The Slaughers

Old Mill, The Slaughers

The Slaughters, Cotswolds

The Slaughters, Cotswolds

The Slaughters, Cotswolds

The Slaughters, Cotswolds

Posted by hdparker 14:18 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

A few favourite places

semi-overcast 13 °C

I'm trying to see as much of London as possible, so walking has become a favourite pastime. I don't always remember the camera, but here's some recent shots I took while rambling around.

First, more of the Hampstead Heath to the north of my place. There's a really lovely tucked-away garden and pergola, part of the grounds of the mansion built by Lord Leverhulme (founder of Unilever, ie. Sunlight detergent), which later become the home of Lord Inverforth. Now it is luxury flats. But the garden is open to the public - it is not within the main space of Hampstead Heath so doesn't get as many visitors. A real find.

Inverforth House, West Heath

Inverforth House, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath


Orange berries, Hill Garden, West Heath

Orange berries, Hill Garden, West Heath


Purple berries, West Heath

Purple berries, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath


Hill Garden, West Heath

Hill Garden, West Heath


Pergola, West Heath

Pergola, West Heath

Within Hampstead is a little parish cemetery that's a little overgrown but interesting to visit (not quite as wild as Highgate Cemetery which I have to revisit and get some photos to share). I particularly love the holly all around the area (not mistletoe as I was calling it) and many streets are named for it.
Parish cemetery, Hampstead

Parish cemetery, Hampstead


Creepy tree, parish cemetery, Hampstead

Creepy tree, parish cemetery, Hampstead


Hampstead cemetery - holly

Hampstead cemetery - holly


Hampstead lane

Hampstead lane

Also near my place is a striking street called Eton Avenue. It was once part of an estate owned by Eton College, covering what's now Regent's Park, Primrose Hill, Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park. I usually walk along here at least once a week to a little farmer's market with great coffee plus it ends at the Swiss Cottage tube station which is a handy alternative to my own depending where I'm headed. Most of these seem to be split into flats but a few look like they are still one entire home.
Eton Avenue house

Eton Avenue house


Eton Avenue

Eton Avenue


Eton Avenue house

Eton Avenue house

On Hallowe'en day I did a long, roundabout walk from Bloomsbury through Soho, down to Mayfair and St James Palace, through St James Park and passed through the Horse Guards building onto Whitehall and up to Trafalgar Square. Surprisingly it doesn't take that long - the city is much more compact than it seems on the maps.
Bedford Square, Bloomsbury

Bedford Square, Bloomsbury


St James Palace

St James Palace


St James Park

St James Park


The Mall, near St James Palace

The Mall, near St James Palace


St James Park

St James Park


Horse Guards building

Horse Guards building

Then I hopped a bus out to Tower Hill, crossed the bridge and got some shots of it being lifted to let a dinner cruiser pass through just before it got too dark (at 4:30! daylight savings happened today for us.) The bridge has been getting spiffed up for the Olympics and looks sharp.
North tower

North tower


Middle section of Tower Bridge

Middle section of Tower Bridge


Tower Bridge from Shad Thames (south bank)

Tower Bridge from Shad Thames (south bank)


Opening the bascules

Opening the bascules


The Dixie Queen under Tower Bridge

The Dixie Queen under Tower Bridge

The area north and south of the Tower of London features some of the most memorable modern architecture, and will soon have its newest building The Shard lording over it all. It will be over 300 metres tall and look like this - I'm captivated by it even at the halfway stage.
View of the Tower of London and the Gherkin (Swiss Re) from Tower Bridge

View of the Tower of London and the Gherkin (Swiss Re) from Tower Bridge


City Hall and the Shard under construction

City Hall and the Shard under construction


City Hall complex

City Hall complex

Only a few steps away, the well-preserved streets and warehouses of Butlers Wharf now hold upscale flats and restaurants - but the view is free.
Shad Thames, Butlers Wharf

Shad Thames, Butlers Wharf


Butlers Wharf

Butlers Wharf

More to come...

Posted by hdparker 13:33 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Landed in London

Westminster

Westminster

After a busy week’s search at the end of July, visiting about 20 different flats, I found a basic little furnished one-bedroom in a 1930’s mansion block called Gilling Court in Northwest London. The market was a bit discouraging - not a lot to choose from, and what I saw was not that great. So when I was shown this place, I was happy to make an offer since it’s bright (when the sun manages to shine) and it was basically ready for move-in - just rolled in the suitcase and some groceries. The only real things to worry about were setting up internet and changing all the utilities into my name. I did also make a trek to Ikea for some little odds and ends - bathmat, garbage can (aka rubbish bin) and some scented candles to mask the fresh paint smell. The flat was probably last updated with new flooring in the last 5 years, but it has a sort of cottage-y feel with the tile and basic (dated) fixtures.
Reception

Reception


'Cozy' kitchen

'Cozy' kitchen


Bedroom

Bedroom


Perfectly fine for a few months, and the area is really why I chose it. Sort of posh in that bohemian bourgeois way, Belsize Park is wedged nicely between Hampstead Village and Primrose Hill - both with their lovely parks with great views over London - and very handy for the tube and bus stops. These three areas are all celebrity magnets - and it's easy to see why. Not far from Central London, leafy and village-y, and lots of boutiques, historic pubs, gourmet cafés and organic fruit & veg markets. Plus great bookstores - Londoners still read printed books, especially on the tube. Only real downside is that the Baby Stroller Brigade is out in full force most days so it can get a little cramped in those cute shops and cafes.

In Belsize Park, apparently some of my celebrity neighbours include Gwyneth and Chris a few blocks in one direction, and Hugh Laurie a few blocks the other way. Haven’t been round for tea yet, though.There is also a ‘village’ of sorts, just a triangle of restaurants and a few services.
Belsize Village

Belsize Village


Belsize Village

Belsize Village


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Nearby, a fake Banksy sits behind plexiglass - they save fakes and wipe off the real ones!
Make Tea Not War

Make Tea Not War


Hampstead Village is an easy 15 min stroll uphill and has amazing history. The spring water was thought to be quite curative, so many Londoners trekked up here to have a taste. Streets are still named ‘Flask Walk’ and ‘Well Walk’. Keats lived up here, as did Robert Louis Stevenson. Elizabeth Taylor was born here. Now it’s home to Boy George, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, Liam Gallagher and Ridley Scott - just to name a few. Although the high street can get quite busy on the weekends, the side streets are ridiculously quaint and much quieter.
High Street

High Street


High Street

High Street


High Street

High Street


Church Row

Church Row


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Hampstead Heath is the main attraction with a massive expanse of forest, meadow, ponds and playgrounds, topped with the beautiful Kenwood House (remember it from Notting Hill?). There are swimming ponds, one for men and another for women, plus great views from Parliament Hill (movie factoids - scenes from Run Fatboy Run and Notes on a Scandal were filmed from this lovely vantage point).
Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath

Kenwood House

Kenwood House


Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath


Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath

View from Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

View from Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

Primrose Hill Park, and Regent's Canal are downhill from my flat and also have a cozy, laid-back village atmosphere - much different than Camden Town just around the corner with its pierced, trilby-and-skinny-jeans crowd and endless racks of cheap t-shirts and souvenirs.
Regents Canal

Regents Canal


Sylvia Plath lived here, and died here, in Yeats' old house. Even more bizarrely, Daniel Craig (who played her husband Ted in a movie about her life) lives just a few doors down from there. Like Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill Park has great views over London Zoo and the West End - a lovely spot for suntanning on the few days when the weather cooperated this summer.

Posted by hdparker 13:08 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

The Oxford experience

sunny 24 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Wren's Tom Tower, Christ Church

Wren's Tom Tower, Christ Church


My sister Robin and I enrolled in a week-long ‘Oxford Experience’ course about the Beatles and Sixties Britain for the first week of July. A great package deal, it includes all meals, lodging and 3 hours a day of discussion at Christ Church. Apparently it is not to be referred to as ‘Christ Church College’ or ‘University’ - just ‘Christ Church‘ - but it is the largest college within the University of Oxford, and is the only one with its own cathedral. I also think it’s the most historically interesting - started as a pet project of Cardinal Wolsey but when he fell out with Henry VIII, the king took it over then ‘refounded’ it a few years later (it’s good to be the king).

The main quadrangle (Tom Quad) is stunning, and a Christopher Wren clock tower stands majestically at west entrance. As a tradition, they ring the bell (named Tom) every night at 9:05 (ie. 9:00 Oxford time) 101 times (one for each of the original number of students) to give notice they are locking the front gate. Not sure when this formal curfew ended - maybe when they invented electronic key fobs.

Mercury fountain, Tom Quad, Christ Church

Mercury fountain, Tom Quad, Christ Church


Tom Quad lily pond

Tom Quad lily pond

Custodian on the beat

Custodian on the beat

There’s a gaggle of ‘custodians’ guarding the place and herding tour groups away from off-limits areas. They wear bowler hats and were all charming little old men - not sure if they are unique to Christ Church, but we didn’t see any at the other colleges we visited.

Our bedroom was in the Meadows building - so named for the great view over Christ Church Meadow. Quite comfortable if a little dated - but renovations were underway and we had no chance of oversleeping with workmen right outside our window.

Meadows residence

Meadows residence


Christ Church meadow - view from our room

Christ Church meadow - view from our room


On a tour of a few other colleges, we learned that Oxford residences are unique buildings - they all have staircases but no hallways. So if you wanted to visit someone down the other end of the same floor of your building, you have to go down your staircase then over and up their staircase. We also learned a bit about the quaint rituals of student life - for example, if you’re ‘sporting the oak’ it means you don’t want visitors to your room…sounds vaguely dirty to me, but refers to shutting your door.

My favourite taste (literally) of Christ Church student life was taking all our meals in the incredible Dining Hall, under portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I reminding us they had once eaten there almost 500 years ago.

Christ Church Hall

Christ Church Hall


Christ Church Hall - Henry VIII and Elizabeth I portraits in the centre

Christ Church Hall - Henry VIII and Elizabeth I portraits in the centre


Fan-vaulted ceiling leading to Dining Hall

Fan-vaulted ceiling leading to Dining Hall


Christ Church Hall - entry staircase

Christ Church Hall - entry staircase

So many famous students chowed down in here, including David Ogilvy - before he dropped out and went on to AGA cooker sales - and Richard Curtis, director of all the famous Brit romcoms: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Oh yes, and a lot of men named 'Sir' spent time here too.

We got to experience the High Table tradition one night, a more formal, invitation-only dinner seating when we had to dress sharp and come early for a glass of sherry. We sat at the long main table at the head of the room with about 20 others from our program, plus that night's guest speaker Colin Dexter (author of Inspector Morse books). One particular American couple, an elderly man and his younger blond wife, always seemed to be sitting near us - High Table included. Robin nicknamed them Ruth and Bernie...

High Table - Robin, Colin and Ruth

High Table - Robin, Colin and Ruth

Another famous connection - Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) wrote Alice in Wonderland based on stories he apparently made up to entertain the daughters of the dean of Christ Church while he was working there. We took a tour around the grounds and along the two rivers with a writer who had researched their influence on his tales. He only slightly hinted at the potentially dodgy scenario of a grown bachelor first taking photos of these three young girls then taking them on boating excursions for hours on end…and the sudden and unexplained end to the excursions. Curiouser and curiouser…at any rate, he and his characters are immortalized now in the great Hall’s stained glass so he’s in good standing.
Alice characters in the bottom corners, Christ Church Hall

Alice characters in the bottom corners, Christ Church Hall

Dinner was served a little later one night so we could attend Evensong service in the cathedral. I wanted to hear the choir, but the famous group only performs during term time, so we got a nice little stand-in choir when we went. The church is quite compact and beautiful, especially the ceiling.

Christ Church cathedral

Christ Church cathedral


Christ Church - pipe organ and hammerbeam ceiling

Christ Church - pipe organ and hammerbeam ceiling


Christ Church - north window

Christ Church - north window


Peckwater Quad

Peckwater Quad

Our classes started at 8:45 in a small room in the Peckwater building, just behind Tom Quad, and finished at 12:15 with a break for coffee/tea and biscuits - very civilized. We had 12 students in our class, 3 of whom had actually seen the Beatles perform live (one lady from Texas had seen them three times)- they were the diehards, and brought in cake on the Wednesday to celebrate Ringo's 70th birthday. Another nice couple from New York were there in celebration of her retirement - so sweet.

Our tutor was an interesting cat - not a rabid fan but very knowledgeable about the music, the recording technology and the historical context. Robin and I were the only ones who didn't live through the Beatles heyday, but I found it fascinating to hear how and when they got swept up in Beatlemania and what impact it made on these 'first generation' fans. The class covered so much ground - basic musical theory, lyric analysis, recording technology changes during their time, the nature of perception (ie LSD phase). I learned so much, and appreciate the Beatles more than I did before - and we got to watch a bit of the great mockumentary The Rutles and listen to Peter Sellers' Shakespearean sendup of Hard Day's Night so it never got too academically heavy. Plus I got to put my English degree and trivia-filled mind to good use in answering the tutor's random question about the William Blake/Aldous Huxley/Doors connection. That's right - I showed off at Oxford :-)

In the afternoons, we toured the town and ambled along the two rivers that cut through Oxford.
Punts on the River Cherwell

Punts on the River Cherwell


River Cherwell meets the Thames (Isis) narrowboat

River Cherwell meets the Thames (Isis) narrowboat


River Cherwell

River Cherwell


Oxford across Christ Church Meadow

Oxford across Christ Church Meadow


Merton Street

Merton Street

We learned that students also wear ‘subfusc’ or formal black robes and attire when they write their exams - sort of like our graduation gear. All the colleges generally offer the same subjects so everyone writes their exam together in one main hall rather than within their own college. Interestingly, Oxford (and Cambridge) undergraduate students are educated in a tutorial system - focused on one main subject, usually just getting one-on-one tutoring so it's very much self-directed study rather than lecture-based. No opportunities for slacking. And lots of competition for research materials - which is countered by having to use the books in the library rather than hoard them away.

Bridge of Sighs and Radcliffe Camera

Bridge of Sighs and Radcliffe Camera


Bodleian Library - Tower of the Five Orders

Bodleian Library - Tower of the Five Orders


Divinity School attached to Bodleian Library

Divinity School attached to Bodleian Library


Old entrance in Schools Quad, Bodleian Library

Old entrance in Schools Quad, Bodleian Library


Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera


Radcliffe Camera and University Church St. Mary the Virgin

Radcliffe Camera and University Church St. Mary the Virgin


Radcliffe Camera from Exeter College Fellows Garden

Radcliffe Camera from Exeter College Fellows Garden


Brasenose Lane

Brasenose Lane

Another highlight was visiting University College - not just because of the seemingly redundant name. Some claims to fame: Bill Clinton went here, the developments of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke took place here, and there's a monument to an expelled student and Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

University College

University College


Plaque outside University College

Plaque outside University College


Shelley Memorial, University College

Shelley Memorial, University College


Shelley Memorial, University College

Shelley Memorial, University College

In true Romantic fashion, Shelley drowned while sailing off the coast of Italy and his body washed ashore supposedly looking like this. The walls are painted with some of the final lines from one of his most famous (and kind of overwrought) poems, Adonais. High and low art actually collide here - I admit that I first saw this monument in the (guilty pleasure) flick The Saint since a cheesy Val Kilmer scene was shot here.

All in all, it was a somewhat surreal experience but thoroughly enjoyable - I would describe it simply as fantasy camp for brainy types. Many of the other students we met had been coming there for many years, and I can see why as it's a captivating place to satisfy a craving for the long-gone academic life.

Brasenose College, High Street

Brasenose College, High Street

Posted by hdparker 17:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Florence, Pisa and Lucca

sunny 28 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Florence view northwest from Bardini gardens

Florence view northwest from Bardini gardens

In Florence, we slept above Gucci and our windows overlooked Roberto Cavalli, Gianfranco Ferre and Bulgari. And it didn't break the bank to hover just above the lap of luxury.

Our first full day there was June 24, the local Feast Day of San Giovanni. There were costumed parades around town then fireworks over the Arno River that night.

Feast day parade

Feast day parade

Flag-throwing in feast day parade

Flag-throwing in feast day parade


Sunset from Ponte Santa Trinita

Sunset from Ponte Santa Trinita

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena


Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Front of Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria

Front of Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria


Courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio

Courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio


David replica, Piazza Signoria

David replica, Piazza Signoria

We saw the original David in L'Accademia gallery - they may look the same, but the experience is quite different. The light makes him glow, and details of the sculpture are much more compelling. You can really sense Michelangelo's intense adoration for the male form with every curve and shadow. Well worth it - and definitely worth booking ahead to skip the lineup.

We also toured the fashion museum and the Bobobi gardens at Palazzo Pitti. The latter are huge and built onto a steep hill so it was hard to imagine the Medicis or Napoleon really using all of them for leisurely strolls. The palace itself is not a pleasant looking building - more like a prison.
Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti


Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Pitti

Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Pitti

Cypress Alley, Boboli Gardens

Cypress Alley, Boboli Gardens

Adam and Eve grotto, Boboli Gardens

Adam and Eve grotto, Boboli Gardens


Bargello museum

Bargello museum

We also spent a fair bit of time combing through the various markets looking for leather deals. No shortage of leather in Florence! On our search, we found a little handbag shop near the Ponte Vecchio run by a fun Persian Italian named Tony. He was friendly and gave us free spumante and tips on where to eat. We visited again on our last day - I bought a new leather weekender bag from a neighbouring store - and since we were at a loose end, he invited us to lunch nearby. Fantastic meal...I got to share a massive slab of Florentine steak with him, and Diane had some simple yet totally delicious cannelini beans. Our other meals in Florence were great, but this was outstanding. Afterwards, we hung about in the shop and helped sell bags to other tourists while sipping more spumante all afternoon. Unplanned decadence is such fun! But it was short-lived - we had to head to Pisa the next day.

Pisa. Hmm.Wanted to like it, but couldn't. Yes, it's definitely got some worthwhile sights, but overall it left me underwhelmed after so many other great towns. We covered a good portion of it on foot going to and from the Leaning Tower and Duomo, then later wandering about looking for a dinner spot. It was a hot, hazy Sunday so I might have felt different on a busier day...but hard to imagine it.

Piazza del Duomo

Piazza del Duomo

Joining the hordes

Joining the hordes

Yup, it's leaning alright

Yup, it's leaning alright

Cathedral baptistry

Cathedral baptistry

Palazzo dell'Orologio

Palazzo dell'Orologio

Palazzo dei Cavalieri

Palazzo dei Cavalieri

Medieval citadel along River Arno

Medieval citadel along River Arno


Keith Haring mural: Tuttomondo

Keith Haring mural: Tuttomondo

Lucca, just 30 minutes from Pisa, is a whole different story. Much more gracious and inviting, full of beautiful piazzas and impressive towers. Completely surrounded still by its old wall, bicycles are the more common vehicles in town. And the wall was converted to a parkway popular with runners, bikers and walkers alike.

Walking park built on the old city wall

Walking park built on the old city wall


Piazza del Anfiteatro

Piazza del Anfiteatro

Church of San Frediano

Church of San Frediano

Church of San Frediano facade detail

Church of San Frediano facade detail

Random tower

Random tower

Market and clocktower

Market and clocktower

Palazza Pfanner and garden

Palazza Pfanner and garden

After a casual stroll along the wall pathway and a last bit of gelato, we headed back to Pisa for our flight to London. We had a few days of sightseeing (and a surreal Canada Day in Trafalgar Square with Sleeman's and a bison burger) before Diane's return to Canada and my sister Robin's arrival - then we were off to Oxford.

Posted by hdparker 12:06 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tuscany Pt. 3 - Montepulciano and daytrips

Portas, piazzas, palazzos - oh my!

semi-overcast 20 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Town hall, Montepulciano

Town hall, Montepulciano

Montepulciano, another medieval hill town, has great atmosphere - no wonder they brought in those teen vampires. Just spooky enough (in a good way) to imagine strange things happening here at night, when the town felt almost deserted. We stayed three nights in a top floor apartment in an old palazzo near the main square. A comfy change from 'cozy' European hotels.

It was still raining when we arrived but did clear briefly for the evening so we could explore and find someplace for dinner. The 'main street' is a long and fairly steep road with leather shops, markets, clothing boutiques and wine stores - some of which were already closed that night. Add in several churches and some preserved city gates and it ticked all the boxes for Tuscan charm.
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Montepulciano

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Montepulciano


Porta al Prato, Montepulciano

Porta al Prato, Montepulciano


Evening view from Montepulciano

Evening view from Montepulciano

Montepulciano's claim to fame is 'vino nobile' red wine, but there were also many younger 'rosso di Montepulciano' wines that were lighter and more affordable. We did a few tastings, but what stays with me is the most delicious olive oil - I never knew it could taste so good.

On the other hand, we had our strangest Italian dining experience in Montepulciano. We found a grotto-style restaurant just off the main road through town that seemed sort of quaint at first. But the crazy, arrogant restaurant owner ("I serve the best food in Italy") was too preoccupied with singing along to his blaring Pavarotti and Friends DVD in an attempt to entertain the patrons. He left us waiting nearly 45 minutes for the cheque - then tried to serenade us in apology as we finally escaped. The next night we had much better food and service at a little place called Trattoria di Cagnano right on the main road - friendly, tasty and no tenor wannabes!

Just below the town sits a lovely church called San Biagio, built on a Greek rather than Latin cross plan in the mid 1500s.

Templo di San Biagio, near Montepulciano

Templo di San Biagio, near Montepulciano


Templo di San Biagio

Templo di San Biagio


Canonica de San Biagio (Priest's house)

Canonica de San Biagio (Priest's house)


Interior of San Biagio

Interior of San Biagio

Our first day out from Montepulciano, we drove southeast to Assisi in the next province, Umbria. The rain was back with a vengeance but we spent a few hours exploring the Basilica of St. Francis. This is really two churches, built one on top of the other in the 13th century.

Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi


The remains of St. Francis are on display in a crypt below the lower part, drawing pilgrims from around the world. I was a little surprised at the extensive (and popular) gift shop, though - it carries any St. Francis merchandise you could ever imagine, including movies of his life including one starring Mickey Rourke from the same year he did Wild Orchid! Talk about range.

Assisi

Assisi


Basilica of St. Clare (Santa Chiara), Assisi

Basilica of St. Clare (Santa Chiara), Assisi

Porta Nuova

Porta Nuova


Next stop on the way back was Perugia, a major city with a historic centre up at the very highest point. We had learned to watch for the bullseye symbol on town signage indicating the centro storico of each place so we found our way there, but parking was another matter and we were suddenly within the town walls and heading down narrow one-ways meant for in-the-know locals, not tourists. I had visions of getting us wedged into an impossible position on a steep cobblestone street, but we managed to weave through safely and find a parking lot outside the outer medieval gate.

Etruscan arch - Porta Augusta

Etruscan arch - Porta Augusta


Perugia - main fountain near Palazzo dei Priori

Perugia - main fountain near Palazzo dei Priori

Heading back in on foot, we found it very foggy and wet, but impressive - especially the main square and fountain. We also found some of the famous Baci candies of Perugia then had lunch in a basement pizzeria while watching Portugal embarass North Korea including this nutty goal.

Next day, we were happy to see the weather had improved and we toured the Val D'Orcia towns of Pienzo, San Quirico D'Orcia and Montalcino. Along the way we admired the quintessential Tuscan views including the famous little church that graces so many postcards, calendars and guidebooks (and found on many stock photo sites, of course) - it sits just west of Pienza.

View over the Val D'Orcia from Pienza

View over the Val D'Orcia from Pienza


Val D'Orcia

Val D'Orcia


Pienza town hall

Pienza town hall


Pienza Cathedral

Pienza Cathedral


Main street, Old town Pienza

Main street, Old town Pienza


Santa Maria church, San Quirico

Santa Maria church, San Quirico


Santa Maria rose garden, San Quirico

Santa Maria rose garden, San Quirico


Collegiata church, San Quirico

Collegiata church, San Quirico


Market day in San Quirico

Market day in San Quirico


Hill town of Montalcino

Hill town of Montalcino

For the drive back to Siena to drop off our rental car, we took the old Roman route called the Via Lauretana - first climbing up through forest and some tiny towns, then back down and across hilly plains. Once the car was sorted, we caught a train and headed to Florence for a few days. Driving in Tuscany had been a great adventure, but I was ready to just be a passenger again.

Along Via Lauretana near Asciano

Along Via Lauretana near Asciano


Along Via Lauretana near Asciano

Along Via Lauretana near Asciano


Along Via Lauretana near Siena

Along Via Lauretana near Siena

Posted by hdparker 15:02 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tuscany Pt. 2 - Chianti, Cortona and Arezzo

18 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Our next day out from Siena was through the Chianti region, with stops in the towns of Castellina, Radda, Gaiole, Greve, and Panzano. I'm not so familiar with Italian wines, and was surprised at the Chianti landscape - quite high and forested.
Chianti region

Chianti region

Side street, Castellina in Chianti

Side street, Castellina in Chianti

Panzano church - Santa Maria

Panzano church - Santa Maria

Via delle Volte (covered back street) in Castellina

Via delle Volte (covered back street) in Castellina


Rocca (fortress and keep) of Castellina - 14th century

Rocca (fortress and keep) of Castellina - 14th century


Panzano in Chianti

Panzano in Chianti


Each of the towns is quite compact, laid-back and charming in its own way - but I'd vote for Castellina or Panzano as the most interesting. The latter town has a famous (and colourful) butcher - we stopped in to sample the free wine and nibbles (his traffic-building gimmick) right as he was hacking apart a huge cut of beef into at least six-inch thick slices...steaks? Most likely, but they looked the size of roasts! His shop assistants offered samples of a strong wild boar salami - and I order a few slices to go. I learned later that you need to wrap that stuff up tightly - very pungent, but tasty.

Last stop on the way back to Siena was the Rocca della Macie winery. We'd had their Chianti Classico at dinner the night before, and noticed the place on our way by that morning. We sampled then promptly bought, a bottle of their Sangiovese/Syrah blend called,
Sasyr - I happily shill it here since it was quite lovely.

Rocca della Macie winery, Chianti region

Rocca della Macie winery, Chianti region


Chianti region - view from Rocca della Macie winery

Chianti region - view from Rocca della Macie winery

We moved on from Siena to spend the next day and night in Cortona. This was a very popular town, due mainly to the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. We also arrived on market day, so the town was bustling during the day and a little more sedate in the evening. We had a good wander up and down through town, then ate dinner at a great spot overlooking the main piazza (Tuscan Sun movie fans: where she wrote the unappreciated postcard) - more porcini mushrooms, with a delicious bit of pork (and those Italians really know pork), followed by a perfect little tiramisu. Up there as one of the best meals in Tuscany.

Cortona

Cortona

Main piazza - Cortona

Main piazza - Cortona

Side street - Cortona

Side street - Cortona

Round church - Cortona

Round church - Cortona

Side street - Cortona

Side street - Cortona

View from Cortona

View from Cortona


The real Bramasole villa just outside Cortona

The real Bramasole villa just outside Cortona


Teatro Signorelli ("ladybugs, Catherine...lots and lots of ladybugs")

Teatro Signorelli ("ladybugs, Catherine...lots and lots of ladybugs")


Side street - Cortona

Side street - Cortona

Classic car show - Piazza Signorelli

Classic car show - Piazza Signorelli

Classic cars - Carabinieri in Piazza Signorelli

Classic cars - Carabinieri in Piazza Signorelli

Classic MG and Mini

Classic MG and Mini

We continued on to Arezzo on a drizzly Sunday. This town's film location claim to fame is the main piazza in Life is Beautiful.

Piazza grande

Piazza grande

Pieve di Santa Maria

Pieve di Santa Maria


Tower, Piazza Grande

Tower, Piazza Grande

Although we didn't get to see it at its best, Arezzo seems like a lovely town to spend more time - it has the requisite historic centre, old town walls and gates, scads of churches and a unique piazza where they had just held an annual jousting festival...we only saw the stands and remaining dirt/mud in the piazza, but it would be impressive to see everyone in medieval garb and horses charging along the raised runway like so:
Giostro del saracino (Saracen Joust

Giostro del saracino (Saracen Joust

Arezzo

Arezzo

Duomo

Duomo

Corso italia and tower of Pieve di Santa Maria

Corso italia and tower of Pieve di Santa Maria


Arezzo palazzo

Arezzo palazzo

We left Arezzo just as the rain really came down, and headed south to spend the next three nights in the atmospheric town of Montepulciano to continue our daytripping from there.

Posted by hdparker 07:29 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tuscany towns - Day One

Keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel...

rain 16 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Towers of San Gimignano

Towers of San Gimignano

We covered some ground over the next six days. About 1200 Kms, actually. Not including Milan and Florence, we visited 21 towns and cities in Tuscany and Umbria. Many were small and only took an hour or so to explore. And the driving takes focus since the roads are quite winding and not nearly as wide as those we are used to in North America - but you can drive on the same side. So it was a relative breeze compared to last year's drive around Southern Ireland- definitely had more confidence after having driven on the opposite side of roads with stone walls instead of shoulders.

Plus, we were lucky to have fairly empty roads once we were off the main freeways - no impatient queues behind me, as locals just zipped past regardless of speed limit (or a clear view ahead). And once I got used to the clutch, and learned how to find reverse (special trick we also don't have to deal with in North America) we were on our way.

The first foray took us from Siena to the north, first to San Gimignano which is a medieval hill town famous for its 'skyscrapers'. Only a few of the originals still survive.

Entering San Gimignano

Entering San Gimignano


Torri Salvucci (twin towers)

Torri Salvucci (twin towers)

Surviving tower

Surviving tower


San Gimignano 'main street'

San Gimignano 'main street'


Courtyard - Palazzo del Popolo

Courtyard - Palazzo del Popolo

Courtyard - Palazzo del Popolo

Courtyard - Palazzo del Popolo


San Gimignano side street

San Gimignano side street


View from San Gimignano

View from San Gimignano

Tuscan landscape from San Gimignano

Tuscan landscape from San Gimignano

It was market day so we trawled through racks of clothes, tables of shoes and handbags, and found a few good bargains (10 Euro for a dress, 20 for new sandals since I'd worn out another pair by this point).
We had covered most of the town but had to dash when a wicked downpour hit. We moved down the road a few miles to the next town, Colle de Val d'Elsa, but it found us there not long after.

Colle de Val d'Elsa

Colle de Val d'Elsa

Our last stop on the way back to Siena was the tiny walled village of Monteriggioni. It looks most impressive in this aerial shot I found:
Aerial view of Monteriggioni

Aerial view of Monteriggioni

It was so petite, we could walk between its two main gates in about two minutes. Dante apparently took inspiration from the town when writing his Inferno. But it seemed a perfectly quaint little berg to me...

Medieval gate - Porta Fiorentina

Medieval gate - Porta Fiorentina

Monteriggioni church and town well

Monteriggioni church and town well

Monteriggioni door

Monteriggioni door

Monteriggioni

Monteriggioni

Posted by hdparker 07:54 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Double shot of Duomo - Milan and Siena

semi-overcast 18 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

We arrived to a rainy Milan - bit of a shock after the heat of Greece. We had just two nights there before heading to Tuscany, so walking and some shopping (plus risotto and gelato) were on the agenda. We didn't get in to see Leonardo's Last Supper - it's quite jammed in the summer months and there doesn't seem to be any chance of last minute spots as they strictly limit entry (not sure why when the mural is apparently already very deteriorated).

The rain subsided for our first evening, and we wandered around the Piazza Duomo.

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

That night was the first Italy game of the World Cup group stage and a huge crowd was on hand to watch it on a massive screen beside the church. We had dinner behind the Duomo, and came back to the piazza just as Italy scored their only goal of the tie game. Very cool to be in the midst of the excitement - unfortunately it was the only opportunity since they lost their next two and never made it to the finals. But Italians we asked were not that surprised, even though the media made it out as a huge upset.

The next day we toured the inside of the Duomo then climbed to the roof to admire the view.

Duomo - north side

Duomo - north side

Duomo details

Duomo details

Piazza Duomo - Madonna billboard opposite the cathedral

Piazza Duomo - Madonna billboard opposite the cathedral

Big screen - Piazza Duomo

Big screen - Piazza Duomo

Duomo detail

Duomo detail

Duomo view toward Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II

Duomo view toward Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II

The designer shopping mecca, Piazza Duomo has a covered glass and iron roofed Galleria, very similar to (but more ornate than)the one we saw in Naples a few years ago called Galleria Umberto. This one has Prada, Gucci (with its own coffee bar), Louis Vuitton...and McDonalds.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II - Prada to the left, LV to the right

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II - Prada to the left, LV to the right

From Milan, we took the train south to Siena - it was our base for the next three days for the first part of our week driving around Tuscany. Highlights were the main square (Il Campo) with its city hall and impressive tower (Torre de Mangia) and its own much older Duomo, by far my favourite of the many we saw.
Torre del Mangia and Palazzo Pubblico (town hall)

Torre del Mangia and Palazzo Pubblico (town hall)

Il Campo

Il Campo

Torre del Mangia from inside Palazzo Pubblico

Torre del Mangia from inside Palazzo Pubblico

The Duomo di Siena is striking both inside and out, with its striped green-black marble and works by Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo. Plus, it has a fantastic bonus room: the Piccolomini Library, whose walls and ceiling are covered with vibrant frescoes, and several bookcases display well-preserved illuminated psalters of the cathedral.

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Duomo detail

Duomo detail

Duomo

Duomo

Duomo detail

Duomo detail

Duomo

Duomo

Duomo

Duomo

Piccolomini Library - Three Graces statue

Piccolomini Library - Three Graces statue

Frescoes - Piccolomini Library

Frescoes - Piccolomini Library

Frescoes - Piccolomini Library

Frescoes - Piccolomini Library

Duomo - Piccolomini Library

Duomo - Piccolomini Library

Illuminated psalter - Piccolomini Library

Illuminated psalter - Piccolomini Library

We had the first of some fantastic Tuscan meals in Siena, especially dishes with porcini mushrooms that were highly addictive. The town is interesting to explore, and our hotel was well placed just inside the old city wall giving us lovely countryside views from our room and the rooftop, and somewhat easier for parking our rental car - an interesting challenge in itself.

Siena street

Siena street

Evening from our hotel rooftop

Evening from our hotel rooftop

View from our room

View from our room

Posted by hdparker 15:31 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Santorini & Crete

sunny 30 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

We ferried south from Mykonos and arrived on Santorini in time for a sunset. The island is what's left of an exploded volcano, and the main towns cling dramatically to the highest edges of the caldera.

santorinimap.gif

We stayed in Fira, but found it very easy to visit most of the other towns either on foot or by local bus. Our hotel was of the smart, boutique variety just across the way from the caldera side of Fira which demands a hefty premium (but worth it if you are on a honeymoon or anniversary holiday...or you are Brangelina. But meals and drinks are a more reasonable splurge and we had some great food (especially grilled squid) while watching the sunset.

Fira town, Santorini

Fira town, Santorini


Fira

Fira

Our first full day, we explored the lanes and shops of Fira then found ourselves on the cliff walk between Fira and the next towns to the north called Firostefani and Imerovigli. Both are small and spill down the cliff face - mostly small hotels and a few restaurants and mini-markets plus more churches (apparently there are around 250 on they tiny island of just over 10,000 residents).

View from Imerovigli towards Fira

View from Imerovigli towards Fira

Caldera view

Caldera view

Imerovigli

Imerovigli

Firostefani and Imerovigli

Firostefani and Imerovigli

Firostefani church

Firostefani church

Santorini church

Santorini church

The next day, after some morning pool time, we spent the afternoon and evening in Oia, at the north end of the island - doubly famous as the location of the Greek wedding scene at the beginning of Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life and as one of the rare locations I actually succumbed to a photo of myself on this journey :-)

Breezy view over Oia

Breezy view over Oia

Oia seemed a bit smaller than Fira, and surely quieter in the evenings once the cruises have moved on but it is full of quaint little churches and incredible views in every direction.

Oia

Oia


Oia church

Oia church


Cliffhanging in the caldera

Cliffhanging in the caldera


Oia windmill

Oia windmill


Oia pastels

Oia pastels


More Oia churches

More Oia churches


Oia church

Oia church


Oia church

Oia church


Oia rooftop

Oia rooftop

They claim the sunsets are most spectacular at this part of the island, so we stayed for dinner to find out. A small harbour about 300 steps down the cliff face give us lots of options (and of course a killer climb back up to wear it off). Definitely a must-visit location but the sunset was just as beautiful in Fira too.

Dinner and drinks at the harbour

Dinner and drinks at the harbour


Ammoudi waterfront

Ammoudi waterfront


Ammoudi harbour

Ammoudi harbour


Sunset from Ammoudi

Sunset from Ammoudi

Day three we bussed across the narrow island to Kamari to spend the afternoon on the black sand beach.

More pebbly than sandy, it was full of sunbeds and umbrellas but reasonably quiet. The town was much like beach villages anywhere - a nice spot but not particularly memorable.

Kamari - Black sand beach

Kamari - Black sand beach

We spotted a group of Australians from our hotel, who were also on our bus back later on. Then we saw them again the next day waiting for the bus back from another beach excursion, this time to the smaller but stunning red volcanic rock beach.

Hiking into the Red beach

Hiking into the Red beach


IMG_1560.jpg
IMG_1561.jpg

So we finally chatted with them - it was a group of family and friends celebrating a few joint birthdays in Greece.
And we ran into them yet again at dinner, so we had a good laugh about stalking then met for drinks later. We got some tips about Tuscany and some enlightenment about the World Cup which had kicked off that afternoon - we'd quickly get caught up in it along the rest of the trip.

On Santorini we also met a local jeweler/winemaker (what a combination!) when Diane bought herself a gorgeous silver cross from him one evening. Kostas treated us to some of his wine and snacks (olives, feta, tomatoes, mushroom pie and rusks) and we had a friendly chat with him and his friends from the neighbouring shops. We came back again the next night during a post-dinner stroll - not so much for the wine as it was the sort of extremely dry white wine that doesn't do it for me. (On a side note, I was interested to see the vineyards are all low-lying clusters of plants, rather than a trellis system, and they don't appear to use irrigation - very low maintenance compared to the meticulous process I saw in Argentina.)

Santorini vineyard

Santorini vineyard

We were invited to come up to the winery on our last night as there was a wedding happening. We considered it but decided it would be a bit awkward to crash some Americans' dream wedding reception and dinner...but if it had been a Greek family he knew, different story! Instead we enjoyed our final sunset in Fira.

IMG_1548.jpg

Our last stop in Greece was Elounda Bay on the island of Crete. Apparently it is a luxury playground, and it is beautiful but was quite dead - especially after Mykonos and Santorini. The only hints of its reputation being true were the fur shops - quite a few of them (one called Canada Furs, even) despite the 30 degree weather - and a few high-end jewellery shops. The combination of economic crisis and negative media coverage about Greek were definitely hurting this area more than the first islands we visited. And scenically, the bar was exceptionally high so we felt a bit underwhelmed, unfortunately.

Main beach, Agios Nikolaos, Crete

Main beach, Agios Nikolaos, Crete

Crystal clear Elounda Bay

Crystal clear Elounda Bay

Cretan church

Cretan church

Agios Nikolaos harbour, Crete

Agios Nikolaos harbour, Crete

Lake Voulismeni in Ag Nik

Lake Voulismeni in Ag Nik

We only had two hot sunny days on Crete, then we were on our way back through Athens and onward to Italy.

Posted by hdparker 14:25 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Unexpected, unforgettable Mykonos

sunny 24 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

View from our balcony over Mykonos town

View from our balcony over Mykonos town

Our ferry from Athens arrived mid-morning on a gorgeous clear blue day. Our cute little hotel was perched above Mykonos town and harbour giving us a spectacular view - and a serious workout coming back and forth a few times a day!

'Shortcut' stairs down into town

'Shortcut' stairs down into town

Our five day stay on Mykonos was like a homecoming in an alternate universe. Strange yet somehow familiar at the same time. Within barely a day we met and were embraced by the part-time islander community of shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and waiters - none of them locals but just there for the tourist season. As the old saying goes, they were not strangers but friends we hadn’t yet met.

That Mykonos is stunningly beautiful goes without saying - postcard-perfect charm.

Local colour

Local colour

Quiet side street

Quiet side street

Lovely lanes

Lovely lanes

Mykonos town

Mykonos town

Mykonos town

Mykonos town

Mykonos harbour

Mykonos harbour

'Little Venice'

'Little Venice'

Windmills from Little Venice waterfront

Windmills from Little Venice waterfront

Mykonos windmills

Mykonos windmills

One of 16 windmills on the island

One of 16 windmills on the island

'Little Venice'

'Little Venice'

So many churches...

So many churches...

Church of Panagia Paraportiani

Church of Panagia Paraportiani

Side door

Side door

Classic Mykonos whites and blues

Classic Mykonos whites and blues

Beyond the great scenery, unusual things seemed to happen at every turn. While having dinner one night, we saw Brian Orser and his husband - then a few hours later at a different restaurant we met one of his ex-lovers from Vancouver who works on the island…and who dragged us out to stalk Brian first at a great little piano bar then at a club called Jackie O’s. We never found him, but the night was quite memorable nonetheless.

We watched a humongous pelican waddle casually past a crowd of amazed diners and ogling tourists. We drank new and delicious liqueurs (mastika and tentura) from erotically shaped bottles which we shared with Italians, Greeks, Albanians and even another Canadian. We also got a few tastes of European nationalism, hearing how the Greeks don’t like the Albanians, the Italians don’t like the Greeks, and the Albanians don’t like the Italians or the Greeks.

By the last day we had almost managed to get our bearings amid the winding, whitewashed lanes - the map was hopeless since it showed street names using the Roman alphabet while signs (when we could find them) were in Greek. But we found our way back to the hotel, even if it was later and later as the days went by. We did have one day of heavy rains which gave way to spectactular sunsets but rough skies the next day when we ventured around the island to check out the beach at Plati Gialos (one of the tamer beaches).
Unsettled sunset

Unsettled sunset

After the storm

After the storm


We still got plenty of sun by our hotel pool and our lovely patio at the end of the day before meeting up with our new friends in the evenings. Definitely one of those trips that you could never replicate since the people really made the experience unforgettable. But we were ready to downshift and recuperate a bit on Santorini for the next few days.

Our room with a view

Our room with a view

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Ancient Athens

sunny 30 °C
View A bit of a wander on hdparker's travel map.

Parthenon from our hotel rooftop bar

Parthenon from our hotel rooftop bar


I admit I was a little nervous about Greece, not knowing any of the language or even their alphabet. It took me several days before the signage didn't unsettle me out - I kept trying to make out something familiar but it was of course hopeless. However, everyone we met had an excellent grasp of English so we had no problems getting around in Athens or the islands (map navigation excepted - more about that on Mykonos).

Diane and I met up at our hotel in Athens late on May 30th, then had two full days to explore the highlights. It was the perfect amount of time, particularly as our hotel was right below the major highlight, the Acropolis. We had amazing views from the bar on the roof, and had great service as well - an unspoken 'buy 1 get 1 free' on the wine. (The free drinks thing became a nice recurring theme while in Greece.)

Acropolis from Ancient Agora ruins

Acropolis from Ancient Agora ruins


Acropolis Entry gate detail (Propylaea)

Acropolis Entry gate detail (Propylaea)

Parthenon under reconstruction

Parthenon under reconstruction


The Parthenon and surrounding buildings are under restoration and reconstruction of the original bits, including the frieze that encircled the top edge of the temple. On the various ruins of the Acropolis you can see lighter colour blocks that have been installed to bring it back to a more complete state.

White sections are replacement pieces

White sections are replacement pieces

Some original pieces are now on display in the New Acropolis Museum down below the Acropolis (how long before it's no longer 'new'?) along with plaster replicas of the contentious collection known as the Elgin Marbles (Lord Elgin carted off loads of them in the 1800s then sold them to the British Museum). Interestingly, the Greeks have carefully neutral descriptions in their museum about the pieces that were taken to England in the early 1800s, whereas the British Museum's plaques argue a bit defensively that they wouldn't exist in their current state if not for their removal and protection abroad. (Having just had another look at them, I would have to agree they are in good shape compared to some of those that stayed behind.) At any rate, all existing originals and replicas are now displayed in correct order in the topmost gallery of the Acropolis museum and oriented the same direction as they were when still attached to the Parthenon.

Partially reconstructed Parthenon east pediment - original sculptures now in the British Museum

Partially reconstructed Parthenon east pediment - original sculptures now in the British Museum


New Acropolis Museum behind ruins of Theatre of Dionysos

New Acropolis Museum behind ruins of Theatre of Dionysos


Theatre of Dionysos

Theatre of Dionysos

One of the smaller temples of the Acropolis is even more beautiful - the Erechtheion from around 400 BC.
Erechtheion temple - south side

Erechtheion temple - south side

Closeup of the ladies (Caryatids) - 5 originals in the new museum, one in London

Closeup of the ladies (Caryatids) - 5 originals in the new museum, one in London


Me and the ladies

Me and the ladies

Working on the Erechtheion restoration

Working on the Erechtheion restoration

Erechtheion temple detail

Erechtheion temple detail

Temple of Zeus from Acropolis

Temple of Zeus from Acropolis

Our hotel was also right across the street from the Temple of Olympian Zeus - now just a handful of colossal columns. The visual effect was startling with buses, trams and endless traffic buzzing along so close by the ruins. It was once a massive temple of over 100 columns.

Temple of Olympian Zeus with Acropolis beyond

Temple of Olympian Zeus with Acropolis beyond

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus


Hadrian's Arch, facing Temple of Zeus

Hadrian's Arch, facing Temple of Zeus

The area below the Acropolis to the north is dotted with other ruins including a beautiful little Byzantine church, Hadrian's library and the ancient Roman Agora - with the Plaka and Monastiraki neighbourhoods winding around them for lots of shopping, drinking and dining diversions. And, unusually, lots of large, sleeping dogs everywhere. Not wild, not mangy, just dead tired apparently.

Byzantine era Church of the Holy Apostles in ruins of Roman Agora - oldest in Athens from around 1000 AD

Byzantine era Church of the Holy Apostles in ruins of Roman Agora - oldest in Athens from around 1000 AD

Our last night we ventured out to a little harbour area full of restaurants and bars called Mikrolimano, near the port of Piraeus where we would catch our ferry to Mykonos the next morning. It was off the tourist track and/or a quiet night so we were hassled a bit by the owners to come try their menus as we surveyed our options. But we found a great little place right on the water - fish were jumping literally right beside our table - and had some tasty seafood in a funky restaurant - I would share the name but it was all Greek to me.

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