Tag Archives: citybreak

Day trip from Tallinn: exploring Tartu

Estonia isn’t just Tallinn, so I thought I’d pick a town from the map and go on a day trip!

Well, the thought process was a bit more complex and involved a Google search for “day trip from Tallinn” but overall the decision was relatively quick, after checking that there would be public transport the following day and that travel time would be reasonable. Sadly, the weather forecast announced rain and snow, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

So Tartu here I come!
Located 2 hours from Tallinn by train, Tartu is the oldest town in the Baltic States, the second largest town in Estonia and the home of one of the oldest Universities in Northern Europe (dating back to 1632). It is associated with young love, intellectual inquiry, bohemian parties and cosy cafes. Not bad, right?

The town is quite compact and you’ll probably see all interesting sights in half a day – which is what I did, starting from churches and historic buildings, then onto semi-derelict houses and various sculptures, plus some unexpected street art. And stopping every now and then to drink ‘must kohv’ (black coffee).

The main University building, built at the beginning of the 19th century, stands out thanks to its striking neoclassical style. As I walked past, I couldn’t help sneaking inside and checking out a few halls and exhibitions.

Around the corner is the Town Hall Square: this is the central square and since 1998 it has been adorned by the fountain of the Kissing Students, one of the landmarks of Tartu. On a rainy day the square doesn’t look particularly appealing but it’s supposed to be very lively in the summer.

Jaani Kirik (St. John’s Church) is an example of brick Gothic architecture and offers the opportunity of a panoramic view of Tartu, if you are willing to climb the short tower.

Tired of buildings? Why not just walking around then? The streets of Tartu are dotted with several sculptures and statues, from the most well-known ‘Father and Son’ to a number of lesser known ones.

One of them will cheer up your spirit: as you come out of the train station (or as you are going back in) you will come across this

Outside Tartu station

If this doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what will ;-)

Tallinn: beyond the Old Town

There is a lot more to Tallinn than just the Old Town, and it’s quite easy to go around by public transport or on foot (or a combination of the two).

On the far east, but easily reached with a 35-minute journey by bus 34A (which offers nice views of the coastline), is the TV Tower or Teletorn.  At 314 m, this is the tallest building in Estonia and a well-known attraction thanks to its viewing platform and the panoramic 360-degree views over the city. Well worth a visit, even if you are not going to take part in a race up the stairs like I did!

TV Tower – Teletorn

Coming back towards the Old Town (but still on the eastern side), you will encounter the Kadriorg district. The main draw of the area are Kadriorg Palace, a Baroque palace now turned into an art museum, and Kadriorg Park, the largest park in central Tallin. When I visited, a white sprinkle of snow made a nice contrast with the red colour of the palace and the ground.

Nearby is the Kumu Art Museum, the main building of the Art Museum of Estonia, as well as the largest and most impressive exhibition venue in Estonia. I spent a couple of hours visiting the permanent and temporary exhibitions, admiring the quality of the artwork – this is a must see!

Past the Old Town (and on the north-western side) lies the Creative City of Telliskivi. This is Estonia’s biggest creative economic enterprise centre. I wandered around for some time as I was fascinated by the beautiful street art that decorated every wall in the area.

Street art in Telliskivi

Further north towards the coast is the Kalamaja district, which used to be home to fishermen and fishmongers and is characterised by colourful pastel wooden houses. This is a great area for some photography (better on a sunny day, though…)!

I also recommend heading to the shore and go for a seaside walk – I did it when it was -1C and it was still enjoyable despite the freezing air. Don’t forget to stop at the market and sample some delicacies!

Tallinn: the Old Town

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia located on the shore of the Baltic Sea, is a beautiful city that is growing more and more popular as tourist destination in Europe.
Its Old Town is one of the best preserved Hanseatic town centres in the world and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1997. Its medieval charm of cobblestone lanes, iron street lamps, and Gothic buildings is undeniable. Its vibrant feel of bars and cafes adds to the appeal.

My Tallinn experience started on a sunny day in April, enjoying a typical Estonian meal in the Town Hall Square (the hub of the Old Town) while checking out the map and planning my afternoon. On my left, the Town Hall, a beautiful Gothic building built in 1402-1404. On my right, a series of grandiose houses mainly turned into restaurants and cafes.

Town Hall Square

I didn’t know then that my discovery of Tallinn would continue in not-so-pleasant weather conditions the following days (hence the mix of good/bad weather photos), but this is another story….

The Old Town is surrounded by well preserved fortifications with high and thick walls, guard towers and gates visible in many parts of town. As I started wandering down the cobblestone lanes on day 1, I was more and more drawn into the medieval atmosphere.

Churches are certainly not disappointing: visit St. Olaf’s Church – a 14th century Gothic church – the world’s highest building from 1549 to 1625. Nowadays, a climb up the 258 steps of its spiral staircase will give you the opportunity to enjoy great views from the top.

View from the top of St. Olaf’s Church tower

Unrelated to medieval times but worth a visit are the KGB Prison Cells: formerly the KGB headquarters and a symbol of the former Soviet oppression in Estonia, this building has been open for visitors since 2017.  Inside there is a small exhibition about the crimes against humanity committed here.

Toompea Hill, the upper part of the Old Town and connected to the Lower Town by two streets, is where many Estonian government institutions are located. Toompea Castle, with its Pikk Hermann tower, originally built in 1371 and reconstructed in 1500, has been the seat of power in Estonia since Medieval times and nowadays houses the Parliament.

Across from the castle is St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a classic example of Orthodox tradition, with its onion-shaped domes. I really loved its colours, particularly striking against the vivid blue sky of my first day in Tallinn.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

As you walk down the hill you will encounter a couple of observation platforms that offer amazing views of the Old Town.

Panoramic view of the Old Town

Back in the Lower Town, keep wandering around and down every lane, as each one of them has peculiar traits, beautiful houses and quirky shops.

Do not miss St. Catherine’s Passage (Katariina käik), the most picturesque of all lanes, especially at night: this is a must see!

And whilst you are here, the night time view of the Town Hall is equally stunning!

Town Hall by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warsaw in two days: Day 2

My second day in Warsaw started with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), the highest building in Poland (231m) and centre of several cultural activities. Teenagers on school trips crowded the ground floor while the majority of other tourists seemed to head straight towards the lift to the viewing terrace located on the 30th floor. From there, the view over the city and the growing number of high-rise buildings is an interesting way to witness the changing skyline of the Polish capital.

 Outside the building I stumbled across a stark reminder of the sad history of Warsaw and Poland: boundary lines mark the ground perimeter of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all Jewish ghettos during World War II.

Boundary markers of the Warsaw Ghetto walls

Sudden memories of me aged 10 and reading a book about kids in the Warsaw Ghetto came back. I wanted to go and see what’s left today.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the Germans in 1940 and, split into a “large” and a “small” ghetto, locked 350,000 people identified as Jews behind its walls until May 1943. The harsh life conditions in the Ghetto and the day-to-day activities of its inhabitants were recorded in detail in the Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum.

Nowadays one of the best preserved fragments of the Ghetto wall remains at 55 Sienna Street, not far from PKiN. Other small memorials can be found around the same area.

After the Ghetto area, it was time to dig deeper into history so I headed to the Warsaw Rising Museum. Opened in 2004 and split over several levels, this largely interactive museum covers the chronology of the events of the 1944 Uprising. This was a resistance operation attempting at liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. But it didn’t end well: after 63 days the city capitulated and the German acts of destruction continued, with large parts of the city flattened to the ground.
Give yourself 2-3 hours to visit the museum and learn about the many aspects of the Uprising.

My last bit of sightseeing in Warsaw involved catching the metro to reach the Eastern side of the city and explore Praga. This working class district is now regarded as up-and-coming and is quite in contrast with the main tourist areas of Western Warsaw. Rundown estate blocks, flashy shopping centres, alternative nightlife, unusual museums, all characterise Praga.
Worth a longer visit next time.

Warsaw in two days: Day 1

 In the morning, I ventured out in the streets of Warsaw wearing multiple layers of clothing. I was determined not to let the freezing cold (temperatures around -7C!) stop my sense of adventure and interest in discovering a new destination.

Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the most well-known streets of Warsaw, a wide avenue with large pedestrian areas and flanked by elegant palaces, churches and townhouses. As I reached it arriving from the east side of town, I saw the first of many Warsaw landmarks: the Copernicus monument that stands outside the Polish Academy of Sciences. Walking around the square I spotted a curious sign of contemporary times: QR codes labelled “take a selfie with Chopin” on a bench! It seems that there is a whole app on the relevant online app stores….

Next in the line of Krakowskie Przedmiescie’s monumental buildings as I enjoyed my stroll towards the Old Town (with a large cup of hot coffee to warm me up), were the church of Kościół Rzymskokatolicki Wizytek and the Presidential Palace, the largest palace in Warsaw.

Just before entering the old town, I made my way up to the viewing platform next to St. Anne’s church. This is a great spot for a view over the whole Old Town and its cobbled streets and houses in pastel colours.
Built during the 12th-13th centuries, the Old Town (or Stare Miasto) was destroyed by the German Army after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Subsequently rebuilt using most of the original material, it has been awarded UNESCO recognition and is now the most popular destination for tourists visiting the Polish capital.

The Old Town is worth spending a few hours just wandering around. Start from Castle Square and explore the labyrinth of cobbled streets, admire the houses with beautifully coloured and adorned facades, head to Market Square, stop by in one of the many arts and crafts stores to buy some traditional products. Cafes and restaurants abound too, and every now and then you may want to rest your legs (or warm up, if you go in winter!) and sample local food and drinks. I certainly did!

I couldn’t leave the Old Town without visiting the Royal Castle: one of the landmarks of Warsaw, this beautiful building has a long history as it was the residence of the Polish monarchs for several centuries. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, then painstakingly rebuilt, it  now serves as a museum and several rooms can be visited over a couple of hours.

A short walk from the Old Town was Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Not a happy place, quite oppressing at times, but something not to be missed if you want to better understand the sad history of Poland.

The Holocaust section felt claustrophobic compared to the rest of the museum: low ceilings, grey walls, narrow passages – the sense of anguish increases as you walk through. Pictures of Jews in concentration camps plastered the walls. Extracts from the Warsaw Ghetto Diaries featured everywhere.
Then World War II ends and the exhibition lightens up a bit. But the Holocaust can’t be forgotten.

More on this in my next post.

Setting foot on Polish land

When I was (much) younger, Poland to me meant a random combination of Holocaust, Pope John Paul II, Solidarność, and Zbigniew Boniek.
And Polish was that unpronounceable language with strange tails and slashes across letters, and an ‘l’ (technically, ł) sounding like the English ‘w’.

Over the years, it never felt these were good enough reasons to push the country to the top of my travel wishlist.
But things were about to change.

With a sport race scheduled in Warsaw on a winter Saturday evening, it was time to give this country a proper chance. And a long weekend in the Polish capital was added to my diary.

Cheap airline flight booked, bag packed, GBP turned into złoty (even though Poland is a member state of the European Union, it has its own currency) – Poland, you are about to become my country nr. 45!

Modlin airport in Warsaw – one of the two airports in the capital – is well served by public transport (bus and train) as well as taxis. Modlin Bus takes you to the city centre in just under an hour and for 35 złoty. From the stop at the Palace of Culture you can then reach your final destination on foot or by catching the city metro (two lines, M1 and M2) or another bus or a tram (info here).

I opted for the bus. Walking 2.5Km with my carry-on suitcase in a freezing -2C didn’t sound too appealing.
A couple of hours later I warmed myself up with my first taste of Polish traditional food: barszcz and pierogi! And I started drafting my itinerary on a map.

More to come on this trip :-)

Utrecht: a winter wonderland

My last trip to Utrecht was about 20 years ago. It was summer, a hot summer.
This time I spent a day or so in a winter wonderland!

But it didn’t start as such. As I walked around in the morning, having arrived the previous afternoon, there was just a handful of flakes floating in the  air. While my friends were posting Facebook photos of London covered in snow, I was freezing but there were hardly any signs of an impending storm. Quite disappointing.

Fear not, must have been the thought of the gods of weather!
Two hours later I was in the middle of a snow storm, with the wind howling (think “Frozen”!) and an increasing amount of white on every surface! Soon Utrecht was looking like a town from a fairy tale.

When I felt too cold from the walking around, I entered the cathedral (Domkerk in Dutch) and I spent some time enjoying the Gothic architecture and the beautiful stained glass. Interesting fact is that most of this church collapsed in 1674 due to the force of a tornado and was never rebuilt. What remains today are the choir, the transept and the church tower.

The church tower (Dom Toren) is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. 112.5m, 465 steps. Guided tours from the nearby tourist office take you to the top in around one hour and for Euro 9. The tower is not the easiest thing to stair climb when it’s so cold and the steps are made slippery by snow and ice, and you soon find yourself praying that you won’t fall. Yet the view from the top is worth the effort and the risk!

I spent the rest of the afternoon with an old (and great) friend I hadn’t seen in almost two decades: shopping, sitting at a cafe’ drinking hot chocolate and eating cakes, chatting. Then I tried the traditional “oliebollen”, sort of deep fried dumplings with sultanas and covered in powdered sugar. Yummie!

The darkness in the evening made everything very atmospheric and pictoresque, and the last few photos were taken before I returned to my hostel.

A day in Bratislava

Bratislava wasn’t at the top of my travel wishlist.
It was there somewhere but it was lagging behind some very strong competitors.

Then suddenly it climbed to the top. Unexpectedly. A dark horse. Thanks to the  UFO Tower, its 430 steps and an international race I wanted to take part in.
And on a mild September weekend I found myself in the Slovakian capital, ready to tackle a stair challenge as well as  explore a new destination.

Slovakia Bratislava "UFO Tower"
UFO Tower

Bratislava – one of the smallest capitals in Europe – gained its capital city status when the Slovak Republic became an independent state on 1 January 1993.
Small but intriguing, I found it really pleasant to visit. With its medieval centre, its narrow cobbled streets and plenty of historic buildings, Bratislava offers many opportunities for your sightseeing day.

Hlavne namestie (main square) is a good starting point for your Bratislava mini-adventure: considered the centre of the city, this square features landmarks such as the Old Town Hall and Roland’s Fountain. I especially loved the fountain at night: the changing lights, with shades from red to green to blue, made it a very magical place!

Do you like wandering around without a set itinerary, like I do? Then lose yourself in the meandering streets, explore the city and its history, try the street cafes, discover the quirky arts and crafts shops, enjoy the views over the River Danube. There is so much to enjoy in such a small place!

And how can I forget Bratislava castle?! Perched on the top of a hill, what we see now is a 1950’s reconstruction of Emperor Sigismund’s fifteenth-century castle, which burnt down in 1811. The box-shaped building and its four towers are particularly fascinating at night. The views over the city and the Danube are something not to miss!

My time in Bratislava was limited so I didn’t get to visit buildings  or museums properly but I definitely recommend this city.

By the way, for those of you who want to enjoy panoramic views of the Slovakian capital from the UFO tower, you won’t need to climb 430 steps: there is a lift that will take you all the way to the top!

Athens Day 3

This was my last full day (+night) in the city. Not tired of walking, I spent the day exploring more of the city on foot. This included a walk up Lycabettus hill (or Mount Lycabettus), the highest point of Athens!

Here are the highlights of the day:

#National Gardens
Located behind the Parliament building, this is a peaceful area where to relax away from the main tourist crowds. I actually visited these gardens on two consecutive days as I really enjoyed walking around and exploring!

#Panathenaic Stadium
I loved it! This is the site of the opening and closing ceremony of the 1896 Olympics and it was also a venue for the Olympics in 2004. Entirely made of marble and with very steep steps, it requires a bit of caution when walking up and down after heavy rain but once you are at the highest point the feeling is amazing! You can also have your photo taken at the podium that is located at ground level.

#Lycabettus hill (Mount Lycabettus)
This is the highest point in Athens and its top can be reached on foot or by using a funicular. St George’s Chapel is located at the top and offers a good viewing point to the rest of the city. The wind can be very strong here so be warned!

#Piraeus
Only a 15-min metro journey from Monastiraki lies Piraeus, largest passenger port in Europe and second largest in the world. I went because I wanted to see the port and enjoy the sunset by the sea on my last night in Athens. The sky was cloudy but the colours were still beautiful!

 

Athens Day 2

My top tip for Athens is: base yourself in the Monastiraki area! This is THE hub. Excellent transport connections to the rest of the city, reasonable walking distance to most tourist sites (I walked pretty much everywhere), plenty of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, plenty of bars for a good night out. And I just loved walking around in the evening, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from below and of the streets full of people. Yes, there are a few dodgy individuals around the train station but, as long as you are not there on your own in the middle of the night, concern should be minimal.

So my second day in Athens started by exploring the area further, and here are some photos.

#Psiri
Next I explored the Psiri district. I spent a lot of time there, fascinated by the rundown buildings, the huge amount of street art (more in another post) and the flea markets.

#Ancient Agora
This is the best known example of an ancient Greek agora, and it remained in use either as an assembly, as a commercial, or as a residential area for about 5000 years. Restoration of this area has been minimal. The highlights are the Temple of Hephaestus,  the best preserved ancient Greek temple from the Classical era, and the Stoa of Attalos, a building of the Hellenistic period that was rebuilt from the ground up based on its ancient appearance.

#Kerameikos
This is the ancient cemetery of Athens and is one of the least visited sites in the city, despite its importance and beauty. Archaeological excavations in Kerameikos started in 1870 and so far archaeologists have found columns of temples, marble statues, remains of public buildings, funeral offerings and thousands of tombs. I spent well over an hour wandering around the area and I definitely recommend a visit.

#Syntagma Square and Parliament
Syntagma Square is the most important square of modern Athens from both a historical and social point of view. In recent years (2010-2012) this square became the site of mass protests related to the economic situation of the Greek government-debt.
At the top of Syntagma Square you’ll find the Parliament building. Crowds gather outside every day to watch the Evzones, the elite soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier as well as the Presidential palace. While the main ceremony of the changing of the guard is held on a Sunday morning (this is when the traditional white kilts are worn), hourly changing of the guards occur every day on weekdays too. I watched these a couple of times and found them quite entertaining.