Tag Archives: history

Prague: The Castle and Malá Strana

As you walk across the 14th-century Charles Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe and a landmark of Prague, the castle complex and mainly the two towers of St. Vitus Cathedral will catch your attention.

Prague castle: The largest ancient castle in the world, you can easily spend half day exploring this complex, made of several buildings. The Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most important church in the country, is stunningly beautiful. I could have stayed in for hours admiring the stained glass windows and the lines of the vaults. I then wandered into the Old Royal Palace, with its multitude of diverse rooms, and the Basilica of St.George, the oldest surviving church building in the castle complex. The Story of Prague Castle permanent exhibition has a very interesting collection of items related to the history of the castle, as well as photographs and informative panels. The last section included in the full tourist ticket for the castle complex (ticket A, 350 ) is Golden Lane, a street originally built in the 16th century and whose houses are now mainly souvenir shops.

The district south of the castle is called Malá Strana (usually translated as Lesser Town) and is characterised by baroque buildings and colourful shops.

One of the most beautiful sights in Malá Strana is St.Nicholas Church, with its distinctive dome. Built between 1704-1755, this church features beautiful stained glasses and frescoes. The main fresco is currently under restoration but the church is definitely worth a visit.

Petřín hill: Covered in parks, it is a nice place to relax. You can reach the top via a funicular railway or, as I did, you can walk up the hill using the various paths and stairs. The Petřín lookout tower at the top of the hill is a 63.5-metre-tall steel-framework tower built in 1891 and resembling the Eiffel tower. Initially used as an observation tower as well as a transmission tower, it is now a tourist attraction. You can easily climb its 299 steps to the top for a 360-degree view over Prague. Next to the tower don’t miss a visit to the Mirror Maze for a bit of entertainment: the mirror images can be quite funny!

At the base of Petřín hill is the Memorial to the victims of Communism, a group of seven bronze statues that commemorates the victims of the communist era 1948-1989.
A few minutes away is the so-called John Lennon wall: supposedly a tribute to John Lennon, this wall covered in colourful graffiti and writings mainly from fans has little artistic quality and there are much better graffiti elsewhere in Prague (and in many other cities). Worth checking out if you want to tick the box, but not much else.

You can then return to Staré Město crossing the Legion’s bridge (most Legií) for more views of Charles Bridge and the Castle from the distance.

 

Prague: Exploring the Old Town

If you don’t like crowds, you may want to visit the Old Town in Prague early in the morning. At any other time you may have to wade through the masses and even elbow your way out in the area by the astronomical clock.

But don’t let this put you off!
The Old Town (Staré Město in Czech) is beautiful and you will want to spend some time exploring it.

The Old Town Square, the centre of the Old Town, is surrounded by beautiful and colourful buildings. The towers of the Church of Mother of God before Týn (or Týn Church) dominate from every angle and are probably the most distinctive feature of the square. This Gothic church dating back to the 14th century is open to the public a few days a week but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to visit inside.

The Old Town Hall was established in 1338 as Prague’s oldest town hall.  Throughout the centuries it was extended to include several buildings, only five of which now remain. At present, the Old Town Hall is primarily used for ceremonies and state events held by the City of Prague. A curiosity: the Chapel of the Virgin Mary enables visitors to view the Prague’s astronomical clock’s inner workings.

The astronomical clock: after several months of major repairs, the 608-year old clock returned to its place in the Old Town Square the weekend I visited Prague! Here tourists gather in masses especially on the hour, when the four figures flanking the clock and the ones above the clock are set in motion.

Crowds gather by the clock on the hour

Franz Kafka’s landmarks: Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the major figures in the 20th-century literature, was born in Prague’s Old Town and lived there most of his life. So it is not surprising to see reminders of his life and work all around the city! Kafka’s birthplace is at náměstí Franze Kafky 3, just off the Old Town Square. The house has a small exhibition about the writer. The city’s official monument to Kafka is a sculpture located in the Jewish quarter and representing a large, headless man carrying a small man (Kafka) on his shoulders. If you want to track down more of this writer’s landmarks, read this article.

My favourite part was exploring the Old Town cobblestone streets, wandering down narrow alleys to see where they led and what was there. There are many colourful houses, small courtyards, quirky shops, arts stores, interesting sights everywhere.

Just north of the Old Town, across the river, lies Letná park. This large urban park on the hill is a great place for postcard views over Prague, especially at sunset. Come here to relax and enjoy the panorama at the end of your sightseeing day!

Prague, finally!

In my school years, Czechoslovakia was one single country.
Back in those days, the geography of Eastern Europe was quite different from what it is now, and mass tourism was largely unknown.

Fast forward 2-3 decades and the young countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia – born in 1993 from the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – are now popular destinations for tourists of all ages. With Prague, the Czech capital, one of the most visited capital cities in Europe.

So why was Prague still missing from my travel CV?
“You have travelled so much, and you haven’t been to Prague?!” was the usual surprised comment from my friends.

So it was time to do something about it. As usual, a bit of a late decision, with flight and accommodation booked just over two  weeks before departure and no other planning done…but not much planning was actually required.

Follow me for more posts and photos of my trip to Prague!

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.

 

Athens Day 1

My first day of Athens sightseeing covered quite a lot (I walked around 15Km!) and here is some information and photos on what I saw.

#Acropolis
I couldn’t miss it. Yes I had been there before but 25 years can make a huge difference from the viewer’s end. The Acropolis wouldn’t have changed much but my way of looking at things would have.
To reach the Acropolis you walk up the steps on the hill, enjoying the narrow streets, the small restaurants and cafes along the way, the graffiti murals that seem to cover every wall, the panoramic views of the Athens. The route isn’t really well signposted (there are various routes anyway) and more than once I bumped into other tourists who appeared lost on their way up.

The entrance ticket to the Acropolis is Euro 20 (it drops to  Euro 10 in low season). I walked around the area for a few hours, enjoying the views despite the strong wind of the summit of the hill. A lot of restoration work is going on and sadly the Parthenon was largely covered in scaffolding. Yet just being able to be there in the presence of such majestic monuments of the ancient times was incredible.
The Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Theatre of Dyonisus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and more. You could easily spend half a day there. And the views of Athens from above are pretty stunning too.

#Acropolis Museum
Not tired of archeology yet, I then spent some more time wandering around the Acropolis Museum, which displays a lot of remains that were found in the area. The museum is located by the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill and the building itself is quite beautiful.

Traditional souvenirs

#Plaka district
If instead you are tired of sightseeing, the Plaka district, just by the Acropolis hill, has plenty of cafes and shops (mainly souvenirs) for anyone’s entertainment.

#Philopappou hill
My first sightseeing day ended with a walk up Philopappou hill to see the Philopappou Monument and enjoy a panoramic view of the Acropolis and of Athens as a whole. Again it was very windy but the view from the top was really nice.

Dubai: not only glitz’n’glam

Dubai is not my thing (click here for my previous post).
But I am here now so I might as well try and see what’s out there beyond the overwhelming glitz’n’glam, I thought.

In Dubai town
In Dubai town

“Madam, you cannot walk to the Heritage Village from here. You must catch a taxi”. This is what the hotel receptionist told me in the morning. We’ll see, I thought. My well-known aversion for taxis had already kicked in. I always walk everywhere or catch public transport. I can be found on taxis only when no other options are available.

So I started walking around Deira, the old part of town, starting from a main road then turning into any interesting side streets I spotted. There were not many people around and I was the only white woman walking on her own. Did it bother me? Slightly, but not enough to stop me wandering. But I used care :-).

And soon there was the fish market. It was a large fish and groceries market, quite lively and busy.

The fish market building in Bur Deira
The fish market building in Bur Deira
At the Dubai fish market
At the Dubai fish market

After leaving the market, the sign for the “Underpass for Bur Dubai” appeared in front of me. Bur Dubai is on the western side of the Dubai creek, opposite Bur Deira, which is where I was.
I followed the sign and entered the underpass, a pedestrian underwater crossing that connects the two sides of the creek.
And at the other end I found what I was looking for: no more glitz’n’glam, but renovated historic buildings and museums, a step back in time into some of Dubai’s culture and heritage!

The area is called Al Shindagha and features a Heritage Village and a Diving Village, which are built to familiarise tourists with the region’s traditional arts, customs and architecture. In addition there are several museums (Camel Museum, Horse Museum, Traditional Architecture Museum, etc) and some historic buildings. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House is a beautiful traditional building and former residential quarters of Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai.

Along the Al Shindagha waterfront
Along the Al Shindagha waterfront

The whole area was very quiet when I visited, and therefore more enjoyable. Walking around the sand-coloured buildings and in the narrow streets was a pleasure (apart from the 40C degrees temperature..). One security guard offered to guide me around a couple of buildings and museums, giving me interesting information about history and local customs.

The Dubai Museum, located in the Al Fahidi Fort (built in 1787 and the oldest building in Dubai), was another highlight of the morning. It has very interesting displays of traditional ways of life in the UAE, and kept me occupied for quite a while.

The Dubai Museum (in Al Fahidi Fort)
The Dubai Museum (in Al Fahidi Fort)

I didn’t take a boat ride across the creek, on one of the traditional wooden boats (abras) that cross the river. I was planning to go back at sunset and do it then, but plans changed.

Trying to blend in
Trying to blend in….

I may never go back to Dubai – after all I have seen all I wanted to see – but I am glad that I have found something more than just glitzy and glamorous buildings.

For more Dubai photos click here.

Discovering Hanoi

My first impression of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, was not good. Just another crowded and noisy city.
Admittedly, after spending two days in the Ninh Binh countryside in the middle of nowhere, anything louder than complete silence was likely to annoy me.

A quiet moment in the streets of Hanoi
A quiet moment in the streets of Hanoi

My first night in Hanoi. KFC for dinner (argh!), as I could not be asked looking for a “proper” place to eat. Too many people around (it was Saturday night and the weekend market was on). And I had not studied the city map yet so I had no clear idea of where I was and how to move around. I hated it.

But then Hanoi started growing on me. It is actually a very nice city!

The Hoan Kiem lake in the city centre is  a great place to stretch your legs and watch people, at any time of the day. There are always dance classes going on, people jogging, doing push-ups or practising tai-chi!

The Old Quarter is a madness of street vendors, little shops displaying their stuff on the pavement, street kitchens, motorbikes and people everywhere. But it’s fun and full of photo opportunities. The buildings themselves are quite interesting too.

And then you have the museums! They will keep you busy for a day or two, and they deserve a visit. I skipped the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum because of the never ending queue, but went into the Ho Chi Minh Museum (a surreal experience…) instead. Nearby also the One Pillar Pagoda is a sight not to be missed.

The Vietnam National Museum of History (with two buildings across the road from each other) has interesting displays that reflect the history of the country from prehistory to contemporary times.

But the highlight of the day was my visit to Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s historical centre of learning): a large group of University students was there to take photos in their graduation gowns and in áo dài, and all us tourists joined in the events, either as photographers or photo subjects or both!

Prisons and cages in Con Dao

This is going to be a sad post.
If you want a happy and cheerful one, you will not find it here.
If you want to learn more about the brutal and inhumane past of Con Dao, keep on reading,

During 113 years (1862-1975) Con Dao became the biggest and most brutal prison with the longest time of existence in Indochina. The most barbaric torture and custody took place here, especially in the so called “Tiger Cages”. Many kinds of savage torture and punishment were used, comparable to what happened in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Thousands of Vietnamese died here.

A visit to the Tiger Cages (there are French and American ones) is a spine chilling experience. Even more so when you are the only tourist in the entire complex. Dark prison cells, cages bars instead of ceilings, lifelike models that show how inhumanely prisoners were treated, eerie silence around you except for creaky metallic doors.

The new Con Dao museum, just before the French Tiger Cages, is a must visit for those who want to learn more about the island’s past (not much is recorded on the usual travel guidebooks, and online information is quite fragmented). Well arranged displays and detailed descriptions in English cover the history of Con Dao from its first discovery to the liberation in 1975, and now, with a main focus on the brutality of what happened in prisons and cages.

Remembrance is quite strong and you will always find Vietnamese people paying tribute to those who died in Con Dao. The revolutionary heroine Vu Thi Sau is still celebrated every night at the local cemetery.

As a note at the museum states: “This is the place for generations of
Vietnamese to follow, to learn, to imitate, to care and to preserve” [sic].

So if you visit Con Dao, don’t forget to look beyond the natural beauty of this island and learn about its past!

Meet me at the pier

Pier 914 in Con Son Town, Con Dao, takes its name from the estimated number of prisoners who died during its construction. Another reminder of the sad history of this island.

This is where my friendship with Jo and Gez started. All thanks to a freshly caught mackerel and a Vietnamese phrasebook.
We somehow managed to have the mackerel delivered to a local restaurant, where it was then cooked in three different ways. The evening also involved riding a motorbike in three, in true Vietnamese style.

“Meet me at the pier after sunset” has become the refrain at the end of our evenings.

The pier after sunset
The pier after sunset

At the pier we sit with a couple of drinks and listen to the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks. There is no one else there. Only a fisherman or two when it gets crowded. Darkness surrounds us. It is very quiet.

Tonight Jo and Gez did not meet me at the pier. I waited and waited but they never arrived.
Maybe they were tired, maybe they wanted time to themselves.

I will go back to Pier 914 tomorrow after sunset.
Maybe I will see my friends again.