Tag Archives: UNESCO

A visit to Echternach, Luxembourg

Just over an hour by bus from Luxembourg City lies Echternach, the oldest town in Luxembourg.

I picked it over Vianden Castle (another popular destination for short trips from Luxembourg City) for no particular reason. Except that I was curious about crossing the border into Germany – just a walk across the bridge over the river Sauer – and back…

Yet the main attractions here are the Abbey of Echternach, which was founded in the 7th century, and the Roman Basilica, rebuilt after World War II. The museum of the Abbey is only open during the summer, though, so I couldn’t visit.

The town itself retains a medieval feel, with its narrow streets, old churches, town walls, towers and a marketplace with a Gothic townhouse. This makes a stroll around very enjoyable.

Echternach has also been recognised at European level for its cultural value: in 2008 it was rewarded by the European Commission as “European destination of excellence”. In 2010, the famous Dancing Procession that always takes place on Whit Tuesday became part of UNESCO’s Intangible World Cultural Heritage.

For the summer, there is also a lake and lots of opportunities for outdoor activities. Unfortunately a cold day wasn’t too suitable for that.

A lot going on for such a small place – really worth adding it to your to-do list for Luxembourg!

Discovering Luxembourg City

The capital city of the small landlocked country of Luxembourg (the only Grand Duchy in the world!) is a mix of old and new. Easy to walk around and with enough to keep you busy for a day or so, it is a good destination for a European city break.

I certainly didn’t expect I would find it so interesting!

My visit wasn’t blessed with good weather, though. Heavy rain and freezing temperatures were my companions during my discovery of the city. Less than ideal but that didn’t stop me!

The UNESCO-listed Old Town (especially the part called the Grund) is the most picturesque area of Luxembourg City. You could wander around for hours exploring the alleys, walking along the corniche – by the riverside – and discovering the old fortress. I must admit that, because of the weather, I quite enjoyed adding cosy pubs to my sightseeing list!

Unfortunately the Casemates, underground galleries used as refuge during military attacks in the past centuries and one of the main attractions of the city, are closed in winter so I couldn’t visit them.

The medieval town core of Luxembourg City is in the Ville Haute. This part of town is home to many historic buildings such as the Palais Grand Ducal and Notre-Dame Cathedral, as well as famous squares like Place d’Armes and Place Guillame II.

There are also some interesting museums. I spent almost two hours wandering around the National Museum of History and Arts, which is spread over several floors and dedicated to displaying artwork and artifacts from all times of Luxembourg history. Another museum hosted an unusual exhibition about football seen as a religion of modern times (“Football Hallelujah!“). Although unrelated to Luxemborg itself, it was quite good to visit.

Tired of sightseeing? Why not stopping at Chocolate House for some sweet treats?

Luxembourg "Ville Haute" "chocolate house"
Chocolate House

A visit to the country of Luxembourg would not be complete without heading out to the countryside and the villages. Look out for my next post for this!

Flying over the Blue Hole, Belize

 

Being someone who rarely splurges money when on holiday, preferring cheap or free activities, the US$200 for the 1-hr scenic flight over the Blue Hole in Belize seemed the result of a moment of madness.
Yet I had chosen this option because I had heard that as a snorkeller, and not a diver, the Blue Hole would be a disappointing experience and not worth the 2+ hour one-way boat ride. Plus, we only live once hey!

What is the Blue Hole, though? It is a giant submarine sinkhole (like a cenote in the ocean) off the coast of Belize. The hole is circular in shape, over 300m across and 125m deep. The world’s largest natural formation of its kind, the Blue Hole is part of the larger Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The tour agency I had chosen for this teamed me up with two other female travellers – a minimum of three people is required for a scenic flight to be arranged and I had contacted the agency via email prior to my arrival.

The small 4-seater plane picked us up at the Caye Caulker airstrip, at the southern end of the island. The pilot, very friendly Mr Hoy, briefly ran us through the security basics and the itinerary. Twenty minutes to get to the Blue Hole, fly twice around the Hole from the left, twice from the right, twice across the middle, then return. All so exciting!

I sat in the cockpit, next to the pilot. And we took off.
The view of Caye Caulker and its reef from above was amazing but it was only when we got to the reef around the Blue Hole that my jaw dropped. The pilot kept tilting the aircraft to a 90degree angle and my stomach started suffering. But the view from above was spectacular! The Blue Hole stands out within the reef because of its dark blue colour and its circular shape. We went round it a few times, descending very close to the water at times. It felt as if we could almost touch it. Such an incredible feeling!

On the way back we circled around a shipwreck stuck in the reef. The photo opportunities certainly didn’t lack.

When I saw the straight line of the Caye Caulker airstrip appearing in the distance I was sad that the flight was over. But it had indeed been worth every cent spent on it!

A Troodos mountain adventure

I had hoped to go trekking in the Troodos mountains but my hopes were soon shattered: no tours were available on my dates (no one wants to go trekking when it’s so hot, I was told).
And now?!
I decided to look online to find adventure tours that explored the area, then contacted one of them, was redirected to another one who was running a jeep tour on one of the dates I was interested in, and ended up joining a tour run by EcoTour Adventures.

Andreas (the guide and driver, and owner of the business) picked me up very early in the morning. Four more people were part of the same tour. And the jeep adventure began!

The day was spent exploring the Troodos mountain area, checking out semi-abandoned villages, waterfalls, streams, monasteries, wineries, driving off-road as often as we could, enjoying the ever changing landscape, noticing how Cyprus not only has beautiful beaches and semi-desert vegetation but also thick pine forests  that you wouldn’t expect in such climate.

Our first stop was the Asprokremmos reservoir and dam, the second largest in Cyprus. We paid attention to the surrounding barren landscape, before heading to the deep forest of the Troodos.

Cyprus Asprokremmos reservoir
Asprokremmos Reservoir

We then stopped in the village of Salamiou, where we had Greek coffee before heading to the gorgeousTzelefos Venetian bridge, which is located deep in the forest. This is only one of the medieval bridges in the area, but is meant to be the most beautiful. The whole area is quite scenic and we enjoyed going for a brief walk in the forest.

We couldn’t miss a visit to the Agios Ioannis Lambadistis monastery, located near the Kalopanayiotis village and now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This monastery is considered one of the most interesting byzantine sites in Cyprus and displays some amazing paintings dating back to different historic periods (11th to 19th century).

Cyprus Troodos "Agios Ioannis Lampadistis monastery"
Outside the Agios Ioannis Lampadistis monastery

Driving higher up the mountains we then reached Prodromos, the highest village in Cyprus at 1,380 metres above sea level. Here we stopped at a local family-run restaurant for lunch and I had souvla, one of the traditional dishes in Cyprus. Souvla is basically large pieces of meat cooked on a long skewer over a charcoal barbecue (not to be confused with the Greek souvlaki, apparently). Delicious!

How about the Chantara waterfall? Said to be the most beautiful of Cyprus, it’s located in a stunning and peaceful forest area. I cannot really comment much on the waterfall itself as water was a bit lacking at the end of September. Rain would only start later in the season.

Our last stop consisted of a visit to the Nelion winery for a quick tour of the wine-making facilities and a wine tasting session. The view from the main house was beautiful, rolling hills and vineyards everywhere around us.

The day flew by. If/when I go back to Cyprus, I will definitely plan for some trekking in the Troodos (picking the right season this time…). The area is definitely worth spending more time in it!

The archaeological treasures of Pafos

In ancient times, Pafos was the capital of Cyprus and thanks to its exceptional architectural and historic value it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are several areas of archaeological interest, mainly in the Kato Pafos area, all of them worth a visit during your time there.

Pafos Archaeological Site
Located just behind the harbour, this is the area where most of the remains from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are located. You can easily spend a couple of hours walking around and appreciating the ruins of ancient villas, palaces, tombs. But the highlights of this area are the beautiful mosaics in the Houses of Dionysos, Theseus, Aion and Orpheus, some of the finest of the Roman times. Excavations are still ongoing and you will find evidence of that!
(Entry fee €4.50).

Solomon’s Catacombs and Agios Lambrianos rock cut tombs
These two sites are almost next to each other along the main road that leaves Pafos harbour heading towards the new Kings Avenue Mall. Walk down the steep steps to visit the catacombs then enjoy the enormous underground caverns of the rock cut tombs, they are definitely interesting sites.

Panagia Chrysopolitissa Church and St. Pauls’ Pillar
The foundations,  some of the marble columns and remains of the original floor mosaics are what’s left of the original 4th century basilica. On the same site is the so-called St. Paul’s Pillar, where according to tradition St. Paul was flogged.

Tombs of the Kings
A couple of Km north of Kato Pafos, this is a large site of underground tombs dating back to the 4th century BC located on barren landscape facing the sea. Despite the name, it was not a royal burial site. The well preserved underground tombs are unique in Cyprus as influenced by ancient Egyptian tradition.
(Entry fee €2.50).

Enough of history and archaeology? Wait for the next post then ;-).

Exploring Galle Fort

I had been looking forward to visiting the Galle area since the start of my trip to Sri Lanka. It seemed the most exotic destination on my list, with a mix of beaches, local culture, and colonial heritage.
And I wasn’t disappointed!

Galle is a fascinating and very atmospheric town, mainly characterised by its Fort (built by the Dutch in 1663 and now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is the best preserved colonial town in Sri Lanka and beautiful colonial buildings will surprise you at every corner, as they mix with Islamic buildings and Buddhist temples built in more recent years. While the tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed large parts of Galle – killing thousands of people – the fortified walls of the Fort protected this area, which managed to survive the devastation.

Nowadays the Fort is mainly crammed with boutique shops, cafes and hotels, but this is also part of its appeal. The magistrates’ court is located within the Fort too, and you won’t be able to miss the queues outside its offices. The windows to the court rooms were open when I walked past (and stopped for a few seconds) but I was quickly told off by the local police and asked to move away!

I spent a whole day wandering around the Fort area, exploring its narrow streets, its buildings, its shops (the latter mainly for relief from the excruciating heat, I must admit!).
I checked out the old Dutch Hospital, beautiful building now turned into shops and restaurants.
I followed with curiosity a never ending game of cricket played on a green patch of grass just below the Fort walls (by the way, the Galle International Cricket Stadium – a couple of minutes away from the Fort – is considered to be one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world!).
I swam in the ocean at Lighthouse Beach, a lovely place for a break and a refreshing dip in the water.
I watched monks in their orange robes leading groups of school kids around the walls.
I walked the whole length of the walls and watched the sunset from one of the bastions.
I had dinner in one of the swanky hotels, enjoying a catch up with a couple of friends who happened to be in Galle at the same time as me.

And when you are tired of Galle, a handful of miles away lies the town of Unawatuna, which can be easily reached by bus and is a good base for exploring the area. Do not miss the Japanese pagoda on the top of Rumassala hill!
As for the Unawatuna beaches, oh well, I will leave that for the next post ;-).

Unawatuna "Sri Lanka" Japanese Peace Pagoda
Japanese Peace Pagoda, Unawatuna

The old capital: Kandy

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka and the last capital of the ancient King’s era. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, this is where the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – one of the most sacred places in the Buddhist world – is. With a large lake in the centre of the city, and surrounded by beautiful hills with lush vegetation, Kandy is also quite different from the rest of Sri Lanka I visited.

"Sri Lanka" Kandy
Kandy

With a lot of time on my hands, I decided to explore the city at slow pace and savour what it had to offer. Starting from the central market. I am totally fascinated by markets and their energy, and spend hours just watching people selling food of any sorts. The market in Kandy was colourful, full of life and chaotic, as you would expect. I loved it.

Next was the lake, which is artificial and was created in 1807. I walked its whole perimeter, stopping every now and then to take photos. The nicest view is from its northern end, and one late afternoon I sat there for a long time waiting for sunset and hoping in an amazing one. It wasn’t amazing but the view over the lake was stunning anyway.

But the main draw in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or Sri Dalada Maligawa, which houses the relic tooth of the Buddha. Built in the 17th and 18th century, and partially reconstructed after the bombings in 1998, the entire temple complex includes the main temple and several other shrines, covering a large area – I spent over 2.5 hours exploring it all.

As you leave the temple area, do not miss the opportunity to discover more of this city: at the Kandy Cultural Centre you will have the opportunity to see artists in action, while walking the side streets in the city centre is an opportunity to see some nice local shops and observe street life!

A visit to Kandy is not complete without watching an evening performance of Kandyan Dance, characterised by elaborate costumes, amazing dance moves and show-stopping stunts. There are three venues for this, and I chose the Kandy Lake Club as it was supposed to have the best costumes. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed! Check the photos out.

The Lion Rock of Sigiriya

Half an hour away from Dambulla (easy bus ride) lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sigiriya.
This site of historical and archaeological significance built in the 5th century consists of a complex of gardens and buildings, with the most impressive part – the ruins of the fortress – located at the top of a granite peak about 200m high. The name ‘Lion Rock’ comes from the gateway built in the shape of a lion, on a small plateau halfway up the rock.

A visit requires you to walk to the summit via over 1,000 steps – staircases attached to the sheer walls of the rock. Given the forecast for another sunny and very hot day, I decided to make an early start and I began my ascent at 8:30am. Clearly everyone else had had the same idea as we quickly got stuck in a queue!

The climb itself wasn’t hard (mind you, I recently completed the BT Tower Climb in London – 842 steps – in 8 minutes, so I may not be a good reference point!). The excruciating heat in the final part made it challenging, though. Paramedics patrolled the area and I saw someone being taken away on a stretcher after passing out in the heat.

Once you reach the top, in addition to the ruins of the fortress you will enjoy amazing views over the surrounding landscape. Pidurangala rock is at a stone’s throw away too.

Back to ground level, do not miss walking around the gardens, another key feature of Sigiriya, and visiting the museum, with a lot of information about this amazing site.

Dambulla: Cave Temple and markets

Dambulla, in central Sri Lanka, has the largest and best preserved cave temple complex of the whole country. Known as the Dambulla Cave Temple or the Golden Temple of Dambulla, it is made of around 80 caves, although only 5 of them are open to the public. Built at the base of a 160m-high rock, these caves have been converted into shrine rooms and contain statues and paintings related to Buddha and his life. There are a few statues of reclining Buddhas, up to 15m-long, as well as statues of standing and seating Buddhas. The whole complex is quite impressive and in 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But there is more to discover in Dambulla than the world-renowned cave temple! This town also hosts the largest wholesale produce market of Sri Lanka, something that wouldn’t usually appear on a tourist wishlist but is actually a great place to see and photograph people. I spent over an hour there, going from feeling quite shy at the start (hundreds of men were staring at me as I walked around huge vegetable bags and trucks and started taking photos) to being pulled here and there as some workers really wanted to feature in my pictures! I ended up having really good laughs with some of them.

So allocate some time to Dambulla in your Sri Lanka trip, either as a stopover or as a daytrip from Sigiriya, and you won’t be disappointed!

Colonia del Sacramento

When the morning ferry from Buenos Aires arrives in Colonia del Sacramento, crossing the Rio de la Plata and international borders, it offloads hundreds of daytrippers who make the 1-hour trip mainly to visit the Barrio Historico (Old Town), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cobblestone streets and original buildings from the Portuguese colonisation era characterise this part of town, where you can easily stroll for a couple of hours before continuing your discovery in one of the many museums located in the Barrio.
You can also climb up the narrow staircases of the lighthouse and have a better and wider view of Colonia and the coastline.

A visit after sunset (the sunsets in Colonia are amazing!) will be the opportunity to enjoy the historic district under artificial light, which gives a magic touch to the area. Then sit and have a meal in one of the many small restaurants, tasting some amazing seafood or steaks :-).