Tag Archives: UNESCO

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 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.

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