Tag Archives: world heritage

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A photo from my archives: The boats of Xochimilco

Xochimilco, Mexico, 2007.

Located 28 Km south of the historic centre of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a borough mostly famous for its 170 Km network of canals. These canals, together with a series of artificial islands, have made Xochimilco a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colourful gondola-like boats called trajineras are very popular with tourists and the canals can get very busy on Sundays, when also the locals enjoy spending some relaxing time here.

 

A photo from my archives: Agra Fort monkey

Agra Fort, India, 2007.

A monkey is trying to shelter from the bright sunlight on a hot afternoon at the Agra Fort.

Less than 2 miles away from the more famous Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site in itself. Characterised by red-coloured walls, this amazing walled city features a mix of Hindu and Islamic elements. Four gates positioned around the sides of the fort offer an additional display of beautiful 16th century architecture, with the Delhi Gate the masterpiece of this.

A visit is highly recommended! But beware of the monkeys…

Luang Prabang: not only temples

Since 1995 Luang Prabang, in the north of Lao, has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its high concentration of beautiful Buddhist temples mixed  with European-style colonial buildings.LaoPhotogallery_025

Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a charming town and very easy and pleasant to walk around. When I visited the unbearable heat after 10:30am was not ideal for sightseeing, yet other options were available for the rest of the day.

So here’s my random list of things to do/see in Luang Prabang:

  • If you visit at mid-April, be prepared to get soaked in the New Year celebrations (see my blog post here).
Buddhist temples
Buddhist temples
  • Visit some Buddhist temples: there are many beautiful ones but definitely not to miss are: Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Mai.
  • Pop into the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre: they have very interesting displays and information about ethnic groups in Lao.
Old Quarter in Luang Prabang
Old Quarter in Luang Prabang
  • Stroll along the streets in the Old Quarter and enjoy the colonial architecture.
  • Wake up at dawn for the Alms giving ceremony (see my blog post here).
  • Visit the Royal Palace/National Museum: probably not the most interesting I have ever seen, but worth an hour of your time.
The National Museum
The Royal Palace, now National Museum
  • Cross the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river and go for a stroll in the village on the other side. Then stop at the Dyen Sabai restaurant and chill with a drink while enjoying a view over the river and the surroundings.

    The bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river
    The bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river
  • Go to the Library and buy some books for the children in the villages. This is in collaboration with Lao Kids. You may also find students or monks who want to practice their English. (You can do the same at Big Brother Mouse, whose presence is all over the internet. I went there too but I preferred the Library).
  • See a performance of traditional Ramayana dance. During the New Year celebrations there were free performances every day. During the rest of the year, shows are on at the Royal Palace complex.
  • When it’s too hot, go to the swimming pool. La Pistoche is the place to be for both tourists and locals. Nice place for a day of splashing and chilling!
  • When you have exhausted all options above, there are dozens of spa/massage places where you can get pampered for an hour or two at superlow cost. I had a great one-hour foot massage for US$5!

And now you can enjoy more Luang Prabang photos!

The amazing landscape around Ninh Binh

When Tom and Norma, whom I met at the Nguyen Shack homestay in the Ninh Binh area, asked me if I wanted to join them for a half day trip to Trang An I said Yes even if I had no idea what was there to see. After all I had no plans for the day.

We rode our bicycles for about 5Km on very muddy and rough terrain (Tough Mudder, here I come!) and when we arrived at the Trang An pier we paid 150,000 dong entrance fee and got on a small boat, joined by a Vietnamese men.

For the following two and a half hours, our boat woman took us around (rowing sometimes with her hands and sometimes with her feet!) amongst amazing limestone hills. We visited several grottoes, where we often had to duck down, we got off the boat to see pagodas dotted along the river, but mainly we enjoyed the fantastic scenery.
This is Ha Long Bay on land!

Inside one of the grottoes
Inside one of the grottoes
On the river
On the river
More limestone hills
More limestone hills

There were several other boats on the river, but overall it wasn’t busy. The area is mainly visited by Vietnamese tourists, while Westerners seem to go to Tam Coc instead.

After the boat tour, we cycled further to reach Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam (10th-11th century), but we decided not to visit. We had been advised that there was not much to see there. So instead we turned into a side road and through two tunnels to reach the “secret valley”. In front of us another set of limestone hills like a natural theatre. Absolutely stunning!

Your travel blogger in the "secret valley"!
Your travel blogger in the “secret valley”!

After this, I think I will give Ha Long Bay a miss! ;-)

Update 27 June 2014: at the 38th session of the World Heritage committee (15-25 June 2014, Doha) Trang An was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

The Imperial City in Hue’

I am not too fond of Hue’ city. It reminds me of Saigon: big city, lots of traffic, hordes of motorbikes, very noisy.

BUT.

Yes, there is a but. The Imperial City.
If there is one reason why Hue’ should make it on your travel itinerary, the Imperial City is that reason.

One of the entrance gates to the Citadel
One of the entrance gates to the Imperial City

Hue’ was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, during the Nguyen dynasty. Eleven of the Nguyen emperors are buried here.
A large Citadel, surrounded by a 10Km-long wall, was laid out at the beginning of the 19th century and contained the Imperial City. The latter is where offices, temples and royal palaces (in the Forbidden Purple City) were located. Definitely something not to be missed!

Palace in the Imperial City
Palace in the Imperial City

A visit to the Imperial City will take you 2-3 hours. Out of the original 148 buildings, only a few have survived fires and bombs but they are spectacular. Particular mention goes to the throne palace (Thai Hoa Palace), all gold and red – no photos are allowed inside, though.

A lot of restoration work has taken place in the Imperial City, and much is still ongoing – you will come across several examples during your visit.

Restoration works!
Restoration works!

The entrance ticket to the Imperial City will also give you access to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, with its impressive collection of royal paraphernalia. The palace where the museum is located is a sight in itself.

Hue’ has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. And deservedly.