If you need a reason to escape Bergen, just behind the city rises Mt Fløyen. Bergen is known as the city between seven mountains, of which includes Ulriken (the highest), Fløyen, Løvstakken and Damsgårdsfjellet, as well as three of Lyderhorn, Sandviksfjellet, Blåmanen, Rundemanen, and Askøyfjellet (depending on how you’re feeling at the time…). There is a cable car carrying tourists to the top of Fløyen, but to experience the mountain as the Norwegians do, grab a map and start climbing! Besides being rewarded with amazing views of the city from a birds-eye point of view, you may also stumble across this beautiful mountain lake. Carved into a lakeside tree, it says, “Dagen i dag er morgendagen du drømte om i går,” translating to something like the whimsical phrase, “Today is the tomorrow you dreamt about yesterday.” Well, sign, I hope that’s what I’m doing!
Who doesn’t love a birds-eye view of pretty red roofs? I chose this photo of Lyon because as of about 5 hours, this will be my home for the next 11 months! Visible here is the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, constructed over the somewhat excessively long period between 1180 to 1480, and founded by Saint Pothinus and Saint Irenaeus, the first two bishops of Lyon. St Jean, along with all these other roofs, comprise the Old Town of France’s 2nd-largest city. Lyon is rarely considered a tourist generation, as it is largely eclipsed by Paris and the Riviera. But it’s location is great–2 hours or less from the Alps, the Riviera, Paris, Geneva, and bits of northern Italy, and only a few more hours to Spain or Milan. Located at the convergence of two rivers, it’s cosmopolitan, historic and beautiful.
I am leaving for my move to France tonight, but as I will wake up in London tomorrow and spend the entirety of the day in this magnificent city visiting old friends and locating old haunts, I thought it only appropriate that my photo of the day be from London. And what’s more iconic than a row of red telephone booths? Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, at one point there were more than 73,000, but their numbers were greatly reduced in past years. Yet despite this, the bright red boxes have become a shiny, crimson symbol of the United Kingdom. A trip to the UK isn’t complete without a visit and silly photo of these magical little boxes!
If you can somehow finagle a trip to Iceland on your way back from Europe as I did, be sure to explore its nature. Young, still nervous about solo travel and nearly out of money after 5 months in England and abroad, I barely left Reykjavik. On my second and final full day, I knew I had to search for Iceland’s natural beauty. Without venturing too far, I ended up here, at Mt Esja. It’s small–just 914 m (or 2,999 ft), only 10km from Reykjavik and dating back to the ice age. Much like the rest of Iceland, it’s volcanic. It’s brown, dusty, dead. The tree line is low, the winds are unforgiving, the cold becomes bone-chilling, even in May. Yet, there is something special about climbing a desolate mountain with a fellow solo-traveler, a Scandinavian you met on the bus to Esjurnelar. Life seems to stop at the mountain’s summit–in every direction you can see the evidence of what happens when the earth gets angry and spits fire. Ashy and grey, I’ve discovered Iceland’s true beauty.
Berries slowly overtake the ruinous Polish castle as nature takes its course. Following the devastating effect WWII had on Poland (which had the unfortunate luck of being located directly between Russia and Germany), precious few castles remain in Poland. However, Toruń’sTeutonic castle, built by Knights of the Teutonic Order between the 13th and 14th centuries, miraculously still exists. Today, the castle is mere ruins, though the local Poles meticulously care for their fallen monument. The castle was one of the first of the Teutonic Order to be built, and its existence grew the surrounding village into a thriving town – the town that later produced Nicolas Copernicus and some of the world’s best gingerbread. Today, Toruńand its castle comprise a UNESCO site and one of Poland’s few medieval castles still proudly standing. Bristly berry bushes may cling to the castle walls today, but just ask any of the thousands of visitors to Toruń: its castle is still something wonderful – and the gingerbread that is Toruń’s gastronomic specialty is to die for!
Szlak Papieski (Papel Trail), Beskid Mountains, Poland
These szlaks, or trails, are named so in honour of the most famous man to traverse them: Karol Wojtyla, later to become Jan Paweł II, more commonly known as John Paul II. The main trail is 230km long, but similar trails meander all over the beautiful Beskids, marking the places where Jana Paweła trekked, first as a priest, then bishop, cardinal, and finally, pope. This rustic building, at the Bacówka PTTK na Rycerzowej, is a mountain chalet, a place of convergence for hikers all through the Beskids, from Poland, Slovakia and abroad. In places such as this, locals hold mountain concerts–jolly old men playing on banjos, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls-esque prairie life on what was the American frontier. And when mountain concerts do happen, the chalet is flooded with visitors–propping up colourful mounds of tents if they brought them, and if not, swarming the tiny chalet, paying $5 for a bed, and, when those fill up, $3 for a spot on the floor. Rough as that may sound, the chance to experience a Polish mountain concert deep within the Beskids, one of Poland’s best-kept secrets (Poland has many), with an entirely Polish (speaking) group of companions is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Okay, so it seems others are doing this, and I thought I’d give it a try because it looks like an interesting, amusing little project. I mean, it’s only once a week, right? It will be fun to try to match a photo to a word! This week’s word is ‘carefree,’ so this is what I dug up. This is the Albufera, an estuary in Spain not far from Valencia. Two Spanish lovers sit on the edge of the dock, patiently awaiting the next boat to take them into the estuary. The small rowboats, which can hold maybe 10 people, are driven by pescadores, or local fishermen, and for a few euros, they will give you a quiet tour of the swamp. While it’s a relaxing getaway from the hubbub of Valencia, it’s no picnic getting there! Prepare to take several yellow buses before leaving the city behind, entering countryside, and winding up in this pretty little estuary.
Hauptplatz and Pestsäule (Plague Column) in Linz, Austria
Grey and dismal, this is Austria before a storm, and pretty much how the world views Austria. Yet, storms or not, Linz is far from dismal. In fact, the 3rd-largest city in Austria is teeming with life. For a time, it was the most important city in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was here that Habsburg Emperor Friedrich III spent his final years (though it lost its status to Prague and Vienna when he died in 1493). Its New Cathedral also sports the largest cathedral in the nation (though not the tallest; during construction, the tower had to be limited to 135m to keep it—by only two meters—shorter than St Stephen’s in Vienna). Cafés and shops line the boulevards; joggers and bikers span the river. The Baroque Plague Column rising from the cobblestones designs to protect Linz from plagues, fires and wars. Linz is a gem on the Blue (grey…) Danube.
Pictures cannot convey the essence and beauty of Bath. Bath, to me, is one of the top 5 prettiest cities in Europe. Bath also happens to be my home, having studied there 3 years ago (I have a lot of homes). It is my dream to one day move back, or really, just move back to anywhere in the UK, my favourite country. This is the cathedral square, which also happens to be the entrance to the famous Roman Baths. Bath was established by the Romans in 60 AD, not long after they arrived in Britain. Upon finding the hot springs here, they built the spa town, Aquae Solis, and much later, Edgar was crowned king here in 973, at Bath Abbey, upon which we are currently standing. Founded in the 7th century, Bath Abbey was rebuilt 12th-16th, today, standing standing as proud as it ever did. Bath is a city built of limestone (from the nearby quarry). In the 19th century, it was as black as coal (because of the coal) but today, it has been restored to its original, lovely state. As a UNESCO site, it is more beautiful than you can ever imagine.
A months ago, I read a book about Budapest in 1990 (ironically, the book is called Prague by Arthur Phillips,despite being set primarily in Budapest) and I decided that Budapest sounded like a pretty awesome place. So, upon visiting, I felt compelled to see and do all that the characters did. I drank a shot of unicum (a thick, highly alcoholic, bitter liquid), I visited the Gerbeaud (a fancy confectionary that the characters always met at–I bought macaroons as they were the cheapest thing on the menu), and I walked down the Chain Bridge as the sun was setting (though unlike John, I did not [try] to kiss anybody on the bridge!) And…it was worth it, as, back to the Gresham Palace, the bridge was dark, allowing the city to glow softly on both banks, but as I crossed it, the bridge was suddenly alit with light and the whole bridge glowed. Following the Fall of Communism, the 173-year old bridge symbolizes enlightenment, nationality, and progress as it traditionally links East and West. Everything about the experience was truly magical.
What would Barcelona be without Antonia, Gaudi? Barcelona is unimaginable without the genius Spanish architect. Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell…the list goes on and on. Most of the city’s beloved symbols are the result of Gaudi. The building of Gaudi’s Art Nouveau cathedral, Sagrada Familia, commenced in 1882, and still continues today (hence the cranes), for Gaudi died without finishing his masterpiece. The cathedral is spectacular–on on side, large statues tower over the visitor, inside, columns shaped like trees create an immense, petrified forest, and the other side sports an impressive Gothic facade, carvings covering every inch of stone. Brave visitors can take an elevator to the top, affording both spectacular views of the beautiful city and an up-close look at Gaudi’s architecture, much of which was inspired by the natural world (be prepared to come face-to-face with towers clearly inspired by fruit, among others). Not surprisingly, this amazing beauty is a UNESCO monument, and is a must-see when visiting the famous Spanish city.
After having seen the orthodox cathedrals in Kiev – wildly colourful, crazily textured, beautifully gilded, onion-dome topped, with every inch carefully painted, I will never look at a cathedral the same way. Western cathedrals, while impressive and beautiful, rarely stand out from each other. But Eastern Orthodox cathedrals – each one is a separate work of art, each one is different, unique. This is St. Panteleimon’s, built in Russian Revival design between 1905 and 1912, so it is not terribly old in comparison with other religious structures in Europe. Some say it resembles the Nevski Cathedral in Tallinn – and there is some resemblance! St. Pan’s was intended to serve as a branch of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but was closed and looted in WWII. Today, it is only a hollow shell which has been restored as the main church of a nunnery. It rests in the quiet, suburban park of Feofaniya (getting there is tricky because the Ukrainians don’t post bus signs or if they do, they are in Cyrillic. From M. Libidska take bus 11 or 156 to the last stop) on 1.5 km2 acres of land. It makes a lovely backdrop for an afternoon stroll!
Welcome to the border between France and Germany–and it’s straight out of a fairy tale. At first glance, it looks like Germany–probably because it was built by the Germans–but then, in one of the many border-changes that has plagued Europe ever since kingdoms and countries have existed on the continent, it became French. Walk into a seemingly Germanic bakery, and you will be greeted by a Frenchman speaking French in a French cafe. If you began your journey in Germany, this can be a tad disorienting. But all is forgotten when wandering around the Grande Île,Strasbourg’s beautiful city centre, and a UNESCO site. Strasbourg Cathedral, today the 6th tallest in the world, was once the world’s tallest building, surpassing even the Great Pyramid of Giza. Outside of mere architectural beauty, Strasbourg has solidified its fame and importance for another reason, supplying the world with something that, in a way, we still use today. It was here that, around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg created one of the most important inventions of all time: the first European movable printing press.
Why don’t people come here? As much as I love places like London and Paris and Madrid, there is more than just these few places in Europe that are breathtaking and spectacular…and Tallinn is certainly wonderful. Europe is a popular honeymoon destination (Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Roma), but places like Tallinn or Prague or Budapest need to be on that list. Tallinn is old – and beautiful, maybe more beautiful than Europe’s ‘traditional’ Aphrodite’s. Several kilometres of city wall remain, grey stone topped with red, turreted roofs. The cobble-stoned streets that overlook the blue Baltic sea makes the city charming, lovable. This is a place one can fall in love. Like these doe-eyed pigeons, this is the kind of place I’d rather spend my honeymoon – quiet, relaxing, beautiful, historic, friendly. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town square is positively medieval. There is a darkened tavern in the city centre that serves authentic elf soup that patrons drink out of clay pots (no spoons allowed). Estonia has a pulse that you rarely find, and it is easily one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
Climbing up the ancient Roman roadway of Via Augusta in the small Spanish town of Xàtiva, the weary traveller beholds the ancient castle of Xàtiva. Clinging to the top of a mountain that overlooks rooftops, orange groves and cactus fields is this castle, a rambling stone structure over a kilometre long. The castle is over a 1,000 years old, yet, visitors are permitted the freedoms of exploring every inch of the castle without the guards, warnings or barriers installed at other such monuments. For a time, the castle was held by the Almoravid dynasty – and for almost 150 years, Moors occupied the fortress. Then King James I of Aragon charged the castle in 1239, in a desperate crusade to recapture Xàtiva – which, after 5 months, he did. The Moors gave him the small castle while keeping the larger, though eventually, the Christian residents pushed them out. It is amazing that in Spain, when tour guides speak of war and destruction damaging the architecture and the local heritage, they often refer to wars 800 years old, the complete opposite of ancient ruins in Poland or other Soviet-held nations.
Yes, this glittering building in Northern Ireland is different than the Republic of Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, etc). Same island, different government. Here, they use the pound, measure things in miles, and are supposedly ruled by the Queen. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 because unlike the Republic of Ireland to the south, the majority of the population of Northern Ireland (then) wanted to stay part of the UK, as many of them were Protestants. However, the Catholics wanted a united Ireland. Because of this religious and political divide, acts of violence rang out, including the infamous Bloody Sunday (Derry, Northern Ireland), where 26 unarmed protesters were gunned down by the British Army (14 died). It seems that most of the Catholic/Protestant violence has died down today. The Republic of Ireland doesn’t much like the queen, and still organises events to protest that the 6 northern counties haven’t yet became part of the Republic. Today’s Belfast is a small, quiet town by day, known for its nightlife, for providing the world with Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney, and Liam Neeson, and for the building of the Titanic (though this last feat is not something that I’D necessarily be very proud of!).
Ah, rural England. Who’d have thought that such a tiny island that’s been inhabited by so many different groups for so many years would still have room for the countryside? Yet, green pastures, stone cottages and village rectories are such an intrinsic part of England that it would be hard to imagine this country without them. For the whole UK, its overall population density is one of the highest in the world at 256 people per square kilometre. Yet somehow, it still has room for horses and flowers, for wooden fences and mesmerising green fields. Somerset is rural, and it is here that we find the Blackdown Hills, the Mendip Hills, the Quantock Hills, Exmoor National Park, and the flat expanse of the Somerset Levels. It was once known for its apple orchards; its cider is still particularly good (I can attest to this). Even its cities are quaint; take a trip to Bath, Glastonbury, Wells or many other towns and villages, and you will feel as if you are in a storybook rather then a booming town. On a island full of people, Somerset still manages to maintain its true English pastures.
If you’ve never seen an opera performed, I’d suggest you start here, in Vienna. Vienna lives and breathes music. Most North American music studies offer a study-abroad course to Vienna. A major must-see of this miraculous city is the Opera House. And most major music composers you’ve ever heard of have connections to Vienna. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and so many others came to Vienna for music. This is a city where people listen. Music overpowers any other form of communication. So, when you go to Vienna, go to the opera. It was the first major building on the Vienna Ringstaße (circa 1861), and the building itself is impressive. Three hours before a show, go around back to the standing tickets office, and wait in line (you might want to bring a book). When the office opens, buy a ticket to the parterre (in my opinion, the best view of the three options). You’ll have to stand, but you only pay 4 euros for the same view as the seats just in front of you…who all paid upwards of 100 euros (or pay the 100 if you can afford it). You won’t regret it.
“Trys kryžiai” or, The Hill of Three Crosses, Vilnius, Lithuania
Designed by Polish-Lithuanian artist, Antoni Wiwulski (the borders changed so frequently that a mixed nationality is common) in 1916, these concrete crosses in Kalnai Park overlook the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. They were torn down in 1950 by the Soviets (who else…), and only reinstated in that monumental year of 1989 by Henrikas Silgalis. The site has a history of crosses dating back to 1636, and legend has it that they were erected in memory of 7 Franciscan monks were tortured to death in 1333 by local pagans. Another version stars two murdered friars, killed in 1340 by the charming Duke of Lithuania Gediminias (who gave name to the tower which the Three Crosses overlook). No one really knows why the Three Crosses were built—but two things are certain: one, the Crosses are a monument that stirs memories of a nation’s resilience, and two, the view from the hill is unbeatable!
The Royal Mile, is, well, royally impressive, as it’s name suggests. Approximately one Scots mile long, the Royal Mile is a collection of stately streets with massive stone buildings rising up on either side of the cobblestoned street. It runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, snaking past many of Edinburgh’s finest buildings and streets. For literature nerds and Harry Potter fans alike, nearby there is also a pub entitled The Elephant House, which styles itself as “The birthplace of Harry Potter.” The above street here is one of the many beautiful interconnecting streets jutting off the Royal Mile.