What you you think of when someone says “Milan,” “Italy” and “art” in the same sentence? For most of us, it’s marble statues of naked, beautiful but armless women, magnificent painted masterpieces the size of your bedroom, and artistic greats like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Donatello, right? Well, how about an enormous, white, volcano-shaped mound with what looks like giant toy horses popping out of it and tumbling down the sides, in the middle of a the cathedral square? Hmm. Well, it’s certainly unexpected! Milan is already a surprise because it is often overlooked or thrown onto an itinerary as a wildcard; yet, Milan is one of the nicest Italian cities. Cleaner, calmer, and more functional than Southern Italy (sorry, but true), it’s also quite a pretty place. The Piazza del Duomo square, probably the most elegant square in the city, is the cultural and social heart of Milan; it’s also where this statue is located. Though as for the statue…besides its central location, little information is available on it. The best I can find is, “A modern art exhibit in the Piazza,” which is, well, vague. It’s very interesting though, and as Milan is the site of Da Vinici’s well-known horse statue with its tragic history as follows – started in 1482 but never completed by the master artist, later destroyed by marauding French soldiers in 1499 and not to be completed for 5 centuries – perhaps this modern art piece is a nod to that? Or perhaps it is a comment on today’s society, comparing us to stiff, faceless toy horses struggling to climb out of an suffocating mountain of salt and sand. Perhaps it’s just something to turn heads and differentiate Milan from the rest of Italy’s “big” cities. Whatever it is, it’s definitely unexpected!
I wasn’t in Wells for long, but still long enough to recognise its beauty. The site of the well-known cathedral dates back to 705 though this particular structure dates from 1175 to 1490. It has been described by some as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals,” though to be fair, I’m not sure why. Of course it’s pretty, of course it’s terribly impressive when you think about how hard it must have been to build such a creation before computers and cranes and work unions were constructed, but what separates this building from other English cathedrals? I’m afraid I wasn’t there long enough to find out. It is pretty though, and it makes you wonder why, if in 1175 we could make this beautiful creation of stone, and knowing that today our technological knowledge has exponentially increased, why do we make such ugly, ephemeral buildings today? I don’t have the answer. All I know is that…like most European cathedrals, this building has not only stood the test of time, but actually gained beauty and appreciation in the process! Still not sure if it’s the most poetic…but you could pay a visit and find out!
I’ve actually taken some of my favourite photos from car, train or bus windows, due to having a camera with a high shutter speed. Probably my most lucrative drive picture-wise was my trip driving through Andalucía, a beautiful province laying at the bottom of Spain. Andalucía is surprisingly mountainous; roughly 15% of the region reaches above 1,o00m (or 3,300 ft). It also has Iberia’s highest mountains in the Sierra Nevada’s. The Sierra Morena range separates Andalucía from the plains of Extremadura and Castile–La Mancha, though this range isn’t terribly tall (the highest peak, La Bañuela, only reaches 1323m or 4314 ft). It is, however, very dramatic and very beautiful. The scenery is rugged, natural, bright, colourful, unscathed. Yellowed and browned by the infamous Spanish sun, this is a part of Spain only partially inhabited, and even then, most of human conglomerations are the teensy – but breathtakingly gorgeous – White Villages (Pueblos Blancos). Whether you crave rugged terrain, picturesque town, or local dishes and drinks, Andalucía is not a place you should miss!
Fourteen haunting figures both slowly sink and emerge out of a sidewalk corner in the Polish city of Wrocław. Constructed by artist Jerzy Kalina in 2005, the figures are a memorial to the two-year period of harsh martial law inflicted by the People’s Republic of Poland. Martial law is normally established when civilian government fails to function properly, or during times of widespread disregard for the law. Military rule is then imposed temporarily upon citizens after traditional government fails until the problem is resolved. This happened in Poland between December 13, 1981 to July 22, 1983 under Communist rule in an attempt to crush opposition. Activists and dissenters were interned without charges or trials by the thousands; people were literally disappearing off the streets – some 100 people were even killed. Kalina demonstrates this period of terror with his statues of people who are literally being swallowed by the earth while going about their daily lives, reminding us of how much freedom we truly possess today. The fear during a time like this must have been rampant – which is only extenuated by how recent it was. Meandering the streets of today’s Poland, it is hard to imagine that this freedom-less period took place barely 30 years ago – and makes you appreciate just how far Poland has come.
What comes to everybody’s mind when you encounter the word “Dresden”? It’s bombing, of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era…which wasn’t exactly known for its beautiful architecture. However, much of the old town has been restored, showing the resilience of the people, much like their neighbours over in Warsaw (who suffered similar fates, except their town was rebuilt by the Soviets, which is a far worse fate), and other parts of Poland and Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened in mid-February 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever! If I remember correctly, then the black bricks represent the original stones used.
Layers. Layers upon layers. I read somewhere that even though very old countryside churches often look like they have sunk, it’s really that the ground has risen up around them from all of the parishioners who’ve been buried there, as everyone wanted to be as close to the church as possible. While not exactly the case here, this cemetery clearly works upon the foundation of using layers. French cemeteries are not like their US cousins, or at least, not like that ones I’m used to. Headstones are tall, upraised, aligned in rows, and organised into layers with narrow paths snaking in between. Walking down the wide alley at the beginning of the cemetery, it reminds one of walking through a small town. A town of the dead. A ghost town, if you will. Both creepy and fascinating, it is worth it to visit a cemetery such as this–especially when lit by the sunlight’s far-reaching beams.
Aside from its ancient dinosaur fossils and its famous story, Los Amantes de Teruel, the city of Teruel is most known for its Mudéjar architecture. Along with a few other structures in the Teruel province, its Mudéjar buildings comprise a UNESCO world heritage site. The term “Mudéjar” refers to the Moors or Muslims of Al-Aandalus that remained on the Iberian peninsula after the Reconquista by the Christians. Unlike other groups, these were Muslims who had not converted to Christianity, and continued to influence buildings, decorations and architectural style in Iberia throughout the 12th-16th centuries. Above is Teruel’s beautiful Cathedral of St. Mary de Mediavilla and bell-tower. Commissioned in the 1200’s by Alfonso II in typical Romanesque style, a Muslim architect called Juzaff completely restructured it in 1257, embellishing it in Mudéjar style. Two centuries later, it was further restructured in Gothic-Mudéjar style. The ceiling is especially spectacular, a mix of the two cultures and covered in beautiful, hand-painted designs; though to see it, you must pay for a tour and sadly, photography is strictly prohibited. Today, Teruel’s cathedral and bell-tower remain some of the best-preserved and most representative relics of Mudéjar architecture still visible on the Iberian Peninsula.
True to it’s name, Sham Castle, is indeed a fake. It is what the English call a “folly” (yes, they have an official term for “fake castle”), which means that the castle was built somewhat recently (usually 18-19th century) to resemble a medieval castle – just because someone decided they wanted a exciting, over-sized lawn ornament. In this case, the castle was built by Richard James for Ralph Allen in 1762 (though the style is clearly supposed to remind us of King Arthur‘s day). The reason why Allen dispensed large amounts of cash for a false structure nothing more than a facade and hidden away in the forest up a steep hill? To improve the view and “prospect” of his posh townhouse in central Bath. Of course. He wasn’t even the only one. Follies such as Broadway Tower, Fronthill Abbey, Hagley Hill, Castle Hill in Filleigh, Gwrych Castle, and many others exist all over the UK, and Europe. It seems that 18th and 19th Europeans were just as obsessed with castles then as we are today; the difference being that then, instead of voyaging to the real ones, they merely hired someone to build a fake one in their own backyards!
As stereotypes go, the Frenchman (or woman) with a baguette tucked under their arm is a big one…and one that is actually rather true, at least to the degree that buying the bread from the baker is a daily task. As a current member of a French family, it’s my job to get the bread everyday. To do so, I have to walk across this ancient arched bridge, the Pont Vieux-sur-le-Garon. Dating back to the Middle Ages, this bridge links the neighbourhood section of town with the commercial centre. Cobblestones line the bottom of this beautiful humpback bridge. Once part of the route connecting Lyon to Saint-Étienne, in 1399 the bailiff of Lyon collected a tax from the people of Brignais and Vourles to fix the little bridge, causing it to stand the test of time. And since 1934, it’s listed as a historical monument in France, further protecting it. Though easier to walk across the new bridge (as the cobblestones can be hard and uncomfortable to navigate), walking across the bridge in rain or shine with baguettes under my arm has become both a habit and a treat. Any day that I don’t manage to cross my lovely bridge with the daily bread is a sad day indeed.
If you haven’t been to Prague, then you are certainly missing out. Yes it’s true, so many others have decided to make the trip that you will be up to the neck in tourists (even in December, when this photo was taken). But is that a reason to miss out for a chance to see a contender for Most Beautiful European City? (tied with Tallinn, Brugge, and perhaps Budapest, though Prague is the frontrunner). The Charles Bridge, with construction beginning in 1357 under King Charles IV, was originally called the Stone Bridge or Prague Bridge; the name wasn’t changed until 1870. In fact, the bridge was the only means to cross the Vltava River up until 1841. Clearly, it was–and is–full of people, but traversing the bridge is also a wonderful experience. A way to avoid the crowds would be to be an early riser and get out there to photograph the famous bridge before the other tourists awaken–quite the opposite of this photo taken at high noon. Evening is also a lovely time for a stroll. No matter how or when you cross the Charles Bridge, it will still be beautiful.
It gets cold in Poland; everyone knows that. And, okay, five months of the sun setting around 15h does get annoying after awhile. But you have to hand it to the Polish – they do a good job at making the best of their long winters. For example, around Christmastime and extending through January and February, Warsaw’s streets, squares and other public places are decorated with brightly-lit, fun-shaped decorations. Christmas markets in Central and Eastern Europe are worth the time spent in the chilly air. Certain days, there is light show in the main square. People sell hot wine on the streets. This past year, they set up a small light maze at Wilanow, the former Summer Palace (now part of Warsaw). The theme at the time (2013) was “games” – hence the giant cards and figures representing the different suites, chess pieces, a Magic 8 ball (which for reasons unknown actually said “7” – perhaps it is only supposed to represent a pool ball), etc. With the over-sized, over-simplified objects, all game pieces from a hodgepodge of games, one feels bit like Alice walking through a very cold and very dark Wonderland. Bizarre, a little, but still. You have to appreciate the effort. Just because it’s cold and dark doesn’t mean that Warsaw or anywhere in Poland has to be miserable.
I wasn’t prepared for how green France was going to be. When one thinks of “green” and “Europe” in the same sentence, it’s usually followed by “Ireland” or “England.” France doesn’t often come to mind. When it comes to French nature, it’s white we think of…all those pretty alpine mountains. And of course, French cities, are, well, cities. So sitting at a café in Paris or at a bouchon (local restaurant) in Lyon, green isn’t something you’ll see much of. And yet, especially in the north and central départements, you step away from the cobblestones, restaurants, cafés and pretty buildings into the true countryside, and suddenly, the world goes green. Interestingly enough, Lyon (about 30 km from Tarare), has an annual average rainfall of 32.8 inches per month (according to this site), while England has an annual average rainfall of 33.7 inches per month (so say wikipedia). So–not such different numbers. France is prettily green…and proud of it!
So perhaps Milan is not the most beautiful of all the Italian cities. But you know what? It’s certainly one of the nicest. It doesn’t have Rome’s dirtiness, it doesn’t have Venice’s massive influx of tourists or Florence’s intensely long lines, and it has plentiful amenities that all those cute little Italian 2,000-person paradises don’t have. Milan is a decent-sized city that is, unfortunately, rather ignored. It shouldn’t be. Milan is a lovely place. Here, for example, is Sforza Castle, a 15th century fortification built by the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, on the remains of a 14th construction. When Italy was finally unified in the 19th century, it was transferred from military to cultural usage, now housing several of the city’s museums. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (who frescoed several rooms along with Bernardio Zenale and Bernadino Butinone) and Bramante, who added frescoes in the Sala del Tesoro, have contributed to Sforza. After obtaining the castle, the city turned its grounds into a park, hence these two bikers. Italians, as do most Europeans, love to get around town on two wheels as opposed to four – perhaps accounting for their overall general state of healthiness!
Just the thought of a quiet village located on a cliff in the woods of Lativa is a bit eerie. Throw in a creepy old decrepit manor house, a windy grey sky, leafless trees, and the fact that you are totally alone in this abandoned corner of Latvia and can hear every single noise the world tosses your way, and suddenly you’ve got shivers on your spine (and that’s not just because you’re too cheap to turn on the radiator). Built in 1822, the Krimulda Manor House seems like it hasn’t seen much care ever since. Well, nothing in Krimulda has, which is just a small collection of houses barely qualifying as a village crossroads. (Though there are some small ruins of an old castle there, which are actually quite fascinating.) The Manor House however, is another story. Built by persons called (wait for it…) Counts von Lieven, in neo-classical style (aka creepily curving roof and huge scary porch with peeling columns style), its peeling paint, faded facade and creaking shutters scream Scooby-Doo-esque frights. The fact that it is now a sanatorium…well, that ends that. Creepy, creepy. Needless to say, I consulted the map, found the trail, and practically ran for the safety of the woods.
Okay, it’s been awhile; sorry about that, but at least I have a good excuse! I was travelling! Images from Belgium to come soon! In the meantime, here is the little town of Bradford-on-Avon (yes, it’s on the same river as Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, as the name suggests). A typical English town, Bradford has less than 10,000 residents–though plenty of pubs (of course!) like the one here. Happily overlooking the Avon River, it also rests on the edge of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The pretty little path running alongside the canal creates a lovely place for a walk, bike or run on those rare sunny mornings. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run!