Category Archives: Cultural gems

L is for Lichtenstein and Luxembourg

 

It’s a two for one today.  Lichtenstein and Luxembourg are two of what are known as the microstates of Europe, tiny principalities, duchies or city states that are quirky and fascinating to explore.

Lichtenstein, all of twenty five kilometres long, is a principality between Austria and Switzerland.  The capital and only main town is Vaduz where the Prince still lives in the castle – and no, you can’t stay there.  It would be like asking if you could stay in Buckingham Palace!  German speaking, lots of medieval castles and villages linked by walking trails, it is a delightful place to spend a little time getting to know.

Schlossvaduz. Lichtenstein

And like all countries it has its own postal system, so philatelists will love the chance to get their stamps.

Luxembourg is the Lux in the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.  A Grand Duchy, Luxembourg is 998 square miles and has a population of just over half a million.  Bordered by France, Germany and Belgium, and a stone’s throw from Trier, the city perches over two steep gorges and is famous for its Casemates du Bock, tunnels and caves now galleries, worked deep into the cliffs, and a lovely medieval town centre.  The Moselle river winds through the duchy and the Chemin du Corniche is a walk with beautiful views to enjoy.

Luxembourg

French is used for legislation, German and the local Luxembourgish are the most widely spoken languages. The French influence is in the fabulous patisseries to be found on almost every corner.

Get your stamps here too.

Along with Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta and Andorra these little gems are well worth the time.

 

J is for Japan

Japan is a blend of eastern wisdom, culture, effortlessly enhanced natural beauty and style with technologies that lead the world and affect every aspect of modern life.  And it is in this blend that Japan fascinates and beguiles the traveller.

Temple Japan

Big cities can overwhelm the first time traveller.  Expect to get turned around in the Tokyo subway system and don’t be afraid to ask which way is where.  It is all a part of getting to know the city.  Be sure to take a hotel card with you – if all else fails grab a taxi and you will get back to your home base.  Tokyo offers imperial palaces, beautiful gardens and park areas as well as some of the craziest shopping you will experience in the Ginza.  It is possible to live for a week or more just from the vending machines, which will provide everything from pyjamas and toothbrushes and toothpaste to clean underwear and food, and drinks as well as just about anything else you might need.

Ginza

If big cities are not for you, the bullet trains will get you out of the city quickly, and you can explore the countryside and smaller towns which retain a deal of the old Japanese traditional life.  View Mt Fuji from the bullet train, explore the Hakone region, and maybe head south to explore more of the history of this country.

Kyoto was the capital before Tokyo and is home to beautiful wooden castles and graceful Shinto temples.  If you can manage your visit in spring the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

Kyoto also offers some very good ryokans – the traditional Japanese inns.  Not cheap, one night will give you a taste of this other worldly experience.  You receive a traditional Japanese dinner, sleeping accommodations on rooms defined by how many tatami mats it holds, access to the baths where you clean first and then enter the bath, and breakfast in the morning.  You may even get the traditional tea ceremony.

Tea ceremony

The cities of Nara, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are frequently visited as well, for heritage and for the latter two the World War 2 atomic bomb connections.  Osaka, a large and busy city is another gateway to southern Japan.

The trains will get you around safely and efficiently.  For travellers there are two kinds of train passes – the ordinary, which is really all you will need, and the green which is primarily aimed at tourists.  Railpasses come in a range of regions, from all Japan to the western and eastern  Honshu pass for the main island, and passes for each of the main four islands.

There is so much more to Japan than this – skiers will be well catered for in Hokkaido and also in the central mountains of Honshu.  Go find the baboons that keep themselves warm sitting in the hot springs as it snows, taste the noodle soups in the tiny restaurants all over the places – it is all there.

Oh, and practise your bows.

I is for India

 

India is huge.  Think north for mountains, British raj period forts and fabulous Indian Palaces, and the Himalayas in the north.  Think south for really fiery curries, beaches, the Kerala backwater cruises and sun and sand in Goa.

This will just cover some of the main sights of the north.

Most will fly into either Delhi or Mumbai.  Delhi is the nation’s capital, Mumbai its biggest city.  Delhi is made up of the Old City – tiny winding laneways, ancient mosques and temples, rickshaw drivers and cows in the streets.  Great spice markets and street food if you are really careful.

India 2016 036

New Delhi is what happened when the British decided to build.  Wide streets and boulevards, squares and fountains.  Trees and parks, and the main buildings of government.  They offered their buildings to the Maharajahs and they basically said why would we want to live in these hovels?  When you see their palaces you will understand what they mean.  From Delhi most tourists will take the Golden Triangle tour or a variation of it.  Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.  Agra is home to the first thing most people think of when you say India – the Taj Mahal.  It also is home to the Red Fort which is still half occupied by the Indian Military.  The Taj Mahal does not disappoint, is worth the early start to see it in the cooler morning air and with fewer people.  There is a smaller version of the Taj Mahal you can visit as well.  Nowhere near the same scale but all the techniques used in the Taj Mahal were tried out in the baby Taj and it is lovely in its own right.

India 2016 196

About 45 minutes from Agra is the mosque and palace complex of Fatepur Sikri, another world heritage site.  Although the hawkers can be very insistent in the mosque, once clear of there the palace is wonderfully atmospheric and the complex has many different features from the usual buildings, including an amazing audience chamber where the king was literally raised above anyone seeking his presence, and both a public entertainment area and a private bathhouse.  Gorgeous red stone glows in the sunlight.

india-2016-285

Across to the west is Jaipur – one of my favourite place in India.  The Pink City truly is – right down to the letter boxes.  The façade of the Palace of the Winds is actually the place from behind which in earlier times the women could look out onto the streets and see the life of the ordinary people that they were not permitted to take part in.  The Amber Fort is a revelation.  Midway up a hill with fabulous views over the valley, a formal garden in the lake and more rooms than you can count as well as courtyards and meeting spaces, the Amber Fort was the summer home and also winter palace of the local maharajah.  The inlaid tiled and  mirrored ceiling was his present to his wife who missed the stars because she was not permitted outside, so she could see a version of the night sky.  Extraordinarily beautiful and it glows amber in the morning sunlight.

India 2016 352

In an extended version of the Golden Triangle you can go further west again to Udaipur, where I visited last September.  The famous Lake Palace is there, the summer palace of the City palace in the heart of the city on a man made lake.  Udaipur is greener, cleaner and wealthier than much of Rajasthan. It has a strong sense of its own history and resisted the British raj and earned respect for doing so.  About a 45 minute drive from Udaipur in the middle of nowhere is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a heritage working hotel that you can stay in if you choose.  If you get a chance visit a village and meet the locals and the kids.  One of the best things you can do!

india-2016-586

The Ganges is sacred to India, and the most sacred city is Varanasi.  This is where you will see people bathe in the waters for healing, and where many people are farewelled in funeral pyres.  North and you are into the Darjeeling area famous for tea plantation and the place the British escaped the summer heat.

Don’t be afraid of India.  It is fascinating and beguiling, and the food is fabulous.

H is for Hungary

For many people Hungary is Budapest, beginning or end point for the 14 day river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam and vice versa.  It is a great city and well worth a few days to explore properly.  Once part of the huge Austro-Hungarian empire, Budapest has some impressive buildings including their Parliament Houses based on the British House of Parliament and has bridges between western and eastern cultures.  You can stroll along the Danube and stop for coffee and cake, indulge in the local goulash and soups or relax in a Turkish bath.

Pearl Bridge Budapest

One of the great things to do in Budapest is to stroll the riverbank and check out the connections between Hungary and Australia, and be reminded of the contribution of Hungarian nationals – Rubik of the cube is just one.  Cross the Pearl Bridge to the Buda side  (Buda is high on the hill, Pest is flat and the main part of the city) and take the funicular up to the top – or climb if you are fit!

The beautiful St Mattias Church is well worth a wander, and the Fisherman’s Bastion will give you spectacular views over Pest and especially of the river and the houses of parliament.  But go further into the city of Buda and you will be rewarded with little shops and ruins of the castle and views over to the hills beyond the city.

P1060801

In Pest the market is a focal point.  You can get anything and everything there.  The Hungarian florint is still used and Hungary is still amazing value for money.  Pick up paprika to spice up your cooking, or indulge in beautiful handcrafted embroideries in the shops along the main shopping street.  Heroes Square does its best to impress and is surrounded by museums to help explain their history.  Some impressive statues.  The Turkish baths are nearby.

The Jewish synagogue is a fascinating visit.  Hire a guide to get all the lowdown on the history, and have a look at the garden around the back which is a memorial as well as a pleasant retreat.   If you are a music buff the Opera House runs tours you can take to see the fading grandeur of this building.

Away from the city there are spa towns to explore like Lake Heviz  and the town on Lake Balaton Tihany with its Benedictine monastery.

The Hungarians are friendly and welcoming.  Allow several days to get to know the city, and several more to explore beyond.

 

G is for Germany

Germany is many things to many people.  Depending on your age, your nationality and your interests, it might be a place you would avoid like the plague, can’t wait to see, or go to for a specific thing only.

For me, Germany has family connections several generations back when my father’s great grandfather came from Silesia, then part of Germany, to begin a new life in South Australia.  Whilst I did not get to Silesia (now a part of Poland) on my travels, I did come to really like and appreciate Germany a great deal.

I spent a month travelling through Germany.  What is most notable is the difference between north and south.  The northerners don’t count the southerners as Germans! They are Bavarians!   You will also discover that things you see in the south are not necessarily to be found in the north.  Buy wood carvings in the south; they don’t exist in the north.  And where France has a patisserie on every corner, in Germany it is an apothecary – a chemist!

While there are lots of differences, there are many things to recommend a visit to Germany.  The precision engineering is to be seen everywhere, on the autobahns, in the railway system, and in the car manufacturing.   Even the factory design will amaze you at the BMW headquarters in Munich.  That know how has been put to great use reconstructing towns and village destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.  You would almost not know it had happened so well recreated have towns been.

History buffs will love the flamboyant castles of Ludwig II in Bavaria. Neuschwanstein Castle ( the one Disney modelled his Fantasyland castle after) is just up the road from his father’s castle Hohenschwangau.  And his other castles, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee are worth a look as well.  Near to Neuschwanstein is Oberammergau, the town which hosts the Passion play every ten years in thanks for being spared the plague in the middle ages.
Another kind of history is to be found at Dachau with a visit to the concentration camp there.  A truly sobering reminder of what humans are capable of doing to each other.  You will also find WWII history in Nuremburg, which is a beautiful medieval town in its own right, and has the added layer of the rallies.

Neuschwanstein jpeg

If it is scenery you are after, Germany has it in spades.  The Alps will inspire you, the Romantic road charm you – my favourite place is Rothenburg – a walled city frozen in time and just delightful.  Check out the Christmas shop, open all year round.

Rothenburg

The Rhine is the lifeblood of trade and much of tourism in Germany and the cruise along the river will show you dramatic gorges, castles and vineyards.

And for those of you with a literary bent, see the statue of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or the Bremen Town musicians in the north and visit Gutenberg’s  original printing press in Mainz.

Bremen town musicians

Germans also know how to party.  Join the Oktoberfest (held in September!) in Munich, and if you are not travelling at the right time for that, any beerhall will show you strong ladies carrying up to eight steins at a time.

Beer cellars

One of the joys of travel is stumbling across something unexpected.  I was in Trier for a few hours en route to somewhere else and discovered the city was celebrating 1000 years as a city (it was a while ago!)  I stopped and had a glass of wine in its honour, and got to see the Roman Porta Negra or Black Gate also in Trier.
I climbed to the top of the tower of the thirteenth century Cologne Cathedral to see the views  and discovered the stone set at the top to mark its completion 632 years later!   And the locals in the very upmarket bars are very happy to disport amazing hair styles and colours.

Cologne cathedral and bridge

I have barely touched what there is to see and do in Germany.  You may be pleasantly surprised at what it has to offer.

F is for France

 

France has long been a favourite destination for travellers from all over the world, and with good reason.

Whilst Paris is inundated with 3 million plus visitors a year, it still manages to keep a sense of itself.  Thoroughly sophisticated and surprisingly outdoorsy for a northern capital, Paris delights in its local markets – fabulous cheeses, fresh crusty baguettes that are simply never eaten the next day, and fabulous patisseries that are a feast for the eyes as much as the tastebuds.

The tourist and traveller alike will see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, go to see a show at the Moulin Rouge and  visit the Louvre.  But a traveller also will grab a local train or bus and find green spaces, explore the amazing cemeteries to see the resting places of famous French figures and lots of cats,  walk the streets of the local neighbourhoods and eat at the bistros that will serve local food.  Take a walk around the Left Bank, sip a coffee and people watch.

paris-by-night-notre-dame

Beyond Paris explore the Loire Valley for chateaux like Chenenceau and Amboise;  drop in to see the gothic cathedral in Chartres or closer to Paris do the combined Versailles and Monet’s garden tour.  Yes this is touristy, but absolutely worth it for both places.

History lovers will check out the battlefields of World War I and the landing beaches of World War II in the north.

caen-landing-beaches

Those wanting more spiritual succour will visit the beautiful Mont St Michel, see where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake or visit Lisieux Basilica or the Bayeux tapestry which isn’t a tapestry at all.   Explore the Celtic connections with Wales, Ireland and Scotland in Brittany.

For remote, untouched villages and towns the Massif Central will give you a glimpse into life as it has been for centuries.  Just make sure your brakes are really good as it is a steep climb to most of the villages.  Bordeaux on the coast offers entrée to the wineries of the region;  and if wine is your thing, Beaune will do the same on the Swiss side.

In the south, the Roman influence is strong.  Visit Pont Du Gard, Nimes, Avignon for the fourteenth century papal place and bump into Roman arenas where the local kids play soccer.  Rub shoulders with film stars in Cannes if you are there at the festival time, explore the English Promenade in Nice and get lost in the wilderness of the Camargue and explore Carcassonne,  a fabulous walled city.  And lavender fields abound in the perfume making areas.

carcasonne

So much to do.  So much to see.  So much to taste.  Get amongst it.

Canada East

Whilst most people are very familiar with the West Coast of Canada, the eastern side offers a great deal as well.

Toronto is the main entry city for the eastern side of Canada and is well worth a look.  On the shores of the great lakes, renowned for being quite windy, and with the impressive Toronto Tower for spectacular views the city, like most eastern Canadian cities, boasts an entire underground city.  It is so cold during winter the underground malls with their shops and cafes become the streets the locals use to get between buildings and city blocks.

For many people Toronto is the jumping off point to visit Niagara Falls.  One of the three great waterfalls of the world, and like the other two straddling two countries, the falls have an impressive amount of water over them.  However the town itself is less than pleasant.

Much better is the little town of Niagara on the Lake about 25 -30 minutes’ drive from the falls themselves.  This little gem is very pretty with gorgeous trees and green areas.  It hosts a George Bernard Shaw festival in the summer and is a much nicer base to see the falls.

niagara-on-the-lake

And by the way, Niagara is best seen from the Canadian side where the views are.  The Maid of the Mist will get you wet, so take a waterproof camera if you want to get photos and not destroy your camera.

The French first settled the eastern area of Canada and their influence is particularly strong in Quebec and Montreal.  Montreal is a university town and their park was designed by the same man as Central Park in New York.

lafontaine-park-downtown

Alive with students, music, festivals and energy this is a great city to get lost in.  The cathedral in downtown Montreal was where Celine Dion was married – it is her local church.

The capital of Ontario is Ottawa, and one of my favourite places.  The city boasts gorgeous architecture, the amazing Rideau Canal that the locals use as a skating rink to work in winter, and quite possibly the best museum I have ever experienced in the Museum of Civilisation.

Across the river in French speaking Ottawa ( but everyone speaks some English) the Museum has an impressive atrium with a range of totem poles from all over Canada, telling the history of the First Nations.  But the museum itself is one long pathway through the exhibits that you cannot get lost on, even if you take a detour to explore one of the offshoot exhibits.  It tells the story of Canada beginning with prehistoric Canada and ending in the departure lounge of Vancouver airport – just amazing.

canadian-museum-of-civilization-ottawa-49310

Quebec City is the only walled city in North America.  You can walk almost the whole way round with the exception of one small area.  The wall was designed to protect the people from the English – which it did to a limited extant until the English prevailed.  You can see the fortifications and place where the battles took place.  Great views over the St Lawrence River, and views across the city to the fabulous Hotel Chateau de Frontenac, one of the most photographed landmarks in North America.

remparts-ville-de-quebecLe Petit Champlains district is the oldest and most French quarter in the city.  Cobbled streets and lovely old houses, as well as shops and restaurants.  And if you have a death wish, or your cholesterol levels are so low they need some boosting,  the local speciality is poutine –  fries cheese and gravy – nicknamed heart attack on a plate!

poutine

Quebec City is the beginning point for cruises along the St Lawrence River through the Canadian maritimes and places like Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables country.  They generally end in Boston.

The eastern provinces of Canada may not have the Rocky Mountains and the spectacular scenery but it makes up for it with history, charm, an elegance of style and gentle beauty.

Go in autumn and be wowed by the fall colours.  You will not regret your journey.