Category Archives: Cultural gems

N is for New Zealand

New Zealand is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours and our links go back to the ANZAC tradition and before.  Regularly referred to as across the ditch, New Zealand is a few hours flight from Australia and one of the greatest places to go for all sorts of reasons.

Showcased by New Zealand director Peter Jackson in the trilogy Lord of the Rings and again in The Hobbit New Zealand is spectacular in scenery, rich in history and Maori culture, is home to the best sauvignon blancs on the planet (just my opinion but I haven’t tried a Marlborough sav blanc I haven’t liked) and home of the adventure and adrenalin junkies best fixes.

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Auckland is the largest city and main gateway, but Wellington in the south of the North Island is its capital.   Auckland is on two harbours and water sports are a way of life.  Take a ferry across the bay and explore a local village neighbourhood.  Take a sail on an America’s Cup boat.  Explore the city on the morning tour and climb an extinct volcano.  Adrenalin seekers can try the Auckland Tower.

North of Auckland is the Bay of Islands area.  Check out the dolphin cruise from Paihia or Russell and view the Hole in the Rock as well as some very upmarket homes.  While in this region visit the Treaty Ground and explore historic Russell, on a island a three minute ferry from Paihia and if you enjoy a walk and don’t mind a bit of a climb, the views from the lookout are spectacular.

Hole in the Rock Cruise

Check out the glowworm caves at Waitomo south of Auckland, and make time to visit not just the main cave, but one of the other two as well.  Two Dogs cave is fascinating as is the history of how they found the cave ( the hint is in the name) and there are glowworms here too.

Rotorua is the centre for Maori culture.  Enjoy a hangi and savour superbly cooked food done in a traditional earth oven – yum.  Visit the thermal centres in the town and also nearby.  See the world the way it was when it was young – New Zealand is relatively young and still quite geothermically active.

rotorua-trilogy

Let the cares of the world wash away in the hot springs and have a mud scrub and massage for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand is there is permanent snow nearby.

If architecture is of interest to you it is worth the drive ( but fill up in Lake Taupo because there are no petrol stations on the road) to Napier on the east coast.  Devastated by earthquake in 1930 the city was rebuilt in Art Deco style and the walking tour is absolutely worth doing.  South after lots of very rural scenery – extremely contented cows and sheep –  is the town of Marlborough, a wine making area worth a look.  If you take the first signpost to the wineries you won’t find the wineries, but you will find a New Zealand quirk – their version of Stonehenge for the southern hemisphere.

Over the pass and south to Wellington.   Capital, affectionately called the windy city,  it is home to a fabulous museum, a sweet little zoo and great views from the cable car top station.  It is quite hilly so be prepared for some climbing or use the lifts that go up the hill usually found in shopping malls.

Wellington city-views

Wellington is the departure point for ferries to the South Island, but I have gone on too long already.  I will keep the South Island for next.

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Bruges

Bruges has always been a tourist town, and on a beautiful Saturday in late September it was a little overrun, but our guide managed to find two places I had not been to before, both of them oases of tranquility in what can be a busy place.  The first was an alms house, in off a lane near our hotel.  Gardens in the centre, small cottages around the outside and a peaceful atmosphere, these houses date to the sixteenth century and provided housing to those who needed it most.

 

The second place is the Beguinage. This is a separate community set up by women in the middles ages whose husbands had died, or whom were never married, but came from wealth.  They created a community of housing for women with a shared church, gardens and ensured that people who had less were taken care of.  This community still exists, and is closed from 6 pm to 6 am.  During the day you are able to visit and it is beautiful and peaceful.  The church is worth a look and the trees of the park are beautiful.  If you can time your visit to early spring, the park is a field of daffodils.

 

Bruges offers canal boat trips to see the sights of the city, and is a very walkable city.  Look out for the “old” bridge which is barely 50 years old,  and if you are looking for a snack, the chocolate shops will not disappoint,nor will the waffles – just look for the long lines outside to make sure you are getting the best freshly made waffles.

However you do it #visitbruges.

In Flanders Fields

I spent a week as a guest of #visitflanders at the end of September visiting Brussels, Bruges, the Flanders fields area and finishing in Gent. Although I had visited the cities before ( a very long time ago) it was my first visit to the fields where so many very young Australia, New Zealand, British, Canadian, French, Belgian and German men gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like for these young men in the trenches. We were very privileged to see an actual Australian trench that has been rediscovered as a result of an archaeological dig to find the crypt of the Zonnebeke church. It is only open for a few months and will be resealed in November. The neighbouring museum of Passchendaele (#passchendaele100) has a recreation of the trenches, but the real thing is different.

Cold, dank, slightly smelly, the corridors are streaked with blue clay and orange and yellow lines of the minerals the trenches were cut through. It is a bleak place. We were there in September on a lovely day – in the trenches in December mid winter would have been a freezing hell.

There are 600 cemeteries in Flanders Fields. Some are huge – Tyne Cot has almost 12,000 marked graves and thousands more names inscribed on a memorial wall. Far too many are inscribed “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.” Some are tiny – a few gravestones at the back of someone’s farm. Some you can see from the road, some you have to search out, as we did visiting Toronto Avenue (named by the Canadians but the only cemetery which is entirely Australian.) You walk through beautiful woods to the end and the cemetery is there, peaceful and beautiful.

We participated in the Menin Gate ceremony,and then were very privileged to attend the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Polygon Wood (#passchendaele100). Even the 1 am start for a 2 am drive to Polygon Wood did not dampen the sense of occasion. The walk through the wood along the path of remembrance took us on a journey telling us about the battle. We saw the short distance between enemy lines; people re-enacted soldiers bringing the wounded back to the dressing station and cooks in the mess tent. We saw Scott’s bunker, taken during the battle and then joined the service. There was music from the army band and a Queensland children’s choir, a viewing of a short film called The Telegram Man which was very moving, and readings from current servicemen about the men who preceded them so long ago, and how the VC winners won their medals. Everyone had their spine chill moment. For me it was the Spirit of Place when an Aboriginal man played the didgeridoo in the darkness, filling the space with a deep thrum from ancient times half way round the world, to bring those men home.

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I do not have a direct family connection to the fields of Flanders to my knowledge, but it does not matter. Anyone and everyone will respond to something about the fields of Flanders. It might be the sheer beauty of the gentle countryside as time has healed many of the wounds inflicted by war. It might be the sense of sacrifice seen in the myriad rows of headstones. It might be the Last Post at Menin Gate, held every night at 8 pm whether there are people there or not. This place is worth your time and your reflection. It might be the place to be on November 11th  2018 when the centenary of the Armistice will take place. Book now.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.