E is for Ecuador

Named for the Equator this South American country is one of those somewhat overlooked places.

The capital Quito, built on the ruins of an Inca city,  is one of the highest capitals in the world, perched in foothills of the Andes Mountains at 2850 metres.   With its Spanish conquistador history and impressive colonial churches  and fascinating old town area, one of the delights of Quito is the colourful local markets with great fruit and brightly decorated ceramics.  Further out explore ruins of ancient civilisations.

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Take a drive to the equator itself and you have an impressive monument of the actual line of the equator and several museums recounting the history of the exploration of the equator.  You can straddle both hemispheres here.

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Ecuador is home to one of the most remarkable island systems on the planet – the Galapagos Islands.  A flight due west from Quito will bring you to the main island and from there the best way to see the islands is on a cruise.  Manned by expert guides who will explain this unique island chain and ecosystem, you will explore several islands and meet the local marine iguanas, bright red crabs, multitudes of seabirds, and possibly the amazing equatorial penguin.   Nowhere else can you get so close to wildlife.  Not hunted by men or feral animals, you can literally walk centimetres from birds on nests and past sealions basking on the steps on the back of your boat.  It is the place that crystallised Charles Darwin’s work Origin of the Species and revolutionised our understanding of how life evolved on earth.  Check out the blue footed boobies, again unique to these islands.

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Let Ecuador delight you in so many ways.

D is for Denmark

Denmark is one of the Scandinavian countries  on the north coast of Europe.  Largely flat and with lots of waterways, its coastal position has meant trade over a long period of time.  Copenhagen the capital has been lauded in song, and is indeed quite lovely.  The old port area of Nyhavn is a colourful and interesting walking area for shops and ships.  Take the canal trip and see the city from the water that is its lifeblood.

Home to the royal family, the four matched Amalienborg Palaces forming a square are worth a look, and keep an eye out for Frederick and Mary and the kids!  Hans Christian Andersen made the Little Mermaid famous, and her statue is on the waterfront, but if you are expecting something huge it is not.  Look out for great Danish ceramic ware predominantly in blue and white.  Elsinore castle is the model for Hamlet’s castle.  And the Tivoli Gardens will entertain and feed you very happily.

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A train ride away is Odense the birthplace of Denmark’s favourite son Hans Christian Andersen.  You can see his home as a museum now.  Denmark also gave us the lego block.  Legoland in Billund is an entire country made out of lego bricks.  See scale models of the Amalienburg Palaces, landmarks worldwide and star wars and marvel at how much work goes into this place.

If history is your thing, checkout the Grauballe Man in Aarhus in Jutland the north.  When he was first found in 1952, the police thought they had a murder on their hands.  It turns out however that the body is from somewhere about the third century BCE and was remarkably well preserved. The orange hair is coloured by the bog he was found in.

And of course no visit to Denmark can miss the Grauballe Man.  Enjoy!

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

C is for Canada

For Australians, Canada has an unmistakable attraction, and for all sorts of great reasons.

Canadians share a similar system of Government, they know who the Queen is, and they have a similar sense of humour.  Add to that a natural politeness their cousins to the south seem to have forgotten, and Canadians are amongst the most welcoming and friendly people you will meet.

Add to that a country that is simply spectacular in scenery, rich in history and very easy to navigate and you have one of the most popular countries for Australians – actually for anyone- to visit.

From west to east, north to south Canada offers a huge range of possibilities for the traveller.  Most people will enter Vancouver as their first port of call crossing the Pacific. Surrounded by sea, boasting the fabulous Stanley Park as home to recreation for the Vancouverites and offering every modern amenity, Vancouver is a very liveable city.  Check out the Granville Markets and cross by tub boat if you want a truly unique experience!  Visit Gastown for Vancouver’s history and explore the local shops, bars and restaurants. Capilano suspension bridge and now the skywalk on the edge will get you to dizzying heights over the gorge.  Vancouver is also the main gateway for the Alaska Inside Passage cruises.

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Capitol of British Colombia is Victoria on Vancouver Island.  It is possible to fly in or take a ferry.  The Parliament building dominates the harbour, as does the gorgeous Fairmont Empress Hotel.  Victoria boasts the only runway that closes for whales who have right of way over the seaplanes.  Famous for the Butchart Gardens, hundreds of thousands of people experience the beauty of these gardens created from a disused quarry every year.  Absolutely required viewing!

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If it is scenery you are after, look no further than the Rocky Mountains. Whistler for skiing and also summer activities, Sun Peaks for skiing as well, and the world renowned towns of the Rockies – Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.  Mountains clad in snow or wildflowers and trees, lakes of emerald water, wildlife abounding.  The Athabasca snowfields will amaze.

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If you love your trains, the Rocky Mountaineer is hard to beat, but Canada’s ViaRail will also allow you to explore the country as well.  Rail to Whistler and into the north mountains at Quesnel, and try the transcontinental train from Vancouver to Toronto if you really love rail travel.

On the western edge of the continent lies the Yukon.  Gold has shaped the history of the province and for those with the urge to get off the beaten tourist track, this is a place of wide vistas and great adventures.

Speaking of outdoors – the Calgary Stampede is an annual spectacle in August.  Covered wagon races, First Nations culture and lots of fun for everyone.  Next time  -Eastern Canada.

B is for Belgium

Sometimes subsumed into what is called the Benelux countries  (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg) Belgium is a small country with a big impact.  It is well worth a week of your time to explore and get to know this little gem.  It offers much more than chocolate, waffles and pommes frites with bearnaise sauce!

Tucked up in the north-western corner of Europe, France to its west and The Netherlands and Luxembourg alongside, this country boasts a long tradition of commerce and wealth because of it. The capital Brussels is at one end of the Eurostar so it is easy to get to from London and Paris.  It is home to the European Union Parliament and its very tiny but world-famous statue and fountain, Manneken Pis. Over time it has become a tradition for visiting heads of state to donate miniature versions of their national costume for the little naked boy. The wardrobe of Mannekin Pis can be seen at the Brussels museum and includes over 760 outfits – even an authentic Elvis jumpsuit. The main square the Grand Place, including the Town Hall is a focal point and jumping off point for sightseeing.  Numbers of museums covering just about anything Belgian are close by.

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If you are there at the right time, every second year in August – plan for 2018, Brussels hosts the floral carpet festival.  Each festival is themed and the Grand Place is awash with the floral carpets.

For those with an artistic bent, Rene Magritte has a museum in Brussels.  For those who love their literature, try the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and check out Tintin and the Smurfs with your kids.  And as with every European capital, there are several beautiful cathedrals, basilicas and churches to check out.  Try the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Notre dame du Sablon.

Belgium was in the thick of the first World War.  The fields of Flanders hold many connections and memories for soldiers of many countries including Australia and there are some major memorial sites.  Whilst many of the 100 year commemorations were held last year, 2017 and 2018 will also have significance in many areas.  The battles of Passchendaele, Bullecourt and Messines, and the third battle for Ypres were fought in 1917 with huge loss.  Don’t forget to see the Menin gate.

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Two towns beyond Brussels in addition to the Flanders area that are well worth the visit are Bruges and Ghent.  Whilst less well known than Bruges, Ghent is a merchant city with a great deal of history.  Take the 40 minute Graslei and Korenlei boat trip to see the medieval heart of the city.  Check out the museum of cloth- Belgian lace at its best.

Bruges is a must see.  A beautiful medieval city with canals and winding waterways, it is also a good beginning point for daytrips to the Flanders battlefields.  In the city check out the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the very early Michelangelo in the Church of Our Lady.

The Markt is the place for food and to be seen.  A guided walking tour with local will give you insights into the city.

And don’t forget to try the pommes frites with one of their array of sauces.  Yum!

An A to Z of countries around the world A is for Argentina

Over this year I am planning a series of blogs on destinations.  I have lots of ideas for most letters of the alphabet, but it is a strange thing that as a planet we have no countries that begin with W or X so I may have to be creative and come up with some alternative ideas for those – unless of course you can find some I don’t know about! If you do please let me know!

This wonderful wold of ours has so much to offer.  It can be overwhelming to decide where to go and what to do.  I hope that this series will help you find out a bit more than you knew before and maybe whet the appetite to go and explore.  In most cases I have actually been to the countries in the blog.  See if you can tell which ones I haven’t been to!

A is for Argentina

One of the South American countries, Argentina – literally Silver – is a contrast of sophisticated city life and wide open spaces, of gauchos and high end leather stores, of pampas and glaciers, and is the jumping off point for most Antarctic cruises.
Your point of entry will probably be Buenos Aires, known as the Paris of the south for good reason.  Beautiful architecture, wide boulevards, fabulous local districts like the vibrant La Boca – the Mouth and settled by largely Italian migrants, teeming with colour and home to the tango.

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You have to experience crossing the main street Avenido de 9 July to believe it –  two separate lots of crossing lights over up to seven lanes of traffic in each direction!

Buenos Aires, and indeed Argentinian cuisine is all about meat.  Steakhouses are a way of life, but be wary – they love their salt!

Tourists will be taken to see the Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron, Evita – is buried.  The cemetery is a mausoleum style with huge stone monuments for families.  While you are there enjoy the parks and visit the zoo – you may get to see all the members of the South American cameloid family – the dainty vicuna and alpacas, larger llamas and the huge guanacos.

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Argentina stretches from the northern border where one of the three great waterfalls of the world lies – Iguassu Falls – all the water is on the Argentine side – the best views are on the Brazilian side – to the tip of the continent in the south.  Antarctic cruises most often depart from Ushuaia, about as far south as it is possible to get!  To the west you will find gaucho country – vast open plains to graze the Argentinian beef they are famous for.  The gauchos – Argentinian cowboys have remarkable skills in using whips and will steal a kiss from any young lady!

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West again and on the Argentine side of the world famous Lakes Crossing is the town of Bariloche.  Swiss and German in influence and reminiscent of all alpine townships, this gorgeous town sits on the lake and welcomes you to Argentina with friendly grace.  Even the stray dogs will keep you company.

And to the south you will find El Calafate and Moreno Glacier country.  Spectacular glaciers will take your breath away with their size and amazing colours.

There is so much more, but this will give you all sorts of great reasons to explore a beautiful country with a fascinating history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Argentina stretches from the northern border where one of the three great waterfalls of the world lies – Iguassu Falls – all the water is on the Argentine side – the best views are on the Brazilian side – to the tip of the continent in the south.  Antarctic cruises most often depart from Ushuaia, about as far south as it is possible to get!  To the west you will find gaucho country – vast open plains to graze the Argentinian beef they are famous for.  The gauchos – Argentinian cowboys have remarkable skills in using whips and will steal a kiss from any young lady!  West again and on the Argentine side of the world famous Lakes Crossing is the town of Bariloche.  Swiss and German in influence and reminiscent of all alpine townships, this gorgeous town sits on the lake and welcomes you to Argentina with friendly grace.  Even the stray dogs will keep you company.

And to the south you will find El Calafate and Moreno Glacier country.  Spectacular glaciers will take your breath away with their size and amazing colours.

There is so much more, but this will give you all sorts of great reasons to explore a beautiful country with a fascinating history.

Baking Christmas

December 22nd and the final lot of (not gluten free) shortbread is baked and ready to be packed as gifts for family.  It is a tradition which began in 1982 more by accident than design.

In 1982 I took a year off and travelled to Europe for eight months, scratching an itch that has never gone away.  I spent almost three months in the mainland UK over two periods, two weeks in Ireland and the rest of the time in again two stretches in Europe.  Suffice to say that is where the love affair with Europe began and was cemented for me.

Because I knew I was going to be away for such an extended period I made sure of three things.  One – I would write to mum and dad every week – actually I don’t think Mum would have let me go if I hadn’t promised her would. Two I would write down the photos I took so I knew where I had been and what I had taken – I still do – it really helps!  And three – any souvenirs I bought would have to be light, preferably indestructible and able to be posted home, and I would get one decent thing from each country, not lots of things of little value.  Those decisions stood me in fairly good stead (with the exception of the delicate glass Irish harp that was smashed into smithereens courtesy of the mail).

My souvenir from Scotland was a wooden shortbread mould with a Scotch thistle pattern.  It came with a recipe for shortbread and when I returned to Australia and went through the parcels that had been sent home ahead of me, I found it and decided to try out the mould and the recipe for Christmas that year.  It took a couple of attempts before I abandoned the Scottish version and found the Australian Women’s Weekly recipe which is by far better and much easier to work.  I have been making the shortbread ever since.  In some households now Christmas is not Christmas without it.

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Over the years I have added to the mould with biscuit shapes – angels, Christmas trees, stars, snowmen, doves, Christmas canes and stockings, and then my travels added a couple of other shapes.  In Alaska I found a tiny and a large moose or reindeer biscuit cutter and while the slender legs are a bit of a challenge, they have added to the Christmas experience a little piece of Canada and Alaska.

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Travel enriches us so much.  What we take away from it is not just experience and memory, photos and people who become friends; we also collect things that become family traditions.  It was because of the people I met overseas and stayed with, and also because I was away for eight months that the same year I began my annual Christmas letter so everyone would know what I had been up to.

Whatever your Christmas tradition, in cold northern climes, or in a blazing Australian summer, have a wonderful Christmas and I will be back next year with an A to Z of destinations.