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More from Scotland

April 14th, 2015

Assorted views from the recent trip.
 

A road near Dalwhinnie, Scotland

 
 

Ardverikie Gate Lodge, River Pattack, Scotland

 
 

River Spean, Scotland

 
 

Inverness Castle, Scotland

 
 

A house in Elgin, Scotland

 
 

Brodie Castle, Scotland

 
 

A road in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

 
 

Town of Birnam, Perthshire, Scotland

 
 

Somewhere in Scotland

 
An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Counting World heritage sites: #74 (Edinburgh)

April 9th, 2015

Edinburgh is a town after my own heart, a vibrant place full of eye-catching architecture. As our point of entry (and exit) on the whisky trip, it was a not-to-miss destination. I am again left to lament the brevity of our stay in town – a single afternoon – but I certainly gained a worthy appreciation of it.

I only managed to explore the castle and the Royal Mile and surrounding areas in the Old Town, completely skirting the New Town and a number of points of interest mentioned on the World Heritage inscription. The harmony of distinct architectural styles, from medieval Old Town to neoclassical New Town, is expressly recognized by UNESCO, but I had to do with just the medieval portion on this visit.

Here is a look up the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare leading up to the castle.
 

On Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
Next is the look down George IV Bridge, with the Bedlam Theatre at its base.
 

In Edinburgh, Scotland

 
Does not look like a bridge, does it? But Edinburgh’s hilly topography is such that there is a crossing street, Cowgate, running good 25 meters lower. The George IV Bridge was built in mid-19th century specifically to improve communications between different parts of town.

St Giles’ Cathedral would normally feature on my exploration itinerary, but I lacked time to do it justice and only photographed it from outside.
 

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
I did make a pronounced effort to see the Edinburgh Castle. A large complex offering two dozen exhibitions, museums and other points of interest, it itself can take half a day to explore. In fact, the guy at the ticket desk made a point of advising me that two hours until the closing would not be enough. Nonetheless, I managed to get a feel for the place, caught most of the highlights, and even lingered at a bench or two.

Here is a perspective of the Scottish National War Memorial, a former army barracks redeveloped as a shrine in the 1920s, located near the apex of the castle.
 

In Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

 
Next is one of the views from the Esplanade, a large elevated open space in front of the castle.
 

View from Castle Esplanade, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
A view towards New Town, with Sir Walter Scott monument prominently featured.
 

View from Castle ramparts with Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
Another expressed regret of mine for not being able to find time to see up close the monument to a writer whose books I adored in my youth.

A look at the Esplanade, the tallest spire of the city belonging to the Hub (a church that was never consecrated as such and now serves as an event venue), the rooftops of Edinburgh, and the hills of Holyrood Park in the background.
 

Castle Esplanade, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
And, finally, the steeple and clock of the Canongate Tolbooth, a late-16th century town hall.
 

Canongate Tolbooth, Edinburgh, Scotland

 
I estimate two full days as the bare minimum to get a good acquaintance with Edinburgh. Definitely a place to return to and enjoy.

An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #73 (New Lanark)

April 6th, 2015

My high-school history curriculum included something on the Utopians of 18th-19th centuries, and although I could no longer recall the particulars the name of Robert Owen was definitely familiar to me. So it was not only for opportunistic reasons that I planned a visit to New Lanark on our journey around Scotland – I actually wanted to add some visuals to my vague recollection of a model Utopian community.

New Lanark is recognized on the UNESCO list as a purpose-built town meant to put in practice the ideals of the Utopian vision: a society without crime, poverty or misery, where the well-being of every individual is of paramount interest to all. I think it is fair to say that this vision never took hold anywhere to the degree Owen and his contemporaries hoped for, but its underpinning values certainly had an impact on the history of humankind ever since.
 

New Lanark, Scotland

 
In order to get a full taste of these Utopian values in New Lanark, one probably has to take in several museums and exhibitions located in its spaces. Unfortunately in our case, we could not budget time for more than a short visit – less than an hour to walk through the town and take some pictures. The architecture – multi-storied austere dwellings in an elongated pattern – is certainly unique, especially contrasted with the traditional Scottish countryside style. You can begin to appreciate the theme of good proportion, good masonry, and simplicity of detail, by just looking at the buildings from the outside. But I am belatedly disappointed that a more in-depth exploration was not possible within our itinerary.
 

New Lanark, Scotland

 
 

New Lanark, Scotland

 
 

New Lanark, Scotland

 
I suspect that two to three hours is the minimum required to get well-acquainted with all New Lanark has to offer.

An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #72 (Roman Frontiers / Antonine Wall)

April 3rd, 2015

I expect to be entirely opportunistic and non-discriminating in my pursuit of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the foreseeable future. If I am in the vicinity of one with time to spare, I intend to visit it, regardless of what it represents. Which I now understand can throw up a bit of incomprehension.

The serial property called Frontiers of the Roman Empire consists of over 400 individual locations, including a well-known Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England and a much less-known Antonine Wall in the south of Scotland. Built in the middle of the 2nd century AD, the remnants of these fortifications are recognized as the defining examples of defensive techniques and geopolitical strategies of ancient Rome.

Antonine Wall was well within our reach on our Scottish jaunt. My companion graciously accepted that since whisky was primarily his interest, there should be some other things on the itinerary that are primarily of interest to me. I researched the 20+ locations of the wall on its official website and picked what is known as “Rough Castle” both for its proximity to our overall route and because the site says “If you can only visit one location on the Antonine Wall, Rough Castle fort is clearly the best choice”.

I can’t really explain why I was expecting to see some form of ruins at the site. Rough Castle is basically parkland running along a ditch.
 

Antonine Wall at Rough Castle, Scotland

 
The ditch is an integral part of erstwhile fortifications – and there are even rocks embedded in its sides that are clearly remnants of the onetime wall.
 

Antonine Wall at Rough Castle, Scotland

 
Aside from the ditch, there are a couple of areas that represent approach defense, but you have to use a lot of imagination to see them as such. There are also four information stone markers that explain what the place looked like and how it worked when it existed.
 

Antonine Wall at Rough Castle, Scotland

 
 

Antonine Wall at Rough Castle, Scotland

 
The first of those markers is located near a stone ring that I am pretty sure is artificially positioned there to make the site a bit more interesting.
 

Antonine Wall at Rough Castle, Scotland

 
Basically, this is not so much a site as a memory of a site. If it is the “best” of the Antonine Wall, I wonder whether other locations are no more than stone markers positioned all by themselves. I realize that “World Heritage” is a loose term that certainly can be defined as “anything claiming a place in the history of humankind”, but I somehow expected to be able to see something with my own eyes at any site designated as a World Heritage location. Nothing really to see at Rough Castle, besides occasional locals walking their dogs in the park.

In any case, it counts for the purposes of adding another site to my roster. Raffi was tactful enough to refrain from ridiculing my obsession with World Heritage on the evidence of the very first site that he visited with me.

There is roughly a 10-minute walk from the nearest place you can park your car to the deepest part of the Rough Castle site. We lingered for about 45 minutes overall, looking for different photo angles of the pretty parkland. I suspect not many people would exceed that time if they come to visit.

An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Urquhart

March 31st, 2015

The picturesque ruins of Urquhart Castle that date back to 13th century offer a significant amount of history and an even greater amount of wonderful photo opportunities. There is also Loch Ness, dramatically overseen by the castle. (No, we did not see the monster.)
 

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

 
One of only a handful of non-whisky related destinations on our recent trip, the castle was a worthwhile stop for two photography enthusiasts. We took time to watch a 10-minute somewhat sketchy movie on the history of the castle and read though some of the informational stands positioned at various points on the grounds, but mostly looked for various perspectives to photograph the ruins and the lake. Here is a small sampling.
 

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

 
 

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

 
 

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

 
An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Eilean Donan

March 29th, 2015

Eilean Donan castle regularly contends for the top billing on the “most beautiful Scottish castles” list, so even though it was a bit out of the way for our whisky itinerary, I made a point to steer in its direction.
 

Eilean Donan castle, Scotland

 
The castle, dating from the 13th century, has been extensively rebuilt in the first half of the 20th, and presents a well-maintained look into the history of Scottish highlands. A dramatic location at the conjunction of three lochs undoubtedly adds to its overall charm.

I am not a big fan of interior photography, so here are a few exterior perspectives of the castle and the lochs.
 

Eilean Donan castle, Scotland

 
 

Eilean Donan castle, Scotland

 
 

View to Loch Alsh at Eilean Donan castle, Scotland

 
 

Loch Duich at Eilean Donan castle, Scotland

 
An extended gallery can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

On the Scottish whisky trail

March 27th, 2015

In our four days of touring Scotland, we visited twelve distilleries in the Highlands and Speyside whisky-making regions. The visits ranged in depth, duration and quantity of sampling. Some were delightful, some simply educational, some brief but pleasant, and a couple marginally disappointing. I will eventually process more detailed notes to post in the Travelog section, but for now, here is a picture per distillery with the name in the frame and a quick summary of our visit.

Dalwhinnie – the highest distillery above the sea level (by just 1 meter over the next contender); we took a full tour, which ended with a single sampling. B.
 

Dalwhinnie Distillery, Scotland

 
Macallan – we took an excellent Six Pillars Tour, led by a marvelous guide, and ending with a sampling of a low wine and four different malts. A.
 

At Macallan Distillery, Scotland

 
Glenfiddich – having planned to take a full tour here later in the trip, we decided that two full tours at the start of the journey was more than enough for us. Instead, we came in for a walk-in visit; the shop was being renovated and temporarily combined with the cafè, and we were told that impromptu samplings were not on offer. D.
 

Glenfiddich Distillery, Scotland

 
Cardhu – we opted for a paid sampling of two malts, but because we joined the “Friends of Classic Malts” program at Dalwhinnie (for free), we got an additional offering from a very knowledgeable tasting lead. A-.
 

At Cardhu Distillery, Scotland

 
Strathisla – one of the most picturesque distilleries, this is Chivas brand. The shop extends into an atmospheric lounge. We got a welcome offering, and then, after a bit of conversation with the friendliest staff members, were offered another. A.
 

Strathisla Distillery, Scotland

 
Glen Moray – this was a “maybe” stop on the original plan that ended up fitting into itinerary, but all we got was an explanation of how we could not get a complimentary taste. As this was our fifth distillery of the day, we did not have capacity for a formal tasting. Had coffee instead. D+.
 

Glen Moray Distillery, Scotland

 
Benromach – made it to the shop less than 10 minutes before closure. This was also an “extra” stop on the itinerary, but the staff here graciously managed to make those few minutes quite enjoyable. We got not one, but two complimentary tastes. B+.
 

Benromach Distillery, Scotland

 
Tomatin – not in the original plans at all, but we were driving by with time to spare. Got two complimentary samples, one of which was of the malt not exported to the US. B.
 

Tomatin Distillery, Scotland

 
Royal Lochnagar – this distillery challenged us the most to get to, with a road sign on the approach sending us roundabout way. Once there, we had a nice chat with the staff and watched a short Food Channel-like movie on the reason the distillery has “Royal” in its name, but only got a single sample, and that only on account of our “Friends” status. C.
 

Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Scotland

 
Blair Athol – barely made it before closing but still got a complimentary swig because it is also in the “Friends” lineup. C.
 

Blair Athol Distillery, Scotland

 
Famous Grouse at Glenturret – opened till later in the day than others, which afforded us a comparatively leisurely “nightcap”. There are several paid multi-tasting options in the bar, one of which we picked. B+.
 

At the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery, Scotland

 
Glengoyne – the last and nearly the best of all of our stops. The distillery straddles Highlands/Lowlands boundary, but is considered to belong to Highlands region because the distillation occurs on that side of the road. I remember it delighted me on my first visit here 6 years ago, and I was not disappointed now. We thought we would buy a tasting option with three malts, but somehow the staff talked us into tasting half a dozen different varieties in smaller measures for free. A great conclusion to the whisky portion of the trip. A+.
 

Glengoyne Distillery, Scotland

 

Photography, Travel

Back from Scotland

March 22nd, 2015

My oldest friend and I undertook a trip to Scotland this past week with the expressed goal of trying as many different Scottish whiskies as was humanly possible. Ok, not exactly true – this was his expressed goal. Unlike him, I have been on a Scottish whisky trail before and I am not what one might call a whisky lover, so my goal was to get a better look at Scotland the country than what I had managed in the past. Along the way, I did not mind getting a whisky taste or two.

The picture below was a fairly common still life occurrence on this phenomenal trip.
 

 
We did not take a single picture with the tasting-glasses empty, but believe me when I assure you that they were all duly emptied.

We visited twelve Highlands and Speyside distilleries in total, in addition to three World Heritage sites to boost up my total, two interesting stand-alone castles, and frequent random picturesque stops along our route. As I progress through photo post-processing, all of the highlights of the trip will appear in this space.

Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #50 (Medici/Boboli)

March 19th, 2015

This serial UNESCO World Heritage site contains 14 properties, all inscribed together in 2013. We have visited a single one among them and it was in 2008, which makes it one of more borderline entries on my personal roster.

The villas and gardens are recognized for the ground-breaking ways they were constructed in harmony with the environment, offering a blueprint for many future blue-bloods to build their leisure retreats. I do not have enough evidence to either support or challenge this purported universal value on the basis of just Boboli Gardens. The gardens are nice, but it is hard to recall a stand-out defining feature, and although they are on my recommended Florence to-do list, they are not in the top tier of recommendations.

Here is one shot taken in the gardens.
 

Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy

 
Palazzo Pitti is not mentioned on the UNESCO inscription – in fact, Boboli Gardens appear as one of just two properties that are not considered “villas”. Stangely enough though, the map of the protected property includes the palace within its boundaries. Which gives me leave to include this picture of the palace and the piazza in front of it.
 

Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy

 
The palace and gardens are located just up the street from Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno side of Florence. You can visit just the gardens or just the palace or both. The gardens are extensive enough that a leisurely visit can be stretched to a few hours.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #35 (Cologne Cathedral)

March 13th, 2015

As with a couple of other grand churches, we specifically targeted Cologne Cathedral as a stop of interest on our first journey around Germany. One of the most impressive Gothic churches in the Christendom, it is recognized on the UNESCO list both for what it represents artistically and as a symbol of Christianity in medieval and modern Europe.

I have long ago exhausted my epistolary skills to describe my affection for cathedrals. I am not religious in general – and would not be a Christian in particular – but that does not stop me from applauding the execution of the architectural manifestation of divine glory. Soaring pillars, scintillating stained glass, intricate stonework – I can find a lot to admire without the need to worship, and Cologne Cathedral definitely delivers as a masterpiece to be admired.

The best external fragment of the cathedral in our archives comes as a backdrop to the Christmas market, from our second visit to town.
 

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

 
As an aside, although Cologne has a number of interesting Romanesque churches that are worth exploring and some other points of interest, Christmas markets have got to be the second-best attraction in town after the cathedral. If you are ever thinking of going to Germany in December, Cologne and its markets have to be near the top of your list.

One of the few inside shots of the cathedral that does not truly convey the brilliance of the stained glass.
 

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

 
And a night-time shot that reinforces “Gothic” for me.
 

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

 
The cathedral, as it frequently is in Europe, sits in the very center of town, easily accessible by any mode of transportation. An hour to two should be sufficient for an in-depth visit.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #49 (Gwynedd, Wales)

March 7th, 2015

Of the four properties listed in this UNESCO World Heritage site we can claim reasonable familiarity with two. As unabashed lovers of medieval castles that we are, we planned on seeing at least one of the group of castles in Northern Wales as a definite part of our itinerary when we undertook a Welsh journey during our years of living in the UK.

The castle of Caernarfon is an excellent example of what these monuments are recognized for on the UNESCO list: a well-preserved medieval military edifice which is an integral part of the surrounding fortified town. Here is a partial view of the castle from one of its own towers.
 

Caernarfon Castle, Wales

 
Caernarfon is a relatively popular tourist attraction. Although the interiors of the castle rooms and keeps are mostly barren, there are several activities in the courtyard demonstrating crafts of the era. Here is a video fragment we took on our visit, with the girls participating in the work of rope-making.
 

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Here is another look at the castle from the ground level.
 

Caernarfon Castle, Wales

 
The gentleman in red medieval dress walking towards us in the right part of the frame introduces himself to all willing visitors as the architect of the castle, James of St George, and engages them in chit-chat rich on anecdotes about castle’s construction.

Conwy, another location inscribed on the list, was an overnight stop on our itinerary. We did not actually go to see the castle but instead explored the town, which offers a number of attractions including the reputedly smallest house in Great Britain.
 

Conwy, Wales

 
This is obviously not part of what UNESCO recognizes as World Heritage material, but Conwy and Caernarfon towns, not just castles, both feature on the inscription as ensembles.

We did walk by the walls of Conwy castle. We also took this great picture of it and of the town rooftops from the windows of one of the town’s museums.
 

Conwy Castle, Wales

 
I suspect that visiting only one of the inscribed locations is sufficient to get a good insight into what they represent. Caernarfon is certainly highly recommended in that respect. You would need between 2 and 3 hours to get a proper taste of it. All locations are situated quite close to each other in the northwestern-most part of Wales. It is about 5 hours away from London by car, so not a day-trip destination (much closer to Liverpool, though), but should be a must in any itinerary across Wales.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Pueblos Blancos

February 27th, 2015

Another place that I think should be on UNESCO World Heritage list but isn’t, Pueblos Blancos is an area peppered with little villages all boasting distinctive white-washed look. Although this architecture is not exclusive to this part of Andalusia, the name of the area – “White Villages” – certainly reflects the high concentration of this particular style. With houses frequently adorned by bright flowers, the villages are quite easy on the eye, too.
 

Zahara de la Sierra, Andalusia, Spain

 
Repeating my usual lament, I do not find in our archives many pictures of Pueblos Blancos worth exhibiting on this blog, but that is a negative reflection on the photographer rather than the place.

Villages vary among themselves in tourist entertainment quotient, and aside from Ronda, none could probably support more than a few hours of exploration. Which makes it possible to visit four or five of them in the course of a couple of days. Zahara de la Sierra has most attractions of all little villages and Ronda can definitely occupy you for a full day or more. It is about a 2-hour drive to Ronda from either Granada or Seville, and a bit over an hour from Costa del Sol.

Photography, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #38 (Greenwich)

February 21st, 2015

Greenwich should rightly claim the 9th sequential spot on my World Heritage roster, as I definitely visited Greenwich Park and climbed up to the Royal Observatory on my first trip to London in 2000. That fact somehow got lost in the shuffle when I first put the list together, and Greenwich was chronologically numbered with the start of our residence in London. But as we officially resided within the borders of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, this World Heritage site is undoubtedly the one we visited most frequently of all.

The inscription on the UNESCO list mentions over a dozen of different places. We have been to the Royal Observatory no less than half a dozen times, in or around the Royal Naval College on more than occasion, and simply enjoyed the Greenwich Park on warm weekends as anyone would their neighbourhood parkland. I have little doubt that in our years living in the area, we at the very least walked by every single edifice recognized by UNESCO in Greenwich.

Here is a perspective of the twin buildings of the Royal Naval College, viewed from the terrace of the Queen Anne’s House.
 

Royal Naval College, Greenwich, England

 
Canary Wharf, the business district that was my erstwhile place of work, is in the background.

Taking a picture of oneself straddling the Prime Meridian – one foot in the Western Hemisphere, the other in the Eastern – is as common in Greenwich as pretending to prop up the Leaning Tower while in Pisa. A child, of course, can be forgiven.
 

Straddling Prime Meridian, Greenwich, England

 
This next picture holds similar significance to one of the shots presented in the Westminster entry. It was taken on our very first family foray into Greenwich historic area. It depicts Cutty Sark, the famous clipper that sits on the bank of Thames in Greenwich. On that very first visit to Greenwich, we decided not to go to the Cutty Sark Museum. The following Tuesday or Wednesday, ongoing renovation works caused a fire on the ship, and the museum closed due to damage, not to be reopened several years later after we had departed back to the US.
 

Cutty Sark, Greenwich, England

 
Maritime Greenwich is not directly served by London Tube, but taking Jubilee line to Canary Wharf and changing to DLR towards Lewisham will deposit you by the main attractions at the Cutty Sark station. A stroll through the town, the park, and the royal buildings ensemble, a visit to the Observatory, and possibly a visit to one or two other points of interest would require at least half a day.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #7 (Westminster)

February 15th, 2015

My very first visit to London, nearly 15 years ago, happened sometime before we started travelling extensively abroad, which explains London’s sites’ relatively early sequential numbers on my World Heritage roster. On that week-long business trip I ended up with sufficient spare time to check out main attractions of the British capital, including the magnificent Westminster Abbey.

It remains to this day the only named part of the World Heritage site that we stepped into. In our time living in London, we frequently walked through Parliament Square where all parts of the site reside and even lingered on the benches facing the palace – those benches provide unexpected serenity akin to an eye of the storm that is the busy square. But we never ventured inside the Gothic Saint Margaret’s Church nor partook in a tour of the Parliament. I suspect we are unlikely to ever rectify the latter, but might rectify the former the next time we are in London.

The site’s recognition on the UNESCO list is due to both its historic and symbolic significance. It is also one of the London icons, photographically speaking. The view of the Westminster Palace from a south-east angle is one of the most frequent photos taken in the city. The addition of the London Eye to the South Bank landscape in 1999 opened a hard-to-pass-by aerial perspective of the entire Westminster complex.
 

View of Westminster Palace and Abbey from London Eye, London

 
The palace and its instantly recognized bell tower dominate the foreground; the Abbey and the Church can be seen on the right-hand side.

The next picture already featured on this blog in the favorite sights of London entry but it is one of my all-time favorites despite the tree that crept into the prominent leading role. This perspective is from not so commonly encountered south-west angle.
 

View to Westminster Palace, London

 
And this fragment of Saint Margaret’s Church with Big Ben in the background is taken from near the main entrance to the Westminster Abbey.
 

Big Ben and St. Margaret Church, London

 
The next picture has a bit of family significance. This is the very first family outing to the central London after our relocation. Natasha and the girls are still on their first week of living in the UK at this juncture. And on our first excursion around the city, we made the Westminster Abbey the highlight of the itinerary. It is a fascinating place to visit.
 

In front of Westminster Abbey, London

 
Finally, Big Ben on its own. You cut the rest of the palace from it and it remains just as instantly-recognized iconic London sight.
 

Big Ben, London

 
And a rare blue sky in a London photograph to boot.

I suspect no visit to London passes without some viewing of the Parliament Square’s edifices. As World Heritage sites go, this is among the most easily accessible ones. However, a tour of the palace and the Houses of Parliament is available only in very limited quantities on specific days, so planning is required if you wish to get inside the building. The Abbey is not open on Sundays and closes earlier than most of the other major sights on the days when it is open, so some planning is also required here. Give it at least an hour and a half for a good visit to the Abbey.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #32 (Gaudi)

February 4th, 2015

I love Barcelona nearly unconditionally and it contests with Paris and Rome the title of a European city that I know best aside from London. It has a lot to offer to any type of visitor but works of Antoni Gaudí are likely to feature on every itinerary, however brief or otherwise. And you could hardly do worse than tour his Modernist creations.

Gaudí is one of the few architects whose name is likely known worldwide even by those who have never seen his buildings up close. The style and creativity of his designs put him apart even amongst his fellow Modernists, whose works are also on ample display in Barcelona. (As an aside, I always say that if you can only see one sight in Barcelona, go for Sagrada Familia; but if you can see two, the second one should be the Palace of Music, architected by Gaudí’s contemporary Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and a World Heritage site on its own merit.)

The short and long versions of the UNESCO inscription give slightly diverging lists of properties that comprise the recognized Gaudí collection. The five main ones that are in or around the center of the city are Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Casa Batlló, Parque Güell, and Palacio Güell. Of those, only the latter never made our itineraries on the trips to Barcelona, which likely puts it near the top of attractions for our next visit.

Sagrada Familia, though, we visited on no less than four different occasions. Here is the view of four towers and the Nativity Façade, completed while Gaudí was still alive and in charge of construction.
 

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

 
The great church has been under construction for over 130 years, and the work is not yet complete. On the very last visit, in 2011, I was able to view the completed interior (but did not take any pictures). On our previous visits, the church was an active construction site even during the touring hours.

Here is the view of one of the church walls with stain-glass windows from an earlier visit.
 

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

 
And here are the palm-tree-inspired pillars in the central nave, also from the time of on-going construction.
 

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

 
Casa Mila – or La Pedrera, as it is colloquially known – is a remarkable example of inventive civic architecture, a building where no two walls ever join at a ninety-degree angle. But those who toured the building probably remember the most its roof, a maze of fantastically shaped chimneys.
 

On the roof of Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Barcelona, Spain

 
One other Gaudí masterpiece, Casa Batlló, neighbors three other Modernist buildings by different architects. They are all so unlike each other that the block on which they are located has a semi-official designation of “the Island of Discord”. Because Gaudí is the most recognized of the names, Casa Batlló is the most visited of the properties on the block. I cannot vouch for others, but it is certainly worth the visit.
 

Casa Batlló, Barcelona, Spain

 
Parque Güell, which I do not have good pictures of, is slightly further afield, reached by subway and not very long uphill walk. It is certainly a contender for a place in the top five sights in Barcelona, so don’t let the required extra effort keep you from going there.

We have once done all of these four sights in one day, with plenty of leisurely walks in between, but it was in the “shoulder season” – ticket lines were reasonable. Those lines at busy times can readily take over an hour each, so buy tickets in advance whenever possible (we still spent an hour and a half in line to get up the Sagrada Familia towers on that same day, but that part of the attraction may be run more efficiently now that the interior construction is over). If I remember correctly, Palacio Güell requires advance ticket purchase at all times. I have serious doubts that any reasonable itinerary (by “reasonable”, I mean no rushing between sights and no hurry during any individual tour) can fit all these properties into a single day even in the relative off-season. But Barcelona offers attractions to fill a week and a half, easily. Sparing a couple of those days on Gaudí is a fairly obvious choice to me.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #27 (Toledo)

January 29th, 2015

We visited Toledo twice on day-trips several years apart and definitely left some places unexplored there even after two visits. Recognizing two millennia of history on display in Toledo, the UNESCO inscription mentions over a dozen sights by name, of which we can claim good familiarity with no more than half. The religious monuments, most importantly the cathedral and two major synagogues, have been our main targets, and we extensively explored the city on foot bypassing interiors of a number of other attractions.

At the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue, we found ourselves completely alone on our first visit. The space, empty of anything but mudejar columns and arches and remnants of Christian frescoes from its turn as a church, felt especially evocative without anybody else in sight.
 

Santa María la Blanca Synagogue, Toledo, Spain

 
The second time we visited the synagogue hosted an exhibition of Jewish symbolism, which somewhat dulled the impression of the great hall.

The Monastery of St John of the Kings is easier to photograph from the outside than the cathedral, which is hemmed in by the surrounding buildings in the center of the city. The monastery is located near the edge of town and is an impressive sight in its own right.
 

San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

 
Walking uphill in the city, you come across gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. Here is one such view with the top tier of the monastery at our eye level.
 

View in Toledo, Spain

 
Toledo is reachable as a day-trip destination from Madrid via a speed train, a regular train or a bus, with the total one-way trip lasting between an hour and two hours, depending on which option you choose. If you intend to see all of the major religious sights, explore the army museum in Alcázar, visit El Greco home-museum in addition to viewing his masterpieces in various churches, and peek at the Roman circus, you will probably need to budget an overnight stay. Or to come back again.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #15 (Avignon)

January 22nd, 2015

Our single day-trip to Avignon during our very first voyage to France ended up one of the best days of that itinerary. The tour of the Papal Palace took nearly three hours and exhausted us a little, so we shortened our sightseeing program, leaving quite a few hours until our evening dinner reservation. That time was spent wandering fairly aimlessly around town center, checking out shops and galleries, stopping for coffee and tea on a couple of cute intersections. An active day morphed into a rather lazy one, enjoyably so.

Avignon’s entry on the World Heritage list recognizes the city’s leading place in 14th-century Europe and mentions several specific monuments as part of the ensemble. Had I been more aware of the UNESCO list back then, I would probably insist on visiting more than a couple of those. As it was, we got a very in-depth look at the Papal Palace and lingered on the remains of 12th-century Pont St-Bénézet for a bit, but only looked at the Cathedral and Petit Palais from the outside.

Here is the austere and remarkable Papal Palace in the background.
 

Papal Palace, Avignon, France

 
It is also seen in the very back of the next picture, taken from near the surviving end of the St-Bénézet bridge. There is a tiny – in comparative chapel terms – Chapelle St-Nicolas directly on the bridge, seen on the left.
 

Pont St-Benezet, Avignon, France

 
A full day is about the right duration for a visit to Avignon, especially when casual perambulation is part of the program. We should do that again ourselves one of these days.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #28 (El Escorial)

January 14th, 2015

The Royal Palace and Monastery of El Escorial attracts quite a bunch of superlatives on its UNESCO description, including an awestruck passage of “there is nothing [about it] that is not exceptional”. In my subjective view, all of those are well deserved. El Escorial is an architectural wonder of the highest grade.

You have to allow yourself time to let it sink in, though. On approach, the grandiose edifice looks too severe and even somewhat grim. It was meant to be not outwardly exuberant, built in fulfilment of a vow and intended as a contemplative retreat. Nonetheless, the spaces inside are richly decorated and, coupled with the sheer size of the monument, leave a remarkable impression.

Let me emphasize, the monument is gigantic. It is likely visited on a day-trip from Madrid, but you have to set aside about three hours just for taking self-guided audio-tour at a crisp canter. Lingering will require additional time, obviously, so you may have to plan for setting aside an entire day for the visit. And there are quite a few spots to linger at; for instance, the splendid library.
 

The Library, El Escorial, Spain

 
As is common to our early travels, photographic memories from the visit are limited. Another shot of yours truly with a fragment of the monastery in the background is all I can offer.
 

El Escorial, Spain

 
If I recall correctly, the train from Madrid takes about 45 minutes to get to San Lorenzo El Escorial station, from which you can either take the bus to the monastery or walk uphill for about 15-20 minutes. I’ll probably walk the next time – I’d like to see how it comes out to meet me now that I know what awaits me inside.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Travel and obligations

January 8th, 2015
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In 2014, I visited 5 foreign countries – of which 3 were first-time visits for me – and added 11 World Heritage sites to my roster (admittedly, most of those featured on a single trip in a matter of two weeks).

Certainly far above the average American intake of overseas travel.

Definitely not too shabby in the broadest measure, for a guy who is office-bound in his professional capacity and has to ration his vacation time.

And yet, puny by standards of people who somehow manage to turn international travel into a full-time occupation.

There are quite a few of these modern nomads to be found on the interwebs. Some are kids just out of school. Others are location-independent entrepreneurs who run online businesses or earn with their writing. A few are escapees from the rat race. Every single one of them at one point or another posts a treatise on the topic of “Everyone can travel”.

I envy them more frequently than I should be admitting. I’d love to exchange sitting in my office chair for walking around cobblestone streets in a faraway destination with my camera in hand. Part of my ongoing mid-life crisis, I suppose.

What separates me from all of those travelers is obligations. I have them. They don’t.

They are, as a rule, unattached. Most are proud of travelling solo and exuberant about making new friends wherever they land, but majority are not in any long-standing relationship, to say nothing of matrimonial ties. A small segment of those who travel as couples are yet to convince me that they function as families rather than primarily as travel companions.

They are, practically without exception, childless. In extremely rare cases, a family may lead a comparatively nomadic lifestyle with small children who are too young to have adverse reactions to the lack of stability in their lives, but that only reinforces the general no-children rule. (I am not considering here expatriate families who relocate to be stationed overseas; obviously, we have done it ourselves and certainly found our opportunities for travel greatly enhanced, but that was still within “travel-when-you-get-time-off” paradigm rather than “travel-all-the-time”.)

In other words, if these people ever had to sacrifice something in order to start and lead their nomadic lifestyle, it was just themselves who had to make that sacrifice and not anyone who depended on them.

Me, family, children, level of income that is not high enough to have allowed me to retire by now and yet is too high to be easily replicated in any other accessible alternative career path – if I ever seriously considered a lifestyle change it would be hard to reconcile with my obligations to support our collective needs.

So, when a breezy 23-year-old, who admirably has been able to build a notable online presence translatable into a career as a travel blogger in just over a year, expounds the idea of choosing nomadic lifestyle, I recognize that I am not her target audience.

Instead, I’ll plan for as much travel as my office-bound existence allows.

Tentatively, in 2015, I will visit 7 countries – of which 3 will be for the first time ever – and add another dozen or so World Heritage sites to my list.

I still think it not too shabby, given the obligations.

Travel

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber

January 3rd, 2015
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Ever since I started paying attention to the UNESCO World Heritage list I have been extremely baffled why the Bavarian town of Rothenburg does not appear on the list. It has long and illustrious history. It escaped destruction at several important junctures of Western history (and each of the stories of those escapes, however embellished, should be an envy of any locale in need of a colorful past). It is simply one of the best-preserved Medieval towns in all of Europe.

Although my sample size of UNESCO sites is still relatively small, only at 7% of the total, I can already name places on the list that I do not rate as high as Rothenburg. Yet, as far as I can tell, it does not even figure on the future candidates tentative lists. Something inexplicable is going on here.

We spent just a little bit over a day in town as part of our itinerary around Germany nearly a decade ago. It is compact and easily walkable, with a few key points of interest situated around the main square which is overseen by an imposing Rathaus. You likely can cover the cumulative length of all streets within the boundaries of old city walls in the matter of a couple of hours. Seeing a couple of museums and churches is optional. Partaking in the Night Watchman Tour after the fall of darkness is highly recommended, so plan to stay overnight.

This photograph is quintessential Rothenburg for me. One of the city towers guards over a street full of artisan and craftsman shop signs.
 

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Germany

 
In fact, I cannot think of another town with such a high concentration of emblematic shop signs as in Rothenburg. I find that quite delightful.

The other picture is a corner of Burggarten, an oasis of serenity high over river Tauber.
 

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, Germany

 
One of my favorite small towns, no question.

Photography, Travel