Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #10 (Versailles)

December 19th, 2014

Having had been introduced to Versailles through the works of Alexandre Dumas before I reached my teens, and having had visited modelled-on-Versailles Peterhof in the years before emigration, I had the Sun King’s palace on my must-visit list for our very first trip to France nearly a decade and a half ago. Although that visit was very detailed – we managed to see all parts of the main palace, plus smaller palaces in the gardens – it left a significant gap due to inactivity of the waterworks. We had to return on one of our subsequent stays in Paris specifically to enjoy the fountains.

The UNESCO inscription is minimalist to the extreme but it does state that the palace served as the ideal royal residence model all through Europe. I have since seen quite a few of those attempts to imitate Versailles and exceed it in opulence at the same time, and in my humble opinion, it remains at the head of the pack.

This is the façade of the palace as seen from the gardens.

Versailles, France

As you walk towards the palace from this point, you will start losing the sight of it as your plane of view gets obscured by the wide main staircase connecting the palace level with the garden grounds. But then, as you walk up those stairs, the massive structure of the palace comes out to meet you in a shock of awesomeness.

Inside the main palace there is a sizable sequence of rooms of varying luxuriance, but they all get overshadowed by the Hall of Mirrors which takes the entire length of the façade you see in the picture above. Tourists tend to linger there, so in high peak times even that space can become pretty crowded. Nonetheless, this is one room (which is part of the “Grand Apartments” tour of the Palace – there are other itineraries that do not take you there) that you have to see for yourself to appreciate.

This other perspective towards the palace includes a fountain.

Versailles, France

Because of well-documented Versailles’ problems with water, the fountains only get turned on on weekends in summer. Obviously, those are the busiest visiting times on the grounds, but the grounds are so vast that you probably will not feel hemmed in when you are outside. Although there are a few very beautiful waterworks in different parts of the park, they probably do not by themselves rise to a reason to visit Versailles. The park is certainly more beautiful when they are on, so if you can plan your itinerary to see Versailles on one of those water-enhanced days all the better for you. But if you have to miss the fountains for whatever reason, the gardens themselves, and the couple of smaller palaces, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, are remarkable enough to make a visit not just about the main palace.

If you plan to explore the garden, to see smaller palaces, and to go on as many itineraries in the main palace as possible, a full day is barely enough to see the entire complex. I recall that we bought combo visit tickets at a train station in Paris proper on our first visit and that significantly expedited our access to all attractions. If you do not buy tickets in advance, budget non-trivial time for waiting in line to buy them onsite (probably less so in decidedly off-peak intervals); security line to get through to the palace can also require some wait.

If your goal is to just see the most lavish parts of the main palace coupled with a quick jaunt around the garden, you may fit it all into 2-3 hours, depending on wait lines and your rate of haste. Although organized tours do just that, I think you are short-changing yourself that way. I would recommend a healthy dose of lingering instead.

Versailles is reached by one of the RER lines from the center of Paris – the train ride takes about half an hour.

One other picture is the rare travel portrait work of mine that I count among my best efforts. The young lady in the picture has grown up quite a bit in the years since. The wide central alley running towards the lake probably looks the same today as it looked when we last saw it.

Versailles, France


Photography, Travel, World Heritage

A meal unlike any other

December 15th, 2014

Imagine yourself, if you would, sitting on a terrace overlooking an amazing landscape. We will tentatively pin the place as a hamlet alongside Amalfi Coast, but it might as well be Albaicin in Granada, Amboise in Loire Valley, or any number of other places. The grand view is not a mandatory attribute – if all you can imagine is a cozy dining room that puts you in a romantic mood, you are fine. The sun slowly sinks into the sea or the fireplace gently crackles in the corner – these attributes are welcome but do not define the experience.

You are here to enjoy what will undoubtedly be the highlight of your overseas trip – a traditional local meal. Haute-cuisine establishments or anything that advertizes itself as having a menu turistico need not apply. We are talking a small bed-and-breakfast whose lovely owner offered to treat you to a dinner one night.

Since we decided to call it Italy, the meal is starting with a flute of Prosecco. Sipping the wine and enjoying the atmosphere, you greet the arrival of bruschetta with enthusiasm, as you do not yet suspect what is in store for you. The opening dish is as non-pretentious as it is delicious.

Then comes antipasto. A grand word to encompass slices of cheese and meat plus some olives and vegetables. You can’t make a dish simpler than that, but for a light eater it itself can constitute a whole meal.

Afterwards, pasta arrives. It could be penne or linguini or tagliatelli or more prosaic spaghetti, but it’s the home-made sauce that will taste as nothing you have tasted before. No point in asking for the name of the sauce – alla mia nonna Maria is the likely answer. You can ask for the recipe, of course, and the gracious host will oblige, but you will never be able to replicate the heavenly taste back home. Must be something to do with Italian air.

Looking at that bowl of pasta if front of you, you are starting to regret the eagerness with which you went after every last bite of the appetizers. You are also starting to consider whether there is any polite chance in hell to tell your host that you cannot finish her offering. However you’d think to express it, it smacks of lacking appreciation for the good woman’s efforts – and you are way too considerate to hurt her feelings that way.

You managed to finish the pasta, but of course, this is not the end of the meal. Next come costolette di agnello with polenta on the side. It does not look elaborate but it tastes out of this world. No way you’ll leave even a smidgen of it on the plate, even if it takes you all night!

Clever person that you are, you try to gauge the remainder of the meal by asking your host in your limited Italian, “And then, dessert?” She makes a face of unbearable sorrow and exclaims what sounds like “What?! You are not having the fish?!?!?!” Embarrassed that you insulted her, you hasten to convince her that you, in fact, cannot wait to taste the fish that she made for you.

After an hour or so you finally claim victory over the lamb chops. To your utter relief, the next course is actually the dessert. The smiling woman tells you something about fish but you are too addled by the amounts of food in your digestive tract to clearly discern whether she was making a joke about fish earlier or simply decided to take pity on you and removed the fish from the menu. The dessert is exquisitely-looking struffoli – the only item on the menu that may not have been made in the kitchen next door but instead bought at the local pasticceria.

Next comes espresso. And after that, five different varieties of limoncello to taste to your heart’s delight. Which you do for the next two hours because getting up from your table is certainly not a physical feat possible at present juncture.

Truly a meal that you will remember for years to come.


As you can probably guess, this was not exactly a fantasy but rather a very fond memory. We did have more or less this exact experience of a meal during our stay on Amalfi Coast more than a decade ago. I find it singularly incredible that we only spent two nights at the coast and each night left us with one of our most cherished memories of all of our travels (the previous night’s experience was recounted in this entry that I posted almost 5 years ago).

It is no coincidence that both of these stories revolve around dining. I am a firm believer in experiencing as much local flavor as practical when in a foreign country. Yes, I do plenty of touristy things and check must-see sights off my list. But if I want to find an approximation of being a local, I head to a market – or seek a home-made meal (although, it should be confessed that I frequently seek popular restaurants offering local fare instead; then, the threat of cumulative expense and the relative anonymity of being a “stranger” who can leave food on his plate combine to safeguard me from inadvertent gluttony even when the food on offer is mind-blowing). Experiencing a foreign culture through food is the most accessible and enjoyable approach no matter where you are.

This post was prompted in part by my recent Amalfi coast World Heritage vignette but also in part by folks at Smartling who approached me to write about my dream dinner destination as part of a project they are working on. I moulded the topic into something that better suits the overall tone of my blog but probably veers too far away from their original intent. Since no promises of monetary or other gains were exchanged, I feel that this exercise of creative freedom is permissible.

They also asked me to cover my views on foreign language website translation. Beyond stating the fairly obvious notion that every respectable business with international clientele nowadays cannot operate without an English-language online presence, I do not know what I can offer. I am a competent reader in four European languages but I certainly prefer to do my research in English. When those English-version sites are bad-quality translations, it impedes my ability to achieve what I am looking for and oftentimes directs my custom elsewhere. Which, I suppose, means that Smartling has plenty of scope to apply their core expertise.

Memoirs, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #6 (San Juan)

December 10th, 2014

In what feels like ages ago but is merely a matter of less than two decades, we were recent American immigrants still awaiting naturalization and possessing decidedly limited financial means. In those prehistoric times, our travel journeys were few and far in between and normally limited to north-American locations where we had residing relatives.

Puerto Rico offered us one of the few opportunities to travel abroad with little hassle and manageable expense. We took advantage of that twice in quick succession, first on a week-long vacation and then on a long-weekend romantic getaway. On the first of the two visits, we explored quite a number of places, including El Yunque tropical forest and Liquillo beach. And, of course, we spent considerable time in San Juan getting to know its historic core.

The World Heritage site, therefore, bears the distinction of being the first one visited by us outside of the confines of the former Soviet Union. The inscription cites the military and architectural value of San Juan’s fortifications in the history of America colonisation. I was not such an architecture aficionado in my twenties as I am today, so I have to confess in not truly having had been impressed by the old forts. Old San Juan, however, was truly a delight as our very first look at the city not at all like American Northeast cities and towns or anything that we could have seen in our youth in the country of our births.

Reviewing our old photo-albums, I realize that we shot at least two rolls of film on that first visit to Puerto Rico, but very little of it is salvageable for posting purposes. We brought home a pretty good collection of postcards with the highlights of our sightseeing itinerary and a few dozen beach/vacationing snapshots. This picture of a monument somewhere on the approach to El Morro is the result of extensive processing and styling to become passable enough to offer to this demanding audience.

I am guessing that you need at least two full days to properly explore the forts and the Old San Juan. I promise to set aside at least as much the next time I come to Puerto Rico.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

10 Movies for vicarious travel

December 4th, 2014

My blogging angle has clearly become almost exclusively travel-oriented, and any self-respecting travel blogger has to have a list of his favorite travel movies. So here is my attempt to establish bona fides.

I set out with the goal of picking not just the movies filmed in gorgeous locations but those that allowed me to identify with the experiences of main characters. This whole idea of vicarious travel, you know… That did not work out in its entirety and I ended up with a list that well approximates the prevailing blogosphere wisdom.

1. A Good Year (2006)

A hot-shot playboy investment banker inherits a vineyard in the south of France and gradually discovers a different side of life – and love. Few people can truly identify with such fortune but I suspect many dream of it. Gorgeous Provençal landscapes provide the perfect setting for acting that is as simple as it is sparkling. A few quintessential London vignettes offer delightful contrast to the serenity of French countryside. And the movie offers the best ever put-down for the kind of obnoxious American tourists who think that every restaurant has to have their specific preferred meal on the menu: “MacDonalds is in Avignon, fish and chips in Marseille. Allez!”


Read more…

Movies, Travel

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #20 (Amalfi Coast)

November 30th, 2014

Amalfi Coast is up there near the top on the list of destinations that we fell in love with and are overdue to come back to. It’s gorgeous, unique and inviting. It left memories worth recounting. And we simply spent too little time there.

The UNESCO inscription recognizes the region’s natural and cultural beauty alike. Driving on the narrow coastal highway – the only road to reach a number of places – you get the amalgam of both: Dramatic cliffs on one side, azure sea on the other, and picturesque terraces of houses clinging to slopes. The vistas are as colorful as they are magnificent.

You probably need no less than three full days to be able to properly explore and appreciate Amalfi Coast. We had only two days and we managed to explore in depth Amalfi, Ravello and Minori (where we were based). The first two are each a must, but many people would also pick Positano as being a targeted destination, on the strength of photographic familiarity with its eye-catching run-down-the-mountain configuration – it is likely the most-photographed sight on the coast. We did not manage to get to Positano, which at my present levels of photo enthusiasm feels as an ever more significant gap that needs to be addressed.

We did fit in a couple of hours on the beach, and drove stretches of the aforementioned coastal highway to absorb the scenery. Since we were in the area at the end of September, we did not encounter too much congestion that tourists bring about in summer. If you do choose to visit Amalfi Coast for a resort-centric vacation in July and August, be aware that getting around will take significant allocations of time even for short distances. I would still probably prefer driving over bus excursions or public transport.

Maybe, it’s a blessing in disguise that when I finally see Positano it will be as a much better photographer than I was in pre-digital times. There are not many good pictures from our visit that I can choose to post here. For the first one, I actually chose to style it vintage-y, because it helps to disguise its flaws that way. This is on the beach in Amalfi.

Amalfi, Italy

And the second one is from the garden lookout of Villa Cimbrano, in Ravello. Ravello is not situated on the coast, but rather higher up in the mountains. The views from there, as such photograph cannot truly convey, are breathtaking.

View from Villa Cimbrone, Ravello, Italy


Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #13 (Pont du Gard)

November 24th, 2014

Pont du Gard was chronologically the very first Roman site that we laid our eyes upon. I cannot help but repeat my customary refrain about being in love with architectural masterpieces, and the ones that survive comparatively intact for 2,000 years get an additional dose of my admiration. Itinerary for our very first voyage through France had Pont du Gard as a definite intraday stop.

That visit was not very extensive. An hour or so is certainly enough to see different perspectives of the aqueduct, absorb and reflect on its relative immensity and intricacy, and take a few snapshots. I do not recall that we walked across or spent too much time at the museum in the visitor center, but I do recall seeing several picnicking families on the banks of the river Gard, which suggests that you can make a full day out of the visit. I doubt I’d ever go that far, but I would certainly stretch my next opportunity to take better pictures.

Pont du Gard, France

Curiously, the inscription on the UNESCO list is extremely short and scarcely informative. It appropriately calls the aqueduct both a technical and an artistic masterpiece, though. I fully agree.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #19 (Pompei)

November 19th, 2014

This series of posts gives me an incentive to review our photographic archives with sometimes rather pleasing results.

For instance, our visit to Pompei made in the pre-digital photo-era customarily left just a few photographs to choose from. Printed on glossy paper, those 4×6 shots have been languishing in a rarely opened album. I scanned them into 1200×1800 jpegs, which is a puny resolution even for the best-quality digital shots. It worked in my favor that the shots were properly exposed in the first place and I did not have to employ my Lightroom and Photoshop skills to rescue them, only to enhance them. At higher magnification, the flaws in the edges and some pixelation are visible. At the web-oriented resolution of 900×600, these couple of images actually look quite nice.

In Pompei, Italy


In Pompei, Italy

Pompei, which share the UNESCO inscription with a couple of other locations, offer a fantastic peek into the Roman times, thanks to their level of preservation. While many Ancient Roman sites – including most of those in Rome itself – are primarily ruins, in Pompei you’ll find a significant number of attractions sustaining shape close to their original one. A few buildings even retain roofs of their own, most notably the baths and the bordello.

Pompei are located right off the main north-south auto-route south of Naples, very easily accessible. 3-4 hours is the minimum needed to explore all of the highlights. Keep in mind that shade is at a premium across most of the site – hot mid-days are best avoided.

Both the inscription and any tour guide you’d pick up suggest that Herculaneum is even better preserved, but we went for the more famous of the locations and so far have not returned back to the area, despite many journeys to Italy.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #14 (Arles)

November 10th, 2014

On any given trip, if your plan is to explore an area with multiple destinations over the course of a few days, you probably pick one of those destinations as your base. Then, it becomes a balancing act to get all of your planned sightseeing around the area while doing justice to the aforementioned base.

Arles suffered a bit in that balancing act during our first trip to France. Targeting a stop at Pont-du-Gard and a day in Avignon on one of the legs of that trip, we picked Arles to be our base both because of its Roman attractions and also because staying in Avignon would had been more expensive. As a result, we came to town in mid-afternoon, left ourselves just a few hours of the day of arrival for sightseeing, drove to Avignon early next morning, returned to the hotel late at night, and moved on to the next leg of the trip the following morning. In fact, the most vivid recollection of our time in Arles happens to be of the night ride through town upon returning from Avignon: In those pre-GPS days, using a vague sense of direction, I ended up driving on barely-lit streets through a maze of parked cars which our rental compact repeatedly barely cleared on both sides.

A half-afternoon is certainly not sufficient to properly explore all of Arles historic monuments recognized by UNESCO. I think we reasonably explored only the amphitheatre and the forum.

The photographic efforts were also lacking (I believe this has become a fairly common refrain for any post related to our early travels). There are a handful pretty atrocious point-and-shoot efforts in our pre-digital archives. The only passable picture contrasts your truly with a couple of surviving columns.

Roman ruins of Arles, France

Hopefully, we’ll be back some day.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

More of my favorite sights of Venice

October 3rd, 2014

Senza commenti.

Grand Canal near Scalzi, Venice


Grand Canal, Venice


Grand Canal near Rialto Bridge, Venice


Rialto Bridge, Venice


Grand Canal, Venice


Grand Canal at Accademia Bridge, Venice


Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice


Abreast of Piazza San Marco in the lagoon, Venice


Somewhere in Venice

The earlier favorite sights Venice essay.

These and other pictures of Venice can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #71 (Vicenza)

September 28th, 2014

The World Heritage status of Vicenza is primarily due to Andrea Palladio, a 16th-century giant whose works dominate the town and serve as the origin of the now-classic architectural style that has spread all over Western world (for instance, the White House in Washington, DC, finds its roots in Palladian architecture).

Vicenza was only a “maybe” on our planned itinerary this year; it would be cut if we were to find ourselves running short on time. But we ended up being able to set aside a few hours for a visit there and were very glad that we had done so. Vicenza is a gem.

Here is one of the most famous Palladian buildings, Basilica Palladiana.

Basilica Palladiana and Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza, Italy

Despite its name, it is not a church. Palladio was strongly influenced by Roman architecture and this was the seat of government, ergo basilica, after Roman fashion of dubbing civil structures. Nowadays, it’s an exhibition space; there are shops on the ground level and a very popular bar on the upper terrace.

Facing the Basilica across Piazza dei Signori is another Palladian edifice, Loggia del Capitaniato.

Loggia del Capitaniato and Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza, Italy

We saw about a dozen of Palladian buildings in the city center along the sign-posted trail, but stepped inside only one, Palazzo Barbaran. Here is a shot of a ceiling in one of its halls.

Inside Palazzo Barbaran, Vicenza, Italy

Palazzo Barbaran houses the fantastic Palladio Museum. It covers in significant depth Palladian school of architecture and its main examples.

Next view is quintessential Palladio, Villa la Rotonda.

Villa la Rotonda, Vicenza, Italy

Aside from Palladian palaces and villas, Vicenza’s historic center is walkable and pleasant. We stepped into the cathedral and one other church, had lunch on a quiet piazzetta, and generally enjoyed the surroundings.

Corso Palladio, Vicenza, Italy

Walking the entire sign-posted “Palladian trail” – and entering those palaces that are open for visitors – is likely a full-day endeavour. There is also an overlapping “Roman trail” that will take you to some of the monuments from more ancient times. At the very minimum, half a day is required to get a proper impression of Vicenza and the attractions it has to offer. The town is located on the major East-West Milan-Verona-Venice motorway.

These and other pictures of Vicenza can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #70 (Padua)

September 24th, 2014

Padua (or Padova in Italian) is not recognized on the World Heritage list as a city in its entirety or for any of its architecture. Its entry on the list is the Botanical Gardens which, dating from mid-16th century, are considered to be the oldest in the world and the template for many imitations.

The gardens are relatively small – less than 6 acres – and infinitely fascinating. There is a bit of a wooded area outside of the central garden “ring”, but no vast meadows or formal manicured gardens customary for the modern incarnations of such attractions. Just a dozen sections densely packed with various species of flora, in a cosy and serene setting.

Here are a few perspectives.

Orto Botanico, Padua, Italy


Orto Botanico, Padua, Italy


Orto Botanico, Padua, Italy

We came for the gardens, but explored Padua center a bit and liked it quite a lot. It is a lively and agreeable university town, definitely worth more time that we could devote to it.

This is Piazza del Santo with Basilica San Antonio on the right. Quite a few people were going into it on the Saturday that we were in town.

Piazza del Santo and Basilica San Antonio, Padua, Italy

Next is the market on Piazza delle Erbe, overseen by Palazzo Ragioni.

Piazza delle Erbe and Palazzo Ragioni, Padua, Italy

And here is street fronting the University of Padua, whose buildings are on the right.

Near the University, Via VIII Febbraio, Padua, Italy

Depending on your inclinations towards botany, you may need as little as one hour to as long as three or four to enjoy the gardens. Additional couple of hours should be sufficient to get acquainted with the city, but I have a feeling it should easily support a day-long and overnight stays. Padua is on the Milan – Verona – Venice motorway, and also easily reachable from direction of Bologna.

These and other pictures of Padua can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #69 (Ferrara)

September 19th, 2014

For reasons that lack straightforward explanation, Ferrara did not impress us as it probably should have. Our over-saturation with all things medieval or Renaissance on this trip probably played a part – but then a couple of destinations that came later left stronger imprints.

And yet, there is plenty to see and be impressed by here. The town plan, inscribed on the UNESCO list as the forebear of modern city planning, yields interesting perspectives and pleasant walking routes. Pedestrian city core is lively, with many locals traversing the space on bicycles. And, of course, Ferrara has a number of grand architectural sights.

Here is the view of Duomo Cattedrale di San Giorgio Cispadano whose 12th-century façade can compete with other more famous cathedrals.

San Giorgio Cathedral, Ferrara, Italy

Next is the clock tower of the massive Castello Estense.

Clock tower of Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Since Ferrara has comparatively flat topography, the castle does not occupy an elevated position above town – nor is there a surviving river bend that it might be guarding. Although it has some palatial attributes in its interior, it does not look like a palace and looks precisely a castle, which is somewhat an unusual sight in the middle of town next door to the cathedral.

The tour of the castle offers not only the look at its halls and frescoes but also wealth of information on the d’Este family, under whose rule Ferrara became the important Renaissance centre. You can also learn of the 30 or so delizie, ducal residences built by d’Estes, of which only one, Palazzo Schifanoia, is officially mentioned on UNESCO inscription but all others probably belong as well by association with the Po Delta.

A number of rooms in the castle have large mirrors sitting at an angle on the floor. Looking into those mirrors allows visitors to see the ceiling frescoes without craning their necks. This is the first place I’ve ever seen doing that.

Having spent some time at the castle, we decided against visiting any of the handful of palaces listed in the World Heritage long description. We looked at most of them from outside and took a few pictures. Here is Palazzo Comunale.

Palazzo Comunale, Ferrara, Italy

The same palazzo appears in the background of the next shot, depicting Piazza Trento e Trieste which runs the length of the cathedral.

Piazza Trento e Trieste, Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara can easily support a full day visit for those interested in touring all of its major points of interest. Its proximity to major traveling routes makes it an easy destination to reach. I think we will return again, to do it better justice.

These and other pictures of Ferrara can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

San Marino

September 15th, 2014

We did not set aside significant time to get ourselves acquainted with the Republic of San Marino. With all due respect to the oldest continuous constitutional republic in the world, it can hardly contend for anything but a mere curiosity status on any tour itinerary.

Unless you are a Russian tourist spending a vacation on the coast around Rimini. In which case you will certainly include a shopping day in San Marino as part of your program. I would not be surprised to find that Russian shoppers are responsible for most of San Marino’s GDP. Everywhere in the historic town center you hear Russian language and see Russian signs in shops and restaurants.

The main pedestrian streets are awfully commercialized and the town, despite the long history of the republic, feels somewhat artificially medieval-cute. But cute nonetheless. And there are a few points of interest – and even a combined access ticket for five sights. We only decided to take a look at one, the Guaita Tower, a smallish fortification with centuries of history. It turned out to be quite an informative visit, enabled both by stands depicting important historical events and by attendants in traditional garb providing commentary on various crafts and endeavors.

Here is the tower’s inner yard.

Guaita Tower, San Marino

And this is the roughly opposite perspective, taking in the distant mountains and another nearby fortification, the Cesta Tower.

Guaita Tower and view towards Cesta Tower, San Marino

Then, there are views. San Marino Città is located on top of a mountain that soars over surrounding countryside. There are several vantage points from the tower’s ramparts to see the lands of San Marino and, of course, those belonging to Italy all the way to Adriatic Sea.

View from Guaita Tower over San Marino

The next shot is of the main square, Piazza della Libertà, with San Marino’s own Statue of Liberty and the government headquarters, Palazzo Pubblico, in the background.

Piazza Liberta, San Marino

And this is Basilica di San Marino.

Basilica di San Marino, San Marino

The interior of the church did not impress us much. I expected something more exceptional from the basilica devoted to the person who gave the country its name after having founded the first monastic settlement here all the way back in the 4th century A.D.

If you are not after shopping, a couple of hours is more than enough to get a proper impression of San Marino. Visiting the Palazzo and other sights and possibly taking a meal on a terrace with gorgeous views might help you stretch your time to half a day.

These and other pictures of San Marino can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel

Counting World Heritage sites: #68 (Assisi)

September 10th, 2014
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Assisi easily vaulted towards the top of my personal list of the most impressive day-trip destinations after having hosted us for half of a day. The town’s World Heritage inscription is centered on its sacred architecture, but it is also incredibly picturesque and, pilgrimages aside, does not convey a feeling of being overrun with tourists. Although there are plenty of crafts, local specialties, and souvenir shops, Assisi does not feel overly commercialized either. There is a number of fairly interesting museums sprinkled around the town, all seemingly not requiring any fee to enter.

But the pilgrims and most of the tourists come to Assisi for its religious monuments.

Here is the view of the complex of Basilica of St. Francis from the valley below.

Valley view of Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

The monumental church honoring the famous local son is a magnificent architectural masterpiece.

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

Wait until you step inside. There are two basilicas in one. The lower basilica, with un-church-like low ceilings, is covered all over in brilliant frescoes and paintings. The upper basilica, more traditional in form, is also vibrantly decorated. Here is a perspective along the upper basilica’s nave.

In upper church of Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

I have seen my share of spectacular cathedrals but San Francesco is a species apart, in my experience.

We also visited the other major churches named in the UNESCO inscription, Santa Chiara, San Ruffino, Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Each one has something to impress with and warrants a look, but they pale in comparison to San Francesco.

Beyond that, we simply leisurely strolled through the town. Its terrace-based hillside plan makes it less compact than other destinations of comparable stature and requires a bit of walking to get from one end of town to another. There are not many true squares, but Piazza del Comune is spacious and lively. Here is a fragment of it.

Piazza del Comune, Assisi, Italy

And the following are a few delightful corners of Assisi.

In Assisi, Italy


In Assisi, Italy


In Assisi, Italy

We only made cursory acquaintance with museums and arts and crafts establishments. Assisi can easily support a full day or even a day and a half with all that it has to offer. Its location in Umbria rather than, say, Tuscany keeps it away from most-traveled tourist routes, but if you have even a few hours to spare for a detour, I highly recommend visiting Assisi.

These and other pictures of Assisi can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #67 (Ravenna)

September 6th, 2014

Although city of Ravenna is not without occasional highlights on its streets and squares, you are likely to come here for the mosaics of the early Christian monuments. There are 8 of them inscribed together as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of those, 5 are within reasonable walking distance from each other in the city center, and can be all visited on a single combined access ticket.

All are unique. The themes, of course, repeat, these being religious-centric sites, but the execution is different in every place.

The most magnificent of them all is Basilica di San Vitale. The interior is simply indescribable, with multi-colored marble arches and columns and brilliant colourful mosaics blended together in a breathtaking ensemble. Here are a couple of perspectives.

Inside Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Inside Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The exterior of the church – and of most other of the monuments in this collection – conveys its longevity, dating from the 6th century A.D. (it is actually one of the youngest monuments on the list).

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia sits on the same grounds as the church of San Vitale. It is contrastingly small (with rationed inside access), but its mosaics, covering the entire upper part of the space, are no less impressive.

Inside Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Another interior view – a fragment of Battisterio Neoniano. This was our first stop on the tour and it gave us a good preview of what to expect.

Inside Battisterio Neoniano, Ravenna, Italy

Close by is the Museo Arcivescovile, through which you can access Capella di Sant’Andrea, also known as Archiepiscopal Chapel. Photography is not permitted inside the museum, but the chapel is too small anyway to get a good picture of its resplendent starry ceilings. Students of archaeology may find other things of interest in the museum rooms, but don’t make a mistake of passing the chapel by because you do not want to walk through the museum to get to it.

Finally, Basilica di San Apollinare Nuovo is comparatively the least impressive of the five monuments on the basis of its mosaics, while also being the most cathedral-like among them.

One other baptistery on the list is located in the city center but retains only fragments of its mosaics and therefore is not included on the access ticket. There is also another mausoleum that can be reached on foot if time permits (not in our case), and one other basilica that is actually located not in Ravenna proper but in a nearby village.

We also walked through Ravenna a little bit. It is too car-friendly for my liking, but there are pleasant pedestrian pockets, centered on Piazza del Popolo, the fragment of which is on the next shot.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

The interiors of the monuments of Ravenna immediately found a place on my personal must-see roster. A few hours appear more than sufficient for exploration.

These and other pictures of Ravenna can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #66 (Urbino)

September 3rd, 2014
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Historic center of Urbino is recognized on UNESCO list for its homogeneous Renaissance appearance and architecture blended into original medieval structure. It is a town that is very easy on the eyes – and moderately challenging to navigate due to its hilly topography.

Here is the view of the town center from the elevated viewpoint near Fortezza Albornoz.

View of Urbino from Albornoz Castle park, Italy

The World Heritage inscription names only a few specific buildings, the major of which, the Ducal Palace, did not look overly photogenic during our visit. One of the other major structures, the cathedral, compensated for that.

Urbino Cathedral, Italy

We toured the palace, stepped into the Duomo, looked at a few churches mentioned in the inscription from the outside, and also walked by the house that is the birthplace of Raphael. In addition to that, the core of Urbino marks a few dozen locations (with signs on every street corner), stretching the UNESCO designation to cover everything that could be considered of interest in town.

All main roads in Urbino center converge on the relatively compact Piazza della Reppublica.

Piazza della Reppublica, Urbino, Italy

Becky, who was studying in Urbino this summer, will disagree with me, but to me, the town lacks the “wow factor”. It is undoubtedly worthy of its World Heritage designation and it is a living city that is not overrun by tourists. But it is hard to point out a must-see attraction – Urbino’s charm is in the summary total of its parts.

Then again, a shot like the one below always helps me retain nothing by good impressions of the place.

Urbino, Italy

Not being situated on major travelling routes, Urbino is unlikely to be a stop-over destination. Nonetheless, you can get a good sense of the town and even visit some of its points of interest in the space of a few hours.

These and other pictures of Urbino can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #65 (Modena)

August 30th, 2014
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The UNESCO World Heritage site in Modena is the main historic square, with major architectural masterpieces surrounding it. Here is a fragment of two named ones, the exquisite – and leaning (you will have to trust me on this) – Torre Civica and the Cathedral.

Cathedral and Torre Civica, Modena, Italy

Our visit to Modena was certainly the least successful of all of our stops on the recent trip. We only had a couple of hours at our disposal, which technically should have been enough to get a proper impression of the major attractions, including some interior exploration. But we did not anticipate all points of interest being closed between noon and 3pm, which was exactly the time-box of our visit. We also did not count on intermittent heavy rain. As a result we only regarded the major edifices from outside, walked the surrounding streets when the rain let up, and filled the remaining time with a lunch on a piazzetta around the corner from the main square.

The cathedral’s façade was covered in scaffolding, too. I ended up with a half a dozen good pictures of the tower, but nothing exceptional when it comes to the great church.

I also took several perspectives of the clock-tower of Palazzo Communali. That, to me, was the architectural highlight of Piazza Grande.

Palazzo Communali Clocktower, Modena, Italy

Piazza Grande, on balance, was a bit underwhelming. I have to discount the rain and the scaffolds, but we have certainly seen much grander main squares, forgive the inadvertent pun.

The town itself looked quite pleasant and probably worth greater amount of attention than what we could lend. I am a big fan of portico galleries fronting the houses on main streets, which is a very common feature in this part of Italy. I am also a fan of colourful house palettes.

In Modena, Italy

Modena has a few points of interest beyond Piazza Grande and is also the home of Ferrari, which should obviously appeal to auto enthusiasts. It can probably sustain a longer stop-over or even a mid-afternoon-to-mid-morning stay.

These and other pictures of Modena can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #64 (Cinque Terre)

August 24th, 2014

The incredibly picturesque area of Cinque Terre, along with Portovenere and a trio of islands to the immediate south, are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their historic and cultural value, to say nothing of their beauty. For nearly a millennium, the rugged and mountainous Ligurian coast made these villages remote and isolated, accessible only via water. In the 21st century, the cars and the trains can reach every village but in such a limited fashion as to allow them to retain their unique charming features.

Our base in Cinque Terre was Vernazza, which provides the best balance of accessibility, size, and charm. The following shot is one of the iconic images of the region.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

This view opens from a lookout at the beginning (or the end, depending on your direction) of the trail to Monterosso. The trails are not easy for those less athletically-inclined, but a fantastic way to get a better impression of the entire region. The main trail connects all five seaside villages; the shortest leg, the southernmost connection between Manarola and Riomaggiore, is considered the most romantic – and easiest – and has a somewhat pretentious name of “Lovers’ Alley”. We initially planned to walk the entire route, but a couple of sections, including the aforementioned Lovers’ Alley, were closed due to hurricane damage, so we only walked the section between Vernazza and Corniglia, and later between Monterosso and Vernazza. Each of those two requires at least 90 minutes to navigate. The northernmost leg, from Monterosso to Vernazza, is more beautiful, with several waterfalls and streams to break the mountanous landscape.

If you find the white awning on the ground level of the pale pink building in the center of the above shot, the window immediately to the right of it is that of our rental apartment.

Although some people sunbathe and swim at the marina or off the pier that extends to the right of the shot, Vernazza also has a wild rocky beach that is located behind the buildings on the left of the picture. We took a few dips in the Ligurian Sea over there.

Corniglia is the only one of the five villages that does not have direct access to the sea. It sits high atop a small but steep promontory.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

This is quite a disadvantage, IMHO. None of the villages provide significant sightseeing and entertainment opportunities each in itself. You get the most out of the region if you explore all villages. With no ferry stop and a long walk down – and on the way back, up – to the railway station, Corniglia is just not as accessible as other places. The beach is located beyond the station – again, a significant descent to get there, and more importantly, a significant climb on the return trip.

You see a glimpse of Manarola, the next village southward on the previous shot. Here it is up close.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Manarola is the smallest of the five hamlets. It has tiny access to the sea, with a small rocky lagoon doubling as a beach and a small piazza providing a couple of waterfront dining options.

Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, is similar to Manarola but slightly larger in size.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Its seafront area is actually even tinier than Manarola’s, but the upper town is bigger, goes farther up the mountain via a comparatively wide main street, and there is a separate part of village which occupies the next adjoining cove on the coast.

The northernmost village, Monterosso al Mare, is the largest of them all.

Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre, Italy

Monterosso, alone on Cinque Terre, has a sizable and developed beach. The picture above shows only the part of it in front of the city center. It continues beyond the promontory on the left for nearly a mile.

Unlike all other villages, there is more than one street in Monterosso that is not effectively a stair climb and there is even a small park with a playground near the waterfront. For those inclined towards a beach-centric resort stay, Monterosso potentially could provide all that is needed by itself.

We also visited Portovenere, which is part of the same World Heritage site, but not part of Cinque Terre proper.

Portovenere, Liguria, Italy

Portovenere is located to the south of Riomaggiore. Hidden behind a jutting promontory, but with an extended waterfront, it feels larger than any of the five villages, even though it may actually be smaller in size than Monterosso. It is certainly very colourful and offers several points of interest, in addition to its quay and its main commercial street. Excluding time for meals and for beach-going, each of the Cinque Terre villages can be covered in depth in under an hour. Portovenere requires at least two or three hours, and that is without much lingering.

The UNESCO site also includes three small islands off Portovenere as part of its body, but we did not fit exploring those into our itinerary.

Cinque Terre is certainly amongst the most eye-catching and remarkable places that we have seen on our travels. Navigating the area may not be the most straightforward of the exercises, but it is awfully rewarding. And often breathtaking.

These and many other pictures of Cinque Terre and Portovenere can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #63 (Mantua/Sabbioneta)

August 16th, 2014
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The towns of Mantua (Mantova in Italian) and Sabbioneta are paired into a single World Heritage site on the basis of representing two different facets of Renaissance city planning: the former an example of an existing city rebuilt and renewed, the latter a completely new town built according to the prevailing concepts of the ideal town of the time.

You can certainly see Renaissance influence in the architecture and un-medieval wideness of some of the streets around Mantua’s center. The most interesting architecture in town is concentrated around its historic core, focused on Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Sordello.

This shot of Piazza delle Erbe captures the latter-period architecture, including the porticoes gallery that is a very common feature of southern Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna architecture.

Piazza delle Erbe, Mantua, Italy

The wide and spacious Piazza Sorbello is home to the Mantua Cathedral, the Ducal Palace, and a host of other impressive buildings.

Duomo and Piazza Sordello, Mantua, Italy

Here is the façade of Palazzo Ducale, on the other side of the square.

Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy

A tour of the place is an excellent diversion if you are in town, consisting of a couple of dozen increasingly impressive spaces, sparsely furnished but boasting magnificent ceilings and wall frescoes and decorations.

Here is one other perspective from a corner of Piazza Sorbello, taking in a fragment of the cathedral, Palazzo Bonacolsi, Torre della Gabbia, and the dome of Basilica Sant’Andrea.

In Mantua, Italy

Sabbioneta has a small grid-like core of streets that forms the reason for its inclusion on the UNESCO list. However, we did not find anything exceptional there. In fact, our short visit to town left us underwhelmed and disappointed. On a Saturday early afternoon, not helped at all by the intermittent rain, the town looked nearly deserted and far from festive or even remarkable. We probably should have spent more time in Mantua instead. I took just a handful of pictures; the following two shots are of the Ducal Palace and the church (the sign on its side literally says just chiesa with no designation of a saint that it is dedicated to) that sit on Piazza Ducale, which might be lovely during the livelier times.

Palazzo Ducale, Sabbioneta, Italy  On Piazza Ducale, Sabbioneta, Italy

This World Heritage site probably does not constitute a destination in itself. But as an intraday stopover on some route, Mantua is certainly a pleasant choice and can easily provide a few hours of exploration entertainment. Sabbioneta is unlikely to appeal to anyone but the most hard-core aficionados of Renaissance architecture.

These and other pictures of Mantua and Sabbioneta can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage

Counting World Heritage sites: #62 (Verona)

August 10th, 2014
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Verona is enshrined on the UNESCO list as the whole city, with a large number of buildings and monuments mentioned in the inscription. It was the first stop on our recent sojourn.

The heart of the city is lively Piazza delle Erbe. It hosted a smaller version of the market when we were there which allowed me to take a few reasonable shots of its expanse.

Piazza dell Erbe, Verona, Italy

The adjacent Piazza dei Signori, fragment of which is on the next photo, is smaller and more monumentally surrounded.

Piazza dei Signori, Verona, Italy

The biggest square in town is Piazza Bra, the home to the famous Amphitheatre Arena, the second biggest in the world after the Colloseum in Rome.

Piazza Bra, Verona, Italy

Going to see the opera performance at the Arena is a veritable highlight of a visit to town. Especially if you are a true opera lover. If you are someone like us – we appreciate classical music but can do without singing in a foreign language – you might still enjoy repeating our approach: buy cheapest tickets, get to the arena at least an hour before the performance, bring a snack to sustain yourself, commandeer seats on the highest stone terrace, enjoy the sight of the arena filling with spectators and the customary lighting of the candles at the start of the performance, appreciate the excellent but remote performance visuals through the first act (you will be extremely challenged to enjoy the audio unless you splurge on not-so-cheap lower-level seats instead), and then retire after the first act to any of the nearby restaurants for a dinner. If your tickets are to a 4-5-hour-long performance, you might even have a chance to come back for the last act. We decided that we already had our fill of memories.

Torre dei Lamberti is not mentioned in the World Heritage inscription, but we could not pass a chance to climb to the top for the fantastic views of the city from above. Highly recommended – and elevator-enabled for athletically challenged.

Rooftop view of Verona, Italy

The next view is along the River Adige from the walls of Castelvecchio, the 14th-century castle.

View from Castelvecchio along River Adige, Verona, Italy

There are several major churches in Verona, of which we explored a few. Both the Duomo and the church of Sant’Anastasia are, in my opinion, especially striking when you step inside.

Inside Verona Duomo, Italy


Inside Sant-Anastasia, Verona, Italy

We walked all over Verona and, of course, ended up at some point by the House of Juliet (ok, it’s hard to miss, sitting just a block away from Piazza delle Erbe). The balcony was only added in the 1930s, which clearly negates any possibility of the place having actual historic value with respect to the famous Shakespearean work, but that does not diminish its popularity as one of the most crowded attractions in Verona. Given that it is explicitly mentioned in the UNESCO long description of Verona, I found a way to snap a picture when no one was pretending to be Juliet.

Juliet Balcony, Verona, Italy

Verona’s historic core is surprisingly larger than one might expect and offers a large number of attractions, but it is possible to cover most of the key ones in a full day, which is what we accomplished.

These and many other pictures of Verona can be found in my Flickr photostream.

Photography, Travel, World Heritage