Travel Tuesday: Capri, Italy

Ahhh, Capri. Let me tell you…this place is magical, magical but expensive. I visited Capri for two days and one night on my Europe trip in 2010 (that was all I could afford, like I said the place is pricey). Capri is an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sorrentine Peninsula, on the south side of the Gulf of Naples in the Campania region of Italy. The main town on the island shares the name. It has been a resort since the time of the Roman Republic. There are only two towns – Capri, just above Marina Grande, and Anacapri, the higher town. Both Anacapri and Capri have a range of hotels. Anacapri (where we stayed) appears to have more budget accommodations and is more peaceful at night while Capri is the main center and has more nightlife. Beaches are scattered around the island. Lemon trees, flowers, and birds are abundant.

What to See in Capri:

Faraglioni, rock formations, are one of the island’s natural wonders. The faraglioni make up the classic view one associates with Capri. On the shore, the Faraglioni beach is one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. There are several other unusual rock formations in the sea around the island, including a natural arch.

Anacapri, the highest town on the island, has splendid views of the harbor below. Near the central square there’s a chair lift to Mount Solaro and a street lined with shops, several of which offer limoncello tasting. Olive trees, grapevines, and flowers give it a Mediterranean charm. Take the chairlift ride called the Seggiovia by locals, it goes from Anacapri up to Monte Solaro. On a clear day the views over the bay of Naples from the summit are indescribable and there are some really pretty gardens and orchards underfoot on the way up the mountain (passing over private homes). The ride takes 15 minutes each way and is a remarkably peaceful break from the tourist crowds elsewhere in Capri.

Villa San Michele, in Anacapri, was built around the turn of the 20th century by the Swedish physician, Axel Munthe, on the ruins of the Roman Emperor Tiberius’s villa. Its gardens have panoramic views of Capri town and its marina, the Sorrentine Peninsula and Mount Vesuvius. The villa and its grounds sit on a ledge at the top of the Phoenician Steps, between Anacapri and Capri, at 327 meters above sea level. San Michele’s gardens are adorned with numerous relics and works of art dating from ancient Egypt and other periods of antiquity. They now form part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani. The story of the villa is recorded by Dr. Munthe in his book entitled The Story of San Michele, published in 1929. There have been numerous reprints since.

Capri is the main town of the island. Piazza Umberto I, often called La Piazzetta, is the central square that houses cafes and the cathedral of Santo Stefano. The piazza is filled with people both day and night. There’s an archaeological museum in the town.

Grotta Azzurra, also known as the Blue Grotto is known throughout the world for its size, the intense blue tones of its interior and the magical silvery light which emanates from the objects immersed in its waters. In order to enter the Grotta Azzurra visitors climb aboard small rowing boats, with a capacity for two, maximum three, passengers and, lying on the bottom of the boat, enter the low and narrow mouth of the cave. The light is filtered by the water which absorbs the red tones, leaving only the blue ones to pass into the cave. A second phenomenon creates the silver appearance of the objects immersed in the water. It is believed that, in the Roman period, under the rule of Tiberius, the interior of the Grotta Azzurra was used as a marine nymphaeum. There have been those who imagined the cave as the habitat of Nereidi or of Sirens or believed it to be the realm of devils who bewitched all who dared to enter.


Travel Tuesday: Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

On my Europe trip in 2006 my friend and I spent a few days in Prague. At our hostel we heard about a road trip that you could take, which took you out to some smaller town in the Czech countryside. One of the benefits of having no real schedule was that we were able to hop right in the van and just take off. It was great to get out of the city and explore a part of the country that I probably never would have. Today, I’m going to tell you about one of the strangest (and creepiest) places I’ve ever been…the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora.

One of a dozen or so UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic and one of the most popular day trips from Prague, Kutná Hora was once a booming silver-mining center. For a time in the late Middle Ages the town rivaled Prague for splendor and influence in Bohemia. Those days are long over, and today much of the town earns its money from tourism.

The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. The ossuary contains approximately 40,000-70,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. Here is the story about how a church of bones came to be:

Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Israel (Holy Land) by King Otakar II of Bohemia in 1278. When he returned, he brought with him a small amount of earth he had removed from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this pious act soon spread and the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe. During the Black Death in the mid 14th century, and after the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, many thousands were buried there and the cemetery had to be greatly enlarged.

Around 1400 a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction, or simply slated for demolition to make room for new burials. After 1511 the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was, according to legend, given to a half-blind monk of the order.

Between 1703 and 1710 a new entrance was constructed to support the front wall, which was leaning outward, and the upper chapel was rebuilt. This work, in the Czech Baroque style, was designed by Jan Santini Aichel.

In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to put the bone heaps into order. The macabre result of his effort speaks for itself. Four enormous bell-shaped mounds occupy the corners of the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, and the signature of Rint, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance.

This was a completely unique experience to me…I mean a church of bones?!? Really!! One of my best recommendations to a fellow traveler would be to make sure that you don’t let the opportunity to experience new things and places you’ve never even heard of pass you by. An itinerary can be a great thing, but don’t be fixated on it because you never know where a random road trip could take you!  


Travel Tuesday: The Colloseum, Rome

Good morning! For my Travel Tuesday post today I will be showing you photos of the Colosseum. Like Paris, Rome has too much to offer to try and condense into one post, so I’ll be splitting it up. I’ve been to Rome three times now (2004, 2006 and 2010) and I’ve loved it every time. I find the Colosseum fascinating. Its construction started in 72 AD and was completed in 80 AD. Just consider the history for a moment. The fact that this piece of history is still standing is just incredible.

Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colloseum was the largest building of the era. In its glory days,  the Colosseum was able to seat 50,000 spectators for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. It was later reused for such purposes as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine. Although today it stays partially ruined because of damage caused by devastating earthquakes and stone-robbers, the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. It is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions and still has close connections with the Roman Catholic Church, as each Good Friday the Pope leads a torchlit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum.

 This monument is really a site to be seen. I love history and having the opportunity to visit a place with so much was an exciting experience.


Travel Tuesday: Strasbourg, France

On my Europe trip in 2010, we ended up going to Strasbourg on a bit of a whim. We were on a road trip from Cannes to Paris, with no real road map in mind and kind of just ended up there. I am so happy we did, I only wish that we had had more time to visit, as the city was so beautiful and unique.

Strasbourg is the capital city of the Alsace region in eastern France, located very close to the German border. A lot happens in this city. It is the official seat of the European Parliament, and the seat of several European institutions, such as the Council of Europe (with its European Court of Human Rights, its European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory) and the Eurocorps, as well as the European Ombudsman of the European Union. Busy place hey!

Strasbourg, to me, seems to be an amalgamation of so many things. Old and new. Work and play. History and progress. French and German. You see this represented in the language, the food, the drinks, the architecture and the colours. It’s just such a unique city.

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. It is fused into the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a bridge of unity between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the University of Strasbourg, currently the largest in France, and the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture.

Strasbourg is situated on the Île River, where it flows into the Rhine on the border with Germany. A boat trip is, in my opinion, the best way to get to see Strasbourg because of the perfect view it gives you of Strasbourg`s main attractions: European Parliament, the German Quarter, the Middle Age Petite France, among many others. One thing I found really cool on the boat ride was that you have to pass through the locks I had never experienced this before. The boat goes through a canal which is a very tight fit and the lock gates raise it more than one meter to the upper level. It takes 5 minutes for enough water to be release to raise the boat. It’s interesting to watch the water level rise under the boat by seeing how different markings on the concrete wall beside the boat disappear under the water.

On the boat tour, seeing the architecture of the buildings and listening to the guide tell you about the history, you realize just how old this city is. Coming from a country that’s fairly young like Canada, it is incredible to think that you are in a place that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Maybe I’m just a nerd like that, but I find history so fascinating. The first traces of human occupation in Strasbourg go back 600,000 years.  Neolithic, bronze age and iron age artifacts have been uncovered by archeological excavations. It was permanently settled by proto-Celts around 1300 BC. That’s really old you guys!

The city is primarily known for its sandstone Gothic Cathedral with its famous astronomical clock, and for its medieval cityscape of Rhineland black and white timber-framed buildings, particularly in the Petite-France district or Gerberviertel (“tanners’ district”) alongside the Île and in the streets and squares surrounding the cathedral, where the renowned Maison Kammerzell stands out.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame is a Roman Catholic cathedral. It is incredible to stare up at all the carvings and stonework, and to realize that people actually created that by hand. It is so detailed and intricate. A true piece of art. Although considerable parts of it are still in Romanesque architecture, it is widely considered to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. Erwin von Steinbach is credited for major contributions from 1277 to his death in 1318.

At 466 feet, it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874, when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai’s Church, Hamburg. Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world.

Victor Hugo had described the Cathédrale as a “gigantic and delicate marvel,” Goethe described it as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.” And widespread it is! It is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.

The Strasbourg astronomical clock is located in the Cathédrale. I found it so odd to see science and religion together like this. Like I said, Strasbourg is nothing if not unique. The clocks main features, besides the automata, are a perpetual calendar (including a computus), an orrery (planetary dial), a display of the real position of the Sun and the Moon, and solar and lunar eclipses. The main attraction is the procession of the 18 inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at half past midday while the life-size cock crows thrice.

Like I mentioned earlier, this city has so much to offer visitors, you should all go and experience it yourselves. I’m fairly certain that I will be back again one day…at least I hope so!


Travel Tuesday: The Algarve, Portugal

Is it really after four already?!? This day has been crazy, sorry for such a late post. For today’s Travel Tuesday post I am going to show you some photos from my trip to the Algarve region of Portugal this past summer. We stayed in the town of Albufeira for just under two weeks and had an incredible time.

Albufeira has a few different parts to it. There is the old town with it’s pretty cobbled streets lined with restaurants, bars, cafes and shops; the lively nightlife in São João; Albufeira marina with its sugar candy coloured apartments and last but not least the lovely, sandy beaches.

What I loved about Portugal is that it took my favourite aspects of travel and combined them into one great destination. The beaches were idyllic, with white sand, crystal clear water, and immense rock formations adding to your visual delights. The quaint towns were walkable, with restaurants, lounges and cafes scattering the cobblestone streets. The food…man oh man, I could do a whole post on the food. I love seafood, a lot. I ate so much while I was there from mussels to clams to tuna and more. I also tried one of their local specialties chicken piri piri, which is basically chicken with a very spicy marinade. Everything was super affordable which was great too. That’s one of the things I love about Europe, how you can sit at a restaurant order great food and lots of drinks and still leave after hours with a bill under a hundred Euros. That doesn’t happen at home. Portuguese was nearly impossible to speak for me. I tried, but it just didn’t work, so I appreciate the locals being more than helpful speaking English.

Another thing I loved about the Algarve was the weather. If you are taking a vacation and pretty much want to guarantee good weather go to the Algarve. With over 3,000 hours of sun a year the Algarve has a mild climate making it an ideal holiday destination all year round. It also gets very little rain (although we did have rain one day) and gets very hot in the summer (like 30 to 40 degrees). Perfect for a beach vacation! If you have any questions about the Algarve, let me know. It was a great vacation, I highly recommend it!

Travel Tuesday: Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Bonjour mon amis! Happy Travel Tuesday. As I mentioned in a previous post, Paris has far too many wonderful aspects to fit everything into one blog post so I am slowing breaking down my three trips there into multiple posts. Today I am going to tell you about the Jardin du Luxembourg. The Jardin du Luxembourg is the second largest public park in Paris and is located in the 6th arrondissement. It is a beautiful park, which makes you feel like you are no longer in the heart of Paris, rather, that you are on a French estate, in the countryside. I am assuming that that is precisely what Marie de Medici intended when she commisoned it in 1611. Marie was the widow of Henry IV and the regent for the King Louis XIII. She decided that she wanted to build a palace in imitation of the Pitti Palace in her native Florence.

She commissioned Salomon de Brosse to build the palace and a fountain, which still exists (the the photo of the Medici Fountain below). In 1612 she planted 2,000 elm trees, and directed a series of gardeners, most notably Tommaso Francini, to build a park in the style she had known as a child in Florence.

Today the palace in home to the French Senate and the park is open to the public. Children can often be found racing motor sailboats in the fountains, or running around in the grass. People come to sunbathe in the chairs surrounding the water, or to picnic in the grass amongst the statues. It’s a wonderful retreat after being immersed in the city all day. We stopped by a little shop on our way in and bought a box of decadent macaroons and a bottle of champagne to enjoy as the late afternoon sun shone down on us. It was a perfect Parisian moment, the kind that you need to savour so you can remember it when you’re back in your office, typing away at home. If only everyday consisted of macaroons and champagne in a Parisian park.

Travel Tuesday: Cinque Terre, Italy

Italy is such a diverse country in terms of landscape. You have ancient cities, rolling hillsides and villages built high in the cliffs. Cinque Terre is in the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region of Italy. “The Five Lands” is composed of five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ve been to Cinque Terre twice now, once in 2006 and once in 2010. What I love about these five villages is that they are quite literally a breath of fresh air. It is so refreshing to visit them after going to a few larger European cities, such as Rome.

A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (“Light Blue Trail”), connects all five villages. I’ve never done all five hikes in one day, rather split the hike into two separate days. The trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Via Dell’Amore (“Love Walk”) and is the easiest walk, as it is all paved and fairly flat. The stretch from Manarola to Corniglia is also easy to hike, although the main trail into Corniglia finishes with a climb of 368 stairs, and on a hot day, man oh man it feels like a lot more!

Cinque Terre is built on cliffsides along the ocean and the mountainsides are heavily terraced and are used to cultivate grapes and olives. The grapes of the Cinque Terre are used to produce two locally made wines. The eponymous Cinque Terre and the Sciachetrà are both made using Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes. Both wines are produced by the Cooperative Agricoltura di Cinque Terre (“Cinque Terre Agricultural Cooperative”), located between Manarola and Volastra. Other DOC producers are Forlini-Capellini, Walter de Batté, Buranco, Arrigoni. I’ve tried a few of these wines, and their quite good, and seriously, the local wine is dirt cheap, you can buy a bottle for about three Euros, it’s cheaper than buying water! This area, and the region of Liguria, as a whole, is known for pesto, and it is soooo good. I had an amazing meal sitting on the rocks watching the sun set over the cliffs. I bought a pesto pizza from the local pizzeria and a bottle of wine and had the perfect picnic. Best part, the whole meal probably cost about eight Euros. Can’t beat that!