Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oh the places I've been: Europe

The whole of Europe (or at least the bits I've been to) obviously offers a lot more scope than my list of French highlights, so inevitably I'm probably going to miss out all kinds of cool places I've visited. But here's a few of, if not la crème de la crème, at least the most memorable right now (in no particular order):

Rodina Mat, Kiev, Ukraine

How often do you get the opportunity to climb 91 metres up a giant Ukrainian woman and pop out a porthole, your legs straddling a void beneath you, with only a tiny safety harness clipped on to a wire around your waist? And then get rewarded with uninterrupted 360° views of a major city? Well, that's what you get at the Rodina Mat (which can be translated as "Mother Homeland) in Kiev, where I was in August 2011

I haven't been following the current events in Kiev especially closely, but of course I'm saddened at the violence and hopeful that there will soon be positive results for the country. I remember when planning my trip (I spent almost two weeks there alone, including 4 overnight train trips), my guidebook was full of doom and gloom about how "intrepid" it was to go there as an independent traveller, let alone as a woman travelling alone. Luckily I wasn't put off, and I really never felt unsafe there (as I recounted in the linked post, even the tramps were polite when I accidentally wandered into their hut looking for water). While Kiev wasn't quite the ancient Slavic wonderland I'd enthusiastically imagined, I enjoyed my time in Ukraine and one day I'd love to go back to see places like the Crimea, Chernihiv (which I tried and failed to get to from Kiev) and maybe even Chernobyl. I hope things settle down & Kiev is open to tourists again soon.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

The Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, is one of those places that actually does live up to all the hype. From the façades covered with a mind-boggling array of symbolic carvings, to the inside, which is like a fantastical stone enchanted forest, it's like nothing I've ever seen anywhere else. 

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

I'll admit to a slight fascination for the macabre: I love a good cemetery, so a good ossuary? Even better. The Sedlec Ossuary, in Kutna Hora, not far from Prague, is decorated with the bones of around 40,000 medieval plague victims, arranged in intricate designs such as the coat of arms above and even a chandelier. I spent two and a half months living in Prague in 2006, so I got to know the city very well. Highlights included the Spanish Synagogue, St. Nicholas' Church and the terraced gardens below Prague Castle, but the ossuary has got to take the biscuit for the sheer unusualness of it all. 

Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna, Austria

I visited Vienna as a side trip from Prague in October 2006, and generally really loved the way the formal, monumental beauty of the imperial capital contrasted with Prague's crooked, understated charm. I had a great time at the Schoenbrunn Palace, but as I'm a museum-lover, I'll nominate the Kunsthistorischesmusum as my Vienna must-see. I managed to spend 5 hours in there soaking up a great collection of Old Masters. I think I had more stamina for museums back in the day!

Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

From Prague, I moved to Moscow, where I lived for 2 months. I saw lots of great things in Russia, from the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, the Tretyakov in Moscow to Tsarskoe Selo in St. Petersburg. Regrets: not going inside St. Basil's (stupid) and not going to the Russian Museum in St. P or Peterhof Palace (the "Russian Versailles") near St. Petersburg, although that was more of a calculated decision, as I wanted to see it in summer with the fountains going, and I was there in mid-winter. 

I can't say I approve of the current climate in Russia - when I lived there, it was during Putin's first stint as President, and even then we were duly warned about racism, xenophobia and homophobia, and I'm sure it's only got worse. I would still like to go back and see more of Russia one day, though. I studied Russian for two years at university and always wish I could brush up my woeful command of the language, and I've studied quite a bit of the history and culture. It really is fascinating, and while one can - and should - absolutely oppose a lot of the current policies and attitudes, even a cursory knowledge of the country's turbulent past goes a long way to explaining some of why Russia is like it is. 

Anyway, as I said, I love a museum, and the Hermitage, which I visited in January 2007, is one of the best, in one of, if not *the* most beautiful city I've ever been to. It's bloody massive, and overwhelming, and would still be gorgeous and amazing even if it were empty, but it is of course packed with priceless works of art. Definitely one for the bucket list.

Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey

This is probably one of my all-time favourite places, and somewhere I enthusiastically recommend anytime anyone mentions Turkey in my presence. It's a beautiful 11th C church filled with spectacular 14th C mosaics and frescoes, and because it's a bit off the beaten track, if you're lucky you won't have to share it with too many other visitors, especially if you go in winter, as I did back in 2008). My photos don't do it the justice it deserves, just wonderful.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Okay, everyone raves about the Cinque Terre, which I visited in September 2009, but with good reason. These five towns on the Ligurian coast are linked by walking trails which range from very easy to moderately strenuous (and also by train and boat, if you get tired). It's a real treat to walk for a couple of hours and then stop for a foccacia or a gelato and a bit of a sunbathe or a wander around a charming little Italian town. What could be better than that?

Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy

I studied Art History in my last year of high school, and amongst other things, we covered Masaccio's Life of Saint Peter fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel and Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo (known to me respectively for exam purposes as Marlon Brando - Masaccio Brancacci - and PA system - Piero Arezzo). I haven't been to see PA system yet, but Marlon Brando was definitely on my list when I visited Florence. You only get 15 minutes inside the chapel to see it, but it's well worth it if you ever get the chance.

San Clemente Church, Rome, Italy


I found it a bit hard to get online while travelling around Italy on my way to Nice in September 2009, so some of my blog posts are rather rushed and I don't seem to have put any photos up of San Clemente, unfortunately. Still, while I saw a lot of fabulous sights in Rome, such as the Vatican, San Clemente has always stood out for me. It's a 12th century church on top of a 4th century church on top of an ancient Temple of Mithras and a Roman villa. Descending through the layers, you really feel the weight of history, which is increased by the dark and silent, mysterious atmosphere of the lower levels, permeated by the sound of running water echoing through the darkness.

Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

I posted like a million billion photos of St. Mark's after my trip there in October 2010, because it is amazing. Do make sure you go when they turn the lights on (between 11.30 and 12.30, at least when I went), it makes such a difference to all the glimmering gold mosaics. It bears a lot of similarities to the Byzantine churches I saw in Istanbul, unsurprisingly since it was a Byzantine territory and retained strong trading links to that part of the world. It's worth paying to check out the treasury and to go upstairs as well. 

York, England

As a Lancashire lass (by descent), I feel bad nominating York as one of my favourite UK places, but it is really pretty and just stuffed with history. I've been twice, once around Christmas 2004 I think, and once in January 2012. Highlights include the Shambles, a narrow medieval street with original buildings, the city walls, the ruined St. Mary's Abbey, the Minster and the museum. 

Driving in Norway

Impossible to name just one place - Norway is amazing, and I'd love to go back and see more of the fjords and Bergen. The absolute highlight was our drive between Sunndalsora and Trollstigen, in August 2012. It's so beautiful that I took most of those amazing photos out the window of a moving car, including the one above. Sure, there's luck and a ton jettisoned due to inconvenient trees getting in the way, but it's so stunning you basically just can't fail to capture some gorgeous images.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

As with the Brancacci, you only get a short amount of time inside to savour the beautiful frescoes (this time, courtesy of Giotto). I was lucky enough to get a double stint and to briefly have the place to myself, thanks to winter travelling. The frescoes may look a little crude in the photos - it's worth remembering that Giotto (and Masaccio) are rather early Renaissance figures (Giotto died almost a century before Masaccio, but Masaccio died about a century before Raphael and about 135 years before Michaelangelo), so you can't really expect that same sort of smooth photo-realism of Raphael, or the exaggerated mannerism of Michaelangelo. Anyway, they are a real treat to behold. 

Capri, Italy

I'm not really sure if I would say Capri was my favourite place I visited in the Sorrento area, but it sticks in my mind as the most beautiful, thus earning it its place on the list. The view of the Faraglioni rocks from the Krupp path and the gardens above was just breathtaking. Well worth a sweaty walk back up in high-20s weather! And I must say, the lemon granita my Dad had waiting for me at the top was all the tastier because I earned it! By the way, it definitely seems I could have a post just on the delights of Italy.

So, looking back, I've definitely been to some awesome places, and there's soooo many more still to visit! What are your favourites?


  1. Wow you have been to some beautiful places! :)

    1. Yep, just makes me want to visit more though!

  2. So impressed by the variety of your travels! And you've given me some inspiration for trips too.

  3. What about Carnforth?

  4. Oh by the way, that bit on St Petersburg had the unfortunate effect of reminding me about the worst film ever made!

    1. Noooo.... I'd blocked it from my memory!

  5. Wish I'd been with you in all of these places! (But feel lucky I have in some :)) Good times. M xx

    1. Lies! Couldn't drag you to Turkey, Ukraine or Russia!

    2. That's good! Might not be the time to start with some of them though ha ha x

    3. I think a little trip to south sudan or a fortnight with in eritrea might be acceptable

  6. Barcelona has been on my list for forever-- maybe this year!

    Yes, Cinque Terre is definitely one of those places that people either say, "It's the most amazing place ever" or "Where's that?" I used to be the latter, now am the former, having been twice. I went pre and post the big flood (you went pre), and it unfortunately suffered a lot of damage. Still beautiful though.

    Didn't realize you lived in Moscow for 2 months-- wow!

    1. Oh yes, I heard about the flooding & have wondered how much damage was done. That's a shame. Yep, I'd never heard of it until a friend who lived in Turin for a year told me when I was planning my trip, and it went straight on the list. Nowadays it seems much more well-known.

  7. Wow, I have only just scratched the surface here in Europe. There are so many great places to visit. I hope to one day make it out to Russia and Slovenia. If only travel from Bordeaux to Eastern Europe was easier.

    I'm not really a museum lover, but I'd love to visit the ossuary in the Czech Republic.

    As I'm getting older, I find myself liking more classical cities like Vienna. I've been there twice, but that is one city that I would really love to see again. Venice is one place that I really would like to visit as well, but I have one condition: I would like to visit in the dead of winter with snow and fog covering it preferably. For me, it's just that kind of mysterious place that has the perfect winter ambiance.

    If I was to make a list, I don't know what I would put on there. There are so many great places to choose from! I think I would definitely list Sicily, though. Have you been there? I know that it would be just the kind of place for you as it so rich in Norman, Catalan, Greek, Arab, etc. monuments and history. And the food...

    1. I found going between Prague and Vienna that Vienna came across much more formal, orderly, planned etc. compared with Prague, so I didn't get that mysterious atmosphere at all (maybe I should rewatch "The Third Man"?)

      No, I haven't been to Sicily, but you're certainly selling it!

      Sorry for the late reply, sometimes I think I've got to them all but I've just read them in my inbox and forgotten.

  8. It's quite an impressive and interesting list. St.Petersburg is high on my wish list :)

    1. If only it were easier to visit, but (a minor) unfortunate consequence of the current trouble in Ukraine is that EU-Russia visa negotiations have been frozen :(


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