Tag Archives: travels

Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

A Hidden Paradise – Exploring the Zingaro Nature Reserve

No tarmacked roads in sight, no cars, no concrete houses, no telephone cables, no traffic noise-pollution. Just pure unmitigated peace, small pristine beaches amidst rugged countryside, spectacular sea-views, lush hiking trails, florid plants growing in the shade of rich trees while seagulls circle over picturesque grottos and hedgehogs peep at you from beneath a canopy of leaves. Heaven? Not at all, I found all this and more at the Zingaro Nature Reserve in Sicily.

Tired of the humdrum of everyday life, some months ago I decided to take myself off to Sicily for a long weekend. It wasn’t the first time I had visited the island, and this time I wasn’t interested in exploring cities, going shopping or even admiring historical architecture and art. I just wanted to take a deep breath, stay still and relax for a while. Which is why Zingaro Nature Reserve, located just an hour west of Palermo, near the small town of Scopello, was the perfect place to go. This little paradise opens daily from 7am to 7pm and sports two different entrances, the most popular one being accessible from the coast road that ends just beyond Scopello, while the other less busy entrance is close to San Vito La Capo in the north. We were staying in the village of Trappeto, so the Scopello entrance was the closest one for us. Also, this entrance has a free car park and an information centre, where the very helpful staff gave us a map of the Reserve and its possible trails.

The leaflet informed us that Zingaro Nature Reserve was actually Sicily’s oldest and first protected area, and that it was established as a reserve in 1981. This spectacular location stretches for 7km along the unspoilt coastline of the Bay of Castellammare and its mountain range, and offers hikers and explorers three main trails. The ‘easier’ one is the Coastal trail, which winds around the coast and bays and takes approximately 4-6 hours to traverse from one side of the Reserve to the other. The second one, which is described as ‘Moderate’, is the Middle Coast Trail, which is an 8.5 km winding walk in the middle of the landscape and rural scenery, with the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. The third option is the Tall and Middle Coast Trail, which is the longest route and goes straight through the Bosco of Sardinia, famous for its pine trees. Of course, stating a specific time for how long one will actually take to walk through each trail is very subjective, since this depends on the hardiness of the hikers, the weather conditions, and the terrain. It will definitely take longer if you opt to stop for a picnic. I recommend starting early if you plan on spending the whole day exploring the place, since you definitely don’t want to find yourself crashing through the undergrowth in darkness. There are no electrical external sources of light within the Reserve.

One enters Zingaro proper through a short tunnel. As soon as one emerges from it, the whole enchanting vista of mountains, woodland and coast opens up in a sudden magical light-burst. The main trail splits into a few others but they are very well marked. We chose the Coastal trail, which is a bit hilly and sports some ups and downs, but which is a very good choice particularly in summer. This is because of the 7 different natural beaches found alongside it, not to mention the picturesque craggy coastline. Perfect if you are an avid photographer, or if you just want a dip in the cool water. After a few minutes walking along this trail, we came across the tiny Museum of Marine Activities. I must confess, at this point the thing I found most interesting here was the bathroom, and boy was I fortunate in stopping there! A serious word of advice, toilets at the Reserve are very few and far between since they are only found at the four small museums interspersing the various trails. So, make the most of them!

Cala Mazzo di Sciacca

After around 20 to 30 minutes of walking in the scorching sun of June, we finally spied the first natural cove or cala. This was the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca, a small virgin-white sandy beach with not a soul in sight. The water sparkled as I gazed at it longingly, because yes, obviously, I had forgotten my swimsuit in the car. The temptation to just wade into the azure water au naturel was overwhelming, but thankfully I didn’t give in to it. No sooner had we taken our photos and decided to reluctantly continue to follow the path, than two whole families of tourists descended on us replete with towels, plastic toys and lunchboxes. Many people in fact visit Zingaro Nature Reserve for its unique beaches, so less crowded and so much cleaner than more mainstream swimming locations. Entrance to the Reserve only costs €5 for adults, which is very worth it considering the amazing experience.

Cala Capreria

We continued on towards the next bay on the map, the Cala Capreria. At this point the heat was quite intense, and I was very sorry that we hadn’t thought to bring some water with us. Another note of warning, don’t be as careless as I was. Take drink and food with you because there are no stops and nowhere to buy anything. It is pure unmitigated beautiful wilderness. I did at least think of wearing sturdy tennis shoes and not flip flops or sandals, which would have been terribly uncomfortable on the craggy terrain.

The Reserve sports seven beaches in all; one of which is only accessible by boat. In fact, for those who are not interested in hiking but just want to glory in the popular calas, there are a number of cruises available whereby one can buy a ticket and visit all these beaches and more by boat. Ferries are available from San Vito La Capo and other coastal resorts. Although one need not be a jock or professional athlete to brave walking around the Reserve, it is definitely not for the physically unfit or for those with special physical needs, therefore taking a cruise might be another way of experiencing another side to the location. The waters around the reserve are also excellent for scuba diving. The Zingaro Reserve is wholly pedestrian, meaning that one can only explore it on foot and that no cars may enter this safe space.

Moving on, we arrived at the Punta Leone, which is a natural rock formation supposedly in the shape of a lion. To be honest, I didn’t realise this until it was pointed out to me by a very friendly and helpful ranger. He also shared some of his water with us, for which at this point, I was profoundly grateful – thank you again Vincenzo!!

Image Source: www.eventitrapani.it

Vincenzo also told us that had we started walking from the northern entrance, the once closest to San Vito la Capo, instead of the southern one, the trail we would have traversed would have been less hilly and problematic. Also the four beaches closest to that entrance are closer to each other too, making the trail easier to navigate. He was very boastful of ‘his’ Reserve, talking non-stop about the 650 different species of plants, shrubs, palms and colourful flowers which dot the landscape, as well as mentioning  the local bird population which usually acts as a magnet to those interested in ornithology. These visit the Reserve to study the eagles, falcons, peregrines, partridges, kestrels, owls and seabirds found here. The grottoes and cavers along the coastline are also inhabited by eight different species of bats. Needless to be said, it is forbidden to take rifles or any kind of fishing equipment in the Reserve.

I must admit that at this point I was totally wound up as it was very hot and there was also the return journey to consider (since we had left our car at the parking lot near the southern entrance), therefore I admit that I only walked until mid-way of the coastal trail, that is, as far as the Cala della Disa. Funnily enough, even though the rangers and museum curators encountered along the track continued to tell us that such and such a location was ‘only ten minutes away’, each time the walk was markedly lengthier than that, so try not to take experienced trekkers at face value, especially if, like me, you generally prefer a cool drink and a good book on the couch to a laboriously sweat-drenching walk in the Sicilian sun. However Zingaro Nature Reserve was well-worth the effort. Seriously though, I won’t try to tackle such a track in summer again, as I’m sure the experience would be much more enjoyable in spring or autumn. Still, I will surely visit Zingaro again next time I visit Sicily, even though this time perhaps, I will traverse it from the easier and less hilly Northern side.

This article, written by yours truly, was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Feeling like Royalty at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Interested in Japanese culture, heritage, and history? If the answer to any of these is yes, visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward is a must. The Palace is situated almost at the center of Tokyo, defining the heart of the city.

Being the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is situated in a large park and contains a number of buildings, such as the main palace, the private residence of the Imperial family, a number of museums and administration offices, and an archive, among others. This is because the current modern palace, also called Kyuden, was designed to host court functions and receptions, as well as being the residence of the Emperor and Empress.

We grabbed the metro at Korakuen Station (our accommodation was in Bunkyo City) and took the Marunouchi Line to arrive at Otemachi Station, only a six-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

In front of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge

Walking along one of the 12 moats surrounding the Palace, we were pleasantly surprised by the magnificent view of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge whose name literally means ‘Main Gate Stone Bridge’. Its twin stone arches, perfectly reflected in the crystalline palace moat, create an atmosphere of idyllic serenity, not to mention the perfect photographic background when viewed from Kyuden Plaza just in front of the Palace Main Gates. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sites, this bridge is also called Magane-bashi or ‘the eyeglass bridge’ or ‘the spectacles bridge’, due to its distinct look. Unfortunately, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge is not accessible to the public, therefore one can take as many photos as one wants, but no one can actually cross it. Pictures of the stunning double bridge soaring over the canal, leading into the fortified walls with the Imperial Palace in the background more than make up for not being able to walk on it though.

After taking a million photos, we were approaching the public facilities right next to the main gate, when we saw a tour guide and a number of people waiting nearby and realised that most of the Imperial Palace could only be visited with a tour guide! We hadn’t been aware of that at all, but we were very lucky as the walking tour in question was about to start, and it was free. There were a few open places too so we could just register and be part of the group there and then without even booking! How fortunate is that?!

So, beware. Unless you visit with a guided tour, most of the Palace and grounds, except for the Imperial Household Agency (a governmental agency building) and the East Gardens, are not open to the public. Fortunately, such free 1.5 hour walking tours as the one we encountered by pure chance are available from Tuesday to Saturday. These free guided tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency and are available in a number of languages (there are different tour guides). English, Chinese and Spanish are among the languages catered for. Tours start at 10am and 13.00 in winter, and at 10am only in summer. Although we were lucky enough to find two available places in the tour while we were there, it is always better to book beforehand. To book this tour, and for more information, you can access the Imperial Household Agency website.

The Imperial Palace’s Main Gate – Pic Source: alamy.com

The guided tours normally start in front of the Palace’s Main Gate. It is a very good tour and the guide was very nice, providing an explanation of the history and background of the castle, and even showing us photos of the current Imperial family. At the start of the tour, we were given a badge and asked to fill a form, then we were taken to a large pavilion where there was a baggage-checkpoint. There were also lockers where, for a small price, one could leave one’s belongings in order not to be encumbered with them during the tour. I really recommend leaving your stuff in one of the lockers as the tour is quite a walk! There were literally hundreds of other people waiting in the pavilion, where the guides gave out some instructions in different languages and sorted us into groups depending on the language we preferred our tour to be in.

In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, center left, and Empress Michiko, center right, smile at Prince Hisahito, fifth from right. Also pictured are from left, Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, Princess Mako, behind Akihito, Princess Aiko, Princess Kako, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito and Princess Kiko.

The tour guide recounted how the present Imperial Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, residence of the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The total area comprising of grounds and castle, spans 1.15 square kilometres. In 1873 a fire consumed the old Shogun residence, and the current Imperial Palace was constructed on the same site in 1888.

The Imperial Palace grounds are divided into 6 wings, however we were not able to visit them all, not even with the guide. Of course, the Emperor’s residential area (found in Fukiage Garden) and the Emperor’s work office were out of bounds.

We started the tour by walking through the Main Gate and into the beautiful Ni-no-maru gardens at the lower level of the Palace.Then, we discovered another bridge, this one made of metal, spanning the moat right behind Seimon Ishibashi Bridge and having the same twin arches structure. This was the Nijubashi Bridge, which is accessible to the public. In fact we had to cross it, since it leads directly to the main Imperial Palace buildings.

Crossing Nijubashi Bridge

The first building we encountered during our guided tour was the picturesque Fishimi Yagura – a turret and look-out in which weapons used to be stored, and from which archers could defend the palace against invading armies. The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower (1659) is a three-story square-shaped fort which had become the symbol of Edo Castle after the castle’s main tower was rebuilt following the great fire of 1657.

The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower

We also spotted Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower, which is the last remaining corner watchtower pertaining to the original Edo Castle.

The Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower

We walked on to the Chowaden Reception Hall, which is the largest structure in the Palace, and which is the place where the Japanese Imperial family appear to give blessings to the public every new year, and on the Emperor’s birthday. It is also where official state functions and ceremonies are held. During the tour we were also taken to a number of other Halls, such as the Seiden State Function Hall and the Homeiden Banquet Hall.

Following the tour, one can freely roam through Kogyo-gaien National Park, which is situated at the southern tip of the Palace grounds. Personally, if you plan on visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (and I really suggest you do), I would recommend allocating at least two or three hours for the experience, since the tour itself can take from 1.5 to 2 hours, and you’d definitely need at least another half an hour to walk around and enjoy the surroundings.

7 Free Mobile Phone Applications which are vital when exploring Japan

Visiting a different country although great fun and a satisfying adventure, is not as easy as you might think, particularly if you are in the habit of booking your flights and planning your stay and your itinerary on your own, without any help from outside sources. There is so much to keep in mind! Not only does one have to book accomodations, tickets to events and festivals, etc in advance, but most importantly, one has to navigate, find actual locations and places, communicate with the locals and to a certain extent, even understand their culture and way of life, in order to fully enjoy the experience.

This is particularly true when crossing from one continent to another. Travelling from Europe to Asia was an adventure I would do over and over again, yet I must admit that the level of preparation for it was on a different level to my usual travels. Thankfully, I knew I would always have my mobile phone with me, which helped a great deal in that there were a number of programmes and applications which I could download on my mobile and always keep handy while in Japan.

Picture Source: wired.com

These few free apps made exploring so much easier! Personally I did not have internet access on my mobile phone (unless I connected with some free wifi I found randomly), so all the mobile apps I downloaded were designed to work offline. My boyfriend however had bought a sim card for his phone, which provided him with free internet access at all times. In this article I will therefore be mentioning both the apps I had on my own phone, and the apps he had on his, which need internet access to work. I would recommend that if you are travelling solo, you do get either a sim card or portable pocket wifi, as this is of great help while navigating and commuting in real time. If you are part of a group, it is enough if one of your party does.

Image Source: en.compathy.net

Currency

First of all, it is important to be able to understand the currency of the country one is travelling to. The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen. Even before actually boarding my flight, I had already started to appreciate the difference in value and denomination of this currency. When I exchanged my European euros to Japanese yen at the bank, I was pleased to see the cashier give me so many banknotes, then I realized that this was because ten euros are the approximate equivalent of 121 Japanese yen! So, two fifty euro bank notes transformed into a 10,000 bank note, a 1,000 bank note and some coins when it came to Japanese yen! (So basically, 100 GBP are equivalent to 13,563 Japanese Yen, and so on) This was quite confusing even when purchasing pre-booked train seats online from Japanese websites calmly from home and converting my payments through online calculators, so I knew it would be far worse in real time while hurriedly buying stuff from local street vendors and shop-keepers in Japan!

Offline App Used

Exchange Rates – Easy to use, quick, efficient with no frills, this exchange rate calculator helped me monitor and understand all my monetary transactions. You can find it in Playstore and, as are the rest of the apps mentioned in this blogpost, it is totally free to download on your mobile phone. You just set your two currencies – that is, choose from a list which currency you are searching for (in this case, Japanese Yen) versus your own usual currency (ex. Euro) and the converter app will immediately open up showing these two currencies, ready to use, each time you need it. There is also a very useful feature where you can choose the banknotes of any currency and the app will show you the different available denominations together with pictures.

Online App Used

Image Source: xe.com

XE Currency Converter and Money Transfers – if you have need of real time currency fluctuations, you can download this popular app, which also offers the possibility of making an account and sending/receiving money overseas.

Language Translation

Our first stop in Japan was the capital city of Tokyo. To be honest, although I was aware that not everyone in Japan spoke and understood English, I still thought that the majority of people did. Or at least that city people did. Boy, was I wrong. I think not even half the population of Tokyo has a good grasp of the English language. Not enough to make themselves understood or to understand you when it comes to the simplest of things. And why should they? English might be one of the most predominant spoken languages in Europe, but in Asia, this is certainly not the case.

Offline Apps Used

Minna – This basic, yet comprehensive Japanese – English – Japanese dictionary offers a wide variety of everyday words and their various possible meanings and uses in colloquial language. Although it is free, some of the most ‘sophisticated’ words are to be purchased at ‘premium’ level, however one can get by very well with the free version. There is also a ‘voice’ option where you can listen to the translated word with the original tone and stress on the words.

Image Source: appgrooves.com

Learn Japanese – This is not a singular word dictionary but a collection of very common phrases and questions which might come in useful. Grouped by theme, such as  ‘Greetings’, ’Numbers’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Eating Out’, etc, this application went a long way in providing some much needed context as well as handing certain phrases on a platter, ready-made into sentences, instead of just listing singular words which would then need to be strung together to ask a simple sentence.

Online App Used

Google Translate – I must admit that Google translate is so much better than the two apps mentioned previously! You just insert the phrase or question you need to ask a local, and voila, there they have it! Just show them your mobile screen and google translate does all the work for you.

Navigation

This is actually the most vital and important part of your planning and concerns your everyday sightseeing routine. If you do not have a way to check the streets, locations, not to mention train connections, bus numbers and circuits, etc, you will definitely get lost in no time at all. And since, as already mentioned, most Japanese people don’t know English very well (nor any other common European language such as German or Italian), unless you know Japanese, you will not be able to ask for directions.

Offline App Used

Maps Me – I admit I never knew Maps Me existed before this trip, but now that I do, my travel-life will never be the same again. Simply download the app, download the map of the country you will be travelling to, and add your destinations to plan a route from your current location (make sure that your location data is switched on within your mobile phone). Maps Me provides the most viable routes on foot, by car and using trains. However if you are offline, the route given for going on foot is more accurate, since road and train changes may occur in real time. Maps Me periodically updates your maps whenever you have an internet source available.

Online App Used

Google Maps – By far the best option both for finding your way around on foot, as well as providing real time information in relation to underground metro stations, trains, and bus routes, as well as relevant departure times.

Image Source: medium.com

These mobile apps will of course be of no use if you do not have a good working mobile phone or tablet. Since you will be using this device a lot and carrying it everywhere with you, I would suggest having a fully-charged portable power bank at your disposal in case you need to re-charge your phone and have no other available power outlet.

Are there any other free apps you’d recommend and which helped you through your travel-hurdles? Let me know by posting a comment!

Image Source: 123rf.com

Disclaimer: This blogpost is not an advertisement. No companies representing mobile applications, websites, or trademarks influenced my mentioning of these products or services. I wrote about the apps I personally used and would recommend while travelling based on my own actual experience.