Category Archives: Europe

Walk through Granada’s Alhambra

DSCN1920DSCN1927 DSCN1932Without a doubt, mention Granada, and the first attraction that often comes to mind in this city in Spain’s Andalusia region in the Alhambra. Rightfully so. Talking a stroll through this UNESCO World Heritage site, a standing legacy of the region’s Moorish architecture, can make you feel like you just stepped into an Arabian Nights story.

Dating back more than a 1,000 years, this palace and fortress complex grew over time in space and structure, from once being a small fort to being first a Muslim and then Christian palace and then finally being restored to its glory after rediscovered by explorers and travelers.

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As pictures can show much more than my writing can describe you, here’s my pictorial on my recent visit to the Alhambra. Yet, with some guidance.

Being its own walled-in city, the Alhambra is primarily divided into four main parts: the Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces, the Partal area, and the Generalife. I’ll break down each of them.

DSCN1957After going through the entrance, you’ll first pass along the Royal Water Channel and the Seven-Storied Gate to make your way eventually to the Alcazaba. It’s the oldest part of the Alhambra, and it was the military area.

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DSCN1981 DSCN1980 DSCN1973 DSCN1972 DSCN1971 DSCN1970Going inside, the Nasrid Palaces are a thing of sheer beauty. With three palaces in this collection, the ornate designs with circular patterns and colorful mosaics showcase different living periods.

DSCN1986 DSCN1988 DSCN1989 DSCN2011 DSCN2010 DSCN2007Heading onto what’s called the Partial area, this section contains a portico, gardens, the Rauda, the Palace of Yusuf III and the Paseo de las Torres along several towers.

DSCN2017 DSCN2018  DSCN2022 DSCN2025DSCN2041DSCN2047 DSCN2048DSCN2057 DSCN2062 DSCN2064 DSCN2065 DSCN2066 DSCN2073 DSCN2075 DSCN2076 DSCN2078The Generalife area was built as a leisure area for Granada’s monarchs, where beautiful gardens provided a pleasant escape from day to day living. This section includes the Alhambra’s lower and upper gardens and the Generalife Palace.

DSCN2081 DSCN2085 DSCN2092 DSCN2107As you can see, you can spend a good portion of your time here. And it’s well worth it!

Toledo: A City of Three Cultures

DSCN1722A short distance from Madrid, heading south, Toledo makes for a pretty good day trip. Founded by the Romans as a fortified city, Toledo carries the nickname the “city of three cultures,” due to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim populations that once had lived alongside each other for years. Like much of Spain’s southern region, this mountainside city has had its fair share of change over the centuries due to being take over by different rulers.

Toledo once had been an industry powerhouse too: everything from steel to silks and ceramics were produced here. Yet even today, this old’s city artistic and architectural legacy still attracts visitors. Plus, you can get to this UNESCO World Heritage site by car, train or bus.

DSCN1740If you’re heading to Toledo by car (I got there by bus), the hillside scenery along the route from Madrid (you travel down via the A-42 highway) is worth the “stop to take photos” scenario. It’s a panoramic view. Stare straight ahead in the distance and among this skyline you’ll find the Alcázar of Toledo, built as a stone fortress, then used as a royal palace, and then during the height of the Spanish Civil War was severely damaged. It was rebuilt and presently holds a museum and library.

Of course, you explore Toledo by foot. Very carefully. You’re walking up hills and on cobblestone streets. There are a number of churches, monuments and museums that are not badly far in distance from each other.

DSCN1756DSCN1752DSCN1754Inside the Church of Santo Tome, groups primarily come to view “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a masterpiece by the artist El Greco (meaning “The Greek” in Spanish). El Greco, which is what he is referred to than his actual Greek name, spent the latter part of his life in Toledo. This quite large, oil painting hangs in a tight fit room, but from wherever you’re standing, you can take in all this painting. It’s based on a local legend involving a very pious man, and is divided into two sections.

DSCN1743DSCN1831El Greco was chosen to paint this masterpiece, which best replicates how the Spanish men looked in time this painting was created in the late 1580s. You can also spot El Greco’s self-portrait in the painting. He’s the third man from the left side.

DSCN1793Another landmark is the cathedral of Toledo, a beautiful 13th-century High Gothic cathedral that was built on top of the city’s former mosque. It’s considered to the best of this architectural style in Spain. If you walk up a street across from the cathedral, and hit just the right angle with your camera/smartphone lens, you can get a postcard snapshot like mine below.

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While walking along Toledo’s former Jewish Quarter, a thriving section up until the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, look down at the pavement. You’ll notice markers that are religious symbols, indicating that you’re following along the quarter.

DSCN1795DSCN1798 In this quarter, pay a visit inside the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue, considered to be the oldest synagogue in Europe that’s still standing. Seeing its interior might make you second guess this place had been built as a synagogue, as its appearance doesn’t reflect how many of them commonly look.

DSCN1814DSCN1820DSCN1819Designed by Moorish architects, the temple is was constructed using the Mudejar style (created for non-Islamic purposes). The floor plan consists of an unusual mix of aisles. There are a series of beams supported by octagon piers. Arches are graced with intricate designs, more in line with nature-inspired symbols than religious ones (my guide happened to point out a hard-to-find Star of David carvedon one beam). Now as a museum, the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue later went from being a temple to a monastery, and then was used as an armory and warehouse for a sword factory.   DSCN1818 DSCN1815One sweet find in Toledo is marzipan, a creamy confectionery made from almonds and sugar. It’s not hard to find a shop that solely offers this handmade treat. You can find it in its basic state or filled with chocolate and even shaped to look like little fruits or vegetables.

DSCN1763DSCN1751For a whole day or just half of one, it’s good to head to Toledo and explore its three cultures.

 

Must See Places in Madrid

As Spain’s capital city, Madrid mixes cultural and culinary influences with politics, commerce and royalty. I got to spend a few days there recently, wandering along streets and plazas and visiting museums, landmarks and districts. Here are some of the places I went that I definitely recommend checking out.

With museums, Madrid has a good standing. In the city center, there is a section known as the Golden Triangle of Art, which consists of three important art museums located along the street, Paseo del Prado.

DSCN1463 DSCN1486First, the most recognized art museum in Madrid is Museo Nacional del Prado. In comparison in size to the Lourve Museum in Paris, the Prado contains a massive collection: around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. It’s one of the best collections of European art. Pieces date from the 12th to early 19th century, a number made by artists who were assigned to create works specifically for the Spanish royal crown.

DSCN1470DSCN1473It can feel a bit daunting to try get through a lot of the Prado in one visit. I got there on a Monday afternoon, still recovering a bit from my early-morning flight, and, due to my jet lag, I decided to stick to about two floors. Or perhaps focus on a certain artist or join in a tour. Francisco de Goya has a high representation, as well as Diego Velázquez, Titian, and El Greco, among others. Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and French masterpieces are also well featured. If all else fails, one painting I recommend seeing is Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

For those who like modern art, the second museum is this “triangle” is also worth a visit. Across from the train station, Estación de Atocha, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is located in a former hospital and holds works by 20th century masters.

DSCN1399 DSCN1398It’s similar to what you would see at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of its most significant pieces is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which Picasso painted in protest of the Spanish Civil War. Major works by fellow Spanish artists, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, are also here. The museum is also open late on Friday nights, with free admission.

In addition to these museums, consider checking out the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, once a baron’s private collection, and a great navy museum called Museo Naval, run by the Spanish Navy. (Bring your passport with you for this one, as it’s in a government building. An ID is required for admission).

Along with public buses and the Metro, Madrid can be great to explore on foot. In fact, there are different squares you can walk through to reach landmarks as well as stop for a meal or people watching.

DSCN1423-sol DSCN1421Plaza Mayor is cobblestone-lined section is literally squared away, and its remote feeling is like stepping back into a different era. Buildings with beautiful balconies line this square and its different arches open out different streets. Yet, Plaza Mayor has an interesting history. Trials by the Spanish Inquisition took place here, but the location also has been a setting for bull fighting. Nowadays, there are cafes, restaurants and shops here.

DSCN1678 DSCN1676 DSCN1682 DSCN1681Plaza del Sol is a well-trafficked pedestrian area, quite lively in both day and particularly at night. Likewise there are shops and restaurants, in this older section of Madrid. On New Year’s Eve, people gather here to conduct the tradition of eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight for good luck for the incoming year.

DSCN1456-SolDSCN1576 DSCN1581 DSCN1582With dining, if you want to try a mix of everything, from tapas to seafood and even something sweeter, pay a visit to The Mercado de San Miguel. Located near Calle Mayor, this older building houses a nice mixture of delicatessens, restaurants and bars. For a few Euros, you can purchase different small plates and appetizers to try. During my visit, I dined on everything from stuffed olives to croquettes to fried calamari and even sampled a few pastries. My entire bill for the evening averaged out at most to 15 Euros.

DSCN1563 DSCN1545 DSCN1546 DSCN1547DSCN1556 DSCN1553Traditionally, the Spanish eat dinner late, so it’s possible you might have to wait until 8 p.m. or so for your restaurant reservation. One place I went to Reservante Botin, a restaurant that has been in existence for almost 300 years (it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records). Down the street from the Mercado, and in existence since 1725, Botin’s specialty dish is a roast suckling pig that is quite tasty.

One final place that might be of interest to you ties into Spain’s royal history. Palacio Royal is Madrid’s royal palace is built upon an old fortress and is now mostly used for ceremonial occasions. You can check out the views on the patio area, but definitely take a tour of its lavish interior and exquisite rooms!

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Hope my suggestions get you started!

Hey, That’s My Picture – on Huffington Post!

Last week, in timing with Valentine’s Day, Huffington Post’s Travel Section put out a request for people to send in their pictures of “Love Locks” taken for a photo montage. Love locks are small padlocks that couples fasten to iron bars or other permanent fixtures as a symbolic gesture to display their feelings for, or strong commitment to, each other.

Often, these love locks are found on bridges, or in other open areas. After the lock is put in place, the couple pretty much discards the key, throwing it into a river or just away in general.

When I was in Prague in 2012, I saw love locks around the city, mostly on the Charles Bridge and a nearby district called Mala Strana. While on the Charles Bridge, I happened to catch a couple from France, I think, put on a lock at a spot where I was standing right next to them.

Going back to The Huffington Post, they were kind to feature my picture from Charles Bridge (which is definitely one of many reasons to make a trek to Prague) as a lead in to this travel photo montage. Here it is below; the caption is listed right after.

o-LOVE-LOCKS-570“This week’s Moment of Travel Zen comes to us from Michele Herrmann. Her photo of love locks on a Charles Bridge gate is set in Prague, one of the most romantic cities in the world.”

My second pix is found in a lineup with other really great snapshots! See the full montage here.

 

 

 

Getting a ‘Peek’ at New Mobile Travel App

As there is an app for just about any need or interest, the travel sector surely is getting its fair share. The latest one to travelers as well as the general public comes from Peek.com, a one-stop web resource for booking activities in 17 U.S. cities, London and Paris.

iphone-home-10085c336cf6aa025177347f91392af6Called Peek Mobile, this free app brings Peek.com’s services from the web to your smartphone, with some additional functions. It’s said to have geo-location technology, which in plain speak means users can book their activities on the go. Options extend to family, food and wine, arts and culture, adventurous and walking and sightseeing tours and day trips.

For example, if you wanted to book a guided walking tour of the Lower East Side while visiting New York City, you can do so through Peek Mobile app. Or while staying in Paris, explore the city’s different arrondissements  (city districts) or go ahead and jaunt out to Champagne, the vineyard region where this bubbly beverage is produced.

peek_logo-78d7643b983ca8d3712ddc3e4ac26e48Booking through your phone is designed with ease in mind. It’s designed to provide information about your potential activity in real time, with essentials like pricing and available slots. And feedback from others who did what you want to do – or just to help you confirm your decision – is also at your fingertips.

Plus, the fact that the Peek Mobile app is free is also a good reason for giving it a try. It is available for iPhone and iPod Touch and can be downloaded through Apple’s App Store.

So what travel apps do you like to use? Let me know in the comments section!

Germany Tourism Celebrates UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Do you know what a UNESCO World Heritage site is? Germany Tourism wants to make sure you do. Last week, the tourism board hosted a tweet-up at Reichenbach Hall in New York City to celebrate the focus of its 2014 marketing campaign: 38 sites that have been given this special title.

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Collegiate Church, Castle and Old Town of Quedlinburg

For those new to this term, UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Yep, it’s a big deal. This organization encourages government officials from around the world to identify, protect and preserve sites that symbolize their country’s cultural and natural heritage. The sites are added to the UNESCO World Heritage List annually, and officials in their respective countries are advised on how to maintain them.

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Wartburg Castle

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Aachen Cathedral

These UNESCO sites serve as key reminders of their past or natural/manmade wonders that would be significantly impacted by any physical damage.

To further enhance your knowledge about UNESCO, here’s an extra tidbit. Of the 981 UNESCO World Heritage sites listed around the globe, just under half of them are in Europe. Germany’s 38 sites are a collection of historical locations and natural wonders found throughout different cities and country settings.

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Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin

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Town Hall and Roland Statue in Bremen

Visiting these places is like time traveling, with sites dating as far back as the days of the Roman Empire.  And one that is even much farther.

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Würzburg Residenz Palace and Gardens

With locations ranging from Berlin to Würzburg, these UNESCO World Heritage sites include architectural marvels such as palaces, churches, monasteries, and castles. Nature sites encompass a coastal line, forests, and a fossil site, and man-made landscapes such as gardens and parks, and even an island! Historical town centers have made this list as well and industrial locations that symbolize German’s economical and cultural growth.

Here is a rundown of some of Germany’s unique places that have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list overtime:

BG_Grube_Messel_ColorMessel Pit Fossil Site

This former volcanic crater lake was formed around 47 million years ago and holds deposits of well-preserved mammal fossils that are ancestors of today’s common creatures.

Upper Middle Rhine ValleyUpper Middle Rhine Valley

This picturesque valley is graced with castles and palaces along with vineyards that produce well-known Rhine wines. Its ties to the Rhine extend to being a channel for carrying goods from different countries and a source for multiple cultural influences.

BG_Voelklinger_Ironworks Huette_ColorVölklingen Ironworks

The first industrial monument inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List, Völklingen Ironworks is a former pig iron production facility that nowadays is open for public tours.

To learn more about Germany’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, and plan your visit, visit this link. You can find maps, images and other sources there.

All photos courtesy of Germany Tourism

Why You Should Go to the Czech Republic in 2014

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Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic

Ever been to Prague? It’s most likely the first thing about the Czech Republic that comes to mind. Yet as this city is definitely a must-see destination, Czech Tourism officials wants to make sure potential visitors know that there is plenty to explore in this Eastern European country.

Last Thursday night, Czech Tourism North America and Prague City Tourism co-hosted a reception to unveil the launch of a re-branding campaign called “Land of Stories,” which promotes Czech Republic’s heritage and offerings. The campaign is shaped to encourage travelers and tourists to create their own stories from their experiences they have there.

Back in New York City’s Greenwich Village, at the Czech-inspired Doma na rohu restaurant, board representatives greeted us with appetizers and a wine tasting by Vino z Czech of brands from Moravia, a wine-growing region.

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While Prague is a top reason to visit the Czech Republic, as I did in 2012, Czech Tourism also is promoting other equally appealing attractions. Here are the campaign’s key themes:

1) Modern Prague

Admirers of modern marvels should check out Cubist architecture found in The House at the Black Madonna, Trade Fair Palace and Muller House. Significant buildings also extend to historic houses of worship. Prague has a strong Jewish heritage, with a number of synagogues, a unique cemetery, and folkloric legends like the figure Golem in its Jewish Quarter, a former ghetto called Josefov.

2) Southern Moravia

In the Southwestern part of the Czech Republic, this region is famous for its wine, and also contains Palava, a nature reserve, and Lednice-Vaitice region, a cultural landscape of Baroque estates that has also been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3) Pizen

Of course, the Czech Republic is known for beer, and Pizen is touted as the capital of beer culture. I also learned that there is a Chodovar Beer Spa that centers on “beer wellness.” (Mental note: Look into making an appointment.)

 4) Český Krumlov

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this town is famous for its historic castle and is home to the oldest Baroque theater in Europe.

 5) Medical Tourism

As the concept of medical tourism (going outside your home country for medical treatments, often at a lower cost) has been gaining more press, Czech Tourism is pitching Czech Republic’s emergence as a European destination to obtain affordable yet still topnotch medicine. One suggested place to perhaps head to is Karlovy Vary, a “spa town” in western Bohemia.

Learn more at Czech Tourism’s website.