Last week, my work took me to Rome and I added a day to visit the beautiful Renaissance  city of  Florence. The speed train from Rome took me through the beautiful scenery of Tuscany and by 8.30 a.m. I had a glorious spring day ahead to explore the scenic nucleus of history, art and a tapestry of culture and medieval architecture. Of course one day can not do justice to all there is to see and do here and I would love to  return for a more leisurely visit.

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From the Piazzale Michelangelo, a square with a panoramic view of Florence, I photographed breathtaking views of Florence including the iconic Duomo, a cathedral with a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto. The stories told by tour guides is that Florence was a very competitive space for artists. So after the dome was built by Brunelleschi, he promptly destroyed the plan and no one has been able to recreate the plans even for the purpose of reconstruction or repairs. The
cathedral named in honor of Santa Maria del Fiore is a vast Gothic structure built
on the site of the 7th century church of Santa Reparata.

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Take in the view of the Arno river from the south bank above and the medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge below which has been rebuilt several times due to damage from various floods. It is now also home to jewellery merchants and tradrs of souvenirs.

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Tucked amidst the amazing textures and colours of vegetation are villas of the rich and famous who can best afford living with these panoramic views.

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In the midst of the Piazzale Michelangelo stands a replica of Michelangelo’s “David” Join in a future post to marvel at the original sculpture of “David”

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A closer look at the cathedral displays its intricate artwork carved in a marble facade. You’ll also have a closer view of the dome which has a viewing area if you are fit enough to climb over 490 stairs.

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The Giotto tower stands alongside the Cathedral below.

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Baptistry – Duomo: The Baptistry of San Giovanni below, one of the most ancient churches in Florence, sits opposite the city’s cathedral, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. Octagonal in plan, it is totally clad in slabs of white Carrara and green Prato marble.

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There are a number of fortresses around Florence and below is a part of one of them.

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Join me in my next post at the Galleria dell’Accademia to take a look at the artwork and some of the great influences of the Medici family.

 

Murano, Burano and Torcello

Murano

Murano is situated about 1.5 kms from Venice. En route to the island, we passed this abandoned island below. Water levels are constantly monitored to check the rise of water against  the sandbanks. No doubt, islands will continue to be at risk especially in light of Climate change.

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The island of Murano is renowned for its long tradition of glass-making. Ferry-loads of visitors come to explore the Museo del Vetro, which tells the story of glass through the centuries, and to shop for locally crafted souvenirs.

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Burano

I fell in love with this picturesque little island with its pretty, brightly coloured houses and shops and the magnificent reflection of sky and water. Our tour guide informed us that in the old days the rule was for each house to be clearly demarcated by their individual colours in order to assist the fishermen to find their homes in foggy weather. Clearly, everyone had to stick to their colours to avoid confusion. We were rushed for time by our tour guide so I was sorry that we couldn’t linger in the pretty little cafes. The island is renowned for the craft of handmade lace so I did make sure to buy a few beautiful handmade lace products.

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Torcello

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Museo di Torcello

Occupying two buildings across the square from the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, this museum is dedicated to Torcello’s bygone splendour. The main building, the 13th-century Palazzo del Consiglio, displays mainly religious art recovered from the island’s many long-lost churches. The annexe focuses on ancient archaeological treasures, many of which were recovered from the abandoned Roman city of Altinum (Altino) on the mainland. The collection includes tiny Egyptian figurines, Etruscan bronzes, Greek pottery and some lovely Roman cameos.

 

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The Church of Santa Maria Assunta (basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) or Torcello Cathedral  is a notable example of Venetian-Byzantine architecture, one of the most ancient religious edifices in the Veneto, and containing the earliest mosaics in the area of Venice.

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I loved this patch of garden which seemed to share a partnership between Winter and Spring. Couples are known to come to Torcello for their wedding celebrations. There are a number of restaurants here to enjoy if you have the time.  Thank you for stopping by and enjoying this trip with me.

Part of  the build up to the celebrations of New year’s eve was spending time along the  Grand Canal of Venice. The star attraction for many tourists is jostling for space on the Rialto bridge pictured below. It offers beautiful photo opportunities of the thriving 2.5 miles of the Grand canal.

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This a great spot for choosing to travel by water bus or Gondola along the Grand Canal, stop at one of the many restaurants or simply grab a big slice of Pizza from one of the smaller outlets as you get lost in love with this beautiful  city.

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On the Rialto bridge, you see people gathered from all parts of the world and it was a great place to check out the Winter fashions. We stopped at one of the restaurants on the right below to enjoy a great Italian meal which by European standards was reasonably priced and the service was very efficient.

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I could stare at these Venetian buildings all day. The architecture, colours and festive lights created a wonderful and romantic ambience.

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If you can afford the high prices, shopping in this district is another favoured pastime.

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I think that the glamour of walking through these expensive and beautifully decorated shops is entertaining in its own right. It was a new experience for us to see red escalators.

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In summary, I’d say Rialto is the place to visit if you’d like to check out fashion, feel a sense of romance or just admire manmade beauty in the beautiful floating city of Venice.

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Look out for my next post on our visit to some of the islands. Happy Easter to you all!!

PIAZZA SAN MARCO AND ST MARK’S BASILICA

New Year’s eve heralded a bright sunny day after a few days of rainy cold weather. This is the view across the lagoon of St Mark’s square.

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Saint Mark’s square, the largest square in Venice, is said to have initially been built between 800-1100 though numerous renovations were undertaken until the 19th century. Below is the western side of St Mark’s Basilica and the landmark Campanile Bell Tower which stands almost 99 metres tall. At the top of it is a statue of archangel Gabriel.

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Below is a closer view of St Mark’s Basilica which forms part of the square. On new year’s eve it  would gradually fill up with revellers waiting to see the new year in. Detail of the gable shows Venice’s patron apostle St. Mark with angels. Underneath is a winged lion, the symbol of the saint and of Venice.

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The Clock Tower below, is part of an early Renaissance building. Both the tower and the clock date from the last decade of the 15th century, though the mechanism of the clock has subsequently been much altered. It was placed where the clock would be visible from the waters of the lagoon and give notice to everyone of the wealth and glory of Venice.

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Below is the Procuratie Vecchie built by Bartolomeo Bon in about 1520 – Another impressive building which lines the square.

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Below is the the Piazzetta di San Marco which is (strictly speaking) not part of the Piazza but an adjoining open space connecting the south side of the Piazza to the waterway of the lagoon.

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The Piazza is surrounded by shops, restaurants and provides ample space for shows. It provided the perfect space to just hang out, take selfies or as this young lady did below – pose for her wedding pictures. Not sure where the groom was 🙂

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I had been warned that eating or even drinking water at the piazzo was an expensive affair. Nevertheless, just doing some people-watching was ample entertainment. Window shopping was also an inexpensive way to spend some time in the earlier hours of New year’s eve. Below are some beautiful exhibits of the famous Murano glass products. We had taken a boat trip on the previous day to Murano island where some of the Murano glassware is manufactured by age old craftsmen.

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We did eventually have a meal in this beautiful nook of a restaurant close to the Piazza. Apart from a superb meal, indoor heating against the growing outdoor chill, we enjoyed the vantage point of more people watching.

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While we had initially planned to see the new year in within the square, we were advised by locals that the best place to be where we’d enjoy full sight of the magnificent fireworks display, was very close to where we were staying, at the edge of the lagoon. This was after saying goodbye to the very festive look and feel of the square.

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In my next post, join me on a trip to the commercial/shopping  and tourist hub of Rialto and the spectacular views from the Grand Canal in Venice.

 

My sincere apologies for my absence on the blog. Life has been very busy. So yes, Easter is almost upon us and I’m still catching up on a trip that my family and I did over Christmas and New year’s Eve. If you’d like to catch up on earlier posts, do check out my posts on Malta. You might also want to look at a previous post I did on Venice when I was still dreaming about travelling there.  https://chevvy8.com/2017/09/03/venice-the-floating-city/

In the Neighbourhood

After Christmas we left Malta with plans to see the new year in at the lagoon in Venice. We had also decided to live amongst the locals to get a real feel for the place.

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A totally new experience for me was having to travel everywhere by boat. Even the boat- stop moves and I was ever so glad to have a friendly hand reach out to help me skip over the plank when I found the motion between the boat stop and the boat a bit precarious. Of course this is no big deal for the locals who sit dressed up to the nines and unflustered  on each boat ride.

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Living in the neighbourhood means walking through a maze of cobbled streets and not seeing too much of your neighbour since all windows were shuttered to keep the Winter chill out. Household rubbish is hung out through your window each morning before 8a.m. and magically removed  before you leave the warmth of indoor central heating. Temperatures outside varied between -1 degrees – to 7 degrees centigrade in late December. You’ll appreciate that we had left our Summer behind with soaring temperatures of 30+ degrees centigrade.20171230_100216

The first thing we needed to do upon arrival was stock our cupboards up with food. Above is the main street just around the corner from where we lived, where you can stock up on freshly caught fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, and visit the butcher and little supermarket.

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Coming from a shopping mall culture back home, I think the layout of of fruit and vegetables is quite a work of art and makes shopping for your daily meal that more fun.Of course the irony was not lost on me that the biggest,sweetest grapes we bought here were from my own country – South Africa.

An added delight was taking these scenic walks to the shops each day.

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Our first first few days were rainy days but when you’re surrounded by water who cares? I loved walking in the rain.

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Even the local park was deserted most of the time,yet still I loved it. Having been warned that Venice attracts over 18 million tourists in the Summer, I was glad to enjoy the feeling of having the place to ourselves.

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The Piazzo San Marco or St Mark’s Square which was a 2 km walk away, stood aloof in the rain on those first few days.

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But of course when the sun did come out, it was laundry day and a very novel experience for me was to see the women chatter away with their neighbours while using pulleys to string up their laundry across the paved streets.

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The sunshine meant strolling past stalls along the lagoon  and buying a few souvenirs like paper maché or ceramic masks and paintings of the beautiful scenes of Venice.

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And suddenly the Piazza San Marco looked more inviting.

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Join me next week for our visit to St Mark’s Square. Thank you for stopping by.

Marsaxlokk : A Seaside village

As small as the island of Malta is, there is a lot to see and experience and one week is not enough to do it. If you want a slice of nightlife, I’m told that St Julian’s bay is the place to be. There are also lots of of pretty places for snorkelling and other water sports in the Summertime. I was sorry that we weren’t able to do the Three Harbour boat tour we had booked, due to very windy seas, but I’m happy with what we did experience in our 7 day stay.

An impromptu visit to the seaside village of Marsaxlokk was one of those. With a few hours to spare we took a taxify to the picturesque village on Christmas day before lunch  while the village was still waking up.

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On an ordinary day, expect to find a hive of activity as fishermen mend their boats and set out to sea to catch the fresh fish that is served at the surrounding restaurants and as part of the flea market stalls which attract visitors here on Sundays.

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Most buildings are not taller than two stories and on a morning such as this, it was heaven to watch the sun glisten on the gentle bobbing water, sit on a bench, watching the seagulls and- just be.

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I remain in awe of these old buildings and how households seem to stamp their identity through their brightly coloured doors. I have respect for these old buildings. In my young country, we are more inclined to knock down old buildings and with it some of the history and heritage they hold. Then again, wars and painful histories have not always good to us to hang on to reminders.

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I love these two pictures because they speak of promise and optimism  even when the world has so much to distract you with its problems

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Christmas was a serious affair in Malta. Christmas decorations abounded  in the capital city streets, on window decorations and Christmas nativity scenes. We had attended a Christmas Buffet dinner on Christmas Eve and following the instructions to dress smart casual, we were surprised to see Maltese turn up in the Christmas finest – men in suits, women in strappy evening wear and fur coats, children tantalised by the range of lovely things to eat.

Back at our hotel Christmas day was a gorgeously warm day – far from a White Christmas but still cool enough for us to combine our gluwein with a magical sunset.

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The horse and carriage is one way to move through  the beautiful former capital of Malta which has been reduced considerably from its former size and is surrounded by the suburb of Rabat.

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We waited outside the gates of this walled city for our private tour guide to walk and talk us through this very picturesque city which is said to be over 4000 years old. According to tradition it was here that in 60 A.D. the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the Islands. It is now home to lines of noble and wealthy people with a total population of 300 people. Apart from cars belonging to residents, no cars are allowed into Mdina.IMG_0582

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Below is the entrance to Vilhena Palace. I’m always interested to hear the stories of what informed the building of palaces and castles. There always seems to be an element of vanity, envy and greed which in modern times would translate to competing with the Jones’s. On the other hand perhaps we have to also express gratitude for envy and pride that led to the creativity behind some of the beautiful architectural heritage we now appreciate. The palace is now home to the administration of the city with the Mayor living there.

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Over the period of its existence, Mdina has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthagnians and Romans and suffered significant destruction during the 17th century earthquake. The architecture here combines medieval, baroque, Venetian and English influences. IMG_0610

As a city which was frequently under seige, it is built defensively with narrow, winding roads that were built to deceive pirates and allow for hiding places or escape for the inhabitants of Mdina.IMG_0666

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The courtyard below was part of a set for the filming of one of the Game of Thrones episodes.IMG_0624

The hotel below was once home to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip for three years and has also hosted other famous people, including Brad Pitt.IMG_0632

St Paul’s Cathedral below is part of a square which  in days gone by, would have served as a venue for town gatherings. IMG_0601

Once again, I am fascinated by the intricate architecture and how beautiful the limestone buildings appear with interesting accents of colour. IMG_0599

Note how striking the Bougainvillea shows up against these walls.IMG_0664

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An orange tree in one of the courtyards provides a lovely touch of vegetation in a very stony landscape.IMG_0630

Apart from the beautiful architecture, I was once again enamoured by the beautiful colourful doors and window boxes.

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An important feature of this Winter holiday was drinking lots of hot chocolate. We stopped at this restaurant to indulge in decadent hot chocolate and the most divine slices of cake.

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Sitting on the upper deck of the restaurant, we had splendid views of Malta and the Mediterranean sea.

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Thank you for joining me this week and join me again for a visit to the picturesque little fishing village of Marsaxlokk.

I was meant to visit Budapest on a Saturday but much to my disappointment, my tour operator didn’t pitch. I suppose there was a plan somewhere. As in some other European countries, most shops are closed on Sundays so this afforded me an opportunity to see families leisurely enjoying the day. And what a gorgeous day it was! It was surprisingly warm for an Autumn day and I was in awe of everything I saw in the architecture, vibrant coloured trees and flowers and monuments everywhere!

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Museum of Hungarian Agriculture

I was particularly struck by the Museum of Hungarian agriculture, formerly known as the Vajdahunyad castle. Its designer, Ignác Alpár merged different architectural styles, made use of different elements and details of well-known buildings of historical Hungary. I was mesmerised by this hauntingly picturesque building which was shrouded by beautiful Autumn shades.

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As much as I love the beauty of the great architecture of a bygone era,  I love the beauty of nature from which so many of us draw our creative inspiration and food for the soul. So, I was equally enchanted by the brightness of the day, the lush green lawns, the brilliant colours of a lingering Summer and gentle transitioning of Autumn.

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Soaring above Heroes’ Square is the Millennium Column, the focal point of the the column is topped with a statue of the archangel Gabriel.

Behind the column is a semicircular colonnade with statues of famous men who made their mark on Hungarian history. Statues atop the colonnades symbolize War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory.

Around the base of the monument are a number of equestrian statues honoring the seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes who, led by Árpád, conquered the area now known as Hungary.

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Museum of Fine Arts

Since we had left Vienna before breakfast, the Varosligat restaurant was the perfect place to stop for a delicious light meal for brunch.

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Certainly an interesting ambience.

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I enjoyed a meal of peppers stuffed with chicken and immersed in a tasty paprika sauce. The Turks introduced the pepper plant (Paprika) to Hungary during their rule in the 16th-17th centuries. At first it was regarded and used as an ordinary plant and decorated the gardens. Shepherds and herdsmen who had more contact with the invaders started to spice their meals with the fiery powder.

Then paprika got to the kitchens of the peasants. Aristocrats found the peasant foods flavoured with the red spice very tasty and slowly they started to use it too.

By the 19th century paprika became a dominant spice in Hungarian kitchens and restaurants.

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Budapest which is referred to by some as the Paris of the East, has shops, cafes and ambassadors’ residences lining the street below which is beautifully tree-lined and resembles the Champs elysees in Paris.

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Budapest is one city with two personalities. The Buda part is situated on the hillside on the western banks of the Danube river. Property on this side of the city is more expensive and belongs to those who can afford it. It is from this vantage point of Castle’s hill that one can marvel at the striking building of the Parliament and other awesome views.

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Parliament

 

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Ahead – the dome of St Stephen’s Basilica

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Castle’s Hill 

Today, Castle Hill is recognized as a World Heritage Site, and has many must-see attractions, Gothic arches, eighteenth-century Baroque houses and cobblestone streets. Though Castle Hill has changed much since building began in the 13th century, its main streets still follow their medieval paths. Some houses date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, giving  an idea of what the Castle District may have looked like back then. Practically every house has a plaque indicating the century in which it was built, and providing details of its history. A surprising number of the buildings are still private homes, as Castle Hill is also a residential area. Cars have been banned – only people who live and work here are allowed to drive; however, public transportation is available.

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Below is the modern version of the square where the community gathered for their market in medieval times.

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Below: one of the few buildings which retains its original form from medieval times that survived bombings of  WWII`

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Mathias Church

The church was used as a coronation church by Hungarian kings for centuries, also a mosque for over 150 years by the Ottoman Turks, once owned by Franciscans, Jesuits, now a thriving Catholic church with holy masses, concerts, plenty of weddings, thousands of tourists. Mathias Church offers the historical  beauty of traditional Gothic churches with delicate turrets and colourful tile roofs.

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Mathias Church

Fisherman’s Bastion

The bastion, a neo-Gothic masquerade that looks medieval and offers some of the best views in Budapest, was built as a viewing platform in 1905 by Frigyes Schulek, the architect behind Matthias Church. Its name was taken from the medieval guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the castle wall. The seven gleaming white turrets represent the Magyar tribes that entered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century.

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The Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone-bridge connecting Pest and Buda, and only the second permanent crossing on the whole length of the river Danube. It is one of the symbolic buildings of Budapest, the most widely known bridge of the Hungarian capital.

Its construction was proposed by Count István Széchenyi, one of the leading figures in 18th century Hungary. Its official name is Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Works were started in 1839 to the plans of English engineer William Tierney Clark with the financial support of Baron György Sina, a Viennese financier. The construction was supervised by Scottish engineer Adam Clark, who later on went on to marry a Hungarian girl and settled down in Hungary. The place at the Buda end of the bridge has been named after him. The inauguration of the Chain Bridge took place on 20 November 1849. Below is a view of the bridge from a tunnel.

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After a very enjoyable walk through the medieval nostalgia of the Buda part of Budapest, we crossed the river and were ready for lunch at the Spoon Restaurant – a ship anchored on the Danube river. Together with friends I had made in the tour group who came from Columbia, California and Mumbai, we enjoyed a delicious light lunch, beautiful views of the Danube, delighted in learning about each other’s countries and cultures and marvelled at the wonderful weather.

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The Spoon – image source: TripAdvisor

View of the Danube river from the Spoon restaurant

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I thoroughly enjoyed the intriguing blend of tangy flavours of the grilled chicken,strips of parsnips and pureed rhubarb served with mash potatoes as seen below:

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Thank you for reading and travelling this journey with me.

I loved the Robert Ludlum spy thrillers and just as he packed thrilling action into his books with his protagonists dashing all over Europe. I thought I’d do the same with a dash into Eastern Europe which until now has been unchartered territory for me. So with two Sundays to spare, I joined a tour group to Prague as soon as I arrived in Vienna and a day trip to Budapest on the Sunday of my return back home. I was not disappointed and would love to return to these cities for an extended exploration.

It is a three hour drive on the express-way from Vienna to Prague. Although we left on a cloudy day, it was a pleasant drive through Moravia and the rolling, lush agricultural landscapes now under private ownership. As we drew closer to the cities, it was evident that industries were moving in and hopefully this bodes well for the Czech economy. There was certainly a hive of tourist activity as we entered St Wencaslas Square in Prague. It is the heart of entertainment and nightlife and the entrance to the commercial centre of Prague. This centre dates back to the 14th century.

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Unlike other European cities, Prague managed to retain much of its heritage  despite some destruction of lives and property towards the end of WW II. It has preserved its beautiful architecture and as seen below in the square, cranes are to be seen in a number of places restoring old building facades. It’s rich in its history and is a perfect place for walking tours through a maze of cobbled walkways.

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Nevertheless, it is still fascinating to admire the beautifully decorative artwork on many of the buildings which give this city its unique character.

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There are two plaques on the ground near St. Wenceslas which commemorate those killed during the communist era. One is dedicated to Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest at the Soviet invasion.

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In the Old Town square which dates back 600-700 years, the gothic Church of “Our Lady before Tyn” can be seen below with its 80 metre high twin towers. On the left hand side is the Astronomical clock. Prague was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Given its history, my companions and I were a bit disappointed by the number of  popular Western franchises that could be found around every corner – you know the coffee and burger variety.

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Prague’s astronomical clock dates back to the 1400s. It comprises of an astronomical dial representing the sun and the moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details, the “Walk of the Apostles”. It displays hourly pop outs of figures and other sculptures, and a calendar dial with medallions representing the different months.

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I was lucky to meet up with some wonderful fellow tourists and though we didn’t have the time, we tried to imagine what we would discover in the Museum of Torture.

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The building below marks the entrance to St Charles Bridge where tourists compete for pictures of the Vitava River, the castle and themselves of course. What did we do before selfies? 😀

Commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357, Prague’s most stunning bridge spans 16 arches and is lined with 30 Baroque statues of religious figures.

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One of the most popular statues on Charles Bridge is the Statue of St John Nepomuk (also referred to as Jan Nepomucky).  It is the 8th statue on the right hand if you are heading from Old Town Square towards the Prague Castle.

John of Nepomuk was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslas IV (son of Charles IV).  The Queen made a confession to John of Nepomuk.  Unfortunately for him, the King being a very suspicious man, pressed John of Nepomuk for the Queen’s confessions which John of Nepomuk would not reveal, not even to the King, because it would be against his commitment of confidentiality. John of Nepomuk was therefore executed by being thrown into the Vltava River from the bridge and drowned.

Tradition says that if you rub the bronze plaque beneath the statue (the one depicting St John being thrown off the bridge), you will one day return to Prague. Alas – I forgot to touch it. 😀

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The castle looms up ahead from the St Charles Bridge. I was told by a friend who once lived in Prague that this was the best place to get a view of the city. Unfortunately, our time was limited to do this leg of the walk.

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The Vitava river as seen from Charles Bridge

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These interesting cars caused quite a stir as they passed by.

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The levitation trick below is said to be quite common. Still, it had us baffled.

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Prague is famous for its Bohemian Crystal which can be shipped to your country.

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Dining in the Dungeon: Between myself and my two newly acquired friends, we couldn’t decide where to eat since there are plenty of pubs and commercial restaurants. Instinct and adventure led us down three ominous sets of stairs where we wondered if we wouldn’t be on the menu. Well, this was certainly an atmospheric eating place!

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Of course I had to try out the Czech Goulash and I was not disappointed. This was an ideal meal given the inclement weather outside. The green chilly was the burner and the fluffy dumplings were to die for! A good jug of Czech beer was a perfect accompaniment.

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For dessert, we stopped at one of the smaller street outlet and joined the long queues for this decadent dessert which is a type of doughnut cone stuffed with fillings of your choice. We chose the Strawberry and cream option which you need to keep space for since it is very filling.

strawberry doughnut

Thank you for visit and you are welcome to share your experiences of Prague. I would love to have spent more time here. Join me next week in my visit to Budapest.