Tower of London and River Sightseeing Tour

Posted on March 11, 2012

Step aboard the spacious River Liner outside the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Pier) and sit back as the sights and splendour of London unfold round every bend of your journey on the Tower of London and Thames River Sightseeing Cruise. Weave your way past the London Eye turning slowly and majestically, the Royal Festival Hall, the Tate Modern and the Globehome to England’s most famous bard, William ShakespeareWatch as the waterfront fills with monuments to London’s historical past: the Savoy Hotel, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building and Billingsgate Market with St.Paul’s Cathedral dominating the skyline. Glide past HMS Belfast before disembarking in front ofTower Bridge, the most iconic of London’s landmarks.

Step into the Tower of London, home to the Crown Jewels and savour its dark and mysterious past. Wander through the Bloody Tower where the two young Princes disappeared in 1483, reportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III; the torture chambers where Guy Fawkes, architect of the Gunpowder Plot, and his co-conspirators were subjected to the infamous rack.  Join the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) and follow the trail past the Traitors Gate through the White Tower to the execution bloc where poor Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey lost their heads. Visit the armoury, the menagerie and the jewel house and discover the history of one of the bastions of Britain where William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward Ist reigned supreme.

If you’re lucky you might see the famous black ravens or perhaps the ghost of the headless Anne Boleyn or one of the other guests who were sent to the tower.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published on viator.com

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Small Group Walking Tour of London

Posted on March 11, 2012

Our group on the Small-Group Evening Walking Tour of London with Fish and Chips Dinner was small and intimate–six in total including our guide, Matt, who seemed to be a repository of every known fact about the history of London. Armed with his iPad, brimming with images and photographs, we set off on a journey of discovery about London’s heartland, its dark and sinister past, and its resurgence as a world financial powerhouse.

Starting at the Tower of London, illuminated by floodlights and packed with skaters on the ice rink in a former moat, the atmosphere was somewhat surreal, bordering on magical. Scratch behind the surface, however, and you were suddenly reminded of its grisly past: of beheadings, torture, imprisonment, murder and the Traitors Gate.

Following the Thames Path

We moved along the Thames Path with wonderful views of Tower BridgeHMS Belfast and the magnificent new Shard Building soaring high into the night sky, soon to be the tallest building in Europe. Ahead stood London Bridge, which was the replacement for the one sold to an American millionaire for $2.4 million and now straddles Lake Havasu City in Arizona. We were reminded that this was the spot where traitor’s heads were stuck on spikes, a stark deterrent to any potential transgressor.

Cutting right over the bridge we paused at Southwark Cathedral with its beautiful stained glass windows before descending into Borough Road Market, passing the Golden Hind, the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galley. From there we moved on past the notorious Clink Prison before turning back to the river for one of the most beautiful views imaginable. St. Paul’s Cathedral on the right, standing majestically on Ludgate Hill; the Globe Theatre on the left, the birthplace of many of Shakespeare’s plays; and ahead the Millennium Bridge, Norman Foster’s creation, and the Tate Modern.

Seeing London lit up at night

We moved on to Blackfriars Bridge and descended down a winding staircase to a shingle beach with the waters lapping gently nearby. Huge chains and sunken staves were a reminder of the medieval harbours that dominated this part of London.  We returned to the Thames Path, moved through the crowds outside the National Theatre before passing the London Eye brightly lit in blue and turning gently in the evening air. Across the river stood Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, iconic symbols of Britain’s imperial past.

The evening ended on a high in one of the best fish and chip restaurants in London tucked behind the Old Vic Theatre near Waterloo Station. Cod, chips, mushy peas, pickles, onions, tea, bread and butter.  What more could a man (or woman) ask for?

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published by Viator.com

East London Walking Tour with Indian Meal

Posted on March 11, 2012

Take the guided walk through the heartland of the City of London on the East London Small-Group Walking Tour with Indian Lunch and savour the splendour of the monuments to Britain’s imperial past.  Wander through cobbled streets and alleyways and be transported back in time from Saxon and Roman London to the present where towering skyscrapers stand as symbols to London’s financial strength. Finish in Brick Lane, home to the Bengali community and sample some of their world famous dishes.

Starting on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, this walk begins on the steps ofSt.Paul’sthe magnificent cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and now the focal point of the anti-capitalism protests. You continue on to the Guildhall, the headquarters of the City of London Corporation; the Mansion House, home to the Lord Mayor; the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England before stopping at the Monument, built to commemorate the Great Fire, which started accidentally in Pudding Lane in the street nearby.

Move on past the London Stone, through Leadenhall Market, the original site of the Roman City of Londonium, before its ruthless sacking by Queen Boadicea in AD 60, then move into the heart of London’s financial centre. Walk in the shadows of the Lloyds Bank building, designed by Richard Rogers, and the Swiss Re building nicknamed the Gherkin, site of the famous Baltic Exchange before its destruction by the IRA in 1992.

Relax a while in the comparative solitude of the gardens of St. Dunstan’s in the East, bombed out in the Blitz, before moving northwards through Petticoat Lane towards Spitalfields Market and Whitechapel, the killing ground of Jack the Ripper. Pass the Ten Bells pub where his victims all drank before their terrible murders before moving down the Georgian Streets to Brick Lane and its vibrant Bengali Community, now referred to as Banglatown. Sample samosas and sweets in the array of local shops before finishing the walk with a meal in one of the best curry houses in the area. A journey of stark contrasts but one to remember.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published by Viator

Damascus

Posted on March 8, 2012

Damascus-SyriaThere are seven gates surrounding the Old City of Damascus and to pass through any of them is to enter a time warp, where you leave the present behind and step into a world of fantasy and make believe. Time has stood still in the oldest inhabited city in the world and all semblance of modernity has failed to penetrate its inner walls. Cars are almost non-existent and the sounds that you hear are of horse and donkey hooves and the myriad of footsteps in the narrow, cobbled alleyways.

Go by night when darkness settles over the city and Damascenes flock to the sanctuary of this place in search of spiritual guidance, shopping or just the wonderful conviviality of its people. Step into the Hamidiyeh Souk just beside the Citadel, immortalised by Saladin and immerse yourself in the throngs of people searching for bargains amongst the shopkeepers and traders lining the street. Shafts of moonlight descend from the corrugated roof through the bullet holes left by the French machine gunners during their occupation.

At the end, you reach the Ummayyad Mosque with its imposing bronze door and its three minarets rising into the night sky. To enter this sanctuary is to enter one of the most important shrines in the Islamic world .Yet this is no sombre place. Children run around wildly playing hide and seek; families huddle around chatting and clerics move around with their flock in tow. Many just sit cross-legged and stare at the immense beauty of the place. Step inside the Prayer Hall bedecked with thousands of multi-coloured carpets and watch the men praying, the pilgrims admiring the Shrine of St John the Baptist and the beautiful, decorative ceilings.

Head up towards Straight Street (Via Recta) through the labyrinth of winding alleyways past thousands of ornate doors and enter the Christian quarter renowned for St.Anania’s Chapel named after the man who restored Saul’s sight and Bab Kisan, where Paul escaped in a basket. Here the throngs have gone and a quiet tranquillity settles over you as the alleyways become darker and more obscure. Yet there is no need to be frightened here. The Damascenes are renowned for their hospitality and no harm will come to you.

Savour the moment and enter one of the many beautifully, ornate restaurants. Elissars with its hanging gardens, water fountains and wonderfully laconic Urd players; Leila’s with its roof top terrace overlooking the brightly illuminated mosque; or small coffee houses squeezed in between the narrow houses with their balconies perched precariously over the alleyways.

Return by Bab Touma (St Thomas’s Gate) and follow the Roman Wall surrounding the Old City to Bab Salaam (Gate of Peace). Here, in winter the Barada flows in full force washing away the debris of the dry summer months and bringing a freshness and new vitality to a city that never ages and will remain forever unique. They say that to enter Damascus is to glimpse paradise. Sample it before it is lost

Sharm El Sheikh

Posted on March 8, 2012

Egypt

The rain came down without any warning. But this was not just normal rain. It started with a few drops then the dark skies suddenly erupted and dumped their deluge on the hotel. One minute we were dining in the Arabic restaurant, the next, a large hole appeared in the ceiling and a torrent of water poured through. Our waiter, Mohammed, looked up, smiled and asked if we would like any drinks. Reassured by his presence we ordered beer and wine and tried to ignore the chaos around us. A waterfall appeared by the entrance and the restaurant started to flood. We raised our feet and carried on eating. Waiters donned makeshift macs made from blue plastic bags and attacked the water with brushes and mops. They swept it to one side only find no culverts and the water running back towards them. The centre of the restaurant with the exposed roof started to disintegrate and guests fled for the safety of the corners. There was no panic, only laughter and resignation. Praise be to God, said one of them, First rain in 3 years.  The guests didn’t share their enthusiasm especially those that had fled the cold of the Russian winter.

 

The storm continued and white flashes illuminated the black sky as the lightning hit the sea and the thunder rumbled towards us. We ate what we could then retreated to the main restaurant upstairs.  Water was pouring from the light sockets and a maintenance man stood on a ladder trying to cut the power off. We expected him to explode at any minute but he just took it in his stride and moved around the room laughing and joking with his assistant. We took a table by the window as the waiters threw yellow striped towels everywhere and laughed loudly. Glasses crashed to the floor and kids ran around as the water continued to pour through. A cake appeared with a single candle on it and a group of waiters strode forward banging trays and singing loudly. They moved to a table in a corner where a young Russian couple were trying to eat. They surrounded them, clapped loudly and chanted their song. One of them took the girl, put her in his arms and danced around the table with her. Everyone laughed.

This seemed to break the ice and the diners just ignored the water and carried on eating. The sound of Frank Sinatra echoed through the dining hall as Les from Blackpool tried a crude imitation of the maestro. The power flickered on and off intermittently and each bout of darkness was greeted with loud cheers. We returned to our rooms as the storm abated. Our power had returned but others lay on couches in the lobby. One very large Russian couple lay in each others arms drunk. Water poured from the ceiling and the workers had donned shower caps to protect them against the rain.

In the morning, buckets were scattered everywhere and water trickled from the ceiling. Black clouds appeared ominously on the horizon and we prepared ourselves for another storm.  Thank God we are going home today. We hope.

© Graham Walker 2012

A Day in Verona

Posted on February 28, 2012

VeronaOne hour West of Venice on the Eurostar train, lies the beautiful city of Verona, nestling on the banks of the River Adige and now given the prestige status of being a UNESCO World Heritage Center. A visit here is a chance to step back in time, to capture the grandeur and splendor of a city steeped in history, with its vast Roman amphitheater, L’Arena, its churches and the Duomo Cathedral and its famous castle, Castelvecchio seized by endless invaders before Verona became a key political and economic center following the unification of Italy. Verona will, however, always be remembered for its tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, immortalized by William Shakespeare.

Ancient Theater

Roman Ampitheater in Verona.The city itself is compact enough to see everything in a day on foot, and there is a Hop on Hop off bus starting at Piazza Bra that covers all the major sites for those feeling less energetic. Entrance to the Piazza is through the 14th century Portoni della Bra flanked by its unique Pentagonal Tower, which leads to a magnificent square dominated by the Roman amphitheatre, L’Arena.

Dating back to the 3rd century and once dedicated to gladiatorial combat and hunting spectaculars (luti), it now hosts the world famous Opera with 50 performances every season from June to September including La Traviata, Aida, The Barber of Seville and of course, Romeo and Juliet.

If you don’t get chance to indulge in one of these performances and savour an unforgettable experience, at least visit the Arena and try to re-capture its dramatic history. Climbing the steep stone terraces provides not only a panoramic view of the city but conjures up images of spectacular displays. All around the piazza are restaurants and cafes to suit all tastes at prices and well below those in Venice.

Art, Architecture and Shopping

To the west of the piazza is Castelvecchio sitting astride Ponte Scaligeri, with one part providing a fortress and the other the residence and access to the Arsenale. Occupied by the Visconti family, the Hapsburgs and Napoleon’s army, it now hosts the Museo Civico d’Arte with its collections of Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese paintings. Stroll across the battlements, pose with a Roman soldier and take the opportunity to capture the beauty of this city from this wonderful panorama over the Adige River.

Retrace your steps into the piazza and stroll up Via Mazzini, filled with all the best of Italian fashion design further differentiated by the absence of prices in the windows. This leads you up to one of Verona’s most popular areas around the picturesque Piazza delle Erbe built on the site of a former Roman forum. Packed with market stalls during the day and revelers late at night, it is dominated by the Lamberti Tower rising 83 meters above the city and buttressed against the  splendid Palazzo della Ragione.  If you’re feeling energetic, you can walk to the top for the panoramic views over the city. Alternatively take the lift.

Descend and walk through the Arco dell Costa- the arch of the rib referring to the whale bone hanging above it – and enter one of the most important squares in Verona – Piazza dei Signori, renowned for its grandeur and its seat of government in the Domus Nova and its Loggia del Consiglio. This is a welcome retreat from the throngs nearby and provides a chance to reflect on the beauty and history of this city. Dante’s statue dominates the square. If you follow the arch to the south of the square you come to the 7th century Church of Santa Maria Antica and the extravagant and ornate Scaliger Tombs, the last resting place of this the most powerful of Veronese dynasties-the Della Scalas who ruled this city. Beyond it is the equally ornate Tomb of Consignorio.

House of Love

Juliet's Statue in Verona

Having indulged in the history of this city, it is now time to relax and to escape into fiction. Slightly to the south of the Piazza delle Erbe just off Via Cappello and impossible to miss due to the large crowds outside is Juliet’s house,Casa di Giulietta.  Built in the 13th century for the family, Capello, the authorities converted it into a museum to Juliet in 1990 with predictable consequences.

Although the courtyard, the famous balcony and the statue of Juliet still retain some charm, the entrance to the courtyard is festooned with graffiti swearing undivided love between couples from all over the world. Locks hang from the gates with names painted on them and even the entry stones are smothered in an array of mufti-colored inscriptions. Some would argue that this is taking this love affair too far and that many cannot differentiate between fact and fiction.

Rumor has it that Juliet receives 5000 letters a year requesting advice on anything to do with love and an array of volunteers ensure that they are all answered. If  you want to visit, it is best before the crowds gather to rub the bronze statue of Juliet’s breasts as a sign of good luck. For 4 euros you can enter the house and take pictures of your loved one on the balcony.

Wind Down

For the final part of the journey, turn north and take in the Cathedral of Duomo and escape into its quietness, a stark contrast to the cacophony outside Juliet’s house. This took 500 years to build and is home to Titian’s Assumption.  There is a calmness to this place and as you leave, you can pass under a beautiful medieval Chapter Cloister built in 1140. Pass under a vault to the left of the Cathedral to experience its beauty. Finally, end the day with a view over the Ponte Pietra, which is the only remaining Roman bridge in Verona. Stop by a wine bar, sip the local rose wine and take in the remains of the Teatro Romano on the other side of the river.

It is difficult to leave such a picturesque place after just one day and if the opera beckons, stay an extra night. Alternatively, return on the train to Venice, close your eyes and remember the beauty of this place and its magical history.

Originally published on Viator.com

A Day in Malaga

Posted on February 28, 2012

So there you are, lying by the pool, enjoying the Spanish sunshine and staring up at the crystal blue sky and the white fluffy clouds floating by, when you hear those dreaded words.

“Dad, can we go to Aqualand tomorrow?”

Your body starts to twitch involuntarily at the prospect of thousands of screaming, sunburnt kids hurtling down death defying water slides and encouraging you to join in. The lack of shade, the smell of hot dogs, overcooked onions and tortillas and queues for toilets shatter your peace and tranquillity and induce a state of semi-paralysis. You try to ignore it, but your wife joins in.

“Go on, you know how much you’ll love it.”

Well if you have no excuses, don’t despair. Here’s the perfect solution. Get up early, drop the little darlings off as soon as the gates open at 10.00 and agree to pick them up at 17.00 when they’re totally exhausted. Give them enough money for copious amounts of soda, chips and ketchup, smother them in factor 50, and then wave them goodbye, knowing that the day is yours. Bliss.

Malaga, here I come!

MalagaTough decisions: Malaga… or water park?

Half an hour down the Autopista del Sol, you turn off to Malaga and have six hours to indulge yourself in Andalucia’s second most important city after Sevilla and one of its most atmospheric. Mention Malaga and most people think of the airport, a transit point to the Costa del Sol and beyond. Their memories are of queues of massed ranks of bright pink holidaymakers returning home, laden down with bottles of sangria, oversized sombreros and stuffed black bulls to put on their mantelpieces. What they miss is one of the jewels of southern Spain, a place steeped in history and the birthplace of one of the world’s most famous artists, Pablo Picasso himself.

Park in the underground car park near the citadel of La Alcazaba, and if you are feeling energetic, take a walk up the steps to the magnificent castle of Castillo de Gibralfaro, dominating the headland. It may be a bit of a hike for some, but the views all the way up are magnificent. Catch your breath half way up and take in the wonderful Ayuntamiento Palacio de la Aduna surrounded by bougainvillea trees.

Enjoy the view from Castillo de Gibralfaro

Malaga view from Castillo de GibralfaroEnjoy the view from Castillo de Gibralfaro.

Once at the top, the ramparts of the castle provide a 360-degree panorama of the city itself, the sea and harbour below and the wonderful backdrop of mountains. Looking seawards is the magnificent bullring, the Plaza de Toros de la Maqueta below, one of the oldest in Spain. If you are lucky, you will be able to make out the toreadors practicing their manoeuvres with their red capes flashing in the noonday sun.

Nearby is the English Cemetery, where Catholic Spain eventually allowed English Protestants to be buried rather than leaving them with their bodies protruding above the sands and subject to the vagaries of the seas and wild dogs. Its wonderful gardens and flower arrangements provide an oasis of tranquillity.

If you have time, then relax for lunch or just a drink and snack at the famous Parador de Malaga-Gibralfaro, only a few minutes walk away from the castle. If you have not, then descend to the city below and savour the beauty of this place and the friendliness of its people, the malaguenos. Much of it is pedestrianised and you can wander around aimlessly without the fear of traffic.

See the other sights of Malaga

Pepa y Pepe MalagaPicasso’s birthplace at the Casa Natal in the Plaza de la Merced and the Museo Picasso are a must even if you will have to limit your time there. The last is housed in the beautiful Palacio de Buenavista and contains some two hundred of his most famous paintings. Nearby is the unfinished baroque cathedral of La Manquita (the one armed lady) with its wonderful stained glass windows and refreshingly cool interior, a welcome relief from the noonday sun.
Beyond is the wonderful Plaza de la Constitucion with its fine square and beautiful ornate houses. All around are small alleyways filled with cafés, bodegas and tapas bars enticing you in to sample their culinary splendours–especially the fritura malaguena (fried mixed fish), which is served everywhere and reputed to be the best in Spain. If you did not indulge at the Parador, this is the place to stop eat, sip a cold beer and relax and watch the locals and visitors stroll by in this very Spanish city.

Take a break for tapas!

Places to shop in Malaga

It is also the place to do that last minute shopping. Malaga is full of chic shops mostly congregated along the Calle Marques de Larios or simply “Larios”The long avenue is draped in fine cloth to provide a modicum of shade and if you are exhausted by now, take one of the pedal taxis around the centre for light relief. Failing that, just take a coffee and relax. Savour this city for what is before venturing down to the Mercado Central de Atarazenasthe fresh food market bustling with local shoppers.Five hours is nowhere near enough to experience the beauty of this city but it does provide a little sample of a world far removed from crowded beaches, high rise buildings and the hustle and bustle of the tourist haunts.

Experience it once, and you’ll be dying to return and indulge once more. This time to perhaps sample the Arabic Baths in the Old Jewish Quarter, Calle Tomas de Cozar near the Picasso Museum or to gorge yourself in one of the exquisite restaurants that have made Malaga the culinary capital of Andalusia.

Perhaps as the little ones grow older, they too will see the attraction of culture and history over theme parks, water slides and sun drenched beaches.

Originally published on Viator.com