Tag Archives: Spain

The World’s Strangest Beaches

29 Apr

While white sand beaches with azure waters and billowing palms are nice, they’re far from unusual. For those looking for a truly unique coastal experience, the following beaches provide just that. Barking sand, star-shaped fossils and natural underground hot springs are just a few of the strange experiences you can have on the following strangest beaches.

Hoshizuna Beach, Okinawa, Japan

Hoshizuna Beach is one of the unique beaches in the world where you can find star-shaped sand (the other two are on Taketomi Island in Okinawa, Kaijihama Beach and Aiyaruhama Beach). The tiny stars are actually fossils from thousands of tiny crustaceans. That being said, locals have a mythical story to go along with why the beaches contain star-shaped sand. Legend has it that there once was a star mother and father who had a star baby. While they consulted God of Sky about the birth they left God of Ocean out of the decision making, who became infuriated and killed the baby star with a big snake. The snake’s feces became the fossils we see today on the beach. Additionally, God of Sky put the baby star into the heavens as a fossil, which is why you see stars in the sky today.

Gulpiyuri Beach, Llanes, Spain

Gulpiyuri Beach; World's Strangest Beaches

Gulpiyuri Beach, Llanes, Spain. Photo courtesy of guillenperez via Flickr.

While there’s nothing unusual about a beach with golden sand, crystal waters and waves, it is when its location is in the middle of a meadow. The 131-foot (40-meter) shoreline of Gulpiyuri Beach offers a whole new type of beach serenity, as you can cool off in the translucent salt waters while taking in both beach and rolling countryside hills.

Loango National Park, Gabon, Africa

For those who want a mixture of pristine beach and wildlife spotting, Loango National Park is the place for you. The park extends all the way to the white sanded coast, where you can watch hippos, gorillas, buffalos, leopards, elephants and wild pigs take a dip in the water — and sometimes even surfing. It’s definitely not your usual day of building sand castles and playing beach volleyball.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska. World's Strangest Beaches

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, Alaska. Photo courtesy of brewbooks via Flickr.

Petroglyph Beach will take you back in time. Nobody is quite sure how the 40 rock carvings got there, but they make the beach quite unusual as you take in the boulders etched with faces, birds and fish, thought to be carved over 8,000 years ago. For a mix of mystery, history and culture, Petroglyph Beach is a must.

Barking Sands Beach, Kaua’i, Hawaii

Just as the name says, the sand on Barking Sands Beach makes a barking noise when rubbed. This means that as you walk over its 17 miles (27 kilometers) of coastline it will sound like a rambunctious dog. What makes this strange beach even more unusual is it’s also home to a rocket-launch site and missile-defense testing center.

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas. World's Strangest Beaches

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of dany13 via Flickr.

While white- and golden-sand beaches are commonplace, when is the last time you laid out on a beach of striking pink sand? Pink Sands Beach is over three miles (5 kilometers) long and 50 to 100 feet (80 to 161 kilometers) wide. The cause of its unusual hue is Foraminifera, a coral organism that leaves behind its pink shell when it dies.

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. World's Strangest Beaches

Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of eliduke via Flickr.

Due to intense geothermal activity on the Coromandel Peninsula, visitors to Hot Water Beach can dig holes into the sand to create natural hot spring pools. The water gets as hot as 147°F (64°C), and makes for a relaxing and unique beach experience.

Schooner Gulch, Mendocino Coast, California

Also known as “Bowling Ball Beach,” visitors to Schooner Gulch can witness thousands of boulders of equal shape, size and spacing sit lined up like soldiers defying the tides. What’s truly amazing about this rare phenomenon is it is completely natural, with no human interference. The geological explanation is that these concretions are created from resilient minerals and materials that have been able to withstand damage from the Pacific Ocean.

Giant’s Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland. World's Strangest Beaches

Giant’s Causeway, Near Bushmills, Northern Ireland

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is home to 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, created by volcanic eruptions. These natural formations feature precise hexagonal shapes laid out like honeycomb clusters that disappear into the sea.

The landscape is so dramatic in appearance it has inspired local legends of giants walking over the water to Scotland, hence the word “causeway.”

Chandipur Beach, Chandipur, India

At high tide Chandipur Beach may appear like any other; however, at low tide the water recedes about three miles (five kilometers) from the shore, exposing the seabed to beach-goers. Visitors can see unusual seashells, driftwood, crabs and  other organisms  usually not exposed on the beach, giving them the feeling they’re walking into the sea.

Genipabu Beach, Natal, Brazil

Genipabu beach. Natal, Brazil. World's Strangest Beaches

Genipabu beach. Natal, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Leandro’s World Tour via Flickr.

Genipabu Beach offers much more than just swimming, as the landscape is a mix of beach and desert. Enormous sand dunes allow for sand boarding and camel riding, while the Atlantic Ocean provides opportunities for water sports. Basically, this unusual beach offers two completely unique experiences in one.

Perissa, Santorini, Greece

Perissa Beach, Santorini, Greece. World's Strangest Beaches

Perissa Beach, Santorini, Greece.

While we’ve all seen white and gold sand — and sometimes even strange beaches glowing with hues of pinks, oranges and reds — Perissa Beach in Greece is the complete opposite. The endless beach’s pitch black sand creates a strikingly eery yet beautiful landscape. These dark volcanic granules are extremely soft and fine, as well. From the beach you can also walk to the ancient city of Thira, thought to have once been a Spartan colony, by hiking up the Perissa’s backdrop mountain of Mesa Vouno. Warning: Because of the sand’s dark color it tends to get extremely hot, so bring your flip flops.

The World’s Strangest Beaches

Seeing a Different Side of Spain in Santiago de Compostela

6 Apr

During the one hour flight towards Santiago de Compostela from Madrid, the landscape changes from dusty squares to chartreuse fields and jagged-edged mountains; however, it’s only upon landing that the difference between the Spanish capital and Santiago de Compostela, located in the Autonomous region of Galicia in Spain’s far northwest corner, really shows.

View of the Cathedral from Paseo da Ferradura  by Stephen Lafferty

View of the Cathedral from Paseo da Ferradura by Stephen Lafferty

Galicia might officially be a part of Spain, but with its own language, proud Celtic culture and weather to match, this is a far cry from the image of the Spanish costas sold by the travel brochures.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and the final destination of the pilgrimage following the “Way of St. James” with various routes running from France along the northern Spanish coast, and from Portugal and Andalucía in the south. However, there is more to Santiago than its holy and religious associations. Galicia is a region rich in music, art and gastronomy, with Santiago de Compostela at its heart. The local culture is predominantly Celtic, with Galicia making the list of Celtic nations alongside Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany.

The locals in Santiago de Compostela speak Castilian Spanish with a slight lilt, since Gallego, their own language, is flowing and musical, and while it retains a Latin base, it’s softer and closer to Portuguese than Spanish.

The granite streets of Santiago coil about ecclesiastical buildings and cloistered passages, but Santiago’s lifeblood revolves around the historic campus of its university, which was established in the 16th century.

With a mix of students and pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is an ancient city with a youthful spirit, offering a range of budget to high-class choices in both restaurants and accommodation.

The sights of Santiago de Compostela

View of the University South Campus from Alameda Park by Stephen Lafferty

View of the University South Campus from Alameda Park by Stephen Lafferty

The University’s South Campus opens out onto a park abundant in botanical species, carrying the perfume of pines, rosemary and flowers in the air.

From the stone Halls of Residence of the university, I took the granite-winged staircase that climbed up to Alameda Park. From the neo-classical colonnade and sculpted shrubs, the route followed a graveled path towards the Paseo da Ferradura. From behind the shrubberies and tree-covered walkway, the dark grey buildings of the old university campus, convents and churches spread out among terracotta roofs with the spiked towers of the Cathedral dominating the sloping cityscape.

The historic core of Santiago de Compostela splits into three main roads: Rúa do Franco, Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova.

Rúa do Franco is perhaps the busiest of the three, since it’s a direct route to Praza do Obradoiro, the city’s most famous square, and also crosses the renaissance façade of the Colegio Fonseca belonging to the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Plaza de Obradoiro. Photo courtesy of ReservasdeCoches.com via Flickr.

Plaza de Obradoiro. Photo courtesy of ReservasdeCoches.com via Flickr.

Rúa do Vilar leads into the south entrance of the Cathedral at Praza das Praterias. The clock tower of the cathedral sprouts up from the stone step, set against the humble southern entrance. This is the Cathedral’s only remaining Romanesque façade and dates from 1078 to 1103. Among the echoing footsteps, the trickle of water accents the background, spouting from the mouth of four horses in the circular Fountain of Horses.

The cloistered walkways of Rúa Nova lead into Praza de la Quintana. This square split into two levels overlooks the backside of the Cathedral, with the Monastery of San Paio de Antealares to the east. Founded in the 9th century, this monastery is now home to Benedictine cloistered nuns.

Cervantes Square offers a respite from Santiago’s ecclesiastical architecture. This 12th century plaza was once known as the Forum, and was the city’s central meeting place for centuries. Plaza de Cervantes is now a busy shopping area, with the old 17th century Town Hall marking the small, stone square. This building is also the only baroque municipal building in the region that’s still intact and in use. Other nearby sites worth visiting include Casa da Troia, a former student boarding house and the Convent of San Francisco.

Galician cuisine and wine

I’ve always managed to eat well in Spain, but after seven years living on the Iberian Peninsula, nothing has beaten Santiago de Compostela in the gastronomy category for me.

Galicia is located on the Atlantic coast, so the local cuisine is abundant in fresh fish and seafood. Restaurants serve up a number of fish dishes, such as cod, hake and sea bass, but it’s the shellfish that’s always gets me in Santiago de Compostela.

Rua do Franco, photo by Vicky Knill

Rua do Franco, photo by Vicky Knill

The scallop is the symbol for the pilgrims, and scallops are a local delicacy found all over the city. They’re often served up baked in a creamy, tomato sauce and served on theirs shell, and I always find them succulent and juicy. Many bars and restaurants offer a ración, a portion, of razor clams or the local specialty, Pulpo a la Gallega, boiled octopus served up with olive oil and paprika, which has a buttery texture. The tapas bars on Rúa Franco are a great best place to sample fish and shellfish. Many of these historic taverns were set up to cater to pilgrims, and nowadays tempt their customers in with tanks of fish, shellfish and glistening meat cuts in the windows.

Just off the Praza das Praterías, the small street of Rúa da Reina offers more bars, taverns and traditional Galician restaurants. This is a great place to try some local wine. Many of the surrounding bars still offer up bowls of local wine accompanied by generous tapas, small savory snacks.

Galicia is one of the great regions in Europe for white wines. Wine experts dub the wine from the “albariño” grape hailing from the nearby Rías Baixas as “one of the best whites in the world”. Other Galician wines worth trying are Valdeorras wines made from the “godello” grape, and even the local reds are gaining a reputation like the Ribeira Sacra wines made from the “mencía” grape. If you’re looking for a lighter wine that packs less of a punch, then try the Ribeiro or Monterrel wines from Ourense.

With all that wine, there’s, of, course, some cheese to go with it. Despite an odd name, breast cheese, a curved cheese with a pointed top and a strong nutty taste, if a favorite.  Other local cheeses to try include the greasy queso de O Ceberiro, the smoky San Simon da Costa and Arzúa-Ulloa, which is best served with quince and bread. A great place to get a Galician cheese tasting experience is at the Casa dos Queixos on Rúa de Bautizados.

To truly sample Galician gastronomy, it’s worth paying a visit to the Mercado de Abastos on the Praza de Santo Agostiño. The granite stones of Romanesque proportion fit the religious architecture around the city, but this housed the former gardens once belonging to the Count of Altamira, and is now a huge food market. The colors of the fresh fruits and vegetables and the smell of cheeses, cold cuts and fish are a sensory feast.

One local delicacy worth trying is the Pimientos de Padrón. These little green peppers might look innocent at first glance, but eating these is akin to a culinary Russian roulette, a select few are very spicy.

Pimientos de Padron. Photo courtesy of kerinin via Flickr.

Pimientos de Padron. Photo courtesy of kerinin via Flickr.

To round things off with something sweet, head off to Rúa do Vilar to Casa Mora. They have the reputation for making the best Tarta de Santiago, a local cake made out of ground almonds, sugar and eggs, dusted with icing sugar forming the stenciled the emblem of the Saint on top. It’s a moist cake with a strong marzipan taste that just crumbles succulently in the mouth. You’ll find these cakes all over the city, and if you’re looking for a special tarta de Santiago to take home, then you can pass by the Convent of San Paio de Antealtares and buy these from the cloistered nuns through a revolving window at the convent.

Culture

Cathedral view from Praza Obradoiro photo by Stephen Lafferty

Cathedral view from Praza Obradoiro photo by Stephen Lafferty

Santiago de Compostela may be more than just its Cathedral, but it still remains the cultural heart of the city. The Praza do Obradoiro is often filled with local performers, including the “tuna,” a group of minstrels in traditional dress from the University of Santiago de Compostela. This tradition has spread all over Spain ever since the 13th century, but the group from the University of Santiago de Compostela is one of the most famous.

Exploring the Cathedral interior is free. The proportions inside the Cathedral are vast with towering arches and small chapels and naves branching off to the side, with the golden, baroque high altar at the focal. I was very lucky during my second visit to Santiago, to sit through mass when the Botafumerio, a large giant censer filled with incense that swings through the aisles, was used. There is also Cathedral where you can learn about its history, but in my opinion it’s worth a visit for its cloisters on the upper floor of the structure and the carvings of the Portico de la Gloria.

Santiago’s secular cultural attractions include the Galician Center of Modern Art (CGAC). This is an active space showcasing not only the best in local art, but also hosts lecture series and workshops. There is also the 6600 square meter Museo Centro Gaiás, which houses large-scale temporary installations. Not to mention the city is full of private galleries dotted all over the old town.

As a student city, there is always something to do after dark in Santiago, whether it’s just enjoying a few drinks or getting down to party. The streets come alive at night and they never empty even on weeknights. Instead of looking for a specific club, it’s just better to follow the crowds round the narrow streets of the old city.

Seeing a Different Side of Spain in Santiago de Compostela Galicia , Madrid , Santiago de Compostela , Santiago de Compostela attractions , Spain

The 10 Best Cities for a European Layover

4 Apr

Long flights with even longer layovers may seem less than ideal when you are eager to kick-start your vacation but your stopover doesn’t have to be boring. Whether your layover is a quick break or an entire 24 hours, venturing outside the airport in one of these ten European multi-faceted cities will make your layover just as memorable as your final destination.

Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Heading into Iceland’s capital in the dead of winter might seem counterintuitive (though the average temperatures aren’t much colder than New York) but the city has much to offer travelers in terms of history, culture and leisure excursions any time of year. And if you fly IcelandAir between the US and Europe, you can stopover in Iceland for up to a week at no extra cost.

From Kjavík International Airport, board the FlyBus for a 45 minute ride, hopping off at the very first stop in the city, called BSÍ, which is an easy walk to the city center. Those pressed for time can take a city tour highlighting the major landmarks and touristic attractions or you can explore on your own on foot. Use Tjörnin, a centrally located lake as your reference point, as many of the city’s museums and landmarks are within walking distance from here. For travelers with a bit more flexibility in their schedule, highlights include Perlan, the National Museum and Church of Hallgrímur not to mention the colorful nightlife scene. If you have an early flight the next morning and want to party, don’t plan on sleeping. Most locals arrive to the clubs after midnight on weekends.

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

Switzerland has a reputation for being on the expensive side, and compared to how the U.S. Dollar and the European Euro fare against the Swiss Franc, that’s a fair statement. Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city in terms of both geographic size and population so while there is no way to do everything in a few hours, it also means that you have endless possibilities based on your interests. Getting into the city center won’t be difficult. While trams and buses are available, trains from the airport to the central train station only takes 10-15 minutes and purchasing a ZurichCARD will save you money.

For a picturesque and affordable view of the city, climb to the top of Grossmünste that once served as a Roman cathedral. Head to Bahnhofstrasse for some serious shopping or visit Kunsthaus to view Swiss art.

The small size of Switzerland and efficient train system also means that if you have more time and want to venture farther away from the city, you can. Interlaken and Lucerne are each about an hour away from the city by train; you can even get to Geneva on the other side of the country in less than three hours.

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

One of the perks of having a layover in Prague is that the airport has a facility in Terminal 1 where you can leave your luggage for up to 24 hours. There’s a fee of 120 CZK per item but it beats lugging your bags around with you all day. On the flips side, a thirty-minute taxi ride into the city is the only realistic means of transportation and can be costly, but once you are in the city, costs are generally low compared to most destinations in Western Europe.

For a scenic tour, take either a one-hour cruise tide on the Vlatva River or opt for a bike tour if the weather is nice. If walking by foot, make sure to watch the Astronomical Clock chime every hour by Old Town Square and visit Prague Castle for a crash course in Czech history.

London, England

Westminster, London

Westminster, London

There’s hardly anything that can put a damper on a layover in London except maybe the frequent rain clouds. The city has a few different airports and all are accessible from the airport (via the Underground for Heathrow or via express trains and busses for both Gatwick and Stansted). The Underground (the Tube) is the cheapest method at £5 but takes more than an hour to reach the city so plan accordingly. If your next connection leaves a few hours, it’s best to stick around in the airport but if you have more time, as London airports are notoriously crowded.

If time permits, take the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to the Green Park stop. Exit here and proceed through the park until you reach Buckingham Palace. From here, head north to Mayfair for shopping or west to South Kensington for museums.

Brussels, Belgium

Belgian Waffels

Belgian Waffels

A jaunt through Brussels may feel strangely reminiscent to another romantic European capital. The Belgium city was actually modeled after Paris and the similarities and differences are apparent. Conveniently located a mere seven miles from the airport, a quick trip to Brussels can and should be done. For an interactive and speedy tour of the city, join a bike or Segway tour or just explore on foot.

Start at Grand-Place, considered the heart of Brussels and featuring impressive architecture from the Baroque era. Make your way to the EU Headquarters for an audio tour of Parliament or simply stuff your face with sweets in one of the many local chocolate shops after a tour at the Belgium Chocolate Museum.

Lisbon, Portugal

Belem Tower, Lisbon

Belem Tower, Lisbon

There are certainly worse places to spend your layover than Lisbon. The city is known for its fascinating architecture and pleasant climate and is only five miles from the airport. If arriving during the day, opt for public transportation to get into the city.

A trip to Lisbon would not be complete without visiting The World Heritage Belem Tower, a landmark that is said to compare to Paris’ Eiffel Tower or London’s Big Ben. Grab a coffee in Baixa along Rua Agusta or view vibrant flowers in Jardim da Estrela. Laid-back by day and lively by night, Bairro Alto is a charming neighborhood lined with local restaurants, cafes and bars.

Madrid, Spain

La Cibeles, Madrid

La Cibeles, Madrid

Spain’s capital city has a population of more than three million, so it’s no surprise that Madrid Barajas Airport is the county’s busiest. Similar to Prague, the Madrid airport offers luggage storage space to travelers in terminals 1, 2 and 4 for €3.85 for the first day. If on a time crunch, take a taxi to reach the city in thirty minutes but if time allows, hop of the metro, which stops in terminals 2 and 4. Consider buying the Madrid Tourist Travel Pass if spending the entire day in the city.

Start your exploration in Plaza Mayor, a plaza located in the heart of Madrid. Browse through the Prado Museum for European art dating back to the 12th Century, see Picasso’s famous Guernica painting at the Reina Sofia or visit the Royal Palace. For a snack, stop into the Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market where you can sample tapas, wine, oysters, pastries and much more.

Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Truly a unique city, Istanbul is split between two continents. After a short boat ride from the European side, travelers can reach Asia to experience a different side of Istanbul. The airport is about fifteen miles from the city and various transportation options are available including taxis, an express bus and the underground metro. Also worth noting is that most tourists from the U.S. (among other countries) are required to buy a $20 visa before leaving the airport in Istanbul, regardless of how long they are in town.

Once downtown, the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are within close proximity of each other near Sultanahmet Square. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Basilica Cistern and the Topkapi Palace are also nearby. For a more leisurely stop, shop at the Grand Bazaar for souvenirs or relax at The Turkish Baths.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam

Red Light District, Amsterdam

Consider yourself lucky if your layover happens to be in Amsterdam. There is hardly a tourist that won’t find this city effortlessly enchanting. Schiphol Airport is less than six miles away from the city and the commute is relatively stress-free. In twenty minutes and for under €4, you can reach Amsterdam Central Station via train (storage lockers are available at the airport for €5-10 per day so there’s no need to lug your bags). Known for its scenic canal system, many tourists sign up for a canal tour to better orient themselves with the city. If navigating by foot, make sure to pick up a map, as many of the street names look similar to the English eye.

The Anne Frank Museum and the Van Gogh Museum are two popular attractions as is the infamous notorious Red Light District just a few steps from the train station and outdoor markets.

Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt

Frankfurt

While Berlin and Munich would most likely be stops on a trip to Germany, Frankfurt sometimes gets overlooked for no good reason. Eight miles from the airport, the city is reachable via the fast and cheap S-Bahn train. Before leaving the airport, make sure you know which train station you want to get off at, as there are three main stations. Most likely, Hauptbahnhof will be the best starting point.

Ride the elevator to the top of the Main Tower for a ski-high view of the city or grab a traditional “Apfelwein” in Old Town. If the weather is bad or if you are in the mood for museums, Frankfurt makes it easy because most of them are lined next to each other along the river. Römerberg is another central square and is where the Christmas markets take place each winter.

The 10 Best Cities for a European Layover amsterdam , belgium , brussels , Czech Republic , England , Europe , Frankfurt , germany , Iceland , Istanbul , Lisbon , London , Madrid , netherlands , Portugal , prague , Reykjavík , Spain , Switzerland , turkey , Zurich

I Heart My City (in the Spring)

29 Mar

Hanami cherry blossoms outside the Tokyo National Museum. (Photograph by Rob Towell, Flickr)

There’s still a chill in the air here in Washington, D.C., but the days are getting longer, the cherry blossoms are starting to pop, and residents are beginning to shed those cumbersome winter coats. Spring is upon us (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and we’re embracing it with open arms by highlighting seasonal must-dos from our amazing I Heart My City community.

From ice cream to air shows, palaces to train rides, here are 20 ways to make the most of the next few months in 20 cities around the globe:

Shelly’s Oxford (United Kingdom): Head to nearby Wytham Woods to see the bluebells at their finest.

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Photograph by Ncburton, Flickr)

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Photograph by Ncburton, Flickr)

Megan Natalie’s Seoul (South Korea): Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens to experience a piece of paradise you’d swear couldn’t exist in Seoul (make sure to watch the changing of the guards).

Ewelina’s Krakow (Poland): Take a walk to Krakus Mound at Podgórze; a nice, green hill where you can take a blanket and relax.

Annie Fitzsimmon’s NYC (United States): Celebrate the bounty of post-winter produce and eat anything with ramps on it because they’re only in season for a few weeks! Motorino has a great ramp pizza, and ABC Kitchen never fails with its in-season menu.

Keith Bellow’s Montreal (Canada): Hang around near McGill and Prince Arthur, soaking up the sun and the street life.

Anya’s Istanbul (Turkey): Visit Topkapi Palace. The flowers are in bloom and it’s positively stunning.

Katherine’s Athens (Greece): Take a bus to Cape Sounion, the ancient ruins of Poseidon’s temple. On the short bus ride from Athens, you’ll wind along the coast and enjoy some of my favorite views.

The Boxi-Platz flea market in Berlin. (Photograph by La Citta Vita, Flickr)

Berlin’s Boxhagener Platz flea market is open on Sundays. (Photograph by La Citta Vita, Flickr)

Madeleine’s Annapolis (U.S.): Check out the Blue Angels air show at the United States Naval Academy commencement.

Maja’s Belgrade (Serbia): Go to Zemun in Old Town and have lunch at one of the fish restaurants on the Danube.

Colleen’s Beijing (China): Fly kites by Houhai Lake.

Zain’s Amman (Jordan): Pack a picnic and visit the Hellenistic site known as Iraq Al Amir.

Shannon Switzer’s San Diego (U.S.): Check out the wildflowers in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Yvonne’s Berlin (Germany): Explore Berlin’s many flea markets to find great vintage clothes, furniture, books, and local art.

Sylvia’s Tokyo (Japan): Go for hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing parties) in a park with a big group of Japanese friends, some beer, and some sushi.

Jessica’s Barcelona (Spain): Experience a traditional Catalan calçotada which consists of getting together and eating large quantities of local green onions known as calçots along with romenesco sauce, regional wine, and good company.

Vienna's MuseumsQuartier. (Photograph by Photongatherer, Flickr)

Hang out outside Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. (Photograph by Photongatherer, Flickr)

Jennifer’s Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates): See Abu Dhabi from the water. Hire a dhow (traditional wooden boat) for a tour, charter a speedboat to take you to one of the 200 islands off the main island, or kayak amongst the mangroves.

Karen’s St. John’s, Newfoundland (Canada): Watch the last ice depart from the Atlantic from atop Signal Hill National Historic Site. Check out the on-site gift shop where local music, books, and culinary delights make excellent gifts.

Isabel Eva’s Madrid (Spain): Take a trip on the Tren de la Fresa to Aranjuez. During the 50-minute ride, you will be served fresh strawberries. Once in Aranjuez, you can take a tour of the Museo del Ferrocarril (the railway museum) and the Palacio Real (the royal palace).

Lea’s Vienna (Austria): Do as the locals do and head to the MuseumsQuartier to hang out on one of the over-sized flexible furniture elements called Enzis.

Nat Geo’s Washington, D.C. (U.S.): Check out the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, two of D.C.’s hidden gems.

Wherever you are, what’s your favorite thing about your city in the springtime? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

I Heart My City (in the Spring) Abu Dhabi , annapolis , athens , austria , belgium , Belgrade , California , canada , d.c. , England , France , Ghent , Gouda , Greece , Iceland , Istanbul , japan , krakow , Madrid , maryland , Montreal , netherlands , New York , new york city , oxford , Paris , Poland , Reykjavík , san diego , Seoul , Serbia , South Korea , Spain , St. John’s Newfoundland , tokyo , turkey , United Arab Emirates , United Kingdom , United States , vienna , washington

12 of the Most Beautiful Castles and Palaces in Europe

20 Mar

With its tumultuous history of feuding Royals and battling troops, its no surprise that Europe harbors an impressive array of castles and palaces, many of which boast spectacular locations. From the official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to the real-life Sleeping Beauty Castle, here are 12 of the most beautiful Castles and Palaces in Europe.

1. Chambord Castle, France

Chambord Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Chambord Castle

Standing proud in the picturesque Loire Valley, the royal Château de Chambord is a striking example of a French renaissance castle with its elaborate frontage sheltering equally exquisite interiors. Guests can tour the castle and its grounds, as well as taking a peek into the royal apartments of François I and Louis XIV.

2. Neuschwanstein, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle; the most beautiful castles in Europe

Neuschwanstein Castle

A 19th century fairytale castle built as a refuge for King Ludwig and opened to the public after his death in 1886, Neuschwanstein famously inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle with its dreamy spires and snow-capped mountain backdrop. A popular day trip from Munich, visiting the castle is possible by guided tour.

3. Pena National Palace, Portugal

Pena Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Pena Castle. Photo credit: Angel Torres via Flickr.

Perched on a hilltop in the central Portuguese municipality of Sintra, the eye-catching Pena National Palace (often nicknamed Sintra Castle) dates back to the 8th century and was an important strategic stronghold during the Reconquista. An easy train ride from the capital, the UNESCO World Heritage site makes a popular day trip for those visiting Lisbon.

4. De Haar Castle, Netherlands

Casting a dazzling reflection in its surrounding canal ways, the Netherlands’ De Haar Castle is an unmissable feat of neo-gothic architecture. The current structure dates back to the 18th century and makes a popular excursion from nearby Amsterdam, with guided tours offering a thorough exploration of the draw-bridged fortress.

5. Windsor Castle, England

Windsor Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Windsor Castle

The world’s oldest and largest occupied castle, Windsor Castle is not only one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions but it’s the Official Residence of Her Majesty The Queen and used for a number of British Royal functions. As well as exploring the 13-acre stately grounds, visitors can tour the resplendent State Apartments, the much-celebrated St George’s Chapel and the famous Queen Mary’s Doll House.

6. Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Claiming the title of the world’s largest castle, Prague Castle was first erected in the 9th century, although its imposing Gothic façade dates back to the 14th century. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the castle is not only an iconic landmark of the Czech capital, but houses the Czech Crown Jewels.

7. Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Dominating the skyline of Sinaia, the mountaintop Peles Castle makes an impressive detour from Bucharest, tucked away in the remote Carpathian Mountains. A mishmash of German Renaissance, Gothic and French Rococo architectural styles, the castle grounds and a number of its 160 rooms, including the armory, are open to the public.

8. Dunrobin Castle, Scotland

Dunrobin Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of Jack_spellingbacon via Flickr

Dunrobin Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of Jack_spellingbacon via Flickr

Scotland’s most fairytale-esque castle, with its wistful spires and romantic flower gardens, Dunrobin Castle is one of the country’s most exquisite stately homes, dating back to the 13th century. Visitors to the castle, nestled in the Scottish Highlands around an hour’s drive from Inverness, can explore the castle museum, formal gardens, falconry and lavishly decorated interiors.

9. Coca Castle, Spain

One of the continent’s most unique castles with its distinctive crenellated frontage, the 15th-century Coca Castle is fashioned entirely from sand-colored brick. Lying on the site of ancient Cauca, the birthplace of the Roman emperor Theodosius, the acclaimed Mudéjar castle is one of the most prominent landmarks of the central Segovia province.

10. Oberhofen Castle, Switzerland

Oberhofen Castle. Photo courtesy of Carthesian via Flickr

Oberhofen Castle. Photo courtesy of Carthesian via Flickr

In its tranquil setting on the banks of Lake Thun, Oberhofen Castle is one of Europe’s most romantic castles, dating back to the 13th century. A popular day trip for visitors to central Switzerland, guests can marvel at the medieval keep, explore the castle museum and take in the views from the Lake Tower.

11. Ksiaz Castle, Poland

Ksiaz Castle. Photo courtesy of Tripsoverpoland via Flickr

Ksiaz Castle. Photo courtesy of Tripsoverpoland via Flickr

The landmark Ksiaz Castle turns heads with its attractive color palette and medley of architectural styles, poised on a cliff top overlooking the Pelcznica River. Dating back to the 13th century, the magnificent fortress lies on the periphery of Walbrzych and makes a popular pilgrimage for walkers in the surrounding nature reserve.

12. Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania

Marooned on an island on Lake Galve, just 20km from the Lithuanian capital, Trakai is one of Eastern Europe’s most unique castles, a beautifully restored redbrick Gothic structure. The island castle now houses an impressive archeological museum, as well as hosting summer music concerts and events in its atmospheric courtyard.


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A Passion for Travel – Spain and Portugal

10 Mar

Seville.jpgThey say everyone should have a passion and I agree. My passion is and always has been travel – a need to keep moving, exploring and experiencing everything this planet has to offer. This past year my husband and I set our sights set on visiting the Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and the beautiful White Hill Towns of Andalusia in Spain.

We were anxious to see the cobblestone streets of Lisbon, sample their exquisite Port and ride the ancient trams up the daunting hillsides. A short train ride outside Lisbon took us to the charming village of Sintra where we wandered through the fairy-tale castle of Pena Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Traveling from Portugal to Spain is not as easy as it looks on the map. It requires a local train to Faro, a town on the very southern tip of Portugal where we spent several hours drinking wine, staring at the Atlantic Ocean and chatting with Portuguese locals who were anxious to practice their English. From Faro it was a 4 hour bus ride over to Seville, Spain.

We immediately fell in love with Seville. The city is vibrantly alive both day and night. For several days we simply wandered the narrow, medieval streets enjoying the sights, sounds, tapas and wine. I loved walking around and seeing the meshing of Roman, baroque, Gothic, Islamic and Renaissance architecture reflected in all the buildings. We also found great accommodations at the BEST WESTERN Hotel Cervantes located near the beautiful Gothic Cathedral.

From Seville it was on to the picturesque town of Ronda in the White Hill Towns of Andaulsia. This overnight stop turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The next day we had tickets to the Alhambra in Granada. The Alhambra is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best example of Moorish influence in southern Spain and one of the reasons we had traveled to Spain. From Granada, it was a push on to Cordoba which turned out to be an unexpected pleasure and some of the best food we dined on while in Spain. From Cordoba we caught the train up to Madrid to spend a night before flying back to Phoenix.

I can now cross Portugal and Spain off my “to see” list and move on to the next country. The problem is I just can’t decide which country it should be! If you have any ideas, let me know, I’d love to read them.

A Passion for Travel – Spain and Portugal Hotel Cervantes , portugal travel , Spain , spain travel

#TripLit: Paris to the Pyrenees

9 Mar

The Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Basilica and environs in Vézelay, France. (Photograph by Gérard Corret, Flickr)

Don George’s #TripLit pick for March: Paris to the Pyrenees

In recent years the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, has gained a certain cachet. Books have been written on it; movies have been made about it. Almost invariably, the focus of these accounts has been the Spanish portion of the pilgrimage, culminating with arrival at the cathedral in Santiago itself.

In his evocative and moving new account, David Downie and his wife, photographer Alison Harris, trace this venerable pilgrims’ trail as well, but only in the French portion, ending their journey when they reach the border with Spain.

Downie’s quest is unconventional in tone and spirit as well as route. He refuses to label himself a pilgrim, and his goal is as much historical and cultural as it is spiritual.

“Practically speaking,” he writes, “I planned to follow the 2,000-year-old Via Agrippa and pre-Roman, Gallic footpaths, routes predating Christianity, safe in the knowledge that, unbeknownst to most pilgrims, they underlie the Way of Saint James just as surely as Paganism underlies Roman Catholicism…. Forget Santiago de Compostela, I told myself; if I could make it across France, nothing could stop me from one day hiking across the Alps into Italy and down the boot to Rome.”

A lively wordsmith who has been based in Paris for two decades, Downie brings a deep and impassioned knowledge of French history, culture, and language to this pilgrimage. He also brings something more, a longing that he himself can’t pin down at the beginning.

As the duo walk from Vézelay to Solutré, they pass through a few large towns, such as Beaune and Cluny, but for the most part their path winds through bucolic landscapes and half-forgotten villages where the past—manifest in crumbling churches and stark war memorials—seems more vibrant than the present.

Along the way, they encounter a memorable succession of taciturn, deep-rooted local farmers and gregarious, transplanted-from-Paris innkeepers. They also encounter the multi-layered, interweaving pathways of French history, commerce, religion, and spirituality—and manage to tuck in a few sumptuous celebrations of French food and wine, too.

The result is an extraordinary account that illuminates France past and present and casts a light on something even greater: the truth that, however we choose to label our journey, we are all pilgrims on a common quest, to answer why we wander life’s question-paved path.

#TripLit: Paris to the Pyrenees #TripLit , Alison Harris , David Downie , Don George , France , pilgrimage , Santiago de Compostela , Spain , The Way of Saint James , Travel Literature