There is nothing I love more than being in a place I've never been, and I pretty much just want to go everywhere...
I can't get enough of travelling and sightseeing, so this blog is dedicated to the cool little places I would someday like to go.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Garden Above the City" : Torre Guinigi

I’ve always wanted to go to Tuscany, Italy. The rolling fields and the villas look like paradise, and it always seems so sunny and warm and beautiful. I would love to drive through the countryside on a summer evening and stay in a gorgeous Italian villa (exactly how realistic that is, I don’t know – sounds a lot like Letters to Juliet).

But when eventually travel to Italy, one of my first stops will be Lucca, in Tuscany.

The first thing you see when arriving in Lucca is the massive stone wall that surrounds the town, which was originally built in the 1500’s for defense. It is now a walking promenade around the city for cyclists, locals and tourists to enjoy. Lucca is one of the best places to go for an authentic medieval atmosphere.

The town of Lucca dates back to Roman times, and Roman architecture is still visible in the town centre today. During medieval times, Lucca was a centre for trade, especially the silk trade. In the 14th century Italy was full of political turmoil and unrest, so many towns were fortified for defense. Power changed hands many times, but Lucca eventually fell under the control of the wealthy Guinigi family.

One of the first things the Guinigi’s did was build a huge tower to show off their wealth. This was a very common pass-time for rich families in that era, they apparently had nothing better to do with their money, and many Tuscan cities actually had to pass laws restricting the height of towers because people were just going crazy. When the families fought each other, knocking down the enemy’s tower was the ultimate burn.

Fortunately, Torre Guinigi survived, and today it is a breathtaking tourist attraction. The tower is entirely medieval architecture, except for the stairs, which are a modern addition (the original stairs were on the outside). You can still see the Guinigi family crest carved into the stone. Today, for 4 euros, you can climb the 230 stairs and from the top floor you can enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding town, including the Roman centre, the original city walls, and a few other towers around the city that are still intact. You can also see the countryside around the town and the Alps in the distance.

The cool thing about the tower is that it’s high, but not high enough that you are completely distanced from the city. You can still hear the people in the streets and the musicians that play nearby.

 The most incredible feature of the tower is its rooftop garden, which dates back to at least the 1600’s. The garden is 125 feet above the ground, and includes several ancient oak trees.

What to Do? There’s lots to see around the town, enough to keep you busy for an afternoon of exploring. Across town from the Torre Guinigi is the Torre della Ore (the clock tower) which is also open to climb. You can visit several medieval basilicas and the Lucca Amphitheatre, whose architecture dates back to the Roman Empire. The Lucca Catherdral dates to the 1300’s and has many beautiful paintings as well as a famous sculpture of St. Martin. I would really just enjoy wandering the streets and exploring. I think that’s the best way to discover a city, and Lucca’s architecture and culture would be absolutely stunning.

What to eat? The Tuscany region is known for its delicious cuisine. Around Lucca you can sample the local cooking, including traditional peasant foods like cheese and herb stuffed past, delicious soups, and specialties like roast kid (goat kids) and cold rabbit salad.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

“Venice of the Netherlands” : Giethoorn

The picturesque village of Giethoorn in the Netherlands looks like something out of a fairytale. It’s not Venice, but it is idyllic and uniquely enchanting in its own way. In Giethoorn there are no roads – only canals. There are footpaths along the canals, and beautiful wooden footbridges to cross, but all cars must be left outside the village.
There are four miles of canals total, lined with beautiful old cottages with thatched roofs dating from the 1700’s. (For anyone who doesn’t know: a thatched roof is a roof made of straw.) Giethoorn has about 3000 residents and most live in cottages on private islands which serve as yards. On foot, many houses can only be accessed by a wooden footbridge.
What to do? Cycling, boating, guided canal tours – or just explore by yourself and take in the idyllic charm of this little village. You can get around using punts, canoes, kayaks, or “whisperboats,” which run on electrical motors. The canoes are quite shallow, so punting is especially easy (you push your boat along using a long stick). Shops and restaurants line the canals and each has its own dock, so it’s easy to get out and explore wherever you want.
Giethoorn is not a long train ride from Amsterdam, so you could do a daytrip to Giethoorn as part of a larger trip. There are also some excellent B&B’s you can stay in, and the owners are apparently very welcoming and friendly. The B&B’s will often rent bikes and boats so that you so that you can explore the village on your own.
In the winter, Giethoorn is a popular destination for ice skating. I think it would be absolutely magical to skate along the canals on a winter evening.
What to eat? Most of the B&B’s have their own restaurant or dinner service, and will serve you delicious home-cooked food. You can also eat at De Lindenhof, which is pricey but apparently a fantastic experience. De Lindenhof serves five course meals (that’s my kind of dinner!) and the food is creative, delicious and well presented. De Lindenhof is inside a traditional farmhouse and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. De Molenmeester is another restaurant, inside a restored mill, which serves regional organic dishes.
The canals can get quite busy as the day wears on, so it’s best to get out and about in the morning or wait until the evening, but no matter when you go Giethoorn will be a charming experience.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

“Sacred Blue Cenote” : Cenote Ik Kil

It’s March Break and right about now I’m really wishing I was somewhere tropical. So how about Mexico?
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is known for its Cenotes. There are no above ground rivers in the Yucatan – all freshwater is underground in natural caves and subterranean rivers. A Cenote (pronounced “sen-oh-tay”) is a natural sinkhole, formed when the roof of an underground water-filled cave collapses. Cenotes can be open like lakes or almost completely covered, except for a tiny hole at the top. The holes in the roofs allow natural sunlight to filter in, making for an enchanting atmosphere. “Cenote” means “sacred well,” since Cenotes were considered holy by the ancient Mayans, who believed the Cenotes were portals to the underworld and the realm of the Gods.

Cenote Ik Kil

There are thousands of Cenotes along the Peninsula, but one of the prettiest is Cenote Ik Kil. Many of the Cenotes are highly developed tourist centres, but in Mexico it’s usually wiser to stick to the well travelled paths.   
Cenote Ik Kil is 200 feet across and almost perfectly round. The water surface is about 85 feet below the ground above. A stairway carved into the rock leads down to a swimming platform, where visitors can swim and snorkel in the natural pool. The staircase is lit up beautifully in the evening. The water in the Cenote is very deep. Vegetation hangs in over the edges of the Cenote, including vines which reach all the way down to the surface of the water, and small waterfalls pour over the edges. Apparently there are catfish that live in the Cenote which would really be a problem for me, because I absolutely hate fish… but hopefully I could get over it and just enjoy the Cenote.
The Cenote is surrounded by cottages for visitors to rent, a restaurant, gift shop and changing rooms.
What to do? Cenote Ik Kil is part of the Ik Kil archaeological park, and is very close to Chichen Itza, a set of Mayan ruins and a very popular site for tourists. Cenote Ik Kil is also very close to Ek Balam, another set of ruins, which I would chose over Chichen Itza because it is apparently much less of a tourist trap and you can actually climb the temple.  

Ek Balam

Ek Balam also has its own nearby Cenote, called Cenote Maya. After you explore the Mayan ruins, you can swim and zipline in the breathtaking Cenote Maya, which is quite a different experience from Cenote Ik Kil, since the two are so different geologically.

Cenote Maya

What to eat? There is only one restaurant at Cenote Ik Kil, so not much choice there… but it is apparently excellent and buffet style, so wahoo!
You can also stay at one of the many resorts and take bus tours through the entire area, depending on what kind of experience you are looking for.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

“Cave of the Three Travellers” : Fangweng Restaurant

Imagine dining in mid air, hundreds of feet above a sweeping gorge with a beautiful river at the bottom. Cool? Terrifying? This is pretty much what if would feel like to dine in the Fangweng Restaurant, in the Hubei Province of China.

The restaurant, also known as "the restaurant near sanyou cave,"  or the "cave of the three travellers," is about 30 minutes north of the city Yichang, in the Xiling Gorge, a scenic range of cliffs and park. The cliffs are riddled with caves and the Chang Jiang river flows through the bottom of the gorge.

The entrance to the Fangweng Restaurant is marked by a small building that is pretty darn ugly. The real wonder begins once you pass through the building. To get to the main restaurant, you must take a precarious walk along a boardwalk built into the face of the cliff. The walk is said to be spectacular. On the left, the cliff face goes up almost vertically, and on the right only a small railing guards the boardwalk from the perilous slopes of the gorge and the river below. Historically, the cave was used as inspiration for many famous poets and artists.

When you arrive, you will be seated. Most of the tables are inside the restaurant, which is actually a naturally formed cave in the cliff – how cool is that?! The strange combination of being in both a Chinese restaurant and a cave makes for a pretty unique atmosphere. Some tables, however, are on a deck built out over the gorge. I can’t even imagine eating a mean with only a few deck planks between me and a sheer drop to the bottom of a gorge. The view is amazing, but I would be terrified (I’m not good with heights).
What to do? Well, eat, obviously. The best time to go is during the day, when the restaurant is not crowded, and the light is good for viewing the gorge. Other than that, you can hike, bungee jump, or take a boat tour throughout the valley, among other local activities.

What to eat? The menu consists of a combination of local specialties and traditional Hubei cooking. Dishes include freshwater fish, duck, pork and if you’re feeling adventurous, you could try turtle (not for me, personally). Most of the dishes include sauce, vegetables and strong spices.

I just think this would be a fantastic and breathtaking (but scary) experience you would never forget, and you would be hard pressed to find another place like this one.

There's not a ton of information on the Fangweng restaurant, but this travel blog covers it pretty well. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Kapali Çarsi" : The Grand Bazaar

So I originally planned to stay away from places that are super crowded and touristy, but I haven’t done the most stellar job so far, and this one was just too good to resist… so from now on, I’m just doing whatever the heck I want. Some places will be touristy and some will be obscure. Moving on…

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the oldest and largest covered street markets in the world. The bazaar has been around since the 1400’s, when Istanbul was the world’s most important trading centre. The market covers sixty streets, all of which are named for the craft they were historically dedicated to, and includes nearly 5,000 shops. The market also houses numerous restaurants and cafes, four fountains, two ancient Turkish baths, and two domed buildings, including the Cevahir Bedesten, where the most valuable items were traditionally sold (and still are today). 

The bazaar is a whimsical melding of the Western and Oriental worlds, and has been since the middle ages. It really recaptures the feel of historic Istanbul. You can buy all kinds of unique, eclectic items here, and the pictures look like something out of an I-Spy book. The market is home to craftsmanship at its finest – along with pickpocketing at its finest, so watch out.

 What to do? The market is a labyrinth of streets and shops with many different entrances – very easy to get lost, but I would be happy to get lost exploring all the cool things the market has to offer. It’s crowded, busy and warm – the market is several degrees hotter than the air outside because of all the lights. There are merchants and shoppers everywhere, and colourful, exotic wares spill from thousands of stalls. The bazaar is divided into “Bedestens” – complexes of related shops. The merchants are known for their jewelry, hand-painted pottery, carpets, fabrics, spices and antique shops.

The atmosphere can be quite overwhelming, and make sure you know how to say no, unless you’re prepared to blow your life’s savings shopping here. The merchants are outgoing and can sometimes be aggressive. They will bombard you with greetings and offers, and try to convince you/guilt you into to buying their items. Apparently a favourite opener is “Hello, Americans! Where are you from? I have a cousin there!”

 Merchants often try to take advantage of people’s politeness, so you need to be firm and sometimes assertive. It’s the only way to get through the market without spending all your money and being constantly stuck in conversations. Just don’t feel like you have to engage everyone who greets you, or buy something everywhere you look. If you approach the merchants with a sense of humour, it can be quite fun –the merchants love to chat, and I’m guessing you’d have some pretty interesting conversations. You could even try your hand at bargaining.

It would be well worth your time to check out the district of the Silversmiths. Many of them will be happy to let you inside their workshops if you ask, and you can watch them craft beautiful objects out of silver. Frequently, merchants are forced to move their workshops out of the bazaar because of high rents, which is unfortunate because the bazaar has always held both workshops and shops, and many of the craftsmen believe the soul of the bazaar will be lost if they are forced to move their workshops. Gold is another specialty of the market. Since Turkish currency is fairly unstable, many Turks invest their money in gold, a more secure form of wealth. You will see women in the market whose arms are lined with plain gold bracelets – their life savings.

There are cheap touristy areas in the market, and other areas that are very overpriced, but if you go to the outer edge of the market and the streets around the bazaar, where the local Turks shop, you will find good merchandise for good bargains.

While you’re in Istanbul, there are plenty of other historic sites and beautiful, ancient mosques to visit.  I could never get tired of exploring this city.

What to eat? Try the Kardesler restaurant, a family owned restaurant that specializes in south-eastern Turkish cuisine. Kardesler is crowded but inexpensive, and the atmosphere is welcoming and homey. The food is apparently absolutely delicious. After your meal, if you fancy trying Turkish coffee, Sark Kahvesi (“The Oriental Coffee Shop”) is a short walk away. Turkish coffee is a method of making coffee, not a type of coffee. The beans are hand ground to be extra fine and the coffee is brought to a boil several times. Well prepared Turkish coffee is flavourful and extra foamy. Turkish coffee is served extremely hot with a glass of cold water and goes well with Turkish Delight. A thick layer of sludgy grounds settles at the bottom (don’t drink that…). Traditionally, the leftover coffee grounds were turned over onto a saucer and used for fortune telling.

So that’s the Turkish Grand Bazaar. This is only one aspect of the culturally rich wonder that is Istanbul, and I could probably spend forever exploring the Bazaar alone.
Official Website here. And s/o to Rick Steves for a detailed, street-smart self tour.

Friday, March 1, 2013

"Eldur Og ís" : Laugafell

I’m heading up North for this post, to the “Land of Fire and Ice” – Iceland. As most people know, Iceland’s name is a huge lie. Parts of Iceland are covered in snowfields and glaciers, but Iceland also has hundreds of volcanos and is known for its hot springs. So yeah, the Vikings who named Iceland were huge jokesters.

I’ve always loved looking at pictures of Iceland. It’s such a beautiful country – I love how wild and rugged it is, and soaking in a natural hot spring is totally my thing. One hot spring in particular, Laugafell, really caught my eye (partly because it has a name I can actually pronounce, unlike Deildartunguhver…).
 Laugafell is a mountain in the northern highlands of Iceland, sitting between the glaciers Horsjokull and Vatnajokull. Its western slope is riddled with geothermal hot springs, which are heated by the earth’s mantle. The hot springs are a bit of an oasis, since the highlands can be very barren. Plants and wildlife flourish around the hot springs, which are usually 40-50 degrees Celsius.
Laugafell has two mountain huts where visitors can stay. The oldest hut was built 1948-1950 and sleeps 15. It is open all year round and is actually heated by geothermic water from the springs. The newer hut was built in the 90’s and is open for use in the summer. It sleeps 20. Both huts have functioning kitchens with gas for cooking and utensils provided. There is a separate third hut which serves as a washroom and showerhouse. The hot spring pools are located just outside the cabins.

Just imagine waking up in the morning, stepping out onto the beautiful mountainside and gazing over the highlands all around you. Then you could take a dip in a pool heated by the earth’s core, right in your own backyard, surrounded by wildflowers and gorgeous mountain vistas. Sounds like bliss.
What to do? Other than soaking in warm geothermal pools (and you would have a hard time tearing me away from that), there are tons of hiking trails all around Laugafell, which lead to other mountains and glaciers and the nearby Eyjafiord Valley. There are gorgeous waterfalls and canyons to visit throughout the highlands, and apparently they raise a lot of horses here, so you could probably do some horseback riding or something.

What to eat? You’re pretty much on your own here. You’ve got two kitchens with stoves and “the necessary utensils” (not sure exactly what that includes). Laugafell is 85 km from the nearest town, Akureyri, so you could make a stop there and stock up on groceries before heading up to the huts for your stay.

I tried to find some sort of pun about Iceland or something, but they were all pretty bad… So instead, Fun Fact: many people in Iceland still believe in elves and trolls, and many roads are rerouted around places they think are inhabited by magical creatures. Probably makes for some interesting driving.
There’s not a ton of information about Laugafell, and most of it is scattered in bits and pieces over a bunch of sites, but this one covers pretty much everything.  The English is a little iffy, but I’m sure you can get past that.