Ferrara, A Non-Touristy Gem in Italy

Located in northern Italy only 112 km (70 miles) south of Venice or 108 km southeast of Verona is the “undiscovered gem” of Ferrara. This town isn’t really on the tourist map and is one of those places I love finding and exploring. The vibe in Ferrara felt “authentic”, with just a handful of tourists and primarily locals going about their daily business. It is a compact old city, easy to explore in one day.

Ferrara, Italy

A view of central Ferrara from a tower of Estense Castle.

The two main sights in Ferrara are Estense Castle and the Duomo, both adjacent to the main piazza (town square). In addition to these sights, we enjoyed wandering the back alleys, which felt like they had not changed much in a few hundred years.

Estense Castle

Ferrara is home to one of the great castles in Italy, right in the heart of the town.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Street view of Estense Castle.

The castle was constructed in 1385, and although it has undergone many remodels since, it has the classic features that one would expect in a medieval castle–moat, dungeons, kitchens, halls and courtyards.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

One of the castle’s halls. The mirrors on the main floor allow the visitor to get a closer look at the marvelous ceiling paintings.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Stone cannon balls in the castle courtyard.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Entrance to one of the dungeons in Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Prisoner graffiti in one of the castle’s dungeons. One prisoner spent 43 years here, and when he left he was proudly wearing clothes that were 43 years out of fashion!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

The castle’s kitchen, with room for the fires below and the big pots above on the counter.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Two levels of dungeon doors, you didn’t want to get on the bad side of the d’Este family!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Another view of the castle, with draw bridges – a difficult place to attack!

The d’Este family, who ruled Ferrara hundreds of years, built this castle and imprisoned their political enemies here. There were also at least two executions.

ferrara estense castle11

Illustrated bible of the d’Este family. The family, although ruthless, was a great patron of the arts.

Ferrara Duomo (Cathedral)
Unfortunately the 12th century Duomo exterior and interior were undergoing restoration work during our visit, but we were still able to see the interior.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

Interior view of the Ferrara Duomo.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

One of the chapels in the Duomo.

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Interesting display in the Duomo. Note the diversity of figures all working together on restoring the church.

The facade of the Duomo is one of the great architectural achievements of early renaissance Italy and I wish it would have been visible! Look it up.

Piazza Municipale and Surrounding Area

This is the central town square and like most in Italy, it is beautiful, with the Duomo on one side and the Palazzo del Commune (palace) on another side.

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara, Italy

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara. The Duomo is on the right. The Palazzo del Comune is straight ahead. Note the old medieval shops nestled right next to the Duomo.

Ferrara, Italy

A shopping street in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy.

One of many quiet alleyways in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara has an interesting feel to it, with the quiet cobblestone streets and old brick buildings.

Practical Matters

We stayed in a 15th century apartment (Nel cuore di Ferrara, you can find it on various accommodation booking sites), located about 5-10 minutes walking from the main piazza. What a quaint setting it was, in an old house with an enclosed courtyard and exposed ancient wood beams.

ferrara apartmentjpg

Our apartment in Ferrara.

ferrara famous bread

This bread is a trademark of Ferrara, but we didn’t find it all that great, kind of dry, more like a cracker!

Ferrara, Italy

Another delicious Italian meal in Ferrara!

Like many Italian cities, Ferrara has a ZTL (zone of limited traffic) which means that you must park outside the city walls and walk to the center of town (only 10-15 minutes). I am glad Italy has created the ZTL’s, they remove noise, pollution and traffic from the city centers. But be careful, unless you have a pass, you will get a steep fine if you drive in the ZTL area.

We made Ferrara our home base for a couple of days, visiting Bologna (only 50 km or 31 miles) from here, which also is not overrun with tourists – this will be my next post. We like staying in smaller towns which are easy to get in and out of. Ferrara is also close to Modena, home of Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, if you’re an Italian car enthusiast.

Padova – Home of the Scrovegni Chapel and Other Treasures

With Verona, Italy as a home base, we drove to Padua (also spelled Padova), which is 82 km or 51 miles from Verona or 40 km (25 miles) from Venice (which is another option for a home base).

Padova General

A view of the more modern part of Padua, with its exclusive shops.

The town of Padua is home to a few world-class sights, one of the most famous being the Scrovegni Chapel.

Scrovegni Chapel

This private Chapel of the Scrovegni family (the only structure remaining of the 13th century family palace) is one of the great historical gems of Europe. The family hired Giotto to paint the interior between 1303 – 1305, and he, with his assistants created a masterpiece. (The featured image of this post shows the Scrovegni Chapel altar alcove).

Scrovegni Chapel

A view of the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel. The far end of the Chapel contains scenes from the Last Judgment.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padova, Italy

A few of the panels showing scenes from the New Testament.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

A close-up of the betrayal of Christ scene.

We are fortunate that the Chapel is still standing to this day. The paintings represented a breakthrough for their time with the use of color and perspective (3-D-like). Within the Chapel’s walls are numerous biblical scenes, in chronological order. To allow for preservation of these 700 year-old frescoes, there are significant restrictions on the number of visitors allowed each day, so you need to plan ahead.

Note: You must purchase your tickets in advance. Once you know your itinerary, go to this website to purchase your tickets, which you then print and bring with you to the visitors center. You must arrive early enough to go through the dehumidifying chamber that helps protect the Chapel’s environment and frescoes.

Padova Scrovegni Chapel and Museum33

The dehumidifying room next to the Scrovegni Chapel. They show a video of the history of the Chapel while you wait (about 15 minutes).

During the busy summer months, I am sure tours book quickly (we visited in May, and I made our reservations in March). As I recall, you are allowed about 15 minutes for your visit, in groups of 25 or so. Pictures are allowed without flash. The Chapel is on the outskirts of the old center of Padua, and you can walk to the center of the old town in about 10 minutes. We used a car park just two blocks from the Chapel, not far from the train station.

Other Sights in Padova

Adjacent to the Scrovegni Chapel is the 13th century Church of the Eremitani, definitely worth a stop even though it’s largely ignored by tourists. This church reminded me of ancient Roman basilicas, with its austere rectangular shape.

Church of the Eremitani, Padua, Italy

Interior of the Church of the Eremitani. It has an unusual “boat like” wooden 14th century ceiling and remnants of frescoes, which were unfortunately damaged in World War II.

Padova Chiesa Eremitani 7

Some of the surviving frescoes in the Chiesa Eremitani.

Padova University

We lucked out and were just in time to take a tour of one of the oldest and most famous universities in Europe, founded in 1222. The university is in the heart of the old town. Tours are the only way to see the university’s primary historical sights including Galileo’s pulpit and lecture hall (he was on the faculty here for 18 years) and the anatomy theater. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside.

Padova University2

Coats of Arms of some of the alumni of Padua University.

Padova University, Padova, Italy

Within this building are the anatomy theater and the hall where Galileo taught, with his original podium. Hard to get a decent photo of the University – it’s completely surrounded by other buildings.

The anatomy theater, where students would stand in narrow concentric rows above a cadaver table is small, and you are only allowed to view up into the theater from below the cadaver’s point of view. The theater was built in 1594 and is the oldest surviving medical lecture theater in the world.

Théâtre-anatomique-Padoue

This photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, provides a view of the anatomy theater in Padua University. The tourist is only allowed a view up through the center of the main floor table area.

Duomo (Cathedral) Baptistery

The 13th century baptistery is beautiful, and should be a definite stop on your visit to Padua. The frescoes date from 1378. The good news is that although an entrance fee is required, a visit is not time restricted, nor are reservations needed.

Padua Duomo and Baptistery, Padua, Italy

An exterior view of Padua’s Cathedral, the baptistery is the circular building on the right.

Interior of Padua's Duomo Baptistery

A view inside Padua’s Duomo baptistery.

Padua Duomo Baptistery.

A view of the dome of the baptistery. How hard would it be to paint this ceiling and keep any perspective!

Padua’s Palazzos and Piazzas

One of Padua’s main piazzas (Piazza delle Erbe) features a large, magnificent 13th century hall adjacent to the piazza. This building is used for various art exhibits. The entry fees are fairly expensive, so we did not go inside.

Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy

A view of the Palazzo della Ragione, a 13th century great hall that housed medieval law courts, located in the center of Padua.

Plazzo del Capitanio, Padua, Italy

The Palazzo del Capitanio is located on Piazza dei Signori. It was built between 1599 and 1605, for the head of the city’s militia. A large astronomical clock is located on the front tower.

Vincenza

On our way back to Verona, we stopped briefly in Vincenza, a town that would be worth exploring a bit more. This city is known for its great architecture. We saw students studying and drawing several buildings. We walked around for about an hour before returning to Verona.

Vincenza, Italy

Vincenza’s southern gated entrance.

Vincenza, Piazza dei Signori, Italy

Vincenza’s main piazza, Piazza dei Signori. The tower, Torre di Piazza, was built in the 12th century (my wide angle lens makes it look like it’s leaning, but in reality it’s still standing straight up!).

Vincenza Duomo, Vincenza, Italy

Vincenza’s Duomo (Cathedral).

 

Verona – Beyond Romeo and Juliet

Located about halfway between Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Verona can be visited as a day trip from those locations, but this magical city deserves more time than just a day trip.

Verona, Italy

Street scene in Verona

Although Verona is most famous for being the setting of the story of Romeo and Juliet (Giulietta in Italian), the city has much more to offer, like all of Italy.

Roman Verona

Of course there are reminders of Roman times, including a huge arena which is still in use, a bridge, a gate, and walls and foundations underneath the streets and churches.

Roman Amphitheater, Verona, Italy

Verona is home to the third largest amphitheater in the Roman world. It dates from the 1st century C.E. It is located in the spacious Piazza Bra, near the old city walls.

Old city walls, Verona, Italy

Part of the old city walls, near the Roman Amphitheater.

Roman ruins, Verona, Italy

Roman foundations below the current street level.

Roman gate, Verona, Italy

Roman gate in Verona.

Verona, Italy

The bridge in the foreground is of Roman origin, it was partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Verona’s Cathedral (Duomo) stands out with its tower.

It is easy to see why the Romans chose this spot – Verona sits on a u-shaped bend of the Adige River, providing a natural defensive setting, an ample supply of water and a central location that would become a hub for major trade routes across northern Italy, through the Alps and into the rest of Europe.

Map of Verona, Italy

Old map of Verona, showing its defensive position along the Adige River.

Other Sights

The only tourist sight that was crowded in Verona was the (supposed) house of Juliet, with its famous balcony (O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?). There is no confirmed link between this building and the story of the two doomed lovers.

Juliet's home, Verona, Italy.

The courtyard of Juliet’s “home” which was a 13th century inn.

Verona House of Juliet0

Graffiti on the walls from zillions of tourists passing by, with their stories and symbols of love, leading into Juliet’s courtyard. The panels are changed twice a year to allow more room for memories. The panels keep tourists from writing on Juliet’s house itself.

The rest of this city with its multiple treasures was pretty quiet. In Verona, one can find beautiful piazzas, interesting churches, a castle and huge city walls, along with the magnificent natural setting.

Pizza Erbe, Verona, Italy

Verona’s Piazza Erbe has been a center of activity going back to Roman times.

Sant'Anastasia, Verona, Italy

In the 13th century church of Sant’Anastasia we find this beggar figure supporting the holy water stoup, carved in 1495.

San Zeno bronze door panels, Vernona, Italy

The 12th century church of San Zeno, just outside the old city, houses many treasures including these 11th and 12th century bronze door panels containing biblical scenes.

Verona Duomo San Giovanni, Italy

In Verona’s Duomo (cathedral) complex, there is an 8th century baptistry, carved with biblical scenes.

Piazza Signori, Verona, Italy

Another of Verona’s Piazzas, Piazza Signori. The crenellated brick building was the 13th century Scaligeri family residence, the ruling aristocrats of Verona.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy

Verona’s medieval castle (Castelvecchio) is now an art museum. At Castelvecchio, a passageway leads to a pedestrian bridge over the Adige River, heading west out of the old city.

Verona Castelvecchio37

The Castelvecchio Bridge.

Of course you can find fantastic gelato and even British-like chips (french fries). Just about everything a tourist could want!

Verona Chips2

Hard to pass up those almost British chips in Verona!

Finding spots with fewer tourists was part of our quest on this most recent trip to northern Italy. Most tourists concentrate their time in Rome, Florence and Venice, and while I understand why those spots are popular, there is so much more to see in this stunning country. In future posts, I will share some additional less-visited gems, all hiding in plain sight.

Put Verona on your list of places to see in Italy, it is just 115 km (or 71 miles) west of Venice or 156 km (or 97 miles) east of Milan.

Shanghai – The City of Tomorrow

Shanghai was the last stop on our two week tour of China. For those of our tour group who were extending their stay with Sinorama, the tour continued to Guilin (with its dramatic landscape, rice fields and rivers) and Hong Kong. However, I needed to get back to work, so this was the end of the road for our family group.

Central Shanghai is divided into the older eastern section and the fast-growing western section (known as Pudong) by the Huangpu River.

Shanghai, China

A little fruit market in eastern Shanghai.

Shanghai, China

A view of eastern (more typical) Shanghai, just across the river from the futuristic Pudong area.

Standing on the eastern bank of the river near an area known as the Bund, Pudong looks like the “City of Tomorrow” from a science fiction movie. It really is a stunning skyline, both during the day and at night.

Shanghai, China

The Pudong (central Shanghai) area with the Huangpu River in the foreground, as seen from the Bund.

Considering all that Shanghai has to offer, we really didn’t do much during our one day, but recognizing that it’s huge city to get around, I think we did what was realistic. Our tour company must have felt Shanghai was a good shopping opportunity, so it seems that giving us opportunities to spend our money was the main priority.

After visiting the Bund with its view of Pudong the first evening, we went to a silk shop the next day and then had time on the famous Nanjing road to walk among the endless array of big-brand stores and take a few pictures.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai, China

Nanjing Road, one of the world’s busiest shopping streets. The eastern end of this road runs right into the Huangpu River with its views of Pudong.

Pudong, Shanghai, China

The view of Pudong at the eastern end of the Nanjing Road.

That evening we attended an acrobat show, which was really fun. I’ve been to China on business a few times, and had wanted to attend one of these shows, but it seems the plan to attend never worked out. It’s difficult to capture the incredible acts in a quick photo, because you’re not quite sure what the next move will be. While this show is not as big budget or refined as Cirque du Soleil, the performances were good and I have great respect for the athletes and their extraordinary skills.

Acrobat show, Shanghai, China

Trampoline and balancing acts at the Acrobat show.

Acrobat Show, Shanghai, China

Another aerial exercise at the Acrobat show.

The next day we began our long trip home, filled with wonderful memories of a dynamic country with its amazing people, long and fascinating history and stunning landscape.

Overall Sinorama Tours was a great experience. Our guide, Jessie, was patient, funny, and always helpful.

Shanghai China3

Our tour guide, Jessie, with our family group.

As I mentioned in my last post, Sinorama Tours has gone out of business, but there are certainly many other options for a tour of this fast-changing country.

Panda bear, Chongqing, China

Visiting the Pandas (and other sights) in Chongqing

Chongqing, formerly known as Chungking, was the end destination for our Yangtze River cruise. We disembarked the cruise ship in the morning and visited three sights in Chongqing that day: the Chonqing Zoo (known for its panda bears), downtown Chongqing (for a walk through its modern center and lunch), and finally the nearby old town of Ciqikou, known for its porcelain.

Chongqing Zoo

Of course China is famous for its panda bears, and this was our one chance during the two week tour to see the pandas in their homeland (as opposed to a U.S. zoo).

Chongqing Zoo, China

The crowds entering the Chongqing Zoo, most stop at the panda exhibit and don’t go much further.

The zoo is large (over 100 acres), and if you happen to be a panda bear, you’re treated like a king, if you’re not, then your living conditions didn’t look as comfortable. The panda enclosure was large with lots of vegetation and things for the pandas to play on, but for other animals, the enclosures were smaller and more barren.

Panda, Chongqing Zoo, China

Panda enjoying the large play area.

Chongqing Zoo9

A panda scratching an itch with its left hind leg.

Panda bear, Chongqing, China

Another panda view. They are cute with those black eyes and ears!

Red panda, Chongqing Zoo, China

Here’s a red panda, also found at the zoo. I had not seen a red panda before, and although it’s called a panda, it’s quite different than the black and white pandas–it looks more like a cross between a fox and raccoon!

In addition to the pandas, we saw many typical zoo animals. In such a huge city, this zoo provides a nice respite from the concrete, noise and traffic of this municipality of 18 million.

White tiger, Chongqing Zoo, China

This rare white tiger was not happy, it kept pacing back and forth along the fence.

Chongqing Zoo, China

Monkeys with mom keeping watch.

Chongqing Zoo, China

Asian elephant (the ears are smaller than African elephants).

Downtown Chongqing

Like almost everywhere we went in China, I was amazed at the overwhelming size of the city and the endless apartment towers and ongoing construction everywhere. It seems like Chongqing (as with most Chinese cities) has grown up overnight.

Chonqing54

Some of the never-ending stretches of apartment buildings in Chongqing.

Chongqing, China

Example of the interesting architecture found in parts of Chongqing.

Chongqing, China

Modern square in Chongqing–almost like Times Square in New York!

Chongqing, China

A panorama shot of the same square in Chongqing. With all the high end shops nearby, it’s clear the economy must be doing well.

Old Town of Ciqikou

This was one of the most interesting stops on the tour for me, and unfortunately our visit showcased why I don’t like traveling with tour groups. We arrived at the old town, which is in the Chongqing metro area, on a Saturday afternoon towards the end of the Chinese National Holiday period.

Old Ciqikou, Chongqing, China

One of several views of the crowded streets in Old Ciqikou.

Given the historic nature of the town it was jammed with “locals” on holiday (vs. tour groups). However members of our tour group were so nervous walking through the crowded area (“they might pickpocket me!”) that after several complaints from the group our guide shortened our visit considerably, leaving those of us who wanted to see more of the town less time to explore this interesting village. For the record, neither my wife nor I ever felt unsafe or threatened.

Old Ciqikou, Chongqing, China

Another view of Old Ciqikou.

Ciqikou reminded me a bit of old medieval villages in Europe where every little street has something to reveal. The town is about 1,000 years old and provides a view into what Chongqing might have looked like a hundred years ago.

Ciqikou Old Town, Chongqing, China

Flags flying in Ciqikou Old Town for the Chinese National Holiday.

The town sits on a small hill at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jia Ling rivers and was known for its production of porcelain. However, time didn’t allow for us to explore the porcelain shops (not that we need more trinkets!). As a side note, we saw lots of tempting street food too – we tried some savory chicken on stick!

As we hurriedly visited what we could, we turned a corner and saw stairs leading up a short hill to an interesting Buddhist temple, called Baolun. The lower streets were packed with the holiday throngs, and yet when we climbed up to this temple, there was hardly a person in sight. The temple is over 1,000 years old, with interesting halls, courtyards and architecture everywhere.

Baolun Temple, Old Ciqikou, Chongqing, China

Climbing the stairs up to the Baolun Temple. I guess it looks a little steep to other visitors crawling the streets below.

Baolun Temple, Ciqikou Old Town, Chongqing, China

The architecture of the temple and halls is beautiful. The main temple was built without use of nails!

Baolun Temple, Old Ciqikou, Chongqing, China

The main Baolun Temple structure, Old Town Ciqikou.

 

Baolun Temple, Ciqikou Old Town, Chongqing, China

Buddha on a lotus flower.

Baolun Temple, Ciqikou Old Town, Chongqing, China

A representation of Bodhisattva, demonstrating compassion with all the arms.

Baolun Temple, Ciqikou Old Town, Chongqing, China

View from the Baolun Temple, overlooking the endless apartment towers on the outskirts of Chongqing in the distance.

As the saying goes, “you haven’t been to Chongqing if you haven’t been to Ciqikou Old Town”. While our visit to Ciqikou Old Town was short, it was definitely worthwhile.

Chongqing can keep the visitor entertained for a long time. We had just a day here, but I would highly recommend spending at least a few days in this sprawling city if you have the chance.

 

Cruising Up the Yangtze River

My wife and I have been on a number of cruises over the years, and although it’s not our preferred method of sightseeing, we have enjoyed the cruises we’ve taken (various Caribbean cruises and one in northern Europe). As part of our tour of China, a Yangtze River Cruise was included*. This was a four night trip, and prior to its start, our guide touted the cruise as a highlight of the tour. To be honest, we found the cruise a bit boring, especially after the first couple of days.

The reason I say this cruise was somewhat boring is because we are used to a lot of shore excursions and on board activities on other cruises. However, on this trip, other than a few organized stops, we were “stuck” on the ship and since a river cruise ship is smaller, it really didn’t offer a lot of entertainment options–there were a few shows, a few shops, a swimming pool and the typical buffet meals and that was about it.

Yangtze River Cruise, China

Our Yangtze River cruise ship – the Yangtze Gold 8.

Cruise ship, Yangtze River, China

The pool on our cruise ship.

If you want a quiet cruise with little to do, this might be the one for you. My advice – bring a couple of good books, download some movies or games and enjoy the quiet time.

Overall, I was impressed with the cruise ship itself, it of course is smaller than ocean-going cruise ships, but it still had a number of amenities and comfortable staterooms, every stateroom has a river-view balcony.

Yangtze River Cruise, China

Our stateroom on the Yangtze River Cruise.

The food on the ship was reasonable, but if you get a late night craving, it’s a good idea to bring your own snacks!

The cruise started in the city of Jingzhou and travelled up river, ending in Chongqing (a total distance of about 700 km or 435 miles). We briefly toured Jingzhou before embarking on the cruise. It is a very historical city and has a good museum.

Jingzhou City Wall, China

Jingzhou has an old wall surrounding the city, not unlike Xi’an and cities in Europe. This is one of the gates.

Jingzhou Museum, China.

This is a mummified corpse found near Jingzhou from the Han Dynasty (221 BCE – 24 AD). Note the facial and teeth detail. The Jingzhou museum has artifacts discovered in this region of China dating back 4000 – 5000 years.

A number of cruise lines offer cruises of a similar length and itinerary. The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world. It is a major industrial thoroughfare, with continual freighter traffic moving all kinds of goods up and down the river.

Yangtze River, China

Typical freighter traffic on the Yangtze River. The scenery around us on the first couple of days was quite beautiful. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy with a continual threat of rain.

The first part of the cruise was interesting, with gorgeous scenery. You go through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam the first night. Three Gorges is the largest dam in the world, a controversial project that took about 18 years to complete.

Three Gorges Dam, Yangtze River, China.

A view of the Three Gorges Dam. It was hard to get a photo that conveys the immensity of the dam, since tourists get very limited viewpoints. The dam is 594 ft high and 7661 ft long.

Yangtze River Cruise Three Gorges Dam1

A view of the locks at the Three Gorges Dam. Ships can be seen in the closest lock–our cruise ship passed through these locks.

We then visited the Water Village, and while this stop is a bit of a tourist trap, the scenery  along the Long Jin stream feeding into the Yangtze and traditional buildings on this part of the tour were beautiful, along with narrow canyons and mysterious peaks all around us.

Water Village, Yangtze River Cruise, China

The Water Village, along a beautiful stream that empties into the Yangtze River.

Water Village Tour, Yangtze River Cruise, China

View along the Long Jin stream near the Water Village.

Water Village Tour, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Another view of the Long Jin stream near the Water Village.

Water Village, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Food vendor in the Water Village – with fish on a stick!

Another highlight was the Wu Gorge, where we transferred to small boats that took us up into the narrow passageway with waterfalls and wildlife visible.

Wu Gorge, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Going up the Wu Gorge in our tour boats.

After the first couple of days, the river widens out, appears more polluted and the shoreline becomes more populated, with endless high-rise apartment buildings and large cities lining the banks.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

One other interesting place we visited near the end of our cruise was the Shibaozhai Pagoda, with its 12 levels built into the mountainside. Through a narrow stairway you can climb to the top. It was originally built in 1572, and is the highest ancient multi-story wooden structure in China.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

The hill on which Shibaozhai Pagoda sits became an island after the building of the Three Gorges dam, the pagoda was protected by building a large wall, visible at river level. At the top of the hill a Buddhist temple contains displays of numerous gods, with explanations on their importance.

Shibaozhai Pagoda.

Display of two Buddhist gods in the Shibaozhai Pagoda Temple.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Tourist market near the Shibaozhai Pagoda.

The cruise ended in Chongqing (formerly Chungking), a huge and fast growing city (the metropolitan area’s population is about 18 million).

Chongqing, China

View of Chongqing and the Yangtze River.

In Chongqing, we visited an interesting old section of the city and a zoo, specifically to see the cute Panda bears. I will cover Chongqing in another post.

*I just learned that Sinorama Tours, based in Vancouver, Canada, has ceased operations as of August 2018. They were the company we used to arrange our China Tour. This is unfortunate, they offered a great tour value.

Xi’an at Night Will Have You Dancing in the Streets

In addition to being the home base for visiting the world-famous Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi’an (China) is a great city to wander around at night – the colorful well-lit buildings, towers and walls give it a magical air. Our visit was right before the Chinese National Holiday period in October, and the city seemed to come alive with all kinds of activities on a Sunday night, including groups of locals dancing in the streets – below is one example.

 

The central part of the city is surrounded by a massive and long (8.7 miles) rectangular wall, which dates back to the 14th century and has the distinction of being the most complete city wall fortification in China. The top of the wall is now a park for walkers, joggers and bicycle enthusiasts.

City gate in Xi'an, China.

Old city gate (right side of image).

Xian City Wall

South entrance of Xi’an’s massive city wall.

Inside the old city are a number of brightly lit towers, providing a festive feel inside this old city.

Drum Tower, Xi'an, China.

The 14th century Drum Tower in central Xi’an.

Bell Tower, Xian China.

The 14th century Bell Tower marks the geographical center of old Xi’an .

Outside of central Xi’an, on the south side of the city is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (or Dayan Pagoda), a Buddhist shrine built originally in the 7th century. It has a bit of a lean to it after all these centuries. It overlooks a large park with huge fountains. On the night we were there, thousands of people were gathering to watch a choreographed water and light show, as part of the kick-off to the Chinese National Holiday.

Dayan Pagoda, Xi'an, China

Dayan Pagoda between the spotlights at the beginning of the water and light show.

Dayan Pagoda, Xi'an, China

Another image of the water and light show near the Dayan Pagoda.

Dayan Pagoda, Xi'an, China.

The intricately carved wall surrounding the Dayan Pagoda.

Near the Pagoda are some excellent restaurants and a variety of street food options.

Street vendors in Xi'an China.

My wife and brother-in-law enjoying the street food booths in Xi’an – some of which looked great, other things were a bit scary-looking!

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Doing our best imitation of Kung Fu Panda!

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Enjoying a bowl of EXCELLENT spicy noodles.

If you’re in Xi’an for an overnight stop to see the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, don’t miss the opportunity to explore this amazing city, especially at night – quite a sight in itself!

A Visit to Xi’an’s Terra-Cotta Warriors Museum

Our next stop in China after Beijing was the city of Xi’an, which was put on the tourist map after the discovery of the Terra-Cotta Warriors. A farmer in the mid 1970’s was digging a well, and discovered what is now called Pit 1, the largest of three Pits with lengthy columns of carefully placed warriors, horses and chariots. The warriors are part of the funerary art created to protect the first emperor of China (Qin Shihuang) in the afterlife and date from about 210 BCE. The emperor’s tomb is about 1 mile away. The massive effort required to create such a display reminds one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Although it seems a shame to have buried such amazing art, thank goodness it was, because we now are able to appreciate it 2,000 years later.

The Terra-Cotta Warriors museum is about 45 minutes by bus outside Xian. What impressed me most about the museum is its immense scale, I had no idea the museum was as large as it is, with 4 buildings, covering Pits 1, 2 and 3 and a separate building that houses the bronze chariots and other figures also discovered here (don’t miss this building during your visit).

Xi'an Terra Cotta Warriors Entrance

The entrance to the Museum. This was a moderately busy day!

They are called “pits” because they are literally earthen pit shelters where the terra-cotta warriors were buried.

Given the size of the museum complex, our tour guide did the right thing by giving a quick overview and then letting us wander the site on our own for a couple hours. We visited right before the start of the Chinese National Holidays, and I was glad we did. The museum was still busy, but less so than it would be just a few days later, when our guide said the line of traffic to get to the Museum was 10 km long! The Terra Cotta Warriors Museum is probably the #1 attraction in China for locals as well as tourists.

Pit 1

Pit 1 is the largest exhibit, but because of its scale, it’s a little more difficult to get a close observation of the warriors. It contains about 2,000 warriors and horses.

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an, China

Entrance to Pit 1, the largest of the three Pits.

Most people stop (and clog) at the view by front entrance, but make your way around to the sides (visit both sides) to get other interesting views of the warriors. Be prepared for lots of shoving and pushing as you deal with the mobs. Hang on to your belongings carefully!

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

View of Pit 1 near the entrance. Quite a sight to behold.

Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi'an, China

Another view of the warriors in Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A side view of Pit 1. The original discovery was made from the digging of a well near the lower right of this photo.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A little closer view of the warriors. Their headgear denotes their rank. You can also see a bit of their color here.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A closer side view near the front entrance of Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

At the rear of Pit 1, the painstaking restoration work on the terra-cotta figures continues.

Pit 2

Pit 2 is the smallest of the three pits, and excavation work continues here. It was discovered in April 1976, about two years after the discovery of Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

This is a view of Pit 2, the smallest of the three. It consists of more variety of figures than Pit 1, with archers, chariots, calvary and infantry.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A closer view of Pit 2.

Pit 3

Pit 3 was the last to be discovered, in June 1976. Extensive damage to the figures in this pit occurred anciently. It was the “command center” for the warriors in the other Pits.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A view of the original sloped entrance into Pit 3.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

View of Pit 3, showing the original earthen coverings and entrances into the Pit.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

Detail of Pit 3.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China.

Another detailed view of Pit 3, showing how all destroyed pieces have been labeled.

Bronze Chariots

In a separate building you will find perhaps the most amazing pieces of art at the museum, including two bronze chariot displays from the same era as the terra-cotta warriors.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

The building where the bronze chariots are located (on the basement level).

These chariots were discovered in 1978, near the emperor’s tomb, and brought to this museum for display. They are amazing in their detailed craftsmanship and have survived well over the centuries. They are made of bronze and painted, with some use of gold and silver too. They are on a 50% scale to full size.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

One of the bronze chariots.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

The second bronze chariot. The horses look so lifelike! Note the figure in the cart behind the horses.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

This figure, along with a number of other figures and artifacts are located in the same building as the bronze chariots. This guy is one of seven generals found in the Pits. His armor, headgear and neck bows all point to being a high-ranking officer.

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an, China

I’m not sure of the story behind this boat carved from jade, located in a hallway in the building with the bronze chariots. It has nothing to do (as far as I know) with the Terra Cotta Warriors, but it is an incredible piece of art!

Please note that you enter the huge museum complex in one direction, and on your exit  you go a separate direction through a myriad of food vendors and shops. The displays were quite colorful and entertaining!Xi'an Food3Xi'an Food1Xi'an Food2

Old central Xi’an itself is quite a stunning city, and in my next post I’ll share a few pictures of central part of the city.

The Summer Palace – A Bit of Paradise in Beijing

The last tourist sight we visited before leaving Beijing was the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of central Beijing.

The Summer Palace is a huge expanse of gardens, temples and other structures, all dominated by the central feature, Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace provides a welcome respite from the traffic and noises of the city. If I were the Emperor, I would probably find an excuse to spend most of my time here!

Tower of Buddhist Incense, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Tower of Buddhist Incense sits on Longevity Hill, which was created from the excavation of Kunming Lake in the foreground. We did not have the time to climb up the tower, which would offer great views of the Summer Palace grounds. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy on the day we visited.

The Palace was initially built in 1750 by the Emperor Qianlong, and served as a royal retreat. It has undergone many restorations, particularly after 1860 due to the destruction caused by various conflicts. The person most associated with the Palace is the   Empress Dowager Cixi (officially “Holy Mother Empress Dowager”). She was born in 1835, became a concubine at the Palace and eventually saw her son (and later a nephew) become Emperors. However, she was the real power behind the throne for almost 40 years. Much of the restoration of the Palace took place during her “reign”.

As a tourist, it would be easy to spend a full day visiting the Palace, but at a minimum, allow 3 hours for your visit. Unfortunately it was late in the day when we arrived so we only had a couple hours to explore the surroundings. Since the Palace covers such a large area, be prepared for a lot of walking, climbing and possible boating excursions. (The photos below are in the order of our visit through the Palace Gardens).

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Just past the East Entrance is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (“one who is benevolent enjoys longevity”) used as an administrative area of the Emperor and Empress, where they would receive diplomats and conduct various affairs of the court.

Kylin, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Next to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity stands this mythical creature, called Kylin, which had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked – not hard to see why! It has a dragon head, lion tail, deer horns, and cattle hoofs, with a scaly, fish-like skin.

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Wenchang Tower, largest of six gate forts in the Summer Palace garden. The tower is located near the East Entrance to the Summer Palace, along the shore of Kunming Lake.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

A view of the Long Corridor (or Long Gallery), which runs from near the east entrance to the Marble Boat along the north shore of Kunming Lake. Hundreds of paintings decorate the interior. It is probably the most iconic feature of the Summer Palace. The Long Corridor is 728 meters long, or nearly half a mile.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

An external view of the Long Corridor.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

One of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor, which represent the four seasons. The decorative paintings along the whole walk are quite beautiful.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

View of the ceiling of one of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor.

Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Marble Boat (Han Chuan, or Clear and Peaceful Boat) can be found at the end of the Long Gallery, along the north shore of Kunming Lake. It was originally built in 1755. It is quite a sight to behold.

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Looking up at the Tower of Buddhist Incense from near the Long Corridor.

17 Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The 17 Arch Bridge in the distance – it is the largest bridge at the Summer Palace. It connects Nanhu Island in Kunming Lake to the mainland. (a couple of the arches are hidden by the boat).

The Palace is a bit of paradise in the huge, sprawling city of Beijing, and was one of my favorite places to visit. Bring your lunch and enjoy the scenery and people watching. Please note that the main entrance fee does not include several attractions (such as a boat ride) within the Palace gardens, those attractions will require separate fees.

 

Climbing The Great Wall of China — One of the Must-Do’s Near Beijing

The Great Wall without a doubt is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone thinks of China, possibly second only to Panda bears (which we also got to see, more on that in a later post). It’s probably one of those sights that’s on just about everyone’s bucket list. The Great Wall is very impressive, no matter what small portion of it that you are fortunate enough to visit. On this Sinorama tour, we visited the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, which was a heavily fortified portion to protect a key route through the mountains on the way to Beijing, 31 miles away.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. We climbed up the Wall seen in the hills behind me. It took us about 1.5 hours to climb to the highest point (not quite visible), moving at a fairly quick pace.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

The steepness of the climb can be appreciated in this photo.

I cannot imagine the labor that went in to constructing the wall through the steep, rugged terrain and other natural barriers for thousands of miles. We found enough challenge in just climbing the section that we did, which was steep enough to be hard on the knee joints coming down.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Taking a short break on the only semi-level section of the Wall in this area.

North of Juyong Pass is Badaling, also considered part of the same pass, and a popular section of the Wall to visit. Years ago I visited the Mutianyu section, which is a bit further from Beijing.

Juyongguan Pass, Great Wall, Beijing, China

Looking towards the Badaling section of the Great Wall (in the far distance) from Juyongguan section, high above the Juyong Pass.

When we think of a wall, usually we think of a pretty straight line with two sides, and the Great Wall, at least in this part of the country, is anything but straight, partially due to the span of multiple construction eras over the centuries and partly due to the rugged landscape.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Other parts of the Juyongguan section of the Wall can be seen across the valley.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Lots of stairs–if your job was to patrol this section, you’d be in great shape!

Wall Facts:

The origins of the Wall date back over a millennia ago, although most of the wall we see today was built during the Ming Dynasty, between the mid 1300’s and 1600’s. The Wall runs across norther China and is about 5,500 miles long, of which about 3,800 miles is actual stone wall construction, with the remaining sections being other types of barriers (ditches and natural landscape). Source: Wikipedia

If you visit the Great Wall, be prepared for a LOT of walking, steps, and tourists, at least in the sections of the Wall near Beijing.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Some of the crowds making their way up as we were coming down. Get there early in the day if possible!

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass16

Get your souvenirs here!

Of course, there are many tourist shops at each location with food, drinks and souvenirs.

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass1

A view of the little village and shops at the base of the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall.