Author: Paul Terry

I love to travel. I've been fortunate to visit about 75 countries so far. I prefer to travel independently to get off the beaten path a bit. I also try to find good deals to make my travels more affordable.

Four Days in Guatemala

We combined a visit to Guatemala with a few days in Costa Rica and therefore our time was at a premium in both of these fabulous countries. Here’s how we made the most of four days in Guatemala.

Day 1 – Guatemala City

You could argue that a precious day in Guatemala could be spent elsewhere. However, we were waiting for our daughter to fly into the country that morning and spending our first day in the city made sense based on our schedule. It also allowed us to see the “real” Guatemala – there wasn’t another tourist in sight in the capital city.  Since we were there right before Christmas, there was a lot going on in “Parque Central” (the main plaza) – live music, ice skating, and numerous clothing and food stalls. We enjoyed wandering around and taking in all the festivities.

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Ice skaters in the December 70 F degree weather in Guatemala City. Behind the skating rink is the National Palace of Culture, formerly the headquarters of the president of Guatemala, now a museum. All roads in the country originate from this spot, known as Parque Central.

Guatemala City, Guatemala.

One of the many tasty food stalls we saw during the Christmas celebrations in Guatemala City. We tried some good dishes!

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Wandering the colorful clothing shops set up near Parque Central in Guatemala City.

Guatemala City, Guatemala

A family strolling the main plaza in Guatemala City. The traditional women’s clothing is worn as everyday wear and is not just for “show”.

Guatemala City Cathedral, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City Cathedral, which dates from 1783. It has suffered damage over the years from numerous earthquakes, but is still standing near the main plaza.

Guatemala City Cathedral 2

Nativity display in Guatemala City’s Cathedral.

Day 2 – Antigua and Iximche Ruins Day Trip

This was a very enjoyable and full day, we combined a visit to a small collection of ruins in Iximche (I’m a ruin junkie!) with a tour of the colonial town of Antigua. I felt an afternoon in Antigua was sufficient and splitting the day between the two sites worked out well.

Iximche, Guatemala

Ruins of Iximche. A small Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican archeological site and one of the closest to Guatemala City. Its heyday was in the late 15th century.

Antigua, Guatemala

View of the quaint Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala.

It was less than a 2 hour drive to the Iximche ruins from Guatemala City and then about 1.5 hrs from Iximche to Antigua and only about 45 minutes from Antigua back to Guatemala City. I will do a separate post with more detail on this day trip.

Day 3 – Fly to Flores and a Visit to Yaxha Ruins

We caught a 6 am flight from Guatemala City and arrived in the small town of Flores by 8 am or so. The town is on an island (connected to the mainland by a causeway) in Lake Peten Itza and made a great place to stay – lots of small hotels and close to Tikal and other Mesoamerican archeological sites, such as Yaxha. We wandered the town in the morning and then took a tour of Yaxha in the afternoon, which included taking in a beautiful sunset over Yaxha from the top of a temple.

Acropolis North ruins, Yaxha, Guatemala

My daughter and son in the Acropolis North ruins at Yaxha.

Lake Yaxha, Guatemala

Sunset over Lake Yaxha in the Yaxha archeological park.

A separate post on Yaxha will be forthcoming!

Day 4 – Visit Tikal Ruins and Fly to Guatemala City

This was very long but great day. We got on our tour bus in Flores at about 4:30 am and we were at the archeological park by 7 am. We exited the park around 3 pm.

Temple 5, Tikal, Guatemala

Temple 5 in Tikal.

We arrived back in Flores by about 5 pm, had dinner and then took a flight back to Guatemala City around 7:30 pm. We then flew out of Guatemala City early on Day 5, traveling to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will do a separate post on Tikal. (Posts on Costa Rica to follow Guatemala!)

With all of our flights into and out of Guatemala City, we stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, only about 15 minutes from the airport. The hotel is in a nice section of Guatemala City and there are good restaurants nearby. We found the Guatemalan people to be very friendly, kind and prompt. The food was excellent and prices were very good for most items. The weather in Guatemala City is lovely throughout the year and December was warm and pleasant with low humidity.

Kacao restaurant, Guatemala City, Guatemala

A fantastic dinner spread at the Kacao restuarant, near the Courtyard Marriott hotel, Guatemala City.

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part II

There is so much to see in Milan, one post cannot cover it all. This post covers three churches that really are worth a visit (in addition to the Milan Cathedral), along with a couple other spots we enjoyed, shown at the end of the post.

Santa Maria delle Grazie – The Last Supper

This is a 15th century convent, and home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (known in Italian as Cenacolo), one of his most famous works of art and unfortunately one that has not stood up well to the test of time, due to the experimental technique Leonardo used – painting on dry plaster rather than wet. The fresco started deteriorating almost immediately. Also, the church was bombed in World War II but amazingly the wall with this painting survived intact – thank goodness.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of the Last Supper.

The Last Supper painting by Leonard da Vinci, Milan, Italy

The Last Supper (1495-1498) painting covers an entire end of the convent’s refectory (dining) room. Leonardo’s use of perspective gives the painting depth, almost like the scene is a continuation of the refectory. Some bright person decided to cut a doorway into the lower part of the painting back in 1652.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

A closer view of the Last Supper – Jesus’ apostles asking “is it I?” when he announces one of them will betray him.

The Crucifixion, Giovanni Donato, Milan, Italy.

At the other end of the refectory is another painting, entitled the Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato, 1495. It does not receive near the attention of the Last Supper, but is another amazing work of art.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent (which does not require any reservation or fee).

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

It’s worth spending a few minutes wandering around the main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, there are many other beautiful works of art here.

Note: You must have a reservation to see the Last Supper; we booked our tickets in March for a May trip. Reservations can only be made 60 days in advance, and a limited number of people are allowed to see the painting at one time (groups of 25 or so). The small group was great, because it did not feel crowded in the room, but you are only allowed 15 minutes in the refectory and then ushered out. The site to secure your tickets/reservations is here. The Convent is west of the Milan’s center, we took a metro train to the nearest stop and walked about 15 minutes to the Convent.

Leonardo da Vinci statue, Milan, Italy

This statue of Leonardo da Vinci is just north of Milan’s main piazza and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. He was an artist, inventor, scientist, and so much more.

Sant’ Ambrogio (St. Ambrose)

This church is named after a 4th century bishop of Milan. I loved this old Church, which is a bit off the main tourist route. It’s ancient (the current 11th century structure is built on top of the original 4th century church), and houses a priceless 9th century altar decorated with gold, silver and precious stones.

Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Entrance to the 11th century Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio. There are Roman and Byzantine artifacts scattered around the covered porticos.

Altar, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

The 9th century altar in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio, decorated with gold, silver, gems and pearls. In World War II, it was transported to the Vatican for safekeeping.

Sarcophagus, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Near the amazing altar, a 4th century marble sarcophagus sits underneath the pulpit in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

This monastery, which no longer serves as a church, is now a free art museum. The interior is stunning, and it would take weeks to absorb all the artwork.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Close up of a painting of the story of Noah’s Ark, in the Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Sforza Castle

With everything else we were doing in our short time in Milan, we did not take the time to visit the interior of this castle which is now a museum. It is massive, and impressive from the exterior.The castle is just two metro stops northwest of the main piazza.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Sforza Castle, with a dry moat.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Interior courtyard of Sforza Castle.

Milan’s Canals

If you really want to get off the beaten track, check out Milan’s canals. I didn’t even know that Milan had canals, but we discovered these in our exploration of Milan. No tourists out here, and we found a great little shop with a variety of Arancini (or Arancina) that we had to sample!

Canal, Milan, Italy

A canal in Milan. The canals are south of the central piazza about a mile or perhaps 1.5 miles. We enjoyed the walk through the less touristy part of Milan.

Arancini, Milan, Italy.

A shop with a tasty variety of arancini, they are breaded, deep-fried rice balls filled with a variety of items – meat, sauce, ham, cheese, etc. This fun food is originally from Sicily.

Milan Duomo, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part I

Milan feels a world apart from the other areas of northern Italy I’ve described in my most recent posts. The mountains, lakes and small villages of northern Italy seem a far away place when one is in Milan. Milan is to Italy what New York is to the U.S. – a center of fashion, business and finance. For the tourist, there is a lot to see, and Milan is worth a day or two for the tourist, before or after visiting the surrounding lakes and mountains. Listed below are just a few sights, I will cover others including the renown Last Supper fresco in “Visiting Milan, Italy Part II”.

A good place to start your visit is in the heart of Milan, at the Piazza del Duomo, home of the huge Milan Duomo (Cathedral) and the predecessor of today’s shopping malls – the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Duomo (Cathedral)

This is the #1 tourist sight in Milan. The cathedral is huge – 514 feet long, 301 ft across. Highly recommended is a visit to the roof – you can walk on the roof among the forest of spires, statues, and gargoyle figures with great views of the surrounding Piazza and cityscape–almost like being the hunchback of Notre Dame! I can’t imagine how all the weight of the marble stone work (and people!) has been successfully supported for over 6 centuries! As shown in the images below, there’s lots to see above, below and in the main cathedral, so plan a couple hours for your visit to the Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

One of the many interesting figures on the roof of the Duomo.

Milan Duomo roof

The massiveness of the Duomo is felt as you wander through the archways and flying buttresses on the roof.

Milan Duomo

Getting up close and personal with the beautiful stone work on the roof of the Milan Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

A view of the Piazza del Duomo from the roof of the Duomo, looking west. The entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is to the right, under the short towers.

Milan Cathedral (Duomo)

Exterior view of the Milan Cathedral – it’s so large that it’s hard to get a good perspective on this marvel of engineering and art.

Milan Cathedral interior.

Interior of the Milan Cathedral – 52 pillars support the weight of the roof and expansive ceiling. The stained glass, statues, carvings and huge space all contribute to a feeling of awe.

Milan Catheral, Italy

Another interior view of the Milan Duomo. As can be seen, the restoration and upkeep work (with netting and scaffolding) on this size of building is never done.

San Bartolomeo, Milan Cathedral, Italy

A statue of San Bartolomeo (the apostle Bartholomew) with his own skin draped around him (legend says that his martyrdom was the result of his being skinned alive).

Milan Cathedral Museum, Italy

Your visit to the Duomo includes a visit to the interesting Duomo museum, well worth the time for a wander through. Some of the relics here are from ancient churches that existed on this spot prior to the present cathedral.

Milan Duomo Museum, Italy

Also in the Duomo Museum is a scale wooden model of the cathedral, used by the architects and engineers to build the actual cathedral. The model’s front facade is somewhat different from the final result.

Milan Cathedral Archeological museum, Italy

As is the case for many European cathedrals, the current Milan Duomo is built on top of earlier churches, and a visit below the current structure allows one to see excavations, such as this 4th century octagonal baptistry.

 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Located just a few steps from the Duomo, is perhaps the world’s first covered shopping mall – the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, this symbol of Milan dates back to 1865 (completed in 1878). The Galleria is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Kingdom of Italy (1861 – 1878). It has an expansive glass ceiling, mosaic floors and expensive shops and restaurants (and of course a McDonalds!), and the occasional model posing, since this is the fashion capital of Italy (if not the world!).

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy.

View of the interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its beautiful 19th century architecture and glass ceiling.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, Milan, Italy

A photo shoot in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, showing the mosaic floors along with this redhead model!

 

Street Scenes of Milan

Northeast of the Duomo is the where the high end shopping action is, and with the ‘guards’ at the store entrances, I didn’t even feel comfortable walking into the shops, plus in our travel clothes we felt a bit underdressed! The main ritzy shopping streets are Via Montenapoleone and Via Spiga. Bring your (fat) wallet and drive your McLaren up to the door and you’ll fit right in.

McLaren, Milan Italy.

Drive this little McLaren 720 S around Milan and you can park where you want while you do your shopping!

Milan, Italy Shopping

One of the window displays on Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

Another window display along Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

This chocolate display looks very tasty!

MIlan Italy

For those of us with dreams but few Euros, you can be entertained by the street performers in Milan.

In my next post we’ll cover some other interesting sights in Milan, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Cenacolo).

Images of Lake Maggiore, Italy

Just west of Lake Como in northern Italy is another beautiful lake–Lake Maggiore, which is the 2nd largest body of fresh water in Italy. Perhaps less famous than Lake Como, Maggiore is still another gorgeous lake in this lovely region of Italy, which it shares with  Switzerland. We spent just one night here, but could have spent a lot longer. We visited two towns on the west coast of Maggiore, Baveno (where we stayed) and Stresa, just south of Baveno. Stresa is a bit bigger town with several very fancy (and historic) hotels. Here are a few images from our visit.

Baveno

We stayed one night in Baveno, before going on to Lake Como. We enjoyed a splendid afternoon strolling along the promenade and enjoying the serene setting.

Baveno, Lake Maggiore, Italy

The town of Baveno, on the western coast of Lake Maggiore, at the widest point in the Lake. The ferry shown here takes you to nearby islands (discussed below) and the other side of the lake.

Baveno, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Another view of Baveno on Lake Maggiore. Does it get any prettier than this?

Baveno, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Locals enjoying the afternoon in Baveno.

Stresa

Stresa is a short drive south of Baveno, and has a bigger city feel than Baveno, even though it’s still a small town. More traffic, more shopping, more holiday villas and interesting history.

Borremeo Palace, Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Isola Bella, home of the Borromeo family palace and gardens, dates back to 1630. One of three nearby islands (the others being Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre), Isola Bella sits a short distance off the shore from Stresa in Lake Maggiore. Passenger boats connect the islands with Stresa and Baveno.

Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Stresa is a bigger town than Baveno, with many streets and shops to explore.

Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy

The Grand Hotel des Lles Borromees, one of the elegant hotels lining Lake Maggiore in Stresa, dates from the 19th century when Stresa was on the “grand tour” circuit of Europe. This hotel, built in 1862, was the first hotel on the shore of Lake Maggiore and has had some famous guests. Ernest Hemingway stayed here, as did Winston Churchill on his honeymoon. This hotel (as did others in the area), served as an infirmary in World War I.

Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy

This old little church in Stresa was interesting to explore, with a baptistry right next door.

Stresa, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Inside the baptistry church at Stresa, with a gruesome painting of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Stresa Church, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Inside the Stresa Church.

If you find yourself in Milan and want to explore a little bit more of this stunning region of Italy, consider the beauty of Lake Maggiore, less than 60 miles away.

 

Lake Como – Bellagio and Varenna

If there is another spot on the planet that is as beautiful when the sun is shining as Lake Como in Italy, I’d like to know about it. This is pretty much my idea of heaven–a long, crystal blue lake with picturesque old Italian villages surrounding it and dramatic mountains as a backdrop. For the tourist, this is about as good as it gets. Lake Como is not far from Milan and therefore it’s popular summer weekend getaway spot for locals as well as a primary tourist destination.

Bellagio

Our base for two nights was Bellagio, at the northern tip of the peninsula that separates the lake into two fingers (the lake is shaped like an inverted “Y”).

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

The cute town of Bellagio, probably the main tourist destination on Lake Como and our home for a couple nights.

Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy

Evening street scene in Bellagio.

Chiesa di San Giacomo, Bellagio, Italy

Interior of Bellagio’s 11th century San Giacomo Church.

Lake Como Bellagio2

Our apartment in Bellagio.

We arrived on a Sunday in June by car, and as to be expected on a beautiful Sunday, it was a nightmare finding a parking spot. Our apartment was in the heart of the old town (a pedestrian zone), so I had to find a spot at one of the few lots scattered around the loop road. After looping around the narrow peninsula 3 or 4 times, we found a parking spot that was within walking distance of our apartment.

We chose Bellagio because of its central location and it was a good one. We used the regular ferry system by obtaining a pedestrian day pass that took us to the towns on the west and east shores, it was perfect for the amount of time we had. Each crossing was about 20 minutes.

Lake Como, Italy ferry

Example of a Lake Como ferry – this was a tiny one, most had open passenger decks that provided great views of the towns and lake scenery.

Varenna

Varenna is s short distance north of Bellagio and probably the 2nd busiest town in terms of tourists, and it’s easy to see why – a quaint village hugging a little point on the lake with views from all directions.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Arriving into Varenna.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Another view of Varenna, I love the colors captured in this image.

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s main town square. Just a block or two off the water and the scene quiets down dramatically!

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Varenna’s Church of San Giorgio has some 14th -15th century frescoes near the main altar.

San Giorgio Church, Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

Interior of San Giorgio church in Varenna.

One could spend weeks exploring the coastline villages of Lake Como, but since our two weeks in Italy were coming to an end, this wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple final days in paradise.

Menaggio, Lake Como, Italy

This is a view of the town of Menaggio, on the west shoreline of Lake Como.

Lake Como is known for its extravagant villas and as being a home for the rich and famous. With the bustling fashion capital of Milan just 83 km (52 miles to the south), this area reeks of wealth.

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy

The 18th century Villa Carlotta, on the western shore of Lake Como, just directly across from Bellagio. It is now a national property.

Lake Como, Italy

A view of Bellagio from Villa Carlotta.

The drive along the shore of Lake Como to Bellagio from Como on the south is beautiful, but the road is extremely narrow with no shoulder – even in a little car I was a bit nervous with the buses, trucks and other traffic, but we made it safely. Just take your time and be alert, and dream of what lies ahead!

Fénis Castle – A Highlight of the Aosta Valley

If you can’t visit all 72 castles (who could?) in the Aosta Valley of Italy then at least visit one–Fénis Castle. Dating back to the 12th century, Fénis is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a medieval viscount stronghold, with crenellated walls, towers and frescoed rooms and courtyard in a dramatic setting in a valley surrounded by tall mountains.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Exterior view of Fénis Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The inner courtyard of Fénis Castle. The frescoes date from the first quarter of the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of the inner courtyard.

The only way to visit the castle is to join a group tour offered at specific times throughout the day. Our tour was in Italian, but lucky for us the castle’s main rooms had explanatory information in English.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A dining room on the castle’s ground floor.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A room believed to be the kitchen on the ground floor.

The castle was built by the Challant family and much of the structure we see today is the result of additional construction work early in the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A bedroom in the castle. The Challant’s living quarters were on the 1st floor (one floor up from the ground floor).

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The 1st floor Great Hall, also frescoed.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

15th century religious frescoes adorn the 1st floor chapel.

The castle was used as a hay barn, stables and granary in the 19th century until significant restoration started at the end of the 19th century and continued through the 1940’s.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the inner walls of the Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The corbelled dovecote tower on the castle’s western side.

Fénis Castle is about 15 km (9 miles) east of the town of Aosta. Don’t miss this great castle if you visit the magical Aosta Valley, one of Italy’s less visited regions.

 

The Town of Aosta – “Rome of the Alps”

Recently I’ve been sharing posts on the beautiful Aosta Valley in northern Italy. The town of Aosta is also quite lovely, sitting in a spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps. The town’s Roman ruins remind us of the importance of the route through the Alps and this valley in ancient times. The town was founded by the Salassian Gauls, whose lands covered the nearby Little and Great St. Bernard passes over the Alps. In 25 BCE Caesar Augusts (Octavian)  defeated these Gauls and built up a grand city which became known as Aosta.

Arch of Augustus, Aosta, Italy

Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BCE stands at the eastern edge of the old city (the roof was added in the 18th century).

Porta Pretoria, Aosta, Italy

The Porta Pretoria, near the Arch of Augustus, also dates back to 25 BCE.

The flagship sight in Aosta is the Roman Theater, with one tall exterior section of wall remaining. Medieval buildings once stood around the wall, and they were removed during restorations.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Roman Theater in Aosta, built sometime after 25 BCE. The wall is 65 ft. high.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Seating area inside the Roman Theater.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Another view of the area around the Theater.

Cryptoporticus, Aosta, Italy

Some of Aosta’s Roman ruins are underground. This is the cryptoporticus, which sits underneath the Forum (marketplace), now occupied by Aosta’s Cathedral. Its function is unknown – storage, shops, or something else?

Aosta Valley Day 3

There are numerous Roman, pre-medieval and medieval tombs and ruins underneath Aosta, and some are accessible through the churches built on top of these sites. You can buy a pass and map to direct you to the sites.

Aosta, Italy

Part of a Roman chariot. Various interesting artifacts have been unearthed and are on display in the underground museums.

Aosta, Italy

Aosta’s piazza (town square). The setting reminded us a bit of a Colorado ski town, nestled in the mountains.

Aosta, Italy

Another street scene in Aosta.

Aosta makes a good base for exploring the Valley, we stayed in a small hotel just outside the city and enjoyed the quiet and scenic location.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta.

A Few Less-Visited English Castles

Just about anyone who travels to England has heard of Windsor Castle, a still-in-use castle and residence of the Queen of England that dates back 1,000 years to the times of William the Conqueror. While England has many famous castles, there are a number of less-visited castles worth seeing, scattered around the countryside. The first two shared below (Kenilworth and Ashby de la Zouch) are only 35 miles apart in an area of England called the Midlands. The third, Goodrich Castle, is near the southern Welsh border.

Kenilworth Castle

This castle, located in the town of Kenilworth, southwest of Coventry and northeast of Stratford-upon-Avon (home of William Shakespeare), is one great example. The castle dates back about 900 years and the ruined structures are a mix from that era and from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

Kenilworth Castle, England

The oldest surviving structure at Kenilworth, the Norman keep, originally built in the 12th century, and later modified in the 16th century.

The Queen made three visits here, the last and most lavish being in 1575. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, received the castle from the Queen (she wanted to marry him, but it never happened). He spared no expense preparing for her last visit and kept her and her entourage of several hundred fed and entertained here for 19 days! It almost bankrupted him. Entertainment included fireworks shows and a floating island with the “Lady of the Lake” (from the King Arthur legend) and attending nymphs. You can learn more about visiting the castle here.

Kenilworth Castle, England

This is the castle tower, built specifically for the Queen’s visit in 1575. Since the time of my visit, they have added a viewing platform in the upper floor area where her bedchamber would have been.

Kenilworth Castle, England

The ruins of the Great Hall, where the banquets and feasts would be held. How fun it would be to see the spectacle!

Kenilworth Castle, England

Another view of the Elizabethan tower and Great Hall.

Kenilworth Castle, England

The stables of Kenilworth Castle, now a tearoom for visitors.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle (and Bosworth Battlefield)

Northeast of Birmingham and northwest of Leicester, is the ruin of a 15th century castle, Ashby de la Zouch. The town was originally known as Ashby, but during the reign of Henry III (1216 – 1272), the town became the property of the La Zouche family and hence its current name. Mary, Queen of Scots, was briefly jailed here in the 1500’s. The castle was significantly destroyed during the English civil war in the 1600’s.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle, England

A tower at Ashby de la Zouch Castle.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle.

A series of archways at Ashby de la Zouch Castle. Note the carving at the top of the first archway.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle, England

The tower on the right can still be climbed for views of the surrounding area and town. My visit was very late in the day and the tower was closed, unfortunately. There is also an underground passageway from the tower to the kitchens, for use in times of war.

More information on this castle can be found at the English Heritage website, a great resource. By joining English Heritage, you get free access to historic sites covered by their system.

Bosworth Battlefield

Located about 17 miles south of Ashby de la Zouch is Bosworth Battlefield, the place of a significant turning point in English history in August 1485. It was here that King Richard III was killed, ending the reign of the House of York and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, first with Henry VII, followed his son, the famous Henry VIII. This battle was the end of a English civil war period known as the “War of the Roses”. There are signposts at various spots on the battlefield explaining what happened on that fateful day.

Bosworth Battlefield, England

Bosworth Battlefield.

Goodrich Castle

This castle, close to the town of Goodrich and not far from the city of Gloucester is an old one, dating to the 12th century. It is built on top of a hard sandstone outcropping, on a hill overlooking the River Wye near the Welsh border. In fact, like other castles in this region it was a defensive outpost protecting Norman England from the Welsh.

Goodrich Castle, England

The rocky sandstone base of Goodrich Castle can be seen in this photo.

Goodrich Castle, England

The light gray sandstone distinguishes the keep, the oldest part of Goodrich Castle.

Goodrich Castle, England

A view from the keep tower roof top overlooking the castle courtyard and the countryside.

Goodrich Castle, England

Note the base of the round tower – the angled stone “corner” sections provided protection against enemy attempts to undermine the tower during a siege.

England is one of my favorite countries to visit with great castles like the above and other sights tucked into far flung corners of the country, off the beaten path. If you get a chance, take the time to find and explore these gems!

 

 

Aosta Valley – Visiting Savoia Castle

Savoia Castle is another wonderful sight in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it’s actually up a narrow side valley not far (33 km or 20 miles) from Bard Fortress. While this “modern” Italian castle does not have the ancient history of typical European castles, it evokes the past by having been built in the 15th century Lombard style. It’s worth seeing for its lovely interior, the mountain setting and to gain some insight into the personality of its builder, Queen Margherita.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

An exterior side view of Savoia Castle.

This castle was the project of the queen of Italy (Queen Margherita, widow of King Umberto I) and completed in 1904. She could escape the summer heat of Rome here in this gorgeous setting at the foot of the Italian Alps.

Queen Margherita, Aosta Valley, Italy

Photo of Queen Margherita (1851-1926). She was a smart, powerful figure who dealt with tremendous political turmoil in Italy at the time. Her husband, King Umberto I, was assassinated in 1900. Legend has it that the margherita pizza is named after her!

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The castle’s entry way leads to this beautiful staircase. Note the fine wood ceiling displaying the royal coat of arms (detail below).

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the castle’s first floor ceiling detail showing the coat of arms and other royal symbolism.

Savioa Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The outstanding woodwork and artwork of the railings, walls and ceiling above the staircase.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Billiard room in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Formal dining area of Savoia Castle. The preparation area is behind the wooden screens. The actual kitchens were separate from the main residence.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A reading alcove in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bedchamber in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bath. The castle had many conveniences not yet in wide use at the time (hot water, heating, electricity, plumbing).

The queen would spend her summers at the castle. She entertained guests here and even took them on sleigh rides in the winter in her unique sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The sleigh the queen used where riders would sit “side saddle” and could have a great conversation! There is a photo in the castle of her with guests on a mountain pass in the sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

This photo shows the dramatic mountain scenery and setting of Savoia Castle. Queen Margherita knew how to choose a location!

To visit the castle you must take a guided tour and they are offered in English only at certain times. However, when we visited, we were the only guests (it was a very rainy day) and even though an English tour was not scheduled at the time, the very kind guide was able to give us a tour and did her best to explain things in English–we were most appreciative. Photos are allowed without flash. There are also Botanical Gardens on the castle grounds, but given the wet weather we did not take the time to visit them.

Aosta Valley – The Mighty Bard Fortress

One of the great attractions in the Aosta Valley, Italy (see my overview of Aosta Valley here) is Bard Fortress. Named for the lords of Bard, it is a massive, stern-looking fortress complex sitting atop of a rocky outcropping in the narrow Aosta Valley along side the Dora Baltea river. It demands attention as you drive by.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Bard Fortress complex. You take a series of trams to the top, known as Opera Carlo Alberto Headquarters, which in its military capacity housed a church, hospital, barracks and storage rooms.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Taking a tram up to the fortress – it’s worth the ride just for the views.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress is built right on top of the rock – it must have taken some effort to get the foundation secured!

This strategic spot has been a defensive outpost since the 5th century CE and Bard Fortress sits atop ruins of past castles. It was a perfect place to control traffic passing through the Valley from Switzerland or France into Italy. There have been numerous conflicts here over the centuries ranging from the Goths and Burgunds, to the Lombards and Franks trying to seize control of this route and territory.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress commands an impressive view of the Aosta Valley, this view is looking north.

Control of the passes through the Alps was critical to protecting pilgrims working their way south to Rome and the passage of goods flowing from southern to northern Europe as well as marking geographic boundaries for numerous kingdoms.

Napoleon, who became Emperor of France and conqueror of most of Europe, laid siege to the Fort on the 19th of May, 1800. Four hundred soldiers at the fort held back his army of 40,000 for nearly two weeks.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Covered passageway in the fortress to move soldiers and goods from one level to the next.

It wasn’t until Napoleon was able to get a 12 inch cannon blasting away on the 29th of May that the fort finally was destroyed and the small defending force surrendered on June 1st, a few days later. The fortress was rebuilt in 1830.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Some of the prison cells located in Bard Fortress.

Thousands were imprisoned here at Bard Fortress in World War I. More recently it was used as a movie set in Marvel’s Avengers – Age of Ultron and the buildings now house exhibits, museums and music performances throughout the year.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

A sign commemorating Bard Fortress as a movie set location.

Bard Medieval Village      

As interesting as the Fortress is, the little medieval village (Bard village) nestled below it is fun to explore too – many of the buildings date back to the 14th century and have signs providing historical information.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

A street in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

An old stairway in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Pockmarks remain from past battles in the streets of Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Remnants of 14th century decorative paintings on a building in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

One more street scene in Bard Village.

Bard Fortress and the medieval village should be on your list if you visit the Aosta Valley!