Travel

Portovenere – An Unexpected Bonus near the Cinque Terre

After a sunny picture-perfect first day, the weather turned a bit stormy during our 2nd day in the Cinque Terre. Since it wasn’t a good beach day, we decided we would visit the other Cinque Terre towns. Luckily, the weather was not so bad that the boat couldn’t run its route. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Cinque Terre, the small ferry boat is a great way to see four of the five Cinque Terre towns, and it includes a wonderful ‘bonus’ stop at the southern end of the route.

We purchased our tickets, got a copy of the schedule for timing our stops and hopped on the boat in Monterosso. We decided to go all the way to the end of the route first and work our way back, stopping in the towns we hadn’t visited yet on the return trip. The woman who sold us the tickets explained the ferry’s route and told us that Portovenere (the last stop) was quite a beautiful town, even though it’s not officially part of the Cinque Terre. She wasn’t joking. Portovenere (also spelled Porto Venere) became one of my favorite spots in this part of Italy. (You can also hike to Portovenere from Riomaggiore, the nearest Cinque Terre town, in about 2 hours).

The travel writer Rick Steves calls Portovenere “enchanting” and I would say that’s an accurate description. I was stunned with our first view of Porto Venere, an old medieval church perched on a rocky outcropping guarding the harbor entrance.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Arriving by sea from the Cinque Terre, the 13th century Church of Saint Peter (La Chiesa di San Pietro) is your first sight.

As we cruised further into the harbor, I could also see remnants of a castle fortress on the hill behind the town and an old wall with towers extending down the hill to the harbor. We hopped off the boat and wandered the town for a couple hours, which gave us time to visit the Church of Saint Peter, Castle Doria and explore a few of the old town streets.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of Portovenere from the inner harbor.

Portovenere was purchased by the city-state of Genoa in 1116, which ruled this part of the Italian peninsula and was a rival of Pisa [which is about 92 km (57 miles) further south with its famous Leaning Tower], and other Italian states at the time.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Walking up the rocking outcropping to the Church of Saint Peter.

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Interior of the Church of Saint Peter, which is actually two churches – the older part dates from the 9th century and the “newer” church (above) is 13th century, from the Genoese era.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the rugged coastline, cliffs and Castle Doria, taken near the Church of Saint Peter.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

Taking the stairs up into Castle Doria. There is not too much of the castle itself remaining, but the views of the surrounding area from the grounds are remarkable.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the castle grounds with the Church of Saint Peter in the distance. The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century as a coastal fortress.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

I love this view of the Church of Saint Peter with an old castle window in the foreground.

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Looking down on Portovenere’s harbor and the walls extending from the Castle, with the old town directly below.

After enjoying the great views from the castle grounds, we meandered through the old town on our way back down to the harbor. The Genoese left their mark on the town, including two churches from the 13th and 12th centuries, San Pietro (Saint Peter) and San Lorenzo.

Church of San Lorenzo, Porto Venere, Italy

The 12th century Church of San Lorenzo, another Genoese contribution to Portovenere. Over the main doorway (a little hard to see) is a sculpture of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo who was roasted alive on a grill. Yikes.

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A view of a residential area near the Church of San Lorenzo.

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A focacceria with some yummy pastries and pizza and a window covering made out pasta! I wonder how the pasta holds up in a heavy rain?

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A light rain doesn’t deter tourists and shoppers in the old streets of Portovenere.

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A typical street scene in old town Portovenere, looking toward the medieval gate.

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Just outside the walled portion of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

I always love exploring new places and Portovenere didn’t disappoint. If you get to Cinque Terre, be sure to visit this great town too!

 

Some Tips for Visiting Cinque Terre

Let’s state the obvious…the word on Cinque Terre is out. Many years ago this little corner of Italy would have been a unique find – five colorful quaint villages hugging the coast overlooking the clear turquoise waters of the Ligurian Sea, all connected by hiking trails. While all of the above still holds true, just be prepared to share this “secret” with thousands of your closest friends. We were there in May and it was pretty busy. I cannot imagine what it would be like in July and August, when many Europeans take their holidays. Since the towns are small, there are not many hotel or B&B rooms available (and there’s really no place to build more) and hence why the rates are rising and more people are visiting Cinque Terre as a day trip from either the north (Levanto) or the south (La Spezia). We’ll share a few tips for your visit in this post.

What to Do

Because the towns are small, the main attraction are the towns themselves. Things to do in each are similar: exploring the little streets and alleyways, the town squares and shops, people watching (you will find tourists from all over the world), taking a peek in a few old churches or other buildings, sunbathing, eating wonderful food and gelato, and of course enjoying the local (white) wines. This area has been a wine producing region since Roman times.

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All kinds of interesting pastas were available at a shop in Manarola.

Here is a little bit about each of the five towns, from north to south.

Monterosso al Mare

This is where we stayed and it was a good choice for us. It is the largest of the five towns and has the most hotel rooms, the best and biggest sandy beaches with easy access, including parking. We were able to drive our rental car down into the town since we had a confirmed hotel reservation and the hotel had a tiny car park garage a short walk away (see more info below on transportation).

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy.

The beaches of Monterosso. The newer part of town is just in the distance.

There is a newer part of Monterosso (the north section, where our hotel was) and the older part (southern section) with more typical old world European ambience, separated from each other by a rocky point with a pedestrian tunnel (or you can hike up and around the point). Since we were only staying a couple nights the new section was fine for us and the hotel was very comfortable.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the rocky point that separates old Monterosso (show here) from the newer town (behind the point). An old convent sits above the town.

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Street scene in old town Monterosso.

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A view along the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza. The hike took about 1.5 hours with lots of stops for photos (and to catch my breath). This is probably the most popular section of the trail between the towns. The trail had a lot of up and down sections, so be prepared to burn some calories. Please note that a Parco Nationale della Cinque Terre pass is required to hike the trail. Better to pay the €7 fee than to pay a fine if caught without the Pass. There is a little booth right by the trail a short distance south of Monterosso to get your ticket and there are probably other locations on the trail or in the towns too.

Vernazza

Perhaps the most scenic village (a very difficult call), with a little castle and tower overlooking the bay and the town center. Vernazza is probably the second most popular location for staying in the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from the trail leading north to Monterosso.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the little beach in Vernazza.

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A view of Vernazza from Castle Doria.

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Inside the church in Vernazza, which dates from 1318.

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An alleyway in Vernazza, with a cat checking things out!

Corniglia

We did not visit this town since it is more difficult to access (there is no boat connection) and my guess is for that reason it is the quietest of the five towns.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Corniglia.

With more time, we would have hiked to the Corniglia from Vernazza. You can also hike to other locations from Corniglia via a higher trail that connects town above the Cinque Terre. Because it is a bit more remote, Corniglia attracts more backpacker tourists.

Manarola

The best views of Manarola are from the northern side of the tiny bay, from a little park that overlooks the town and bay (Punta Bonfiglio).

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A view of Manarola from Punta Bonfiglio.

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A view of Manarola from the upper town looking towards the harbor.

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Boats are parked like cars in Manarola.

I believe that the trail along the coast between Manarola and Corniglia is closed, as is the section between Manarola and Riomaggiore. This is a real bummer since the hike in both directions from Manarola would be pretty easy. The closures are due to slides and unsafe trail conditions. It is not clear when or if these trails will reopen.

Riomaggiore

Probably the third prettiest town after Vernazza, once again a very tough call. I thought the little harbor was so unique and scenic.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Another view of Riomaggiore from an upper street.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Stairway in Riomaggiore.

Some Practical Advice about Transportation
There are three ways to get from town to town: 1) a “hop on, hop off” type of boat service, which I heartily recommend; 2) train service, which is fast, crowded, somewhat pricey and less scenic; 3) taking a hike between the towns (note the trail closures mentioned above). Hiking a least one section of the trail should be on your list of “to-do’s”.

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A view of the passenger unloading process at Manarola.

Cars are worthless here. The roads are extremely narrow, steep and curvy down into the towns. There is almost no place to park, and you will probably be stopped on the road above each town, with the police telling you not to attempt the drive down. Check with your hotel or B&B beforehand on what to do if you are traveling by car. The boat service allowed us to “hop on and hop off” all day long, and provides great views of the coastline along the way. Keep in mind that the boat service will not be operational in the winter. Also, the boat does not stop at Corniglia since there is no dock access. Keep your boat ticket in a safe place! We used the train once from Vernazza back to Monterosso. It is busy and is the main transportation method between the five towns and into and out of the Cinque Terre. In some cases you’ll have to hike a bit from the train stations into the towns – there is only so much room. It must have been a huge job to build the train tracks through these rugged hills and coastline.

The boat service did provide a ‘bonus’ stop (probably my favorite place in this region) that I will discuss in my next Italy post!

 

Urbino — Birthplace of Raphael and Home of the Palazzo Ducale

From the Republic of San Marino we headed south and visited one other town in the afternoon before heading back to our home base in Ravenna, Italy. Urbino is about 45 km (28 miles) south of San Marino, via a winding country road that meanders through the hills and valleys of this beautiful region of Italy.

Urbino, Italy

View of Urbino from the west.

The main tourist sight in Urbino is the Palazzo Ducale, considered Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance Palace, built for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino from 1444-1482. One of Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists, Raphael, was born in Urbino in 1483, and thankfully he is represented in the Ducal Palace through some of his works as well as those of his talented father.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

It’s difficult to get an overall view of the Ducal Palace due to its location in the heart of Urbino.

The Palace is in the center of the hilltop medieval town of Urbino. It contains a number of priceless works of art, including paintings, tapestries and beautiful three dimensional inlaid wood panels.

Urbino Duomo, Urbino, Italy

Urbino’s Cathedral (Duomo) with the Ducal Palace visitor’s entrance on the left.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The inlaid woodwork gives a 3D look to the walls of the Studiolo, the former study of the Duke. The artist Botticelli is said to have designed some of the images in this room.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Another inlaid wood panel in the Studiolo.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

One more panel in the Studiolo. It feels like you can walk right through the porch and out into the landscape.

Angels' Room, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The Angels’ Room, one of 500 rooms in the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

A Great Hall in the Ducal Palace.

La Muta, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Raphael’s La Muta (or Portrait of a Gentlewoman), oil on wood, from about 1507. One of the great paintings housed in the Ducal Palace, and often compared to the Mona Lisa. Raphael died at the young age of 37, but left an amazing legacy of art in that short lifetime.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The entire first floor of the Palace is filled with fine Renaissance art.

Cortile d'Onore, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Central Courtyard of the Ducal Palace (Cortile d’Onore).

In addition to the main rooms of the Palace, the basement level contains stables, kitchens and storage areas that are worth a look.

Ducal Palace basement, Urbino, Italy

Hallway leading through the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

This is a cistern-like ‘refrigerator’ in the basement of the Palace. Snow would be packed in here during the winter to keep stores fresh for months.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Washing/kitchen area underneath the Ducal Palace.

Horse stables, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Horse stable area and storage facilities in the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Toilet area near the stables. The servants would sleep in this area too!

The Ducal Palace was pretty quiet with just a few visitors roaming. Urbino is another Italian town that has few tourists in May. The town of 24,000 inhabitants, is largely made up of students at Urbino’s university, the primary ‘industry’ in town.

Urbino, Italy

Street scene, Urbino.

Urbino, Italy

One of the steep narrow streets in Urbino.

We enjoyed wandering the streets after visiting the Palace–be prepared to get some exercise!

Visiting Prague and Nearby Castles

Prague, in the Czech Republic, is a beautiful city with striking architecture and an interesting history. It is a city that lends itself to walking. The Vltava River (the same river that runs through Český Krumlov) divides the two main tourist hubs, Old Town Square and Prague Castle hill.

Here are just a few highlights of Prague along with two castles outside the city.

Prague Castle

As castles go, it’s a little hard to recognize Prague Castle as such from the exterior – it just looks like a collection of buildings, and yet there is a lot to do here – palaces, museums, churches and shops. The castle area surrounds a large square which includes St. Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral is so massive and “shoehorned” into such a small area, it is difficult to get a good close-up photo of this stunning structure.

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A view of St. Vitus Cathedral (begun in 1344 and finished 600 years later), along with various buildings of Prague Castle.

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Basilica of St. George and Convent. This red building is Prague’s best-preserved Romanesque church. It dates from the 900’s. The convent to the left houses an art museum. These buildings are part of the Castle Square.

Golden Lane. This is an old medieval street just below the castle grounds.

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Golden Lane. Little shops in old medieval houses. A quaint little area in Prague’s Castle Quarter.

Charles Bridge

This bridge was built in the 14th century by King Charles IV and was the only bridge in Prague to cross the Vltava river until 1850.

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On the Charles Bridge, with lots of tourists moving between the Old Town Square and Prague Castle. Artists and various vendors line the bridge along with statues. The tower (on the east end, near Old Town Square) was originally a toll booth.

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The Castle (west) end of the Charles Bridge.

Old Town Square

Located on the east side of the Vltava river, this square dates from the 11th century. It was once the center for executions of convicts. A lane, called “The King’s Walk” connects Old Town Square to the famous (and busy) Charles Bridge which then leads to Prague Castle.

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A view of Týn Church and Old Town Square.

The Gothic Týn Church is a major landmark of the Square and has been the main church in this part of Prague since the 14th century. Nearby is the 15th century Old Town Hall and astronomical clock, which is quite fascinating–it tells time in a variety of ways (with Roman numerals, Gothic numbers and planetary symbols).

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The 15th century astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall. It was damaged in World War II and largely reconstructed.

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Another view of Old Town Square and Týn Church (the astronomical clock and Old Town Hall are just to the left of the church).

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A street scene in Old Town Prague.

Jewish Quarter

Close to the Vltava River, the Jewish Quarter contains several synagogues and a Ceremonial Hall which can be visited. In addition, there is an old Jewish cemetery (which was the only burial ground in Prague allowed for Jews for 300 years). Centuries ago, the Jews were required to live separately from Christians. Of the 120,000 Jews living in this area in 1939, only 10,000 survived to see liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

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Old-New Synagogue. Built in 1270, it’s the oldest synagogue in central Europe.

Nearby Castles – Karlštejn and Konopiště

Twenty miles southwest of Prague is Karlštejn Castle, one of the Czech Republic’s great attractions. It is a bit of a hike up to the castle from the car park, but the route has lots of little shopping booths to keep you entertained along the way.

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Karlštejn Castle. Built in 1350 to house the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. Reservations are required to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross where the crown jewels were housed.

Konopiště Castle. This castle is 30 miles south of Prague. There is an interesting (and free) display of numerous statues of St. George “slaying the dragon” here.

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Konopiště Castle. Construction began in the 14th century, but the castle was largely modernized around 1900 by Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne. The castle houses an excellent medieval arms collection.

 

 

 

 

The Wonders of Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia – Day 2

 

On our 2nd day in Angkor Archeological Park, we explored some temples that are further out from the main circuit, and therefore the crowds were thinner too. Many of these temples are in an area known as East Baray (a large ancient reservoir), on the eastern side of the Park.

Banteay Kdei. We really enjoyed this temple, and had it almost completely to ourselves. It is a late 12th century temple, and is close to Ta Prohm, both geographically and style-wise.

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A perfect picture-window section of Banteay Kdei.

Parts of the temple are a jumble of blocks and other parts you wonder how they’re still standing.

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It amazes me that you can walk around these parts of Banteay Kdei!

It was poorly constructed using a poor quality of sandstone, but who can complain after nearly 1,000 years.

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Another view of Banteay Kdei.

East Mebon. This temple was originally a man-made island, rising up out of the middle of the ancient East Baray reservoir, which is now dry. It is a late 10th century temple, and was dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, and is somewhat similar in style to Pre Rup, below.

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East Mebon. This temple’s layout makes it difficult to get a good photo.

Pre Rup. This is another huge (and tall) state temple (meaning it defined a king’s capital city) and was built in the late 10th century, just a decade later than East Mebon. It has several imposing towers, and is another “mountain in stone” like Bayon.

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A view of Pre Rup.

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The courtyard around Pre Rup.

Banteay Samre. This mid 12th century temple is a bit isolated, at the eastern edge of Angkor Park, and hence is one of the least visited temples in the Park.

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The walls, entrance and courtyard at Banteay Samre.

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The main temple structure at Banteay Samre. The similarities to Angkor Wat are evident.

Banta Samre is surrounded by a large wall and is complete, meaning there are no ruined sections as a result of a well-planned reconstruction, and it has many well-preserved carvings. We had this temple to ourselves.

Ta Som. Another of my favorite temples, in the style of Bayon, late 12th century. This temple is north of East Mebon, but makes sense to visit after Banteay Samre if you continue a counter-clockwise route from south to north. It is a small temple, with the entrances being the most picturesque parts.

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The east entrance into Ta Som (note the faces in the tower behind the tree).

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Inside Ta Som temple.

Neak Pean. This is a very unique small 12th century structure, located on a island, with eight pools surrounding it. For part of the year the pools are dry.

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Neak Pean temple.

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The marshy reservoir surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean.

The waters were thought to have healing properties. You walk out on a boardwalk across a strange looking shallow reservoir to get to the temple on the island.

Preah Khan. Another great, romantic late 12th century temple. From an interest standpoint, I would put it in the same class as Ta Prohm (See Day 1 post).

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Exterior view of Preah Khan.

This is a large temple, with many different courtyards, and was the residence of King Jayavarman VII while his palace was being constructed in Angkor Thom.

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View of carving detail at Preah Khan.

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Interior hallway at Preah Khan.

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This structure at Preah Khan is unusual, having round columns. It may have been constructed at a later date.

Photo-wise, Preah Khan is interesting from multiple angles, with tree roots, vines and tumbled stone everywhere.

Beng Melea. Technically we visited Beng Melea on Day 3, but who is counting! This is an early 11th century temple, about 60 km southeast of Siem Reap. We hired a taxi for the round trip, and it cost about $50 USD. I had thought that since we were going so far out of Siem Reap, it would be pretty quiet. However, this temple is now on the tourist map, and there were a number of smaller tour buses here. Even so, it is still very worthwhile.

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A view of Beng Melea. Much of the structure is ruined, giving it an “undiscovered” feel.

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A part of Beng Melea that we had to ourselves.

Being on our own, my son and I were able to visit parts of the temple that the tour groups ignore (or don’t know about).

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A section of wall at Beng Melea.

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Another secluded part of Beng Melea.

Although hard to tell, this temple is in the style of Angkor Wat, and since it was constructed prior to Angkor Wat, it may have served as a prototype for that great structure.

Angkor Archeological Park and the surrounding area can mesmerize the tourist for days. If you get a chance, visit this astounding cultural and architectural gem.

 

 

The Canary Islands – Part 2 of 2 (Tenerife)

Let’s just call it what it is…Tenerife is beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s the most visited spot in the Canary Islands, and one of the top destinations in Spain and Europe, for that matter. Tenerife is the largest (and most populated) of the Canary Islands, and the north/west and south coasts are especially beautiful. It’s only a short (20 minute) plane ride away from Gran Canaria. The 12,198 ft volcanic peak of El Teide dominates the island and is the highest point in Spain. Probably the second most popular sight is Los Gigantes, a stunning set of high cliffs jutting out of the ocean on the very southwest coast.

Puerto de la Cruz

This is a primary tourist hub on Tenerife and it’s where we stayed. Its location at the midpoint of the island on the northwest shore provides a good base for exploring the island and is quite a beautiful setting – with the waves crashing over the jagged volcanic rocks along on the shore.

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The rugged and beautiful coastline of Puerto de la Cruz.

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An evening scene in Puerto de la Cruz – lots of diners fill the streets in the evenings.

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A church in the main square of Puerto de la Cruz.

El Teide National Park

The soaring volcano mountain of El Teide is a national park and contains a lot of rugged terrain. Going from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation within just a few miles (as the crow flies) means you are ascending at a very steep rate and negotiating a lot of switch backs.

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A volcanic outflow “flower” in the park.

The roads on Tenerife and ascending into El Teide National Park are narrow, steep and winding. Once you get into the park, there is a nice visitor’s center with good maps and signage.

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A view of the peak in the distance.

There is a (expensive) tram that takes you within 600 feet of the summit, but to climb the last 600 feet you have to plan ahead and make a reservation.

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The tram going up to the top of El Teide.

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Near the peak of El Teide, where the tram ends.

Otherwise, you can hike around the peak just below the summit for the views and scamper through the jagged volcanic rock, which looks other worldly. Unfortunately, on the day we had allowed for our visit to the park and peak the lower elevations were socked in with clouds for a period of time, but we were still able to get a few views.

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The moon-like landscape of El Teide National Park.

Los Gigantes

This is the postcard view of Tenerife. In fact, it was a post card I saw in a friend’s office that put Tenerife on my “must see” list. At the port, you can arrange a boat trip (of varying lengths of time) that will take you for a tour, including whale and dolphin watching, depending on the time of year.

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A view of the port of Los Gigantes with the cliffs in the background.

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A dolphin comes near our boat.

Your boat tour will also stop at the beach for a short time, or you can arrange to disembark at the beach and take another boat back, which is what we did. While we were on the beach, a huge boulder came crashing down off the cliffs which could have easily killed someone. Luckily, it fell and rolled (at great speed) right between some very scared tourists who were running in every direction. It happened so quickly I could not get any video footage.

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The black sand beach among the cliffs of Los Gigantes.

The best access to Los Gigantes is by taking a boat tour out of the nearby port town of the same name. You can also hike down from the town of Masca (discussed below).They aren’t joking when they say on the hike down from Masca and at the beach to be extremely careful of loose rock.

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Enjoying a swim at Los Gigantes.

Masca

The main reason people come to the little village of Masca (in addition to seeing the beautiful setting), is as a starting point for hiking down through steep ravines to the cliffs and beach of Los Gigantes.

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The winding road going into Masca. On most of Tenerife you are either going up or down!

It’s about a 3-hour hike, and once you reach bottom you can catch a pre-arranged boat back to the port. Most people take a taxi to Masca to begin their hike, since it’s a one-way route (unless you’d like to spend a few more hours ascending straight back up the gorge).

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Looking up into the narrow gorge of Los Gigantes. Hiking up through this gorge leads to the little village of Masca.

A couple other great beach areas are shown below.

Los Cristianos

Near the southern most tip of Tenerife is Los Cristianos, another scenic beach spot and viewpoint, with the island of La Gomera in the distance. Ferries to other islands depart from here.

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The beach at Los Cristianos.

Playa Americas

This resort area (near Los Cristianos) is a major tourist hub for southern Tenerife with a great beach and numerous hotels and restaurants. If you’re after nightlife, this is where you’ll find it.

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The beach at Playa Americas.

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There’s even a Hard Rock Cafe in Playa Americas.

Small Quaint Towns

Just like on Gran Canaria, there are some quaint small towns in the interior that are worth a little time exploring.

La Orotava

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La Orotava is known for its sand murals – in particular this square – see below.

La Orotava

The square in La Orotava is transformed by sand murals – I wish we could have seen this incredible artwork – I had to settle for a picture of a picture! I wonder how they deal with wind?

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A display showing how the sand murals are created.

La Laguna

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The town of La Laguna is near the airport at the northern end of Tenerife. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Army in the 1600’s. It has a very quaint old quarter.

Vilafora

Vilaflora Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol (5)

The Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol in Vilaflora, a hermitage from the 1500’s.

 

Vilaflora (2)

The beautiful golden altar in the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol.

If you have to pick just one island to visit in the Canaries, make it Tenerife. You will find a little bit of everything here – stunning scenery, beaches, mountains, pretty villages, good restaurants and nightlife. Five million tourists a year can’t be wrong!

The Canary Islands – Part I

Overview

If you want to visit a part of Europe that most Americans aren’t familiar with, consider the Canary Islands, an archipelago of 7 islands belonging to Spain located off the west coast of Africa. We wisely decided to visit the Canary Islands following our two weeks in nearby Morocco. We visited two islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife), which are two of the largest and most developed islands. There are direct flights from Casablanca to the Canaries.

Firgas (1)

A map of the Canary Islands. We visited Gran Canaria (the circular island in the lower center) and Tenerife, to the northwest of Gran Canaria.

Even though these two islands house most of the local population, you can find remote and quiet areas very quickly. We really enjoyed this part of our trip. The difference between Morocco and the Canaries was a bit of a culture shock (the pace of traffic, roads, lifestyle, etc.), and we felt we were stepping from one world to another after our 1.5 hour flight.

Gran Canary Scenery (5)

The landscape of Gran Canaria, near the caldera of the volcano that was the island’s origin. The elevation here is about 6,000 feet.

For a combination of rugged volcanic mountains, loads of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and small quaint European towns, the Canary Islands are hard to beat.

Gran Canaria Hiking Sign

A sign showing hiking trails in the mountains of Gran Canaria.

The Canaries are only about 100 miles (depending on the island) off the coast of Western Sahara, a region of Africa administered by Morocco. While Spanish is the primary language, the high number of tourists (and residents) from the UK make English more common than in mainland Spain. Even though these islands are close to the Sahara Desert, they have a mild climate and pleasant temperature all year long. The climate zones vary greatly within each island and from island to island due to changes in elevation and the prevailing winds. Some areas are a bit desert-like, other areas are forested and green, and you’ll find everything in between.

Gran Canaria Guanches (2)

The Guanches were the native people of the Canary Islands, who were essentially wiped out during the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands.

To get around each island we rented a car (the roads are good, although sometimes more narrow than mainland Europe). To get from island to island there are numerous flights as well as ferries (we flew to save time).

I’ll share a bit about Gran Canaria in this post and then share more about Tenerife in my next post.

Gran Canaria

This island (and its largest city, Las Palmas) is the capitol of this region of Spain and the main business hub for the Canaries. Although the island is not big (about 35 miles diameter), many of the roads are narrow, steep and winding, so it takes longer than you might think to get across the island. There is one major freeway on the eastern shore.

Las Palmas Playa de las Canteras (45)

One of the main beaches and boardwalks in Las Palmas, Playa de las Canteras.

Columbus visited Las Palmas to take on supplies on his first voyage to the New World.

Las Palmas (23)

Statue of Columbus in Las Palmas.

There is an excellent museum about his voyages and world exploration at the end of the 15th century. He also is believed to have lived in this building as well.

Las Palmas Casa de Colon (19)

The exterior of the Museo de Colon (Christopher Columbus Museum) in Las Palmas.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (7)

A map showing the route of Columbus’ first voyage – 1492-1493. He stopped in Las Palmas on his way to the new world.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (14)

One of the exhibits in the Museo de Colon, showing the interior of a sailing ship of Columbus’ era.

There are other sites to visit in Las Palmas as well, including a great cathedral.

Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (14)

Las Palmas Cathedral – Catedral de Santa Ana. Located near the Museo de Colon.

 

Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (12)

Interior of Catedral de Santa Ana.

Beyond Las Palmas, there is a whole island to explore, with small quaint towns and rugged mountains.

Arucas (7)

The town of Arucas on Gran Canaria

Arucas Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (4)

In the town of Arucas, there is a Gothic church (Iglesia de San Juan Bautista), which is not old, but quite beautiful and will remind visitors of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A couple other cute towns are Teror (don’t let its name frighten you away!) and Firgas.

Teror (3)

Street in the town of Teror.

Teror Basilica (6)

The Basilica of Teror, quite beautiful inside.

Firgas (3)

Many of these little towns have some sort of iconic site. Firgas, not far from Las Palmas, has a waterfall cascading down a street.

The southern shore of Gran Canaria has high cliffs that are an imposing sight and a lovely fishing village, Puerto de Mogan.

Puerto de Mogan (6)

Puerto de Mogan is an upscale little village on the southern shore of Gran Canaria.

The landscape at the higher elevations reminded us of our home state – Colorado.

Pozo de las Nieves (4)

This spot is known as Pozo de las Nieves, and is the highest spot on Gran Canaria. It offers views of the island of Tenerife, which can (barely) be seen above our heads. Also, just over Robyn’s head is Roque Nublo, a famous landmark and sacred spot to the Guanches (the native population).

Roque Nublo (11)

Another view of the rugged volcanic landscape found on Gran Canaria, near Pozo de las Nieves.

Grand Canaria is a gateway to the Canary Islands and definitely worth a few days of your time. In my next post, I will share some information on Tenerife, another “hot spot” in the Canaries.

 

 

 

Penshurst Place – An English Fortified Manor Home

A view of Penshurst Place from the gardens. The Baron’s Court (Great Hall) is on the right.

A beautiful example of a medieval (and then Tudor) fortified manor house is Penshurst Place, located in the picturesque village of Penshurst, about 85 miles south of London’s Heathrow airport.

Location of Penshurst Place, in southern England. (forgive misspelling of “Penshurst” on map)

I visited this estate as part of a day trip from London that took me to Pevensey, Herstmonceux Castle, Battle (Hastings) and finally Penshurst.

herstmonceux-castle_england-3

A view of Herstmonceux Castle (dates from 1441), part of the Queen’s University, Ontario Canada.

Penshurst Place and Gardens

This historic mansion is not on the typical tourist “radar” but for a taste of life in aristocratic England in the 14thcentury, take the time to visit this beautiful castle-home.

Interior view of Penshurst Place–note the detailed wood work on the walls and ceiling.

A bedroom in Penshurst Place–note the wood work on the walls and beautiful bed.

I was very impressed how beautiful this estate is—the stone work, interior decorations and landscaping—even in February I could tell how much care went into the well-manicured landscape. Some people come to tour only the gardens.

Another view of Penshurst Place.

The outstanding feature of Penshurst Place is the Baron’s Court (also known as the Great Hall) with its original chestnut wood beams from 1341.This room (and the entire estate) is now used on occasion for weddings, conferences and other events (pictures aren’t really allowed in the Baron’s Court, but I got a quick one of the ceiling!).

A snapshot of the 14th century ceiling of the Baron’s Hall.

Sir John de Pulteney built the Manor house on 4,000 acres he purchased in 1338. In 1382 the defensive features were added—making it almost a castle—including eight large towers and crenellated walls. King Henry VIII owned this home for a period of time, and today a descendant of the Sidney family, who received the home as a gift from Henry, is the custodian.

A view of the village of Penshurst.

Old timbered houses in the village of Penshurst.

Penshurst Place is part of the English Heritage system, meaning purchasing an English Heritage membership allows entry to this site and many others for one fee. The single entry fee as of February 2012 was £9.80 for the house and gardens. Visit penhurstplace.com for more information.

A Day Tour of the Sacred Valley

Day Tour Route - Sacred Valley

On one of our 3 days in Cuzco we did a day tour of the Sacred Valley. We were on a mid-size bus with perhaps 35 people. The tour costs 35 NS per person (1 USD = 2.8 NS). Another option would be to rent a car, but signage on the roads is not very clear, and it was just easier for us to book a tour than to find a car to rent. The tour consisted of a stop at a small set of tourist shops (of course) not too far from Pisac, then the ruins of Pisac, a drive to Urubamba for lunch, then on to Ollantaytambo town and ruins, followed by a drive over a high plateau to the little town of Chinchero, and finally back to Cuzco via Poroy, which is the same town where the trains leave for Machu Picchu. A tourist ticket to visit the ruins below, in addition to others (see my other posts on Cuzco sites) costs 130 NS (about $46), for non-locals. The ticket can be purchased in Cuzco or at your first stop. Unfortunately it’s “all or nothing,” you cannot purchase individual site tickets.

A view of the Sacred Valley from Ollantaytambo

Pisac
The town of Pisac is quite small (about 4,000 inhabitants), and the ruins are set high in a valley behind the little town. It’s about a 2,000 foot drop in elevation from Cuzco to Pisac, and a very scenic drive. The ruins contain a variety of buildings and varying stone and adobe brick work. This Inca site was thought to contain a bit of everything—religious site, observatory, as well as residences. Due to our limited time with a tour group, we only were able to visit one portion of the site—it’s large, and still being excavated. The views of the valley from the ruins are quite spectacular, even with the heavy mist we had.

A view of the ruins of Pisac

A view of the valley and terraces at Pisac

Ollantaytambo
After lunch in Urubamba, our tour took us to Ollantaytambo, at the northwest end of the Sacred Valley, and the literal end of the road (at least in the direction of Machu Picchu). This is a nice small town, and is laid out on the original Inca city plan. The fortress ruins are very impressive, looking up from the town directly below. There are large terraces ascending straight up a narrow cleft in the mountain to the ruins at the top. This site was largely defensive in nature. The Inca fled here in 1537 after being defeated in Sacsayhuaman by the Spanish. They actually made a stand and won a battle against Pizzaro here, but eventually the Spanish conquered this city. In addition to the main ruins by the town, there are additional ruins on the other side of the small valley, to the southeast of the town. Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuaman were my favorite Inca sites in addition to Machu Picchu. The trains to Machu Picchu make a short stop here on their way to Aguas Calientes.

Looking up at the ruins of Ollantaytambo

The ruins of Ollantaytambo

Temple of the Ten Niches at Ollantaytambo

Chinchero
We drove back down the road to Urubamba, and then south up over a high plateau in the Sacred Valley to the town of Chinchero. On this road are incredible views of the surrounding Andes mountains. This town is 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) in altitude, higher than Cuzco. The Incan past is very obvious in this little town, with the buildings along the streets built upon their original Inca foundations. The Inca, in fleeing to Ollantaytambo, laid waste to this town to slow the Spaniards. Too bad. Chinchero has a very interesting church, built in 1607, with the wood beam ceiling covered in intricate paintings. I could not take pictures inside, but it was very beautiful and worth the visit. We arrived very late in the afternoon, near sunset, so our visit to this interesting town was limited.

Growing crops at 12,500 feet (near Chinchero)

The soaring peak of Lagrimas Sagradas (Sacred Tears) 5,800 meters (about 19,000 ft) high.

A narrow street in Chinchero--houses built on Inca foundations

The 17th century church in Chinchero - built on Inca foundations, and decorated with ceiling paintings

Exploring North Central Peru – Gocta Falls (aka “Gojta”)

A house in Cocachimba

On our 2nd day in Chachapoyas we decided to go to Gocta Falls. These falls (a series of two) are the 3rdhighest in the world. The lower falls is about 500 meters in height, and the upper falls is about 200 meters high. In the travel blogs I had read prior to our trip, it was difficult to know how accessible the falls were. As it turned out, they were pretty easy to get to. As we had done the day before, we went to the main square in Chachapoyas and arranged with a different tour company (simply to spread our business) for transportation to the falls. We paid 30 NS per person for the car and driver and also paid a 5 NS entry fee ($1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles).

The village of Cocachimba, start of the Gocta Falls trail

On the trail...

Getting closer to the falls...

The lower falls as we arrive...

We were the only ones going to the falls that day, and had a private car and driver. The drive took us north of Chachapoyas about 1 hour (of which only 11km is gravel) to the small village of Cocachimba, where the hike began. The well-maintained trail is 5.3km in length, and it took us about 2 hours to get to the falls. Along the way, there are various signs promoting ecotourism and pointing out some of the natural surroundings (local birds for example). The falls are visible from near the trailhead, and if one did not feel like hiking, just viewing them from the distance would be possible. The trail goes up and down a lot through many ravines, but is not difficult.

The huge falls dwarf our son, Sean...

Standing at the base of the falls, looking straight up 1500 feet is quite spectacular. We had the falls to ourselves. There was a small group of German tourists hiking down as we were going up, and we saw just a few other people along trail. This was a very quiet and an enjoyable experience in the natural beauty of Peru.

A sign for Facebook in the remote village of Cocachimba!

Gocta Falls is 1 hour north (by car) of Chachapoyas