Tag Archives: Viewpoint

A Brief Encounter with Lithuania’s Capital City

A Brief Encounter with Lithuania's Capital City

With around 600,000 people, Vilnius demands more than a day of anybody’s time, but I’m afraid that’s all I had.

The train journey from Kaunas can take anything between an hour and an hour and three quarters, and with that in mind I took an early fast train to Lithuania’s capital city.

The journey passed through some pretty flat countryside and quite different to where I come from: There were lots of trees and wooden farmhouses, one of which had a stork’s nest on its rooftop, an unusual sight for anyone from the UK to see.

Apparently, Lithuania has the biggest population of White Storks in the world, which is why it’s the country’s ‘National Bird’: They seem to be revered so much that March 25th is Stork Day when all sorts of rituals take place. Anyway, I digress.

I arrived at Vilnius railway station around 09.30 and made my way towards Ausros Gate, or better known in English as the Gates of Dawn.

The Gate gives entry into the Old Town, which is where most visitors to Vilnius head for, and which was bound to keep me occupied all day. The good thing is, that just a few streets lead straight through the Old Town down to where the Vilnia River meets the Neris near Cathedral Square and the Castle, where according to legend, the city was founded in 1323 by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

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The Siegessaule

The Siegesaulle

In the middle of The Tiergarten at Grosser Stern, stands the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, and if you’ve got €3 – and the energy – it’s possible to climb the 285 steps to the viewing gallery that sits just under Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory.

The monument was designed by Johann Heinrich Strack, and the 8.3m golden statue on top of the column was added by Friedrich Drake and represents both the Goddess of Victory and Borussia, the Latin name for Prussia. Her face is supposedly based on Drake’s daughter and known as the Goldelse (Golden Else), or roughly translated as ‘Golden Lizzie’.

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The Kollhoff Tower

View from the Panoramapunkt

The Kollhoff Tower

Kollhoff Tower stands at Potsdamer Platz 1, opposite the Sony Center and is named after its architect, Hans Kollhoff.

In contrast to the other glass and steel structures in the square, the building is constructed out of peat-fired bricks with a design more reminiscent of a New York skyscraper. It soars 100 metres up into the Berlin sky and was completed in 1999.

Mainly built with office space in mind, I don’t suppose too many people will be overly enthusiastic about these statistics, but it might interest people more if I say that the fastest elevator in Europe catapults you up to the 24th floor in just 20 seconds where there is an open-air viewing platform with some of the best views in Berlin.

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Grenoble – Capital of the Alps

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Before coming to Grenoble I was somewhat surprised to learn that it’s often referred to as the ‘Capital of the Alps’: After all, the Alps run for 750 miles between France and Slovenia, and Grenoble is at the extreme western edge of the mountain range – and as far as I’m concerned, is not actually even in the Alps.

I thought that maybe somewhere like Innsbruck would have a better claim to the title, so I looked it up and can you guess what I found? Yep! That’s right, Innsbruck is also called the capital of the Alps.

I’ll leave it to the powers that be to decide which they think is the best candidate for the title, but if nothing else, it did focus my mind a bit more on how the city of Grenoble sees itself.

There’s no doubt that its location in south-eastern France, where the Rivers Isère and Drac meet, would have been a natural place to build a settlement, and from its humble Gallic beginnings in 43 BC, Grenoble has grown into a fair-sized city.

The official population is around the 160,000 mark, but if you include the sprawling suburbs of the metro area that stretch up through the valleys either side of the Chartreuse Massif, the population is nearer to 700,000.

 

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The Wester Ross Coast Road and Great Wilderness

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The Wester Ross Coast Road and Great Wilderness

This coast road is part of the Wester Ross section of the North Coast 500 (NC500) route.

For those unfamiliar with the NC500 it was a concept dreamt up by the tourism marketing people to provide some joined-up thinking to promote all areas of the North Highlands and was launched in 2015.

It was an immediate success and featured as one of the Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World by Now Travel Magazine.

Having covered the full 516 miles in stages over a period of time (most of it before the NC500 was conceived) I would have to say that some parts of the route deserve more time to cover than others, and Wester Ross warrants more time than the area around John O’ Groats for example.

The full route starts out from Inverness, crosses over to the West Coast, and then follows the road north, across the top, and back down the east coast.

The Wester Ross section includes Applecross, Torridon and Loch Maree, and the coast road to Ullapool, and here I’m covering the section between Gairloch and Loch Broom, so pack a picnic, put some Celtic music on, and join me for a leisurely drive around some fabulous coastal and mountain scenery.

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Torridon and Loch Maree

Loch Maree from the Beinn Eighe NNR Trails Car Park

Torridon and Loch Maree

Sandwiched between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Scotland.

The Torridon Hills may not make it onto the list of the world’s highest mountains, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they rise up virtually from sea level to over 3,000ft, and as far as I’m concerned that makes them mountains rather than hills.

Overlooking the tiny village of Torridon are three mountains that form the bulk of the high landscape – Beinn Alligin (3,230ft), Liathach (3,456ft), and Beinn Eighe (3,310ft), all of which are a magnet for climbers. Not being a climber myself, I can only imagine what the views must be like for those that are.

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The Island of Raasay

The Sound of Raasay

The Island of Raasay

According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.

Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.

Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.

For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.

Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.

Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.

Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.

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North Berwick

North Berwick

A half-hour train journey from Waverley along the East Lothian coast will bring you to the smashing little seaside town of North Berwick.

The first time I came here I immediately fell in love with it. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the most expensive seaside towns to live in Scotland.

It doesn’t have an outward appearance of wealth or anything like that, in fact it’s quite an unassuming sort of place in many ways.

It doesn’t have much in the way of seaside attractions in the conventional sense, but more in the way of natural attractions. A conical volcanic hill known as North Berwick Law overlooks the town, its beaches and small harbour, but its location overlooking a handful of small islands in the Firth of Forth is what makes it a bit special.

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The Forth Bridge and the Firth of Forth

The Forth Bridge and the Firth of Forth

The Forth Bridge has to be one of Scotland’s most iconic landmarks, and is only around 10 miles from Edinburgh city centre.

Some people refer to it as the Forth Rail Bridge in order to distinguish it from the much later Forth Road Bridge, but it was never officially called that.

Both bridges, along with the new Queensferry Crossing, span the Firth of Forth between South Queensferry in West Lothian and North Queensferry in Fife, and just in case you’re wondering, the name Queensferry originates from the ferry that was established by Queen Margaret in the 11th century, and which continued operating right up until 1964.

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The Scott Monument

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The Scott Monument

The high esteem in which Sir Walter Scott is held by the Scottish people is shown by this huge monument to him in East Princes St Gardens.

He is remembered mainly for his historical novels, but was also a prominent member of the Edinburgh establishment.

Born in Edinburgh in 1771, his poems and books brought him worldwide acclaim during his lifetime and when he died in 1832 it wasn’t long before enough money was collected to build this 200ft Gothic tower.

Claimed to be the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world, the foundation stone was laid in 1840 and completed by 1844. It was built of Binny Sandstone from Linlithgowshire (West Lothian today), but unfortunately Old Reekie has done its worst over the years and by the 1990s the stone was in need of some urgent attention. After close examination, it was felt that cleaning would do more harm than good and so it was decided to just carry out essential repairs with stone from the original quarry. The differences can clearly be seen.

The space rocket-like monument is richly decorated with characters from his novels, and underneath the canopy is a statue of the man himself with his dog Maida.

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Calton Hill

Calton Hill

Calton Hill

There are several interesting buildings up on Calton Hill, but I reckon the views are what most people really come up here for.

There are other great viewpoints in Edinburgh, it has to be said, but the climb up to Calton Hill must rank as one of the easiest. It’s also near to the city centre as well, so there’s really no excuse not to come here and get a grandstand view of the city below.

With Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills to the south the views extend westwards along Princes Street to the Castle and then swing around across the New Town towards the Forth of Forth.

On top of this volcanic rock you’ll find the Dugald Stewart Monument, City Observatory, Nelson’s Monument and the National Monument which helps Edinburgh live up to its reputation as “Athens of the North”.

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Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

The Solway Firth

Scotland's Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.

From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.

Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.

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Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

Northumberland, being next to the Scottish border, is castle country. Apparently, it has more castles than any other English county – and I can quite believe it. One of these castles is perched on top of a mound of volcanic rock, known as Beblowe Crag (or Craig), here on Holy Island.

As the Vikings proved, Lindisfarne was vulnerable. The natural harbour provided protection for ships, but the island itself wasn’t safe from invaders: The Vikings may have gone, but there was still a threat from the Scots, and when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including Lindisfarne Priory, an opportunity presented itself to put the priory’s remains to good use.

Initially, the Priory church was used as a naval storehouse, but as the need for reinforcing Beblowe Crag as a defensive fort became more important, then the stone from the Priory was used to build a new fortress.

However, the need for strong defences against the Scots became virtually unnecessary with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and consequently uniting the two kingdoms together:

Apart from the Royalist castle surviving a six-week siege during the Civil War and a short-lived Jacobite takeover in 1715, in truth, the castle didn’t really see that much action.

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The Holy and Spiritual Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne Castle

The Holy and Spiritual Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne is somewhere special, and anyone who’s been here will know exactly what I mean.

Religion and spirituality come together on Lindisfarne and it’s not difficult to see why St. Aidan chose this spot to bring Christianity to the North of England.

At one time, I thought that to have spiritual feelings I needed to embrace religion – but then I saw the light.

Religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing. It’s true that you can be religious and spiritual, but it’s also true that you can be spiritual and not religious.

So now that you’ve realised I’m a non-believer, why do I find Lindisfarne such a spiritual place?

Well firstly, there’s no point in denying that the religious connection with Lindisfarne brings an air of peace and tranquility to the place, but there’s more to it than that.

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Bamburgh – Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location

Bamburgh - Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location

Bamburgh Castle can be seen for miles, and as you get closer to it you can see that it sits on top of an outcrop of igneous rock which forms part of the Great Whin Sill – a geological formation that for anyone who has been along Hadrian’s Wall will probably recognise.

The site was occupied by Ancient Britons even before the Romans arrived, and when the Romans left in the early 5th century the Celts were back in control – but not for long.

The Dark Ages brought an influx of invaders from the continent which resulted in the land the Romans called Britannia being carved up into various kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon Northumbria being one of them.

The first Anglo-Saxon King to rule from Bamburgh was King Ida who took control from the Din Guarie tribe in 547, and even though there must have been a fortress here before, it was from this time that we have the first written record of one.

The castle was of wooden construction and, according to that great early historian the Venerable Bede, it didn’t get its name of  ‘Bebbanburgh’ until King Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, passed it on to his wife Bebba.

The original wooden fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993, but William the Conqueror could see that he would have the same trouble as the Romans if he didn’t build another one to keep the Scots at bay and the northerners in check, but this time it was built in stone.

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Wallsend and Segedunum

Wallsend and Segedunum

Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.

As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.

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The Castle and Black Gate

The Castle and Black Gate

If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you’ll want to see in Newcastle is the building that gives the city its name – so what can you expect?

Well firstly, don’t expect a Bamburgh or Alnwick Castle because all that’s left is The Keep and Black Gate.

Northumberland has any number of castles due to its proximity with the Scottish border, and although that border is someway north of Newcastle it has to be remembered that Hadrian’s Wall came right through where the city stands today in order to “separate the Romans from the barbarians”.

In fact, the very spot where the castle is located was the site of Pons Aelius, the original fort on Hadrian’s Wall that overlooked the Roman bridge below.

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Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

Some bridges have a great design and some are just practical, but what captures my imagination about Tower Bridge is its ability to achieve both.

40,000 people a day still use the bridge in one way or another, but ships passing underneath still have priority, and that’s around a thousand times a year: Even President Bill Clinton’s cavalcade on a state visit got split up when they didn’t time it right.

The need for another crossing downstream of London Bridge came about with the growth of London Docks.

The Industrial Revolution and the ever-expanding British Empire helped the burgeoning London Docks become the busiest in the world, and apart from providing access across the river downstream from London Bridge for the first time, the new Tower Bridge was going to have to allow shipping access in and out of the Pool of London.

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County Hall and the London Eye

County Hall and the London Eye

Next to the London Eye on the Lambeth side of Westminster Bridge is the former County Hall, which in my view, is the best-looking building along the South Bank section of the Queen’s Walk.

Work started on the colonnaded building in 1910 to house the offices of the London County Council (LCC) which was formed in 1888. Unfortunately, WWI held things up and it wasn’t finished until 1922. The adjacent north and south blocks were added in the 1930s and the whole complex is now a Grade II listed building.

1965 saw the LCC give way to the newly formed Greater London Council (GLC) which during the 1980s came into conflict with Margaret Thatcher, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister.

During this period the GLC was a Labour controlled council led by the controversial Ken Livingstone. ‘Red Ken’ as he was dubbed by the press, took the opportunity of the location of County Hall to get under the government’s skin. Situated just across the river from Parliament, the GLC raised large banners highlighting the unemployment figures for all to see.

Margaret Thatcher’s response was to add to the unemployment figures by abolishing the GLC, and Red Ken found himself looking for another job.

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The Southbank

The Queen's Walk near the National Theatre

The Southbank

The Southbank is not a defined area, but for this review it refers to the riverside area south of the river between Westminster Bridge and Lambeth’s border with Southwark at Bankside.

It may be difficult to imagine now, but this area known as Lambeth Marsh, was virtually undeveloped before the 19th century. The wet terrain was hardly a prime location for the type of development that had taken place across the other side of the river, but during the Victorian era, the shallow bank and mudflats became an asset for industries such as printing works, coal wharves, dye works and breweries, to name just a few.

The first half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to Lambeth with factories either in decline or being destroyed by WWII bombs, and so when it was suggested that a Festival of Britain would have its centrepiece here, things started to take a different direction.

The festival was supposed to be a national exhibition celebrating British achievements, but it was to become more than that. The ravages of WWII had left the country in need of a lift from austerity, and so entertainment and culture were deemed just as important as science and technology, and so various forms of entertainment were included when the festival opened on 4th May 1951.

The Southbank site was only ever going to be temporary and most of it was demolished after the festival was over five months later, but the Royal Festival Hall remained.

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