Category Archives: latest-posts

Christmastime in Vienna

Christmastime in Vienna

Is there a better build-up to Christmas than visiting a European Christmas Market? If so, I’d like to know what it is. Maybe it’s all that Glühwein and Orange Punch that I can’t pass by that helps, but even as a devout atheist I can’t help but respect the Austrians for adhering to the meaning of Christmas more than I do.

I absolutely love Austria at Christmastime, especially in places like the Tyrol, but if you like to add some culture to your bratwurst and beer, then Vienna is hard to beat.

When we were here the week before Christmas in 2016, it even snowed to give it the magical icing on the Christmas cake.

There’s no point in waffling on about what market is where, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. As for the culture, I’ll be dealing with all that later – hopefully.

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Glen Etive

Buachaille Etive Mor

Glen Etive

People who visit Glen Coe for the first time will invariably miss a small turning opposite the Kingshouse Hotel, and even if they knew it was there would probably give it a miss anyway, because this narrow single track road comes to a dead end after 14 miles, which means that you have to turn around and come all the way back – so why bother?

The answer is simple – the breathtaking scenery makes it, in my humble opinion, one of the best short scenic drives in Scotland.

As with all scenic drives, it’s best done outside of the peak holiday season. Fans of James Bond come here to see where some of ‘Skyfall’ was filmed, and it’s also popular with kayakers – and of course, climbers and hillwalkers.

Fortunately, when I drove down here one winter’s day, apart from one notable exception, we never saw a soul.

Several streams provide the River Etive with its source on Rannoch Moor, but for most people their acquaintance with it starts at Buachaille Etive Mor, the pyramid shaped mountain at the top of the glen.

The road follows the river down through the valley, at first underneath Buachaille Etive Mor, and then Stob Dubh before widening out as it flows into the head of Loch Etive.  Continue reading

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Hemmed in by the Anoach Eagach ridge and Bidean Nam Bian, Glen Coe is a spectacular mountain pass that rises up from the shores of Loch Leven through the ‘Weeping Glen’ where mountain tops are often covered in snow and shrouded in mist, and up to wild Rannoch Moor whose dark brooding skies drop copious amounts of rainfall onto an already waterlogged, desolate plateau: In winter this precipitation can fall as snow, and the bogs and lakes turn the terrain into a cold and icy landscape.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the stark beauty and grandeur of the scenery, and my words and photographs can’t possibly do it justice, but it’s not just the skies that can give a bleak picture, it’s the glen’s history too – most notably, that of the Glencoe Massacre.

Lying under the Pap of Glencoe and near to the shores of Loch Leven is the tiny village of Glencoe, where you can find a monument to the massacre, which was not as straightforward as some would have us believe, but it was an unwarranted massacre nonetheless.

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London’s Christmas Lights

London's Christmas Lights

You might have noticed that I haven’t called this post ‘Christmas Shopping in London’ and that’s because Easymalc don’t do shopping in London at Christmastime, in fact I don’t do Christmas shopping anywhere – and come to think of it, I don’t do shopping anywhere at any time.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, you may well wonder why I’m bothering to write anything at all about the subject, especially as I’m not a lover of the over-commercialisation of this time of the year either.

Well, the first reason is that whether I like it or not, the second week in November is when the Christmas lights start to be turned on in London, and the second reason is that Easymalc’s household has been having a family day out up in ‘The Smoke’ at Christmastime for a few years now, and both my wife and daughter have a different concept of wandering along Oxford street to me, and so I content myself with taking a few pictures of the lights and pop into a hostelry or two while they’re wasting their time in the shops.

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The Somerset Levels

The Somerset Levels

It might surprise some people to learn that one of my favourite areas of the West Country is the Somerset Levels – that flat, wet landscape between the Mendip, Blackdown and Quantock Hills which people tend to ignore on their way to somewhere else.

Come to think of it, that’s probably one of the reasons I like it so much, but there’s more to it than that. Metaphorically speaking, the more you dig under its surface, the more you’re likely to discover – not just about the life and history of the Somerset Levels – but more about yourself as well. It’s a land that time has largely passed by and the perfect antidote to today’s modern stressful living: It’s also a land that is full of character and characters, myths & legends and somewhere that is completely at one with nature.

So how have the Somerset Levels and Moors (to give it the proper name) developed into the place it has: The answer is water – or rather, the control of it.

The general height of the land is just 3-4 metres (10-12 ft) above mean sea level, which when you consider that tides in Bridgwater Bay have peaked at over 25 ft, you can imagine what sort of problems can be created if they’re not managed properly.

After the last ice age this landscape was covered by the sea most of the time and punctuated by the odd island here and there: Glastonbury Tor is the most famous, but there are others such as Burrow Mump and Brent Knoll: In the drier months when the water subsided, the fertile grasslands were accessed from these islands on wooden tracks by people to an area the Saxons referred to as Sumorsaete, or “Land of the Summer People”.

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The Ninth Fort

The Ninth Fort

Today was my last day in Lithuania, and thanks to a late flight home I was able to fulfil one last wish before leaving.

The Ninth Fort might not be on everyone’s list of places to see, but one of my passions, if that’s the right word, is to try and understand what caused the turmoil in Europe during the 20th century. I have always had an interest in the two World Wars as well as the Cold War: The Ninth Fort is one of those places that is uncomfortable to visit, but one that has left a profound effect on me ever since.

I don’t know if things have changed, but at the time I was here there was very little information about the fort and how to get there – certainly not in English.

Even though it’s located on the outskirts of Kaunas at Sargenai, and quite a long bus ride to get there, it wasn’t as difficult to find as I thought it was going to be.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, and as relations deteriorated with Germany, it was decided to build Kaunas Fortress to protect its western border.

The Ninth Fort was part of this huge complex that surrounded the city covering an area of 25 square miles.

To learn more about the history of the fort there’s a museum housed in a soviet concrete monstrosity, which if they leave it as it is, could become part of the fort’s history itself in years to come.

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Trakai – Historic Town Built on Water

Trakai - Historic Town Built on Water

Today was going to be my third and final full day in Lithuania, and it looked as though the good weather was going to desert me. I had it in mind to go to Trakai, which is without doubt, one of Lithuania’s most popular tourist destinations, but I had my doubts as to how successful the day would be, especially as the holiday season was now in full swing.

I’m not one of those people who avoid such places (after all, they’re popular for a reason), but I’ll always try to time my visit accordingly. Today though, even if I could justify the effort in getting from Kaunas to Trakai, I was only ever going to be able to be there when it suited the public transport system, and not when it suited me.

After giving it some thought, I knew I would never have another chance to see the place that is so revered by the Lithuanian people, and so I decided to bite the bullet and catch the early fast train to Vilnius again – the same one as I took yesterday.

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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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Kaunas – Lithuania’s Second City

Vilnius Street

Kaunas - Lithuania's Second City

When the low-cost airlines took off (sorry), it gave me the opportunity to visit some places that I’d always wanted to visit – and also some that I hadn’t; places such as Kaunas.

Kaunas was to be my first destination to the Baltic States, simply because it was the only place in that part of the world that I could fly to from my regional airport at the time. So, in the summer of 2012 I took off from Bristol not really knowing what to expect, so before I completely lose my marbles, here is an account of what I remember.

Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania with an urban population around the 400,000 mark, so it’s not surprising that we landed in the country’s second largest airport.

What did surprise me though was that it was so warm it was like arriving in Spain – and it was 10 o’clock at night.

I usually try to use public transport where possible, but on this occasion, I just jumped in a cab which took me directly to the hotel, which although it was called the Ibis Kaunas Centre, wasn’t quite in the city centre but convenient all the same.

The following morning, I was pleased to see the sun shining, and so after breakfast I didn’t waste any time in making my way past the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation to Laisves aleja.

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From Krakow to Auschwitz

The Cloth Hall, Rynek Glowney, Krakow

From Krakow to Auschwitz

With so many places still left to add to Easymalc’s Wanderings, people may wonder why I’ve chosen somewhere to write about that will hardly lift the spirits, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been asking myself the same question – and as yet, with no answer.

My trip to Krakow and Auschwitz took place in late September 2003, and it’s inevitable that this account will make for some uncomfortable reading at times, but it’s my intention to make this blog interesting and educational rather than depressing, but at the same time I have to warn readers that there won’t be much to laugh about either.

Now that I’ve lost the few readers that I do have, I need to explain that a subject like this demands a lot more information than I’m able to give here, and so it’s worth bearing in mind that there are bound to be gaps in the story, and I’m also sorry to say that the photographs are at a lower standard than I would have liked; there are gaps here as well, because there are some things that I won’t photograph out of respect.

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Hitler’s Olympics

Hitler's Olympics

For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.

The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.

Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.

When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.

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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 Tiergarten

Schloss Bellevue

The Tiergarten

The official German name for the park known as The Tiergarten is Grosser Tiergarten, which helps to distinguish it from the district of the same name.

This huge park in central Berlin covers an area of some 520 acres roughly enclosed by the River Spree on its northern edge to the Tiergarten Strasse in the south, and from the Brandenburg Gate in the east to the zoo in the west.

The Strasse des 17 Juni runs through the centre of the park from east to west, and where it meets the Großer Stern (Great Star) the Siegessaule (Victory Column) stands sentinel over the whole park around it.

Only Templehofer Park (the former Templehof Airport) and the English Garden in Munich are larger so it’s best not to underestimate its size before deciding on where to go.

The name Grosser Tiergarten literally means ‘Large Game Park’ and gives a clue to its original use.

In the 16th century the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm, turned this marshy ground into a hunting enclosure, but during the 17th and 18th centuries the area was gradually turned into more formal pleasure grounds for the people of Berlin – wide avenues were constructed, trees planted, and monuments erected.

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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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The Sony Center

The Sony Center

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz must have been an architect’s dream. The square was divided up into four separate areas which were to be redeveloped by four different developers, one of which was the area now occupied by the Sony Center.

During the ‘Golden Twenties’, the site was occupied by ‘The Esplanade’, one of Berlin’s most prestigious hotels. Frequented by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, the hotel was even used by Kaiser Wilhelm II who entertained guests in one of the hotel’s magnificent halls.

90% of the hotel was destroyed by allied bombing raids in the winter of 1944/45, with the Kaisersaal (as the hall became known) and the breakfast room the only rooms to survive. After restoration of what was left, it once again fell into disrepair following the building of the adjacent Berlin Wall.

After the Wall came down, what remained was listed as a historical monument, which created a problem for the architects of the new Sony Center. The outcome was that the Kaisersaal was moved 75 metres and incorporated into the new design behind a glass wall, and the breakfast room was dismantled piece by piece and re-created for the new Café Josty, the original being a popular Potsdamer Platz meeting place for artists in the early 20th century.

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The Fernsehturm

The Fernsehturm (TV Tower)

 

At 368m, Berlin’s TV Tower is the tallest structure in Germany, so there’s no excuse for not seeing it.

There’s an enclosed viewing platform at 203 m, and fortunately you don’t have to climb up the 986 steps because one of the two lifts will whisk you up there in just 40 seconds.

It’s a good job the lifts are quick because they’re not very big and waiting times can be considerable.

Almost 1.2m visitors a year pay to come for a panoramic view of Berlin and if you don’t mind paying an extra premium you can have a fast track entry. Better still if you can get here for the 09.00 opening you won’t need to pay the extra and you won’t have to wait long either.

The prime reason for building the TV Tower wasn’t to give tourists a grandstand view of Berlin of course, but to provide radio and television transmissions, and also no doubt, to make a political statement that the GDR was capable of building structures every bit as impressive as those across the wall could – and in this instance, in my opinion, they were right.

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Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin’s protestant cathedral was only forty years old when it was bombed by the allies in 1944, and it wasn’t completely restored until 2002. It’s never even had a Bishop’s chair – or even a Bishop – and yet it should be on every visitor’s list of things to see in Berlin.

Situated in the oldest part of the city opposite the Lustgarten, this neo-renaissance building was built by the young Emperor Wilhelm II as his private church to compliment his family’s city palace across the road. It immediately had its critics when the building’s religious significance appeared to take second place to the importance of the Emperor and the Hohenzollern dynasty, but somehow, it’s this connection with the German Empire that makes it especially interesting.

From the outside it almost looks as though the intention was to create a church on the lines of St. Peter’s in Rome but being a protestant church, I suppose it was more likely to have been influenced by somewhere like St. Paul’s in London.

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Federal Row – The Bundestag

The Federal Chancellery Building

Federal Row - The Bundestag

 

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990, an opportunity arose to bring the Federal government back to where it belonged in Central Berlin.

I don’t suppose it took much deliberation as to where to locate the new parliament. The Reichstag may have been battered and bruised from the events of the 20th century, but it was still standing, and the wasteland that was left surrounding it created a blank canvas for developers who could no doubt envisage a new dawn for a new Germany in the new millennium.

Politics isn’t an exciting subject for many people, but rarely has politics been boring in Germany, and if you venture into this part of the city, which is more than possible, then it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking at.

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The Reichstag

The Reichstag

 

One of Berlin’s most famous landmarks is the Reichstag.

This iconic building has helped the German Bundestag become the most visited parliament in the world, partly because of its architecture, partly because of its accessibility, but mainly because of its history.

Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the final stone of this neoclassical building in 1894 and it has continued to play a pivotal role in German history ever since. Initially the parliament was really that in name only and the Kaiser was the man who dictated the terms, but in November 1918 Phillip Scheidemann announced from a window here at the Reichstag that the country was now to become a republic and the Weimar Republic was formed.

The republic was just fourteen years old when the Nazis came to power and the dubious Reichstag fire of 1933 helped change the course of history. The events that followed are obviously well documented elsewhere, but as World War II came to its final moments, one of the most memorable images of the conflict show the victorious Russian army raising the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag. Even today it’s still possible to see bullet holes if you care to look for them.

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The Steen and Lange Wapper

The Steen and Lange Wapper

The Steen is all that remains of a much bigger castle that was built over the site of a 6th c fortress in Oude Werf, the oldest part of Antwerp.

The castle was built around 1200 and was the first building to be built of stone (steen in Dutch) and was the home of the Burgrave of Antwerp. The complex included a church, courthouse and several other buildings, all of which were protected by a defensive wall surrounding it.

Around 1520 the castle was thoroughly renovated by Charles V and you don’t need to have gone to Specsavers to see where the old and newer stone joins up.

Up unto the 1820s it was used as a prison, but later that century a decision was made to demolish most of the castle and Oude Werf district to prevent the Scheldt silting up. The port was vital to Antwerp, and so the river was widened and new quays built. It must have been a difficult decision to make as it involved knocking down over five hundred historic buildings, and even the Steen was only saved from the chop by a single vote.

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