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.
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’.
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.
If someone was to ask me what Belgium is famous for, I would have to include Moules et Frites, beer, and maybe chocolate, but I would also have to add town squares to the list. It may sound a bit odd to lump a town square with food and drink, but they go together like Laurel and Hardy or Starsky and Hutch. In fact, I can’t think of anything better than to sit in a Grand Square with a plate of Moules et Frites and a Belgian beer.
The Grand Place in Brussels is probably the best-known square, but Antwerp has a pretty good one too, but as we’re in Flanders we’d better call it the Grote Markt.
The square is triangular in shape, if that makes any sense, and is dominated by its wonderful 16thc City Hall. In front of it is the Brabo Fountain, a famous Antwerp symbol, which requires further explanation.
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.
On entering the castle you’ll be given a map which follows the easiest route up to the top, which is not only wheelchair and pushchair friendly, but also follows a numerical sequence.
Passing through the Castle Gates will bring you to the Argyle Battery where everyone stops for a view out across he city. It’s a natural thing to do, but there are even better views higher up, so it’s not essential to stop here if there are too many people milling around, and you can always stop here on the way back.
Next to it is the One ‘o clock gun and the Redcoat Café which is a convenient place to have a quick coffee and make some plans on what you want to try and see while you’re here, because as I said in my Introduction you may not have time to see everything.
The One ‘o clock gun is fired everyday at one ‘o clock except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. The spectacle is similar to what happens at Greenwich, but with a twist.
Over on Calton Hill, at the top of Nelson’s Monument, is a time-ball, which just like its London counterpart, was introduced to help ships (in the Firth of Forth) to calibrate the time with the sun in order to aid navigation. This, of course, was when timekeeping wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The ball was dropped at precisely 1 o’clock and as long as the weather was clear enough then everything was ok – but the weather in Edinburgh isn’t always clear enough – and so a gun was used to compliment the visual aid.
Apparently, due to the speed of sound, it takes 10 seconds for the signal to reach Leith, and the ships took this into account when setting their timepieces. You may want to do the same because for the gun to be heard out in the Firth of Forth it means that you may not want to stand right next to it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Edinburgh Castle is the most visited paid for tourist destination in Scotland, and like any major attraction, some forward planning will help make your visit a more pleasant experience.
The official website gives all the latest practical information and advice (https://www.edinburghcastle.scot/), but I would particularly draw your attention to the fact that a timed ticketing system is now in operation, and to be sure of being able to visit at a time that suits you best it’s going to be worth considering booking online in advance – and it’s cheaper.
The admission prices may appear to be a bit steep but bear in mind that there are no extra charges once inside the castle and you can spend a fair amount of time here. We spent 4 hours wandering around and ran out of steam before we ran out of things to do, so I’ve decided to break my article on Edinburgh Castle up into different sections so that people can have an idea on what to expect.
Accessibility, even though it’s on a volcanic crag, is relatively easy around the grounds, although there is a slope up to the top. However, some of the indoor highlights are not suitable for wheelchairs and the website lists which ones they are.
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.
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.
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.
Taking a Boat trip down to Greenwich has to be one of the best days out in London, but unless you know exactly what you want to do when you get there, it’s worth dropping into the excellent Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre first before dashing off like a headless chicken.
If you’re anything like me, a day in Greenwich will be nowhere near enough, but for the purposes of expediency, I’m going to start my virtual tour of the town at the Old Royal Naval College, which the visitor centre is part of.
Greenwich has an exceptional maritime history, and next to the visitor centre is the Old Brewery, which used to supply sailors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen with their daily allowance of 4 pints of beer, but which now serves people like you and me, and although I suggested coming to the visitor centre first, I’m also suggesting that you leave the Old Brewery bar to last – otherwise you might not end up going anywhere.
The Keep, known as the White Tower, is the oldest part of the Tower of London and therefore seems as good a starting point as any, both for this review, and for a tour of the Tower.
After William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066 he needed to secure its most powerful city, and by building an intimidating fortress in a strategic position next to the River Thames, there was going to be no doubt as to who was the man now in charge.
Work started on the Keep around 1078 and wasn’t completed until 1100, 13 years after William’s death.
It would have been the most formidable stronghold in the land when it was built, and was never intended to be used as a palace.
The White Tower – given its nickname after Henry III had it whitewashed – became more of a place to store arms and munitions than anything else and this is reflected in what there is to see inside.
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.
Marble Arch lies at the junction of Oxford St, Bayswater Rd, Park Lane, and the Edgware Road, and it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that the landmark once stood on an island in the middle of traffic mayhem. Thankfully, somebody had the sense to landscape the area around the monument to give it a bit more dignity, but it wasn’t meant to be here in the first place.
It was originally built for King George IV who inherited Buckingham Palace from his father George III in 1820. In 1827 his extravagant tastes led him to commission John Nash to add the arch as a state entrance, but within three years his own life had come to an end.
The monument was faced with Carrara marble and based on the Constantine Arch in Rome, but an equestrian statue of George IV was never added because the King’s successor, William IV, refused to stump up the rest of the cash to finish off his predecessor’s self-indulgence.
After the death of William IV in 1837 the crown passed to Queen Victoria who became the first monarch to actually live in Buckingham Palace, but she found it too small and began a programme of enlarging it. The plans included removing the arch, and in 1847 it was decided to relocate it to Hyde Park.
The transfer was completed in 1851 and the arch was used as a ceremonial gateway into the north-east corner of the park at Cumberland Gate – and a police station until 1968!
London’s foremost meeting point for social and political gatherings, Trafalgar Square takes its name from Horatio Nelson’s famous victory over Napoleon’s French and Spanish fleets at Cape Trafalgar in 1805. The battle cost Nelson his life and he’s remembered here with a 170ft column, at the base of which are four lions cast out of his enemy’s bronze cannons.
What started out as mews for the horses of Whitehall Palace, the area now occupied by the square was transformed in the early 18th century by the architect John Nash. It’s had several makeovers since, the latest being in 2003. The road between the National Gallery/National Portrait Gallery and the square was removed and replaced with a terrace making the whole thing much more pedestrian friendly.
If somebody was to ask me to stick my neck out and choose one landmark that should not be missed on a visit to London, I think I would have to say Westminster Abbey.
Although I’m not a religious person, I do enjoy visiting some of our magnificent ecclesiastical buildings, and they don’t come much more magnificent than Westminster Abbey – but that’s only half the story.
The history of the Abbey also covers a lot of British history, and for somebody like me who enjoys delving into the past, this building has it all, but before I expand on what’s here I think it’s probably best to get the unpalatable stuff out of the way first, so here goes :-
When King Canute started to build a home for himself in Westminster back in 1016 I don’t suppose for one minute that he thought it would become a place known throughout the world a thousand years later, and in a way he would be right because there’s nothing left of what he, or his successor, Edward the Confessor, built.
There are many powerful institutions in the City of London’s Financial District, but none more so than the Bank of England. Now before you skip this article thinking that it’s going to be another one of those boring Easymalc ramblings, I promise I won’t go on about Fiscal Policies or Quantitative Easing. For a start if I understood any of it I would be sipping a Pina Colada in the Cayman Islands or somewhere instead of struggling to see which lasts the longest – my meagre savings, or me. Anyway, back to the Bank of England.
I don’t imagine too many people know, or even care, about what the Bank of England actually does, but the museum, which is free to go in by the way, will explain its beginnings, the role it plays, and even how Quantitative Easing works (sorry, I couldn’t resist it). To be honest it’s not only educational, but interesting as well – or at least I thought so.
I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Stonehenge is one of those places that sits high on many people’s list of life’s big disappointments, but with the right mental attitude and a bit of forward planning it can still be somewhere that you’ll be glad to say you’ve seen.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site lies about nine miles north of Salisbury and can be reached by the useful ‘Stonehenge Tour Bus’ which does a circuit between the city, Old Sarum, and Stonehenge.
The first obvious detraction from this iconic site is its proximity to the main A303 trunk road which has been constantly debated about ever since I can remember.
Not so long ago the A360 road to Devizes and the inadequate visitor centre were also bones of contention, but were both rectified by the closure of the road and the re-positioning of a new modern visitor centre 1½ miles away.
In Salisbury Cathedral Pt 2 I described the different parts of the church, and so for this final part I’m going to explain what there is to see inside – or at least some of the highlights.
Throughout the church there’s a good collection of tombs for anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing. The first person to be buried here was William Longespee Earl of Salisbury, illegitimate son of King Henry II, and half-brother of King John. He died in 1226 and next to his wooden tomb is a plaque stating that he was present at the laying of the foundation stones of the Cathedral in 1220.
The tomb of Bishop Giles de Bridport, who was at the consecration of the Cathedral in 1258 is considered to be one of the finest 13th cent tombs in Britain, but probably the most majestic is the Hertford tomb. The Earl of Hertford (1539-1621) was the nephew of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, and lying above him is the effigy of his wife Lady Catherine Grey, the sister of Lady Jane Grey who was Queen of England for 9 days in 1553.
I should also mention that former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who lived at Arundells in The Close opposite the Cathedral was buried here in 2005 in a much simpler grave.