Naturally, many of the visitors come to see the castle, and I intend to write a separate post about it later; but for now, I just want to write a short introduction to the village, which is worth a visit in itself.
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.
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.
The road runs for one and a half miles between the Marschallbrucke on the River Spree down to Hallesches Tor in Kreuzberg, but the most interesting part from a historical point of view, is the section between the bridge and Niederkirchnerstrasse where the Berlin Wall split the city into two.
Originating from the time of King Frederick William I, this once wealthy residential thoroughfare, developed into Prussia’s main government district with many of the buildings being taken over by the state, including the Palais Schulenburg for Otto von Bismarck’s Chancellery.
At the end of WWI, the area came under the control of the Weimar Republic, but on 30th January 1933 there was a new Chancellor – Adolf Hitler, who immediately set about building a new chancellery for the Third Reich at the junction of Wilhelmstrasse and Voss Strasse.
After Hitler’s suicide in the Chancellery bunker and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the street found itself within the Russian sector as far as Prinz Albrecht Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Bomb damage and the Battle for Berlin had left the area in tatters, and as neither the Russians nor East Germans had any reason to save whatever was left, the land where Prussian palaces once stood, was now either part of No-Man’s Land separating East and West Berlin or built upon with Eastern Bloc architecture.
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.
As much as I would love to describe this fabulous weekend in detail, this post is about Antwerp, rather than the people I hung out with, many of whom are still very good friends, I’m pleased to say.
I flew from Bristol to Amsterdam and then caught a train across the border into Belgium and arrived at the impressive Antwerp Centraal railway station, which annoyingly, from the point of view of taking pictures, had a Big Wheel stuck right in front of it.
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.
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.
That first journey to Skye involved a 600-mile journey from the West Country in a rusty old Fiat Mirafiore: There were no cheap flights then, and there was no Skye Bridge either – it was ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ by ferry from the Kyle of Lochalsh. The toll-free bridge has made the island far more accessible now, not just for me, but for everyone else too, so it makes sense to come out of season if possible when there are fewer people around and the only difference in the weather is that the rain is a bit colder.
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
If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.
Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.
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.
From North Shields railway station, it’s a fairly uninspiring, but easy, 10-minute walk down to the quayside, but I always think it’s best to get the worst bit over with first don’t you? From the front of the station turn right into Nile Street and then then left into Railway Terrace. At the end, turn right into Bedford Street and follow this road across Saville Street down to the bottom of the hill. You’re now down by the riverside and will need to turn left into Liddell Street and head towards the Fish Quay. You’ll know you’re going the right way if you come to the Prince of Wales Tavern with the ‘Wooden Dolly’ outside.
The current Wooden Dolly is the latest in a long line of replica figureheads that have replaced the original one that stood here at the entrance to the Customs House Quay in the 18th century. It belonged to the Alexander and Margaret, a collier brig that was attacked by a privateer off the North-East coast in 1781 and held to ransom. Why sailors thought that cutting pieces off of it would bring them good luck at sea after that ordeal I can’t quite fathom, but that’s what they did.
Not all the reincarnations have been faithful to the original, and at least one of them was even a carving of a ‘Fishwife’, which was an acknowledgement of the important role that women used to play in the fishing industry. The current one is a replica of the one that stood here in the late 19th century. I have a fascination for figureheads normally with their elaborate carving and interesting history, but quite honestly, if sailors wanted to take chunks out of this latest one, it might upset some people, but I’m not sure it would upset me too much.
Admittedly, we didn’t have time to see everything that the city has to offer, but enough to show us why people, other than pilgrims, should make a journey here.
The Roman town of Durovernum (“the stronghold amidst alders”) included a protective wall which was probably built around 270 – 280 A.D. This wall continued to be used, with improvements, right through the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods into the Middle Ages, and still surrounds around half of the old city today. Inside this wall is the most interesting part of the city and the focus of this article.
On the map opposite I’ve compiled a trail which covers most of the interesting things that can be seen. Some places will occupy just a few minutes of your time and others considerably longer, and just a quick reminder for anyone who may be interested, you can always print out this post by clicking on the print icon at the bottom of the page. The map can also be printed out by using the ‘print map’ feature within the map itself.
I’ve chosen to start the trail at the King Alfred Statue in the Broadway (No1 on the map), and if you’ve read my introduction to Winchester – The First Capital of England, you’ll understand why I’ve chosen it as the starting point. I’m not going to describe his achievements here as this blog is mainly about what there is to see.
Call me an old cynic if you like, but the legacy of the 2004 Athens Games is a stark reminder of how emotions can change from joy to despair in such a relatively short space of time. The debt that Greece accrued for putting on the world’s greatest sports event was a heavy enough price to pay without the knowledge that the sporting venues quickly fell into disrepair as well.
I’m pretty sure that Ken wasn’t thinking about the sporting side of things when, as Mayor of London at the time, he put the bid in: in fact, I don’t think he even expected to win it. The reason behind his thinking was that the event would focus minds on giving a much-needed boost to rejuvenating a part of East London that was in desperate need of some extra cash, so I think his wide smile was for a different reason to those involved in sport.
I’m also pretty sure that the powers that be were only too aware of what happened in Athens and would have been determined that London’s legacy would be different.
With all this in mind a 500-acre site at Stratford was given the go-ahead as the home of the Olympic Park, the main venue for both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics.
2018 will be the sixth year it’s been running and has already established itself as a firm favourite with everyone.
Basically, it involves a trail that is festooned with illuminations of all descriptions, but rather than explaining what it’s all about I’ll leave you with a link to the website and some pictures from 2017 that will give you a taste of what to expect.
To give you an indication of the magnitude of the place, it boasts that it has the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological (fungi) collections in the world” with more than 30,000 different kinds of plants, an Herbarium with over 7 million specimens, a library with 750,000 books, and more than 175,000 prints and drawings. To that you can add five Grade I listed buildings, and (including its sister botanical garden at Wakehurst in West Sussex) currently employs around 800 staff. It even has its own police force. No wonder it’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
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.
The distance between the two bridges is about a mile and there are not only plenty of things to see, but also a fair number of pubs to hold you up along the way, and if you stop at all of them you’ll need holding up yourself.
Next to Blackfriars Railway Bridge is the Founders Arms, which although modern is in a great location overlooking the river, but as this isn’t a pub crawl I’ll assume that you’ll want to move straight on to the first real point of interest which is the Tate Modern.
Housed inside the former Bankside Power Station, this gallery of modern art won’t appeal to everyone, and depending on your taste in art you can either spend the best part of a day in here or hardly any time at all. Either way, you should go in and take a look, not just because it’s free, but you can always take the lift up to the viewing level of the Blavatnik Building for great views over the City of London and beyond.
Outside the river entrance to the Tate Modern is the Millennium Bridge. No prizes for guessing where it got its name from, but you may be tempted across it because on the other side of the river is St Paul’s Cathedral, but as tempting as it may be, it’s best left for another time.