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Jogja Journals

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Jogja, Yogya, Jogjakarta, Yogyakarta.... all different yet the same! All standing for the mystical city in Central Java that is the cultural capital of Indonesia.

After quite a long time we were heading to a destination that wasn't predominantly beaches and this had me eagerly looking forward to the holiday! (Although I do love beaches, but I was quite saturated and needed a break! ;-) how ironic!! )

We did our research online and got a customised itinerary through Great Tours. They were very prompt and professional during the planning stages. Their approach gave us the confidence that out trip would surely be a wonderful one!

After a 2 hour flight from Singapore, we landed at the tiny Adisucipto International Airport. A visa on arrival costs 25 USD here, and by the time you clear the immigration(there is a separate queue for Visa on Arrival passengers) your luggage would have been neatly removed and stacked near the baggage belt, ready for you to collect. Well, that's because there is just a single conveyer belt for all the international flights and its about 10 ft long without even a loop to keep the bags circulating! One of the most interesting international airports I have visited, I must say ;-)

Deni and Eddy from Great tours were there to pick us up and straight away start us off into temple run mode! Yep! We weren't checking into a hotel so soon!!

First stop was Mendut Temple, a ninth century temple and the oldest of the three important Buddhist temples; Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut.

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The walls of the Mendut temple are richly decorated with reliefs from the Jataka Tales. The Jataka Tales are stories of the previous lives of Buddha in human or animal form. A huge Buddha statue in seated posture flanked by two boddhisatvas is found in the main sanctum of the temple.

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The temple was most definitely interesting but what was more fun was the shopping procedure outside the temple. A number of ladies walk after you selling handicrafts and kaftans. HAGGLE furiously, start at less than half their quoted price and they will almost always accede, even though it might be after quite a few times of them shouting "No profit Ma'm" !!

Do take time to visit the beautiful Mendut Buddhist Monastery right outside the temple. The serenity, scenic beauty and sanctity of the atmosphere there is almost like a precursor to the upcoming spiritual journey through Jogja.

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An hours' drive later, we were at the one and only resort inside the single largest Buddhist temple complex anywhere in the world, the Manohara Resort. And did I mention that the temple complex was Borobudur!! Dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, this UNESCO World Heritage site was built during the Sailendra dynasty over a period of 75 years. Regarded as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, this outstanding piece of architecture is truly a hidden wonder.

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The temple is essentially divided into three sections; the Foot, the Body and the Head. These symbolize the three realms or 'Dhatus' in Buddhism, the Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu. The journey to the top of this temple represents the path to Nirvana.

The reliefs at the Foot of the temple are hidden from view but as we climbed to the Body, the striking reliefs etched all around the periphery left us awestruck! The panels depict the story of Siddhartha, the young price who attained enlightenment and came to be known as Buddha. The Buddha's former lives have also been recorded on the lower halves of the panels.

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Five levels and thousands of reliefs later we reached the 'Head' of the temple. A narrow opening leads into the first circular platform of the three platforms that make up the head. The moment we stepped out onto the platform, a tornado of emotions swept through me: Wonder, Ecstasy, Bewilderment, Astonishment... 72 perforated stupas each with a Buddha statue inside it are placed in three concentric circles leading up to One mammoth stupa right in the centre. The final stupa, hollow on the inside, signifies Enlightenment, detachment from worldly pleasures and attainment of liberation or Nirvana.

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After a heavy dose of spirituality, the evening was spent with a relaxing Indonesian dinner and dance ballet program at the resort.

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The next morning started with a second peek at Borobudur (we decided to skip the Sunrise tour since it was overcast) and our goodbyes to this wonder of wonders!

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On agenda for the day were 3 spots, all located on the Dieng Plateau, 2000 metres above sea level. First up was the Warna Lake, a mysterious and gorgeous sulphur lake amidst dense forests. Emerald green in colour, with slight bubbles rippling on the surface due to the sulphur and an odour that reminded me of my Chemistry lab, Warna lake is surely a place I will not forget soon!

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Next we headed to the Sikidang crater, one of the many volcanic craters on the Dieng plateau. As we entered the area, a strong stench of sulphur hit us that only got stronger as we made our way towards the smoking cauldron in the distance. As far as the eye could see, there was a stretch of barren, rocky land with minimum vegetation and water bubbling at our feet through cracks in the earth.

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We navigated ourselves(with a little hopping and skipping ) to the centre of attraction. Thick gray mud mixed with water, foul-smelling, boiling and jumping out in little splashes, and lots of puffy white smoke. Sounds familiar? It was the sort of stuff that witches would probably stir in their pots with an evil laugh!!
This place is a "goldmine" for sulphur miners and the steam generated from the hot crater is used for production of energy.

Next up, was a very interesting set of Hindu temple ruins. The first was a small,independent temple for Gatotkaca.

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We were stunned when we heard the name, since even in India (where there are countless temples) there is just one known temple for Gatotkaca, the son of Bhima. After this we proceeded to the main complex called the Arjuna Temple Complex.

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8 temples still stand here of the original 400, noteworthy considering the fact that the Arjuna temple is over 1000 years old and is one of the oldest temples in Java. Semar, Srikandi, Puntadewa and Sembadra temples complete this complex.

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After the Dieng Plateau tour, we drove downhill towards the main city of Yogyakarta, which was to be the base for the remaining leg of our vacation. On the way , we stopped at the third important Buddhist temple, Pawon. The temples of Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon lie in a straight line with Pawon at the centre. Regarded as the jewel of Javanese temple architecture, this small temple holds much significance for Buddhists in Indonesia.

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Just two days into our trip and we were already craving Indian food! Having done our online research, we headed to Sangam House, one of the apparently better Indian restuarants in Yogyakarta. Disappointment would be an understatement. The Dosa (a south Indian delicacy) looked vaguely like a crepe (not surprising,considering the owner was French!) , the tomato shorba(soup) was just an under-cooked puree and I don't even have words to describe the masala chai (Indian spiced tea). The main course was slightly decent. It's a shame considering the restaurant was actually very tastefully decorated and had a beautiful ambience. An Indian chef in their kitchen would have made all the difference in the world!

The next day, we decided that we should learn a bit more about two things that make Indonesia famous worldwide: Batik and Silver. So, our day started with a visit to a traditional Batik factory.

Batik is a dyeing technique widely known as a symbol of Indonesia. In fact, even today, every Indonesian (be it the King, a shopkeeper or a taxi driver) wears Batik clothing to work. Batik is almost like a national uniform for Indonesia! A visit to the Batik factory helped us understand the nuances of the labour-intensive process of traditional Batik printing. We saw two different procedures of applying melted wax on the cloth before dipping in dye.

The first process was Batik using a 'tjanting' tool which is like a pen. This is a very time consuming process as the artisans manually draw the entire design on the cloth using wax.

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The second was Block printing using 'batik cap' (copper stamp) into which melted wax is poured. This is a faster process since each Batik cap comes with a particular design that is stamped onto the cloth to get a repetitive pattern.

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Next we proceeded to Anson's Silver factory. There we got the opportunity to look at artisans producing outstanding filigree and silver sheet work. The attached retail store had an exquisite collection of animals, birds, Indonesian puppets as well as replicas of Borobudur & Prambanan temples, all done in silver!

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After the factory visits, we drove to Sambisari, a 9th century Hindu temple. As it is located 6.5 metres below the ground, this temple should have ideally been called the "Sunken Temple". Buried under volcanic ash from Mount Merapi, it took archaeologists 21 years to excavate and rebuild the temple. The compound of the temple is huge with a vast lawn surrounding the main shrine of Lord Shiva. We were the only ones at the temple, so we enjoyed a wonderful half an hour of tranquility there.

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From there we made our way to another landmark monument of Yogyakarta, the Prambanan Temple. The architectural prowess of the architects during those times is sheer genius, we realise, when we look at a building such as the Prambanan. Similar in style to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia but 300 years older, you will not be able to take your eyes off this masterpiece!

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The largest Hindu temple complex in Indonesia and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia, this UNESCO World Heritage site is more than 1000 years old. Dedicated to the Trimurti of Hindu religion, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva; this temple complex originally consisted of a staggering 240 temples! The innermost zone consists of the shrines for the three main deities and 3 shrines for the 'Vahanas', Hamsa(Swan) for Brahma, Nandi(Bull) for Shiva and Garuda(Eagle) for Vishnu. There were 224 'Pervara' (guardian) temples surrounding the innermost zone of which only 2 remain standing today!

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An interesting feature of this temple is that unlike most Hindu temples where Shiva is represented and worshipped as a 'Lingam', the Shiva Temple in Prambanan has a 3 metre tall statue of Lord Shiva. Unfortunately, parts of the Shiva temple were under renovation and we couldn't see the statue, but we did see statues of Brahma and Vishnu in the adjacent temples. As in Borobudur, the walls surrounding the temples in Prambanan are also carved with exquisite reliefs. Stories from the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana (Krishnayana as the locals call it) can be seen here.

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The last item on our itinerary for the day was the famed Ramayana Ballet. Ramayana Ballet at Purawisata is performed in an open air theatre when the weather is favourable and luck was on our side that day. The dance ballet commenced from the point in the Ramayana where Ravana sends the evil Mareecha in the form of a magical deer to lure Rama and Lakshmana away from Sita. Susbsequently Ravana kidnaps Sita and imprisons her in Ashoka Vatika in his kingdom of Lanka. In his search for Sita, Rama encounters various characters like Jatayu, Bali, Sugreeva and Hanuman. The monkey army of Hanuman aids Rama's search and finally Sita is found. A battle between Rama and Ravana ensues, leading to the defeat of Ravana.

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Graceful movements, colourful costumes and a live orchestra all together made this experience a very memorable one.

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This was our final day of sightseeing and we started off early in the morning towards the infamous Mount Merapi. If you wish to take a good look at this volcanic mountain, it is best to reach there as early as possible since mist covers it up later in the day.

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We reached the village of Kaliadem at the foothills of Mount Merapi. This village was destroyed in 2010 by the eruption of Merapi, which by the way is still active and smoking hot! :-) Burnt stubs of trees, rivers of volcanic ash left by flowing lava and volcanic stones strewn all around the area serve as a constant reminder of the immense destructive capacity of Mother Nature.

After this gruesome sight, we headed back to Jogja city to the Sultan's Palace. Kraton or 'Royal Palace' is home to the King of Yogyakarta. An old world charm exudes from this palace complex bustling with tourists.

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A tour guide exclusive to the palace took us around and she was well informed and enthusiastic (overly so at times! ). Luckily, when we arrived, the traditional Wayang Kulit shadow puppet show was being performed. This show is held at the palace only once a week, so we took some time to admire the puppeteers at work.

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The museums were quite interesting with pictures of the past Sultans and their stories and collections of gifts from other countries to the Sultan.

A short way away from the palace was the Tamansari. Tamansari(Water Castle or Beautiful Garden) is a partially ruined bath house, part of the royal gardens of the Kraton complex. The bathing complex is made up of three pools, one for the royal family, one for the Sultan's mistresses and one for the Sultan himself.

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Lunch that day was at a highly recommended international Cafe called ViaVia. After reading several positive reviews and still recovering from the disappointment of Sangam House, we bravely ventured into this unknown territory. And what we saw took us completely by surprise! A quaint little all-in-one travel agency, cafe & guesthouse, this delightful restaurant has some excellent vegetarian dishes on offer. While you wait for your order, pick up a travel book from their library or browse through their Fair Trade Shop,an initiative to promote environment-friendly products made by locals.

An absolute must do in Yogyakarta is shopping at Jalan Malioboro. The street is sure to drive anybody crazy with the number of batik and handicraft shops!! But that also makes it the best place to fill your luggage with souvenirs. Shops like Batik Keris with exclusive and exquisite Batik clothing to Mirota Batik where every possible Indonesian souvenir is sold under one roof, its all there in Jalan Malioboro!
On our way back from this street we decided to ride a horse carriage (It's a common form of transport in Yogyakarta for tourists). To say the least, the carriage driver fleeced us! I strongly advise taking a taxi in Jogja, its much cheaper, faster and safer!!

Too very soon, we were posing outside our hotel with our guide and driver for a final farewell photo and with packed bags and heavy hearts, it was time to bid goodbye to the splendid Indonesian city of Yogyakarta. What struck me most was that in a predominantly Muslim country, so much effort is being put in to preserve and promote the rich history of Hindu and Buddhist cultures that shaped Jogja into what it is today. Hoping to explore much more of this gem of a country! Till then, it's Selamat tinggal from me!

Posted by vinaya88 15.08.2013 05:35 Tagged temples indonesia yogyakarta buddhist borobudur prambanan jogja Comments (7)

Krabi - A petit paradise

The first thing that struck me (and lots of people whom I related the trip details to!) is how similar the word "KRABI" sounds to "CRAB", making one wonder if it's actually the creature that gave this name to the province ;-D. In fact, that is quite far from reality! Krabi means 'sword' in Thai and legend has it that an ancient sword was unearthed here giving the region its name.

Crystal clear waters, gorgeous pristine beaches and hundreds of sprawling resorts & spas; that just about describes the beautiful islands of Krabi. Tucked away in the Andaman Sea in Southern Thailand, the Krabi province is made up of over 150 small & large islands but proper accommodation for tourists is found only in a handful of these. One of them is Ao Nang, a convenient & popular base to explore all that Krabi has to offer and this was to be the destination for our 1st wedding anniversary!
We reached the Krabi International Airport after an approx 1 1/2 hr flight from Singapore and were picked up by the hotel van. Our resort, Ao Nang Nagapura was located in the Ao Nang beach area, a 40 min drive from the airport. Most of the resorts provide airport drop and pick up at an extra charge (which is quite higher compared to normal taxi charges, something we realised after reaching the resort!). Since this was our first visit and we wanted to avoid any hassles, we decided to pre-book the airport pick-up through the resort itself.
Krabi Town is located in between the airport and Aonang beach and is cheaper in terms of accommodation, but Aonang is where all the action is!
The first thing that strikes you when you enter the Aonang area is that the main occupation for the townspeople is most definitely hotels & spas. The number of resorts in that small stretch of road is staggering and there is little else other than these!
May-November is generally the off peak season as there are intermittent rain showers. Luckily for us, we weren't affected much and our tours went as planned. The only drawback in this season is that since there are lesser number of tourists, many of the resorts undertake renovation activities and unfortunately the spa in our resort was also closed for renovation. But this was hardly a setback, as we quickly discovered that there are several other options! And our disappointment was more than made up for when we saw our extra large pool facing room :-D

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There are numerous tour & travel agencies on the main Aonang street and the best way to get good deals is to ask around a few of these agencies and bargain a little. Most of them offer excellent rates during off-peak season and further discounts if you book multiple tours with them. Don't forget to ask them if insurance is covered in the price and anything else that you may have in mind before booking the tour. Most of the agents are quite friendly and patient. We even picked up two of the most important phrases in Thai from them, 'Sawadee ka' (hello) and 'Khapun khap' (Thank you). Needless to say, we used them liberally during the next few days! :-)
Our first evening was spent thus in walking along the main market of Aonang, enquiring about the tours and getting a general feel of Krabi. Some of the inner lanes have a very vibrant nightlife with different themed bars and live music at restaurants.

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We also discovered that the dining options for vegetarians like us are aplenty in Krabi! This was a very pleasant surprise! Do try the Blue Mango restaurant for some yummy Thai delicacies & Royal Tandoor (the self-proclaimed best Indian food in Krabi) for their mouth-watering raita!!

The next morning, we were picked up from the hotel for the Four Island Tour. Our speed boat first took us to Phra Nang Island, a gorgeous, isolated stretch of fine sand with emerald green waters.

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The Phra Nang cave here is an interesting visit, local fisherman and boatmen leave offerings in this cave to ensure safe travel on the sea. These offerings are in the form of 'lingams' and hence, the cave has become associated with fertility. Legend has it, that Phra Nang was an Indian princess who was killed in a shipwreck. Another version says that Phra Nang was the wife of a fisherman who was lost at sea. She lived out the rest of her days in the cave, awaiting her husband's return.
This island is also extremely well known for its rock climbing. We witnessed a few tourists climbing up the sheer cliff face, definitely a haven for adventure enthusiasts!!

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Next stop was a group of 3 islands, Tup Island, Moore Island and Chicken Island. The best time to visit these islands is during low tide. A thin strip of land opens up during this time, making it possible to walk between the 3 islands. As the area above water is quite small, it was quite crowded and the islands themselves have nothing much to offer. The Chicken Island, named so because it is shaped like a chicken, is the largest island of the three. A little way out into the sea from the Tup island, we were taken snorkeling. This was the real fun part of the tour! We saw large schools of fish, some corals and some individual exotic fish. Even if you do know to swim, its advisable to wear a life jacket while snorkeling, as they drop you into mid sea and there is no guide to accompany you. The last time I went snorkeling was in Bohol, Philippines but that was with a local who accompanied me in the waters & this was my first time doing it alone. To say the least, it was an amazing experience!
Next up and last in the tour was Poda Island. This island is the only one with restroom facilities and lots of trees for shade. Ideal for a picnic; so we spread our mats, opened our pre-packed lunch boxes and spent a relaxed hour under a tree! So blissful!!!

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Around 5 pm we were back to the main island and free to explore on our own. We spotted a local cafe & decided to head there for an evening snack and drink. This cafe happened to be Black Canyon Coffee, a local coffee chain in Thailand, which I later discovered has branches even in Singapore! The cappuccino and cranberry coffee frappe were great!

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Around sunset, we made our way to the Aonang beach - narrow, spotless and uncrowded. It was a beautiful experience to watch the sky turn into different shades of deepening blue until it became black altogether. Do take a walk along the bustling Seafood Street right along the beach, you will be spoilt for dining choices!

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The next day, we embarked on a small adventure, kayaking through limestone caves! Kayaking is a great way to explore the dramatic scenery of Krabi and it's eco-friendly too! Along with two local guides and a Chinese couple, we started our journey at the Bor Thor village. Paddling almost noiselessly through the narrow stream with magnificent mangroves on both sides can be quite an exhilarating experience! We soon reached the limestone caves, cool and dark with towering stalactites and stalagmites. The limestone formations were shining like crystals all around us and the water was quietly dripping from the stalactites (with an occasional plop on our heads!) It was truly a magical world!
Next, we headed to a small hidden lagoon, so shallow that our kayaks were literally brushing the muddy waters.
About 10 minutes from the lagoon was the "Tham Pee Hua Toe" (Big-Headed Ghost Cave). Apparently, long ago, a skull larger than ordinary was discovered here, hence the name. The cave has two large chambers with prehistoric paintings believed to be almost 3000 years old. The mural paintings in different colours have been divided into three categories: human beings & animals, non-human beings and those shaped like hand and foot.

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The return journey was through a gorgeous wide canal flanked by mangroves, under the hot sun (that made us bump into the trees in search of shade!!!), as we headed back to the riverside restaurant where we had started our journey. An unexpectedly delicious vegetarian fried rice was waiting for us there and after this simple yet satisfying meal we were back to our resort.

That evening, we decided to head to Sheraton for our anniversary dinner. It's pretty easy to get air-conditioned taxis from the main street. (Bargain with the driver, it works! :-p)
The luxurious Krabi Sheraton resort is situated about 25 mins away from AoNang and it would take almost an entire evening to just look around the humongous property! Planning a visit around sunset time would be ideal, as the view of the setting sun from the private beach is stunning!

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Last but not least, I must talk about the dinner at Gecko's, Sheraton's Italian restaurant. With an open, gazebo style architecture, cozy candles lighting up the tables and lush greenery all around, it's the perfect place for a romantic dinner!! Crunchy thin crust pizza, an exquisite ratatouille and a delectable cassata; in short, the food was splendid! :-D

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The final day at Krabi was one of leisure. We spent the morning at the AoNang Villa Spa, one of the oldest and apparently one of the best spas in Krabi. The traditional Thai massage was both relaxing and rejuvenating. As I mentioned earlier, there are numerous spas to choose from; walk around and find one that best suits your budget.
Feeling refreshed, we decided to rent a motorbike for the rest of the day! This was definitely one of the high points of the trip! Rentals are cheap and easily available all around the area.

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We had a gala time driving around, venturing into places that we had missed in the past couple of days. One of these was Coffee Kiatsch, a chic cafe with plush sofas and spacious interiors, ideal for spending a lazy hour or two! A little more of driving around and it was time for dinner at Bombay Palace. Located on the road leading to Krabi town, this place serves authentic Indian food and is a must try! Everything that we ordered was absolutely fantastic!!

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Too very soon, the partly adventurous - partly relaxing trip came to an end & it was time to go back home. Hoping that we can come back and visit Phi Phi next time!
Till my next trip ... Adios! :-D

Posted by vinaya88 22.01.2013 08:13 Comments (5)

Of Castles, Concerts and the Colosseum - Part III (Contd...)

Florence, Pisa, Venice & Innsbruck

Early next morning, it was time to travel to a new city, the capital of the Italian region of Tuscany; Florence. Florence was the centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of the time. It is also considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. The historic centre of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On the first afternoon we walked to the central station of Florence, Santa Maria Novella, and the meeting point for our day tour. The plan was to visit a winery in the Tuscany region, learn about the process of wine making and taste some authentic Italian wine. After an hour’s drive, we reached the Chianti wine region of Tuscany. This region is a group of villages that produces the famous Chianti wine using only the grapes grown in the Chianti region. The winery and the surrounding vineyards were so scenic and the light drizzle of rain added to the beauty! Upon entering the winery, our guide first showed us all the equipment that is used to crush the grapes, ferment them and separate them. Then we moved to the underground cellars where the wine storage barrels are kept. We were welcomed to the cellars with a rose wine tasting. There were a huge number of big & small barrels made in different kinds of wood for storing different varieties of wine. All the barrels were labelled according to their capacity. We also saw a humongous barrel which could store upto 72 gallons (~273 litres) of fermented grapes. Then, it was time for the formal wine tasting to begin. Four different wines along with pecorino cheese were served to us, the Chianti Classico (2 varieties, one aged more than the other), Chianti Riserva and for dessert, the Holy wine (Vin Santo) which is amber coloured & sweeter in taste. This winery also produces extra virgin olive oil which was served to us with toasted garlic bread during the tasting.

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After the winery tour, it was time to head to a small Tuscan wine producing village, Greve in Chianti. The butcher shop in this village is apparently particularly famous for its boar meat. The main piazza was bustling with shops and activity and it was the perfect place to enjoy an evening cappuccino.
The next day started with a visit to the Accademia Gallery to see the very famous sculpture by Michelangelo, "David". It is highly advised to reach early as later in the day queues can be terribly long. The Accademia di Belle Arti ("Academy of Fine Arts") has housed the original David since 1873. (Previously it was located at the Piazza della Signoria, an outdoor plaza with a number of wonderful sculptures). This work of Michelangelo is a masterpiece in the truest sense. One really has to see it to believe it! The perfection of the body to the intensity of the eyes, everything about David leaves you in awe. The Accademia also contains Michelangelo’s four famous unfinished "Prisoners". The original plaster of "The Rape of Sabine Women" by Giambologna is also housed here. There is also a room entirely dedicated to the original plasters of a number of sculptural works by different artists.

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The Uffizi Gallery adjoining the Piazza della Signoria is another very famous museum in Florence. It includes works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Boticelli and Michelangelo among others.
We also visited the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which is a very unique museum, containing wooden exhibits of machines whose designs were sketched by da Vinci in his notebooks. Most of the exhibits are interactive and can be operated. There are water machines, air machines, machines designed for battle and a number of other exhibits where different physics principles have been applied.
A separate section gives an insight into da Vinci’s anatomical expertise. His detailed diagrams of various organs of the body and the foetus in the womb are really astonishing considering that there was no imaging technology available at that time and he had to sketch everything by dissecting corpses!! I can’t even imagine how unbearable the stench of decaying bodies would have been without preservation!

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With thoughts of da Vinci’s genius still in our minds, we set off on a leisurely walk through the streets of Florence. Located in the centre of the city, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), commonly known as the Duomo, is the main church of Florence. It has the largest brick dome in the world and an intricately designed beautiful marble exterior in white, green and pink colours. The Piazza on which it is located and the nearby streets are very lively with a number of restaurants and shops.

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We were especially interested to visit the Santa Croce, a basilica located a short distance away from the Duomo. It is the burial place of some extremely illustrious figures in Italian history including Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei. It also has memorials dedicated to other famous Florentines who are buried elsewhere like Marconi and Dante.

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The same afternoon we hopped onto a train and made our way to one of the most famous buildings and one among the former Seven Wonders of the World, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From the central station, Pisa Centrale, there are special loop buses that stop at famous landmarks in the city and thus we arrived right outside Piazza del Duomo, also called Piazza del Miracoli. A cathedral, baptistery, cemetery and the Leaning tower are part of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The tower looks far more amazing in reality than it does in pictures! The pristine white beauty of all the structures in the square leaves one speechless for a few moments. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a freestanding bell tower of the Cathedral of Pisa. Before restoration, the tower leaned at an angle of 5.5 degrees, now it leans about 3.97 degrees. Contrary to what I believed, this tower is not the most naturally leaning tower in the world. That title is held by the Leaning Tower of Suurhusen, the steeple of a church in Germany. This structure leans about 1.22 degrees more than the Tower of Pisa.
It was comical to watch tourists posing in a wide variety of ways to get that perfect picture of touching the tower! And needless to say, we posed a fair amount as well!

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The climb to the top of the tower involves around 296 steps and tickets can be bought from the ticketing office nearby or online. The Piazza has numerous shops selling all varieties of Leaning Towers in various colours and sizes and leaning at all kinds of possible angles! It was great fun trying to find the one closest to reality. ;-)

The next day was only the beginning of a 2 day love affair with the most romantic city in the world, Venice! A visit to the Floating City of Venice is an experience to be remembered. The Grand Canal greeted us the moment we stepped out of the train station, Venezia Santa Lucia. The sight is unbelievable! Numerous water taxis and buses waiting at the jetty ply at regular intervals between various destinations. The city has no road transport and is the only pedestrian city in the whole world! For those who have some extra cash, high speed private boats are a good option to reach your destination. The cruise along the Grand Canal is a beautiful way to get introduced to this gorgeous city. A 24 hour pass is a useful thing to have since boats are the fastest way to travel here (unless you are planning to stay for a longer time and prefer walking, walking and more walking!!). It’s advisable to know beforehand which water bus to take and which stop is closest to the hotel, since there are many stops with similar names and alighting at the wrong stop means dragging luggage across bridges which can be quite tiring!

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After check in at the hotel and some awesome olive pizza for lunch, we hopped on to the boat headed for Murano. This island is very famous for its glass production. More than 1000 shops selling Murano glassware are located on this island and many of them have glass-blowing demonstrations at certain times of the day.

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Around 40 minutes away is another lovely island called Burano. Numerous colourful houses can be seen here with small shops at the lower levels. The system of “siesta” (afternoon nap) is still followed in this small island. Burano is famous for its lace work but it is quite expensive.

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Following the island visits, it was time to do some mainland shopping! All along the Grand Canal, one can find souvenir shops and a must buy is the Venetian Mask. Masks are still worn at the annual Carnival of Venice and the markets are stocked with them in different attractive colours, designs and shapes. Souvenir shops close quite early in the evening and hence it’s best to finish shopping before sundown. Restaurants on the other hand, remain open late.
The next day we decided to stay on the mainland and walk around the streets of Venice. The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale is the landmark of Venice. The Doge was the supreme authority, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice. He was elected for life by the aristocracy. The Doge’s residence is now a museum and one can visit the Doge’s Apartments (rooms where the Doge resided), the Institutional Chambers (rooms where foreign delegations were received, trials were held and justice was administered) and the Prisons. The Bridge of Sighs is a famous corridor in the prisons section. Enclosed and covered on all sides, the bridge contains two separate corridors that run next to each other. The name of the bridge was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio church through the small windows.

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Just a few metres from the Palace is the beautiful Piazza San Marco. A lively and huge courtyard, it is surrounded by exquisite structures like the Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Clock Tower and the Bell Tower of St. Mark.

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Do take a walk through the narrow alleyways to Rialto Market and Rialto Bridge to get a true Venetian experience! And finally, how can I leave Venice without mentioning the Gondolas!! :-D A traditional, flat-bottomed rowing boat in Venice, they are mainly used these days to take tourists through the narrow canals of the beautiful floating city. Hiring a gondola can be quite expensive and is best experienced only if you have ample leisure time. Even if you decide to skip the gondola ride itself, do take a moment to stop and look at the gondolas. It is a wonderful experience to just stand on a bridge and watch the gondoliers rowing below you singing traditional folk songs in loud voices.

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With our short stay thus ending (leaving us hungry for more!!) we set off to complete our European loop. The final leg of our journey was to bring us back to Austria, to a quiet, little, charming town at the foot of the Alps, to Innsbruck! Most renowned for its winter sports and ski resorts, this town has much to offer. The Innsbruck Card, though expensive, is quite a deal as it allows free entry to all tourist attractions and use of all public transportation for 24 hours (there are 36 & 48 hour cards also). We started our day by boarding the shuttle bus to Wattens, a small town about half-an-hour from Innsbruck, to visit the Swarovski Crystal Museum. Wattens is the headquarters of Swarovski AG and this museum features the history of crystal manufacturing, the life of Daniel Swarovski (founder of Swarovski) and a large collection of crystals including works by notable artists.

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Unsurprisingly, the largest Swarovski showroom is also located here and crystal jewellery is the best buy!

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After the museum tour and a few photos in the gardens with the giant face (it has a waterfall pouring through its mouth, I still haven’t figured out how the giant is related to Swarovski!!), we hopped back onto the shuttle bus and returned to the town for some more sightseeing.

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The “Old Town” is the more interesting and touristy part of Innsbruck. It is quite easy to see everything on foot and in one afternoon. The famous Golden Roof was closed for renovation, hence we couldn’t see it but we did visit the adjoining museum which had some interesting information on the life of Emperor Maximilian I.

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Very close by is the 51 m high Stadtturm or City Tower. We climbed up the 148 steps of the narrow spiral staircase and were rewarded with a lovely view of Innsbruck town and the surrounding Alps.

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In the afternoon, we took a short guided tour with an elderly Austrian lady and learnt a bit about the history of the town. We also paid a visit to the Cathedral of St. James, a beautiful Baroque church.

The AlpenZoo, Europe’s highest zoo at an elevation of 750 m, is also worth a visit. This zoo houses a large number of Alpine species including brown bears, lynx and arctic wolves.

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A must do activity in Innsbruck is to take the funicular from the Alpenzoo to Hungerburg station and then a cable car up to Nordekette where you can get up close with the snow clad Alps!

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The funicular and cable car rides are in themselves spectacular, offering panoramic views of the entire area. It’s quite chilly up there even in summers, so don’t forget to take your jackets and caps!!

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It is worth spending a couple of days in Innsbruck just to enjoy the tranquillity and in fact, by the end of the trip, I had to admit that it was by far the most beautiful place I had ever visited!

15 days had gone by before we realised it, and it was time to go back home. The incredible journey that started at the castles of Germany, peaked at the Mozart concert in Austria and climaxed at the Colosseum in Rome, is and will remain a truly unforgettable experience! Looking forward to many more such travels around the world! :-D

Posted by vinaya88 21.11.2012 07:00 Tagged venice pisa florence europe innsbruck Comments (1)

Of Castles, Concerts and the Colosseum - Part III

Rome

The next leg of the European circuit was to the “Boot country”, well that’s how Italy looks on the map anyway! I was super thrilled when we reached Rome as this was the city I was looking forward the most to visit. The Leonardo da Vinci Airport is quite far away from the city as most airports are and the journey from the airport to the city was not very remarkable. I was hoping to get glimpses of ancient Roman buildings on the way but sadly, didn’t see any. The best part though, was that our hotel was within walking distance of the Termini train station which is the central station in Rome, from where both local as well as regional trains depart. The first thing you notice about Italy is that it’s quite similar to India! Littered streets (not as much as India though ;-)), numerous hawkers selling merchandise and unruly crowds!! In fact, most of the hawkers are Bangladeshis and Mom’s proficiency in Bengali got us some decent bargains everywhere. :-D
Since we didn’t have any guided tours planned for the first morning, we decided to take the underground train to the National Gallery of Modern Art. I should warn you that the Termini station should be entered at one’s own risk! The place is worse than a labyrinth!! We were following the signboards to our platform and one after the other, escalators and passages kept leading us further and further downwards till I actually thought we would reach the centre of the Earth!!! There is actually an interesting story behind Rome’s underground network. Rome is the capital and the largest city of Italy. It is also the fourth-most populous city in the European Union. But surprisingly, this city has only two underground lines crossing each other at the Termini Central Station. This network system is also designed in such a way that it goes around the city rather than through it. Each time that a new plan was made to upgrade the metro system and underground excavations would commence, some ancient Roman relic or archaeological artefact would be discovered and further work on the metro would stop! Hence, just the two lines!!
Anyway, so we took the train from Termini to Flaminio and made our way to the National Gallery of Modern Art.

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This gallery mainly showcases neoclassic and Romantic (meaning ‘of the Roman period’!) artworks from the 19th and 20th century. Works of several Italian artists as well as international artists like Van Gogh are displayed here. Some exquisite sculptures which really stuck with me were “Cleopatra” and Canova’s “Hercules and Lichas”.

We didn’t even realise how quickly the morning flew by and very soon it was time to reach the Vatican. The experience of the Vatican is enjoyed only with a knowledgeable guide because this smallest state of the world is unimaginably crowded and it’s near impossible to stroll at ones’ leisure trying to find out the significance of each location! We booked two tours through "Dark Rome Tours" and they were splendid! I would definitely recommend booking through them to anybody planning a visit to Rome!

First, we squeezed our way into the ‘Musei Vaticani’ or the Vatican Museum. The highlights of the museum are most certainly Raphael’s’ Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The four Stanze di Raffaello ("Raphael's rooms") are famous for their frescoes painted by Renaissance artist, Raphael and his students. The vibrant colours and the sheer finesse of the frescoes make it impossible for anyone to not appreciate the genius of these Renaissance artists.

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The Sistine Chapel is certainly one of the best known chapels in the world and it is the location of the Papal conclaves, i.e the venue for election of the pope. On the occasion of a conclave, a chimney is installed in the roof of the chapel, from which smoke arises as a signal. If white smoke appears, created by burning the ballots of the election, a new Pope has been elected. If a candidate receives less than a two-thirds majority, the cardinals send up black smoke—created by burning the ballots along with wet straw and chemical additives—it means that no successful election has yet occurred. This chimney can be seen from St. Peter's Square.
Of course, the other reason for the Sistine Chapel’s fame is its extraordinary frescoes by artists like Michelangelo, Boticelli etc. The ceiling is entirely frescoed solely by Michelangelo which is in itself astonishing. This ceiling and “The Last Judgement” (the fresco behind the altar) by Michelangelo are regarded as his most famous works. The left and right walls of the chapel depict the life of Moses and Christ in a series of frescoed panels by other artists. Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited inside the Sistine Chapel!

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Another must visit in the Vatican museum is the “Gallery of Maps”, a 120 m long gallery with topographical maps of Italy. Each frescoed panel depicts a region as well as a perspective view of the most prominent city in that region. There are 40 such panels in this gallery which is the world's largest pictorial geographical study.

The Vatican Museum has a huge collection and it was definitely not possible to see each and every room in one day, so after a tour of the most important rooms, we headed to the Belvedere Courtyard or ‘Cortile del Belvedere’. Designed by Donato Bramante, this courtyard is a link between the Vatican Palace and the Villa Belvedere. A large bronze pinecone, formerly a fountain, stands on one end of the courtyard, giving the upper terrace the name ‘Cortile della Pigna’ or Pinecone Courtyard.
In the middle of the courtyard stands a revolving ‘Sphere within a sphere’, a bronze sculpture by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. Several versions of this sculpture with varying diameters are found worldwide.

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From here, we proceeded to St. Peter's Basilica, the burial site of St. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Peter is generally considered as the first Pope and was crucified by Emperor Nero with the cross being upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.

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The St. Peter’s Basilica has the tallest dome and the largest interior of any church in the world. The beautiful dome of St. Peter's was designed by Michelangelo but the construction was completed only after his death.

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The interior is beautifully decorated with sculptures and outstanding artwork. The famous sculpture ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo can be seen here. Interestingly Saint Peter’s is not a cathedral as it is not the seat of any bishop nor is it the official church of the Roman Catholics. In fact, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the mother church of Rome and the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. Nevertheless, St. Peter’s is considered one of the holiest sites for Christians and due to its size a large number of Papal ceremonies & functions are held here. Another interesting fact about this basilica is that there is one door in the entrance hall called the Holy Door which is opened only once in 50 years. It is said that these special years of opening are years of remission of sins and universal pardon and people entering the basilica through that door will have the mercy of God.

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Once outside, the Basilica opens out into the magnificent St. Peter's Square. This square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a well known sculptor of those times. Four rows of columns, 284 columns and 88 pillars altogether, on the perimeter of the elliptical piazza hold 140 statues of saints over them, all designed by Bernini. An ancient Egyptian obelisk stands at the centre of this Piazza.

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It is also possible to see the Pope’s residence from this square. Every Sunday at noon, the Pope makes an appearance at the window of his residence for public view.

The next day was a long long day. We had two guided tours planned. First stop was Piazza del Popolo for the Angels & Demons Tour. This is one of the most popular tours in Rome owing to the huge success of Dan Brown’s book by the same name. Now, for those who have read the book/seen the movie, this tour is a must! And for those who haven’t, you will still enjoy the tour because more than following the storyline, it’s all about learning the lesser known history of Rome & visiting some extremely interesting places. The tour started at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (St. Mary of the People) containing some wonderful works by Bernini.

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The story then took us to St. Peter’s Square followed by Santa Maria della Vittoria. This church is not very remarkable from the outside but the inside is beautifully frescoed and lavishly decorated. But what this church is most famous for is a masterpiece of Bernini called “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. This controversial sculpture placed in the chapel of the Cornaro family, depicts an episode from the autobiography of a mystical saint, Teresa of Avila. The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and an angel with a spear portray her experience of religious ecstasy that she describes in detail in her autobiography. The members of the Cornaro family appear to be watching and discussing this encounter in boxes on both sides of this central scene in an almost theatre like setting.

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Next stop was the Piazza Navona. It is a beautiful square with a number of restaurants and shops all around & numerous local artists with their paintings on display. This square has three beautiful fountains, the most famous being the one in the centre, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Designed by Bernini, the fountain represents four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas.

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The climax of the story brought us to Castel Sant’Angelo. When we reached this landmark, we saw a newly wedded couple and a shiny red Ferrari parked in front. Our guide had an interesting story to share about Italian weddings. Apparently, it is part of their tradition that once a couple gets married, they go to 5 different landmarks in the city for a photoshoot. All along the way, the bride’s long wedding gown trails behind and gets dirty. They say that this is a sign of commitment to her husband since once the wedding dress is dirty; she can never wear it for another man!! (I guess people back in those days never thought about the option of buying a new dress ;-) ) Well, coming back to the Castel Sant’Angelo, this building was originally Roman emperor Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Later on, the popes used it as a fortress and castle by building a further level on the existing structure. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared atop the mausoleum, sheathing his sword as a sign of the end of the Great Plague, thus lending the castle its present name. The original statue of the Archangel erected to commemorate this legend was struck by lightning and later replaced by a new statue. Both the statues still exist in the castle.

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From the terrace we can see the Passetto di Borgo. This is an elevated fortified covered corridor that connects the castle to the St. Peter’s Basilica and was used by popes to flee from the Vatican when in danger. Another interesting structure is actually the bridge, Ponte Sant’Angelo, that connects the castle with the city spanning across the Tiber river. It’s a pedestrian bridge with large statues of the apostles Peter and Paul at the entrance. Along the bridge, spaced at regular intervals, ten statues of angels holding instruments of the Passion (various items used during the crucifixion of Christ like Crown of thorns, nails, the Cross etc.) are found. Well, that was the end of a four & a half hour long superb Angels & Demons tour with our guide Robert. (Yeah! He was also called Robert, just like the protagonist of the story!! Strange but true :-D)

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It was almost time for our next tour to Ancient Rome, so after a super quick lunch we hopped onto the bus and headed to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colosseum. It is a huge elliptical amphitheatre that once upon a time held up to 50,000 spectators who came to watch gory games involving gladiators, wild animals, and prisoners. The construction of the Colosseum was started in 72 AD under Emperor Vespasian and completed in 80 AD under Titus.
The Colosseum's huge crowd capacity demanded that the venue be filled and evacuated quickly. To overcome this problem, a solution similar to the ones used in modern stadiums was adopted. The amphitheatre has eighty entrances at ground level, 76 of which were used by ordinary spectators. Each entrance and exit is numbered, as is each staircase. Spectators were given tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards, which directed them to the appropriate section and row. Most of the numbers are no longer visible, but we did see 51 written in Roman numerals over a doorway.

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The spectators were seated in a tiered arrangement according to their status in society. Special boxes for the Emperor provided the best views of the arena. The main arena where the games were played was a wooden platform covered with sand, but most of it no longer exists. Below this platform is an underground area called the hypogeum which consisted of tunnels and passageways where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. The hypogeum is still clearly visible and the sight of it really makes one imagine how those days of gladiator fights would have been. It must have been truly a horrific sight to watch a weaponless prisoner being chased and finally killed by a blood thirsty lion!

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With these disturbing thoughts in mind, we made our way to the next part of ancient Rome, the Capitoline Hill.
The approach to the top of the Capitoline Hill is through a stairway called the Cordonata leading to the Piazza del Campidoglio. Both the staircase and the piazza were designed by Michelangelo. Two erstwhile Roman government buildings stand in this piazza, the Palazzo dei Conservatori ("Palace of the Conservators") and the Palazzo Senatorio ("Senatorial Palace"). The Palazzo Nuovo, or "New Palace" was later constructed as an identical copy of the Conservatori. The facades of all these buildings were also designed by Michelangelo. These buildings have now been converted to museums.

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At the rear side, the sudden view of the Roman Forum took us by surprise. A very ordinary looking alleyway leads into one of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen. (It’s ironic because everything is in ruins but still looks so beautiful!!) The Roman Forum is basically a rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. (Wikipedia defines it like this :-D) It is the oldest part of Rome and a number of temples, the Senate house, government buildings were all located here. From what our guide told us, the citizens gathered here for all kinds of occasions ranging from elections to public executions.

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After getting our hearts’ fill of the ancient Roman city, it was time to get back onto the bus and visit St. Paul’s Basilica. After the execution of Paul, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, this basilica was constructed to mark his burial spot. The design of the interior is similar to other basilicas and like the St. Peter’s Basilica, a Holy Door is found here also. A very interesting thing to notice in this basilica is the medallions in the ceiling depicting pictures of all the Popes till date. 265 popes including the present Pope Bendedict XVI can be seen and a few extra empty medallions have also been placed since it’s believed to be bad luck if the existing Pope doesn’t have a succeeding medallion.

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After the basilica visit we were on our way to the final destination of the day, in fact the final destination in Rome, the Fontana di Trevi or Trevi Fountain. A massive & stunning piece of work situated in an unassuming location with narrow alleys, the Trevi Fountain is a very popular tourist attraction in Rome. The Trevi fountain is actually the end part of the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct constructed in 19 BC. It brings water all the way from the Salone Springs (approx 20km from Rome) and supplies the fountains in the historic center of Rome with water. This fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi based on a previous design for the fountain by Bernini. The central figure of the fountain is Neptune, the God of Seas riding a shell shaped chariot pulled by two horses. One of the horses is calm while the other one restive, symbolizing the fluctuating moods of the sea.

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It is believed that tossing a coin into the fountain will bring the person back to Rome. I didn’t do that but I sure hope I will return to Rome someday! :-D

Posted by vinaya88 21.11.2012 06:56 Tagged rome europe Comments (3)

Of Castles, Concerts and the Colosseum - Part II

The journey continues in Austria..

The second leg of our Europe tour started with us flying to Vienna from Frankfurt. Vienna is the largest city as well as the capital of Austria. Almost immediately we left for a bus tour of the city to familiarise ourselves with the sights and sounds of Vienna. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the former imperial 1,441-room summer residence of the Habsburg monarchs. This palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was home to some illustrious names like Empress Maria Theresa (the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg), Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife Empress Elisabeth of Austria popularly known as “Sissi”. The gardens of this palace are a must visit! They have some of the most beautifully sculpted landscapes I have ever seen.

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That evening, we booked tickets for a not-to-be-missed event in Vienna, the Mozart Concert. The world famous Wiener- Mozart Orchestra was performing their New Year’s Concert at the Goldener Saal or Golden Hall in the Musikverein concert hall. The hall has a spellbinding ambience with wonderful acoustics. The orchestra performed some of the greatest works by W.A.Mozart and John Strauss. It was my first time listening live to an opera and I was waiting for glasses to break, sadly that did not happen :)

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The next day, we took a leisurely walking tour of the city. A Vienna City Day Pass is the most convenient and economical way to do some self-exploration of the city. This pass allows unlimited rides on trams, trains and buses for the duration of 24 hours. Multiple day passes and shopping passes (8 am to 8 pm) are some of the other options. These passes can be bought at any tram or train station from the vending machines. Some of the places worth a visit are the State Opera, The Parliament constructed in Roman style, the Hofburg Palace (the winter residence of the Habsburg monarchs), the RatHaus, Karlskirche, the Museumsquartier (housing 4 museums and flanked by the Museum of Natural History and Museum of Fine Arts), the Albertina etc. etc. There are way too many museums in Vienna!

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One of the best attractions in Vienna is the St. Stephen’s Cathedral or Stephansdom. It is located in the heart of the city and most of its surrounding area is entirely pedestrian. I highly recommend exploring the area on foot. There are a number of local handicraft shops all around the cathedral and the spiral potato chips became something of my favourite!! A little farther away you will also find regular branded shops and souvenir stores, a pedestrianised shopping haven!

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The Cathedral itself is marvellous. The inside appears multicoloured due to the various stain glass windows reflecting light. We also took a guided tour to the catacombs below the cathedral. It was a pretty creepy experience to say the least. There were different rooms housing the bodies & organs respectively of priests and bishops. These organs are stored in huge urns and had to be removed before the process of mummification of the bodies. Over the years, the smell of the decaying organs led to the transfer of the original smaller urns into bigger and bigger ones leading finally to the huge urns that we see there today. Many of the Habsburg emperors are also buried here. There was also a mass grave for those who died in the Great Plague. Due to the exceedingly large number of bodies, the bones are stacked one on top of the other like firewood and this sight is pretty unnerving... Gives me goosebumps even writing about it!

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Our next Viennese attraction was the Prater. It is an amusement park with a big ferris wheel offering beautiful views of the city and their very own Madam Tussauds museum!

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Since I haven’t visited the original Madame Tussauds, I was pretty excited and I wasn’t disappointed at all. Life-like wax figures of Arnold Schwarzenegger & Kate Winslet greet you at the entrance and although this museum features many Austrian celebrities (especially the sports section), it doesn’t have any dearth of other world famous personalities. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo di Caprio, Albert Einstein, these are just few of the names. Needless to say, Mozart, Beethoven and Pope Benedict XVI are also part of this museum.

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In the later part of the day, rain played spoilsport and our plans of visiting the Vienna Zoo were washed away (literally!!). But we did visit the zoo, more on that later. :)

Next on the agenda was the Grand Danube Cruise. Thankfully, the rain had stopped by then and our cruise proceeded as planned. The Danube is Europe’s second longest river (the longest being Volga) and it flows through 10 different countries!!! Even more interesting is the fact that this river flows through four capital cities, more than any river in the world! The scenic beauty surrounding the Danube is magical. Lush green trees, floating fisherman houses and cool winds made for a perfect journey. We also passed through a lock gate mechanism operated dam which was quite interesting because we had to wait for 30 minutes inside 2 closed gates while water filled up and our boat was raised to a higher level.

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After a few stops we reached a place called MexicoPlatz. The colossal & magnificent Church of St. Francis of Assisi is located here. It is a Roman Catholic Church built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I. It is less crowded and apparently not a very touristy area. A nice place to spend a peaceful hour away from the hustle bustle of the city!

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The following morning, we took a bus tour to another country on our itinerary, Hungary. The drive to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, took about 3 hours. First stop was at the Heroes’ Square. The central site of this square, as well as a landmark of Budapest, is the Millennium Monument with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century and other outstanding figures of Hungarian history. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art are located on the two sides of this square. Behind this square is a beautiful lake with a fantastic view of the Vajdahunyad castle.

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The modern day city of Budapest is in fact made up of two cities, ‘Buda’ & ‘Pest’ which are located opposite each other on the banks of the Danube. Buda has more of a hilly terrain while Pest is on flat land. The Castle Hill on the Buda side has some of the most famous sites of Budapest, namely the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a terrace offering majestic views of the city and the Danube. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that founded Hungary and the Bastion gets its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. The architecture of the Matthias church is very beautiful and unique. In 1541, this church was converted to a mosque. The frescoes in this church were completely destroyed and the walls were whitewashed. In later years it was restored to its former glory. During our visit, the church was undergoing restoration and entrance tickets were heavily priced. So we simply enjoyed the beauty from the outside :)

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The Parliament building, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Synagogue are landmarks on the Pest side. It was my first visit to any synagogue and the guided tour was extremely informative. This Synagogue (a Jewish place of worship) in Budapest, according to our guide is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. Men are required to cover their heads with a small cap called “Kippah” while entering the synagogue as a sign of respect to God. A holocaust memorial has also been erected in the backyard to remember those Jewish civilians who took shelter here and died in the World War II. A “Tree of Life” whose leaves bear the names of the victims stands in the courtyard as a reminder of the tragedy of the war.

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The next morning, we made our way back to the zoo. The Vienna Zoo is the oldest zoo in the world. I was really excited to see the Giant Panda, since there are only a handful of zoos in the world that house this animal. I was always under the impression that Pandas are extremely lazy creatures who just like to eat bamboo the entire day, but what I saw there changed my view entirely! There was some awesome kung-fu action going on between two pandas, one slightly bigger than the other and the younger one ended up being bullied by the other. :) It was so much fun to watch them!! We also saw the zookeepers feeding Emperor penguins, something which I have never seen before. One of the penguins was standing so close to the trainer, literally touching him and refused to budge when he threw the fish a little farther away. It kept standing there till he fed the fish into its mouth! What royal treatment!! The zoo of course had its normal share of giraffes, leopards, elephants etc. We climbed up a steep hill to see the Arctic wolves too. Three of them fought over a dead rabbit as we watched. I was extremely excited to see the polar bear enclosure but unfortunately the construction was still going on and they haven’t got the bears yet. Hopefully, some years down the line, I’ll visit again and see the bears! :)

Too very soon, it was time to say goodbye to the City of Music and move on to the Land of Pizza & Pasta. Yep, I was going to Italy!! Part III will be posted soon with those stories. :)

Posted by vinaya88 10.07.2012 20:06 Tagged budapest danube vienna austria hungary europe mozart Comments (0)

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