Big City Tales

From Destruction to Reconstruction in Dresden

February 12, 2018
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The year was 1945. World War II was raging across the globe. In the European Theatre, the Allied Forces were on the offensive and gaining ground against their dreaded Nazi foe. Boasting strong fire power from the air, the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force unleashed their collective might on strategic targets.

As the capital city of the German state of Saxony, Dresden was considered to be a transportation, communication and general war effort hub that warranted a significant and sustained bombing campaign. Following eight raids spread over three months (February to April), the Allied Forces declared a decisive victory but at what cost? The vast destruction of important landmarks in the city’s cultural centre would draw the ire of critics in the post-war era resulting in an intensive reconstruction effort.

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Out of the ruins of war, Dresden would eventually return to its former beauty. Yes, in some areas the city centre still shows the lingering aftermath of soot stained exteriors that hearken back to the darkest days of World War II, but slowly and surely Dresden’s grandest structures have been rebuilt and fully restored to the brighter days of their pre-war glory.

The Zwinger

Located in the historic heart of Dresden, the Zwinger Palace was originally constructed as the orangery, exhibition gallery and festival arena for the ruling Kings of Saxony.  The palace is Dresden’s most famous landmark and the Crown Gate is its most impressive exterior feature. The series of statues in the gate’s nitches depict the four seasons.

Inside the palace, a series of pavilions and galleries showcase some of the finest European artists, notably the Old Masters Gallery where Raphael’s larger than life Sistine Madonna is on display. In addition to paintings, the Zwinger houses an impressive porcelain collection, as well as antique weapons and scientific instruments.

Given the historical and cultural value of the palace, the Zwinger was one of the first buildings to be restored following the Allied bombing raids. Parts of the complex were re-opened in 1951 and full public access followed in 1963.

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Semper Opera House / Theaterplatz

Prior to World War II, the Semper Opera House had already undergone two rebuilds: one the result of a neo-Renaissance “facelift” completed in 1841; the other the result of a catastrophic fire in 1869. The post-fire rebuild was completed in 1878 and revealed a new High Renaissance look. Following the Allied bombings in 1945, it would take 40 years to complete its third reconstruction. When the Semper Opera House reopened its doors in February 1985, the occasion was marked with a performance of the last opera played before the bombing campaign began.

The Semper Opera House is located in the Theaterplatz, a large open square that is also bordered by the Zwinger Palace and the Hofkirche Catholic Cathedral. At the center of the Theaterplatz stands a bronze equestrian statue of King John, Saxon ruler from 1854 until 1873. This statue was created by Johannes Schilling, a German sculptor who was also responsible for the chariot statue on top of the opera house.

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Dresden Cathedral (Hofkirche)

While Germany is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation movement, Catholicism was the chosen religion of the Saxon royal family and a ‘battle of the churches’ in the 1700s produced two gems. The Hofkirche was built in an effort to create balance between the earlier constructed Frauenkirche, home of Dresden’s Protestant faithful.

Commissioned by Augustus III and completed in 1751, the Hofkirche was intended to be the largest church in all of Saxony and its grand design included a copper onion dome, Corinthian columns and a series of historical and biblical statues that look out over the city.

The Hofkirche is one of Dresden’s most beautiful buildings and has the added distinction of being the final resting place of Augustus the Strong’s heart.

Although badly damaged during WWII, the church wasn’t restored until the mid-1980s. Following the re-unification of Germany further restoration occurred, including the rebuilding of a bridge leading to the royal castle.

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Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche)

With its massive dome and exquisite interior, when the Frauenkirche opened its doors in 1743 it quickly gained renown around the world as an iconic symbol of Dresden.

At 95 metres in height and having a dome 23.5 metres in diameter, to this day the impressive Protestant church dominates the city centre landscape. That the dome became known as the ‘stone bell’ is not surprising considering its sheer mass and double shell construction for the inner and outer dome.

Fittingly, a reverent and stoic statue of Martin Luther, author of the Ninety-five Theses and a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, stands in the courtyard outside of the church beckoning true believers to draw nigh and enter in.

During the bombings in 1945, the Frauenkirche at first appeared to withstand the Allied onslaught but the sandstone eventually gave way and the building collapsed. Despite an immediate effort by church members to gather funds and reconstruct the Frauenkirche, the post-war situation in Germany stalled the initiative and wouldn’t be revisited until after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s.

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“Florence on the Elbe”

Following the city’s mass destruction during World War II, Dresden was literally reduced to a pile of rubble.  Thanks to decades of intensive labour, the beauty of the city has  emerged from the ashes and it is once again deserving of its nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”

One of the best vantage points to take in the essence of Dresden’s splendor is along the Bruhl Terrace, often referred to as the “Balcony of Europe” owing to its gorgeous promenade and spectacular river views.

The Royal Art Academy is one of the most impressive landmarks along the terrace and is noteworthy for its neo-Renaissance design along with the towering glass dome crowned by a gilded gold statue of Nike, goddess of victory.

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Vivid Memories of Vienna

January 27, 2018
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For a mid-October day, it certainly felt more like summer when I arrived in Vienna making for ideal sightseeing and picture-taking conditions. With the temperature expected to climb over 20 degrees Celsius, and nary a cloud in the brilliant blue sky with just a hint of a light breeze, my first vivid memory of the home of the Habsburgs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and wiener schnitzel was forever etched in my mind. Thankfully, more than just the weather enthralled me…here are some highlights of a quick day tour through one of Europe’s most glorious and grand cities:

Schonbrunn Palace

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Before the Palace of Versailles in France came Schonbrunn Palace in Austria, the imperial summer home of the Habsburg royal family for hundreds of years. The palace consists of over 1400 rooms and its Baroque design evokes awe beyond its distinct golden yellow exterior. The word Schonbrunn means “beautiful spring” and refers to a large, natural well on the grounds that supplied the palace occupants with a plentiful water source and allowed for an expansive garden.

In keeping with other residences of great European monarchies, the Schonbrunn property covers nearly 200 hectares and consists of expansive, immaculately kept lawns, flower beds and shrubs. I could not have chosen a more wonderful way to take in a splendid day in Vienna than wandering the grounds of one of its most popular attractions.

First up was admiring a series of marble statues that line the perimeter of the lower level garden in the area known as the Great Parterre, the space between the palace and the immense Neptune Fountain. Located at the foot of a hill, the sculptures of Neptune and his entourage were certainly impressive, but Gloriette, the crowning jewel of the palace garden took my breath away, literally and figuratively!

– Great Parterre

The Great Parterre includes over 30 life-size sculptures that represent mythological deities and virtues. The statues were carved over a period of seven years between 1773 and 1780 under the direction of a German artist and garden designer.

– Neptune Fountain

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The centre-point of the Neptune Fountain is, of course, Neptune, God of the Sea, and his entourage that includes a nymph seated on his left and the sea goddess, Thetis, kneeling on his right. Neptune holds his trusty trident high in the air and his stance is imposing as if to strike a sense of fear into any person or sea creature that attempts to block his path. A group of four tritons (half man-half fish beings) also adorn the base of the sculpture with each holding a conch shell trumpet to herald Neptune’s dominion.

– Gloriette

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Ironically, the root word of gloriette (gloire) means “little room,” but there is nothing little about the building that Queen Maria Theresa intended to be a symbol of Habsburg power and the Just Wars it carried out in the name of securing lasting peace and prosperity. The Schonbrunn Gloriette sits at the top of a 60-metre-high hill overlooking the Neptune Fountain, the Great Parterre, the Schonbrunn Palace immediately below it, and ultimately the city of Vienna beyond the palace complex borders. The Gloriette is thus both a focal point and a lookout, and was also utilized as a large dining hall and a venue for hosting festive events. It is well worth taking the time to make the trek from the palace, which can be done via two pathways: one is straight up; the other curves its way up the hillside. Either way, there are rest stops to take in wonderful vistas and sit and enjoy the company of ducks that flock to the many water features and grassy banks.

 

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Hofburg Palace

Having surveyed the splendor of the summer residence, my tour continued on to Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the imperial family. This palace is located in the centre of Vienna and was originally built in the 13th century followed by many expansions. The palace was the seat of power of the Habsburg rulers for centuries, and today is the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria.

 

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The palace consists of a series of wings and overlooks the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), a large, public green space where two notable statues stand honoring great military leaders of the past: one of Prince Eugene of Savoy; the other of Archduke Charles of Austria. The Austrian Crown Jewels are also kept in the Hofburg’s treasury.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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Inside the Hofburg Palace gate lies the heart of Vienna’s Old Town district, the Innere Stadt, where there are numerous places of interests to take in along with experiencing a vibrant market/food scene. I highly recommend trying out the local fusion food carts that offer delicious offerings like duck schnitzel with thick noodles and vegetables.

As the most important religious building in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its colourful tiled roof is also one of Old Town’s most recognized sites. The cathedral is more commonly referred to as Stephansdom and is the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese in Vienna, as well as the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. Stephansdom has hosted many important events in Habsburg and Austrian history, including the weddings of Mozart and Haydyn, and the funeral of Vivaldi; its crypt contains the remains of Habsburg royal family members and other notable Austrian figures.

Austrian Parliament Building

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Across the street from Hofburg Palace and located along the picturesque and majestic Vienna Ring Road (Ringstrasse), the Austrian Parliament is a shining example of the Greek Revival style. With towering Corinthian pillars and numerous allegorical statutes, including the Athena Fountain and Horse Tamer in the images below, as well as bronze and marble statues on the roof and within the pediment, the building’s artistic details were intended to capture the attention of the masses, which they still do to this day. The image above shows the series of four statues along The Ramp that consist of Greek and Roman ancient historians intended to remind politicians of their responsibility to be mindful of history.

Mozart Monument

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Last but not least, no trip to Vienna is complete without paying homage to one of classical music’s greatest composers. A lovely monument of Mozart is found in the Burggarten (Imperial Palace Gardens). As a child, Mozart was a keyboard and violin prodigy but he also possessed a penchant for composing, which dazzled the royal court. Although born in Salzburg, Mozart was a restless lad and longed for the fame and glamour of the city life. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he made the decision not to return to his country roots and make the city his new home. A wise choice…Vienna is indeed wunderbar!

 


Prague – The Beauty of Bohemia

December 21, 2017
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Prior to travelling to Prague in the fall of 2014, I had seen plenty of pictures and read many reviews about the city’s growing reputation as a must-see destination of choice over other European gems such as London, Paris and Rome. Having visited the ‘Big 3’ on my first trip across the pond, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical that Prague could somehow surpass them in esteem, especially Paris, the glorious City of Light, but my opinion changed. In no time at all, I was succumed by the Beauty of Bohemia!

Municipal House

I found it very fitting that Municipal House is located in Namesti Republiky (Republic Square) in the center of Prague. Not only was it once used as the primary residence of the King of Bohemia in the 14th and 15th centuries; its main balcony was where Czechoslovakia declared its independence as a country in 1918. In addition to its status as the city’s historical heart and one of its most architecturally stunning Art Nouveau structures, the building has evolved into a cultural landmark. The elaborately decorated Smetana Hall is the largest area inside of Municipal House and is used for concerts, festivals and ballroom galas. By day or by night, this Prague gem captured my attention, earned my admiration and drew me back more than once.

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Powder Tower

Located next to Municipal House is Powder Tower (also known as Powder Gate), one of the city’s original gateways that was constructed in the late 1400s. The Gothic-style tower is the dividing point between the Old Town and New Town districts. Originally called New Tower, the name was changed in the 17th century when the tower was used to store gunpowder. The tower has also been used over the centuries as a marker to measure the height of flood waters. Similar to many of Prague’s historic structures, it struck me that the tower is equally impressive at any hour of the day and there are many interesting angles to observe it from.

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Old Town

While Municipal House was where the modern country of Czechoslovkia was born, its medieval roots are found in the Old Town district. Old Town Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a number of historical buildings and monuments, as well as a large open space for food vendors, entertainers, and craftspeople to utilize. As I happily discovered, it is the ideal place to sample traditional Czech dishes such as palicinky (pancakes), trdelnik (rolled dough), gulas (meat goulash), or knedliky (dumplings) and then enjoy your beverage of choice at an outdoor cafe with an amazing backdrop of Renaissance and Baroque building facades to ooh and ahh over. Along with satisfying my sweet and savory cravings, Old Town Square served up other visual delights to feast my eyes on:

  • Astronomical Clock – As the third oldest of its kind in the world, the clock draws throngs of tourists to the southern wall of the Old Town Hall building where they eagerly await the top of the hour to strike and watch the figures come to life. I particularly enjoyed the “Walk of the Apostles” and other moving sculptures. According to legend, if the clock were ever to stop or come to disrepair, the city of Prague would suffer dire consequences so there is a concerted effort to keep it fully operational for citizens and visitors to forever enjoy.
  • Jan Hus Monument – Located in the middle of Old Town Square, the Jan Hus monument honours the religious reformer who, long before Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, was speaking out against egregious church practices. Even after being ex-communicated by the Pope, Hus continued sharing his message and amassed a loyal following which the Catholic establishment frowned upon. When Hus refused to renounce his beliefs, he was branded as a heretic and subsequently burned at the stake.
  • Kinsky Palace – Once the residence of the Kinsky royal family, the Rococo-style palace is now an art museum and showcases some of the country’s finest landscape paintings dating back to the 17th century. The building’s exterior is a work of art in and of itself with its distinctive stucco finish and highly eye-catching pink and white colour. Before it was converted into a museum, the palace was used as a German grammar school and counts Franz Kafka as one of its famous students. Sadly, the palace was also the site where Communist leader Klement Gottwald announced his party’s takeover of government in 1948.
  • Church of Our Lady before Tyn – Looking very much like a castle straight out of a fairy tale, the church’s two Gothic-designed towers stand 80 metres tall and are each topped with four spires. The church is also home to Prague’s oldest pipe organ.

Wenceslas Square

Located in Prague’s New Town district, Wenceslas Square is primarily a hub for commercial and cultural activities. The long boulevard that extends from the National Museum to the border between New Town and Old Town reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris with shops, cafes and throngs of tourists intermingling with the city’s business crowd. One of the major landmarks is the Wenceslas Monument that stands in front of the National Museum and includes a statue of Saint Wenceslas (patron saint of Bohemia), as well as four other Czech saints. The area is also a frequent gathering place for social demonstrations and civic celebrations.

While I was familiar with the classic Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” I did not realize that during his lifetime, Wenceslas only held the rank of duke. It wasn’t until after his brutal death at the hands of his jealous brother that he was posthumously granted the title of king and recognized for his pious nature and good deeds.

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National Museum

The main building of the National Museum was unfortunately closed to the public due to a major reconstruction project that was underway when I was there in 2014, but the grounds were open to walk around. At the base of the stairs leading up to the museum’s entrance I came across the Jan Palach Memorial. Palach was one of two university students who self-immolated in a suicide pact to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quash liberal reforms being proposed at the time by Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Prague Spring movement. The bronze cross marks the spot where Palach and his friend, Jan Zajic, chose to commit their radical acts. To this day, people come to the site and lay flowers in a sign of remembrance and respect for the ultimate sacrifice made by Palach, Zajic and others who desired political freedom.

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Prague Castle 

Situated in Hradcany (Castle District), the Prague Castle overlooks the Vltava River and also holds the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest ‘coherent castle complex’ with a total land area sprawling over 70,000 square metres. As I was forewarned, appropriate footwear is a must and ample time is required to wander around this massive wonder.

The Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Prague, is one of the most identifiable landmarks within the castle complex and is easy to spot from a distance with its nearly 100 metre high main tower dominating the skyline. The church is the largest and oldest in the Czech Republic and is the final resting place for many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

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In addition to St. Vitus Cathedral and other churches, the castle complex is also a myriad wonder of palaces, grand halls, towers, sculptures, gardens and museums. The President of the Czech Republic lives in the complex and presides over the country’s affairs. The Prague Castle Guard protect the main entry way of the courtyard leading into the Matthias Gate that was erected by its namesake, Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1614. Similar to other major European castles, tourists are treated to frequent changing of the guards ceremonies.

One of my favourite parts of the Prague Castle day tour I took was walking through the St. Wenceslas Vineyard that cascades down the hill towards the Vltava River.  The cobblestone pathway was littered with freshly fallen leaves just starting to change colour with the advent of fall’s crisp, cool air.

I also took a ‘Prague By Night’ tour that included a stop at Prague Castle where the St. Vitus Cathedral glowed in tones of rich gold and spotlights cast spectacular shadows of presidential monuments. The view of the castle complex from afar was also awe-inspiring with light reflecting off of the river water below.

Charles Bridge

Up until 1841, the only way to cross the Vltava River from Old Town to Prague Castle was via Karluv Most, the Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV. The bridge is constructed of stone and is over 600 metres in length. Its many features include three guard towers, 16 arches and 30 statues. Whether I was experiencing the market-like bustle of the bridge as a pedestrian or admiring its architectural style from a riverboat (along with a bevy of swans), I could not deny the utter charm and timeless appeal of this historic bridge.

Vltava River

Commonly referred to as the “Czech national river,” the Vltava is 430 kilometres in length and flows through the center of Prague. There are a total of 18 bridge crossings within Prague, the aforementioned Charles Bridge being the most famous, and there are numerous boat tour operators offering morning, afternoon and evening launches. I chose to enjoy an afternoon tea and dessert tour and it hit the spot!

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One of the highlights of the river cruise I took was viewing the Metronome (high on the hill in Letna Park) and the Svatopluk Čech bridge with its gorgeous Art Nouveau styled arches and soaring column-topped angels.

Angels in the sky

The Beauty of Bohemia

After a week touring around the heart of Bohemia, I went from skeptic to firm believer that Prague is the new Paris! It’s just as pretty; it’s just as bright; it’s lights will take away your breath at night. Yes, the Beauty of Bohemia is quite a sight and the locals sure know how to show it off all right!


Venice: Veni, vidi, vici

August 9, 2013
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Vessels of all shapes and sizes navigate the busy, and sometimes choppy waters of Venice’s Grand Canal.

When travelling in Italy it is hard not to harken back to the glory days of the Roman Empire and the many conquests of its illustrious leaders.  Chief among the lost list of conquerors is Julius Caesar, whose epic battles at home and abroad contributed to the demise of the former corrupt republic and the establishment of a new noble state.

During his reign, Caesar was known for famously crossing the Rhine and the English Channel as part of his expansion efforts, and for coining the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” following his triumph in Britain.  Given Caesar’s connection to the water, his immortal words are a fitting reference to how it feels as a tourist coming to Venice for the first time.

Being surrounded by water and an abundance of narrow, winding channels can be unnerving, but once your bearings are straight navigating this unique terrain is a breeze, and you’ll find yourself feeling like the mighty ruler himself. Yes, when it comes to visiting Venice, it is entirely possible to say: “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

The Grand Canal

A good place to start your conquest of this ancient marine city is on the Grand Canal where traditional gondolas can be found side-by-side with modern water taxis (vaporettis) and luxury yachts. Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, you’ll definitely need your sea legs to be in shape to get around Venice. The charm of a crooning gondolier will appeal to couples out for a romantic tour of the Venice lagoon waterways; while the speed and efficiency of vaporetti operators will attract those wanting to get from point A to B in short order.

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When in Venice, do as the tourists do: indulge yourself and take a traditional gondola ride!

The Rialto Bridge

As the most photographed bridge in Venice, the Rialto Bridge has the added distinction of once being the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. As beautiful as it is functional, the bridge owes its unique design to architect Anthony da Ponte who constructed a higher than usual arch to allow passage of galley ships common in the 16th century. Other notable features include three walkways, a decorative portico, and merchant shops on both sides.

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Opened in 1591, the Rialto Bridge is a busy crossing point between the San Marco and San Polo districts.

St. Mark’s Square / Bell Tower

Anchoring one end of the Venice promenade, St. Mark’s Square is home to the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace among other must-see sights. The large open square provides ample space for outdoor concerts, as well as milling about with the plethora of pigeons who happily make their home here. Stylized street lanterns highlight the master skills of local glass-blowers, who demonstrate their craft and sell their wares nearby, but the main attractions in the square are the opulently designed/decorated basilica and palace that are as equally beautiful on the inside as they are from the outside.

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The bell tower in St. Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s most recognized and visited landmarks.

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One of the decorative columns in St. Mark`s Square that serve as the gateway to Venice.

The Promenade

Known as the Riva degli Schiavoni, the world-renowned promenade along the Venice waterfront starts at the Doge’s Palace and stretches to the Arsenal, Venice’s ancient shipyard area. The area is typically full of tourists eager to shop, eat, and soak up the Italian sun, which on a summer’s day may see temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius. The promenade is thus the ultimate hot-spot in Venice in more ways than one, and it’s not uncommon to see luxury yachts of the rich and famous anchored along its pier.

For those who prefer a little history and culture over a bunch of tourist traps, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument and La Pieta church will satisfy your cravings. The former pays homage to the first king of Italy; while the latter was the home parish of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, who composed and performed many of his early Baroque pieces here.

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Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument located at the centre of the Venice promenade.

The Arsenal

Established in the 12th century, the Arsenal quickly rose to prominence as one of the most unique and efficient ship-building facilities in the world. At its peak in the 1500s, the facility employed up to 16,000 skilled workers who could turn out a ship’s galley in less than 24 hours, a remarkable feat that was due in part to a production line technique that was far ahead of its time.

Nowadays, the Arsenal is not accessible to the public but the main entrance gate can still be admired, and is a worth a trip to do just that!  Considered to be Venice’s first Classical Revival structure, the gate was built in 1460 and its ornate façade ultimately provided the inspiration for other buildings under construction at the time to take on similar stylistic elements.

The Arsenal

The Arsenal was once the world’s largest shipyard.

With its numerous winding canals, charming gondoliers, and jaw-dropping gorgeous architecture, it’s easy to be inspired by all that Venice has to offer and it truly is a place to come, see and conquer!


Feast Your Eyes on Florence

July 22, 2013
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The Piazzale Michelangelo offers one of the best views of Florence, Italy and features a large statue of David.

Nestled high in the Tuscan hills, the city of Florence offers up one idyllic scene after another.  Be it the incredibly detailed and delicate exterior of the massive Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral), the grandeur of the larger-than-life statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia, or the breath-taking panoramic view of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo, there is plenty to feast your eyes on in Florence.

An Artist’s Haven

Despite the fact Florence may not be Italy’s largest or most famous city, at the peak of its development during the Renaissance the city was a mecca for the great artists of the day who served as patrons of the powerful Medici family.  Eager to demonstrate and show-off their incredible wealth, the Medici spared no expense in commissioning a series of buildings, public landmarks, and works of art that remain to this day amongst the most splendid examples of Italian craftsmanship.

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Detail of Brunelleschi’s massive dome that is the crowning glory of the epic Florence Cathedral.

The Duomo and David

The handiwork of two famous Italian artists, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, is on display throughout Florence; the most famous of the former being the Duomo dome,  the latter being the David statue.

Mammoth structures in terms of size and artistic impact, the dome and statue dominate their respective landscapes and are amongst the most visited city attractions. While the dome is fully accessible and photographable (you can even climb to the top and take a walk around the exterior), the statue of David is less so with it being housed in a museum meaning that viewing hours are restricted and pictures are prohibited in order to safeguard the integrity of the marble. That said, two replicas of the statue are located in outdoor venues (one in Piazzale Michelangelo, one in Piazza della Signoria) and provide plenty of photo opportunities to capture the splendor of Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece.

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Detail of Michelangelo’s iconic and stately statue of David that stands in the Piazza della Signoria.

A Sculptural Garden

Along with the replica of the David statue, the Piazza della Signoria features the Neptune Fountain, which symbolizes Florence’s status as a naval power in the mid-to- late 1500s; an equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici, who is proudly shown on his mount making a triumphant return to the city as its ruling power in 1537; and an imposing statue of Hercules, the mythical hero who is thought to have filled in the swampland Florence was founded upon.

The piazza is also in close proximity to two buildings of historical significance: The Uffizi Gallery that houses the most extensive collection of Italian Renaissance art, and the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) that has served as city hall since the 1300s.

A Famous Burial Ground

Not far from the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio, the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is noteworthy as being the largest Franciscan church in the world and the final resting place for some of Italy’s most famous citizens, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. Given the celebrated status of the dearly departed buried here, the building is also referred to as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

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The Santa Croce is the burial place of some famous Italians (e.g. Michelangelo and Galileo), earning it the moniker: Temple of the Italian Glories.

A Bridge Like None Other

Crossing the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the oldest bridge in Florence and has the unique distinction of having houses/shops built into its design and a pedestrian walkway (the Vasari Corridor) that runs over the tops of the shops. Since the 16th century, the bridge has been the home of goldsmiths and jewellers catering to a wide range of clientele. The Vasari Corridor bustles from dawn ’til dusk with tourists enjoying a myriad of entertainers and some of the prettiest views of the river.

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The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge like none other…shops on the inside and a walkway over its top.

View From the Top

While the Piazza della Signoria is the heart of old Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo is the city’s prime viewing location where one of the Michelangelo’s replicas of David enjoys an incredible view from the top for all eternity.

Perched high above the city, David overlooks the Arno River with its series of beautiful bridges, and the mass expanse of the city lying just across the river banks. From this vantage point, the Duomo di Firenze, the Palazzo Vecchio, and other historical sites take on a new perspective revealing the full breadth and glory of these ancient, awe-inspiring structures.

Florence is truly a city of fabulous views and if you’re looking for a place to tantalize your eyes, look no further.

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View of the expansive, elaborate and elegant Florence Cathedral from Piazzale Michelangelo.

 


When in Rome…

December 29, 2011
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…do as the Romans do, or so the saying goes! 

Thus, on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, that means hitting the streets and roaming about with the masses. Along the way, be prepared to stop and gawk at an impressive array of spectacular Roman ruins and to part with some Euros as you indulge in gelato not once, not twice, but three times (did I mention it was hot, and did I mention it was Rome?); as you partake of the most basic, but oh so delicious slice of pizza imaginable; and, as you shop in the discount designer stores and bargain with gypsy vendors along the street – both resulted in purchases of little black dresses, what more could a girl want?

Yes, Rome has a lot to offer and exploring it on foot revealed one historical masterpiece and visual delight after another.

If you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain legend has it that you will one day return to Rome!

The cascading water in the Trevi Fountain can be heard for blocks, but when you’re traipsing through narrow side streets it’s not immediately apparent where the noise is emanating from until you round a corner and it suddenly appears out of nowhere in all its grandeur and gurgling glory.  Truly, this is one of the most gorgeous fountains to be found anywhere in the world and is a definite must-see that will undoubtedly produce a few more than fine Kodak moments.

Here are some other Rome highlights:

The Pope’s window where he delivers public blessings from on Sundays.

Exterior shot of the Vatican Museum.

The Colosseum’s south side was damaged by an earthquake.

The Arch of Constantine celebrates just one of many Roman war victories over the centuries.

A small portion of the Pantheon not under restoration.

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

Some of the imperial ruins along the road to the Colosseum.

Ceiling detail at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Roof detail at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Close-up detail of one of the many sculptures that adorn the Trevi Fountain.


Voila la ville de Paris…C’etait tres magnifique!

December 27, 2011
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The Louvre Museum attracts crowds from morning `til night--on the inside and the outside!

As I was lying on the floor of the Louvre Museum just outside of the Mona Lisa viewing room it occurred to me that being attended to by an ultra-friendly and very helpful American doctor who was trying to get my blood pressure under control was not in the least how I envisioned this tour going!

The famous Venus de Milo statue is just as beloved as the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum.

With hundreds of museum visitor eyes staring down at me and frantic museum staff trying to push aside said American doctor and ascertain for themselves what was wrong, I felt like I had become the latest work of art on display, but I wasn`t really interested in being viewed.  In an attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity, I tried to ignore the gathering crowd and instead focus my energy on listening to the kind doctor`s words of instruction so that I could quickly regain my feet and rejoin my tour group.  Mortified as I was, my sense of humour did not leave me and I managed to quip that the Mona Lisa simply took my breath away and at least all of this fuss would make for an interesting story after the fact, and it has!

For those inquiring minds who want to know why I had a dizzy spell in the middle of the Louvre, it was due to a few factors that included being jostled about in the mob mayhem trying to get a picture of Madame Mona Lisa in a tightly packed and very warm room, having to stay in this steam-cooker environment to listen to explanations of other Italian masterpiece paintings as part of the tour, and just the mere fact of my immune system adjusting to being on foreign soil.  The whole incident was over just as quickly as it started for which I was grateful as there was so much more to see in this massive museum, and I had yet to explore the exterior gardens and the other gems of Paris that awaited along the Champs-Elysees.

Youthful, lithe and enticing, The Sun King, Louis XIV, graces the exterior of the Louvre Museum.

While the hysteria and antics at the Louvre have provided some of my Paris story fodder, there were other noteworthy occurrences to speak of such as the two faces of Paris that were revealed on a gloomy morning of wind and rain that turned into a glorious afternoon and evening of hot summer sun.

The contemporary and controversial glass pyramid outside the Louvre Museum.

The Eiffel Tower was first-up on the morning agenda so it didn`t make for great picture-taking from the loftiest height in Paris, but nonetheless the great beauty and sheer expanse of the city was evident in walking the perimeter of the tower`s viewing balconies.

Some of the famous bridges of Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tower looking to the west.

La Grande Roue (Ferris Wheel), Paris.

The Louvre Museum tour followed and, although it was starting to clear by the time the tour ended, the sky was still gray as we exited into the Tuileries Gardens and began the march toward the Champs-Elysees passing the Luxor Obelisk, the Pont Alexandre III, and the National Assembly toward the Arc de Triomphe.

L`Arc de Triomphe.

Close-up of carved relief on the Arc de Triomphe.

It was after a light bistro lunch that the sun finally revealed its warmth and the true colours of Paris were revealed.   There is nothing like a vivid blue, cloudless backdrop of sky to bring stark and stoic buildings to life and provide plenty of photographic inspiration.  My feet may have already been aching after making the trek from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, but Notre Dame Cathedral was beckoning and, feeling well-fueled and no longer light-headed, how could I not return to the sites of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower to capture these Paris lovelies now bathed in sunlight, so off I went back down the Champs-Elysees.  I admit to hopping a cab between Notre Dame and the Louvre because it was now early evening at this point and the sun was starting to descend in the sky; other than that it was all hoofing it on foot and, yes, I paid the price the next day, but it was oh so worth it to see gay Paris in all its glittering and magnificent glory!

The Eiffel Tower.

Steel detail from the Eiffel Tower.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

Stained-glass window interior shot of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Roof-top detail of the Louvre Museum.

The Coronation of Josephine, David`s masterpiece on display at the Louvre Museum.


Minding the Gap in Jolly Ol’ London Town

December 23, 2011
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I love London!

OK, so I only had two days to explore this great dame of a city, AND most of it was confined to the luscious and lively west end district, AND it happened to be during the midst of a summer heat wave meaning there wasn’t a single drop of rain to dampen the mood of my visit, but I nonetheless stand firm in my conviction…I love jolly ol’ London town and here are just a few reasons why:

The Tube – “Mind the Gap,” you say? “Thank-you, I think I will!”  And with that final piece of advice spoken in unmistakably crisp and clear British diction, my first ride on London’s infamous “Tube” set forth and I was hooked from there.  This amazing feat of British engineering is a labyrinth of long and deep subway tunnels and pedestrian passages that serves locals and tourists well.  Just when you think you can’t possibly go any further toward the centre of the earth’s core, down you go again on another impossibly steep escalator (yes, this is not for the faint of heart or anyone prone to light-headedness!) in search of your platform.  The trains run frequently and overhead digital signs and regular speaker announcements keep passengers well-informed of subway traffic.  The signage and detailed maps also do a great job of getting any wayward travellers back on track!  The Tube is definitely one of the most user-friendly and delightfully polite and pleasant underground systems that I have been on.

Don’t be fooled by the cold exterior of this stone gate/archway…a pleasant, pretty and picture-worthy park awaits on the other side!

St. James Park – There’s nothing like spending time in a great green space on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon and that is exactly what jolly ol’ London town served up for the lollygangers and intrepid tourists alike enjoying a stroll about this lovely landmark.   With government buildings/courtyards on one end and Buckingham Palace on the other, there is a lot to take in as you make your way down the wide and scenic pathways.  The ‘Changing of the Guard’ ceremony draws a large and boisterous crowd at the palace, but the park is quiet in other areas for those who just want to sit in repose and soak up the aura of history and nature’s beauty that is all around.

Soaking up the Saturday sun in St. James Park.

Big Ben looms large in all its glory!

Big Ben / House of Parliament Building– Disraeli, Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher, Major, Blair…the list of stalwart and strong British Prime Ministers that have graced the parliamentary halls and meandered the streets and alleyways in the government district is impressive indeed!   The House of Parliament stands tall and proud along the Thames River and, not far off at Westminster Palace, Big Ben continues to boom its bell/chimes and maintains its status as one of the most recognizable symbols of London.

Freddie Mercury lives on through the musical We Will Rock You.

The West End Theatre District – From the annals of history to the current day craze of pop culture, there is bound to be a play/musical showing in the West End that captures your interest.  We Will Rock You, celebrating the music of Queen, caught my fancy on this trip and seemed very fitting to join in an audience sing-along of this beloved British band’s greatest hits.  The gleaming, gaudy and golden life-size statue of Freddie Mercury outside of the Dominion Theatre also grabbed my attention!

When good old Queen Victoria was the queen…

Queen Victoria Monument – Drawing inspiration from multiple artistic mediums and materials, the Queen Victoria monument offers much to please the eye at every level that it is observed from.   From the golden glint of the guardian angel perched precariously on one foot at the top, to the stoic, silent and solid stone carving of Queen Victoria herself in the middle, to the glorious green marble guards and lions who sit at the base as the first line of protectors, it is a sight to behold and a worthy tribute to this mighty monarch who ruled for over 60 years in an era of tremendous growth for the British Empire.

Piccadilly Circus / The National Gallery / The Tower of London and so much more – Whether you’re mingling with the mobs of people at Piccadilly Circus, or admiring the myriad of marvelous art pieces at the National Gallery, or crossing London Bridge en route to the magical and mysterious Tower of London there is plenty to see and do, even if you only have two days to explore!

Here are a few more pictures of my short, but oh so sweet, stay in jolly ol’ London town…I will be back!

The Red Telephone Box is a familiar sight on the streets of London.

The London Eye offers great views of the city.

No talking, please!  Standing on guard at Buckingham Palace.

An ultra-large ‘Ship in a Bottle’ on display outside of the National Gallery.

A guardian angel watches over the Queen Victoria monument.

Green marble figures surround the base of the magnificent Queen Victoria monument.