Tag Archives: Architecture

UNESCO Churches and Monasteries of Armenia

In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and today 3 sites covering 5 places of worship are recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. While planning our trip we felt like almost every other thing we read was church this or monastery that – we were worried that we might quickly tire of them, that they’d all start blurring into each other and we would fail to appreciate their differences and significance.

I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case!

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery in early spring

So the story goes, Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a cave with a natural spring. Geghard is a common and easy day trip from the capital Yerevan, and as well as being an impressive sight in a spectacular location, it’s important because Gregory is credited with the country’s Christianisation.

Geghard Monastery collage

Clockwise from top-left: Julie photographing the chandelier in the main chapel; Zhamatun, the second of the cave chapels, viewed from a hole in the floor of the Upper Jhamatun; Julie tasting the spring water – very clean in taste (no sulphur or mineral aftertaste) but very cold!; Carved relief of a ram’s head, two lions and an eagle clutching a lamb which is believed to be the coat of arms of the family that had the cave monastery extended in the 13th century

At the beginning of March we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but out of the sunshine exploring the chapels and caves was pretty cold. Completely worth it though, as the carvings throughout the monastery are so detailed, particularly the most recent ones. We especially liked the boldness of the older carvings in the caves and the finer work in the corridor to the upper gavit.

The Temple of Garni

The Temple of Garni, Armenia

The Temple of Garni, the only remaining structure of pre-Christian Armenia

A visit to The Temple of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery as it’s pretty much on the way. Our day trip also included a stop at the modern Charents’ Arch but unfortunately the morning’s haze hadn’t quite cleared enough for us to see it framing Mt Ararat.

The Temple of Garni isn’t on the UNESCO Heritage list, but it is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD so it’s nearly 2,000 years old! We loved the detail of the stone carvings around the roofline, and the very big steps at the front to get to the altar inside.

Temple of Garni collage

Clockwise from top left: The remains of the mosaic floor in the Roman bath house; Detail of the temple roofline carvings; the remains of the St Sion Church with a view down the Garni valley

The remains of St Sion Church sit adjacent to the temple but we could only just see them peeking out from the snow, however we were able to see through the door of a building nearby which houses the mosaic flooring remains of a Roman bath house – nowhere near as well preserved or extensive as those at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – but fascinating to see such a breadth of history in one place.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins, Armenia

The ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathderal and the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin are the second UNESCO site that we visited in Armenia on another day trip from Yerevan. According to the small museum on site, Zvartnots Cathedral was briefly the centre of Christianity in Armenia, and its unique design was inspirational for the restoration of the much larger dome of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The remnants of Zvartnots Cathedral, clockwise from top-left: a pair of carved eagle capitals; a model of what Zvartnots may have looked like; and the many pieces of it which lay around in the surrounding fields like a massive jigsaw puzzle

According to the information pages on the excellent Armenia Heritage website, the surrounding buildings were a palace used by the Catholicos of All Armenia (i.e. the head of the Armenian Church) and included a throne room, a Roman bath house and a large winery. Palatial indeed! We really enjoyed exploring the ruins and trying to imagine how impressive the cathedral and its surrounding buildings would have been.

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral. There’s always something being repaired when we visit the sights of a country!

Echmiadzin (officially Vagharshapat) is the 4th largest city in Armenia having once been the capital, but the reason for our visit was the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin – the centre of Christianity in the country – and specifically the Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world.

The colourfully carved entranceway and the frescoes of the main cathedral’s dome

Inside it felt open and airy despite its relatively small size, and easily accommodated the many worshippers and handful of tourists. We liked the restrained frescoes and the 3 rooms of the treasury museum behind the main altar that includes among its relics the right-hand of St John the Baptist and the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ.

Clockwise from top-left: Reliquary of St John the Baptist; The Holy Lance and its reliquary; Julie in the first room of the Cathedral Museum

As well as the cathedral, the Mother See, like the Vatican, comprises a number of other buildings including a seminary, and there are some very modern additions like the Gate of St Gregory and my favourite, the circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Church of the Holy Archangels, Armenia

As well as the cathedral and its treasury museum, we liked the new Gate of St Gregory and the funky tall circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

Sanahin Monastery, tucked away on the fringes of the village

Near the end of our fortnight in Armenia we stayed in the small northern mining town of Alaverdi, an excellent base from which to visit Armenia’s final UNESCO site – the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin.

While it is possible to visit both in a day, or even half a day by taxi, we split them up so we’d have plenty of time to explore. Sanahin is the closer of the two to Alaverdi, though they’re both a short but very steep 1st gear marshrutka ride from the bottom of the Debed Canyon to their respective villages and they’re very different.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Details of Sanahin Monastery: the carved pillars and walls of the main gavit which we saw at all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia; One of the carved gravestones depicting the profession of the deceased, we think he was a musician

Sanahin looks compact, squeezed into a forest clearing between the edge of the village and the foot of the hills but it feels big, especially in the main covered entranceway or gavit, the floor covered in the gravestones of royalty and those once important in society, often depicting the interred’s profession. However, our favourites were the huge square bell tower with red brick crosses incorporated into its walls, and the fine examples of two khachkars (literally “cross-stones”) standing to attention that flank the main entrance.

Sanahin Bell Tower, Armenia

Detail of the wonderful carved red-brick inlay of the bell tower at the Sanahin Monastery

Mikoyan Musuem, Sanahin, Armenia

Just down the hill from Sanahin Monastery is the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. One worked for 60 years in the Soviet Politburo and the other designed the USSR’s first jet fighter, the MiG

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery with its commanding view over the village and the canyon

In contrast to Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery sits on a lofty perch overlooking the village and the canyon. When we arrived we thought it was closed as all of the gates were shut, but after wandering around the perimeter of the old walls a local farmer gestured through so we crept in and started exploring.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Clockwise from top left: detail of the carving of the monastery’s founder’s sons Smbat (who later became a king) and Gurgen holding a model of the church; the Amenaprkitch (All Savior) Khachkar of 1273 is the only one we saw in Armenia with a painting on it; and the view of the valley canyon with Sanahin just visible on the left ridge

As we worked our way around a youngish guy with a big bunch of keys started opening up the buildings and encouraging us to enter. A Polish couple arrived and he seemed more comfortable talking to them in Russian – we followed them all to the bell tower but unfortunately there was only time for the other couple to climb the tower as the caretaker had to lock up. Still, we’re glad we got to see inside the locked churches!

Hamazasp Gavit, Haghpat, Armenia

The cavernous Hamazasp Gavit is the largest gavit in Armenia at 330m2

As well as the separate bell tower (very different to the one at Sanahin), we liked the vastness of the ancillary buildings – one, the Hamazasp Gavit used as a monks assembly room is the largest gavit in Armenia, and we especially liked the depiction of the two brothers holding a model of the church.

Akhtala Church

Akhtala Church, Armenia

Akhtala hill-top church. Stunning location and not much to look at from the outside, but inside..

After our visit to Haghpat we decided not to wait 1½ hours for the next marshrutka and opted to set off on foot hoping to hitchhike a little further away from Alaverdi to the small village of Akhtala. A transit van, an old Vauxhall Cavalier with a cheery pair of Georgians (one of whom looked like George Clooney!) and a lovely couple in old Lada making a bread delivery later and we were there, the non-UNESCO St. Astvatsatsin church in the Akhtala complex.

We stood at the gates for a minute or so taking in the views (and taking photos, obviously!) when an old gentleman rattling some keys walked past us and gestured to the church. Feeling a bit like we were being frog-marched, we followed and were led inside – Wow.

The colourful main nave frescos of Akhtala, Armenia

It’s an assault of vivid colour! Beautiful, detailed frescoes line the walls though some are in desperate need of a little restoration..

We spent as long as we dared gazing in awe at the colourful, detailed murals while the caretaker quietly stood out of the way occasionally checking his mobile phone. We could easily have spent an hour inside walking around and slowly checking out each of the walls. It looks like repairs have started on the roof so we made a donation and asked if it was OK to look around the grounds.

Akhtala, Armenia

This prompted a short tour.. our caretaker was keen to point out the grave of the last monk to live here who died at the age of 100 in 1972, the old monastery cells in the walls, some kilns near the entrance and a modern sculpture that he was quite keen for us to step through which superstitiously helps your relationship but we both thought framed the monastery quite nicely..

Akhtala, Armenia

Modern sculpture at Akhtala – if only I could recall the Armenian for “Excuse me, sorry, would you mind taking a step backwards please?”

Feeling confident in our hitchhiking abilities, we set off from Akhtala towards the main road and after about 40 minutes and a few attempts we eventually managed to wave down a telecoms engineering van heading our way that had 4 guys in it and 2 spare seats. One of the young guys, Mikahl, graduated with a degree in English and we had a long and interesting conversation with him and his work mates. He also tagged us on Facebook as “English autostoppers” :o)

Mikahl - English Autostoppers

Mikahl tags us on Facebook on our way back to Alaverdi! Thanks again for the lift and the conversation :o)

The thing we’ll remember most that distinguishes Armenian churches and monasteries from any other places of worship we’ve seen so far are the carvings on the outside walls. They are covered in crosses of different sizes and styles, almost like graffiti, and we think they look really good!

Andrew’s Highlights of Havana

By the time we arrived in Havana we’d been in Cuba for the best part of 4 weeks, having already climbed its highest mountain, swam in the North Atlantic ocean, and made the pilgrimage to Che Guevara’s mausoleum in Santa Clara but we knew that the capital held the majority of the sights and activities in Cuba. We were also looking forward to a bit of culinary variation and excitement as we were getting a little tired of processed cheese and ham sandwiches! We’re planning a post about our experiences of Cuban food, but first here are my highlights of our time in Havana.

The Malecón

Perhaps because we live near the sea in England I couldn’t get enough of Havana’s Malecón – the 8km (and growing) seaside promenade that curves its way along the northern shore. We walked most of it from the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in the east to Hotel Nacional and the Monte de las Banderas in the west.

Havana's Malecón seaside promenade with waves crashing over the sea wall

Dusk at Havana’s Malecón. During the day it’s dotted with local fishermen

It was busiest late in the evenings when locals and tourists alike would congregate at the eastern end near the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta to watch the sunset. As it was just a couple of blocks from our casa we even ventured out to the Malecón during a thunderstorm to try and photograph some lightning!

Lightning over Havana's Malecón

We had fun trying to photograph the lightning, and then getting back to our casa before the rain hit us!

Throughout Havana we often heard a particular song blaring from bicycle taxis and I thought it included the word Malecón, so I looked it up and sure enough, it does!

Havana Vieja

Havana Vieja or Old Havana is the heart of the city and the quintessential image of Cuba; grand restored Spanish colonial buildings surrounding wide open squares.

Panorama view of Plaza Vieja in Havana

Plaza Vieja, the main and the grandest of the public squares in Havana

Havana maintains the laid-back feel of the rest of Cuba. There isn’t as much if any of the heads-down metropolitan rush-hour crush we’ve experienced in almost all other capital cities. I suspect that’s a factor of the heat as it’s just impractical to rush around, and the primary business, particularly in the Old Town is tourism and not on-the-clock office work.

Back street in Havana's Old Town

Most of the streets joining the restored squares have yet to receive the same attention

The 4 main squares are all beautifully restored along with the main destination buildings such as the Capitolio, and work is starting on the buildings in the main connecting streets but there is still a lot to do if the aim is to return the entire city to its former glory. For us, we loved the contrast of completed and complete wreck often just a corner away. We saw a few gorgeous free-standing facades held up by little more than tree roots fronting tumbled-down insides.

Crumbling facade, Havana, Cuba

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The National Hotel of Cuba sits with an enviable position overlooking the Malecón. It’s the most prestigious state-owned hotel in Cuba, and if you’re a guest of the country this will be your accommodation. It’s also open to mere mortals, albeit those with a larger travel budget than us!

View of the Hotel Nacional from the Malecón in Havana

Looking up at the impressive Hotel Nacional de Cuba from the Malecón

We’d had a quick look around this very swanky hotel, but returned a few days later to take them up on their free guided tour which is usually at 10am and 3pm Monday to Saturday. Our guide was the diminutive, pleasant but slightly scary Estela – think Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers movies.

Lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The ceiling is painted to look like wood, but it’s actually concrete!

Estela explained the early history of the Hotel to us in the lobby, then we took the lift to the 2nd floor which was booked in its entirety by the American Mafia attending the 1946 Havana Conference. After showing us the suite Charles “Lucky” Luciano stayed in (yours for only $1,000 USD per night, including breakfast), the tour continued in the gardens overlooking the Malecón and the sea, where there are two large coastal cannons preserved from the original Santa Clara Battery that stood here in the late 17th century.

Frank Sinatra's room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Frank Sinatra was a guest at the same time as the American Mafia’s Havana Conference. He stayed in the room next to Charles “Lucky” Luciano and, according to our guide, there was a door joining the two rooms so they could meet in private

Cannons of the Santa Clara Battery, Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The massive sea-facing cannons of the former Santa Clara Battery which stood on the site of the hotel

Just past the cannons are a series of bunkers and walled tunnels underneath the gardens that were constructed during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis as part of Havana’s defences. Now they contain a small museum with details of the lead up to the Soviet Union’s support to Cuba which was a completely unexpected twist to the usual hotel tour and a very enlightening display.

Cuban Missile Crisis Museum

Estela explaining the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Revolution Square

Quite by accident we found ourselves in the capital during a national holiday, just like we’d done for Victory Day in Moscow. The 1st of May is Worker’s Day and is celebrated in Havana by a long march through Revolution Square.

Revolution Square, Havana

Revolution Square on the 1st of May Worker’s Day celebrations. Where did everyone go?

We asked our host Olga about it and she immediately turned on the TV where we saw president Raul Castro waving at a river of people from the giant José Marti statue and mausoleum in the square so we gathered our stuff and headed for the action.

It took us about an hour and half to walk across Havana, only to find that we’d completely missed the party! In a heretofore unexperienced show of speedy organisation, the entire event had finished, the road hosed down and stage, scaffolding and seating was all but dismantled.

We honestly couldn’t believe our eyes – this place was packed less than 2 hours ago!

Us in Revolution Square, Havana

Having utterly failed to join the party, we took lots of photos and some selfies instead. Oh well!

Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón

Yes, another cemetery! Julie covered it in our Cemeteries of Cuba post but I wanted to mention it in my highlights too.

La Milagrosa, Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, Havana

The outpouring of gratitude was lovely to see at the grave of La Milagrosa in the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón

Daiquiri with Hemingway in El Floridita

There are a couple of famous bars in Havana, the most famous is unquestionably La Bodeguita del Medio which we didn’t visit, followed closely by El Floridita which we did, and is the birthplace of the frozen daiquiri. Frequented by Ernest Hemingway which the establishment, perhaps, mentions a little too often, we were passing by one hot afternoon and a daiquiri seemed like a splendid idea..

Frozen daiquiri's with Ernest Hemingway in El Floridita, Havana

Frozen daiquiris at El Floridita – cool, refreshing, but the life-size bronze Hemingway isn’t much of a talker

Museo de la Revolución

We put off the capital’s Revolution Museum for a rainy day that thankfully didn’t come, but also because we kind of felt that as we already had a pretty good grasp of the Cuban Revolution, the fairly steep 8CUC (£5.60) entrance fee wouldn’t be worth it. I’m glad to say that we were wrong, if only for the section right at the end that detailed the Revolutionary Government in power in the years following 1959.

Museo de la Revolución, Havana

The Revolution Museum is in the former Presidential Palace and like many buildings in Havana (and indeed Cuba), it’s currently being renovated. Incidentally, this is the view from Casa Elda where we were staying

View of one of the exhibition rooms inside the Revolution Museum. Glass display cases line the walls

The formula of glass-cases with an artefact, photo or two and explanations in Spanish with a smattering of English was a bit wearing after the 3rd or 4th room. We hope they too will get a little renovation attention that adds some variety

While the rooms covering the history of the Revolution filled a few gaps we had about the timeline of events, the claims of aggression from a Communist-fearing U.S.A. and the details of the rationing during Cuba’s Special Period were fascinating. For that reason I’ve included it in my highlights!

Ration book from the Special Period,  Museo de la Revolución, Havana

A ration book from the Special Period. The section of the museum about the post-revolution history really made the museum worthwhile for me


For my final highlight, I’m going to pick our host Olga who took an instant shine to us and my quirky sense of humour especially. Thanks for taking such good care of us Olga!

Our lovely host Olga using her phone to help translate our conversation

Our lovely host Olga using her phone to help translate our conversation

Brussels Round Up

From Amsterdam we decided to spend a few days in the heart of the European Union before we hopped on the Eurostar for the final train journey of our two year trip.

Brussels surprised us, maybe because as it was the last stop on our long journey and we were fighting the wind-down and possible post-travel blues, or perhaps we thought the whole city would be little more than a wrapper for the European Parliament – i.e. not much else to do or see.

Guild Halls, Grand Place, Brussels

We loved the detailed Guild Halls with their gold accents in the central Grand Place

Instead we found a vibrant, walkable city with a comic-book heritage and a cheeky, laid-back sense of humour. And because it’s Belgium the waffles, chips, chocolate and beer are superb – 4 days and we’d decided we could live here!

Comic Walls

Tintin comic wall, Brussels

Comic book wall #1 is Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, obviously!

Neither of us were big comic readers or collectors as kids, but I do remember a fondness for Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin and I had quite a few of his large format comic books. Brussels is home to a number of famous European cartoonists, including Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi) Maurice De Bevere, André Franquin and Maurice Tillieux. Not that we’d heard of any of these except Hergé mind you!

Cartoon wall collage, Brussels

Cartoon walls are typically just a few blocks apart, and the artwork styles are as different as the characters themselves. Left to right: “La Vache” by Johan de Moor; “The Scorpion” by Marini; “Blondin and Cirage” by Jijé; and “Olivier Rameau” by Dany

That didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the street art as we explored Brussels. There are about 80 public comic frescos throughout the city, and while the suggested routes are marked on the tourist maps available in the city, we often had to go an extra block to find the work, and one of them was inside a hostel which we’d never have found if it wasn’t for the Visit Brussels app, which has more accurate locations, offline maps (yay!) and a short informative paragraph that gave us a little context or history.

The comic book walls are varied and delightful, and were a great way to join up the other sights we wanted to see in Brussels.

European Parliament

European Parliament, Brussels

The European Parliament in Brussels. There’s another one in Strasbourg, and also representative offices in most of the member states too

As I may have mentioned before, I’m really intrigued by how things work, and that includes social structure and governance, so when in Brussels we took a free guided tour of the European Parliament.. we got the full European experience too as we joined the tour in French!

European Parliament, Brussels

It’s possible to visit when the parliament is in session, but it was empty on our visit. The morning of our visit I read that the EU were voting on the re-labelling of alcoholic drinks to include nutrition information such as calories, which we thought was a good idea and so did they because they passed it! It’ll take a few years to filter through into members’ law though

Julie understood a little more than I did, but we both got the gist of the introduction to how the European Parliament works and how it’s made up. I think we’d have gotten more out of it had the tour been in English or if they hadn’t run out of audio guides, but we’re definitely pleased we went.

Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis

Manneken Pis, Brussels

The Manneken Pis is one of the most visited sights in Brussels and every time we walked past it there were crowds of admirers!

We didn’t know that the official mascot of Brussels is the almost 400 year old Manneken Pis – a small bronze statue of a little boy urinating! There are many legends for why the statue was built and put on display just around the corner from the main square in Brussels, but we found the stories of its various abductions over the years more interesting!

Pis statues, Brussels

The tinkling trilogy: Manneken Pis – the boy; Jeanneke Pis – the girl; and Zinneke Pis – the dog

The little boy is now one of a trilogy – his cheeky behaviour has been copied by Jeanneke Pis – a small girl locked away down a back alley in the restaurant district, and Zinneke Pis – a dog relieving himself against a bollard a few more blocks away! They’re all light-hearted and adorable, especially the original Manneken Pis because a few times a week he gets to dress up! And he has over 900 costumes!

Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg, Brussels

The impressive art-deco Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

The “Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg” or National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg was just a few blocks from our lovely apartment in Brussels, and it’s both the largest Art Deco building and the 13th largest church in the world.

Stained glass, Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg, Brussels

The stained glass in the Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Cœur à Koekelberg

It’s so big that it holds celebrations in two languages, has an exhibition space, a restaurant, a theatre, a radio station and two museums! We though the exterior was more impressive than the understated sparse interior, with the exception of the wonderfully detailed stained glass panels.


Atomium, Brussels

The Atomium science museum still looks futuristic to us after 60 years!

Also just outside the city centre is the site of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which is home to another iconic sight on the Brussels skyline – the Atomium.

It’s a really striking building that plays with its own perspective. Somehow to us it looked bigger from further away, and when we were stood underneath it the spheres didn’t seem big enough to be exhibition spaces as it’s now a museum and viewpoint.

Atomium, Brussels

We didn’t get to the museum inside because we enjoyed taking photos of the outside too much!

We weren’t sure if the arrangement of the spheres were significant, but I looked it up and it’s a unit cell of iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. As we arrived the grey cloud dissipated a little and made a spectacular backdrop for the reflective steel of the structure. We took far too many photos. Again.

And on to the round up of our short city stop in Brussels..

What photo takes you right back to Brussels?

Us with the cheeky Manneken Pis, Brussels

Us with the cheeky Manneken Pis, the mascot of the city

Summarise Brussels in three words.

  • Diverse – as we wandered through the city we noticed a very rich mix of ethnicities and languages. It’s also the meeting point of the two native languages in Belgium, French and Flemish
  • Relaxed – there’s an easy-going, laid-back atmosphere which we really enjoyed. Lots of little cafes and bars with people spilling out into the streets
  • Comics – as well as the large comic book murals, there are several museums dedicated to the art

You really know you’re in Brussels when…

.. you’ve just had moules-frites (mussels and chips) for lunch, washed down with a Trappist ale or two!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Brussels?

Your sweet tooth – the waffles are fantastic and with so many different and inventive toppings we had to try a few, though we’re glad we always shared one as they’re very sweet!

The Canals and Architecture of Amsterdam

Often called the Venice of the north, a subtitle claimed by other notable European cities such as St. Petersberg, Bruges, and er, Manchester, Amsterdam is famously known for its canals – it has more than any other city in the world – 60 miles of them in total!

Amsterdam canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

As I’m sure we’ve written about before, one of the first things we like to do when we arrive in a new place is to wander the streets nearby to get our bearings, scope out the local amenities and to get a feel for the neighbourhood. Even better if there are self-guided walks, which for European cities are easier to find, and we’ve particularly enjoyed Rick Steve’s audio tours.

Amsterdam canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

We started with his guided walk through the city which includes a nice overview of Dutch history and took us to some of the quieter areas just off the main canals and streets. In our apartment we also found a canals walk in the DK Eyewitness Travel book that starts in the central Dam Square, takes a counterclockwise route through the main circular rings of canals: the Singel, Keizersgracht, Herengracht, Reguliersgracht and ends where Prinsengracht meets the Amstel.

Dam Square, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The centre of the city, Dam Square. The white sculpture is the National Monument – dedicated to the memory of the casualties of World War II and subsequent armed conflicts. Thankfully there weren’t any casualties of the armed conflict taking place here on the 4th of April, as it was International Pillow Fight Day!

After a couple of years of bad floods at the start of the 12th century, the locals built a dam across the Amstel river, and the area became known as “Aemstelredamme” – literally “Dam on the Amstel” – which over time and use was shortened to “Amsterdam”. The Dam Square is the location of this original dam and remains to this day the centre of the city.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The start of the Canals walk in the DK Eyewitness Travel guide.

Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Keizersgracht means “emperor’s canal”, the white building in the middle (no. 319) was constructed in 1639 and has a beautifully ornate façade of scrolls, vases and garlands. The building to the left of it is reportedly where Russian Czar Peter the Great stopped on his first trip to Amsterdam and got drunk with friends, while the mayor waited at a civic reception further down the canal!

345a Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s tall, narrow houses are part necessity, part practicality and part financial, some of which are really narrow – like 345a Keizersgracht.. it even has two front doors so it’s actually 2 separate apartments!

As the city is built on reclaimed marshland, the topsoil is pretty unstable which limits the weight of the buildings. This means they’re all pretty uniform in height and generally constructed of lighter materials (sandstone and brick) and feature large windows to keep the overall weight down.

Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses were taxed on their width, with canal-facing ones attracting the highest rents. It was said that the richest were those that lived on the inside of the canal bend – they’d pay the highest taxes but have the least amount of living space!

The majority date from the Dutch Golden Age of trading and were built by merchants who also wanted to use some of the space for storage, so the roofline includes a beam and pulley for hoisting goods and furniture. To prevent damaging the expensive façade as they were moved up and down, the buildings also lean into the street.

Roof pulleys, Amsterdam, Netherlands

It was rare to find a house without the pulley and wheel in the roof, and we passed a few houses being renovated that had ropes attached so they’re very much still in use

39 Reguliersgracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands

39 Reguliersgracht looks like it’s preparing to dive head-first into the canal!

No two houses are the same, even neighbouring ones built at the same time differ in features or decoration as the owners sought to display their individuality. We especially liked the different shaped gables, and marvelled that some of the really crooked corner buildings were still standing!

Canal boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Certain designated wider canals are lined with an equally diverse collection of semi-permanent house boats. Ranging from canal-boats to modified commercial vessels, simple floating boxes to elaborate two-storey houses, they all have addresses and most are hooked up to the city’s water and electricity supplies

Pisa, Italy

We’d only planned a few days in Florence, and one of the main reasons for breaking up our journey through Italy en-route to Switzerland was the easy day-trip to Pisa, the local trains are frequent and take about an hour from the central Firenze SMN station to Pisa Centrale.

Us with the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

Us with the famous leaning tower of Pisa!

Situated at the mouth of the River Arno – the same river that flows through Florence – Pisa has a long history of education and is still a very prestigious place to study. It’s also the birthplace of the famous physicist, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher Galileo Galilei.

Arriving in Pisa, we headed straight for the wonderfully named Piazza dei Miracoli – literally Square or Plaza of Miracles – the location of the town’s cathedral, baptistry, cemetery and of course, the world famous leaning bell tower of Pisa.

Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy

The view as we entered the Piazza dei Miracoli – wow! We’re here and there it is.. a monument that we’ve heard of so many times and seen in so many movies and photographs. Most vividly for me is the movie Superman III where evil Superman straightens it!) – it’s almost unbelievable

Climbing the tower is by allocated time slot, and thankfully we only had to wait 10 minutes. The tour started with a seat in the main central atrium where we were given a quick but comprehensive history of the tower (in English and Italian) before we were shown the stairs to start our ascent.

Plumbline inside the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The floor of the central room is obviously sloped. This plumbline is hung from the centre of the 7th floor and almost touches the wall at head height on the ground floor! The lean of the tower has been reduced at various times over the years from 5.5° to ~4° today and is now structurally sound

Us and the stairs of the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

Unlike the staircase in St Peter’s Basilica that just leaned more and more to the right, the stairs in Pisa lean more and then less to the same way – it’s a very strange feeling! The wear on the steps moves from the middle to the left too

Us at the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The Plaza of Miracles, from the 6th floor of the leaning tower of Pisa. There’s a 7th floor but it was closed because of the really high winds that had damaged roofs, felled trees, delayed a lot of mainline trains and caused one fatality in Tuscany

View of from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, Itlay

The view from the top of the Piazza and Pisa was well worth the climb. The strong, cold winds reminded us of the first bell tower we climbed in Riga at the start of our trip almost two years ago!

After a quick spot of lunch we did the second thing that you have to do when visiting Pisa..

Propping up the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The obligatory, unashamedly touristy photo of Pisa ;o)

Pisa Baptistry, Italy

Just like the layout in Florence, Pisa’s Baptistry faces the main doors and is circular. It’s the largest in Italy and it’s also just a few centimetres taller than the leaning tower!

Next up we headed to the other end of the Duomo to visit the Baptistry. We really liked its half-Roman, half-ornate-Gothic exterior, and we were surprised we were able to go up into the 1st floor gallery inside. It has wonderful acoustics – the guard closes the door every half hour, stands in the middle of the room and sings a few notes that resonate for so long that he could create chords with his own voice!

Inside the Pisa Baptistry, Italy

The Baptistry contains a central octagonal font where the guard stands to demonstrate the acoustics

Pisa Cathedral, Italy

The Duomo or Cathedral of Pisa with the leaning tower peeping over its shoulder, as viewed from the gallery of the Baptistry

The central building of the Plaza of Miracles is the Pisa Cathedral. Started in 1064, inside it’s bright and airy and reminded us of Cefalù in Sicily, not least because the apse is filled with a similar Christ Pantocrator in beautiful gold mosaic. It also contains a pulpit that was sculpted between 1255-1260 by Giovanni Pisano – the classical style of the carving and sculpture is considered to be start of the Italian Renaissance (1260).

The nave of Pisa Cathedral, Italy

Pisa’s Duomo is much more impressive inside than Florence’s, the Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the nave reminded us of Cefalù in Sicily

Camposanto Monumentale, Pisa, Italy

The spacious and empty Camposanto Monumentale. The huge frescos are slowly being restored from the original drawings

The last building of the Square of Miracles we visited was the Camposanto Monumentale, or Monumental Cemetery. It’s a massive Gothic cloister full of tombs. The floor is covered in worn out gravestones, sarcophagi line up along the lower walls and above them are the remains of giant frescos that were largely lost due to a fire in World War II. It was very peaceful with few visitors and we loved the long corridors.

Tuttomondo by Keith Haring (1989), Pisa, Italy

“Tuttomondo” by Keith Haring painted in 1989 still looks bold and modern to this day and brightened up our visit to Pisa

Just a block away from the train station is the last mural by Keith Haring called “Tuttomondo” (All world), painted on the side of the S. Antonio Church buildings in 1989. We instantly recognised his simple stylised characters though we didn’t know the artist or that this was his last public work.

Pisa is a great little city. We were really surprised how ornate the leaning tower is, and that because it started leaning early in its construction, subsequent levels where built smaller on one side to try and correct the lean which means it could be more accurately described as the leaning banana tower of Pisa!