Tag Archives: Castle

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

A magician and a rasta walk into a bar…

Santiago de Cuba has a special place in our hearts. Our host Margarita arranged for a classic American car to pick us up from the coach station which was our first ride in one, as well as being one of the best casa chefs of our trip.

1956 Plymouth Belvedere Sedan, Santiago

Our chariot awaits.. a lovely 1956 Plymouth Belvedere Sedan greeted us on our arrival in Santiago – what a welcome!

Parque Céspedes, Santiago de Cuba

Parque Céspedes, the main square in Santiago de Cuba from the roof of Hotel Casa Granda

An eminently walkable city where the main pedestrian walking street and its parallel to the south links all of the parks, squares and central attractions, we found Santiago to be packed with loads of different things to see and do.

Walking around the city

On our first afternoon we took the Lonely Planet’s walking tour as a guide and headed out to get our bearings. Being just around the corner from the main Parque Céspedes we obviously went there first. Restored like so many main city squares in Cuba, the balcony of the white and blue Ayuntamiento that overlooks this square is where a certain Fidel Castro announced to his country and the world that the Cuban Revolution had succeeded.

Ayuntamiento, Santiago de Cuba

The ‘Ayuntamiento’ in Santiago, which means local council. It’s here that Fidel announced the Cuban Revolution’s triumph

Just a block away is the Balcon de Velazquez which wasn’t at all what we’d imagined. I guess it’s called the balcony because it looks over the old French quarter of the city and down towards the bay and was once a small fort. We decided to forgo the small fee for taking photos until we’d taken a look first (which is free), and we’re glad we did as the views are likely better from any of the casas or private restaurants that have added 3rd or 4th floor rooftop dining areas that sadly obscure the view.

Balcon de Velazquez, Santiago de Cuba

The Balcon de Velazquez. We’re glad we didn’t pay for the privilege of taking photos from the balcony itself as the view isn’t as interesting as the balcony building itself

Hotel Casa Granda

One rooftop view that would be difficult to obscure is the one from the Hotel Casa Granda which is also famed for its mojito making prowess, well, we didn’t need much more convincing than that to see for ourselves..

View from the Hotel Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

Great views from theHotel Casa Granda’s rooftop bar of the square and the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Can you spot the impending rain in the background? We did!

About half-way down our drinks we saw dark clouds on the horizon and although it felt like the wind was blowing south and out to sea, the rain came east at us across the bay and everyone moved tables to shelter from the downpour. There wasn’t anything we could do but order another drink and sit it out. Oh well!

Mojito, Hotel Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

The rain meant we just had to stay put for another mojito. Happy days

Castillo del Morro

To give it its full name, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro is a large fortification that was originally designed to protect the bay and city from the ravages of pirates, but by the time construction of the first fort was completed piracy was in decline so it never fulfilled its intended purpose. Subsequent alterations increased the size, and before its current incarnation as a museum it was used as a prison.

Castillo del Morro, Santiago

We enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of the labyrinthine Castillo del Morro

It’s about 10km south of the city and getting a taxi would have been easy, cost us about 15CUC (~£10), and have been boring. Instead, as we’d seen the large American trucks operating as private busses and found that the main station for them is on Avenue de Los Libertadores, we opted for adventure and it didn’t take long for one to stop that was heading about 1km shy of the fort. We did end up paying 10 times the local’s rate, but at 1CUC (70p) each it was still cheaper than a taxi.

Camion (truck in Spanish) to Castillo del Morro. Picture of the truck and a picture of the inside - two long bench seats and people holding onto the roof rails

The ‘camion’ or truck form of privately run public transportation in Cuba

The uphill 1km turned out to be a nice walk, though we needed to stop for a refreshing (and overpriced) lemonade in the tourist-tat gauntlet run before exploring the many levels, rooms and defensive walls of the Castillo. The latter offered some amazing views out across the Caribbean, back towards Santiago Bay and we could even see the international airport but the best views were looking down over the fort itself.

Us at the Castillo del Morro

Us at the Castillo del Morro

We’d just about finished our exploration when the coach parties arrived, so we decided to take a shortcut to avoid the tourist stalls and ended up at the cove beach just north of the fort as another camion was about to leave. Not only were we able to flag it down, they charged us the local’s rate to return to town too!

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia

Julie has already written about the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia in our post about the cemeteries of Cuba. I’ll add here that it was one of our favourite sights in Santiago.

Moncada Barracks

A young and ideological Fidel Castro concluded that the corruption of Batista’s government couldn’t be eradicated through legal or populist support alone and decided on direct action. Specifically, a simultaneous assault on the two largest military barracks in the eastern Oriente region would allow room for a Revolutionary movement to gain support and work its way west towards Havana. Planned for the 26th of July 1953, the day after the annual street carnival to catch Batista’s army off guard, but as they were significantly outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels lost and ultimately most of them were killed or captured.

Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba

The former Moncada Barracks is a huge and imposing building

Fidel Castro, a qualified lawyer, stood trial and used his defence as the stage for his revolutionary message with a famous four-hour speech outlining his vision for an independent Cuba that ended with the line: “La historia me absolverá” – History will absolve me. Other factors such as the mistreatment of the rebel prisoners by the army, public pressure and interventions by a judge and the Catholic Church led to lenient sentences for all involved, and Fidel was given a 15 year prison sentence.

Detail of the attack damage at the Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba

The museum is set up in the rooms attacked by Fidel’s rebels, though the scars of the fighting are reconstructions as the building was repaired and repainted shortly afterward

The following year, Batista’s government won an unopposed election that was criticised as fraudulent, and some politicians suggested that an amnesty for the Moncada perpetrators would be good for publicity. Batista agreed and in 1955 they were freed. How history could have been so very different.

The museum is nicely laid out, gave us a very good understanding of the Cuban Revolution, and at the same time tested our Spanish as very few of the explanations are in English. There’s a lot of emphasis on the mistreatment of the rebels by Batista’s troops accompanied by some pretty gruesome photos and supposed implements of torture, and the timeline pretty much stops at the Revolution’s triumph in 1959.

Gran Piedra and Cafetal la Isabelica

On a recommendation from our lovely hosts in Bayamo, we arranged a day trip to the Gran Piedra which literally translates as ‘large stone’. Our souped-up Lada taxi needed a few rest stops on the way to cool down from the hilly, poorly maintained roads, which meant we had chance to admire the scenery and stretch our legs.

Overheating Lada, Santiago

Our souped-up Lada needed a couple of breathers to make it through the mountains to the Gran Piedra

The path that leads up to the Gran Piedra was through a pretty nice looking but empty hotel at the top of a hill that then has the ‘large stone’ perched on top of it! It’s easily the highest point for miles around and an easy walk along well maintained paths and steps – not at all as arduous as hiking up Pico Turquino!

Birds of Cuba spotted on the walk to the Gran Piedra

We spotted a lots of birds on the short walk to the Gran Piedra

View of the Gran Piedra or large stone from the footpath in Santiago, Cuba

The Gran Piedra, or ‘large stone’ – how are we going to get up there?!

View from the top of the Gran Piedra, Santiago

Made it! We weren’t expecting two shopping opportunities at the very top to accompany the spectacular views all the way to the Carribean.

View from the Gran Piedra, Santiago

How spectacular? How about this!

The Gran Piedra is the first stop on a recommended circuit that took us down a dirt road to the UNESCO recognised Cafetal la Isabelica, a restored two-storey mansion that was built by French slave-owning coffee growing emigrants from Haiti. The ground floor housed workshops for the creation and maintenance of the various tools the plantation required, while the top floor was home to the French owners. We didn’t pay for a guide, but as we were the only visitors there a bored one started contributing bits of history and information about the house, its restoration, and the layout of the plantation and it really added to our experience as there weren’t any explanations.

Cafetal la Isabelica, Santiago

The drainage for the drying beds and water storage systems for the house were innovative for their time

Little details like the raw coffee was stored in the roof of the house away from the kitchens as the cooking smells affect their flavour brought the place alive for us.

Two cups of coffee on a silver tray from beans grown at the Cafetal Isabelica, Santiago

They still grow a little coffee at the museum and as well as selling it as beans or grounds, they make a cup that rivals an Italian ristretto for strength!

Oh yes, the magician and the rasta.. there are any number of scams and annoyances targeting tourists to Cuba and Santiago is home to two colourful characters that saw us trying to write up our diaries in a bar and thought we might make for a couple of quid. The first was a magician, dressed in a smart tuxedo that looked 2 sizes too big for him, accompanied by a slightly inebriated sway reminiscent of the great Tommy Cooper. After a few card tricks and other sleight of hand tricks that were well done, he was adamant that his fiery finale would only work with a 10CUC note (~£7). Our point-blank refusal and the trio of small coins we gave him was easily worth the disdainful stare we got before he stood up and made an almost straight-line for the exit.

10 minutes later his seat is taken by a cheerful round rasta with a little English who claimed to play percussion in a band around the corner. During the next 30 minutes we learned his catchphrase of ‘peace and love’, his daughter’s name is Julia (what a coincidence!) and it’s her 9th birthday. Fascinating. He finally worked up to asking for money to buy balloons for his daughter’s party. Apparently, balloons are really expensive in Cuba. Well, we hope your birthday party wasn’t ruined without a contribution towards balloons Julia, if that’s your real name, if you exist at all.

Luxembourg Round Up

From France we thought we’d add another country to our tally by heading north through Luxembourg. It’s a new country for Julie as I’ve been here before albeit briefly, and as it was for work I didn’t really get to any of the sights.

View of the Grund, Casemates Bock and the pont du château, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

The compact but vertical city of Luxembourg. The red arched bridge ‘pont du château’ just left of the the middle joins the Casemates Bock (right) to the city (left), and the picturesque valley in the foreground is The Grund

The central old town of Luxembourg City is contained within the boundaries of an ancient fortress, even though most of the defences no longer exist. As a result it’s quite a compact place to visit, and it was straightforward to see the main sights – notice I said straightforward and not easy.. the area’s soft limestone means the river Alzette has cut a gorge through the landscape so walking around Luxembourg City means climbing up some steep streets!

Inside the Casemates Bock, Luxembourg

Inside the Casemates Bock, the passages get narrower the further you go and some are quite claustrophobic!

The first sight on our short itinerary was the impressive natural defences of the Casemates Bock. In 963 Count Siegfried bought an existing castle atop the cliffs above the Alzette and started enlarging and fortifying the area against attacks, but it was the Spanish (in 1644) and then the Austrians (in 1737) that created the elaborate complex of underground tunnels and cannon slots that survive today.

We were surprised how extensive they are, with space for 50 cannon, a garrison of 1,200 soldiers, workshops, a kitchen and it even has its own 47m deep well!

The Grund, Luxembourg

A famous area of Luxembourg is the peaceful riverside area called The Grund. There are amazing views of it from the cliff-tops

From the city end of the Casemates we took the panoramic Wenzel walking path, and found a convenient free lift that went down the cliff – but the ‘G’ in this lift doesn’t stand for the ground floor, it stands for Grund! The Grund is a small district that lies at the eastern end of the city on the banks of the river. Its tall, picturesque houses are hemmed in by the river in the middle and the cliffs at their back, criss-crossed by narrow streets. Although the area is full of cafes and restaurants, it was a quiet area to stroll through.

Luxembourg City Sights - Gëlle Fra, Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Grand Ducal Palace

Our highlights of wandering the small Luxembourg City centre were the Gëlle Fra (Golden Woman) monument, the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Grand Ducal Palace where we watched the guard marching outside

After a walking loop and spot of lunch in The Grund we took the lift back up the cliff to wander through the narrow streets of Luxembourg City proper. It’s compact, dense, and home to international brands, boutique shops, and artisan pubs, cafes and restaurants. Three of the sights that stood out for us were the Notre-Dame Cathedral with its lovely curved stained glass apse, the Gëlle Fra or statue of the Golden Woman which commemorates the Luxembourgers who fought against Germany in the 2nd World War, and the beautiful Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke and his family, with a guard stationed outside.

What photo takes you right back to Luxembourg?

Us in the Casemates Bock, Luxembourg City

Us in the amazing UNESCO Casemates Bock, as you can see we almost have the place to ourselves!

Summarise Luxembourg in three words.

  • Hilly – from our hostel next to the river we climbed up to the Casemates, took the lift down to the Grund then back up and finally descended back to the hostel, not to mention all the stairs inside the Casemates!
  • Multilingual – we read that Luxembourgers are taught Luxembourgish, German, French and English at school, and can elect a further ‘foreign’ language!
  • Quiet – we visited near the end of March and while the wind was chilly it was otherwise pleasant and almost completely devoid of other tourists.

You really know you’re in Luxembourg when…

.. you’re standing underground, but have views to your left and right down the river valley that surrounds you on 3 sides.. where are you? In the Casemates Bock of course – we’ve not seen another place like it!

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

Your lunch! If you bring a packed lunch or pick up something healthy from the many shops in the centre, you can stop pretty much anywhere on the many self-guided walks around the city and take in the amazing views while fortifying yourself for the next climb.

Tour de France

When we were in Mongolia we made friends with two French couples. Thomas and Jess were on our tour to the Gobi desert, and their friends Max and Armelle met up with them afterwards and then were in Beijing at the same time as us. As often happens when you get on well with someone on the road, details and invitations to “come and stay if you’re passing our town” were swapped. After our stay with Heidi and Olivier in Switzerland, the south of France seemed a logical direction to proceed and so we invited ourselves for a visit…

Aix-en-Provence

Max and Armelle live near Aix-en-Provence (that’s pronounced ‘eks’ like X), a pretty town in south-eastern France. We had the Friday afternoon to explore the historic centre before meeting them for dinner. The food was excellent and we were amused by the amount of discussion with the restaurant manager over the choice of wine (much longer than was taken over the food!). Max assured us that it wasn’t usually so long but I think we’ve got them rumbled…

Aix-en-ProvenceAix-en-Provence (clockwise from top left): Cathedral of the Holy Saviour; this fountain on Cours Mirabeau is fed by a hot spring hence the thick covering of moss; the historic centre is full of elaborate doorways; lavender is a popular product of the Provence area

The following morning we set out on a clifftop hike around some of the calanques on the coast south of Aix near Marseille. These steep sided inlets into the limestone rock are a unique feature of the Mediterranean coast. The path was pretty steep at times but the views were beautiful and it was nice once again to be out in the sun and fresh air.

Yachts in Calanque de Port MiouYachts docked in Calanque de Port-Miou near Cassis

Beside Calanque d'En VauMax, Armelle, Andrew and I on the pebbly beach beside Calanque d’En Vau

Next day the weather wasn’t so good so we had a relaxed morning, a leisurely Sunday lunch and a short walk before going to the cinema to watch ‘Citizenfour’, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his path to making the revelations about government surveillance. Even knowing the story we found some of it was very shocking and it’s definitely worth a watch if you get the opportunity.

Sunday lunchSunday lunch – “helping” Armelle make lemon meringue pie while Max roasts sea bream

Carcassonne

Next stop was the small medieval town of Carcassonne. Being big fans of the board game we had to check out the real place. We thought that we’d taken just about every possible mode of transport during our two years on the road, but getting to Carcassonne added to the list. The train links from Aix-en-Provence are not very direct and Max recommended that we look into car sharing where you pay for a seat in the car of someone already doing the journey. It turned out to not only be faster but also much cheaper.

Carcassonne La CitéLa Cité, Carcassonne

The old walled fortress known as La Cité appears to be almost completely medieval, but what we see today is largely due to heavy restoration works carried out in the 19th century. We enjoyed wandering the quaint streets, spotting details like wall plaques and nosing around in the heavily tourist oriented shops. Across the River Aude lies the less old but still historic Bastide area which was a walled town in its own right formed in the 13th century.

Chateau ComtalChateau Comtal is the castle within the fortress city

Carcassonne cathedralCarcassonne’s gothic former cathedral in La Cité, Basilica St-Nazaire, is small but filled with stained glass and decorated on the exterior by ugly gargoyles

Because the town is so small it was easy to get out into the countryside and put some miles under our boots. We did a very long round trip walk to the Lac de la Cavayere, past still sleeping vineyards but with the lanes lined with blossom, spring was definitely in the air. The lake is artificial and obviously heavily used for water sports in the summer but we saw practically no one else and found it a peaceful place to stroll around.

Vineyard near CarcassonneLooking across a vineyard towards La Cité

Toulouse

From Carcassonne it is a short hop to Toulouse. Known as the ‘Pink City’ because of the distinctive colour of its many brick built buildings, it is also the home of our friends Thomas and Jess.

Toulouse - the Pink CityThe ‘Pink City’ (clockwise from top left): Basilica of Saint Sernin; even the half-timbered buildings are pink; the magnificent Capitole is home to the town’s government; Place Saint-Étienne

After a first evening spent catching up and sampling Aligot, a kind of extra cheesy mashed potato that can be pulled into very long strings when it’s hot, and yes it is just as tasty as the description sounds, we headed into the city for a walk around its sights. We began on the top floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store for a bird’s eye view of where we would be walking…

Beside the River Garonne in ToulouseWith Jess and Thom beside the River Garonne, with La Grave Hospital in the background

We weaved through the picturesque streets passing both of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sights, the Basilica of Saint Sernin where we also caught part of the organist’s practice, and the Canal du Midi which runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. By the time it started to rain in the late afternoon we’d covered a lot of ground and were ready to collapse into the corner of a well chosen bar to watch the England vs France Six Nations game. Thom is a big rugby fan (and player) whereas we didn’t even know who the favourite was, nevertheless it was a very exciting game with lots of tries, though we kept getting distracted by the highly amusing drunk man on the next table who kept asking us questions and promptly forgetting the answers!

Church of the JacobinsReflections inside the Church of the Jacobins. A mirror is installed around one of the pillars to make looking at the ceiling easier

Our timing was impeccable not just for the rugby but also because the Toulouse Exhibition Hall was hosting a Salon Vins et Terroirs, a big wine fair. We rented a glass for a euro and then went around the different stalls tasting the wines. Ostensibly it’s so you can decide whether to buy or not but no one takes your credit card details so we had a merry old time guided by Thom whose wine knowledge is far superior to ours. As an added benefit, a quarter of the hall was taken up with artisan food producers so we bought some meat and cheese plates to make a picnic of it. Heaven!

Salon des VinsCheese, meats and samples of red wine at the Salon Vins et Terroirs

Dijon

Paris is the most logical northwards step from Toulouse but we’ve already been there and, much as we love the city, we fancied something different. There is a slow but direct train north-east to Dijon and we read that it was an interesting place so we bought tickets. When Max heard our plans he was really pleased as Dijon is his hometown and when he found out we hadn’t yet arranged accommodation he promptly rang his parents to see if they could host us. Serge and Edwige not only graciously agreed to allow two almost strangers to stay in their spare room but also fed us extremely well and gave us lots of information on what to see in the town.

Dijon Museum of Fine ArtsOur highlights of the Museum of Fine Arts were the Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy and the room dedicated to the Burgundian sculptor Pompon

Dijon’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the oldest museums in France but has been recently refurbished and it shows. The exhibits are well placed, the information boards are useful and it’s an all round pleasurable experience for a half day visit. The first few rooms are themed around the Dukes of Burgundy who lived in the palace which now houses the museum, after that there’s a bit of everything with a highlight for us being the animal sculptures by François Pompon, a Burgundy born sculptor who lived a century ago despite the modern look of his works.

Dijon market buildingDijon’s market building on the afternoon before market day

We’d fortuitously planned our visit over one of the market days (held on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) and you know how much we like markets. The market building, called Les Halles, was designed by local boy Gustave Eiffel (he of the famous tower) and a few years ago was slated for demolition by the local council until a massive outcry from residents earned it a restoration instead. We’re very glad as it was a fascinating place to walk through, full of fresh vegetables, meat and fish, cheeses, cooked meats and baked items. We picked up a baguette and some of the local specialty jambon persillé (ham terrine in a parsley jelly) for our lunch.

Dijon marketFresh goods for sale inside Les Halles

After the market we picked up the ‘Owl’s Trail’, an enjoyable walking route linking the town’s most significant sights. It’s named after an owl carved into the external wall of the Notre Dame church.

Owl trailThe ‘Owl’s Trail’ – a pavement marker and the statue that the trail is named after, it’s good luck if you touch it with your left hand and make a wish

Mustard ProductionIt wouldn’t be a visit to Dijon without mustard. The Edmond Fallot shop had a production machine set up as well as tasters of traditional Dijon mustard and all kinds of strange flavours, from pain d’epices (a bit like gingerbread) to cassis (blackcurrant liqueur)

It felt like a bit of a whistlestop tour but we both really enjoyed exploring some of France away from the capital city. From Dijon, we’re ready to move on to our fourth country this month!

Bosphorus Cruise

We’ve done a fair bit of walking through Istanbul so for a change of view we decided to take a cruise. Istanbul is located at the mouth of the Bosphorus Straits, the narrow waterway linking the Sea of Marmara (and beyond that the Mediterranean) with the Black Sea. There are lots of companies offering cruises up the Bosphorus, we opted for the Long Bosphorus cruise offered by Şehir Hatları, the company who run many of the city’s ferry services.

Bosphorus cruise route mapThe route of the cruise we chose is shown by the black line [picture credit: Şehir Hatları]

We were surprised by how busy it was on a Monday in October. Although we’d arrived over half an hour before the cruise was due to depart we were by no means near the front of the queue and we were a little worried that we might not get an outside seat; although there’s plenty of space inside there isn’t much of a view. In the end we managed to snag a place at the back of the boat on the port side which meant we’d be facing Europe on the way out, just what we’d hoped.

On he Bosphorus cruise ferryUs on the bench seats along the side of the cruise boat – we’d recommend bringing a cushion to soften the wooden seats!

As the ferry sailed away from the city centre we soon passed the impressive Dolmabahçe Sarayı, a waterfront palace completed in the mid 19th century and used by most of the sultans after that date as their principal residence.

Dolmabahçe PalaceThe 284m façade of the Dolmabahçe Palace is a striking feature of the Bosphorus shore

Shortly afterwards we passed under the first of the two suspension bridges which cross the straits. Built in 1973 the first one is rather straightforwardly called the Bosphorus Bridge. 5km further north, the second bridge, Fatih Mehmet Bridge, was opened in 1988 and crosses at the channel’s narrowest point, the same place where Persian king Darius I constructed a bridge of boats in 512BC to attack the Scythians. Today it’s mostly trucks and cars crossing rather than invading armies.

Bosphorus bridgesLooking down the Bosphorus with Fatih Mehmet Bridge in the foreground, underneath its span you can see one of the pillars of the Bosphorus Bridge

Just before the Fatih Mehmet Bridge is my favourite of the many fortresses which line the Bosphorus’ banks. Rumeli Hisarı was built by the Ottoman Sultan Fatih Mehmet in 1452, the year before he conquered Istanbul, with the aim of cutting off communication and possible aid to the city from the Black Sea. In cooperation with the smaller Anadolu Hisarı on the opposite shore it was successful in its objective. There are another pair of ancient fortresses further along, also standing opposite each other, as well as at least one modern military base.

Rumeli Hisari castleThe fortress at Rumeli Hisarı has three towers. The builders of the towers competed with each other to complete them with the utmost speed and at least one was erected in just four months!

As the boat moved further from the city centre the villages started to appear more distinctly. The houses were perched on steep hillsides surrounded by forest and each village had a harbour.

Bosphorus villageKuruçeşme village sits between the two bridges

The straits are 30km long and range from 700m to 3.5km in width which sounds quite reasonable until you realise that they are a busy shipping channel with boats of all sizes, including massive container ships and oil tankers, making their way up and down. In the upper reaches we also saw a lot of fishing boats with their nets let out in a circle.

Bosphorus fishing boatFishing boat pulling in its net

The one-way journey to the final stop at Anadolu Kavagi takes about 90 minutes. The ferry waits here for just under three hours allowing all passengers to disembark. Anadolu Kavagi is a small village bounded on the harbourside by a row of fish restaurants to service the many day trippers and overlooked by Yoros Castle. We ran the gauntlet past the restaurant touts and made the short climb up to the fortress.

Yoros CastleYoros Castle is ruined inside but its wall and towers stand

We visited on a bright and clear day and got good views in both directions. To the north is the opening into the Black Sea which is the site of a third bridge, currently under construction and the subject of some controversy due to environmental concerns including the loss of forests and wildlife corridors, as well as potential impacts from increased population migration to the already rapidly growing city. Looking to the south we could see the hills and inlets that we had just cruised by.

Construction of third Bosphorus bridgeView of the third bridge construction, it will be called the Yabuz Sultan Selim Bridge

View to the south from Yoros CastleView down the Bosphorus Straits from Yoros Castle

After descending from the castle we were ready for some lunch. We chose one of the seafront restaurants and ordered grilled fish and salad while we watched fish swim in the waters beside our table and gulls squawk at each other from their perches. It was delicious and reminded me of another, equally tasty lunch which I had beside the sea on my first visit to Turkey 16 years ago with my good friend and our occasional travelling companion Jo.

Grilled fish lunchGrilled fish for lunch

Boarding the ferry for the return journey, we managed to squeeze ourselves onto the port side bench seats once more, but this time we were facing the Asian shore. We again marvelled at some of the waterfront buildings; it obviously has been, and remains, a desirable place to live. There are beautiful mosques, old palaces and more modern looking mansions and hotels.

Waterfront buildingsImpressive buildings on the waterfront (clockwise from top left): Ortaköy Mosque; Küçüksu palace; tower of the palace of the Khedive of Egypt; Kuleli Officers Training College at Vaniköy

The cruise was a nice change of pace from the bustling city streets and a very pleasant way to spend the day for a very reasonable price – just ₺25 (about £7) each for the return journey and although the fish lunch was pricey there were cheaper options in town, or we could have packed a picnic to eat at the castle.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Located on a lesser travelled side street of the Great Silk Road, Khiva has retained its central, compact earthen Ichon-Qala, or inner walled city. We stayed inside the mud-walled city itself, and the effect of the tan-coloured narrow alleys only served to highlight the stunning turquoise tile work of the medressas and minarets.

The icon of Khiva - the stumpy, unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret

The icon of Khiva – the stumpy, unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret. Its builder intended it to be tall enough to see all the way to Bukhara (about 430km!)

We had planned two full days here because entry to almost all of the sights are included on one ticket – just 35,000 som each (about £7).

Day 1 – A mammoth sightseeing session

First stop, the resplendent Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum

First stop, the resplendent Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum

I’m sure you’ll breathe a sign of relief when I say I’m only going to mention our highlights of Khiva, as we managed to see nearly everything on the ticket!

First up was the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum which isn’t much to look at from the street, but inside it reveals a tranquil courtyard with the main mausoleum straight in front and a room of tombs to the left. As we paused to take photographs, a family of worshippers followed us in with very smartly dressed children. The parents grabbed Julie and Jo for a spontaneous photo shoot..

Jo and Julie roped into a family photograph. This happened to us all quite a bit in Uzbekistan

Jo and Julie roped into a family photograph. This happened to us all quite a bit in Uzbekistan

Pahlavon Mahmud was a poet, philosopher and a wrestler (!), who later became the patron saint of Khiva. The tiling inside the main chamber and of Mahmud’s tomb is exquisite.

Inside Pahlavon Mahmud's mausoleum. Clockwise from top: The main dome (which needs a little seeing-to with a duster); Unmarked tombs of other khas to the west of the main hall; Pahlavon Mahmud's wonderfully tiled sarcophagus and tomb

Inside Pahlavon Mahmud’s mausoleum. Clockwise from top: The main dome (which needs a little seeing-to with a duster); Unmarked tombs of other khans to the west of the main hall; Pahlavon Mahmud’s wonderfully tiled sarcophagus and tomb

After a few more sights we took a break to climb the Islom-Hoja Minaret, the tallest one in Uzbekistan! The stairs inside were narrow and ascended anti-clockwise. The steps were steep which meant it was hard going but only took a little time to reach the viewing platform at the top.

Jo and Julie starting to climb the Islom-Hoja Minaret - Khiva's newest (built in 1910) and Uzbekistan's highest at 57m

Jo and Julie starting to climb the Islom-Hoja Minaret – Khiva’s newest (built in 1910) and Uzbekistan’s highest at 57m

Khiva from the top of the Islom Hoja Minaret

Khiva from the top of the Islom Hoja Minaret

Having climbed his minaret, we then visited Islom Hoja’s Medressa which is also the Museum of Applied Arts. It seems that they’ve knocked through all of the student and teacher cells on the ground floor to create a long corridor of tiny rooms in which we found a very eclectic exhibition – woodcarvings, metalwork, carpets, clothing, books and stone carvings.

A taste of the variety on display in the Museum of Applied Arts. Clockwise from top-left: Walking through the walls of the medressa; Parcha robes for women (20th century); Stamps (21st century); A part of the ceiling from the Arabkhan mosque (17th century)

A taste of the variety on display in the Museum of Applied Arts. Clockwise from top-left: Walking through the walls of the medressa; Parcha robes for women (20th century); Stamps (21st century); A part of the ceiling from the Arabkhan mosque (17th century)

Next up we popped our heads into the Photography Museum which had a very impressive collection of old black and white photos of Khiva from the 1920s and 30s, including some exposed onto glass!

A small selection of the framed photographs of old Khiva on display in the Khiva Photography Museum

A small selection of the framed photographs of old Khiva on display in the Khiva Photography Museum

After we recharged our sightseeing batteries with tasty home-made somsas (triangular pasties about the size of your hand, similar to an Indian samosa but oven baked rather than fried) and copious amounts of tea in a little cafe in the bazaar just outside the East Gate, we tackled the lavishly decorated, massive Tosh Hovli palace – so big it’s in 2 parts!

The sumptuously decorated Tosh Hovli Palace courtyard

The sumptuously decorated Tosh Hovli Palace courtyard

Details in the Tosh Hovli Palace

Details of the decorations in the Tosh Hovli Palace. Clockwise from top-left: The wooden pillars are just as elaborate as the tiled walls; Ceiling detail; Interior bedroom; Silk scarves for sale in the courtyard

In contrast to the Tosh Hovli Palace where seemingly every internal surface is decorated, our next stop was the Juma Mosque – my favourite of the day..

Juma Mosque, Khiva, Uzbekistan

The underground Juma Mosque with it’s 218 carved wooden pillars was my favourite of the sights in Khiva

Just outside the walls to the north-west is the Isfandiyar Palace. We double-checked the map when we got there as it looked pretty non-descript from the outside and we were the only people there – besides a local guy sitting on the step.

Isfandiyar Palace, Khiva

Julie and Jo checking we’re in the right place, and reading up on the Isfandiyar Palace before we enter

But inside awaits the biggest assault to the senses all day..

Isfandiyar Palace, Khiva, Uzbekistan

CAPTION COMPETITION: Julie and Jo exclaiming over the chandelier in the completely over-the-top Isfandiyar Palace. It’s bold and bonkers and we loved it!

Isfandiyar Palace, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Every room overloaded our senses with colour and patterns. Somehow, it made complete sense that the only suitable furniture that wouldn’t cause further clashes would be mirrors..

We’d saved the Kuhna Ark for last because we’d read it was a good vantage point over Khiva at sunset. As we climbed up to the watchtower (which was 2,000 som extra, about 40p) we heard Uzbek pop-music, and found ourselves in the middle of a music video shoot!

Shooting for an Uzbek music video!

Shooting for an Uzbek music video on the Kuhna Ark in Khiva

Dancer posing for us in-between shooting a music video in Khiva, Uzbekistan

Not only was she a great dancer, she was happy to pose for the multitude of tourists in between shots. We don’t know her name, but she was described as “the best” by the crew and, amazingly, we saw her again on the Uzbek MTV when we had dinner later that night!!

I got talking to a smartly dressed guy who was hanging around while the filming was going on, and through an interpreter I found out he was the singer who wrote the song she was dancing to! I haven’t been able to find his track (as I suspect it isn’t yet released), and there’s another famous Uzbek singer called Athambek. From his handwriting, I think his song is called “Noziga Boylaribgoldim” – if you find it please drop it into the comments below. Here’s a photo of Athambek..

Athambek, the Uzbek singer/songwriter I met in Khiva

Athambek, the Uzbek singer/songwriter I met in Khiva

The Kuhna Ark and city walls of Khiva, Uzbekistan

The Kuhna Ark and city mud walls of Khiva at sunset

Day 2 – Ancient Khorezm Mud Fortresses

As we’d seen pretty much everything on our list the day before, we arranged a 6-hour, half-day taxi tour of Ancient Khorezm. Here’s the introduction from the Lonely Planet..

The Amu-Darya delta, stretching from southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea, has been inhabited for millennia and was an important oasis long before Urgench or even Khiva were important. The historical name of the delta area, which includes parts of modern-day northern Turkmenistan, was Khorezm.
The ruins of many Khorezmian towns and forts, some well over 2000 years old, still stand east and north of Urgench in southern Karakalpakstan. With help from Unesco, local tourism officials have dubbed this area the ‘Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm’. The area’s traditional name is Elliq-Qala (Fifty Fortresses). – Lonely Planet, Central Asia, p202

The tour took us to three of the main qalas, starting with the square Kyzyl Qala. We caught a quick glimpse of it just before we turned off the main road and onto a bumpy dirt track, and as we rounded a small hill of dirt, the massive towering mud fortress stood in front of us..

Kyzyl Qala fortress

The square Kyzyl Qala still standing after more than 2,000 years. An excellent example as we walked pretty much all the way around it before we found a way in!

Kyzyl Qala fortress

Julie, Jo and I exploring Kyzyl Qala fortress. There aren’t any signs, fences or restrictions, which makes it all the more impressive that these fortresses are still in such good condition

Next up was the main temple complex of the Khorezm kings who ruled the area in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the massive Toprak Qala. We found a lot of the rooms were still visible, as were the doorways linking them. Nearby were the modern foundations of a recent excavation team.

Panoroma of Toprak Qala

Panorama of the massive Toprak Qala, home to the Khorezm kings in the 3rd and 4th centuries

Toprak Qala

Julie and Jo scaling the remains of Toprak Qala

The final stop on our qala gala were the 3 ruins of the very impressive Ayaz-Qala. Our driver gave us the choice to drive up the hill, walk down and pay an unofficial entry fee levied by the ger camp nearby, or park at the bottom and scale the walls, thereby avoiding the fee – we opted to storm the walls!

Ayaz-Qala fortress

Saving the best ’til last – the massive 3-in-1 Ayaz-Qala. There’s a ground-level fort, the raised fort in the middle and main fortress on the edge of the cliff

Ayaz-Qala fortress

Julie, Jo and I having scaled the walls of the Ayaz-Qala fortress. This one was our favourite as some of its tunnels were intact and we could crawl through them!

Thank you Khiva, the compact Silk Road city with the adorable stumpy minaret..

Silly poses with the Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva

Us with the adorable, stumpy icon of Khiva, the Kalta Minor Minaret


P.S. Don’t forget the caption competition!