Riga

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I kind of have a split personality when it comes to travelling.

I travel on my own quite a lot. There are a lot of advantages to travelling solo. For one thing, I get to do pretty much everything I want to whenever I want. I also tend to meet more travellers when I’m on my own and make friendships, however fleeting, that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. As a vegan traveller, when I’m on my own I will try and get to every vegan-friendly food outlet listed on Happy Cow. I also tend to research destinations intensely, and by the time I get there I have a clear idea of what I’m going to see and do.

Other times, I travel as part of a group. This version of me is almost the complete opposite of the solo traveller me. If someone else is planning the trip, I barely know anything more than which flight I’m on. And sometimes I’m not even clear on that. When I’m in a group, I’m happy to follow everyone else and see what happens.

My recent trip to Riga was as part of a group. Other than it being the capital of Latvia, I knew very little about Riga before I went there. Our long weekend was kindly organised by friends I first met when I travelled in Alaska. They planned a fun-filled, varied weekend for 8 of us and they couldn’t have done a better job. I got to experience the culture of Latvia, learn about the history and also party the night away in some of the best night spots.

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One of the advantages of group travel is that I get to experience activities that I wouldn’t be able to on my own. Bowling, for example, isn’t much fun if you haven’t got anyone to compete with. Whilst in Latvia, we took party in an Escape Rooms challenge and also enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in a top spa. The two activities could not have been more different, and both would have been more than a little awkward had I been on my own. I think it was a good idea we did the Escape Rooms first, after one of the most adrenalin-fuelled, stressful but also immensely fun 60 minutes of my life, I definitely needed that spa experience. I don’t want to give anything away about the Escape Rooms, but our group did manage to escape with 5 minutes to spare :).

Over the past year, I have developed a new obsession whenever I travel anywhere. I have to find a free walking tour. For the price of a well-deserved tip, you get to experience your destination at an easy pace with an enthusiastic guide. The free walking tour of Riga did not disappoint. Our guide Toms was very entertaining and informative. He gave us a potted history of the city, and also Latvia in general, and showed us lots of points of interest in the old town that we would have otherwise walked past without even noticing. I think the most interesting part for me was learning about The Baltic Way. Although I was alive, albeit a child, during this event, I have no memory of seeing it on the news at all. To peacefully protest their right to independence, inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined hands and formed a continuous line through their three capital cities. If you want to learn more about this incredible feat, which was planned and executed in just one month, click on the link and watch the video made by a 6th grader. She does a much better job of explaining the history and significance of the event than I ever could.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Culture

This week’s photo challenge is Culture (click here to see more entries). It posed a problem for me at first. I have visited many places, and lived in quite a few, and taken lots of photos on the way, but I struggled to find a photo that really represented the culture of those places to me.

I ended up going right back to some photos that I’d taken with my very first digital camera. Due to that fact, the quality isn’t great.

One of the benefits of working as a holiday rep is that you get to experience most of the day trips and excursions as part of your job. One such excursion for me was to the Achaia Clauss winery in Greece.

From the first moment I entered Achaia Clauss, I was swept away into a Mediterranean fantasy. Even before I got near the wine, I was impressed by the traditional architecture and the welcoming atmosphere. When I entered the wine cellars, I was even more blown away. Our very enthusiastic guide told us all about how they produce and store the wine, and the importance of it to their culture. What amazed and impressed me the most, though, is the detail and artistic thought that is put into the intricate details of the wine casks. Each one is a work of art in itself, and I was impressed by the fact that that someone had put so much thought, time and care into something that so few people would see. Most of the people who drink the wine would never know that it had come from such a beautiful vessel.

Of course we got to try the wine. Their speciality is Mavrodaphne, a very dark red wine that is almost like port. Personally, I don’t usually like red wine, but I would make an exception for Mavrodaphne any day.

Pisa Trip Day 2 – Lucca

The weather was not so good as the previous day when I woke on my second morning in Pisa, but other than a short debate with myself about whether to pack a hoody or a fleece I didn’t let it slow me down. Today I was catching a train to Lucca, a 30 minute journey from Pisa Central. The regional train networks in Italy are very easy to navigate. You don’t even have to attempt any Italian, all the stations have automated machines in four languages, including English. You simply type in where you want to go, put in the required euros and it prints you a ticket. Unlike the musical platforms of the British rail network, most trains at Italian stations leave from the same platform everyday, and because of that they are able to have a permanent departures board.

When I disembarked the train at Lucca, the first thing I did was head towards the tourist information at Piazza Verdi. There is a bus that will take you there, but I took my guidebook’s advice that it is quicker to walk.

Lucca is surrounded by 12 metre high walls that were built to protect the old city in the 16th and 17th centuries. On top of the walls is a 4km long, circular footpath which was used as a track to race cars for a number of years in the 20th century. Each of the four principal sides are lined with a different tree species.

As I entered the walls via the Porto San Pietro, one of the gates into the city, I could see why it’s quicker to walk than to take the bus. If I thought that the streets in Pisa were narrow and winding, here in Lucca they were positively claustrophobic. My camera was kept busy taking photos of all the picturesque buildings that I saw on my way to Piazza Verdi.

San Pietro Gate
The narrow streets of Lucca

Navigating the streets of Lucca is like trying to navigate a labyrinth, only with the added danger of pedestrians, cars, buses and bicycles flying at you from every angle. Although you’re supposed to stay on the right side of the road in Italy, here that rule seemed irrelevant, along with all the one-way signs and other signage that everyone seemed to be ignoring. I decided that my best plan of action was to act like I used to in Greece, go where I wanted to go and not worry about everyone else.

My previous day’s walking around Pisa had left me with incredibly sore feet, so I’d decided to rent a bike for my day in Lucca. This would result in me having a very sore bottom after a couple of hours, but at least my feet would get a bit of a rest. I rented my bike from the tourist information office, although there are multiple bike rental shops dotted all around Lucca. Bike rental generally costs €3 per hour, rising to €15 for the day. The tourist information offices also supply great, free maps of the city, essential if you don’t want to miss anything in a place that is so spread out and difficult to navigate.

My trusty steed for the day

From Piazza Verdi, I cycled straight up onto the promenade on top of the city walls, and I am so glad I did. It’s like a whole other world up there, a peaceful, relaxed oasis surrounding the busy, loud old city below. The footpath along the walls reminded me of the park opposite my house, a beautiful space that is well used by local residents and visitors alike. To refer to it just as a footpath is a huge understatement. Joggers, walkers and cyclists take advantage of the open space to exercise, tourists take advantage of the photo opportunities from the high vantage point, diners enjoy their lunch in restaurants and cafes housed in converted old buildings and there are playgrounds full of happy children at regular points along the 4km circuit.

The footpath on top of the city walls – an oasis above the hustle and bustle below

The walls are also a lot easier to navigate the city from as you are able to drop back down into the commotion whenever you need to. Although reluctant to leave the enjoyment and serenity of the walls, I made my way down one of the steep paths and to the cathedral. I’d been told previous to my visit that entry to the cathedral costs €2.50. I wasn’t asked to pay, but that may have been due to building works at the time. Lucca Cathedral, although not as grand as it’s more famous cousin in Pisa, is still a very impressive building. I particularly liked the frescoes on the ceiling with their deep blue backgrounds. Next door to the cathedral, the Museo della Cattedrale contains artefacts from the cathedral. Unfortunately, the thought and attention to detail that is common place in the museums as Pisa has not been put in to practice here as well. Unless you take an audio guide, there is not much explanation as to what everything is. After paying €4 entrance, I was a little disappointed. Even though I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at, though, the exhibits were still beautiful. It still amazes me how much goes into religious artefacts. A bishop’s robe is not just a piece of decorative clothing, a tapestry is not just something to hang on a wall. Every symbol and image used is carefully chosen and exquisitely painted, sculpted or stitched to tell a story. Even books have their own covers made for them with minute detailing etched on the cover.

Lucca cathedral

Here are some more photos of my day in Lucca.

The buildings in Piazza Anfiteatro retain the shape of the Roman ampitheatre they were built on top of

 

A little piece of London in a very un-English place

 

If you didn’t already know, there are reminders everywhere that Puccini is Lucca’s famous son

 

One of the pedestrian tunnels into the city

 

 

Pisa Trip Day 1 – Piazza Dei Miracoli

In a bid to get some good photos of the main tourist attractions of Pisa with as few people in them as possible, I rose early on my first day and headed for Piazza dei Miracoli. Neither of the two maps that I had picked up were much good, and after wandering through narrow streets lined with tall, multi-storey traditional Italian homes and businesses, I arrived in the Piazza from a totally different direction than the one I had intended. Whilst trying to locate any landmark on my map, I’d managed to walk past the Leaning Tower twice without even noticing it.

My first view of the Leaning Tower, after I’d walked past it twice!

It was 9am and the stalls that depend on the tourism were starting to come to life. Although there were already a few people milling around, my plan had worked and I was able to capture some shots without twenty people in the foreground, posing for other photographers, pretending to push the Leaning Tower over or hold it up.

All the guidebooks advise, nay insist, that you book your Leaning Tower ticket in advance to avoid disappointment. With this in mind, I approached the ticket office at 9.15am, and the lady there told me I could take the 9.30am tour. Maybe it’s not always that busy, then. I also bought a combined ticket for the Piazza’s other attractions – the Cathedral (Duomo), Baptistry, Camposanto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie.

Like all major landmarks that I’d seen on TV prior to seeing them in real life, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower isn’t as big as I’d expected it to be. Access to the tower is by guided tour only, and you have to leave all bags (except cameras) in a locker at the bottom. When you’re climbing the tower, the only things you want to be worried about holding on to are yourself and your camera!

The Piazza as a whole is managed by its staff with almost military precision. All the people who work there, from the ticket sellers to the guides and the people who scan tickets all day are very helpful and informative. They do not betray the fact that they’ve been answering the same questions day in, day out all year. They are not particularly the friendliest people I’ve encountered at such a place, but when visiting in October I appreciate it’s the end of a very long and very busy season for them.

Although the Leaning Tower has acquired its nickname for obvious reasons, the tower is actually the campanile (or bell tower) of the cathedral. Building of the tower commenced in 1173 and occurred in three stages across 344 years. No-one is sure who the original architect was, but considering that it started to lean soon after construction began and was noticeable once 3 levels were completed, you can’t blame the architect for not owning up to this one. The tower leans because of the soft foundation on which it stands, although in recent years it has been straightened up considerably. There have been a few attempts over the years to stop the tower from continuing to lean for fear it might fall over completely. I like the ingenuity of the team working under the architect Giovanni di Simone in 1272. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, his engineers built some of the upper floors with one side taller than the other. So now, not only does the tower still lean, but it is actually curved. Between 1990 and  2001 the tower was closed to the public for building work including earth removal, a steel frame and an almost 900 ton counterweight. The experts say it is now good for another 300 years.

There are many fantastic stories that surround the tower. One of my favourites is that During World War II, the Allies discovered that the Germans were using the tower as an observation post. A US Army sergeant sent to confirm the presence of German troops in the tower was so impressed by the beauty of the cathedral and its campanile that he refrained from ordering an artillery strike, sparing it from destruction. How different the tourist appeal of this area would have been if it were not for the decision of one cultured Army sergeant. To him we will forever be grateful.

The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa

Once you enter the tower, there is a short talk by your guide explaining an abridged history of the building. Then you’re free to wander up the 294 steps as best you can. I was surprised to find that the inside of the tower is an empty chamber. I don’t know what I expected to be there, but it wasn’t nothing. The tower is made of two concentric cylinders, with a staircase winding between the two of them. The narrow staircase is very disorienting. Apart from the fact that the tower is leaning, the only clues you have as to how high you are and in which direction you are facing are a few small windows on the journey up. The steps seemed to go on for a lot longer than I first guessed the tower to be high, although you’re so busy concentrating on where you are stepping that things such as distance become irrelevant. You just want to get to the top. The lean of the tower makes it feel a bit like you’re drunk, swaying this way and that as you make your way around the walls, never knowing what angle you are at at any given moment. There are grooves worn into the steps where previous visitors have all tilted the same way. I wouldn’t recommend the tower to anyone with issues surrounding small spaces, climbing lots of steps or vertigo. Children under 8 are not allowed inside the tower, and once on your way up it is obvious why. When at last you come out into the open air, you are on a walkway that circles the tower. Another, shorter, narrow staircase leads you to the upper most level and the bells themselves. There are 7 bells in the bell chamber, one for each note of the musical scale. It seems almost a shame that the bells are overshadowed by the tower itself. If the campanile hadn’t been built on soft ground, they would have been the stars of the show.

294 steps to the top – it’s a long way! Check out the grooves on the steps where everyone has swayed to the left.
View from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The city looked beautiful with the mountains in the background

At €15, the entrance fee to the tower is by far the most expensive of all the attractions in Pisa. The Italians weren’t going to miss out on making money from the one thing that makes Pisa world-famous. It’s worth paying the ticket price for the views, photo opportunities and the experience of walking up those steps. I’m sure there are gyms that would charge more than that for an equivalent work-out. The tour takes 30 minutes, and you don’t need anymore time than that to experience the tower.

The Leaning Tower is the only building in the Piazza Miracoli that you have to pay separately for. The other five are available individually or via combi-tickets. I chose to buy a ticket for all 5, which cost me €10. The whole square has a relaxed feel to it. Unlike the tower, where visits have to be regulated for safety reasons, you are free to wander amongst the other buildings at your own leisure. Your ticket is valid for the whole day, so it’s up to you in which order and when you visit everything.

Generally, I am not a fan of the art and architecture of cathedrals and churches. However, I would highly recommend that anyone who has the slightest interest in any kind of art, architecture or the creativeness of the human mind pay the two euros to visit Pisa cathedral.

The incredible Pisa Cathedral

Construction on the cathedral began in 1064, when Pisa was among the richest and most powerful cities of the Mediterranean. The building looks impressive from the outside, but the inside is almost too much to take in. I’d heard about the plentiful works of art here, but I was not prepared for what I would see. Every available space has been elaborately decorated with some of the most detailed and thought-through pieces I have ever seen. In other buildings it could too overpowering, but the huge cathedral structure is the perfect setting for this amazing collection. The only slight downside for me was the replacement of the candles with fake plastic ones, a common practice in churches and cathedrals nowadays. In an area of historic importance that has had so many problems with fire in the past, though, you can’t blame them for being cautious.

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the ‘Museum of the Cathedral’, is housed in a building next to the tower which was the residence of the canons of the Duomo. It is home to artwork from the cathedral (yes, even more of it!), the tower and the baptistry.

Opposite the cathedral, in a meaningful location that allows the newly baptised a straight path to their place of worship, is the Baptistry. Until it was decided that a specific structure was needed, the ceremony of baptism used to be performed wherever there was running water. The difference between baptising a baby in a local river and in this grand building seems such a huge jump. One giant room with a first-floor viewing gallery, everything in the Baptistry is focused towards the font and the centre of the action. Whilst in the baptistry, I was very lucky to witness the acoustics of the building when two singers stepped forward to try them out. I’m always envious of people who have the ability to sing well, and the talents of these two were only enhanced as their voices drifted gracefully around the interior.

The fourth major building in Piazza dei Miracoli is the Camposanto, or monumental cemetery. Originally conceived as a church, the cemetery is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil, hence the name ‘Campo Santo’ (Holy Field). The building itself was started a century later, and was only completed in 1464 due to the original architect, Giovanni di Simone, being killed in a naval battle in 1284.

The interior of the Camposanto. You can see some of the frescoes on the walls.

The Camposanto is most famous for its frescoes, the first of which were applied in 1360 and the last about three centuries later. The purpose of the frescoes was to provide a pictorial representation of sermons. Although the artwork started to show deterioration during the first centuries of its existence, it was an incendiary bomb that caused the most damage when the entire building caught fire in 1944. A programme was started to remove the original frescoes from the walls of the camposanto and preserve them. This work led to an amazing discovery, the preliminary drawings, or ‘sinopie’ under the painted surfaces. The Museo delle Sinopie now houses these original charcoal and red chalk drawings. The images are ghost-like, mere suggestions of what was to be painted on the finished fresco. The dimmed lighting of the museum interior, installed to protect the artwork from deteriorating further, adds to the feeling that the drawings might develop in front of your eyes and become clearer on the wall. I found that it was better to stand further away from the pictures in order to see the full composition, the closer you stand the more they disappear.

Some elements are drawn darker than others. As you make your way along the gallery, a prince suddenly jumps out at you from a faded crowd scene. On another wall, a mother is breast feeding her baby clear as day, but the mother has no face.

Both the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie, as like the rest of the square, are very well organised. Directional arrows and information boards ensure that you don’t miss a thing. You’re also very trusted in these museums, there are no ropes to keep you at a safe distance from the exhibits or museum guards watching you like hawks, just a small sign here and there asking you not to touch. My whole experience of Piazza dei Miracoli was more positive than I expected it to be. I didn’t feel rushed or ushered at all, I was simply allowed to take in the history and culture of the square and its buildings at my own pace.