Odessa is the third largest city in Ukraine, situated in Eastern Europe. Bordering Ukraine are Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Russia and Belarus too.
With a population of just over one million, the city is a key transportation and warm water seaport hub, due to its prime location on the Black Sea’s north-western shore. Odessa is actually home to two important ports; the Port of Odessa itself as well as Port Yuzhne, which is located in the city’s suburbs.
By the early 19th century, Odessa had become an important industrial, commercial and cultural centre, and was, at that time, the fourth largest city of then Imperial Russia, after Warsaw, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. You can see by its historical architecture that it had also been influenced by Italian and French styles, with some quarters even appearing more Mediterranean than Russian.
The city is a fascinating mix of nationalities, religions, cultures, cuisines and history; the best place to take it all in is to simply sit in the City Garden and watch it all play itself out right under your nose.
The City Garden stretches between the Gavannaya and Preobrazhenskaya Streets, along the world famous Deribasovskaya Street. This is the first city garden in Odessa, established in 1803 by the then mayor, Osip De Ribas. It consists of a variety of stately trees, including chestnuts and planes, as well as delicate white acacia and an enormous poplar, plus a variety of verdant plants.
There is also an imposing sculpture of a lion and lioness with their cubs, together with a chair commemorating the well-known book “The Twelve Chairs”, a classic satirical novel penned in 1928 by Ilf and Petrov, both of whom were natives of Odessa.
The Garden has itself welcomed many literary and political visitors, such as Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet. There is also a monument dedicated to him in Pushkin Street as well as a tree, aptly named Pushkin’s Tree.
Another popular cultural icon was Leonid Utyosov, the famous Soviet actor, singer and leader of Odessa’s best known jazz orchestra, who also has a monument dedicated to him. There is also a telephone booth directly opposite the monument in which you can listen to a variety of his most popular songs!
The Garden is especially popular in the evening, being a favourite location for its residents. It is also home to a bandstand plus a singing fountain, which, after dusk, hosts a son-et-lumière representation of classic tunes played out to a background of beautiful coloured lights.
The Garden’s paths are occasionally lined with stalls displaying local art and other handicrafts.
Grenoble, known as “Capital of the Alps”, must have one of the best natural backdrops ever, located as it is at the foot of the majestic French Alps, where the rivers Drac and Isère meet. The city, located in south eastern France, is surrounded by craggy mountain ranges that lead off towards Switzerland and Savoie in the north, Provence and Italy in the south and the Rhône Valley in the west. And, believe me, getting there also makes for terrific driving!
Grenoble is more than 2000 years old, but lived peacefully right up to the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), when it was the scene of dreadful scenes of unrest, its churches damaged and destroyed, and beheading by guillotine an everyday occurrence. Shortly thereafter, however, the city was able to pick itself up and, nowadays, its approximate 700,000 – as of 2011 – residents, known as “Grenoblois”, enjoy living within a successful administration, their town known to be home of some of the world’s top scientific research centres, which have made great achievements in the fields of microelectronics and nuclear physics.
Besides enjoying the ambiance of this pretty town, and if you can tear yourself away from the interesting markets and book shops, not far away is an attraction of equal fascination, ”le Chemin de Fer de La Mure”, 20 miles of railroad that runs perched halfway up steep mountain slopes, with 18 tunnels, 142 bridges and 122 bends that display the totally breathtaking landscape in a train journey that shuffles along at the average leisurely pace of 12 miles per hour and lasts roughly 100 minutes.
The line was originally built between 1882 and 1886 to transport coal from the mines at La Mure to Saint-Georges-de-Commiers, where it was then loaded on wagons headed to Grenoble and even further onwards. The service began in 1891, after four years of backbreaking construction, the line then being electrified in 1903 by means of a symmetrical current power supply and two overhead lines at plus and minus 1200 volts direct current respectively.
In 1988, the traffic stopped, with most of the installations being demolished due to the fact that coal was now being transported by road. However, in 1968, the local tourist office began working on the development of seasonal tourist passenger traffic, which has grown steadily over the years, the line since becoming one of the best tourist railways in Europe.
Both at the museum of La Mure and also at the train’s destination, Saint-Georges-de-Commiers, you will be able to view photographic shows, presenting 100 years of the mine train and including exhibits of historical installations, workshops, joinery shop, forge, and much more.
You can buy your train tickets from Grenoble train station.
Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French), is a town in northern France that lies just over six miles away from Belgium. As of 2012, its population was just under 100,000.
With its collection of over 400 shops, the town is popular with overseas shoppers and is also home to the largest French Auchan hypermarket, a chain from which you can buy pretty much everything you’ve ever wanted, besides many things you never even realised you wanted in the first place.
But, of course, Dunkirk’s claim to fame is due to much more than that. In the spring of 1940, at the end of the Battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force was cut off from the French Army, which it had been supporting, by the advance of the German forces and found itself surrounded in the vicinity of the town’s port.
According to official war diaries, the German commander, Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, had ordered its troops to halt, which enabled the British troops to evacuate the area. The then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered all available sea vessels to rescue the stranded soldiers; 338,226 men, including 123,000 French soldiers, were party to the miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill called it, and were safely evacuated.
The city again saw action in 1944, during the Allied attempt to re-take it. All in all, the town was virtually destroyed during WWII.
Besides the Memorial Du Souvenir, situated on the Rue des Chantiers de France, Courtines du Bastion 32, which is a volunteer run museum depicting the story of the evacuation in humbling detail, there is also the Musee Portuaire, (Port Museum), a collection that illustrates the development of the port from its early days as a modest harbour to one which now extends over 10 miles of coastline.
The Musee Portuaire is made up of several parts; one in the building itself, which presents an ethnological and sociological depiction of Dunkirk’s marine environment, with archival footage, excerpts from letters and old tools, including details about the infamous pirate Jean Bart, together with a generous collection of models of both old sailing ships and newer ones, all displayed in the naval gallery on the top floor.
The impressive collection offers a great insight into the troubled history of the port and town throughout its many hundred years of history, from the middle ages to the modern day. There is also a free audio guide, available in several languages that will give you really detailed explanations.
The other part of the museum can be found in the tall ship moored outside, (the Duchesse Anne) which, before WWII, was actually a German navy cadet training ship. Ship-board life, as it was then, is illustrated by actual former cadets who had sailed to South Africa, South America and then home.
For a small fee, you are also able to visit the lightship or ascend the majestic looking lighthouse.
The port museum also offers paddle boat tours all summer, in conjunction with the Intermunicipal Union Dunes of Flanders, as also participates in the Heritage Days in September, and Sailing Dunkirk in May.
Address: 9 Quai de la Citadelle
Phone Number: 03 28 63 33 39
Bangkok – Sukhumvit Soi 38
The lively, friendly city of Bangkok can have your sightseeing senses spinning in wonder but, don’t forget, there is still more to appreciate than its array of amazing temples, parks and palaces – its varied and delicious local cuisine!
If you want to ‘go native’ – which I highly recommend – the best way to start is by taking the impressive Skytrain (BTS) to Thong Lor and, once there, heading for Sukhumvit Soi 38, a street only paces away.
This little road is paved with a mixture of local restaurants and street stalls, and it’s within these stalls that you will get your initiation to real Thai cuisine. Choose one of the many rickety tables lining the street, and be prepared for a delicious gourmet experience.
If you know anything about Thai cuisine – or even if you don’t – bear in mind that it is spicy! And the more ‘native’ you go, the spicier it becomes. You will see a choice of noodles of all shapes and sizes and of rice based dishes. Your choice of noodles will include chicken, duck, pork and egg. A local anchor dish, ‘Ba Mee’, which consists of dried egg noodles topped with vegetables and lava egg, is readily available; also Khun Mee, egg noodles with chicken and green curry, Thai sausage with glass noodle in their usual tangy and spicy dressing and Kuay Jab (noodle rolls) are just a few more options.
If you are more of a rice kind of person, ‘pad kaprao’, a succulent mix of fried meat and spices, or ‘kaao laad kaeng’, which is a tasty curry and rice dish, might be good choices.
And let’s not forget dessert! The Thais have a sweet tooth and have perfected some wonderful dishes. A real favourite is a sticky rice dessert – try the Khao Neow Toorien, which is a durian coconut milk soup over sticky rice. Durian is a local fruit with a powerful odour that you will either love or hate. But don’t give up half way; its taste is certainly worth it! Or, during mango season, try Khao Neow Mamuang, one of Thailand’s most popular desserts. Consisting of a bed of sweet sticky rice, mango and a coconut cream syrup topping, your usual Tip Top or Häagen Dazs will never taste the same again.
Wash it all down with a lemongrass drink or iced Thai tea; you will feel you have dined like a king for a pauper’s salary, and you will have resources left over for next day’s sightseeing.
The staff are always helpful and, if you see something on the menu that you can’t pronounce or someone eating something that has taken your fancy, just point to it and your own portion will be quickly served to you! This, by the way, is a plus point; high turnover means a rolling kitchen, so food isn’t left to get stale.
The street is open for business from 1800 until late into the night. It’s fun to just sit and watch the local life as it moves and changes throughout the evening.
Prague – or the City of a Thousand Spires, as it is known – has had an interesting life, some of it happy, some tragic.
This beautiful city, the capital of Czech Republic, is home to about one and a half million residents, as of 2014, and is the European Union’s fourteenth-largest city. It is relatively close to several other major Central European cities too – Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Berlin and Vienna – and its main river, the Vltava, which runs for about 19 miles through the city, is crossed by 18 bridges. Romantic or what?
The city’s settlement dates back as far as the 9th century, and two castles of that era can still be seen on the top of the Hradčany and Vysehrad hills. It became a successful trading centre, and achieved even greater importance after King Wenceslas I (yes, the one who looked out) of Bohemia built a German settlement there in 1232.
Prague grew rapidly in size and prosperity as Bohemia’s capital and, under Emperor Charles IV (14th cent.), became one of the grandest cities of Europe. Prague saw many masters until 1918, when it became the official capital of the newly created Czechoslovak state.
The city suffered from a number of unwelcome occupations; between 1939-1945 by the Germans, after which it fell into Soviet hands. Finally, in 1989, the city’s “Velvet Revolution” brought down the Communist regime and, in 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two, with the Czech Republic retaining Prague as its capital and Slovakia conferring that role onto Bratislava.
There is a plethora of sights here, from the Astronomical Clock, Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge, a horse and carriage tour or simply a stroll around the city’s cobblestones, however there is another tour to be taken too, and one of fascinating interest: the Nuclear Bunker Tour.
The bunker tour cannot be taken independently; there are several tour companies that offer their services near to the bunker’s location in Stare Mesto, just a short tram ride from the city centre.
The tour has exhibits all about the history of the communist period; spies, communist terror, dissident prisoners, refugees and cold war stories, together with original photo-footage from the 1960s. There is also physical proof of the former communist secret police STB headquarters, together with victim memorials.
The bunker extends 16 metres and five floors deep under the city, its size enabling it to house up to 5,000 people at any one time. It is crammed with paraphernalia including gas masks, radiation suits, medical kits, copies of the Nuclear Bunker survival Guide in picture booklet form, and uniforms. The ambience is evocative of the paranoia and violence of the Cold War years and it is bound to send a chill down your spine.
The tours are very informative (and in several languages) and illustrate the country’s dark period. The speakers talk about daily life and the general feeling of danger and fear from a possible nuclear war, fuelled by the general suspicion of an attack from the west by the “bad capitalists” and other “imperialistic countries”. The facilities were built to save the citizens from the radioactive fallout which would have followed an attack by nuclear bombs and long range missiles.
Address: Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic (Stare Mesto (Old Town))
Phone Number: +420 777 172 177
Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Santa Cruz de la Sierra (commonly just known as Santa Cruz) is situated on the Pirai River in eastern Bolivia, and is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
The city, first founded by the Spanish explorer Ñuflo de Chavez in 1561, was actually originally situated about 120 miles east of its current location. It was moved several times, in fact, until it found its final resting place on the Pirai River in the late 16th century. The town jogged along happily, not catching too much of anybody’s attention, until after WWII, when extensive land reforms enabled the city to grow; and grow it did, at a rapid pace. It is now thought of as the most economically successful city in the country.
Geographically, as it lies at an altitude of a “mere” 1,364 feet, Santa Cruz is also the lowest city in Bolivia, in contrast to most of the other ones, which are perched high in the Andes.
One of its very pleasant, though lesser known, points of interest – probably due to the variety of Inca ruins that are, however, many miles away – is the amazing Jardin Botanico Municipal (Botanical Garden of Santa Cruz de la Sierra). The gardens are housed within an area of 186 hectares, and are affiliated to the Association of Botanical Gardens in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Situated about five miles away, on the road to Cotoca, this absolute treasure awaits you, filled to the brim with an amazing variety of all sorts of different types of vegetation, bird and aquatic life
The gardens are a combination of Chaco and subtropical forest, which, together with a secondary vegetation native forest, include representative samples of tree species as well an interminable variety of plant ones, vines the size of a human torso, palms, marshes, termite mounds, tall grasses, and bogs. It is also the proud owner of an expansive body of Laguna, which has drawn in fascinating aquatic plants, plentiful waterfowl and migratory birds.
The centre is clean and well run, with caring and involved staff. The pathways around the gardens are tidy and well maintained also. Along the many paths, you may come across hundreds of radiantly coloured butterflies and squadrons of monkeys, sloths, dragonflies, red tailed squirrels and an unbelievable collection of birds.
It really is a place where you can appreciate an absolute non-commercial tranquillity. There are no restaurants within the gardens, but plenty of picnic and lookout areas, so remember to bring your own refreshments.
The gardens are open every day, and there is a small entrance fee.
Botánico Santa Cruz Garden, Carretera a Cotoca. Tel: +591 3 3623101
Volgograd lies on the western bank of the Volga River, with a population of just over one million, as of 2010.
The city was founded in 1589, and built as a fortress. At 56 miles, it is the longest city in Russia. Volgograd offers many historical monuments and interesting architecture, due to its rich, though troubled, history.
Volgograd has actually changed name three times: from Tsaritsyn, as it was called between 1589 to 1925, to Stalingrad, from 1925 to 1961 in honour of its then ruler Joseph Stalin, and finally to its current name.
The city has experienced many raids and attempted conquests, including during the civil war in 1918. The most famous battle of them all, however, took place during WWII. The Battle of Stalingrad, as the city was then called, began on the 17th July 1942 and lasted until the 2nd of February the following year.
It is credited with the greatest casualty figures of any single battle in the history of warfare, with an approximate loss of life estimated somewhere in the region of 2 million. The city was completely destroyed, heavy aerial bombardment reducing most of it to rubble and then, finally, after months of fighting, on November 19th, the Soviet forces launched a huge counteroffensive that led to the German Sixth Army and other Axis units being completely surrounded. On January 31st, 1943, the Sixth Army’s commander, Friedrich Paulus, who had just received the news of having been made a Field Marshal, surrendered. By February 2nd, with the surrender of a decimated and exhausted German army, the Battle of Stalingrad was over.
King George VI of Great Britain honoured Stalingrad’s citizens with a jewelled “Sword of Stalingrad”, in recognition of their bravery. The sword was presented to Josef Stalin by Winston Churchill at the 1943 Tehran Conference In 1945, the then Soviet Union bestowed the title of ‘Hero City’ on Stalingrad for its brave resistance. In 1946 the city’s reconstruction began.
For a better understanding of this challenging time, the Volgograd State Panoramic Museum is a very good place to start.
The museum’s panoramic offering of the Stalingrad Battle, today the largest canvas in Russia (21,500 square feet of painted surface and 10750 square feet of plastic relief), conveys a general image of the embattled city and of the bravery of its defenders. The museum’s halls contain thousands of exhibits that reveal the history of Stalingrad Battle, including documents, weapons, awards and personal belongings of the city’s defenders and famous generals.
Next to the museum you will see what is left of an old mill. This ruined five-story building was left unrestored after the war, as a silent monument to the past.
Address: Chuikova St., 47, Volgograd
Phone Number: (8442) 34-72-72
Morelia is generally thought of as one of the loveliest cities in Mexico. It is also not as well known as many other popular Mexican destinations, which makes it even lovelier, in my mind!
The city is the capital of Mexico’s Michoacan state, and is home to some beautiful colonial style structures. In fact, because they are so well preserved, the UNESCO awarded it World Heritage recognition in 1991.
The city, founded in 1541 by the Spanish, was one of the original cities in Nueva España, and was then named after the Spanish city of Valladolid, in the hope that the Spanish nobility would be encouraged to move there. When, in 1828, the country gained independence as the Republic of Mexico, the city was renamed Morelia after local hero José María Morelos y Pavón, a significant figure in Mexico’s struggle against its Spanish overlords.
Because of its regal influence, the town is replete with elegant 16th and 17th century pink stone buildings, baroque facades, and a generous amount of museums, churches and a cathedral, which is famous for its 4,600 pipe organ, which is often played during popular evening recitals. It is also the only cathedral in Mexico that is oriented toward the north and not the east.
Away from the town, and certainly offering a unique experience, is a Monarch butterfly preserve, located next to the tiny village of El Rosario, a couple of hours away in the Michoacan countryside.
To get to the observation point, you will pass through some verdant fields with apple and pear tree groves, and some shallow lakes. The point is at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, where you will be able to view the butterflies that have made their homes in the branches of more than 1,500 oak and evergreen trees. During their visits, the butterflies group together, covering the branches in a swathe of brilliant orange and black.
The Monarch butterflies fly every year from Canada to Mexico in late October and make their homes there for the duration of the winter. An unbelievable 60 million to one billion Monarch butterflies travel from eastern Canada to the forests of Mexico – but don’t worry, the area is home to many other butterfly species for you to see throughout the year. However, if you do find yourself there in late October, you can witness the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorations, when, according to local legend, the returning butterflies are the souls of the dead returning to earth.
The hike up to the hillside does require a bit of strength, but don’t worry if you’re no Sir Edmund Hillary, there are horses with guides to assist your ride to the top.
Legend has it that the demigod Maui dragged the Hawaiian Islands out from under the sea, then secured the sun to Haleakala, the Island’s highest point. The island took its name from that mythological entity, because, some say, the island’s shape resembles his head and body.
The official story is a little different, of course. Polynesians from Tahiti and the Marquesas were the original residents, with modern Hawaiian history beginning in the 18th century. King Kamehameha I, the king of Hawaii’s Big Island, invaded Maui in 1790 to fight the indecisive Battle of Kepanawi, returning to conquer Maui several years later.
Kamehameha’s descendants ruled until 1872. Another ancient family of chiefs then took over, including Queen Liliuokalani, who was on the throne in 1893, when the monarchy was finally repealed, leaving the door open for the Republic of Hawaii to be founded. The island was annexed by the United States in 1898 and made a territory in 1900, becoming the 50th U.S. state in 1959.
Maui is a mixture of sun, rain, beauty, pineapples, fantastic sea life, (the island is a leading whale-watching destination due to the Humpback whales that arrive there each winter to shelter in the island’s warm waters), diverse landscapes, and volcanoes. But don’t let that last detail put you off by any means, Maui’s last eruption was in 1790, with nothing further expected in the near (or even far, for that matter) future.
The country’s mix of warm, tropical sunshine and laid back lifestyle is a haven for holiday makers from all over the world and is particularly popular with honeymooners and cruise line passengers.
However, Maui isn’t just all Mai Tai’s and leis; there are still some areas on the island that remain exceptional.
One of these destinations can be found in the historical town of Paia, situated on the North shore of the island. Some time ago, the area predominately concentrated on the growth and export of sugarcane, but has developed into an interesting little beach village, with out-of-the-ordinary shops, restaurants and art galleries. Also of high interest is the nearby Dharma Centre.
The Centre was built to pay homage to Tibetan Buddhism, and is dedicated to the late Lama Tenzin, its first resident teacher. Completed in 2007, it was blessed by the Dalai Lama with 500 invited guests.
The Stupa (the Sanskrit name for a dome shaped Buddhist shrine) was built in the Tibetan Buddhist architectural tradition, standing 27 feet high and with a large prayer wheel. It is visited by travellers from all over the world.
You will be drawn in by the absolute silence of the grounds, a long way from the hubbub of busy touristy attractions. You are even free to stay and have a picnic; but make sure you read the signs first, as they will explain the traditions of this spiritual area, together with a few rules.
Brisbane – Brizzie to its locals – is the capital city of Queensland, located on the eponymous river on the eastern coast of Australia, with its population – about 2.2 million as of 2014 – enjoying a subtropical climate that always seems to supply sunny days.
It is the third largest city in the country, with Sydney and Melbourne being a reasonably close first and second in front of it.
Think Brisbane and you will, no doubt, start thinking about miles and miles of sandy beaches. However, most of the large beach areas can be found an hour or two up the drag, along the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. For local swimming enjoyment, you’ll find the northern bayside suburbs of Redcliff, Woody Point and Clontart more convenient distance-wise, not forgetting Moreton Bay, which has some truly amazing beaches found on the surrounding islands of Peel, Tangalooma and North Stradbroke.
Brisbane, however, offers more than ‘just’ snorkelling, diving, sailing and jet-skiing fun. Let’s not forget that this extraordinary country is also the home to some extraordinary animals, and, approximately 20 minutes away by car, is the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, a smashing attraction where you can view and interact with many of them.
The Koala Sanctuary was the world’s first, and is the largest, established in 1927 by Claude Reid. Starting off with only two koalas (Jack and Jill), the sanctuary grew over time, bringing new Australian species to the wildlife sanctuary, and dedicating itself to their conservation.
The Sanctuary’s name, by the way, comes from the Lone Pine area, where the Clarkson family, who had been operating a cotton farm on the land in 1865, decided to plant a lone hoop pine tree along the Brisbane River banks and then, in 1920, converted the land into a dairy farm, with Mr Reid stepping in seven years later.
It is now home to over 100 species of native animals, including dingoes, Tasmanian devils, platypuses, echidnas, crocs, wombats, kangaroos – which you are allowed to hold – as well as about 130 cuddly koalas (sorry, couldn’t resist that one), which you can also hold, at no charge.
The strict regulations in place ensure that each koala is not held for more than half an hour each day, nor can you take photos with your own camera. You can purchase a souvenir photo of yourself and the cuddly one, though, with all monies helping to fund research projects.
For the bird lovers among you, the opportunity to see the many brightly coloured Aussie parrots, rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, emus, and kookaburras would make the visit worthwhile on its own! You can feed the lovely lorikeets twice a day, if you like. And, for those who have an interest in larger predators, there is a bird of prey show once a day, which includes the daily training of the sanctuary’s awesome owls, falcons, kites, kestrels and eagles. There is an opportunity to hold these magnificent beasts too (for a small fee).
The sanctuary also has a small farm within it that runs little Sheep Dog Shows.
There is a nice open air snack bar and souvenir shop on site as well.
Besides travelling by car (there is a substantial car park at the Sanctuary), you can reach it by Brisbane Transport bus or by ferry, which departs from the Queensland Cultural Centre pontoon, and takes approximately 1½ hours.
The Sanctuary address: 708 Jesmond Road, Fig Tree Pocket
+61 7 3378 1366