Florence is home to approximately one and a half million inhabitants (as of 2014), if you include the metropolitan area, and will always be thought of as being home to some of the greatest painters, sculptures and for being the birthplace of renaissance architecture.
Thousand upon thousand of visitors frequent the city every year to see the works of Masaccio, Ghiberti and Donatello in its museums and churches, and those of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci in its art galleries, gardens and palaces.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, between the 14th and 16th centuries, Florence was looked upon as one of the most important cities in Europe and also the world, both economically and culturally, with the city’s original language of the age still spoken and accepted as the modern Italian language.
Florence was once home to one of history’s most important noble families, the Medici, who were considered a great political and cultural influence in the late 15th century. In fact, two members of the family were elected Popes in the early 16th century as Leo X and Clement VII.
The Medici reigned as Grand Dukes of Tuscany, beginning with Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1569 and ending with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici in 1737.
The city was not only declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, it has also been ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful and striking cities in the world.
And there’s lots more, too. Florence has seen the birth of some of the world’s greatest clothes designers, like Roberto Cavalli and Gucci, whose gorgeous creations (and sometimes the designers themselves, if you’re lucky) can be seen in the high end designer shops along the Via de’ Tornabuoni and sometimes in the San Lorenzo Market.
But sometimes it’s a good idea to experience some of the off the regular Florence tourist route attractions too, and you can do this by taking a walk through the Oltrarno (the other side of the renowned Arno River) which will bring you to the rows of cafes, restaurants and shops within the Piazza Santo Spirito.
The piazza is mostly filled with anybody but tourists; in fact, it’s generally frequented by Florentine housewives, artisans, students and market sellers, giving it a taste of the ‘real’ Florence. It’s fun just to sit with a gelato, cappuccino or aperitivo (if you’re staying for lunch) and watch it all going on around you.
The Piazza is home to a daily market, where you’ll be able to find everything from fruit and vegetables, to jewellery, discounted designer clothes and shoes, and, in the evening, is popular with the local, who visit the many little bars and edgy restaurants. There is also an interesting antiques/flea market which is held every fourth Sunday of the month.
Melbourne is in the capital of the Australian state of Victoria.
It is Australia’s second largest city, with almost five million inhabitants, as of 2015. Melbourne’s roots can be traced back to the days of the Gold Rush of the 1850s, when gold was discovered in the city’s surrounding hills. Since then, the city has just kept growing, and has remained affluent.
Melbourne is a very popular city indeed, with a diverse cultural and residential mix of citizens; from Europeans – in fact, there are more citizens of Greek descent here than in any other city in the world, with the exception of Athens! – to Lebanese, Asians and others still. You can even now see the influence of the original British settlers in its architecture and stately, clean wide avenues. It is also known as the café culture capital of Australia, its cosmopolitan flavour encompassing shopping, dining and nightlife, as well as lively music events. The city is also Australia’s sports capital due to the fact that the Australian Open, Formula 1 Grand Prix and the eponymous Melbourne Cup are hosted here.
Melbourne hasn’t always been sweetness and light for everyone though, and proof of this is within the Old Melbourne Gaol museum, which, as the name suggests, was once a prison and is definitely worth a visit.
Made up of a bluestone building and a courtyard, it is situated next to the old City Police Watch House and City Courts buildings. Though briefly used during WWII, it ceased operating as a prison in 1929, part of the gaol then being incorporated into the University of Melbourne (RMIT), with the remainder becoming a museum.
First constructed in 1839, during its operation as a prison between 1842 and 1929, it saw the remand and execution of some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, including bushranger Ned Kelly and serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming. Altogether, 133 people were executed here by hanging. Dangerous criminals were held alongside the homeless, petty offenders and the mentally ill. It briefly opened again during WWII as a military prison for Australian solders who had gone AWOL.
The museum houses three floors of exhibits, including information about and memorabilia of both prisoners and staff, including some death masks of executed criminals. The museum, at one time, also displayed Ned Kelly’s skull before it was stolen in 1978; as well as the pencil that wrongly convicted Colin Campbell Ross had used to protest his innocence in writing before being executed. Enthusiasts of the paranormal maintain that the museum might actually be haunted, and claim having heard unexplained voices and seen ghostly apparitions near the cells.
You could even put your nerves to the test and take one of the museum’s night tours! You will be able to visit the real life original cell block that had, at one time, held unsavoury characters such as Chopper Reid (so named because of his penchant for chopping off relevant body parts), and Squizzy Taylor, the brutal career criminal.
As the tour is conducted in the dark and somewhat confined spaces, and might, just might, include some loud noises, it is recommended only for those 16 years and over.
Address: 377 Russell Street, Melbourne
Tel: +61 3 8663 7228
The gorgeous city of Lille is situated in the north of France, in French Flanders, so it is very close to the borders of Belgium.
Lille has a population of approximately 227,000, as of 2011, and is just fifth in urban area size to Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Marseille.
The city had been quietly getting by until 1846, when it saw the construction of a railway line that connected it to Paris, enhancing the city and making it a major industrial location for textiles, coal and metallurgy. Sadly, all these industries crumpled after WWII.
Lille found a new lease of life, however, when the world’s first automated rapid transit underground network, VAL, was opened in 1983, together with the high speed TGV train line, starting in 1993, which connects it with Paris in one hour. Even better for the city, the Channel Tunnel, which began operations in 1994, also put Lille even more prominently on the map, thanks to its tactical location at the crossroads of Brussels, London and Paris.
For a taste of the ‘original’ Lille, the quartier populaire (working class quarter) of the Wazemmes area, located several miles southwest of Place du Général de Gaulle, makes for a very interesting visit.
Lille loves markets of all shapes and forms, and the neighbourhood’s pride and joy is the large Marché de Wazemmes, the city’s favourite food market. Even more to explore is the adjacent outdoor market lying between Rue des Sarrazins and Rue Jules Guesde, an area lined with shops, restaurants and delicious Tunisian pastry spots, many of them catering to the area’s North African residents.
Another attraction that the city is immensely proud to host is the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum), second in size only to the famous Louvre in Paris.
Situated at the end of the old town, this wonderful museum has a collection of over 650 paintings, ceramics and sculptures, its various collections exhibited in ascending order, beginning with the 12th century and ending with the 20th, which gives the visitor a clear idea of the various movements of the fine arts.
The Museum, housed in a splendid Belle Époque building dating from the late 1890s, was instituted in 1801 as part of Napoleon’s commitment to bring art to the masses and a stroll through its various rooms to view Rubens, Picasso, Redon, Corot, Delacroix, Van Dyke, Goya, Modigliani, Miro, and many more, certainly proves that his endeavour has been a marvellous success!
The Palais des Beaux-Arts also has a really nice café overlooking the courtyard, which has an extraordinary water feature.
To get to the Palais, take the Metro Line 1 to République station or bus no. 14 to Place de la République
Samara, Russia, is located on a bend of the imposing Volga River. The river has always provided an intrinsic link for its citizens, serving not only as Russia’s prime commercial thoroughfare, but also being of enormous appeal, not only to its locals but also its visitors.
The city itself has had its share of problems over time; in fact, from 1935 to 1991, it was closed to foreigners, and actually had a different name altogether – Kuybyshev. During WWII it was even designated to act as Russia’s provisional capital city should Moscow have fallen.
Samara is now Russia’s sixth largest city, with a population of approximately 1,169,000, and is home to some important industries, including aircraft, automobiles, machinery, chemicals, locomotives, synthetic rubber, textiles, and petroleum products, not to mention beer brewing – its local beer, Zhigulyovskoye, is named after the nearby Zhiguli Mountains, which lie across the river – flour milling, and tourism; its chief exports are livestock and grain.
Samara is filled with attractions, the most popular of which must be the Volga Waterfront, which, in the summer, is filled with holidaymakers strolling along the esplanade, enjoying the summer sun on its full length beaches or just letting the world go by while sipping a coffee at one of the many waterfront cafes. If you are planning on visiting the waterfront’s beach area, the best place to begin is where Leningradskaya Ulitsa intersects Maksima Gorkovo Ulitsa, then walk in an easterly direction until you reach the end of Volzhsky Prospekt
Some of the city’s many other sights include the stunning Ascension Cathedral. Constructed in 1847, it was Samara’s primary temple for half a century. And, on the steep banks of the Volga, is one of the city’s most wonderful sights, the Iver Monastery, established in 1850 by the Sisters of Charity. The inhabitants actually raised as much money as they could so it could be given a small spot just outside the city.
Samara’s centre plays backdrop to its main symbol, the IL-2 Stormovik, the renowned WWII aircraft. The city was also very prolific in the ‘space race’, being the assembling area of the ‘Vostok’ rocket, which placed the first manned spaceship into orbit.
But for me, the highlight of Samara’s attractions has to be Stalin’s Bunker. Located underneath the Academy of Culture and Arts building, the bunker is linked by tunnels to other essential facilities, as well as housing a private office destined for Stalin’s use that, however, was never actually needed by the dictator.
The bunker’s construction began in early 1942. When the Great Patriotic War began and Moscow faced the very serious threat of Nazi occupation, a secret decree was issued ordering the building of shelters in several Russian cities.
Construction of the bunker involved 800 engineers and technicians, and over 2900 workers, took six months to build, and eventually reached a depth of 37 meters. At one time, there was an upper platform with an elevator and a descending stairwell, discreetly placed behind a door of the current Academy. At a level of 14 meters there were life supports systems and staff living quarters. And, from this level, a 23 meter staircase led to the lower level, which housed the military authorities’ headquarters
Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1990 that the bunker’s ‘Confidential’ classification was revoked.
Elance – Brasilia
The idea of a central, rather than coastal, federal capital location for Brazil had long been on the lawmakers’ agenda and the architects’ drawing board – in fact, as far back as the 19th century – one of the many reasons being that an inland capital would provide some relief to the overcrowded and overpopulated coastal regions.
After many years of negotiation and persuasion, President Juscelino Kubitschek finally had his dream realised and, in April 1960, four years after confirmation that a new city would indeed tick all the boxes needed, Brasilia was born to replace Rio de Janeiro as the Brazilian’s federation capital (that said, not everyone welcomed the relocation, including many of the over 120 foreign embassies that did not relish the idea of giving up their picturesque former locations in Rio de Janeiro, but strong diplomatic pressure eventually did the trick!).
The new capital’s architecture and layout was not welcomed by everyone, either, as many criticised its futuristic inspired layout, characterizing it as little more than “a modernist platonic fantasy about the future”; it did however manage to successfully host some of Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup visitors.
Overall, Brasilia has some interesting restaurants, together with a variety of colourful shopping outlets and a sophisticated nightlife, but the jewel in this reconstructed crown in not new at all, and only a 40 minute drive from the city itself.
The area I am referring to is the Chapada Imperial, a stunning private ecological reserve located north of the city. Its 4,800 hectares of diverse terrain include a forest, wet and dry grassland, marshes, paths, rocky savannah and amazing waterfalls.
Chapada means plateau in Portuguese, and the park was given this name because of its distinctive feature.
There are all sorts of hiking options available to you once you arrive, from short walks to four hour long treks, and plenty of opportunities to climb and swim too, as well as to indulge in some rappelling or mountain biking if you are that way inclined.
Created in 1986, the reserve also doubles as a wildlife sanctuary, housing a number of animal species that are, to varying degrees, threatened with extinction, including the giant anteater, the maned wolf and even the jaguar.
There are lots of opportunities to cool off with a swim in one of the many waterfalls that are dotted around the park and, if you get hungry after all that activity, there is a friendly visitor centre where you can restore your energies and satisfy your appetite by savouring one of the local dishes; perhaps a helping of ‘Galinhada’, a sumptuous mix of rice and chicken.
If you would rather avail yourselves of a guided tour than take the independent route there are plenty of guides at your disposal for a reasonable fee. You can call ahead to book a tour at (61) 345-8668.
You can reach the park by taking highway DF-220 from Brasilia. Be prepared for a bit of a bumpy ride for the final 10 miles!
Nice – or Nice la Belle (meaning Nice the Beautiful), as it is often called – is located on the south east coast of France. It has a population of about one million, as of 2013, and is the second largest city of its region, after Marseille.
Nice is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. It has a wonderfully mild Mediterranean climate that has attracted the, how shall I put it, more well heeled of this world, starting with the English upper classes, who came in their droves in the second half of the 18th century. In fact, the city’s main seaside promenade is still called the Promenade des Anglais (the Walkway of the English).
Its natural beauty and surrounds have not only attracted the rich but were also a great lure to some of the world’s most wondrous painters, such as Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Niki de Saint Phalle, whose works you will be able to find in many of the city’s museums, including the Musée Matisse, Musée des Beaux-Arts and Musée Marc Chagall.
Nice welcomes about four million tourists every year, who come to enjoy the museums, beaches, boutiques, smart cafes and restaurants, and, let’s face it, sometimes just to see and be seen (I’m thinking of the Festival de Cannes, the annual film festival held every year in Cannes, just half an hour away).
But Nice wasn’t always Piz Buin and Martinis, and a visit to the Trophée d’Auguste, in La Turbie, perched above the gorgeous Bay of Monaco, will give you an idea about how life in the area once was, a long time before all the snazz and razzamatazz.
The Trophée d’Auguste, or Trophy of Augustus, was once a 50 m high monument to the glory of Augustus and the power of Rome. Even now, over 2000 years later and at only half its high and some of it in ruins, it is still a commanding monument.
The Trophy was built approximately in 6 BC, to honour Emperor Augustus and also to celebrate his ultimate victory over the 45 ancient tribes who then populated the Alps. The Romans had planned a new coast road into Gaul (now Provence), the and Augustus had used this route (the Via Aurelia) to conquer the Ligurians and to bring the Pax Romana to Provence. At La Turbie, the road passed on a ridge that ran out from Mont Agel. Not only a strategic site, this was also the highest point on the long Roman road into Gaul that marked the gateway between the Roman conquests of Gaul and Italy. This stretch of road later became the Via Julia Augusta.
The monument was partially restored by archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century. According to architects, when it was first built, the base measured 35 meters in length, the first platform 12 meters in height, and the rotunda of 24 columns with its statue of an enthroned Augustus, 49 metres high. A model of the presumed original can be seen in the museum.
The monument also offers you a 360 degree unobstructed view of the Mediterranean coastline extending all the way to the Italian border in one direction and all along the French Riviera on the other.
The museum is staffed by informative and friendly guides, and requires a small entrance fee (free to EU citizens under 25). There is also a very nice park surrounding the area, with multilingual information boards. You might also be inspired to visit the nearby medieval village of La Turbie (which, incidentally, takes its name from “tropea”, the Latin word for “trophy”).
Address: Avenue Prince Albert Ier de Monaco
Tel: +33 4 93 41 20 84
If travelling by car, take the Roquebrune-Monaco autoroute exit; La Turbie is about 10 minutes away.
Public transport from Nice: take the tram to Pont Michel, then bus T66.
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.