Category Archives: Europe

A little slice of heaven in the Swiss mountains

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Flüeli-RanftJust two hours south of Zürich a charming, tiny mountain village of Flüeli-Ranft sits high above lake Sarnen at the entrance of the Great Melch Valley. This is Switzerland as idyllic and picturesque as it gets: wooden houses with bright window shutters scattered on green slopes, colorful patches of wildflowers clinging to rocky paths, and distant sounds of cow wells carrying through the valley. In the morning the air is sharp and fresh, and dense fog envelops the surrounding mountain peaks. Warm noon sunlight magnifies the glow of the white-walled 17th century St. Karl Borromäus Chapel centrally perched upon a hill. And the evening stretches elongated tree shadows across the valley, and reflects crimson sun rays in the windows of the magnificent Hotel Paxmontana, the Art Nouveau masterpiece that has been the local hallmark since 1896. Read the rest of this entry

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Beauty of abandoned places

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Kolmanskop, Namibia (Image: National Geographic)

Kolmanskop, Namibia (Image: National Geographic)

Today I found a fascinating post on BuzzFeed featuring photos of the 33 most beautiful abandoned places in the world. It’s hard to pick favorites but I have to say the one of the sand-filled house in Kolmanskop, a ghost town in the Namib Desert, is the most striking to me. The blues, yellows, and oranges are striking. And the multiple door frames captured in this shot make the image self-referential, reminiscent of the hall of mirrors.

It made me look through my own photo collection to find beautiful abandoned places I’ve come across. Here are my top five. How about you? Have you taken any photos of desolate yet striking locations that you’d have to share? If so blog about it and link back – which I guess would officially make this my first-ever travel theme post! Read the rest of this entry

Hiking in the Slovak High Tatras

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Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec

Full disclosure: I’m not a skier. This makes visiting areas popular among enthusiasts of this sport kind of awkward since I’m just an outside observer. What is more, all the skiing-relevant aspects of a place like the specifics of the slopes, depth of snow coverage, quality of lifts, or – crucially – the price tag – are entirely oblivious to me. I’m fully content with simpler pleasures: hiking and food. Starý Smokovec in Slovakia’s High Tatra (Vysoké Tatry) Mountains is such a place. We visited last winter and stayed in cozy and hospitable Pension Tatrasport Zampa.

Starý Smokovec was founded in 1793 and the early settlement grew around the local mineral water springs. Now it is a popular tourist destination adored by skiers and hikers alike, conveniently located on the Tatra Electric Railway line that connects it to the city of Poprad and fellow resort towns Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso. Read the rest of this entry

Durlach – the city of fountains

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Durlach Turmberg

Durlach’s Turmberg tower

Just a shot tram ride from the center of Karlsruhe in south-western Germany, nestled below the imposing castle ruin, is tiny, frozen-in-time Durlach. This charming place dates back to the 11th century and was a separate town until 1938 when it became a part of Karlsruhe. But to this day Durlach clearly retains its own, very special character. And the best way to appreciate it is from the top of Turmberg, or tower hill, connected to downtown via a historic funicular railway in operation since 1888. Once a mighty castle stood on the hill. What remains today is a lone tower with an amazing viewing platform that offers panoramic views of Karlsruhe, the Rhine River valley, and the Black Forest.

The tower was build between 1230 and 1250 and the reason for its location is as obvious today as it was back then – it’s a great observation point. The top of the hill is green, leafy, and and serene. And the climb up 127 steps from the tower’s base to the viewing platform is well worth it. Red roofs and church steeples, streetcars rumbling along narrow streets, and ancient trees lining even narrower allies. But as great as the view is from above, Durlach only gets better from up close. And there is one thing in particular that makes it so: fountains, fountains everywhere! Read the rest of this entry

Mysteries of the Vatican

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St. Peter's SquareWith the conclave electing the new pope about to begin, Vatican is at the center of attention. This tiny state in the Eternal City of Rome occupies only about 44 hectares yet wields tremendous power over the Catholic faithful that stretches around the world. Although Vatican City has existed in its current form only since 1929, its history goes back to the very roots of Christianity as it evolved from a persecuted sect within the Roman Empire to an empire of its own, with popes for centuries equal to kings. Prior to the unification of Italy, popes ruled over the extensive Papal States. Vatican is all that’s left of them today, reducing the pope’s power from considerably temporal, or worldly, to more purely spiritual. Read the rest of this entry

Kraków’s holiday tradition

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szopkaChristmas season in Kraków is unforgettable for many reasons. Festive Old Town churches, sausage sizzling in cosy street booths, colorful street decorations, and that special holiday spirit in the air. But there is one thing in particular about the holidays that’s uniquely special to Kraków: szopki, or nativity scenes (singular: “szopka”). What makes them unique? Szopki are not just classic displays of the creche with Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Rather, they are elaborate structures that include a mix of Kraków’s architectural hallmarks, with a cast of colorful figurines giving homage to the Newborn – or simply going about their business.

While nativity scenes are common in many countries and date back to St. Francis of Assisi’s 13th century re-enactments of the Christmas story, Kraków szopki are a peculiar twist on that tradition. In their current form they date back to the 19th century when local craftsmen – trying to make a living in a winter season when construction work stopped – started to earn extra income by making the Christmas story come to live in a new way. To preserve the craft, Kraków created an annual competition in 1937 for the most beautiful szkopki. The competition still takes place every year in December at the Main Square and the winners are then displayed in the nearby Krzysztofory Palace. Read the rest of this entry

Polish connection in Rapperswil

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Rapperswil

Old Town Rapperswil

As a ferry slides along the glistening blue crescent of Lake Zurich, steeples of Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches, and the arch of Quaibrücke slowly fade away in the distance… On both shores, sweet grapes are ripening in sun-drenched vineyards surrounding the idyllic villages with names like Mönchhof or Thalwil. Small motorboats dart from private quays of ridiculously expensive waterfront houses. And the sky above is as blue as the water below – a perfect day for a day trip from Zurich! About two-thirds of the way along the lake the shores narrow and the lake is spanned by a bridge between two peninsulas. On the eastern end of the bridge the town of Rapperswil juts into the lake, anchored by an impressive silhouette of its 13th century castle, Schloss Rapperswil.

Surrounded on three sides by Lake Zurich, the castle is a view to behold. Built in the shape of a triangle, each corner is defended by a mighty tower. Perched on a high hill, it rises above the medieval Old Town – an ancient beacon on the lake. Over the centuries, the castle had many owners as the tides of history changed. It also had a stint as a military base and prison before falling into disrepair in the 1800s. And that is when the Polish connection happened. Read the rest of this entry

Hundertwasser encounter

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WaldspiraleFriedensreich Hundertwasser was a character. Painter, architect, ecologist, he was born in Vienna in 1928 and during a long career created some of the most original works out there. I’m not intimately familiar with his paintings but I fell in love with his architecture. Quirky, eccentric, dream-like – these are some of the words that come to mind to describe his style. Some years ago I saw his most famous building, Hundertwasser House in Vienna, and was really mesmerized by it. In that unusual structure with odd-shaped windows and undulating floors, Hundertwasser’s unique style was clearly on display – and I wanted more. So I was delighted to have another opportunity to see a Hundertwasser building up close and personal last summer in Darmstadt, a city in the German state of Hesse.

Hundertwasser painted his first spiral in 1953 and it had been his artistic credo of sorts ever since. “Gegen die gerade Linie” (against the straight line) is the philosophy that encapsulates his approach. Hundertwasser considered straight lines “the devil’s tools,” associating them with the ills of modern civilization: coldness and sterility of industrial design, detachment from nature, and cruelty of wars fought with man-made machines. He had strong views on the subject: Read the rest of this entry

Prizren – waiting for a rainbow

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Prizren

“March snow swirled across the ancient city of Prizren. Churches and mosques blend here in perfect harmony against a backdrop of narrow hill-climbing alleys, tiny coffee shops, barbers, old-style draper’s shops and jewelers specializing in the delicate filigree work that Albanians love so much. In his office a prosperous Albanian businessman said that if people would just get on with producing things and making money then ‘we would not be in the situation we are now.’”

That was Prizren seen through the eyes of journalist Tim Judah who witnessed first-hand the upheavals of the war he described in his great book Kosovo: War and Revenge. When I was there it was April rain rather than March snow drizzling upon the ancient city. But otherwise the landscape looked the same. Read the rest of this entry

Addicted to Ararat

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Noah’s Ark – 14th c. stained glass window at the church of St Paul’s at Brandenburg an der Havel (Image: http://vidimus.org)

“1 And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;

2 The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;

3 And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.

4 And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.

5 And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.

6 And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made” (Genesis 8)

The Biblical story of Noah and the flood is a story of destruction and renewal, a story of perseverance and hope, a story of finding home after a hard journey. Mount Ararat, where the ark supposedly landed after the deluge, is revered in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Read the rest of this entry