Saturday, July 26, 2014

Greek Islands: Step Back into Ancient Greece

The Greek Islands are synonymous with sun-drenched beaches but this fascinating region of the world also offers a plethora of archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. From the Minoan Palace of Knossos to the ancient ruins of Delos, the Greek Islands hold a wealth of ancient cultural artefacts.


Europe’s oldest city



Two million people have booked Crete holidays this year and if you’re one of them, make sure you don’t miss the chance to visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Legend has it that Knossos is the palace of King Minos and the city was abandoned sometime around 1380 to 1100 BC. This ancient city, located in Heraklion, dates back to around 2,700 BC but was only discovered in 1878. The site has been substantially restored by expert archaeologists over the years including the Throne Room, the Royal Villa and the many beautiful frescoes.


The birthplace of Apollo



A boat ride from the island of Mykonos will take you to the uninhabited island of Delos, one of the Greece’s most important archaeological sites. Mythology claims that this island was the birthplace of Apollo and the island was and is still considered a sacred site. Delos contains a wealth of historical artefacts including monuments such as the Temple of Apollo, the Terrace of Lions and the ancient theatre. The sites on Delos allow you to step back in time to the 3rd millennium BC and there are over 50 acres of excavations to be explored.


The Temple of Aphaia



The Greek Island of Aegina is home to the ancient Aphaia Temple, first built in 570 BC but then destroyed and rebuilt in 510 BC. The temple is located on the island’s eastern side and provides more than enough of a reason alone to visit beautiful Aegina. Located in a natural beauty spot at 160 meters high, you can be assured of spectacular views across the sea from this monument’s location. Visitors are permitted to walk around the 20 well-preserved columns and the view at sunset, along with the tranquil atmosphere, will provide an unforgettable experience.


The most beautiful Greek Island



Yes, Santorini does seem to win hands down as the one of Greece’s most stunning and picturesque islands. This island is also home to the ancient Doric town of Thira (the classic name for Santorini), which dates back to the ninth century BC. Many of the ancient ruins here date back to the Hellenistic era but you will also find examples of Roman and Byzantine buildings. Sites include the Temple of Dionysos, the Sanctuary of Artemidoros and the cemeteries of Ancient Thira.


One of the most famous Greek islands



Rhodes is a very popular Greek Island destination and is in many ways a living museum. The island is home to the majestic Palace of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John, and this is an amazing example of Grecian gothic architecture. The Archaeological Museum is worth visiting for the collections of pottery, coins and sculptures, some of which date back to the 1st century BC. Other historic sites on Rhodes include the Citadel and ancient temple ruins such as the Pythian Apollo and the temple of Athena Polias.

The Greek Islands are indeed a place of beauty and if you know where to look you can find many amazing historical treasures not too far from the beaches. Take a little time to explore these historic works of art and watch Ancient Greece unfold in front of your eyes.

Images by Σπύρος Βάθης, Jack Keene, Ava Babili, George M. Groutas and Paul Simpson used under creative commons license.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Ancient Roots of Barcelona

Barcelona is a bustling, fast-paced, and modern city in the northeast corner of Spain. Antoni Gaudi, a renowned Spanish architect, designed and built many of the whimsical structures that dot the landscape of Barcelona today. For example, La Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila confront the viewer with their dripping, undulating forms that mimic nature and the up-and-coming Art Nouveau style of the early 1900s. 


However, despite all the quirky modern buildings, the long, paved streets with glitzy high-end shops, and the touristy beaches that beckon all types of sea-goers, Barcelona has a rich ancient history that often gets shoved unceremoniously to the side. Barcelona was once a satellite city of Ancient Rome, and conventional wisdom has it that the Romans were in this part of Hispania as early as 218 BCE. 

However, the vibrant city did not start to grow in its commercial trading and Mediterranean importance until the early 1st century CE. This was because Augustus, the Roman Emperor who thrived on conquering foreign areas, “Romanized” it, and transformed it into a fruitful province for Rome. Although the best example of preserved Roman ruins in Spain are the Aqueducts in Segovia, a sleepy town of under 55,000 residents, there is something captivating about witnessing ruins in the heart of a modern, bustling city.


The first extensive example of Roman ruins is stored in the City History Museum of Barcelona. This hole in the wall museum (only two floors!) is hard to find as it is tucked into a dark, cobblestoned alleyway; however, just ask a local and they will be happy to point you in the right direction. On the Tuesday night that I visited the museum, the admission was free; interestingly, my family and I basically had the underground portion of the museum to ourselves. 

This underrated museum houses a wealth of Roman ruins from a wine factory to a cloth dyeing shop. The dyeing shop purportedly featured colors such as “Egyptian Blue” and “Pompeii Blue”; pigments are still noticeable on several of the concrete slabs. The other neat aspect is that one can literally “walk with the ancients” because there is a clear, plastic walkway that snakes through the ruins at the same level as them. 

I could well have been walking in the footsteps of a deceased Publius or his wife, Livia. The preserved ruins also included a pedestrian street (the Cardo) with columns /sewers and a Garum factory. Here, vats were built for fish to be skinned, cut, and processed into Garum, an ancient fish sauce that was popular with the Romans. 


Lined ceramic vessels were sunk into the floor to hold the sauce and the fish remnants. Because the staple beverage of Ancient Rome was diluted wine, naturally this complex included a wine making factory. Again, large amphorae were used to hold the processed wine, grape pulp, and tartrates (3rd-4th century). Although this museum also includes Christian ruins (i.e. a small church), I find the characteristic Roman ruins the most fascinating because they tell the story of everyday citizens that were part of the most influential and powerful Empire of the ancient world.

The second “must see” ruin in Barcino (the Roman name for Barcelona) is the Temple of Augustus. This Temple is over 2,000 years old, which makes it the single oldest ruin in Barcelona. It is located in the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gótic), the oldest portion of the city. Sadly, the only part left of this once glorious Temple dedicated to the first Emperor of Rome is the majestic (and grime-ridden) Corinthian Columns. This Temple used to be the focal point of an imperial Forum built in Barcino, and it was likely constructed by Tiberius, the adopted son and heir of Augustus. 

The Columns today are enclosed in a small medieval courtyard with modern apartments built around them. Imagine opening your dusty blinds and looking out onto some of the most dignified and historically rich ruins in Barcelona—incredible. When I visited this structure, I had the Temple to myself (well, at least until a hoard of tourists stampeded the place, but no matter). The Temple was excavated in the 20th century and draws in a modest stream of tourists during peak seasons (although it too is tucked into a nondescript street corner!)

For a taste of the city’s culture and the haunting ruins of the past, I would walk to Placa Nova, a square that looks out onto Barcelona’s massive, heavy-looking Gothic Cathedral. People (on this day, the elder population) were dancing together in a tradition Spanish jig in the middle of the square in the sweltering afternoon sun. It was the quintissential travel expereince; with an impressive Cathedral behind me, the vestigages of an aging, native Spanish population danicng in front of me, and the remains of an Ancient Roman wall in the rear, the day was considered a cultural success.

By Mackenzie Krauss from Learn Travel Art

Friday, November 8, 2013

How to Protect Your Art

Last month, Norwegian industrialist Christian Mustad discovered that the unsigned Van Gogh-style painting he had left languishing in his attic because he believed it was a fake, was in fact the genuine article. He was lucky. Not only because he found himself to be the owner of an internationally important masterpiece but also because that masterpiece hadn’t been damaged during its long banishment.

Paintings

Mustad is a collector so presumably he knows a thing or two about storing paintings (key points as follows: ensure the storage room has stable atmospheric conditions, remove all fixings, stack framed works back-to--back and unframed ones face-to-face, use pads to protect the base and corners and invest in a storage rack) but had the picture been harmed or stolen, he would have been in trouble. As Tom Sargent, Client Manager of Aon Private Client’s art team says, ‘the most fundamental question to ask [when buying art works] is what settlement will be made in the event of a loss.’

Inadequate insurance is a common problem. Standard insurance policies not only tend to have low single article limits, they also disregard any depreciation following partial loss. For example, if a painting valued at £100,000 is damaged, incurring restoration costs of £1,000 and subsequent depreciation of £10,000, a standard policy will only pay for repair. A comprehensive policy that accommodates fine art and antiques, on the other hand, would also settle for the depreciation. ‘There is a significant difference between insurers that understand the nature of art and insurers that deal in mass market products,’ says Sargent. ‘Trying to explain to a standard insurer the impact a hair line crack has on the value of a Song Dynasty bowl is a hard task.’

Of course, avoiding damage in the first place is the best policy of all and while it’s impossible to protect against every eventuality, there are some simple steps collectors can take to reduce the possibility of harm. The most important of these is to display art works appropriately. Ideally, paintings should be hung from brass chains attached to two hooked plates screwed into both sides of the frame back and since fluctuations in temperature cause the most damage, all works from oil paintings and bronze sculptures to ceramics and art glass must be kept at a consistent temperature away from direct heat and light. Try not to hang paintings in high traffic areas of the house such as stairways and always steer clear of the spaces behind doors.

Cleaning requires care. If you must dust your paintings (if the paint is flaky don’t), always place them on a cushioned surface and lean them towards you so that the dust falls forwards. Then, using an artist’s brush, move slowly and gently across the surface. Bronze pieces should be dusted with a soft cloth or, when necessary, sponged with neutral soap and water, while glass and ceramics are best wiped with a damp cloth. Never soak ceramics as the clay can absorb water.

Damage is often environmental so it’s advisable to examine your art works on a regular basis. For example, check canvases for areas of buckling or discolouration which may be indications that damp is seeping in (if so, remove the painting immediately) and inspect the hanging arrangements for signs of wear. Frayed picture wires, stretched chains or loose plates can all be replaced at home but damage to the works themselves should always be dealt with by a conservator.

Thankfully, theft is pretty rare but it’s essential that you are properly protected. Object ID, an international standard for describing cultural objects, recommends that collectors photograph their art works and write a detailed description of each piece. These documents should be kept in a safe box along with the bill of sale, artist’s statement and a letter of authenticity – all of which should be obtained at the time of purchase.
But the right policy, correct display and meticulous care will count for nothing if, should the worst happen, you find that your art works are undervalued. ‘With prices rising and fluctuating so frequently, we recommend that our clients get valuations carried out every three to five years,’ says Tom Sargent. It’s sound advice.

Photo by A Silent Republic via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spending the Holidays In Lapland

Lapland has an irresistible romance that is a draw for visitors and Finns alike. And when planning your Lapland holidays for 2013, rest assured this is a great destination for the up coming holiday season. While you won’t see polar bears or rocky fjords, there is something intangible that makes it magical.

A house in the middle of... nothing!

Part of the spell it casts is in the awesome latitudes that are reached here. At Nuorgam, the northernmost point, we have passed Iceland and nearly all of Canada and Alaska.

It’s also linked inextricably with the midnight sun, the Sámi peoples, the northern lights, and the wandering reindeer. Lapland has awesome wildernesses and is the place in Finland to get active. Exploring the tundra, forests and fells is unforgettable. Whether you drive or trek, set aside time to get off the main roads. The sense of space, pure air and big skies is what is memorable here.

It’s important to pick your time in Lapland carefully. In the far north there’s no sun for fifty days of the year, and no night for seventy-odd days. There’s thick snow cover from mid-October to May. In June it’s very muddy, and in July insects can be hard to deal with! If you’re here to walk, August is great and in September the ruska (autumn) colours can be seen. The far northern part of Lapland is known as Sápmi, home of the Sámi people and their reindeer herds. The main Sámi communities are around Inari and Hetta. Rovaniemi is the most popular gateway to the north.

Finland, and particularly Lapland, has a strong claim to being the home of Santa Claus. This isn’t the North Pole, but Lapland has the reindeer, the winter climate, the mystique and these days it has Santa’s post office. But the historic St Nicholas, the real man behind the Santa myth, wouldn’t have known how a reindeer looks like and would have melted in a typical Santa suit, as he lived in temperate present-day Turkey.

Ancient forest destruction for Stora Enso

The story of the real St Nicholas goes something like this: many centuries ago, a poor peasant, father of three daughters, did not have enough money for their wedding dowries. To ensure that at least two of the daughters would have money enough to attract husbands, the man decided that he would have to sell the youngest daughter into slavery. The soon-to-be-sainted Nicholas got word of the terrible situation, crept into the family’s house while they were sleeping and magically filled a sock with golden coins. The youngest daughter was saved, all three daughters were joyfully married and the whole family lived happily ever after. Since then Santa Claus has been filling socks with presents every Christmas.

In Finland, Uncle Markus, a legend of children’s radio in the middle years of the twentieth century, established the Finnish legend that a gift-giving Santa Claus lived in Korvatunturi Hill, right at the Russian border. Long before that, in pagan times, Finns had believed in an evil male goat spirit that demanded gifts on the shortest day of the year.

Photos by Ray Garcia and Greenpeace Finland via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Art Scene of Dubai

The emirate of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, has a capital that is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. It has taken only 40 years for Dubai to transform itself from a peaceful fishing village to a huge metropolis of towering skyscrapers, six-lane highways, shopping malls and hotels. Most people enjoying Dubai holidays 2013 will see their Arabian destination as a place of luxury, bling and conspicuous consumption. They do not think of Dubai as a centre of arts and culture, but the city has many galleries, museums and exhibitions that bring art to the large and cosmopolitan population. The city also holds several annual art fairs.


Art Dubai


For the past seven years, Dubai has played host to an annual international art fair that displays contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. In 2013 the fair presented art from 30 different countries in 75 galleries. Art Dubai is held under the patronage of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and is sponsored by both local and international companies. The fair is held in March every year, and takes place in Madinat Jumeirah. This is a five-star beach resort with many features including a souk, conference centre and arena, all connected by a network of waterways. It is located in the popular Jumeirah Beach area, and stands near the iconic Burj al Arab hotel, whose distinctive ship’s sail design is often used as a logo and symbol of Dubai.

Dubai Art Week


In conjunction with the Art Fair, many cultural events are held around the city. One of these is Design Days Dubai, an exhibition dedicated to contemporary design objects and furniture that is held at a venue next to Dubai’s newest landmark, the Burj Khalifa. This towering, needle-shaped skyscraper is the tallest building in the world. Art Week includes many other events, held in galleries, museums, universities and hotels around the city.

SIKKA


Inaugurated in 2011, SIKKA is an art fair that showcases the work of Emirati artists. These are the local people of the UAE, who are outnumbered by expats and make up less than 20 per cent of the population. SIKKA covers not only the visual arts, but film, music and performing arts.

These art fairs and cultural events provide a platform to showcase the art that is produced by the residents of this dynamic region, and to encourage its continuing creation.


Image by Jackie L Chan used under creative commons licence

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Unexpected Beauty in Leeds, England

Leeds isn’t the first city that comes to mind when you think of natural beauty or stunning architecture – but a recent trip had me eating my words. Tasked with making the trip north to add another section to my on-going ‘Single’s Guide to the UK’ – I wasn’t holding out the highest hopes for digging out romantic hotspots in Leeds, but I was more than happy to eat some more of my words!

Clarence Dock , Leeds

Jumping off the train at Leeds City Station, I made my way down to the River Aire to get a touch of nature after a long and crowded journey. The riverside is lined with beautiful 17th century buildings and wandering along the towpaths here was an uplifting experience after the congested railway ride.

I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d judged Leeds hardly, and equally as quickly it became apparent that it was a great destination for lovers of art to explore. The City Art Gallery is famed for its synergy between historically famous painters and modern local talent – all in a beautifully architecture Victorian building in the heart of the city. Boasting one of the best collections of British art in the world - some of the artists whose work can be found hanging on the walls include Turner, Girtin, Cortman and CCozens. After taking the time to fully explore this magnificent collection I moved on to the Design Gallery and Craft Shop before wandering next door to check out the Town Hall and Leeds Library.

The city of Leeds is steeped in history and culture and the Leeds Industrial Museum is the perfect place to get a feel for it. The museum is located in Armley Mills, which is one of the biggest woollen mills in the whole world, and contains a fascinating collection of exhibits that bring life in Leeds during the 18th and 19th centuries to life. Leeds also contains a number of other interesting and informative museums for visitors to explore including the Leeds Museums Natural Science Collection and the Thackray Medical Museum – not for the squeamish!

Leeds is also a great place to indulge in a spot of shopping. Browsing for bargains in the Corn Exchange was a lot of fun and I managed to find plenty of great souvenirs to take back to London, while strolling through the Victorian Quarter was a serene experience. Strolling past the Old Cinema in the centre of town, it was swarming with couples with first date written all over their faces – if only they knew what a cliché they were falling into by a date at the movies. Zipping my professional opinion and urge to give advice, I continued walking north through the city. Pausing for lunch at the charming Edwardian Kirkgate Market, I took a moment to catch my breath and try some of the local food – which pretty much consists of anything deep fried. A moment of guilty pleasure that I regretted in a bumpy taxi ride later on!

Sitting in the rural county of Yorkshire, Leeds is surrounding by the northern hills and dales that I craved to explore. After letting my lunch settle, I picked up the rental car and made the hour long journey to the nearby natural park through the lakes of Hetton and Grassington. Having travelled most of the UK, the Yorkshire Dales still rank as one of the most majestic wild places I’ve discovered and certainly the best picnic spot I’ve come across.

Just outside the city, I stumbled across Temple Newsam House. This magnificent 16th century Tudor-Jacobean country house can be found four miles from the heart of Leeds and was once home to Lord Darnley, husband of the famed Mary Queen of Scots.

Harewood House is perhaps one of the most famous attractions in this part of the world and is located just seven miles from central Leeds. Harewood House was designed by John Carr of York and is full of stunning furniture created by Thomas Chippendale. The attraction also features large gardens as well as bird gardens and wandering around the picturesque gardens in the sunshine was a very romantic experience.

Being a lover of the theatre, I was delighted to have a veritable feast of shows to choose from when I came back into the city in the evening. Being able to choose from the Grand Theatre, the City Varieties Theatre and the Civic Theatre was like having Christmas come early. Choosing to watch a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Yorkshire Playhouse was the perfect way to end the evening.

Pleasantly delighted and surprised with what Leeds had shown me, it was easy to drift off in my hotel that night and if I hadn’t been on such a tight schedule – I could easily have spent another week in the Yorkshire heartlands. Truly a hidden gem lost in the wilds of Northern England.

About the Author: Sarah Jane Fanning is a relationship advice guru and marketing consultant based in London. Travelling around the UK to find romantic hotspots and discover more about the quirks of dating in the different cities – Sarah has unearthed a new strategy for regional dating. Watch this space…

Photo by Paul Stevenson via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Museum Lover’s Guide to Prague

The beautiful city of Prague is home to number of excellent museums, art galleries and cultural institutions. If your idea of an amazing getaway involves meandering through elegant galleries and admiring beautiful pieces of artwork then Prague is the perfect place for you. This article lists the many artistic highlights that Prague has to offer. For ideas on Prague hotels to stay in while you enjoy this great city you can find more info here.

Joseph Wright of Derby - Portrait of nobleman with his wife, National Gallery of Prague, Collection of ancient european art, Sternberk Palast

National Gallery in Prague


This is one of the most important art collections in the country and is actually housed in different locations within the city with the largest being the Veletrzni Palac. The enormous collection includes a number of Slovak and Czech sculptures and paintings that include works by Benes, Fila, Gutfreund, Mucha and many more.

There is also a stunning international collection with works by artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Rodin, Munch and Klimt. Picasso even has an entire room to himself. There are also a few works by Rodin, which have had an impact on Czech sculpture.

Prague City Gallery


This is a museum dedicated to modern Czech art and it is divided between several sites in the Old Town. It is considered to be the second most important museum in the country, after the National Gallery. The main building is located within the House at the Golden Ring and displays 20th Century Czech art in a beautiful medieval building.

You can also visit Troja Chateau and enjoy some lovely landscape paintings and sculptures that date back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Franz Kafka Museum


As odd as it seems to have a museum dedicated to the work of one author, Prague delivers. The museum celebrates and peers into the personal life of the famously reclusive writer whose stories and novels chronicled a very dark side of Prague. As it turns out, his life was just as brooding, mysterious and intriguing as the characters in his writings. Franz Kafka’s life was deeply intertwined with the life of the city of Prague, and sheds light on some of the city’s unique aspects. Kafka’s work portrayed Prague as a city of gothic beauty and menacing bureaucracy as evidenced by his literary achievements as well as through his personal letters and correspondence, all presented in the museum.

Dvorak museum

Antonin Dvorak Museum


Located within a beautiful and elegant 18th century Baroque summer palace that was designed by the same architect as many of Prague’s best churches, the exquisite Dvorak Museum is certainly worth a visit. This museum is dedicated to the life and work of Antonin Dvorak, a Czech composer who lived between 1841 and 1904. Dvorak frequently took inspiration from folk music of his native Bohemia as well as Moravia in order to create a style that became iconic in Prague.

Make sure that you check out the beautiful ceiling in the recital hall which is decorated with an impressive fresco that includes a Pegasus and Apollo. There are also some impressive sculptures of the Four Seasons in the garden from the workshop of Anton Braun.

Jewish Museum


This museum is made up of a series of preserved synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery, which encapsulates the history of seven centuries of Jewish life in Prague. This fascinating museum has one of the most extensive collections of Judaic art in the world. These artwork and artifacts are from Moravia and Bohemia and tell many interesting stories about Jewish history in the region.

In the cemetery, the oldest gravestone belongs to the poet Avigdor Karo, who died in 1439. The cemetery also contains nearly 12,000 other tombstones and the main museum halls shows information about the rituals and ceremonies associated with death and burial. The Jewish Museum is open daily except for on Saturdays or Jewish Holidays.

These are just a few of the best museums to enjoy during your visit to Prague. Have fun soaking up the culture of this great city.

About the Author: Louise Vinciguerra is originally from Brooklyn. When she’s not on Facebook, Wordpress or Twitter, she enjoys traveling in search of fun food and art or planning trips from her resident city of Rome.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Impeccable Honeymoon: Ensuring Everything’s Perfect Once You’ve Said I Do

The big day, naturally, is a huge concern for newlyweds. After all, you want it to all go down without a hitch! But the wedding itself shouldn’t be the only thing that you plan within an inch of its life – you have the honeymoon to think about too! After months of planning, invoices and adding snippets to your wedding folder, you’re going to need a well-deserved honeymoon to unwind.

With plenty of popular honeymoon destinations available all over the world, you and your other half will have ample options to choose from. The trick is to stay calm and relaxed and organise everything that you can without turning into a regimental tyrant. Check out some of these top tips to ensure the honeymoon planning is as relaxing as the honeymoon itself.

the future is yours..

Choose your Destination


Not everyone will think that the preconceived beach break on white sands in the middle of the Caribbean is the ‘ideal’ honeymoon and if it’s not your scene, don’t follow the stereotype! Choose a destination that will reflect who you are as a couple – whether it’s a city break, a trek through the jungle, a safari in the Serengeti or a once in a lifetime adventure is completely up to you!

Utilise the Help


Planning the biggest day of your life will undoubtedly involve a few stressful moments along the way so why get even more bowed down with planning your honeymoon? Use the help of a dedicated honeymoons team, who can advise and guide you to your perfect break.

Start Early


Don’t leave it to the last minute! Give your honeymoon some careful thought and make sure that by the time the big day arrives, everything is set in stone and as perfect as possible.

Plan an Itinerary


While you may want to explore, enjoy some excursions or spend your afternoon snorkelling in the coral reef, it’s essential that you plan as much as you can so that you know exactly what’s going on. Don’t leave things to chance and if you are able to book excursions in advance, do so.

That being said, be romantic and make some time for yourselves too!

Set a Budget from the Start


Even a tentative budget can help you to stay within your spending limit and will give you both some guidelines to stick to. It’s easy to get carried away and with an expensive wedding to plan, the last thing you need is overbudgeting on your honeymoon as well.

Make sure you start your new life together on the right foot, with a perfect honeymoon.

Photo by Nattu via Flickr CC

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Marvelous Temples of Thailand

Thailand is a marvel. Traveling through this remarkable country excites the senses, triggers the imagination and leaves visitors in awe of its beauty, character and culture. Cheap flights to Thailand make it easy to access from many major European cities and moving about within the country is relatively inexpensive. It is a destination well worth a visit.


Capital city Bangkok is a hub for all travellers. It is also home to some of the most impressive Buddhist temples (or wats) in the world. The word wat roughly derives from the word for monastery or temple and is a place of worship that features an enclosing wall which provides a spatial barrier from the secular world.

While the design of the buildings within a wat are themselves striking in their own right, it is the smaller elements that truly dazzle; the murals, the mystical imagery and the religious practices which help create a rich tapestry of colours, textures, sounds and smells.

For Thais, wats are an important part of everyday life, while for tourists they are an attraction to behold. When visiting Buddhist temples it is important to remember and respect the spiritual practices that take place on the grounds. Many of the wats reflect important elements of Thailand’s history; they have sustained wars and invasions, they have helped spread Buddhism throughout the country and they are home to some priceless pieces of art and religious artefacts.

If you’re venturing to Thailand for a limited amount of time, there are a few temples that you absolutely must see. In Bangkok Wat Phra Kaew is a magnificent place which features bold colours and remarkable details. Wat Phra Kaew culminates in Thailand’s most exalted image, the Emerald Buddha. While the Buddha itself is modest in size, the collection of offerings that surround the statue are far from it.

Also in Bangkok, Wat Po is an impressive temple complex buzzing with schoolchildren, monks and even masseuses. Wat Po is a working temple and very much the centre of the community. It is above all, a place to observe and reflect. The main attraction for tourists within Wat Po is the 43m-long reclining Buddha. But it would be a shame to simply see this and leave. Be sure to take in the towering spires, the details in the carvings, the sounds, the silence and the peaceful calm of this beautiful wat.


Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is another wonderful place to visit. There is no shortage of activities to keep visitors occupied in this mountainous metropolis but there are two temples here that must not be missed.

Wat Phra Singh is popular with Thai tourists because of the treasured image of Phra Sihing. While this is worth seeing, the beautiful Lanna murals in the Viharn Lai Kham that surround the image are particularly eye-catching. Dating from the mid-19th century, these illustrations have faded but the images of elephants, armies and early Western travellers are still powerful and legible.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the other must-see temple just 15km outside of Chiang Mai. Arguably the most important site for visitors, it is definitely most visible. This wat sits nestled into the side of Doi Suthep roughly 3,000ft above sea level among majestic mountains and breathtaking scenery. This wat was built by King Gue-Na in 1383 and houses a massive copper palace (22m high) which is covered in gold and contains holy relics of Buddha. This wat is an important destination for Buddhist pilgrims who visit the site year round. To access this incredible temple visitors can climb 300 steps or use a cable car.

Visiting wats is a wonderful way to understand Thai culture. Buddhism is an important part of life for many Thai people and the temples built to exalt and worship Lord Buddha are places of peace, contemplation and calm, things which every holiday could use more of.

About the Author: Emily Castor is a travel and culture writer based in the UK. Passionate about language, landscapes and design, she seeks to incorporate interesting and engaging combinations of these subjects into her writing.

Images: Wat Phra Kaew by edwin.11 and Wat Phra Singh by avlxyz used under creative commons licence

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Luxury in High Gear - Exclusive Resorts Around the World

Gone are the days when only the wealthy movie stars and heads of state colonised the world’s most picturesque, luxurious and exciting resorts. If you’re thinking of taking a trip to one of the four corners of the globe with Club Med luxury holidays, you might want to consider one of the following four resorts in which to rest, relax, live it up, drink, dance, swim, sunbathe and generally have the time of your life.

Sunrise at Azul Fives

Cancún Yucatán, Mexico


Sitting just north of the Mexican Caribbean coast and located on the Riviera Maya, this Yucatán Peninsula resort is a place of rare natural beauty, where modernity and luxury sit alongside the ancient: the Maya temples are close by.

This is a great family resort, offering a children’s club for those aged 11-17, with their own pool and even amphibious motor launch vehicles, they can ride on the waters of the local lagoon!

There’s a wealth of activities, including scuba diving in the sea and freshwater caves, kayaking, scuba diving, tennis, windsurfing and water-skiing. If you’re after a more relaxed time, there is a spa with treatment rooms and a Zen area.

As well as the Mexican Hacienda-style bungalows, there is also an exclusive, 5-trident space, with 18 suites and 37 deluxe rooms, a champagne lounge and infinity pool.

Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland


This Swiss Alpine resort is surrounded by pine-covered mountains and located 15 miles from the glassy beauty of Lake Geneva. It offers 100km of ski runs, including black, red and blue runs, as well as cross-country skiing and snowboarding.
There are comprehensive childcare and skiing classes for all ages around the clock. There is even a ‘snow garden’, where younger children can be taught skiing basics.

The Villars Palace hotel is a listed and majestic building, dating to the early 1920s. Cinematic in its grand Alpine beauty, there are six floors and even a steaming outdoor swimming pool with terrace, which looks down into the enormous valley.

There are high-altitude bars, a nightclub and restaurants ranging from the contemporary to traditional chalet-style and old-school luxurious, like Le Chammosaire, with its carved wooden ceilings and antique chandeliers.

Sahoro, Japan


This bijou family resort is set in the Hokkaïdo Mountains of Japan’s northernmost Island, which is also the second largest.

There are 17 ski runs here and five kilometres of cross-country ski trials. There are daily group and family skiing lessons available, which last a whole day. There are also guided snow shoe walks, allowing you to discover and relate to the beauty of the locale. Snowboarding is available, too.

The hotel sits at the foot of the magnificent slopes and offers deluxe rooms and suites, all of which have futons. There is also an astonishingly luxurious indoor pool with a huge glass wall, offering fantastic views. With a wellness area with saunas, a jetted tub and a Zen area, you’d be hard pushed to find a more relaxing location.

The restaurants serve fusion Asian cuisine and traditional Japanese culinary concepts such as ‘nabe’, which is a broth served in a heated pot, to which you add the ingredients individually at your table.


Hammamet open-air theatre

Hammamet, Tunisia


This luxurious seaside resort, just south of the country’s capital, Tunis, has a gorgeous silken sandy beach by a turquoise lagoon. It is an ideal place for families and offers clubs for children of all ages.

The hotel is a Spanish-Moorish vision, complete with three storeys of rooms as well as bungalows and grounds, which are rich with lush foliage.

Golf and kayaking are available and there are tennis and sailing academies. For the more adventurous, there is even a flying trapeze academy, which the children will love. Also for kids, is a creative and environmental project called ‘Clean Art Planet’ - a unique and fun way to raise their awareness of the beauty of nature. There’s also a kids’ tennis club.

While the kids are off having fun and getting fit, you can indulge in some R&R at the wellness centre, where there is a traditional Turkish bath and an array of massages available. There is even a teen spa.

Once the sun sets, you can ease yourself into a balmy evening by dining on traditional North African dishes by the pool.