Welcome to Porto, Portugal

Welcome to Porto, Portugal

We do love Lisbon, but Porto, Portugal’s second city, is going to be luring more visitors in 2015 as easyJet launches direct flights from Bristol, Luton and Manchester in April. Set on the banks of the Douro in the north of the country, Porto’s historic centre has been Unesco-listed since 1996 and is a picturesque mish-mash of medieval churches, cobbled lanes, pretty squares, steep steps and beautiful buildings tumbling down to the river.

The birthplace of port, it’s a must for wine lovers, and recent years have witnessed something of a cultural renaissance with galleries, restaurants and boutiques opening – the city rebranded itself last year to convey its “youthful, cosmopolitan” side. The newly opened World of Discoveries museum and theme park is worth checking out – visitors can trace the journeys of past Portuguese explorers, with boat rides recreating their epic voyages to South America, Africa and Asia. Among new accommodation options is the 1872 River House, a cute eight-bedroom B&B in the historic Ribeira district (doubles from £126, breakfast served until 1pm, book on i-escape.com).

Welcome to Porto, Portugal

Where is the Porto?

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal after Lisbon and one of the major urban areas of the Iberian peninsula. The urban area of Porto, which extends beyond the administrative limits of the city, has a population of 1.4 million (2011) in an area of 389 km2 (150 sq mi), making it the second-largest urban area in Portugal. Porto Metropolitan Area, on the other hand, includes an estimated 1.8 million people. It is recognized as a Gamma-level global city by the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Study Group, the only Portuguese city besides Lisbon to be recognised as a global city.

Located along the Douro river estuary in Northern Portugal, Porto is one of the oldest European centres, and its historical core was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. The western part of its urban area extends to the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Its settlement dates back many centuries, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. Its combined Celtic-Latin name, Portus Cale, has been referred to as the origin of the name “Portugal”, based on transliteration and oral evolution from Latin. In Portuguese, the name of the city is spelled with a definite article (“o Porto”; English: the port). Consequently, its English name evolved from a misinterpretation of the oral pronunciation and referred to as Oporto in modern literature and by many speakers.

One of Portugal’s internationally famous exports, port wine, is named for Porto, since the metropolitan area, and in particular the caves of Vila Nova de Gaia, were responsible for the packaging, transport and export of the fortified wine. In 2014, Porto was elected The Best European Destination by the Best European Destinations Agency.

Black Box or History of Cold War in Berlin Wall

Black Box or History of Cold War in Berlin Wall

Information pavilion on the history of Checkpoint Charlie.

The 200 m² (2,150 ft²) of the Black Box at Checkpoint Charlie informs the public on the history of this most famous border crossing point. With the use of large-format photos and numerous media stations, not only the impact of the Berlin Wall on the history of Germany is illustrated, but also the entire international dimension of the division of both Germany and Europe will be made tangible.

The external design of the pavilion refers to the two Great Powers of those days, the Soviet Union and the USA. The black colour of the external façade stands for the Black Box – the recorder of events for posterity. The red colour of the column signifies the Soviet Union and the blue window the USA.

In 2015, it is intended to establish the Cold War Museum on this site.

A nice day in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

A nice day in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

While the only remaining city gate of Berlin formerly used to represent the separation of the city between East and West Berlin, since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the Brandenburg Gate has now come to symbolise German unity. In addition, this gate made of sandstone is one of the finest examples of German classicism.

Built according to the plans of Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791, the Brandenburg Gate is modelled on the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis. On both sides, there are six Doric columns supporting the 11 meter-deep transverse beam, which divide the gate into five passages. In 1793, a quadriga designed by Johann Gottfried Schadow was placed on the gate, which points to the east in the direction of the city centre.

In light of a decision made by the Berlin Senate, since October 2002 the Brandenburg Gate has been closed for traffic, including buses and taxis.

Pariser Platz

The Pariser Platz in Berlin is considered as the city’s “best room” and indeed is also one of the most beautiful places in the capital. Around Pariser Platz, elegant town houses, embassies and the luxurious Adlon Hotel were built.

The Liebermann house and the Sommer house, recently constructed at the left and right side of the Brandenburg Gate, are meant to be conceived as twins, whose architecture is based on the historical models of the Prussian architect Friedrich August Stüler. The building of the Dresdner Bank follows the conventions of the architectural design of Pariser Platz, without degenerating into historicism.. The French Embassy and the Embassy of the United States are two additional prominent establishments to be found at this historical place.

Tiger’s Nest in the mystical country Bhutan

Tiger’s Nest in the mystical country Bhutan

For the majority of travelers, the mystical country of Bhutan is not commonly a place that tops the list of places to visit, but this is certainly not because it lacks in feel or substance. This is truly one of those “hidden gems” that we so often hear about with much more to offer in terms of memories and experiences then your typical drop and flop all inclusive beach vacation to Cuba.

Why wouldn’t you want to visit a country where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important then Gross National Product? If you happen to be the type of traveler that revels in the unknown and relishes the exotic, then I highly recommend setting your radars on Bhutan, also known as the “Dragon Kingdom”.

Tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas, the mountain kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked state in South Asia that is bordered to the South, East and West by the Republic of India and to the North by the People’s Republic of China. It derives its own distinct cultural flavour and vibe by combining elements of Indian and Chinese culture. Before delving into detail on specific activities and must see attractions comes the small detail of actually arriving in Bhutan from whatever country you reside in.

Tiger’s Nest in the mystical country Bhutan

The most convenient way to access the country is by Druk Air, the national carrier. Druk Air flies a few times each week from gateways in India, Nepal, Thailand and Bangladesh making it easy to connect with other major airlines around the world. Visitors to the country famously have to pay a minimum of US$200 per day, making it one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit, but this fee is all-inclusive, you don’t have to travel in a group and you can arrange your own itinerary if you wish. What you won’t find in Bhutan is backpacker-style independent travel so couch surfing hostel lovers will have to look elsewhere for their dream destination.

If the thought of tediously constructing a complex and satisfying travel itinerary for you or your companions is not exactly your idea of fun then why not leave it to the experts and choose one of the already available circuits created by the industry leader in adventure travel, G Adventures. With an intimate small group feel and over 22 years of experience you can trust that you are getting the vacation that you need and deserve.

Depending on the type of traveler that you are, you can choose between the two trips that are offered by G Adventures based on the service level and level of accommodation that you prefer. The “standard” level ten day “Bhutan Adventure” gives you the cultural immersion that you desire while giving you the best bang for your buck and the twelve day “Spirit of Bhutan” “comfort” option allows for a bit more of life’s luxuries for the discerning traveler who seeks a softer landing at the end of the day. In my opinion, the highlight of either one of these options being the expert local guide that will accompany you throughout the journey making the experience more authentic and consequently more meaningful.

Accommodations in Bhutan have no star ratings unlike in the West, however all tourist hotels, lodges and guesthouses are graded by the tourism council of Bhutan. The more traveled destinations such as Western and central Bhutan usually have higher standards on a par with star-rated properties. In the less traveled areas of eastern Bhutan, modest but adequate accommodations are the norm. It is not large chain hotels and pampering spas that attract visitors to the dragon kingdom each year it is the pristine and peaceful nature of the land and it’s people.

For lovers of Asian culture that want to dig deeper, Bhutan is riddled with monasteries and Buddhist temples to wander through and explore. Perhaps the most well known monastery worldwide is the Takstang Monastery also known as the “Tiger’s Nest” which is precariously perched on the rock towering 900 meters above the valley. After hiking to this particular monastery you are awarded with not only photographs and memories to last a lifetime but a feeling of inner serenity and peace that will peel away the hardened layers of stress caused by everyday life in the Western World. The effort of getting there is well worth the reward of being there.

The Bhutanese people have gone to endless lengths to preserve the way of life of the “last Shangri-La” and both the land and the people have been blessed with an invaluable and spiritual cultural legacy. Bhutan is a unique blend of the old and the new and it is currently straddling the ancient and the modern world. Those fortunate enough to visit this country describe it as a unique, deeply spiritual and mystical experience. Bhutan offers to the world a country packed with awe inspiring sights and unparalleled trekking routes, all served up with a dash of culture, history and religion.

Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Venice is built on 118 islands, criss-crossed by 160 canals and linked by 400 foot-bridges. There are no roads, only canals; no traffic, only water buses and water taxis and the gondolas. A labyrinth of alleys and stairs and little bridges link the main waterways. Have coffee at Caffe Quadri, or Caffe Avena, or Caffe Florian (the oldest cafe in Venice) in the grandest square in Europe – Piazza San Marco. And you cannot go to Venice without calling in at Harry’s Bar, on the Grand Canal (entrance on Calle Vallaresso), made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

See the Palazzo Ducale, where the Doges lived in princely style; the Rialto bridge; the great Cathedral of St Mark (with Titian’s masterpiece, Last Judgement, in the Vault of Paradise); the Accademia art gallery; the Ca’ d’Oro the School of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni with famous Carpaccios and the School of San Rocco with magnificent Tintoretto paintings. If you climb the 15th century Clock Tower you have a superb view of the whole of Venice. When shopping in Venice things to look for include fine handmade lace, jewelry, leather goods, and above all, glass.

You could go to the island of Murano and see the glass being made, and Torcello, for its cathedral with beautiful mosaics. Luxury hotels in Venice include the Danieli Royal Excelsior, right next door to the Doge’s Palace, the Cipriani on Giudecca island and the Bauer Grünwald. Even if you do not stay there, it is a delightful place to dine and dance on the roof garden. Ernest Hemingway preferred the smaller, quieter, Gritti Palace. Dine at La Taverna Fenice, La Caravella, Harry’s Bar and Florians. For seafood try Al Graspo de Uva and Peoceto Risorto. Places to visit from Venice include: the Lido, just across the lagoon. It has a marvelous beach, with fine hotels like the Excelsior Palace.

Madhya Pradesh: Lost city in the heart of India

Madhya Pradesh: Lost city in the heart of India

With its colourful legends, the city of Mandu – ancient centrepiece of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – is a wonderland of mosques, palaces and romance.

Nicknamed the Heart of India because of its central location, the state of Madhya Pradesh is the historical home to countless grand monuments and chest-pounding natural beauty.

Home to the vibrant capital city of Indore, three UNESCO World Heritage sites, vast national parks, rare wildlife and countless romantic legends, it’s little wonder that the Madhya Pradesh tourism offering was honoured with the Best Tourism State Award in 2012.

One such site of outstanding beauty is the ruined city of Mandu, a fortress town first mentioned in a Sankrit inscription in 555AD that became the setting for many a tale of love, loss, death and victory.

Seduced by its romantic past Kalpana Sunder travels to Mandu and lets the 21st century drift away…

Welcome to the pleasure palace

It’s like a scene from the Arabian Nights. The Jahaz Mahal in Mandu is named so after a reflection – they say that on moonlit nights, when the building casts its shadow on the waters, it looks like a ship. The former pleasure palace of the sybaritic king Ghiyas-ud-Din Khilji, it’s said to have housed 15,000 women, some of whom weren’t just a part of his harem, but also his bodyguards. They came from as far as Turkey and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the king trained them in the arts, music and defence. I’m lost in a surreal world of elegant palaces, magnificent mosques, centuries-old towers, medieval reservoirs and Wonder Women. Legendary tales are woven into the history of Mandu, the medieval kingdom that’s 98km from Indore.

I drive to Mandu through golden wheat fields dotted with small villages against the backdrop of the Vindhya Range. As I approach, there’s a deep ravine, a natural moat of sorts, leading to a plateau with fortified walls running for almost 45km. Tendrils of mist obscure the facades covered with shiny moss. Mandu started as a Hindu kingdom in the 10th-Century under Raja Bhoj and was later called Shadiabad or the City of Joy.

I ramble through the ruins with my guide Haneef who claims that the town’s architecture is unparalleled. We’re in the Royal Enclave, a part of Mandu that has a cluster of palaces and structures built around two artificial lakes. There are manicured lawns, flowerbeds and women dressed in rainbow-coloured saris (scruffy kids in tow) sitting on benches and having a snack.

The two-storeyed Jahaz Mahal has pools shaped like a tortoise and a lotus, fed by a Persian wheel. What’s amazing is the medieval filtration system that used cloth, charcoal and sand to slow down the flow of water through snake-like spirals set in the floor. It’s said that when Emperor Jehangir and his wife Noor Jehan spent some time here, the entire building was lit up with lamps.

Germany: Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Germany: Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Berlin is notable for its greenery (only one-third of its area is built up) and East Berlin for its old historical center with the Royal Palace and museums. Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm), with its Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church is the main thoroughfare of West Berlin, lined with luxury hotels, shops, cafes and cinemas. Behind the church is the Zoo (Tiergarten).

Of the few surviving old buildings, the most notable are Charlottenburg Castle, the 18th century Brandenburg Gate, the reconstructed Reichstag and the Rathaus, seat of the Senate, where the Liberty Bell is rung at noon. Important museums include the Egyptian Museum with the famous bust of Nefertiti; Museum Dahlem with 13 -16th century paintings including famous Rembrandts and Vermeers, the Berlin Museum where the collection depicts the development of the city and the New National Gallery designed by Mies van der Rohe.

The Olympic Stadium constructed for the 1936 games, holds 100,000 people. In the western suburbs are the forest and lake areas of the Grünewald and the Havel inlets which open out into the Wannsee, crowded with bathers in summer. Excursion parties go to Frederick the Great’s Palace of Sanssouci in the East zone with its great art treasures and to the ancient Palace of the Crown Prince, Cecilienhof where the Four-Power Aggreement was signed in 1945.

All About Santorini Island in Greece

All About Santorini Island in Greece

Santorini, classically Thera, and officially Thira, is an island in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km (120 mi) southeast of Greece’s mainland. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera.

It forms the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands, with an area of approximately 73 km2 (28 sq mi) and a 2011 census population of 15,550. The municipality of Santorini includes the inhabited islands of Santorini and Therasia and the uninhabited islands of Nea Kameni, Palaia Kameni, Aspronisi, and Christiana. The total land area is 90.623 km2 (34.990 sq mi). Santorini is part of the Thira regional unit.

Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. A giant central, rectangular lagoon, which measures about 12 by 7 km (7.5 by 4.3 mi), is surrounded by 300 m (980 ft) high, steep cliffs on three sides. The main island slopes downward to the Aegean Sea. On the fourth side, the lagoon is separated from the sea by another much smaller island called Therasia; the lagoon is connected to the sea in two places, in the northwest and southwest.

The depth of the caldera, at 400m, makes it impossible for any but the largest ships to anchor anywhere in the protected bay; there is also a fisherman’s harbour at Vlychada, on the southwestern coast. The island’s principal port is Athinias. The capital, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff looking down on the lagoon. The volcanic rocks present from the prior eruptions feature olivine and have a small presence of hornblende.

It is the most active volcanic centre in the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, though what remains today is chiefly a water-filled caldera. The volcanic arc is approximately 500 km (310 mi) long and 20 to 40 km (12 to 25 mi) wide. The region first became volcanically active around 3–4 million years ago, though volcanism on Thera began around 2 million years ago with the extrusion of dacitic lavas from vents around the Akrotiri.

The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, through a gigantic tsunami. Another popular theory holds that the Thera eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis.

The Historical Richness of Granada

The Historical Richness of Granada

There is so much history to Granada’s glory, causing it to be unstable through the ages and through the reigns of many conquerors before it was established as a sovereign kingdom by Ibn Ahmar, an Arabian prince of the Nasrid tribe, in 1238. He was really a fair and able ruler, but did not have the opportunity to reign longer with the whole of Spain coming under the Christian Re-conquest.

Granada’s Rich History

Although the Moors were first at Granada, they were encumbered with battles throughout the ages until they succumbed to King Fernando III in the 13th century. With the death of Moorish leader, Ibn Ahmar, in 1275, the Moors remain as Spain’s only Muslim kingdom living till today. However, its incoming refugee numbers fueled its growth in various industries, such as culture and commerce, which are flourishing today.

Thus, the Christian and Muslim kingdoms have molded Granada’s historical glory for more than two centuries up until today. The famous Alhambra palace was the brainchild of these Muslim sultans that brought fame to this area, until the city was entangled in an internal battle fueled by two of the sultan’s favorite wives. By then the Christian Re-conquest, which had been going strong, took full reign in 1479 to set up the united Christian kingdoms of Spain between Castile and Aragón when Fernando and Isabel married one another. The rest is history, as they say, when through the royal reign, Ronda, Málaga and Almería were finally conquered, thus fulfilling the Christian Re-Conquest goal.

The Historical Richness of Granada

The Gitanos of Granada

As with many of the Andalusian cities, Granada is still home to an old and traditional gypsy population, known as the Gitanos. There is quite a large number of this tribe today in Granada; the clans from which Spain’s best flamenco dancers, guitarists and singers emerged.

These clans tend to occupy the caves which their forefathers used to inhabit, but now specifically at Sacromonte Hill, giving tourists a dose of zambras.

Gastronomical Options

It may not offer the best of Spanish cuisines due to the free tapas offered by some tapas bars, but Granada still can offer some North African flavor at its ‘Little Morocco’ where there are plenty of health foods and Moroccan tearooms with a delectable menu. This unique street can serve as the gathering point for picnics on one of the Alhambra visits.

There are restaurants that are easy on the pocketbook serving economical meals everywhere in Granada. You can check out Campo del Principe, a nice square with a restaurant that has open air terraces at the south of Alhambra Hill; it is very popular at night during summer.

Bosphorus River Bridge and Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul

Bosphorus River Bridge and Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul

No matter how you travel to Istanbul, your first view of the city will be impressive. It rises beside the blue waters of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus rivers into a dramatic skyline of domes and minarets. The narrow Bosporus, a drowned former river valley, down which a strong current still flows from the Black Sea, divides Asia from Europe. Its shores are protected by the rising upland against cold winds, and get more rain than the surrounding uplands.

Accordingly these exhibit a different kind of vegetation from that of the steppes, typically Mediterranean but with more trees than elsewhere. The dark cones of cypress trees, the pink of Judas trees, and the yellow of locusts, together with the blossoms of fruit trees, join with an exuberant display of flowering herbage and with the songs of innumerable nightingales to make the shores of the Bosporus truly entrancing in the spring. Olive trees are excluded by the winter frosts, but snow never lies more than a few days.

Almost three thousand years old, it has been the heart of three world empires and each one has left its own particular mark on the landscape. Though no longer the capital of the Turkish Republic, Istanbul is still the most popular destination in Turkey for tourists and many tour operators offer short break holidays here, especially in winter. Basically, Istanbul divides into two main areas which are further subdivided into several small districts. The European part of the city is divided by the Golden Horn and the European and Asian parts are separated by the Bosphorus Strait. The vast majority of the sights are on the southem bank of the Golden Horn.

Istanbul is a good centre for sightseers, as there is an infinite variety of places to visit – peaceful mosques, awe-inspiring palaces and frenzied bazaars. For sun-worshippers there are beaches and resorts along the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, and while here, all tourists should consider a trip to the legendary city of Troy. Even if you plan to travel further into Anatolia, take a few days to see some of the sights of this fascinating city and experience the unique atmosphere it offers.

Istanbul is located where a small drowned tributary valley enters the southern end of the Bosporus and offers a safe harbor called the Golden Horn. Founded originally as the Greek settlement of Byzantium, this city, which was once the greatest in the world, became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Then for centuries it was the stronghold of southern European culture against the forces of Asia. Later the invading Turks held it as their capital and made it the center of their empire.

The catastrophic World War brought about its temporary decline, but despite the loss of its European hinterland, and the removal of the capital to the more centrally located city of Ankara, Istanbul is coming back. It could not be otherwise. Dominating the trade routes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, where the old Danube roads cross over into Asia, the location has advantages of which it can never be deprived.

The population is on the increase again, and there is every reason to think that Istanbul will hold a place among the cities of over a million. In Istanbul, unlike the rest of Turkey, both Greeks and Armenians still live in large numbers, although not so numerous as formerly.