Saturday, 18 February 2017

Pisa: Piazza de Miracoli

Pisa is world famous for its Leaning Tower, but this makes up just one quarter of the historic buildings within the city's beautiful central Piazza.

Leaning Tower/Campanile: 

Piazza de miracoil, pisa

This 56 metre high tower of beautiful white marble is an iconic attraction that tourists flock to the city to see. Originally used as a Bell tower or Campanile, it was built to accompany the Cathedral that dominates the Piazza.  
The tower has never stood upright, and was already leaning by the construction was completed. This was not intentional, but has gained the building far more coverage than it may otherwise have had. 
The foundations of the Tower have been strengthened over the years, with construction work undertaken to ensure that the soft ground on which the tower was built was shored up to prevent any further tilting. The current tilt is around 4 degrees.
This tilt means that here are 296 stairs leading to the south facing viewpoint and only 294 to the north. The Tower, as part of the Piazza dei Miracoli, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Cathedral/Duomo:
Piazza de miracoil, pisa

Sitting proudly at the heart of the square, this grey and white mixture of marble and stone more than stands up to its more famous neighbour.
The interior of the Cathedral, as you would expect, is no less impressive and contain a number of important historical works, including the Griffin, which, standing at more than 1 metre high, is the largest Islamic sculpture in the world. The pulpit in the building was designed by Italian master, Nicola Pisano.  
Amongst the other Christian treasure within the walls is one of the Jars of Cana, which was the wedding at which, according to The Bible, saw Jesus perform the miracle of turning water into wine.

Pisa Baptistry of St. John:
Piazza de miracoil, pisa This Baptistry is the largest in Italy and stands at 55 metres high. As with its neighbours, it is built with Italian marble, but has a touch more colour in its typically Tuscan style terracotta coloured tiled dome which, when coupled with the interior pyramid shaped roof make the chamber of the religious treasure acoustically perfect.  
The architecture of the Baptistry is a mixture of classic Romanesque at the bottom, with a very Gothic, pointy style towards the upper reaches. This was due to the fact that the structure took quite so long to complete.  
The interior of the Baptistry, when compared to the Cathedral, is somewhat bereft of embellishment. As with the Duomo, the pulpit here was also designed by #Pisano and dates back to around 1260.  
Although the inside might lack some of the wow factor seen the Duomo, the exterior is outstanding, so do try to wander around the outside in a daze while you marvel at the gargoyles keeping watch from their perches above.
Somewhat unbelievably, the Baptistry is actually taller than the Leaning Tower, although because of its width, it certainly doesn't look it. However, it is only by a very marginal distance and only if you include the height of the statue of St John that tops the dome.

Camposanto/Monumental Graveyard:

Piazza de miracoil, pisa

This was the final part of the overall complex to be constructed and is a long building, which took just shy of 200 years to build. Campo Santo means Holy Field and, well, what you see is what you get.  
Heartbreakingly, after a bombing attack towards the end of WW2, the roof of the cemetery building was destroyed by fire and the vast majority of the frescoes, sarcophagi and other artefacts were destroyed. 
There are three chapels within the cemetery and, on occasion, Mass is still held within the Dal Pozzo.   Within the Aulla Chapel is a grander version of the lamp that astronomer, physicist, mathematician and all round brain box, Galileo used to figure out pendular movement. I won't pretend that I've the faintest idea what he was doing, but clearly it was massively important...
Legend has it that bodies of the dead who were buried within the confines of the Campo Santo would rot within 24 hours, such were the powers of the sacred soil which was shipped over from Jerusalem. 

Have you visited Piazza de Miracoli?

Suzanne x

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Grand Canyon: Sunrise Hiking at Horseshoe Bend

There aren't many things in life worth dragging your carcass out of bed at 5:45am for, but this is definitely one of them...

My husband loves taking photos of sunsets. He's not that fussed about where these occur, just as long as he can snap them.  I knew, since we were road tripping close to the Grand Canyon, there was zero chance of me getting out of being dragged into the barren desert at least once during our holiday (twice, actually...) and made to hang around while Les amused himself photographing the fading sun. 
I, on the other hand, spend this time in the desert worrying about all the odd animal noises and trying to decide if coyotes and rattlesnakes are attracted by the smell of apple Chapstick.     
Anyway, my odd fears aside, Les decided that Horseshoe Bend, on the Arizona side of the Grand Canyon, was where he'd like to visit.  Being the agreeable person I am (and knowing I could steal all his photos later on), I agreed.  Also: it was on the way to our apartment in the town of Page, so I didn't really have a choice in the first place. Damn that evil genius and his mad mapping skills. 

Sunset Hiking

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona is a very popular sunset hiking spot and when we arrived around a half hour before the sun faded, the car park was already overflowing. I'm not a huge fan of Other People (Introvert alert...), so I wasn't overly excited about the prospect of sharing a romantic sunset with the population of a small city.  

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Horsehoe Bend (very, very early in the morning)
We quickly decided (mainly due to the look of terror on my face), that we would give up in the whole sunset idea and go for sunrise instead. Surely everyone would be too lazy to get up at 5:45am to come down and watch the sun coming up? Thankfully, they were.  
We drove out in the dark of the early morning, sleepily making out way towards Horseshoe Bend and were thrilled to find just a handful of cars in the lot.     
We strode from the car park and walked the half mile or so down to the rum of the Grand Canyon. There is signage warning you not to wear sandals and these or flip flops are probably not a great idea. The terrain is very rocky and anything that might cause your feet to slide around in your shoes is best to be avoided when hiking. You don't want to be perfecting that selfie and end up taking a long dive for a swim in the Colorado River.

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OK, so maybe it was worth getting out of bed for.  Don't tell anyone I said that, though.  

Hiking Rules
Signs also warn you not to stray for they trail, which is also a wonderful idea. It is very rocky and the trail is clearly identified by being the well trodden path covered in sand. There are no barriers on the rim (would kind of spoil the view and the natural wonder of it all), so do be careful to consider your steps when getting close to the edge.     
Apart from that, and taking water if you're going during the day (it's hotter than hell; even in October), have a lovely time!!  It was well worth getting up at such an ungodly hour to watch the sunrise change the colours of the red rock and watch the Colorado transformed into a green ribbon in the valley below.

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So beautiful
And, in case you were wondering, rattlesnakes and coyotes are not, it would appear, attracted to apple Chapstick. I can't vouch for any other flavour, so you'll have to take your chances.
The USA has so many outstanding beauty spots to hike in (and drive through) which are the perfect escape from the stress of city life. They're also never quite as remote as you think. There's no bad time to visit the Grand Canyon, as well as the Smokies, rural New England (and too many other areas to name), although off seasons is not *quite* as hot as in the summer months and the changing leaves in spring and autumn are absolutely spectacular.

Suzanne x 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

6 Great Robert Burns Attractions in Dumfries and Galloway

I was lucky enough to work in Dumfries and Galloway during my time with VisitScotland and many of the attractions that I graded in the area were related to the life and work of Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The Scots are very proud of their Bard, much in the same way that the English are with Shakespeare and the Irish are of James Joyce.

We’ve carefully conserved his various residences, books, belongings and moved his body from the pretty poor grave he originally had, to a far more appropriate, and might I say, pretty grand, resting place he now lies.      

Burns Sandstone, Dumfries
Dumfries is full of tributes to their most famous resident. 
As far as Dumfries goes, it is synonymous with Burns’ life and work, in the same way that Ayrshire is.  Burns lived in the town centre, as well as owning a cottage in the countryside, and his remains lie in the local graveyard.  Even the pubs he frequented wisely choose to remember him.     His long suffering wife has also managed to find herself the subject of a beautiful statue in the town which, after putting up with his inability to be faithful, in my opinion, she thoroughly deserves.    

Burns worked as a modern day equivalent of our deeply beloved HMRC’s tax/VAT inspector and he would ride around on his trusty steed, making sure the locals were paying the correct amount of tax.  He must’ve been wildly popular during business hours.   

In anticipation of Burns Day 2016 (which falls on 25th January), these are the fabulous Burns attractions you can visit in the D&G Region:

Burns Garden, Dumfries
Burns House, Dumfries:
Conveniently located on Burns St (because obviously), in the middle of the town, this is the 18th Century building where the Scottish national poet spent the last years of his life.     

The chair Burns used to write in, plus the famous Kilmarnock edition of his work, is prominently displayed in the building.   One of the best features of the small house is Burns’ carving of his name in the upstairs window.  

If you venture just outside the house, there’s also a beautiful garden area, full of flowers and stone carved excerpts from his most famous works.   Burns House has no admission charges.   

Burns Mausoleum, Dumfries
Rabbie's grave 
Burns Grave, Dumfries:
After his death in July of 1796, Robert Burns was laid to rest in St Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries.   His original grave was unimpressive, so his body was moved to a more appropriate area of the yard 20 years after his passing.  

Burns and his family now have a beautiful Mausoleum in the corner of graveyard, which is much more fitting for a person of his talent and fame.    

You can visit the outside of the grave on your own, but you can also link up with a staff member from Burns House, who conduct free tours of the Mausoleum and hold the key to allow you inside.   

Burns Mausoleum, Dumfries
The interior of Burns' mausoleum
Burns Cottage at Ellisland Farm:
Ellisland Farm is situated around 7 miles North of Dumfries and is in a beautiful setting on the banks of the River Nith.  The peaceful surroundings give you a sense of what it might have been like to find inspiration in the whitewashed cottage and well-tended grounds.   
Many of Burns’ possessions remain in the cottage and there are several walks and trails along the riverbank.    

Burns moved to Ellisland with his family when he was 29 years old and the cottage was where he wrote ‘Red, Red Rose’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

The Globe Inn, Dumfries:
Standing proudly on the High Street since 1610, The Globe was the preferred watering hole of the famous Bard during his time living at Ellisland and, latterly, in the town centre, from where it must have been much easier for him to stagger home.  

The Globe has kept Burns’ favourite drinking seat (all Scots have one of these) and you can have a wee dram from the comfort of it.   I’m actually not sure if it that comfortable as it’s really, really old.   However, once you’ve had a few whiskies, your read end will be numb so, who cares? 

The Globe also has a small museum and gift shop on site, to fulfill all your Burns related needs.   

Statue of Jean Armour, Dumfries
Bonnie Jean.
Statue of Jean Armour, Dumfries:
Jean Armour was the long-suffering wife of Robert Burns and, if there were living in this day and age, she’d probably have divorced him a long time ago.   However, despite her husband’s continual indiscretions, his love for Armour was clearly strong and the couple remained together.   Armour bore nine children with Burns and that, as far as I’m concerned, is deserving of a statue in itself.  

Jean’s influence on Burns’ writing over the years was great, and he wrote many love poems about her, one of which is ‘O Were I On Parnassus Hill’, which was penned on the farm at Ellisland. Burns also wrote many poems for his other women, but he always returned to Armour’s side.

Jean outlived her husband long enough to see his work gain global fame.  She ws buried in the specially commissioned Mausoleum at St Michael’s after her death in 1834.   

The River Nith flowing through Dumfries
The River Nith, Dumfries 
Robert Burns Centre, Dumfries:
Set next to the old bridge on the banks of the River Nith at Mill Street, RBC takes you through the 8 or so years that the poet spent living in the town. As with many of the other attractions, this small museum is run by team of dedicated volunteers who have a genuine love for the life and work of the Bard.

This gorgeous old water mill features an audio guide, as well as original papers and manuscripts belonging to the famous poet.  The building also houses a gift shop and cafĂ© and has no admission charge.  

Suzanne x 

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Top 4 Haggis Spotting Locations in Scotland

We've all heard of haggis and some of us have even eaten it, but very few have actually spotted one IRL.  We generally only see them once they're slaughtered, skinned and unceremoniously stuffed into a sheep's intestine.  Apologies if you're eating.

Haggis, from the Gaelic, 'awkward wee beastie', are notoriously shy creatures who tend to sleep all day and only venture out into the glens under cover of darkness.  Or, when they've run out of Irn Bru.  This is the main reason people take bottles of Scotland's national drink out on their organised Haggis Hunting Tours.

The mere sniff of the Amber liquid can be picked up from 3 miles away by fully grown males and they can turn nasty if you don't offer them some.  If you're out of Bru, whisky is an acceptable substitute.  Buckfast is not.   I wouldn't feed that to my neighbours cat, never mind a Haggis. I quite like having all my fingers in place, thanks very much.

These are four of the best known haunts of Haggis Clans across Scotland:

Loch Lomond, Scotland
the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond have long been a haggis clan hideout.

No 52 Wee Auchentoshan Brae, Dumbarton:
Legend has it that in the early 20th Century, a local man by the name of Shuggie (Scottish slang for Hugh) saved the life of a young haggis, who had wandered away from his Mammy on the banks of Loch Lomond and followed the smell of whisky down past the famous Auchentoshan Distillery.  

Shug found the youngster while making his way back from his local hostelry and managed to persuade the wee mite to come to his house and warm up by his three bar fire.  Afterwards, he drove the haggis back to the foot of the Loch (once he'd sobered up obviously, so, like, two days later).  

The haggis told his clan about Shug's kindness and ever since then you can often spot the little beasties around Dumbarton late at night.   

Portree Harbour, Portree, Isle of Skye
Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on a wing... 

Portree, Isle of Skye:
For years, haggis were a bit more difficult to spot on Skye due to the fact that you had to get on a ferry just to have a look.   These days, hunting the critters is made a bit easier by the glorious Skye bridge, which sits across Loch Alsh and connects the Island to the mainland.   

Clans of haggis have been roaming Skye's Cuillin Mountain range for hundreds of years and have gradually moved up to the main town of Portree.  Given their tendency to be shy and secretive, no one knows quite why the haggis have ventured towards the harbour area, but many believe the sheer numbers of climbers on the mountains have forced the haggis further North.  

An alternative theory is that haggis love the smell of shortbread from the Isle of Skye Bakery, which is situated in the town.  

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness
Can you see Nessie in the background??

Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness:
Spotting a wild haggis on the shores of Loch Ness is slightly easier than catching sight  of Nessie, and it's widely accepted that the clans are largely left alone on the banks of the Loch as people are more interested in the monster.

This allows them to enjoy the spectacular views and setting of Urquhart Castle, while flying under the radar, so to speak.   Haggis have no wings and, despite their diminutive size, they are extremely fast on their little haggis legs, which is why they can be difficult to pursue on foot.  

A few years ago, tunnels were found around the grounds of Urquhart and it was suggested that haggis were burrowing beneath the Castle in order to establish a safe haven from which to breed and protect their young.    

Samye Ling Monastery, Eskdalemuir
Samye Ling Temple.

Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, Dumfries & Galloway: 
Samye Ling, near the remote village of Eskdalemuir, was established in 1967 and was the first Tibetan Centre to be built in the Western world.

The beautiful open countryside surrounding the centre and the calmness and tranquility that emanates from the Temple is believed to have been the draw for haggis as they understand that their way of life will never be under threat here.   

That, and the fact that the Buddhist Monks at Sayme Ling are vegetarian, make this part of South West Scotland perfect for a thriving haggis clan.   

Have you spotted any wild haggis on your travels through Scotland??  

Suzanne x