Tag Archives: culture
April 22, 2015

Quirky Travel Photo: girl with red umbrella outside Il Duomo

Quirky Travel Photo: girl with red umbrella outside Il Duomo
Girl with umbrella - Milan Cathedral in the rain Il Duomo Italy

Girl with red umbrella

During a heavy rain shower, the huge Piazza del Duomo cleared quickly as people rushed to get into Il Duomo, Milan’s cathedral, or nearby uber-fashionable shopping mall Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to shelter from the storm. I was being shown round Milan by Italian travel blogger Simon Falvo, who directed me into the gloomy splendour of the cathedral. When we came out, I spotted this young girl, texting on her phone, oblivious to the world around her. The red of her umbrella reflected brightly against the wet stones. I took a quick snap with my iPhone before we walked over the piazza to have a campari at Camparino and watch the fashionistas go by …

Milan Cathedral Il Duomo Italy

After the rain

Italy is famous for its big, ornate churches and this one is huge. Mark Twain was seduced by il Duomo’s beauty, “What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful!” Oscar Wilde was less enamoured, “The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic.” I’m with Mr Twain. You can find out more about Il Duomo here in my article for Laterooms.com,

February 11, 2015

3 things to do in Arctic Tromsø, Norway

3 things to do in Arctic Tromsø, Norway

“An atmosphere of fantasy enwraps this northern land, more intense and apparent than in any other provinces …”

On Arctic Norway from ‘Scandinavia’ by Doré Ogrizek

Protected by undulating, snow-covered mountains, surrounded by icy waters, fjord-safe and imbued with exploration history, Tromso (Tromsø) has a maverick feel to it that gives an exciting edge.

Husky sledge Tromso Norway - image Zoe Dawes

Husky sledge Tromso Norway

Situated 150 miles into Arctic Norway, Tromso is the capital of Finnmark region, named after the Finns or Lapps who have lived in this area for centuries.

Tromso in Norway map

Tromso in Norway map

Ships have shuttled between here and Russia and it was a major centre for polar bear, whale, seal and walrus hunting. In tribute to the many who made their living in this way, there’s a huge statue of a whaler overlooking the spectacular harbour and beautiful bridge.

Tromso in Arctic Norway - sculpture of whaler - image Zoe Dawes

Tromso in Arctic Norway

Given its geographic position, it’s not as cold as you might imagine. The average January temperature is -4˚C with plenty of snow to add to its attractiveness. A relatively small town in European terms, with almost 70k inhabitants, it’s one of the largest in this isolated part of the world. Many Polar expeditions set off from here. Famous Norwegian Roald Amundsen left from the town to rescue fellow explorer (and competitor) Umberto Nobile, in a seaplane. Roald didn’t return.

Roald Amundsen Museum in Tromso Norway - image Zoe Dawes

Roald Amundsen

I visited Tromsø in March, joining the Hurtugruten ferry ‘Richard With’ for a magical voyage along Norway’s impressive coast to Europe’s most northerly point and Kirkenes. I spent an evening and day wandering its pavements, some of which are actually heated to prevent icing. (It was VERY slippy; I tumbled twice so if you go in winter make sure you have boots with a good grip!) Here are 3 things to do in Tromso which give a glimpse inot the challenging life of Arctic Norway.

1. Discover history in the quirky Polar Museum

Polar Museum Tromso Norway - image Zoe Dawes

The Polar Museum

The Polar Museum (Polarmuseet) 0n the harbour front in ‘Old Tromsø’, is housed in the former Customs House, a red-painted wooden building that has survived since 1830. It is crammed full of intriguing exhibits from Polar life and sea-faring adventures, including equipment, itineraries, maps and beautifully illustrated journals.

Journal of Arctic exploration 1962 in Polar Museum Tromso Norway - image Zoe Dawes

Journal of Arctic exploration 1962

I was particularly intrigued to see a very chic fur coat belonging to Wanny Woldstad (1895-1959), the first female trapper to spend the winter in this region – and the town’s first woman taxi-driver. There is plenty about Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen’s lives and expeditions, including the stuffed dog Amundsen took with him to the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen's dog in Polar Musue,m Tromso, Norway - image Zoe Dawes

Roald Amundsen’s dog

Opposite is the Amundsen Museum and the area has ship-building yards, old warehouses and other historic wooden buildings set higgledy-piggledy around the harbour.

2. Look round seal-hunting vessel M/S Polstjerna

MS Polstjerna and SnowHow Exhibition Tromso - image Zoe Dawes

MS Polstjerna and SnowHow Exhibition

Built in 1949, MS Polstjerna (Polar Star) was a seal-hunting ship and is now preserved in a state-of-the-art glass-covered exhibition space. With light refracting from the surrounding mountains and icy waters it’s easy to imagine this doughty vessel slipping its moorings and setting off down the fjord and into the open sea for one last adventure.

MS Polstjerna Tromso - image visittromso.no

MS Polstjerna – image visittromso.no

3. See the Northern Lights – guaranteed – at Polaria

Next door is Polaria, a great place for all ages to find out more about this unique area of Norway. This striking building represents ice floes that have been pressed up on land by the rough seas of the Arctic ocean.

Polaria in Tromsø - image Copyright : Ola Røe, Røe Foto AS, 9000 Tromsø.

Polaria in Tromso – image Ola Røe

Inside there are Arctic ‘walkways’ where you can learn how the melting ice impacts on both human and animal life life as well as current scientific work. Aquariums are stocked with fish and bearded seals from Spitzbergen. The lengthy darkness of Polar Nights in winter create ideal conditions for viewing the Northern Lights aka Aurora Borealis. (It’s where Joanna Lumley had her emotional sighting.)

NNorthern Lights map Tromso - image Guide Gunnar

Northern Lights map Tromsø – image Guide Gunnar

However, if you’re unlucky, like me, or there at the wrong time of year, then you can get the next best thing by going to the panoramic cinema and watching Northern Lights in Arctic Norway which explains how the aurora is formed, with stunning photography by Ole. C. Salomonsen.

Northern Lights Tromso Norway Ole.CSalomonsen arctic light photo

Northern Lights over Tromsø – image Ole. C. Salomonsen visitnorway.com

In the other film showing here, Svalbard – Arctic Wilderness, a little auk takes viewers on a helicopter flight along the coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the group known as Svalbard.

Arctic Cathedral Tromsø

Arctic Cathedral Tromsø

Without doubt, the most uplifting experience I had during the Hurtigruten cruise was the midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral in Tromso. You can read about it in this article by fellow travel blogger Kathryn Burrington. We stayed in the uber-contemporary Scandic Ishavshotel and from my huge bedroom there was a great view of the old harbour and town.

View from Scandic Ishavshotel Tromso - image Zoe Dawes

View from Scandic Ishavshotel

In 1952 Doré Ogrizek wrote of Tromsø , “The place is alive with a motley crowd, among which may be seen many Lapps in their traditional dress – high boots and square cap rather reminiscent of that worn by Oxford dons.” Scandinavia. You may not see many Lapps in traditional dress today, but it’s definitely alive and the motley crowd consists of tourists as well as locals, all adding to the unique international mix that makes up this special Norwegian town.

November 25, 2014

Songs of praise to the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle

Songs of praise to the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle

The sound of a hundred voices rose above the flowers, trees, plants and water in a fond farewell. Neigen sich die Stunden  (Now it’s time for leaving) sang the choirs of South Tyrol.  Dressed in traditional Tyrolean costume these singers had been serenading a very appreciative audience at the Day of the Choirs in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle.

South Tyrol Day of Choirs singing Trauttmansdorff Gardens - image Zoe Dawes

Tyrolean Choirs singing Trauttmansdorff Gardens

Suddenly the rain pelted down in a late summer shower but nothing could dampen our spirits as we listened to this glorious singing reverberating around the encircling mountains. I had been exploring the extensive grounds with one of the very informative and engaging guides and learnt it had been a complex engineering, landscape and design project to create such a unique botanical paradise in this part of northern Italy.

Rain on the Day of Choirs Trauttmansdorff Gardens, South Tyrol - image Zoe Dawes

Rain on the Day of Choirs Trauttmansdorff

The Bolzano /Bozen area has a benign climate (with occasional showers!) and the diversity of plant life has drawn visitors here for over 100 years. The steep hillsides that surround the gardens were perfect to grow a vast array of different plants from around the globe and there are stunning views in every direction. In June 2001 the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle opened to the public and since then they have been extended and developed to become the world-class attraction they are today. In 2005 they were voted  ‘Italy’s Most Beautiful Garden’ and in 2013 they were awarded the Garden Tourism ‘International Garden of the Year’.

Trauttmansdorff  Gardens panorama, South Tyrol - image Zoe Dawes

Gardens of Trauttmansdorff panorama

With only a couple of hours to explore I had to whizz round. If you go, take at least half and better still, a whole day. There’s so much to see. In 12 hectares there are wide variety of landscapes. Where else can you can travel from the lemon and olive groves of southern Italy through the deciduous forests and desert succulents of North America, past Asian rice paddy terraces and bamboo-fringed streams into a fruit tree grove from the Near East to the chestnut woods and vineyards of South Tyrol?

Bamboo Grove at Trauttmansdorff Gardens, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

Bamboo Grove

On our way through this botanical odyssey we also stopped off in the humid Orchid House and lingered briefly to take in the heady scent of the traditional English Rose Garden.

English Rose Garden Trauttmansdorff - image Zoe Dawes

English Rose Garden

 You may find the weirdness of The Forbidden Garden designed by South Tyrolean artist Karl Heinz Steiner very strange.  Bizarre sculptures with names like ‘Wooden Man Swallowed into the Earth Screaming’ and ‘Rostolph the Iron Raven’ hide amongst poisonous plants intertwined with gnarled old trees. According to Karin Ortler’s excellent Guide to the Gardens, “In the olden days, people believed that witches lived inside overgrown gardens where poisonous and magical plants grow like weeds.”  Spooky …

Forbidden Garden sculpture Trauttmansdorff Italy  - image Zoe Dawes

Forbidden Garden sculpture

During our tour we’d seen people dressed in traditional costume enjoying the scenery (and ice cream) or relaxing in the cafe. We joined them gathered together opposite the Lotus Pond, singing their hearts out to a very appreciative audience. I was invited to sit with the VIPs on the stage in the middle of the lake and enjoy the concert in comfort. What a treat.

South Tyrol Day of Choirs Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle- image Zoe Dawes

Choirs singing in the Gardens

After their final song I was introduced to Klaus Platter, one of the original team and a driving force behind the construction of the botanical gardens. “This is a place where botany can be experienced hands-on. A place where there is an interplay of modern and old architecture: for example the powerful juxtaposition between historical castle and modern museum.”

The Platter family  and The Quirky Traveller in Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens - South Tyrol, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

The Platter family and The Quirky Traveller in Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens

His daughter, Dr Heike Platter very kindly gave me a whirlwind tour of said castle and quirky Tourism Museum. The Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), wife of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, stayed at Trauttmansdorff Castle when she visited nearby Merano / Meren for health treatment 1870-71 and after the death of her son Crown Prince Rudolph at Mayerling, in 1889. There’s a statue of her beside the white marble Sissi Throne.

Empress Sissi and Throne Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens - image Zoe Dawes

Empress Sissi and Throne Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens

The Imperial living quarters have a fascinating display commemorating her visits, giving a glimpse into her life and times. There’s a statue of Sissi gazing out of a window across the now fertile gardens towards the mountains and surrounding vineyards.

Empress Sissi looking out from Trauttmansdorff Castle, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

Sissi looking out from Trauttmansdorff Castle

Also included within the castle is The Touriseum, the only Museum of Tourism in the Alps. It takes a light-hearted look at the history of tourism in this region from the first post coach connection over the Brenner Pass in 1765. There’s a charming collection of quirky artefacts and delightful memorabilia including yodelling pedlars, old Baedeker guide books, luxury trains, plus examples of 19th century travel clothes and luggage.

1920s Merano bar - Truattmansdorff Tourism Museum - image Zoe Dawes

1920s Merano bar

Into the 20th century Art Deco posters decorate the walls of a 1920s bar. There’s a poignant display of suitcases belonging to Jews escaping Hitler’s regime, designs for contemporary hotels, the tiny German ‘Isetta’ and the ultimate symbol of Italian travel, the Vespa scooter.

Isetta in Touriseum, Trauttmansdorff Castle, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

Isetta in Touriseum

We had a quick play with the whimsical ‘South Tyrol Game’, a giant pinball creation made from pinewood . “The player steers a ball with levers through the holiday paradise, past lively scenes and comic details. Go from the ski slopes to a hospital full of legs in plaster, or would you prefer an Après Ski party?”  Touriseum Guide Book.

The South Tyrol Game in Touriseum, Trauttmansdorff Castle, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

The South Tyrol Game

Finally, on my way out, I had a look at ‘The Birds and The Bees’ display. There are different exhibitions all year round, covering a wide range of botanical-related themes. This one took a close look at how flowers ‘seduce, deceive and work together as a team with fauna.’ By the time I left I was completely seduced by the very impressive and fascinating Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle and hope very much to return another day to take more time to explore its splendours.

Entrance to Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens , South Tyrol, Italy - image Zoe Dawes

Entrance to Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle

I visited this intriguing part of Italy with South Tyrol Tourism and stayed at the More Magdalener Hof in Bolzano.

October 28, 2014

A perfect day out: Bamburgh Castle and Beach

A perfect day out: Bamburgh Castle and Beach

The ocean called a siren song as I wandered along the narrow path on a perfect English summer’s day. Then there it was, shushing onto the sand in gentle curls, vibrant blue reflecting the cerulean sky.  A crinkle of land floated on the horizon; the Farne Islands, home to a multitude of sea birds, including nesting terns, kittiwakes, eider ducks and the quirky puffins, known locally as the ‘Tommy Noddy’. The dramatic Northumberland Heritage Coast was looking its very best …

Bamburgh Beach and Farne Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Bamburgh Beach and Farne Islands

A glorious sandy beach stretched out on either side.  I walked along the shoreline, past children paddling in the shallows, men playing football and a guy riding his horse. He stopped to chat – his horse was called Trigger and he exercised him on the beach as often as possible. Soft white clouds ambled across the sky. Seagulls drifted on the breeze.  A couple relaxed next to a pair of red canoes.  In the distance loomed the impressive outline of one of the most familiar Northumberland sights, Bamburgh Castle.

Bamburgh Castle and canoes on beach, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

Bamburgh Castle and canoes

“Once the royal seat of the Kings of Northumbria, a castle has stood guard over this beautiful coastline for more than 1,400 years.  

‘Bamburgh Castle – Iconic Fortress of the North’

Bamburgh Castle entrance

Bamburgh Castle entrance

As I was meeting my son and his Dad in Bamburgh village, I cut back across the sand-dunes, passing a colourful display of poppies. Some were the traditional wild red poppies but others were scarlet raggedy-edged ones, creating a lake of moving colour against the backdrop of the castle. Somewhere high above a skylark swooped and looped, singing its beautiful song of summertime.

Bamburgh Castle and red poppies, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

Bamburgh Castle and red poppies

With a decent hotel and bar, the Copper Kettle cafe and gift shop, attractive houses Bamburgh village is charming but it is the castle which attracts like a magnet.

Bamburgh is a quiet and pretty seaside village built in the form of a triangle around a grove of trees which takes the place of the village green. The castle forms the apex of the triangle.”

‘Bamburgh: a short history and guide’ by Frank Graham

Bamburgh village and castle, Northumberland

Bamburgh village and castle

We walked back via the cricket pitch.  A match was going on with both local teams dressed in an eclectic mixture of ‘whites’. From the tiny clubhouse and around the ground, people watched, clapped, ate picnics and relaxed in the warm midday sunshine. A blue clock on the castle walls kept an eye on the time.

The entrance to Bamburgh Castle took us past the ridged red sandstone walls to the Barbican, under the Constable Tower and into the grounds of the inner bailey. The grounds cover about eight acres and a quirky mixture of ancient and modern reconstruction of what a medieval castle should look like. The massive Keep is the oldest suriving building, dating back to 1164.

Bamburgh Castle Keep, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

Bamburgh Castle Keep

With a fascinating and at times, bloody history, the castle was eventually bought by William George Armstrong, Victorian industrialist, inventor, eco-enthusiast and philanthropist, in 1894. He began a series of renovation and construction projects which has resulted in the splendid edifice we were now visiting.

“Spanning five generations of our family’s history … Celebrate the architectural brilliance of Bamburgh Castle, which the first Lord Armstrong transformed from a decaying ruin into the glorious building it is today.” 

Francis Watson-Armstrong

My son had a go at the quoits game whilst we admired the view from the Battery Terrace across the beach to the North Sea. In the far distance we could see the outline of Lindisfarne or Holy Island, where St Cuthbert was Bishop in the 7th century. When Vikings raided and captured the monastery two hundred years later, the monks fled, taking his body with them. Now it is a place of modern-day pilgrimage for tourists and nature lovers.

The Battery, Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

The Battery, Bamburgh Castle

Next to a number of different size cannons is a replica of an Armstrong Gun, a reminder of one of the many inventions of Lord Armstrong. His engineering company expanded into shipbuilding and became the internationally renowned Vickers-Armstrongs. (He is also remembered for building Cragside, now a National Trust property, which was the first house in Britain to be lit by electricity.) Before going round the rest of the castle, we had a quick look at The Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum, housed in the old Laundry, which has plenty to appeal to aircraft and engineering fans.

'Laidley Wyrme of Spindleston Heugh' - Bamburgh Castle

‘The Laidley Wyrme of Spindleston Heugh’

The inside of the castle is a surprise. From the outside it looks like a classic medieval castle but the main buildings are most definitely 19th century and have a comfortable rather than imposing atmosphere. In the first few rooms there is a curious mixture of objects including old bicycles, medieval weapons, school chairs (a reminder of the days when the castle was a school) and in an alcove, a vivid painting depicting the story of the ‘Laidley Wyrme of Spindleston Heugh’.

The King's Hall, Bamburgh Castle Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

The King’s Hall

 But it is the magnificent ‘King’s Hall’ that has a real ‘wow’ factor. Most striking is the regal ‘hammer beam’ roof, made from Siamese teak. Its lovely carved ribs glow down onto a large room crammed full of fascinating objects d’art, armour, pottery, furniture and paintings, including one of Lord Armstrong in his red baronial robes. I loved the cabinet of Chinese ivory figurines and another of tiny jade pieces and elegant ceramic ‘milk-maids’ carrying dainty pails.

Cabinet of Ornaments - Bamburgh Castle - image Zoe Dawes

Cabinet of Ornaments

Throughout the castle there are reminders of the maritime history of this area including ships, telescopes, maps and designs for the world’s first lifeboat station. Lord Armstrong had a great affinity for the sea, which has pounded against the castle walls for centuries and plays such a key role in this region. Above the fireplace at the end of the Cross Room are two globes framing a large fireplace, above which hangs a copy of Theodor Rombout’s ‘The Card Players’ and Antwerp tapestries depicting the life of Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

Cross Hall fireplace Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

Cross Hall fireplace

Oak panels add to the warmth of the room as do the south facing windows. I could imagine the Armstrong family relaxing on the huge leather sofas in front of a roaring fire  On a sideboard near the fireplace we admired a bronze carving of current owner Francis Watson-Armstrong as a child with his mother and sister.

Family bronze sculpture -Bamburgh Castle

Family bronze sculpture

 From these impressive rooms we went on past the Captains’ Lodgings, through the Billiard Room and into the aptly named ‘Faire Chamber’ where the ladies of the house would have passed their time. The Armoury was originally the chapel; its stone vaulted ceiling is classically Norman. In the Scullery I admired the pretty ewers and jugs in the sinks, used for a variety of purposes including salting fish and meat.

Bamburgh Castle scullery sinks and ewers - image Zoe Dawes

Bamburgh Scullery sinks

According to the excellent guide ‘Bamburgh Castle – The Book’ Bamburgh is rated as one of the top seven Anglo Saxon archaeological sites in the world and it has some very significant finds. In the Archaeology Room, “The Stone Chair fragment may be the arm of the throne of the Kings of Northumbria.” and there is an Anglo-Saxon pattern sword thought to be the only one in existence.

Bamburgh Castle Afternoon Tea

Bamburgh Castle Afternoon Tea

After all this history and culture we were ready for something to eat and drink. Fortunately there is an excellent cafe where we had ‘Afternoon Tea’ – truly scrumptious! On leaving the castle grounds we went onto the beach for a last look at the sea. We came across this written in the sand; it sums up a perfect day in an idyllic location.

Paradise - Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland - image Zoe Dawes

Paradise – Bamburgh Beach

Other places to visit in the area include Lindisfarne (check the tides for access), attractive Seahouses for eexcursions to the Farne Islands, the quaint fishing village of Craster for tasty crabs and Morpeth, famous as the home of suffragette Emily Davison. For details of opening times and lots of useful information, visit Bamburgh Castle website and make a date to go. It really is “the finest castle anywhere in this country” Time Out Great Britain: Perfect Places to Stay, Eat and Explore 2009.

September 20, 2014

Why you MUST visit the North West of England

Why you MUST visit the North West of England

Having lived in the south of England for some years I know how far away ‘the North’ can seem. But it really isn’t, especially if you let the train take the strain, as they used to say, and it’s so worth the journey.  From the outstanding sea-faring heritage of Liverpool, the dynamic buzz of Manchester, the blowsy charms of Blackpool and natural beauty of the Lake District, this part of the country has attractions and sights to appeal to all ages and tastes.

Singing-Ringing-Tree-Panopticon Lancashire - near Burnley - by Zoe Dawes

The Singing Ringing Tree Panopticon overlookikng the Pennines in Lancashire

I make no excuses for focusing on the area I know and love best, so here are a few reasons why you must visit the North West of England.

The North West has soulfully beautiful scenery and natural attractions

A few years ago Wastwater in the Lake District was voted ‘Britain’s Favourite View’ and when you see the mighty lakeland fells reflected in the dark waters of England’s deepest lake, you can see why. Water ripples and furls through this National Park via its lakes, tarns, rivers, streams and waterfalls.

Sunset over Windermere in Lake District - by Zoe Dawes

Sunset over Windermere

With its majestic mountains and sheep-grazed hills the Lake District and Cumbria have a positive Feng Shui feel to it that may explain why so many people talk of the spiritual and healing benefits of this region. The many ancient stone circles from Birkrigg in the south, to Castlerigg to the west and Long Meg in the Eden Valley, tell us that people have lived in this area for centuries. Take the ferry across Windermere, walk up Latterbarrow, wander beside Ullswater or admire the Jaws of Borrowdale from Friar’s Crag – just some of the many ways to see nature at her most impressive.

Not far off the M6 lies the attractive Forest of Bowland where you can wander through ancient woods and take a picnic beside a rippling brook. Walk along Morecambe Bay promenade and see huge flocks of seabirds, featured on Autumn Watch, set at Leighton Moss Nature Reserve. Red Squirrels scamper about Formby pine forest and beside lovely Buttermere. Spooky Pendle Hill may be haunted by the ghosts of Lancashire witches and the undulating Pennines form a natural backdrop up to the Scottish border.

The North West has vibrant, dynamic cities with strong character and illustrious history

Liverpool Liver Building and Docks - by Zoe Dawes

Liverpool Liver Building and Docks

Liverpool and Manchester are not just famous for their football teams. Liverpool has always been linked to the sea, showcased in the Maritime Museum. It’s still a major port and Liverpool Cruise Terminal welcomes visitors from all over the world. You can also explore its less salubrious links on the Liverpool Slavery Tour. Of course the Beatles are celebrated all over the city and music can be heard in the many lively clubs, bars and restaurants. Art lovers of all styles are catered for – the Walker Art Gallery has one of the country’s best collections of Pre-Rafaelite paintings and Tate Modern satisfies contemporary tastes. Make time to see Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’, an evocative collection of figures gazing out sea from Crosby Beach.

Manchester Town Hall - by Zoe Dawes

Manchester Town Hall

Manchester was pivotal in the 18th century Industrial Revolution and its magnificent architecture is epitomised by the impressive grandeur of the Town Hall. With its stylish skyscrapers and sensitive restoration work, a fantastic night life and possibly the best shopping in the north, Manchester has moved far away from its ‘dour and grimy’ image. Wander along Canal Street and nearby Chinatown for a cosmpolitan flavour of this multi-cultural city. Superb classical music performed by the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé Orchestra can be heard at the accoustically superb Bridgewater Hall. Take the tram over to Salford Quays, where the BBC has set up base in Media City. The Lowry has over 300 art works by the eponymous ‘stick-figure’ artist and the nearby Imperial War Museum tells the story of conflict – and peace – through the ages in sensitive and  fascinating displays.

The North West does ‘seaside and coastal’ with fun, style and historic diversity

Blackpool Tower, pier and beach, Lancashire - by Zoe Dawes

Blackpool Tower, pier and beach

Britain’s most popular seaside resort, Blackpool, is a brash, bold and fun as you imagine it to be. With three Victorian Piers, iconic Blackpool Tower,a heady funfair, Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, an indoor water park, zoo, many theatres and numerous clubs, there really is something for all the family. But it’s not all glitz and kiss-me-quick hats.

Have tea in the graceful surroundings of Winter Gardens and relive the elegance of an era long gone or maybe take a twirl around the floor of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and imagine you’re a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ finalist!

Southport Pier train and Marine Lake - by Zoe Dawes

Southport Pier train and Marine Lake

Further down the coast is Southport, pearl of Merseyside, a slightly more genteel seaside resort with plenty of shops along Victorian-arcaded Lord Street, boats on the Marine Lake, a fairground, modern pier, beautiful Botanic Gardens, attractive parks and numerous golf courses. It’s got a long, sandy beach but the tide goes very far out; it’s not the best place for a swim but great for making sandcastles. Discover your inner Hercule Poirot in the Art Deco elegance of the Midland Hotel overlooking the vast sands of Morecambe Bay.

Morecambe Bay fishing boat - by Zoe Dawes

Morecambe Bay fishing boat

On the Cumbrian coast you can discover Roman ruins in the tiny village of Ravenglass, and shelter from the Irish Sea breezes beneath St Bees’ heady cliffs. Whitehaven has moved on from its mining past and is now an attractive harbour town, as is Maryport a little further along the coast.  When you reach sleepy Silloth, you can see the the Scottish Hills across the Solway Firth and stand at the start (or end?) of Hadrian’s Wall.

Horses and riders on Hard Knott Pass, Cumbria

Horses and riders on Hard Knott Pass, Cumbria

Of course, I’ve not even started on our delightful villages, welcoming pubs, delicious local food and very friendly people. You’ll just have to come and visit the North West and find out for yourself!

Virgin Trains #arriveawesome

Virgin Trains #arriveawesome

Virgin Trains ‘Arrive Awesome’ campaign. 

August 22, 2014

Top 10 things to see and do in Malta

Top 10 things to see and do in Malta

Having been farmed, plundered, conquered and cherished by everyone from Neolithic man, the Romans, Arabs, Knights of St John and the British, today it is tourists who invade Malta every year.

Church and yachts, Sliema Malta - by Zee Dawes

Church and yachts near Sliema Malta

I’ve been twice, on a recent stay at the very luxurious Azure Golden Sands Resort and Spa and a previous winter trip about 15 years ago so here are my top 10 things to see and do in Malta.

1. Wander round Valletta

Valetta street view Malta - by Zoe Dawes

Valletta street view

Valletta is quite simply ravishing. With a celebratory jumble of beautiful old churches including the stunningly baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral, palaces, museums, forts, ports, shops, restaurants and bars there is no shortage of fascinating sights. Stroll along the bustling streets and get lost down ancient alleyways. I’d recommend the Malta 5D Show where you experience the history of the islands through the eyes of a Maltese Falcon via film and special effects, including moving seats, the smell of baking bread and one that will make you jump.

2. Take a tour from Sliema

Sliema and Valetta harbour from Sliema Malta - image Zoe Daawes

Valletta harbour from Sliema

All along Sliema promenade, with its stunning view of Valletta and the mighty harbour fortifications, are tempting tours inviting you to discover war-time Malta, go deep-sea diving or set sail on a sunset pirate cruise.  It’s a popular resort with many hotels, lively night-life and good shopping. I joined the Malta Sightseeing Hop/Off Tour Bus which does excellent tours of the island and Gozo. The multi-lingual commentary is really informative.

3. Mooch around Mdina

Quiet back street in Mdina - image Zoe Dawes

Quiet back street in Mdina

Please, please make enough time to absorb the elegant, tranquil and soulfully lovely old ‘Silent City’ of Mdina.  Slow down and enjoy its high-walled, honey-coloured, simple architecture and seductive ambiance.  As everywhere in Malta, there are many churches to see and echoes of its Arabic past. The audio-visual L’mdina Experience tells the story of Malta’s original capital.  From Bastion Square parapet you get a superb view across the island. When you’ve finished sight-seeing, elbow others out of the way and grab a table at popular Fontanella Tea Garden; I can HIGHLY recommend their enormous cakes!

4. Go caving in Ir-Rabat

St Paul's Church, Rabat - image by Lysy

St Paul’s Church, Rabat – image by Lysy

Not far from Mdina, Ir-Rabat was part of ancient Rome’s Melitta and there are some archaeological ruins including the Roman Villa Catacombs.  As well as a number of convents and monasteries, it is most famous for St Paul’s Church and Grotto.  The saint was supposedly shipwrecked on Malta on St Paul’s Island, near the busy tourist resort of St Paul’s Bay.  He sheltered in this cave and it is now a place of pilgrimage, albeit a rather dark and gloomy one.

 5. Take photos in Marsaxlokk

Marsaxlokk fishing boats - luzzu - Malta - image Zoe Dawes

Marsaxlokk fishing boats

Still a thriving fishing village, Marsaxlokk is well-marked on the tourist map, mainly for the photogenic fishing boats and market stalls. (Beware cheap tat, but the nougat is good.)  The village’s unusual name comes from marsa, which means “port” and xlokk, which is the local name for south east. The word is related to the name for the dry sirocco wind that blows from the Sahara (Wikipedia). The traditional ‘luzzu’ are painted in vivid primary colours and have the protective ‘Eye of Osiris’ painted on the prow.  The nearby power station and oil terminal are not quite so picturesque.

6. Travel back in time at the archaeological sites

'The Sleeping Lady' found in Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta - image Jvdc

‘The Sleeping Lady’ found in Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Malta, the ‘Sacred Island’ is riven with prehistoric monuments and archaeological sites. Not from Marsaxlokk is Ghar Dalam Cave with a large collection of prehistoric animal bones dating back 180,000 years.  The Hal Tarxien Temple dates back to the Bronze Age. Not far away is the unique 5000 year old Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a vast underground cemetery, hacked out from the rocks by hand where ‘The Sleeping Lady’ used to lie.  (I’ve not seen it but my guide books says it’s the ‘must-see’ megalithic site on Malta.) High up on a cliff further along the south sit the Haģar Qim and Mnajdra Temples c. 3600 – 3200 BC and the post-Neolithic rock tombs of Haz-Zebbug.

7. Sunbathe

Golden Sands beach and watchtower, Malta - image Zoe Dawes

Golden Sands beach and watchtower

Well, it’s what most people come to Malta for, isn’t it? The island is popular with sun-seekers for a lot of the year. There are some lovely beaches, (and some not so good) including Golden Sands, on the north east coast, where I stayed. Nearby Mellieha Bay has a big beach with lots of activities for all the family. On the west coast, Ghajn Tuffieha and neighbouring Golden Bay are considered the best beaches on the island, whereas popular St Julian’s has a pocket handkerchief of sand and a lido on the coast.

8. Marvel at Mosta’s lucky Dome

Mosta Church dome, Malta - image Zoe Dawes

Mosta Church dome

Mosta Church (Rotunda of St Marija Assunta) is famous for a lucky escape. On April 9th 1942 locals sheltered in the church to escape German air attack. A bomb fell through the dome (third largest in Europe) and didn’t explode. A copy of the bomb is on display and you can see the repair marks on the ceiling, which is geometrically splendid.

9. Take a boat to the Blue Grotto

Luzzu - Malta fishing boat going into Blue Grotto - image Zoe Dawes

The Blue Grotto Malta

Yes, it’s touristy and no, it’s not as impressive as the Blue Lagoon at Comino, but the Blue Grotto makes a nice little excursion.  You get a ticket at the tiny creek of Wied Iz-Zurrieq, and are man-handled into a crowded boat. If you’re lucky it will be one of the traditional fishermen’s boats and you’ll then putt-putt beneath massive sandstone cliffs in a boat relay into a series of seven caves rippling with crystal clear and a times very blue water.

10. Discover the zen of Malta in the Gaia Peace Grove

Gaia Peace Grove at Ghajn Tuffieh headland, Golden Sands bay, Malta - image Zoe Dawes

Gaia Peace Grove at Ghajn Tuffieh headland

Finally something you may not find in many guide books – yet.  The Gaia Peace Grove was inaugurated on 21st June 2013 on the breezy NE coast headland of Ghajn Tuffieh, overlooking Golden Sands bay. An olive grove has been planted next to an ancient watch-tower and information boards have been set up set up, commemorating many “who have worked so hard and courageously, and made such sacrifices to build a better a world”. They include The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Dian Fossey, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kji, John Lennon and Mahatma Gandhi. Time seems to stand still here as the shusshing of the sea mingles with the cries of gulls and the scents of the Mediterranean permeate the air.

I stayed at Azure Golden Sands Resort and Spa, in one of their luxury timeshare  apartments.  Thanks to everyone there for a really relaxing and enjoyable stay on the fascinating island of Malta.

Azure Golden Sands Resort - Golden Sands Beach, Malta - image Zoe Dawes

Azure Golden Sands Resort beach

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