Saturday, 19 April 2014

Why I Like: Douro River

A ship cruising through the vineyards of the mid-Douro
The ancient Romans knew a lovely location when they saw one. Two thousand years ago they found a delightful spot on the Douro River, founded Porto and planted vines. Their town eventually gave its name to the wine produced here (port) and a new country, Portugal. Today, Portugal’s second-largest city isn’t just the starting point for a river cruise along the Douro, but a worthy destination itself.
Porto’s gabled houses perch on a rocky gorge above the river mouth, creating a World Heritage, medieval old town. Ocean and river trade funded many a fine library, museum and art treasure over the centuries, and Porto’s churches are overflowing with gold from the Americas. Today, locals sit in ancient squares licking ice cream, old ladies water geraniums in blue-tiled patios, and young people congregate in cafés along the waterfront. Stay for a couple of days prior to cruising; Porto has an excellent range of hotels.
View over Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia
Passengers board their cruise vessels at Vila Nova de Gaia just across the river from Porto. The impressive iron bridge across the water was designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel, and is one of six impressive bridges. It’s on this far bank that city’s famous wine lodges are located, many of which are open for tastings and tours. Port has arrived here from all along the Douro Valley, to be aged and blended, since the seventeenth century.
Because of the Douro’s short navigable length – just 200 kilometres to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border – cruises make a return journey to Porto, stopping at some sights on the outward leg, others on the return. Despite its petite size, the river packs in natural beauty and cultural attractions. Castles brood from the heights, and ancient farms cling to the steep slopes as if about to tumble into the valley. Framing the river, an endless series of stone terraces supports vines, almond trees and silvery olives.
View over Lamego from the Sanctuary of
Our Lady of Remedies
Among the shore excursions, Lamego is an old bishopric with a splendid array of baroque buildings and an eleventh-century castle. Streets are crammed with bell towers and dripping fountains, while leering gargoyles hold balconies up on their shoulders. The town, topped by the ornate Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, is an important place of pilgrimage.
Another of the river’s highlights is Mateus Palace, whose impressive baroque façade is reflected in ponds. The palace gardens are shaded by giant cypress trees, and surrounding vineyards produce Mateus wine, one of Portugal’s most famous labels.
View over the Douro near Lamego
As you glide past Pinhão, you’re in the heart of winemaking country on a stretch of riverbank generally considered to have the best of soil and climate conditions in the region. The riversides look particularly wonderful in September, when the leaves of the vines turn orange and gold. River cruises stop off at the Vintage House Wine Academy so that passengers can learn more about the history of port and taste a drop or two.
Nearby is the medieval hilltop village of Castelo Rodrigo, surrounded by almond trees, and with truly splendid views over the river. This is a quiet little town, although behind shuttered windows, as you stroll the streets, you hear the sounds of lunch being prepared and children doing their homework.

The upper Douro is more fjord than valley, with plunging granite cliffs where eagles drift. Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border is the last stop on the river, but passengers make an excursion to Salamanca, across the border in Spain, before gliding down the river again in the opposite direction. Just another chance to enjoy this river.

If you have been to the Douro, please leave a comment and join the conversation!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Why I Like: Basel

Old town as seen from the Rhine River, Basel, Switzerland.
It’s a fine day in Basel. The twin towers of the cathedral are scratching a perfectly blue sky, and the Rhine winks and gurgles. A flamboyant town hall is cheerful in orange, the cathedral roof a zigzag of green and yellow, enough to make anyone smile. The cathedral’s medieval façade pops with statues of saints in ridiculous hats. Over the porch, little figures are being flung from a wheel of fortune into the fires of hell.
I don’t find much else that’s sombre in Basel. Morning markets tumble with plump tomatoes, joggers jiggle along riverside promenades, barges toot as they float off Germany. Basel doesn’t have the glamorous lakeside setting of other Swiss cities, but its river made it rich on trade, and still provides an agreeable bustle.
A leafy lunch in the old town, Basel, Switzerland.
I like Switzerland’s third-largest city. It soaks up the influences of France and Germany, which start just out in the suburbs, and is sophisticated and interesting. Now a centre for the pharmaceutical industry, it has Roman foundations and was one of Europe’s great humanist cities in the eighteenth century. Full of lively cafés and fine museums, it’s the sort of town you think you’ll see in an hour at the beginning or end of a Rhine River cruise. It always ends up seducing me into a longer stay.
Some people claim Basel is buttoned up. True, the old town has an elegant severity, apart from the mad riot of its town hall. Reformers scraped away most of the decoration inside the cathedral, leaving only the tomb of Erasmus behind. Its trams always run on time, sneaking up silently behind me and startling me with clanging bells.
Celebrating Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland.
But Baslers seem rather fun to me. If you come in December, you’ll find Switzerland’s largest Christmas market, fragrant with mulled wine, where you can nibble on spiced biscuits and admire twinkling trees in old town streets. And a few years ago, when I was here for the start of Lent, I found amusement during Fasnacht, a three-day carnival of crazy costumed partyers singing and playing oompah music into the wee hours.
Giacometti sculptures at the Foundation
Beyerler, Basel, Swizerland.
This time around, I find fun too. At the quirky Museum Jean Tinguely I love the amusing concoctions of Switzerland’s greatest twentieth-century sculptor: mechanised pieces assembled from scrap metal that clang and turn and wobble. At the Café Atlantis, I’m serenaded by the strange sounds of avant-garde jazz. And in the evening, bars spill out onto cobblestones, sending a murmur of conversation down medieval streets.
 In the afternoon, I wander over to Kleinbasel (Little Basel), a Swiss enclave on the otherwise German side of the river. It has funky cafés and ethnic eateries and a youthful vibe, as well as great views across the Rhine to the old town. I’m really here, though, for the Foundation Beyeler, a superb private collection of modern art from the likes of Warhol, Pollock, Picasso and Rothko, as well as Swiss greats Klee and Giacometti. To me the building is just as wonderful, an avant-garde ship sailing across a garden.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Hit List: Pedestrian Bridges

There’s something about bridges that has always fascinated travellers. Perhaps it’s a subconscious memory of a time in history when bridges were rare and significant structures on trade routes, allowing cities to flourish as much as airports do today. In more recent times, bridges have inspired admiration as marvels of engineering, and some have become instantly recognizable city icons. While many of the world’s most famous bridges were built primarily for traffic, here are five top pedestrian bridges that provide scenic strolls.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Newcastle, UK

Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Newcastle, UK
The bridge curves like a giant harp, playing visual music on its steel strings, which frame views of the river, hillsides and churches beyond. At night, this futuristic piece of engineering glows in changing colors to spectacular effect: orange to yellow, then purple. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, unveiled in 2000 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as the world’s first tilting span bridge, has another surprising characteristic: it elegantly pivots out of the way for passing ships. Sitting like a giant Cyclops eye looking on the city, this is the hippest of the world’s amazing bridges.

Langkawi Sky Bridge, Langkawi, Malaysia

Langkawi Sky Bridge, Langkawi, Malaysia
Like the Millennium Bridge, Langkawi Sky Bridge is bold and futuristic, even though it doesn’t span a river or even lead anywhere. It sits atop Mt Mat Cincang in Malaysia, curving in a semi-circle outwards from a jungle-clad hillside, with marvelous views over the islands of the glittering Andaman Sea. The pedestrian bridge is less than two meters wide, anchored to two triangular viewing areas on the hillside. At its centre, it loops unnervingly over a plunging ravine; those with no head for heights will find the Sky Bridge daunting.

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic
Built in 1406, this bridge is one of the highlights of Prague, and comes decorated with scores of baroque-era statues in a forest of shepherd’s crooks and swords. Above, spot-lit Prague Castle glows, its reflection shimmering in the Vltava River. All along the bridge, street buskers scrape away at violins as hawkers sell jewelry and cameras click under the gaze of kings and saints. Follow tradition and make a wish while touching the crucifix of St John of Nepomuk. May your holidays be filled with a pleasure of bridges, and walks to the other side.

Chapel Bridge, Lucerne, Switzerland

Chapel Bridge, Lucerne, Switzerland
One of Switzerland’s most visited towns, Lucerne offers an historic wooden bridge across the Reuss River, with views towards medieval guildhouses and flower-decked riverside cafés, and vistas across Lake Lucerne to the Alps beyond. There has been a wooden-roofed bridge here, flanked mid-river by an octagonal stone tower, since 1333, though most of the current structure is a reconstruction after a dramatic fire in 1993 destroyed the original and dismayed a nation. The bridge’s painted roof panels show scenes from Swiss history and legend: look out for folk hero William Tell, crossbow at the ready.

Si Oh Seh Bridge, Isfahan, Iran

Si Oh Seh Bridge, Esfahan, Iran
The Zayandeh River in the elegant city of Isfahan is spanned by three historic bridges, but Si Oh Seh (or Bridge of Thirty-three Arches) is perhaps the most appealing and is considered one of the masterpieces of Safavid-era architecture. Built in 1602, it features a double layer of arches topped by a pedestrian roadway, and flanked by more arched walls that give windowed outlooks to the river and hills beyond. A teahouse under its southern arches is just the spot for sunset viewing, when the bridge turns molten orange and the light on the river shimmers.

If you have any more pedestrain bridges to recommend, please leave a comment and join the conversation!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why I Like: Austrian Danube

A river-cruise ship on the Austrian Danube.
In Austria, you get a condensed version of the Danube in a cheerful region known as Wachau, just over an hour’s drive northwest of Vienna, and rather wonderfully described as ‘the smile on Austria’s face’.
The town of Krems is the gateway to the region, a preserved medieval town sitting among terraced vineyards just above the river. Its Dominican monastery retains its thirteenth-century cloisters and medieval frescoes, and the town gate has a fifteenth-century bell-tower that looks like a drawing from a Grimm Brother’s fairytale. Head through the gateway and into Landstrasse, the medieval main street busy with café patrons and shoppers, as well as the university students that enliven the genteel town. Climb as far as the steps in front of the Gothic Piaristen Church for some great views back down over the town. Then head to the Hoer Markt, a cobbled square surrounded by medieval palaces and buildings with sgraffito (a kind of plasterwork) showing merry folk festivals.
The village of Duernstein
A short distance along the river brings you to the village of Dürnstein, standing on an imperious sweep of the Danube surrounded by vineyards and punctuated by a blue-and-white baroque belfry. Only the occasional tractor trundles up the otherwise pedestrian main street, lined by houses dating from the sixteenth century and bedecked with flowerboxes, where you can stop and chat to old ladies selling homemade apricot jam from their windows.
As for the belfry, it belongs to the parish church, formerly part of an Augustine monastery, and is reckoned to be one of the finest in Austria. Its ornate portal is dotted with statues, while inside baroque frescoes contrast with skeletons in glass coffins. Outside, a terrace overlooks a fine stretch of river, while down below a promenade meanders along the riverbank, conveniently passing a coffee bar along the way. On a hilltop, Dürnstein’s ruined castle was once the prison of Richard the Lionheart.
The Abbey of Melk
From here, the Danube swirls through fruit orchards and vineyards, overlooked by old villages full of comfortable burgher homes covered in frescoes. Vines have been cultivated here since Roman times, and today Wachau wines are getting considerable acclaim, particularly the peppery-flavoured Grüner Veltliner variety. Just outside Dürnstein you can visit the Domäne Wachau, with its ancient cellars and baroque mansion, for a taste of how fine modern Austrian wines have become.
Before you’re done with this region, make a last stop at Melk, the strategic western end of Austria’ Danube valley. Here you’ll find one of the most staggering baroque monasteries in Europe, a great yellow pile sitting atop a granite rock above the river. Benedictines have inhabited this perch since the eleventh century, but the current incarnation is baroque: pillars of red marble, a library ceiling painted with frescoes, and a gallery hung with portraits of Austrian emperors. The adjacent church is a riot of gold and marble, beneath which today’s Benedictine monks in their austere black robes seem curiously out of place. Outside, the gardens are aromatic with herbs as the Danube slides south.

If you have something to add about the Austrian Danube, Id be interested in hearing from you. Please leave a comment and join the conversation!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Hit List: Botanic Gardens

There’s something about springtime that puts a jaunt in your step and smile on your face. Maybe it’s the first warm fingers of sunshine, the green buds on the trees, or the glorious shooting of bulbs to reveal a fanfare of colourful blooms. Certainly, springtime in any garden is a delight for the soul: admire the flowers, soak up the warmth and rejoice as nature gears up for another annual spectacle. With spring well and truly unfurling in the northern hemisphere, there’s no better time to visit your nearest botanic gardens. Here’s my favourite five.
Keukenhof, Lisse, Netherlands
Kuekenhof, Lisse, Netherlands
The modest Dutch name may simply mean ‘kitchen garden’, but this is a showcase for national growers to flaunt the best bulbs in the world’s largest floral display. A spectacular seven million flowers – starting with purple crocus and jaunty daffodils, before culminating in a tapestry of superb tulips – make this the place to be in spring. Meander through woodland and beside ponds, then head into pavilions to admire rare and newly-created tulip varieties. Visitors can also take flower arrangement and photography workshops or simply sit in a café, perfumed by a thousand blooms. You’ll also see a palette of colour in the surrounding fields, where tulips stretch to the horizon.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK
Royal Botanic Gardens, London, UK
Located in southwest London, this has been a leading centre for botany and scientific research since 1759, and boasts the planet’s largest collection of plants. But never has science looked so beautiful: the vast grounds have meandering walkways and notable historic buildings, including an iconic Chinese pavilion. The year opens with marvellous magnolias. Dancing daffodils and tulips follow, only to be eventually outshone by summer roses and waxen water-lilies. Huge hothouses from the Victorian era explode with exotic blooms and outstanding collections of ferns, cacti and palm trees. Don’t miss the treetop walkway, which meanders 18 metres above a woodland that flaunts newly minted spring colours.
Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France
Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France
Founded in 1626 by a physician to King Louis XIII as a garden for medicinal herbs, this is France’s largest botanic garden. Its wonderful historical legacy includes an eighteenth-century maze and small zoo, founded with animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles. Especially notable are the Art Deco winter garden and Mexican Hothouse but, with the arrival of spring, flowerbeds burst with new colour and the superb Alpine Garden produces delicate but delightful blossoms. Children will love the old-fashioned carousel, featuring extinct animals. Ride a dodo in the fresh sunshine, surrounded by a swirl of flowering borders: Paris in the springtime to perfection.
Jardin Botanique, Montreal, Canada
Jardin Botanique, Montreal, Canada
You could visit these gardens and barely venture outside: ten greenhouses display various plants, from African violets to vivid red begonias and rich, purple orchids, while an excellent insectarium showcases 190 species of creepy-crawlies and wonderful butterflies. But when the Canadian spring kicks in, it’s time to venture forth for the blooming lilacs, followed by lilies and roses. The Japanese Garden features springtime cherry blossoms, bonsai and performances of tea ceremonies. And the Chinese Garden recreates a Ming Dynasty landscape of ponds and pavilions, where you can admire the plum blossoms and the sound of wind through rustling bamboo – just the place for some springtime poetry.
New York Botanical Garden, New York City, USA

New York Botanical Garden, New York, USA
It’s hard to know where to start in one of the USA’s premier botanic gardens and, incidentally, a world-leading plant laboratory. With 250 acres and 48 different plant collections, you could spend most of the day here, and will probably get lost. Explore the desert and rainforest plants of the glasshouses, the children’s Adventure Garden, and collections of conifers and roses, set among a splendid natural environment of rock outcrops, wetlands and waterfalls. Perhaps most outstanding is the remaining forest, bisected by the Bronx River. Some of the oak, beech, birch and ash trees are two centuries old, a glimpse of the New York environment before European settlers arrived.

If you have any more botanic gardens to recommend this spring, please leave a comment and join the conversation!