Tag Archives: sightseeing

Singapore, more than a stopover

According to the statistics, most travellers jet into Singapore, stay two days and then jet out again. It’s easy to understand why nobody would want to pass this lovely island by. It’s also easy to understand how, given its size, anyone might imagine that they could whiz through everything it has to offer in a couple of days. However, there’s so much to Singapore, that to really see it, feel it, breathe it, taste it and drink it all in takes time and a leisurely pace. This is a place that merits much more than a lightning tour and a quick look on a two day stopover.

 

The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants
The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants

To begin with, if you’re lucky enough to be staying in one of Singapore’s sumptuous multi-starred hotels you’ll need to set aside a sizeable chunk of time to fully enjoy its countless luxuries. There are constellations of these stately pleasure domes all over town, from the dress-circle down on the waterfront, the river and the quays to the gallery up on Tanglin Road. They range from massive, compact modern plinths, like the Pan Pacific on Marina Bay, through grand, rambling colonial mansions, like Raffles, near the old city centre to the traditional Singapore shophouse/concrete, steel and glass tower blend of the Intercontinental overlooking the colourful Bugis Street Bazaar.

Offering multiple, international, Michelin star-studded restaurants, heavenly spas, serious but sans-smell-of-sweat gyms, palm-fringed pools, state of the art technology, exquisite fusion décor where gorgeously ornate east meets elegantly understated west, beds like fat fluffy cloud banks, cool, rarified air, exclusive in-house shopping (Raffles) or skywalks (Pan Pacific) or foyers (Intercontinental) linking to fabulous malls and last but not least service which thoughtfully anticipates and graciously panders to every possible whim, they could keep any hedonist content and confined for weeks.

Enjoy, but beware, don’t let your hotel swallow your whole holiday, there’s so much more outside.

 

Marseille, city of the sea

Marseille is a city shaped by the Mediterranean. It sits on the edge of the south of France, in a landscape where stunted trees and scrub cling tenaciously to the rocky windswept hillsides.

Le Vieux Port
Le Vieux Port

Marseille’s old buildings are fashioned from the solid pink-tinged stone of much of the south of France. Its modern buildings are shiny glass and steel reflecting the sea and the sky, recalling the shape of waves and the colours of water. Its people are Mediterranean – Africans, Africans and French coloured, moulded and tempered by the sea.

Le vieux port, or the old port, is one of Marseille, most beautiful spots. It also encapsulates the essence of this ancient Mediterranean port. Thick stone ramparts and forts guard it against the wind, the sea and attacks from long forgotten foes. From a distant hill, a walled church and monastery watch over its calm waters, crowded with yachts and pleasure boats.

Le Vieux Port
Le Vieux Port

Stores selling shipping supplies, striped seamen’s jerseys, boat shoes and slickers, fishing tackle and souvenirs, line one side of Le Vieux Port. On the other, grand old buildings glow in the sun. Dark, narrow lanes lead away from the water’s edge to sunny open squares edged by apartment buildings with ornate facades and tall shuttered windows. Cafes and restaurants with broad street-side terraces sell bouillabaisse and fruits de la mer. The air is steeped in the smell and feel of the sea.

Spoilt for choice in Lyon

There is, as the Lyonnais say “un embarrass du choix” (an embarrassment of choice) in their fascinating and beautiful city. Whoever you are, Rugbyman, foodie, party animal, nature-lover, shopaholic or film buff and whatever your particular penchant, you’ll find it in Lyon.

Lyon lighting up for the night
Lyon lighting up for the night

With over 1,500 hundred restaurants, many of them award-winning establishments with world-renowned chefs, Lyon enjoys a reputation as France’s capital of gastronomy. Most restaurants are located in Rue des Marroniers and Rue Merciere between Bellecour and Terreaux. Of particular interest to the visitor, and unique to Lyon, are “Les Bouchons”, the hundred-year-old Brasseries where the atmosphere is relaxed, friendly. and old-world. Here you can sample typical Lyonnais charcuterie as well as machons, the before-work snack once eaten by Canuts, or silk workers and chase it all down with “pots” or special thick-based 46cl bottles of Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhone.

Lyon night-life offers many choices. For the party person, there are bars galore around City Hall and Opera. Down on the banks of the Saône, discotheques and pubs pump till dawn. For those with quieter tastes, the night-time streets are perfect for a stroll; they hum with life and people; shadows throw a different cast of beauty on the ornate old buildings; light plays on the rivers; and buskers entertain the passing crowds on every corner.

For a daytime promenade and for a glimpse of the Lyonnais at leisure, the left bank of the Rhône is the place to go, especially on warm weekend afternoons. You can walk for five kilometres along the river and enjoy the chain of parks, playgrounds, skate parks and petanque areas which stretch from the Tete d’or Park to Park Gerland; you can laze on a bench on the riverbank and watch roller bladers, cyclists on velo ‘v (the communal bikes provided as part of the public transport system throughout France) and joggers zoom by, while water-skiers and pleasure boats cruise up the river behind you.

Shopping in Lyon is a pleasant and easy experience – no long-haul treks across the city, burdened with shopping bags – most well-known stores, such as Galleries Lafayette and Printemps, are located in the Presqu’ile, from the Rue Victor Hugo to the Rue de la Republique. Original designs can be found in the Village des Createurs, in Passage Thiaffait, in the Croix Rousse district. But for a unique retro experience, visit the old world shops of the Passage de l’Argue. In the gastronomic capital of France, a little gourmet shopping is a must and the best place for this is the central food market or Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, in Part-Dieu where 56 traders sell every local delicacy.

If you don’t see another Lyon Museum, be sure to visit the Musée Lumiere which celebrates the work of brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere, who invented cinematography right here in Lyon. Its 4 levels and 21 rooms trace the history of cinematography and house such wonders as the “cinematographe numéro un” which was used in the first public movie showing in 1928, a selection of Lumiere films with commentaries and “le photodrama” a kind of giant screen on which in 1901, 360 degree, 6 metre high photographs were projected for public viewing.

It was the 2007 Rugby World Cup that first brought me to Lyon. I’ll always be grateful that it did, otherwise, I might not have discovered this interesting, beautiful and welcoming city.

Liberty on a bicycle in Paris

There’s no better way to explore Paris than on a Velib bicycle!

A Paris Street
A Paris Street

My first experience of Paris Public Transport was the Metro. I couldn’t believe its speed, efficiency and convenience. Furthermore, it took me off the streets and out of the way of those anarchistic Parisian motorists. Better still it took them out of their cars and off the roads. Not enough of them, however, as eighties roads in the great city were always clogged with noisy, smelly vehicles, driven like dodgem cars, by homicidal maniacs with a death wish. Not so nowadays. The streets of Paris are noticeably quieter, less congested and crossing them is no longer life-threatening.

The city of Paris has battled on many fronts in the war against traffic. For years there have been carless days, car curfews, car reductions, carless streets, le roller du vendredi soir (Friday night roller rally), two wheel zones, pedestrian zones, walking paths and bike paths.

Still, one of the most successful, convenient and fun initiatives to date has been Velib’ . This self-service bicycle scheme which takes its name from velo – bike and liberte – freedom,  has as its catch cry “Thousands of bicycles in Paris give you lib’erty” and indeed they do. There is a Velib’ station every 300 metres and there are thousands of bikes available 24/7, to all, residents and visitors alike, over 14 years of age. It’s an interesting spectacle to see groups of young people heading off heading off on a night out, the businessman, tie flapping, laptop in his dinky little front basket, racing to a meeting, the immaculately groomed Madame with her hand bag over her shoulder cruising off to lunch, or the tourist, camera round his neck, beret on his head, “J’aime Paris” emblazoned on his T shirt, wobbling uncertainly over the cobble-stones.

Using velib’ is simple. Take your Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JCB, Visa Electron or Mastercard Maestro down to the nearest Velib’ station where the information, reservation and payment terminal will guide you through the steps to obtain your 1 day, 1 week, or 1 year subscription. You will then be issued a ticket with your subscriber code which will allow you to take your bike, ride it as far as you like and drop it at the Velib’ station at your destination.

Velib’ is cheap. A 1 day ticket will cost you 1 euro, a 7 day ticket 5 and a 1 year ticket  29. The first 30 minutes of use is free, an additional half hour costs 1euro, a second half hour 2 euros and every half hour after that 4 euros. At any time you can tally up the total of your velo on the terminal at any station.

What better way to see Paris, than on a Velib’ bike? Still uncertain of the Paris traffic? Take advantage of the 371 kilometres of cycle lanes to ride around Paris “en toute securite” – safely and with complete peace of mind. Remember, too, cycling, as the Velib’ brochure says, makes the city beautiful.

 

The London Eye

Although the latest and newest of London’s great landmarks, the London Eye has rapidly become one of its most popular. 3.5 million visitors per year pack like cattle into the queuing channels that stretch back from the river alongside County Hall, and wait for hours for a 45 minute whirl through the sky above the Thames.

Originally named the Millenium Wheel, and quickly dubbed “the big bike wheel”, the Eye was commissioned to mark the turn of the 21st century. The spinning circle of the Eye is a metaphor for the passage of time.

A view from the Eye
A view from the Eye

This great feat of architecture, engineering and design was masterminded by husband and wife team David Mark and Julia Barfield. The massive 2,100 ton structure was built further along the Thames then transported down the river in sections and assembled by a giant floating crane. The official opening and inaugural spin took place on December 31, 1999.

At its highest point the Eye is 135 metres high. Its 32 air-conditioned glass observation capsules, each accommodating 25 passengers, give a spectacular 40 kilometre view over London.

The London Eye was the tallest wheel in the world until 2006, when it was eclipsed by the Star of Nanchang and shortly thereafter by the Singapore flyer. Now it seems, every second city has its own Eye in the sky.

While it has the look of towering ferris wheel, the Eye offers none the thrills. Apart from the quick and measured step into and out of the moving capsules, a turn in the Eye is a somewhat tame experience, not unlike a slow, gentle and silent scenic circle in a plane. Sponsors, British Airways, offer the same kinds of “This-is-your-Captain-speaking’ welcome on embarkation, as well as in-flight cautions about refraining from smoking, eating, drinking and leaning on doors (– as if!) and “We hope you enjoyed your flight” farewells as any plane trip. However, the panorama of London and the Thames is breathtaking. The close-up view of the hub and spokes of the huge, turning wheel and the companion capsules hanging above and below is awe-inspiring.

For the vertiginous and claustrophobic, however, the Eye is as lovely from below and afar, as from inside and atop. From any vantage point, it looks sensational; it is beautiful seen from both the Westminster and the Hungerford bridges, looking from Embankment across the Thames, approaching from Waterloo past Shell Centre or strolling down Southbank. It is stunning by night, a radiant circle of neon suspended in the dark and at New Year, it is a shower of brilliant lights as fireworks explode around it.

The Eye is a feature of the city skyline now, just as the Eiffel tower is part of the Paris horizon. Just like Gustave Eiffel’s tower on the Champ de Mars, the initial appearance of Mark and Barfield’s Eye on Southbank provoked fierce controversy and debate with the cons condemning it as an eyesore and a waste of money and the pros defending it as a monumental achievement of design, architecture and engineering. Just as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of the French reach into the twentieth century, so too, the Eye is a symbol of the English turn into the twenty-first. And in the same way as the Eiffel Tower has endured to become a Paris icon, so too is the Eye becoming a London icon.

 

A closer look at Piraeus

You might be tempted to race through Piraeus, bound for the docks and the fast ferry that will carry you off to an Aegean island paradise, but it’s well worth stopping, even for a day.

Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port
Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port

Take a trip up to Kastella. This steep hill has been inhabited since the 26th century BC, when it was known as Munichia. At the time Piraeus was a rocky island called Halipedon, or salt field, because of the boggy, often submerged, salt field which connected it to the mainland. In 511 BC Hippias fortified the hill and four years later it became an outpost of Athens. During the boom times in the early 2oth century, the hill was developed as a prime residential area and its elegant neo-classical mansions were built. Today Kastella is one of the most prosperous and attractive neighbourhoods of the city, with a panoramic view over Athens and the Saronic Gulf.

Take a look at the ports. By the 5th century BC, silt had obliterated the salt field, Piraeus was now part of Athens and, with its three deep water harbours, it was highly desirable.  In 493 BC, Themistocles began to fortify Piraeus and in 483 BC, the Athenian fleet moved in to build the ships which snatched victory from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis three years later.  Next Themistocles constructed the port, created the ship sheds (neosoikoi), and started work on his famous walls. By 471 BC, Piraeus was a great military and commercial harbour, serving the mighty Athenian fleet as a permanent base. Although the Themistoclean Walls and neosoikoi were largely destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC, some remains can still be seen, along with the Skeotheke (an ancient storehouse for shipping gear) and the Eetionia, a mole in the entrance to the harbour.

Explore the ruins of the ancient city in the basement of the cathedral of Agia Triada and the ancient Theater of Zea next to the Archaeological Museum. Step inside the Archeological Museum, to see the four bronze statues which were unearthed at a construction site near the Tinaneios Gardens and the  hand which was discovered by workmen laying pipes.

Take a stroll around the Piraeus town, through streets laid out by the architect Hippodemus on his famous “Hippodamian” grid plan in the 4th century BC. Browse in the shops along the central avenues of Piraeus, Iroon Polytechneiou and Grigoriou Labraki. Marvel at the grand 19th century Neo-Classical public buildings.

Stop for a break in one of the tavernas or seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Mikrolimano or Piraiki. Sample a local beverage, a Mythos, a Restsina or a Mastiha perhaps (more of Mastiha in my next post)

Take in a movie at Village Park, the largest cinema complex in Greece. Browse in the shops, dine and drink in the restaurants and cafes.

Drop into Allou Fun Park, the latest and largest amusement theme park in Athens, for rides and attractions, restaurants and pastry shops.

If you’re passing through in late February, you might catch the Ecocinema International Film Festival, which starts with the Three Kings’ Way Festival, a riot of costumes and entertainment.  In summer, you could catch a concert (Greek dancers, folk music and  bands) at the open air Veakeio Theater in Kastella, or any time of the year see a variety show at the Menandreio Theater, or as Delfinario

Finally, check out the giant 21st century vessels as you sail out of Piraeus, the largest seaport in Greece, one of the largest in the Mediterranean and one of the top ten container ports in Europe. It’s impressive!