Castle of Montereggioni in Tuscany, Italy

MONTERIGGIONI, ITALY: This is a very small commune in Tuscany bordering with Chianti. It’s magnificent countryside and vineyards gave us an alluring look to beauty of this region. As the history goes, the town of Monteriggioni grew up on the sites of earlier settlements of Lombard origin. In 1213 the Sienese government built a ring of walls to protect the town and the garrison-post controlling the valleys in the direction of Florence, Siena’s historic rival.

 

Hillside of Montereggioni in Italy

Hillside of Montereggioni in Italy

TIME of TRAVEL: We were in Tuscany in October 2013. The best part of visiting Tuscany during this time was that we had this beautiful place almost to ourselves. The crowd slowly starts to vanish once the summer is gone and autumn shows up. While is very pleasant during the daytime, it can get a bit chilly on the mountains or in the countryside in the late afternoons, always better to carry a light sweater for those moments. We were on our way to hotel after visiting Siena at the end of our first day in Tuscany and had just little time to spend before the daylight was gone. We drove to Monteriggioni just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset in the hillside of Tuscany.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there.

EATING and SHOPPING: There were couple restaurants inside the castle complex where people gathered for drinks and meals. But didn’t see any shops or souvenir stores there…I was rushing to capture the sunset, maybe that’s why?

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We barely spent about an hour in Monteriggioni right around sunset time. The hills and fields looked gorgeous as the sun turned bright orange and went down the horizon slowly. I roughly managed to see the castle from outside while my husband and girls stayed in the parking

CASTLE of MONTERIGGIONI: This was the only site I saw in Monteriggioni as it was already around sunset time. We didn’t do much research on this town either as far as what to see and do, since we just decided to show up here at the last minute.

Castle of Montereggioni from the 13th century in Italy

Castle of Montereggioni from the 13th century in Italy

Historically, the construction of the castle started in 1213 with the expense and labor paid for by the people of Siena. From the very starting the castle was enclosed completely by walls. The castle was traversed by countless armed clashes with its rival Florence, which on various occasions tried to destroy the walled hamlet. Monteriggioni, an unconquered and “unconquerable” fortress, fell only during the siege of 1553 under the imperial troops allied with the Florentines, who attacked and bombarded the castled until it surrendered. The rustic and simple character of the 560 meters of walls, 14 towers, and 2 gates convey an idea of the medieval world which are fascinating even today.

Walking thru Castle of Montereggioni in Italy

Walking thru Castle of Montereggioni in Italy

I am not sure if tourists are allowed to go inside any of the castle buildings or if there were anything else that we could have seen or done here, nevertheless it was a short but nice stop to take in more of Tuscan magic.

Sunset in Montereggioni, Italy

Sunset in Montereggioni, Italy

Pablo Picasso’s Birthplace – Malaga, Spain

MALAGA, SPAIN: “From a white father and a small glass of water of Andalusian life was I born. Born from a mother, daughter of a daughter aged fifteen from the district of Percheles in Malaga; that beautiful bull that engendered my forehead crowned with jasmines.” That was what the famous Spanish painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso said who was a talented son of Malaga.

Malaga is a big city in southern Spain and the largest city on the Costa del Sol. But unlike Barcelona and Madrid, Malaga didn’t give me a big-city feeling. Its old town setting still has a welcoming vibe. In summer, Costa del Sol region can be packed with tourists because of its appealing coastal line and beautiful sun and sand.

Not only Malaga, but whole of Andalusia seems like is decorated with orange trees; you can see them standing on the both ways of streets or almost anywhere you go. But don’t make mistake of eating them…not sweet at all.

Historically, the city was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Alcazaba. Romans came here at the end of the 3rd century BC. In 711 AD, it fell in the hands of the Arabs, came to be part of the Cordoba Emirate. Some time later, from the 10th century onwards, it became prominent again amongst the Southern peninsula towns as first harbor of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, from where its major merchandise were shipped. Finally, the Catholic Monarchs conquered Malaga in 1487.

Moorish architecture in Malaga, Spain
Moorish architecture in Malaga, Spain
        

TIME of TRAVEL: We made our second trip to Spain this February of 2014. First time we came to Barcelona and Madrid during the winter break of 2011, so this time we were off to explore southern Spain, the most beautiful part of this country…Andalusia. We flew directly to Malaga from Charleroi. The weather in Malaga was fantastic. It was a bit chilly in the morning and after dark but bright and sunny during the day. Going from gloomy Belgian weather, it was a nice treat for all of us.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in the heart of Malaga, few steps away from Plaza de la Constitucion. Hotel is called “Hotel Petit Palace Plaza Malaga”. The price didn’t include free breakfast (could get breakfast for 8 euros per adult) but had Wi-Fi in our room. The location of this hotel couldn’t have been any better. It was within walking distance from the cathedral, port, Alcazaba, and Roman Theater. Not to mention there are tons of shops and restaurants in this area. You can get typical Spanish dishes as well as some international cuisines. Probably only one downside of this hotel was that it didn’t have a parking garage close to it. Since we rented a car, my husband had to park near the harbor and walk about 15 minutes to the hotel.

EATING and SHOPPING: We had our first dinner in Restaurant Plaza very close to Marquis de Alrios. And of course when you are in Spain you have to try paella and tapas. We went for seafood and chicken paella and a mixed variety of tapas. Tapas are basically appetizers or finger foods that originated in Spain. You can get all sorts of options in tapas, like marinated olives, fried calamari, fried squid, fish fingers, chicken balls, beef stew, and many other yummy knickknacks. Gazpacho soup or cold tomato soup, is very popular in Spain too. We tried it last time in Barcelona but I am not very fond of cold food, so didn’t try it this time. But it’s definitely something very Spanish. Then next day our lunch was near Roman Theater in a restaurant called, “Teatro Romano” where we ordered some pasta, but was very disappointed with the taste.

Some tapas we had for dinner in Malaga, Spain
Some tapas we had for dinner in Malaga, Spain
                

For those souvenirs hunters, old town near Alcazaba or cathedral are good places to buy some memoirs from Malaga. Small flamenco dresses are nice for little girls. Colorful potteries hand-painted in Spain, Spanish saffron or paella spices (if you are into cooking), flamenco designed apron or statues, and ceramic bulls are just some things I can name to remember your trip in Andalusia.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had about a day and half in Malaga. And I managed to wake up one early morning here to go to the port and take some shots of the sunrise. It was fantastic and I absolutely loved it. There are many beaches and luxury resorts near Malaga and closest one to the city center is La Malagueta. We didn’t really go to any beach because the weather was not really hot to go to the water. Another place that we just saw from a distance and didn’t really take a tour inside was Malaga Bull-Ring or Plaza de Toros de la Malagueta. But this may be something that will interest many tourists. Malaga Bull-Ring also has a museum, Museo Taurino. Flamenco show are something really exciting to see in Spain, which we did in Cordoba in this trip. But if are interested, I’m sure your hotel can tell you where to go for a nice flamenco performance. If you have spare time and hungry for more sightseeing, drive or take a train to nearby cities like Granada, Cordoba, or Seville where you can see the rich history of Andalusia from the Muslim era, which makes Spain a unique country overall.

Looking over Malaga Bullring as we were coming down from Gibralfaro Fortress
Looking over Malaga Bullring as we were coming down from Gibralfaro Fortress
   

1) MARQUIS de ALRIOS: This is a long stretch of pedestrian street in the city center with lots of stores. It was right in front of our hotel and let me tell you, shopping was fun here. The street had beautiful lighting at night and gets really lively after dark. Marquis de Alrios has the Malaga Port (the port is actually across the street) at one end and Plaza de la Constitucion at the other end.

Marquis de Alrios at night in Malaga, Spain
Marquis de Alrios at night in Malaga, Spain
          

2) PLAZA de la CONSTITUCION: This is a nice square at one end of Marquis de Alrios, very close to our hotel. There are plenty of small alleys that starts from this square, great to just wander off.

3) MALAGA CATHEDRAL and MUSEUM: This is a beautiful cathedral and definitely worth a visit. It is grand outside and inside. Interior is very ornate and huge. The decorative altar is the main focus and can’t miss total of four church organs.

Inside Malaga Cathedral
Inside Malaga Cathedral
           

Museum of Malaga Cathedral is small with only couple rooms (we were done in 5 minutes) and located on the upper level. It holds some biblical paintings and statues.

The cathedral is located in the heart of Malaga city center. We paid 5 euros per adult to go inside the cathedral that includes its museum too.

4) ALCAZABA de MALAGA: Alcazaba has to be a must-see place in Malaga. This Moorish palace fortress has been standing on a hill since the Muslim era in Andalusia and is one of the emblematic monuments of this town. It is the best preserved of its kind in Spain. Roaming around this old fort took me back to our trip to Morocco where we saw similar ‘Kasbah” style palaces.

This impressive group of buildings, originally dating from the 11th century, formed the palace-fortress of the Muslim rulers of the city. The palace inside this precinct was built around that time but the greater part of it is from the 14th century. Most of Alcazaba was built of limestone which crumbles easily. That’s why the fortress went under many rebuilding and restorations, last one being in 1930.

Malaga Alcazaba - a Moorish castle in Malaga, Spain
Malaga Alcazaba – a Moorish castle in Malaga, Spain
            

The Nasrid Palace is reached through a restored pavilion. The Orange Patio and Patio de la Alberca (with a pool) are remarkable. These courtyards and gardens in Nasrid Palace are some picture perfect places and shouldn’t be missed.

A patio with pool in Nasrid Palace of Alcazaba in Malaga, Spain
A patio with pool in Nasrid Palace of Alcazaba in Malaga, Spain
                

Different sections and ramparts of Alcazaba offer excellent views of the port nearby and the whole city. Don’t miss the exhibition on Muslim influenced ceramics and potteries. A small museum holds numerous items that they found from excavations on this site. Loved all the big and small courtyards, some with rows of caliphal arches and marble columns.

View of Malaga Cathedral from Alcazaba
View of Malaga Cathedral from Alcazaba
                     

Alcazaba is open from 9:30am to 8pm in summer and 8:30am to 7pm in the winter time. It took us about little less than 2 hours here but people can easily spend half a day exploring each corner of this beautiful fortress. Ticket was only 5 euros for our whole family (2 adults and 2 kids)

5) ROMAN THEATER or TEATRO ROMANO: At the foothill of Alcazaba is Roman Theatre. Built during the first years of the reign of Augustus (1st century A.D.), it was kept in use until the end of the 3rd century. The remains of this theater can be viewed anytime from the plaza in front. Tourists can walk on its old stone steps and explore this ancient site without paying any fees.

Roman Theater from the 1st century at the foothill of Malaga Alcazaba in Spain
Roman Theater from the 1st century at the foothill of Malaga Alcazaba in Spain
             

6) PICASSO’S BIRTHPLACE HOUSE or CASA NATAL de PABLO PICASSO: After Roman Theater and lunch, we walked over to the birthplace of world renowned Spanish painter and artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s relationship with his native city was distant but nostalgic. And it was thrilling to think that I was roaming around in Picasso’s city, Malaga, visiting the house where he was born and spent first few years of his childhood.

The house where Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain
The house where Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain
               

On the first floor, some temporary exhibition was going on an artist who was influenced by Pablo Picasso. In this building, on the 2nd floor, Pablo Picasso was born on October 25th, 1881 and lived here until 1884. This 19th century building houses works and objects of the artist and his family. Many documents, photographs, and personal belongings of the Ruiz Picasso family decorate the floors of this museum which witness the deep connection he had with his home town. You can also see some stuff that he created during his childhood. A specialized library and on-going program of temporary exhibitions and cultural activities complement the offer of Picasso’s Birth House.

The museum was opened to public in 1988 and is located in Plaza de la Merced which used to be a busy square back in Picasso’s time. An obelisk in the middle of this plaza was erected dedicating Torrijos and his comrades executed by firing squad in 1831 and whose remains lie there since 1842.

Museum is open Monday to Sunday from 9:30am to 8pm and closed every Tuesday in winter. It was 3 euros per adult. We couldn’t take any pictures inside the museum. It has two floors and took us less than half an hour.

7) CASTILLO de GIBRALFARO: This is another Moorish castle which was built to protect Alcazaba and to keep an eye on the port. This has been used as a coastal lookout post since 1487 and was used exclusively for military purposes.

A small museum, an old powder keg area from the 18th century, has exhibition which reflects castle life as a garrison and coastal watchtower from the 15th century. You can see urban evolution, weapons, uniforms, and objects of daily life from the 16th to 20th century.

Walking around Gibralfaro Fortress in Malaga, Spain
Walking around Gibralfaro Fortress in Malaga, Spain
            

Gibralfaro also has an incredible view of the whole Malaga, may be better than Alcazaba since it sits on a higher ground. But there isn’t much to do or see here other than walking around different ramps among the old walls (you can also walk on the walls of this fortress) and checking out views from different angles.

Overlooking the whole city of Malaga from Gibralfaro Fortress
Overlooking the whole city of Malaga from Gibralfaro Fortress
                 

This fortress is open from 9am to 8pm in summer and 9am to 6pm in winter. Although Gibralfaro looks over Alcazaba, the two monuments are not connected from inside anymore. We took taxi here from Picasso’s Birthplace House (was around 8 euros), but saw many people walking up the ramp (which can be a bit difficult with kids) and some also took Bus #35 to reach the top (2.20 euros per adult). We walked down on our way back which was easier and fun; you get to see many nice sites including a bird-eye view of Malaga Bullring.

8) PICASSO MUSEUM: Pablo Picasso is known as the father of Cubism and inventor of images that are syntheses of multiple viewpoints…both formal and conceptual.

The Renaissance building that houses the museum is itself a historic building, known as Buenavista Palace. In addition to Picasso’s works, the palace has an architectural site with remains of 17th century BC Phoenician Malaga as well as the elements dating from various periods of the Roman era and parts of the old Golden Age building (some from the 6th century).

This museum has life works and the largest collection of Pablo Picasso. The collection here spans eight decades of Picasso’s career, which is essential for an understanding of Western art. The displays in this museum show his relationship with Malaga and the unlimited versatility of his artistic talent. After Picasso died in 1973 in France, most of the collections here were donated by Picasso’s grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. Some of his famous and exclusive paintings that we were lucky to see here includes “Mother and Child”, “Acrobat”, and many more.

Picasso Museum took us about an hour to visit all the rooms with displays. Ticket is 6 euros per adult.

9) MALAGA PORT or HARBOR: This was not in our itinerary. It was so close to our hotel that I decided to take a walk before sunrise on our last day in Malaga. It is definitely a hype and trendy place to hang out or come for meal during normal hours. There were plenty of restaurants and shops on one side of the harbor facing the water. Although everything was closed, anything looks extra beautiful during sunrise.

Lighthouse in Malaga Port before sunrise
Lighthouse in Malaga Port before sunrise
           

Spires of Malaga Cathedral and old walls of Alcazaba can be seen from the harbor. I walked all the way to the lighthouse there. There wasn’t much to do at this early morning, but that was one of the beautiful strolls I took in a long time.

Right after sunrise in Malaga Port, walking back to my hotel
Right after sunrise in Malaga Port, walking back to my hotel
   

Tournai, Belgium

TOURNAI, BELGIUM: Interestingly, Tournai (or “Doornik” in Dutch) is a French-speaking Flemish town of Belgium. Meaning it is in Wallon region (French part) with lots of Flanders (Dutch) influences. This is in the Province of Hainaut which is very scenic and traditionally, rich in culture and heritage. Situated by River Scheldt, this is considered as one of the oldest cities in Belgium. It was badly damaged during WWII. Since then the city authority has been restoring the city to its old glory. If you are in Brussels and want to visit a less touristy city of Belgium, Tournai makes a perfect day-trip from the capital of Europe.

Flemish style buildings in the old town of Tournai, Belgium
Flemish style buildings in the old town of Tournai, Belgium
           

This was the religious capital of Flanders many centuries ago. Tournai marble/limestone is well-known in this region and was once used for sculpted items, especially in churches.

TIME of TRAVEL: We visited Tournai in March of 2013. It was a cold Saturday in Belgium. Everything was empty in Grand Place and other parts of Tournai.

An empty square in Tournai, Belgium
An empty square in Tournai, Belgium
          

EATING and SHOPPING: Old town, especially Grand Place had some restaurants, cafés, and quick food places. I can’t even remember where we had lunch or if we had lunch in Tournai at all.

Historically, tapestries and draperies of Tournai are very famous and belong to the great Flemish school of tapestry. Being a Belgian city, you will find many chocolates and waffle stores by default. Grand Place had plenty of other stores for shopping too.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We literally spent only couple hours in Tournai. There are lots of things to do here. Since the weather wasn’t very pleasant, we kind of hurried and took a crush tour thru the city. Although we didn’t visit them, two of the oldest private houses in Europe (from the 12th century) are located in Tournai. If you can manage, visit the old city gates, museums, and Pont-des-Trous…a 13th century bridge on River Scheldt.

1) GRAND PLACE and CLOTH HALL: Grand Place is main square or heart of Tournai, like any other Belgian cities. It has several old buildings from the 15th and 16th century. There was a big fountain in the middle which was closed due to chilly weather outside (?).

Grand Place of Tournai, Belgium
Grand Place of Tournai, Belgium
             

2) SAINT QUETIN CHURCH: This is an old and beautiful church in Grand Place. The building caught our eyes and entrance was free to go inside, so wanted to check it out. It is a nice big church, and you can tell it has been standing there for a few centuries.

3) THE CATHEDRAL of NOTRE DAME de TOURNAI: This Romanesque and Gothic style cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tournai. The original cathedral on this spot was built somewhere around the 5th century. The current look of the cathedral is from the 12th century. The nave is in the Romanesque style and inspired by Norman churches. Later, the vaulting of the transept and the construction of the chancel were inspired by the Gothic period, with very high walls. The Gothic choir of this cathedral is a Flemish art element, very typical of this region.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Tournai
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Tournai
              

4) BELFRY of TOURNAI: This is the oldest belfry in Belgium and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction of Tournai Bell Tower started from 1188. The spire is crowned by a dragon and the turrets are topped by statues of soldiers defending the city. The tower is 70 meters high and there are 257 steps leading to the top. It was closed and we couldn’t go up to the top.

Tournai Belfry (Bell Tower) from the 12th century
Tournai Belfry (Bell Tower) from the 12th century
           

5) LE CHATEAU de BELOEIL:  After we were done with Tournai and heading home, we took saw a sign on the road side for this castle or château. Feeling curious, both my husband and I were curious to see this castle. After lots of twisting and turnings, we finally reached Le Chateau de Boleil. If I am not mistaking this small town in Wallonia is called Beloeil. The château sits on a majestic pond surrounded by beautiful landscape. The castle belonged to the princes “de Ligne” dynasty is one of thirty generations of lords, vice-rois, ambassadors, senators, warlords, writers, aviators, settled in Beloeil since 1394.

Le Chateau de Beloeil in Belgium
Le Chateau de Beloeil in Belgium
              

We didn’t go inside the castle and not sure if it can be visited at all. But it holds some fine paintings, furniture, and dishes dating essentially from the 14th century. Library of this castle is famous of housing some 20,000 old leather books.

6) CHATEAU d’ATTRE: This was another château or castle we passed by while heading back home from Chateau de Beloeil. This was more like a big mansion in a beautiful setting. From the outside information board, it looked like that the castle and its park are open to visitors.

Chateau d'Attre in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium
Chateau d’Attre in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium
            

Castles of Fussen, Germany

FUSSEN, GERMANY: Our main purpose of going to Fussen was to visit the two castles on the mountains of Bavarian Alps here. It’s a shame that we left this magnificent little town unexplored. A small village of Fussen, Hohenschwangau, is situated at the foothills of Alps in southern Germany very close to Austrian border. This is where the two castles, Hohenschwangau Castle and King Ludwig II’s fairy-tale looking Neuschwanstein Castle are located. It’s a beautiful lake district with breathtaking views at every corner. You can get glimpses of those blue water bodies from here and there as you walk up the mountains to visit these castles.

Stunning view of Fussen and its surroundings from Hohenschwangau Castle in Germany
Stunning view of Fussen and its surroundings from Hohenschwangau Castle in Germany
            

Other than the castles, there is also a museum, Museum of the Bavarian Kings, where we did not go. Also look around the visitor’s center while enjoying a hot drink (if you are there during winter), go to the city center of Schwangau (couple minutes of drive from here), or if you have time drive to the surrounding lakes or mountains, I am sure they offer tons of activities there too. Also to mention that this is the southernmost spot of the “Romantic Road” which run through Germany.

Loved the wintry look of Bavaria...classic
Loved the wintry look of Bavaria…classic
              

Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles stand on two separate small hills. There are total of 3 castles in this area, but only these two are accessible to the publics. We walked for about half an hour from Hohenschwangau Castle to go to Neuschwanstein Castle. Honestly, it was a bit hard for me to climb the long stretch of hill to go the 2nd one. If you have time and can wait for a horse-carriage, maybe it’s better and more enjoyable, but you still have to walk another 15 minutes towards the entrance after they drop you off on the top. But we didn’t have much time in between the tours of these castle, so we couldn’t stand in the long line for horse-carriage and had to rush to the other castle.

The Alps and its reflection on Lake Alpsee in Fussen, Germany
The Alps and its reflection on Lake Alpsee in Fussen, Germany
                

There is a big parking lot for the visitors of these two castles. There is also a beautiful lake, think it’s called Alpsee, by this lot where you can get a stunning view of portion of Bavarian Alps with its beautiful reflection on the water.

TIME of TRAVEL: During Christmas break of 2013, we took 2 weeks long road trip thru the Bavarian region of Germany and Austria, then to Czech Republic, and finally driving up north to end up in the eastern part of Germany. My uncle-in-law from Chicago was here with us for this wonderful trip. Visiting these two castles in Fussen, Germany was the first spot in our itinerary. It is a winter wonderland near the Alps in December. You can see snow on the ground, snow-capped mountains in the far distance, and skeletons of trees in the forests. It is a beautiful place to visit any time of the year. But don’t think you will find less crowded just because you are coming in winter. Everyone was bundled up and ready to enjoy the nature and history of this place.

Mountains, mountains, and more mountains
Mountains, mountains, and more mountains
               

EATING and SHOPPING: There are plenty of snack bars and restaurants near the tourist center of the castles. We actually picked up some sandwiches while going up the mountain towards Neuschwanstein Castle. But there were plenty sit-down and formal restaurants if you prefer that.

There were some souvenir stores in Hohenschwangau visitor center where you can get local t-shirts and etc. with some typical Bavarian items like beer mugs, wooly hats and gloves, sweet treat, and many more.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We reached Fussen around 10 in the morning and by the time we were done with both the castles and lunch in between, it was about 5pm. It was almost dark outside by then. But if the kids weren’t tired, maybe we could have spent some time in the surrounding areas before driving to our next destination…Innsbruck.

Please keep in mind that tickets for these below castles are not sold at the individual castles, rather in the visitor center. My husband actually booked them online way before our trip there. It is advisable to book tickets online else you run the risk of either standing in a long queue in the visitor’s center or missing out completely due to heavy crowd. You can visit either only one of the castles or both or a combo of both castles and the museum. Visit to these royal castles are only possible with guided tours and there are many different language tours available. Tours to both of this castles last about 30 to 45 minutes each.

1) HOHENSCHWANGAU CASTLE (SCHLOSS HOHENSCHWANGAU): This castle in the Southern Germany was built by King Ludwig II’s father King Maximilian II in the 19th century where Ludwig II spent his childhood with his family. The castle was constructed on an early fortress from the 12th century that was built by the knights. It served as their summer residence during the reign of King Maximilian II.

Hohenschwangau Castle, built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria in southern Germany
Hohenschwangau Castle, built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria in southern Germany
              

The castle is worth visiting for its new Gothic style façade, artistic ceilings, wall paintings, decorative pieces and furniture, portraits and wall frescoes from the mid-19th century, and the royal Banquet Hall. You can see the original billiard board in the Dining Hall from the early 19th century. Visitors can still see the antique items here since it didn’t suffer any damage during WWI or WWII.

Inside Hohenschwangau Castle, the guide let me take only this picture
Inside Hohenschwangau Castle, the guide let me take only this picture
             

The castle is located in the village of Hohenschwangau in Fussen. The guided tour was for about 45 minutes and we were not allowed to take any pictures inside. But as I mentioned above, do plan to buy your tickets online or early to save a space for you.

2) NEUSCHWANSTEIN CASTLE (SCHLOSS NEUSCHWANSTEIN): This is the mother of all German castles and is the most photogenic castle of this country. Beautifully situated on the south Bavarian Alps surrounded by green forests, blue lakes, and snowy mountains, this is known to be the most visited castle in Germany. It is one of the most famous buildings in the world and a central symbol of German idealism. By the way, this castle was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Neuschwanstein Castle, as seen from Hohenschwangau Castle
Neuschwanstein Castle, as seen from Hohenschwangau Castle
               

Directly opposite of Hohenschwangau Castle, King Ludwig II of Bavaria commenced this new castle in 1869 after his father Maximilian II died in 1864. The castle was built in Late Romanesque design in the style of late 11th or 12th century high above Ludwig II’s father’s Hohenschwangau Castle. Only one-third of it was completed and is still unfinished. Built and furnished in medieval styles, this castle was equipped with the latest technology of that time. Some of the halls and sections were inspired by Byzantine and early Christian churches.

Entrance to Neuschwanstein Castle in Fussen, Germany
Entrance to Neuschwanstein Castle in Fussen, Germany
                     

The history goes something like this, Ludwig II became king in 1864. Two years later he was forced to accept the defeat and domination of his country by Prussia. No longer a sovereign ruler, he was unable to cope with the role of a constitutional monarch. He created his own alternative world, in which as the reigning king of Bavaria he could live like a king of the Middle Ages or the Baroque age of absolutism. This is the idea behind his castles. On a ridge in a magnificent setting high above the Pollat Gorge with the mountains as a backdrop he built his new castle over the remains of two small medieval castles. It’s a pity that the king lived less than 200 days in this castle (I think, 176 days to be exact) before he was declared mentally ill and was sent to Munich for treatment where he eventually died (drowned) or was murdered; his death is still a mystery.

Neuschwanstein Castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the mid-19th century in Fussen, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the mid-19th century in Fussen, Germany
                    

Neuschwanstein Castle is definitely more gorgeous than Hohenschwangau Castle. We saw couple chandeliers with precious stones, Moorish style ceilings, luxurious upholstery, detailed wood-curved doors and wall, and Gothic style King’s bedroom along with castle’s kitchen and other areas.

The walk from Hohenschwangau Castle to here is about 30-45 minutes (as I mentioned horse-carriage is also available). Make sure to buy your tickets ahead of time, doesn’t matter what time of the year you are visiting it. It’s only accessible by guided-tour and it lasts about 15-20 minutes, then you can roam around on your own for another 10/15 minutes.

One of my favorite capitals in the world – Edinburgh

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND: Edinburgh is a city steeped in stories, myths, and legends. Enclosed by Nor Loch, Edinburgh has been the royal capital of Scotland since 1437. While ancient volcanic activity shaped its landscape, many medieval relics made its history more charming and intriguing.

Panoramic view of the city and Nor Loch from Edinburgh Castle
Panoramic view of the city and Nor Loch from Edinburgh Castle
          

Edinburgh’s Old Town was also shaped by prehistoric volcanic activity. Built on a steep volcanic rock that protected the Castle and town from attack, the town developed along the ridge, Royal Mile that runs from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. The growth of the town was constricted by its medieval boundaries. Therefore, Edinburgh couldn’t expand outwards, so it started rising upwards with multistory buildings. The city is enclosed south and north by Loch Nor.

Royal Mile - the backbone of Old Edinburgh. Scottish Parliament (on the right) and Holyrood Palace (in the back)
Royal Mile – the backbone of Old Edinburgh. Scottish Parliament (on the right) and Holyrood Palace (in the back)
                      

Edinburgh might have an enriched history but it definitely doesn’t live in the past. The medieval Old Town contrasts sharply with the Georgian New Town and they are both part of UNESCO World Heritage Site now. New Town was known as the Athens of north once, while the Old Town, known as the original Manhattan, was a place for the poor in the middle age. Getting around the city is fairly easy here which can be done on foot. Walking is highly recommended here because it gives you time to soak up the real Edinburgh at your own pace.

Walking on Royal Mile in Edinburgh
Walking on Royal Mile in Edinburgh
               

I have visited other capitals of Great Britain, like London and Belfast, or even Dublin in Ireland. But in my opinion Scotland is nothing like that and has more scenic beauty and thrills than any of those cities. I left Edinburgh feeling absolutely satisfied and content that I had a chance of visiting this place.

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Edinburgh in the middle of November 2013. This is actually off-season to visit this place, because the weather can be unpredictable at this time. Expect cold, wind, rain with little or no sunshine in November. But I was told that if you are coming here for the first time or just for sight-seeing, it’s better to avoid August, because some big festivals take place in this month and can get really crowded with thousands of locals and tourists.

MY HOTEL: My hotel (or should I say hostel?), Ailsa Craig Hotel on Royal Terrace (right beside Crowne Plaza), was ok for me since I was traveling alone this time, leaving my husband and daughters back in Belgium (my husband was kind enough to babysit the girls while I took a solo vacation). The hotel was about 20 – 25 minutes of long walk from Waverly Bridge bus station. When I reached the hotel I was told that the internet isn’t working, there is no elevator to go to my room on the 3rd floor, and that there is no bathroom inside my room. I tried my best not to be shocked when he said bathroom is a shared common one for all the 3rd floor rooms. Good thing there was at least a sink with a mirror in my room and had free breakfast but the bad thing was all the rooms are so close to each other that I could hear a baby crying opposite to my room whole time the first night. The best part of it was that hotel had some very friendly and helpful staffs. I booked my Scottish Highland and Loch Ness tour thru them; the guy even gave me some tips on where to go for taking early morning photographs. The location of the hotel wasn’t bad either. It was only about 15 minutes of walk from Holyrood Palace on Royal Mile.

Last night in Edinburgh I stayed in Hilton near the airport since I had an early morning flight to catch. It’s only 5 minutes of walk from the airport.

EATING and SHOPPING: My 1st dinner here was at a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant, Gurkha Brigade on Leith Walk. I was in the mood for some spices and hot stuff and you can get good spicy food here for a nice price. There were few other Indian restaurants on this street. Mediterranean and Italian were some other options I had. For the 2nd night, I came here again to try an Indian restaurant. This was “Passage To India” opposite of Theater Royal. They had some Punjabi specialty food…again, good food with a cheap bill.

I wasn’t getting time to try haggis, one of the most famous Scottish food that tourists try, all this time. So, when I was in Edinburgh Castle, I saw their café is selling haggis. Here is some information on what haggis is, took it from the café’s menu: “Haggis is savory pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach. Traditionally served with swede/turnip and mashed potatoes”. But let me tell you I was VERY disappointed after tasting that dish. It was a big dish and I could barely eat 1/3 of it. May be I should have tried in different place or something but left a disgusting taste in my mouth for the next couple hours. So after visiting Edinburgh Castle when I was taking a stroll on Royal Mile and going back towards my hotel after dark, I saw another Bangladeshi/Indian restaurant on Royal Mile and just went inside without giving a second thought. It was a bit early dinner for me at 4:30 but couldn’t resist. It is called “Shamoli” where they had Indian and Thai dishes…very good.

Haggis in Edinburgh Castle
Haggis in Edinburgh Castle
              

For shopping, if you are into Scottish kilts, you will find many on Royal Mile. Of course these stores/showrooms on Royal Mile are nothing but tourist traps and should be avoided if time spares. There were many small stores off of Royal Mile, just have to take turn on one of the small streets and you will find same quality products at much cheaper price. Cashmere is very popular here. Lamb wool items, like scarves, sweaters, and etc. can be found at various price and quality. Buy some Celtic jewelries, bagpipes CDs, or Scottish fudge and toffees here.

Some Scottish souvenirs in one of the stores on Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Some Scottish souvenirs in one of the stores on Royal Mile, Edinburgh
              

PLACES I’VE VISITED: I had only a day…a whole day to explore Edinburgh. While it was not nearly enough for this city of so much to take in, I had to hop through only the main highlights of it. I started my tour very early morning at one side of Royal Mile at Canongate. I just followed Royal Mile and checked out whatever was on my way till I reached Edinburgh Castle. Royal Mile may be a heavily touristic area but I just loved its charismatic look and attitude. This is the backbone of medieval Edinburgh that runs from Holyrood Palace all the way to Edinburgh Castle. Most of the main sites are on this street. You will be amazed by all the old and historic buildings that line up on both sides of Royal Mile and all the souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants keep this place lively day or night. Royal Mile is not a pedestrian zone but not heavily crowded by cars either.

An old cemetery on Royal Mile
An old cemetery on Royal Mile
            

For panoramic view of Old or New Town and further beyond, you can climb Arthur’s Seat (which supposed to offer spectacular sunrise) or Calton Hill. I couldn’t go to any of those but definitely nice place to get great some great views.

1) PALACE of HOLYROODHOUSE: This has been the royal residence of Royal Scottish family for more than 500 years.  Her Majesty the Queen of Scotland visits and stays here every summer and no tourists are allowed at that time of the year. Presently, other than being a formal residence, many official matters of Scotland are conducted here.

Front courtyard is a grand place with a beautiful fountain and grand façade of palace in front of you. Arthur’s Seat, a volcanic hill created thousands of years ago, can be seen from here too.

Front facade of Holyrood Palace at one end of Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Front facade of Holyrood Palace at one end of Royal Mile, Edinburgh
             

The palace houses some of the magnificent collection of art of Royal history. The Royal and Historic Apartments at the palace are regularly used by the Queen and Members of the Royal Family to receive and entertain their guests on ceremonial and official occasions and are furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection. Historic Apartments include Mary, Queen of Scots’ Chambers – the setting for many dramatic episodes in Mary’s turbulent reign. This is where Mary’s secretary Rizzio was murdered in front of pregnant Mary by her husband Lord Darnley.

Some of the other important rooms in the palace are: Queen’s Bedchamber and King’s Bedchamber which are still decorated in the 17th century’s original style. Royal Dining Room and Throne Room were marvelous too. Along with all these rooms notice Great Gallery where Sean Connery was awarded along with many other achievers. Many antiques, old musical instruments, other 17th century furniture, decoration, and plastered ceiling set a unique mode of this place. I asked one of the attendants why all these rooms had really old, discolored, and worn-out fabrics and linens. Interestingly, the Royal Family doesn’t want to change their century old and generation old decors.

Holyrood Abbey comes at the very end of the tour and leaves a majestic memory of this whole place. This is a dramatic picturesque ruin site with ancient altar, columns, and Gothic walls. Founded by King David I in 1128 Holyrood Abbey was altered and expanded over the centuries. By 1500 this was one of the largest and most impressive monasteries in Scotland. Currently, the only surviving part of the once much larger abbey complex are the nave and its surrounding walls.  The palace garden was closed (only opens in summer) and so was the Queen’s Gallery which hosts changing exhibitions from the Royal Collection. Ticket is separate for the gallery.

Ruins of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh
Ruins of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh
            

I couldn’t take any photos inside the Royal and Historic Apartments since it is an active palace, but in the abbey or courtyard is ok. Ticket includes a detailed audio guide. It took me about 1 ½ hours to tour the palace in a slow pace. The palace is open daily from 9:30am except Good Friday, 25 – 26 December and during royal visits.

2) SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT: Only a few steps from Holyrood Palace, on its opposite side of the street, is the Scottish Parliament. It’s an award-winning home of the Scottish Parliament in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The parliament truly is a stylish and contemporary state of the art building and looks nothing like a traditional parliament house.

Debate Chamber of Scottish Parliament
Debate Chamber of Scottish Parliament
            

Access to the building is free, just have to go through a security checkpoint. Visitors can join free guided-tour of 50 minutes (have to book ahead of time) to discover the art and architecture of the parliament and how it works. I toured the parliament by myself and therefore couldn’t visit some of the private chambers and stuff. But still could explore the public areas, like the Debating Chamber, exhibition center, Main Hall, and Garden Lobby. There is also a café and a gift shop inside the parliament.

3) THE MUSEUM of EDINBURGH: As I was walking toward the Edinburgh Castle on Royal Mile, “The Museum of Edinburgh” came into my attention and decided to check it out. This is city’s treasure box filled with iconic objects from the capital’s past. The house itself is a well-preserved group of 16th to 18th century domestic buildings. It’s a journey thru time giving you a brief history of how the city developed. Many paintings, silverwares, glass arts, artistic potteries, and 18th century ceramics are displayed in 3 different floors.

“Foundation Edinburgh: the story of a city” is a 17-minutes video tour inside the museum that gives you a fascinating story of Scotland’s capital from prehistory to the present day shown in a blacked-out theater. Watch the city grow beneath your feet on a screen built into the floor – from the volcanic creation of Arthur’s Seat in prehistoric times thru the ages. The video runs every half hour throughout the day and costs 4 GBP.

The best part of this museum is that it’s free to enter. Opening times are Monday to Saturday: 10am – 5pm and Sunday: 12pm – 5pm (August only).

4) ST. GILES CATHEDRAL: This is an eye-catching architecture from the 13th century standing on Royal Mile in between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. St. Giles Cathedral is probably the most famous and historic cathedral of the country. Ancient pillars and dazzling windows are something to appreciate here. Inside the cathedral is very majestic and grand just like its outer look. Do check out the unique crowned spire of this cathedral. It’s free to enter but had to pay 2 GBP for taking photos.

St. Giles Cathedral on Royal Mile in Edinburgh
St. Giles Cathedral on Royal Mile in Edinburgh
              

5) EDINBURGH CASTLE: At the other end of Royal Mile on one of the highest point of the city is Edinburgh Castle. This is a national icon of Scotland and itself is a storyteller of Edinburgh. No trip to Edinburgh is ever complete without a trip to the imposing castle. This was once a mighty fortress, the defender of the nation, and home of the famous Royal Edinburgh Military. The castle has dominated city’s skyline and looked over the famous Royal Mile for centuries. Now it is enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its imposing walls have provided sanctuary and protection for many of Scotland’s kings and queens. The castle is in very good condition and ‘til today its walls have protected countless treasures of the city and the country. There are too much to see and take in here. I didn’t even realize how few hours went by walking on the cobblestone of this magnificent fortress and being amazed by its century old interiors.

Looking over Edinburgh from the castle
Looking over Edinburgh from the castle
                 

It slipped my mind but visitors can gather at 1pm near the One O’clock Gun to see the master-gunner fire the gun everyday…a traditional that has been carried out almost daily since 1861, except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. Make sure to visit the quiet and small St. Margaret’s Chapel which is the oldest building in Edinburgh from 12th century. Two of the top highlights of this castle are The Crown Room and Royal Palace. Crown Room is where Scotland’s glittering crown jewels, crown, scepter, Sword of State (which was used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543) and the historic Stone of Destiny located. The Royal Crown came back to Scotland from England in 1996 after 700 years. It’s from 1540 AD, and made with Scottish gold, engraved, enameled, and ornamented with gemstones including diamond, garnets, amethysts, and quartz. Royal Palace was the residence of the steward Kings and Queens in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is where Mary Queen of Scotland gave birth to James VI in 1566 (man behind the King James Version of Bible). It takes about 30 minutes just visit these Scottish treasures and read up on their fascinating history. Close to the Royal Palace is the Scottish National War Memorial…a shrine to those Scotsmen of all ranks who fell in conflict from World War onwards.  In the same courtyard where the Victorian Great Hall located is where tourists can be amazed by the original hammer-beam roof. Built in the late 15th century as a majestic setting for ceremonial occasions it is still used today for state and royal functions. The hall also holds a fabulous display of arms and armors as well as the “key” to the castle. Last but not least, I visited the Prisons of War which is a must-see in Edinburgh Castle. This is an atmospheric recreation of the life of prisoners at the end of the 18th century.

Royal Palace (front) and Great Hall (right) in Edinburgh Castle
Royal Palace (front) and Great Hall (right) in Edinburgh Castle
             

Other than the above that I visited, there are other museums here that may interest some visitors: The National War Museum of Scotland which hosts two individual regimental museums. But besides all mind-boggling history and artifacts that the castle offer to its guests, it also has views across the capital, over the Firth of Forth and into Fife. Enjoy the panoramic views from all of the castle walls.

Lost in Edinburgh Castle
Lost in Edinburgh Castle
          

Adult ticket is 16 GBP per adult and 9.60 GBP for kids. Audio guide (available in many languages) is extra 3 GBP but highly recommended. It’s about 4 ½ hours long, but you can skip through some chapters and listen to the ones only interest you. There are more than one gift shops all around the castle and a café and a tea room. Do plan to stay here few hours.

6) MARY KING’S CLOSE: This is the REAL Mary King’s Close underneath Royal Mile of Edinburgh that once used to exist as part of a medieval city from 1622. Opposite to St. Giles Cathedral, the entrance to Mary King’ Close is through Warriston’s Close. “Closes” are basically small alleys from big streets that existed (still exist actually) in the old town of Edinburgh few centuries ago. Mary King’s Close is one such “Close” from that time which was eventually sealed by the authority to develop newer city on top of it. This is a slice of Edinburgh’s medieval history and shouldn’t be missed. Buried deep beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile lies the city’s hidden streets that remained frozen in time since the 17th century.

I haven’t visited a place quite like Mary King’ Close before. This is one unique tour that everyone should take in Edinburgh. With a guide, visitors can explore 4 main medieval streets of this area and experience what it was really like for the people who lived, worked, and died here. We had a chance to meet some prominent people of the “close” too. You get to hear how this once bustling environment was sealed. This is an important piece of Edinburgh’s rich history which reveals a fascinating underground network of hidden closes and rooms. If you are like me, who is tickled by medieval history and legends, take this tour and you won’t regret.

This is an educational, interactive, and fun tour; I enjoyed it very much. Our guide was a superb actress and a knowledgeable girl. She told us some legends and myths that went around during that time while we were walking thru some very well-preserved dark alleys and houses. This spooky trip is not suitable for kids or someone who is claustrophobic.”. It’s 12.95 GBP per adult for an hour tour with a guide. And sorry, no photos are allowed inside the close…

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