Archive for Europe

The very first time I discovered Cyprus, I immediately fell heavily in love with the region. It had been a summertime holiday additionally, the fantastic climate packaged with the warm, appealing waters of the Mediterranean were instantly enchanting. There’s a close relationship between Britain and the Greek part of Cyprus therefore it also felt far more like your own home than other places in the Mediterranean.

We turned up at Larnaca International Airport which is fairly well linked with several United Kingdom airports. The waiting airport taxi transported us east in the direction of our accommodation at the renowned resort of Ayia Napa. It has a warranted status for being a party resort, principally through the summer time but we’d reserved a 5* hotel around 2km from the centre at Nissi Beach.

We had a reservation at the Aeneas Hotel a wonderful 5* hotel nestled over the road from Nissi Beach. Our hotel was located is attractive gardens and the main pool may be the largest individual swimming pool I’ve ever seen in a hotel. We had a standard room that was nice and clean, modern and comfortable and a few of the superior rooms opened up straight up on the main swimming pool. All through the daytime, the pool, or rather a bit of it, was central of the terrific entertainments team who worked the whole day keeping holiday makers amused.

Breakfast time in the hotel was a spread of traditional British or continental breakfasts. We found a great range of food in addition to lots of fruit that is always a pleasant sight on vacation. During the night time, we usually dined away from the hotel because there is a huge choice of bars, coffee shops and restaurants within easy reach or possibly a short taxi trip away in the middle of Ayia Napa. There’s a lot of different places to eat round the Ayia Napa. One evening, we even tried crocodile meat. In Ayia Napa, I spent 2 or 3 days diving with a dive centre within the resort. The sea was welcoming but sadly, there isn’t anywhere near the same amount of marine life that I was used to in the Red Sea. We also paid a few visits to the nearby Waterworld Aqua Park and is a great day trip for children of all ages.

One more place to visit is close by at Protaras. The Sea Aquarium Park has in excess of 400 species of marine life on show and outdoors within the gardens, you will discover enclosed ponds with turtles and crocodiles. Having said that, this Cyprus holiday was generally a seaside break and we spent most of the time either over the road from Aeneas Hotel at Nissi Beach or around the giant hotel pool. We didn’t really take a look at the rest of Cyprus throughout our visit. That will need to hold off until we return the next time.

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There are many places in the world where the sheer natural majesty just takes your breath away. Sometimes it is a sparkling blue lagoon surrounded by palm trees and sand, other times you might be awestruck by a particularly beautiful meadow of wild flowers shining yellow and happy in the afternoon sun shine. Many people have a special love for the hills, valleys, and other topography to be found in nearly every country, and for those people it might be a nice vacation to visit the Troodos mountains (Photo: NH52 http://www.flickr.com/photos/nh53/) in Cyprus. 

This is the largest range in Cyprus and in located right in the middle of the island. From one side to the other, these peaks stretch along nearly all of the western aspect of Cyprus with valley towns and hillside villages scattered throughout. Truly one of the planet’s most lovely rock formations, the peaks and glades draw hundreds of visitors every single year.
This is the home of the legendary Mount Olympus, seat of the ancient Greek pantheon. Many people, especially Europeans and North Americans, have grown up listening to the old tales of Zeus and Hera and the heroes they championed.

It is an interesting thing to be able to visit something that you have always known about but have never had a chance to see in reality. Perhaps you have always been fascinated by the reproductions of Byzantine art and would like to see such works in their original context and natural environment. While you could traipse all over Europe scouting out some of the locations where the artworks still exist, you can find many of the more influential and important sites right here in Cyprus. During the Byzantine period, Cyprus was a particular hot spot for the development and creation of art. Many churches and monasteries still stand in the region, and they hold some very inspiring works even to this day.

Art historians, students, or just those who are enthusiastic about this era of human culture might find plenty of interesting things to see and experience in these old buildings. Perhaps it would be a good idea to find a tourist center or hotel desk and obtain a map and guidebook that will help you direct your investigation of the many historic sites.
In the winter months, the almond tree covered slopes gently pile with snow, and many tourists flock to the region for the chalets, resorts, and ski runs. Whether they decide to stay in a fancy five star hotel or brave the winter cold to spend some nights in a tent on the hillside, they are virtually guaranteed to be treated to awesome vistas and spectacular scenery no matter which direction they face.

Hike the Caledonia Falls trail to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in all of Cyprus. Spend an afternoon discovering the villages and towns that await you in the valleys and on the terraced hillsides. Cyprus is full of wonderful scenery and relatively untouched natural beauty, and the Troodos Mountains are perhaps the most astonishing example of this.

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As with the area close to Ypres, there are so many cemeteries, repeatedly down small, muddy roads. My 1st intended destination was the Hawthorn Crater. This was one of the mines which was detonated below the German front line at the outset of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The explosion was recorded on film and is routinely shown in documentaries about the Battle of the Somme. After driving around for a little bit, I came across the Newfoundland Park Memorial & Visitors Centre and stopped to have a look.

This is a portion of the British and Canadian Lines on 1st July 1916 when the Battle of the Somme began. Some of the trenches are very well maintained and from the Caribou Monument, you’re able to get an excellent understanding of the landscape and the direction of assault. It’s also frighteningly apparent how far the troopers were expected to move over open ground in the face of cannon and machine guns.

At Newfoundland Park, I was given directions to help me locate the Hawthorn Crater and as it happened I’d driven right by it. It wasn’t long before I got back and found the access point via a muddy field. Initially I was hesitant but decided it was a part of the experience. I got to the lip of the crater but it was very over grown so I didn’t venture too far and I was soon going to my next point of interest, Ulster Tower. This is a memorial to the Ulster Regiments that conducted themselves so well on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Nearby is the Thiepval Memorial which is the largest British War Memorial on earth. Every 1st July, an important commemoration is held here in memory of the dead. The memorial can be seen from quite a distance and addititionally there is a motivating visitors centre with information regarding the battles fought here.

Some distance away is the South African Memorial at Delville Wood. It was dedicated to all South African battles, not just those in The Great War. As with all the memorials, Delville Wood is sacred ground but I found it in particular to be very serene and appropriate. I’m not really sure what made Delville Wood stand out for me but for me, there was just something a bit distinctive about this spot.

My last stop of the day was a quick one at the place to the east of Amiens where the Red Baron was shot down. There isn’t really much to see apart from a little notice board by the side of the road. The site is situated by a local factory with a prominent chimney. The story of the Red Baron is certainly one of the very first I heard about regarding The Great War hence despite the fact that there wasn’t very much to look at, it had been something that I wanted to do. The Red Baron was a German fighter ace called Baron Manfred von Richthofen. From 1916 – 1918, he shot down a total of 80 Allied aircraft and was finally shot down but ground fire from an Australian unit on 21 April 1918.

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Feb
12

Visiting Kronborg Castle from Copenhagen

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About 30 miles heading north up the coast from the Danish capital, Copenhagen is Kronborg Castle. It is was of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe and was the scene for Shakespeare’s play “The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark”. Kronborg dates back to 1429 and ships passing though the sound had to pay a tax. This was a very lucrative business making the Kings very rich.

It’s a very easy day out from Copenhagen with trains running regularly to Helsingor. From there, it’s a 10 minute walk to the castle which you can see almost as soon as you get off the train. The train ticket system around Copenhagen can be a little confusing so if you aren’t sure, just ask at the ticket office at the main station in Copenhagen. The journey takes around 45 minutes and there were around 3 trains an hour.

Helsingor is the end of the train line so there is no danger of missing your stop. Once you arrive at Kronborg, you cross over the bridge and make your way to the inner courtyard. There is no charge at this point and there are also wi-fi points at various spots where you can connect your phone and listen to MP3 audio tours.

If you want to explore the inside of Kronborg, you’ll need to purchase a ticket which includes a guided tour. There are various prices depending on which parts of the castle you want to visit and the most expensive ticket is 95DKK (around 11GBP).

The castle chapel is beautifully decorated inside and was originally consecrated in 1528. It escaped undamaged in the fire of 1629 and the vivid colours give you an idea what the castle was like in its heyday.

The first part of the guided tour takes you under the castle where you meet Holger the Dane. He is said to be the protector of Denmark and is an important symbol for the Danish people. There are a series of passages and dark corridors which were once home to the soldiers who lived here.

The next part of the tour takes in the various living areas of the castle including the Royal Chambers and the Ballroom. The decoration inside the castle is wonderful and there are various items of furniture and art on display.

The Danish Maritime Museum is also based at Kronborg but for some reason, I managed to miss out going there. As day trips go, visiting Kronborg from Copenhagen is definitely worth while. If possible go during summer as you will also have access to the Telegraph Tower which offers stunning views over the sound.

In the course of The First World War, the death over the fields of Flanders was on an awful scale with a large number of bodies never identified or retrieved. On 11th November 1920, simultaneously ceremonies were held both in London and Paris to unveil tombs of unknown soldiers.

The tomb of the unknown soldier came to represent the loss experienced by the families of soldiers who died and their bodies were never identified or recovered. The unknown French soldier lies in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris while the unknown British soldier lies entombed in Westminster Abbey amidst kings and statesmen.

The concept was initially talked about by a clergyman named Reverend David Railton. In 1916 in France, he had observed a cross with the words “An Unknown British Soldier” written on it. Four years later in 1920, Railton got into contact with the Dean of Westminster recommending it may be appropriate to have a nationally recognised grave for an unknown soldier.

4 British servicemen were exhumed from Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres and transported to a chapel at St Pol, in the vicinity of Arras. Every body was covered in a Union flag and one was picked out by Brigadier General L J Wyatt. Wyatt had no idea where the soldiers had been taken from or their rank. The idea was that the unknown soldier could quite possibly have been anyone from a Private right up to a Colonel, a colonial manual worker to the child of an Earl.

The soldiers casket was carried to London and was taken to Westminster Abbey in a horse drawn gun carriage. The cortege was accompanied by King George V and members from the Royal family. At Westminster Abbey, it was flanked by a guard of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross.

The coffin was placed and covered with earth brought from the battlefields of World War I. It was topped with a piece of black marble from Belgium and is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.

Since then, several other nations have devoted very similar tombs such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

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Today, the Polish urban centre of Gdansk is a favorite tourist holiday location. Together with it’s neighbouring towns of Sopot and Gdynia, people travel here to delight in the shorelines, ambiance and culture. Its location on the Baltic coast has resulted in Gdansk being without doubt one of the most key ports in Northern Europe.

Formerly known as Danzig, the metropolis was the topic of dispute among Germany and Poland and it was here where the opening shots of World War II were unleashed as Germany formally annexed the metropolis and integrated into Prussia.

Soon after World War II, Poland came under control of the Soviet Union and became a central place in the Soviet ship building programme. Gdansk was a fast-paced shipyard on the Baltic coast and it was at the Lenin Shipyards where Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Union had been put together in 1980. It was the 1st union in any Warsaw Pact state which was not under the control of the Communist Party.

Under pressure from Moscow, the Polish administration attempted to eliminate Solidarity by arresting significant union members and imposing Martial Law. Even so, the Polish people were in no mood to be subdued and Solidarity grew to be a nation wide movement, eventually forcing the government into talks in 1989. The union was critical in the start of the decline of Communism and the report of their actions can be found in the Solidarity Museum. Addititionally there is a memorial in Gdansk to the 45 shipyard workers who died in the course of protests in opposition to the Communist regime in 1970.

Nowadays, Gdansk is a charming city with an abundance of history combined with the vibrant thrill of a modern metropolis. Various of the old properties wrecked in the war have been reconstructed and there are many watering holes, dining establishments and dance clubs to unwind thought the night. It has been selected as a host city for the Euro 2012 Championships with the recently constructed PGE Arena scheduled to have 3 group matches and a quarterfinal match.

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Dec
03

A Day In The Area Close to Ypres

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Brandhoek Cemetery is the place where Captain Noel Chavasse was laid to rest. Captain Chavasse is one of only 3 soldiers to have been granted Britain’s highest medal for bravery, the Victoria Cross. Furthermore, he has also been granted the Military Cross. I am currently reading through a book called “In Foreign Fields” by Dan Collins and it is about soldiers who have been awarded medals in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once you understand exactly what a soldier was required to do so as to be granted an MC, it truly forces you to appreciate what a courageous person Captain Chavasse was especially when he was a member of the Royal Medical Corps and never fired a shot all through the conflict.

My subsequent stop was close to the village of Passchendaele at the largest British Military Cemetery at Tynecot. Around 12,000 troopers lie buried here. From the cemetery, you will look out for several miles in all directions across fields and it seems tough to think of the horror that had been there 90 years ago. The visitors centre provides a background of the area and the names of some of the fallen and missing are put out quietly over speakers.

From Tynecot, I began to return in the direction of Ypres stopping at Hill 61 (Sanctuary Wood) on the way back. There’s a small museum and a few conserved trenches here. In the course of my visit, the temperatures wasn’t kind and even if it had been nothing like as lousy as conditions might have been in the course of The Great War, the bottom of the trenches still looked rather dreadful. It cost a few Euros to get in and this was the first time I really began to view the effects of the famous mud.

My following planned stop was the Hooge Crater. As earlier during the day, I had a hard time trying to locate it nevertheless I saw a small independent museum known as the Hooge Crater Museum which in fact had a compelling variety of artefacts such as a British Ambulance and a Victoria Cross. My sightseeing for the day wasn’t finished as I still needed to check out the popular Cloth Hall which was almost ruined (since totally reconstructed) plus the Last Post ceremony which is carried out at 8pm every night at the Menin Gate. I always find the Last Post incredibly haunting and moving to listen to. After it was finished, two wreaths were laid by young British soldiers and was followed by a recital from Laurence Binyon’s “For The Fallen”

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Categories : Big Blue Marble, Europe
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Nov
13

The Only Victoria Cross of 6th June 1944

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6th June 1944 saw the biggest invasion force of all time land on the beaches at Normandy just a couple of hours after a large number of paratroopers had dropped in German occupied France. D-Day was eventually underway.

1000s of Allied soldiers landed at the five beaches of Normandy; Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah. There were countless acts of bravery but yet there was simply one single Victoria Cross granted on D-Day. It was granted to CSM Stan Hollis who landed on Gold Beach.

Hollis was an experienced veteran who had already been in combat at Dunkirk, El Alamein and Sciliy. He’d previously been captured by the Afrika Korps but managed to get away to rejoin the war.

Self-discipline wise, Hollis was not really a model soldier yet on D-Day, there was no doubting his expertise as a soldier. He had already been recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal while in action in Italy and it was as part of the assault on the Mont Fleury Battery that Hollis earned his Victoria Cross fighting with the Green Howards regiment.

While his company, advanced away from the coast, he observed 2 pillboxes had been missed. As Hollis went over to look at, the Nazis within began shooting. Hollis assaulted the Germans and cleared both pillboxes acquiring a lot of prisoners in the process. This made it possible for the main exit from the beachfront to remain open.

Later in the same day outside of the village of Crepon, Hollis engaged the enemy with his Bren gun to free two British soldiers who were cornered in a building. He successfully saved both soldiers. The courage shown by Hollis in Normandy on D-Day saved many British lives and he was given the Victoria Cross. He was wounded in Sept of that year and the following month was awarded his medal by King George VI. Now, his medal is on display at the Green Howards Museum in Yorkshire along with a handful of other Victoria Cross accorded in combat to other soldiers of the same regiment.

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On the 9th May 1945, the weapons fell silent as the struggle in Europe came to a finish. The Western Allies and the Soviet army had smashed the German forces and every year, Russia marks the occasion with a victory parade.
2010 is the 65th anniversary and this year’s celebration in Moscow will be a bit diverse. Presentations started a few days earlier when twenty-two British veterans from the Arctic convoys were awarded medals by the Russian envoy to the Britain, Yury Fedotov. The veterans had helped ferry necessities to the northern Russian cities of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. In total, nearly 1,400 ships help keep the Soviet Union supplied.

As part of the Victory Parade, there will be a fly past of nearly 130 airplanes and helicopters from different periods of history. Over time, Red Square has experienced countless parades devised to show off the strength of the Soviet forces but this year, the parade will have a more international feel about it. Troops of the Welsh Regiment from the British Army, US 18th Infantry Regiment, pilots from the French Normandie-Nieman squadron and an honour guard from the Polish military will all march with army units from Russia and other CIS nations.

As well as the Victory Parade in Moscow, there will also be celebrations in other cities too. In Ukraine, 75 Russian paratroopers will march through Kiev as the country celebrates the end of World War II which was also known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union. The Russian unit was invited to take part by the Ukraine government

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In 2005, Condoleeza Rica described Belarus as the ‘last outpost of tyranny in Europe’. In late 2008, I took the opportunity to visit Minsk and see what it was like for myself.

I arranged my visa direct with the Belarus Embassy in London. Although it may seem a bit of a paperwork nightmare, the procedure is fairly simple. For a tourist visa, you need an application form (from the embassy website) and your visa invitation. This is a document that is usually provided by your hotel. It states where you will be staying in Belarus and for how long. If you are staying in more than one hotel, you will probably need an invitation from each hotel. As a general rule, you need to have paperwork to account for every night you will be in Belarus. If you are unsure, contact the embassy. I took the documents down, along with my passport and after a few minutes wait, I was allowed in where I filed my documents paid my fee of £63. The visa would be ready one week later. You don’t need to go to the embassy in person, you can post your documents to them. Check their website for more details.

Direct flights into Minsk are only available a couple of days a week using the national airline, Belavia. If you want to fly to Minsk, there are a few options flying via other European cities. However, I chose to fly to Vilnius and then take the 4 hour 40 minute train ride. Flights to Vilnius from the UK are quite easy to get and my return ticket by train was around £12. Facilities on the train are limited (to say the least) and we had to wait at the border as first the Lithuanian officials came on to check passports then 30 minutes down the track, the Belarus officials also took their turn. However, we arrived right on time in Minsk.

Apartments are a great low cost option for accommodation in Minsk. We arranged an apartment via a website. It was located on the main Prospekt Nezavisimosti, just up from the war memorial (which you can’t miss). They also arranged our visa support (invitation) and transfers. It was clean and comfortable. The kitchen was well equipped there was a little shop a few minutes away where we could buy food.

As our apartment was fairly central, it was very easy to get around. The centre of Minsk is quite small so it is possible to walk everywhere but we also used the metro which is a very cheap alternative. There are only 2 lines so it is fairly simple to find your way around. However, one word of warning; the station maps and metro map is only in Cyrillic. Tickets are in the form of a small plastic coin which are bought from the ticket desk for 600 roubles each (15 pence). One coin is for a single journey, there are no zones. The metro operates between 5:30am and 1:00am. The one occasion we took a taxi, it cost 10,000 roubles (about £2.60) which seemed to be a tourist rate for most places within town.

Tourism in Minsk and throughout Belarus is relatively small. They get around 75,000 visitors per year and of those, just 4,000 are British. That doesn’t mean that Minsk isn’t an interesting city. It has a complicated history and was all but destroyed during the war as the Germans went through it as they advanced into the Soviet Union then retreated back again as the Soviets countered. In human terms, the population suffered a staggering casualty rate with around 1:3 citizens being killed.

After the war, a huge rebuilding program took place and as this was in Stalin’s time, you could be forgiven for expecting to see dreary concrete buildings everywhere. However, although some typically Soviet buildings do exist, there are plenty of examples of other types of architecture which add to the charm of Minsk.

The time in Minsk will determine just how much of the city you can see. I started with a short city tour. This type of quick overview is a good idea in any city as it allows you to get your bearings and you can always go back at look at things in a bit more details. I hadn’t realised that Minsk had briefly been home to Lee Harvey Oswald and his former residence is mentioned in a number of Guides to Minsk.

The Island of Tears is a memorial to the 1,700 young men from Belarus who died during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The focal point of the little island is the small chapel which is quite haunting. It is also a place where newly weds go. Many couples leave padlocks with their names on the gate on the bridge and further round the island is a small statue of a boy-like angel.

Victory Square (Ploshad Pobedy) can be found on Prospekt Nezavisimosti and the centre piece is a towering spire with an eternal flame at the base. Access is gained by going under the road and directly below the spire you will find a large amber ring. On the walls are listed the names of soldiers who were made Hero of the Soviet Union.

Heading back towards to centre is the imposing (and still active) KGB building. Nearby is the Church of Saints Simon & Elena. Dating back to 1910, this red brick catholic church was build by a trader as a memorial to his two young children who died at an early age.

The oldest church in Minsk is the St Peters and Paul Church which dates back to 1613 and can be found on Njamiha. Although the church is well looked after, it is surrounded and dwarfed by ugly concrete buildings.

The Museum of the Great Patriotic War is well worth a visit and has some excellent displays and exhibitions, including an array of tanks including the iconic T-34 and an Ilyushin aircraft that looks suspiciously like a DC-3. The museum is quite sombre as it highlights the suffering in the concentration camps with some graphic images.

I was very impressed with my short time in Minsk. I found it to be an incredibly clean city and I felt safe at all times. There is a relatively small tourist industry so there no hint of a rip-off culture that tourists experience in many cities around the world. You’ll find that your money goes a long way but you would find it useful if you can understand a bit of Russia or at understand Cyrillic writing. If you wanted to stay a bit longer in Belarus, there are places to see outside Minsk. Sadly, I didn’t have time but hopefully at some stage I’ll have the chance to return. In my opinion, Minsk is definitely worth considering a destination for a short break.

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