Category Archives: 2013

• Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

Visit: 13.0.1.0.11 [Mayan calendar]

27th December 2013 [Gregorian calendar]

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By Tom

El Castillo at Chichen Itza is one of those sites that – even if its name is not as well-known as the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal or Christ the Redeemer – is instantly recognisable from films and photographs to people the world over. I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along with my Dad on a three-day trip to Cancún in Mexico over Christmas, and so we had to take the chance to pop on a bus to Chichen Itza.

Mexico has an astonishing 32 World Heritage Sites, putting it in sixth place globally and giving it the more than any other country in the Americas. Chichen Itza is not the only ancient Mayan city in the country – there are several others that are WHSs, mostly in Yucatán – but it is probably the most visited. It is approximately a 2 hours drive from Cancún, but the day-trip coach operators insist on turning it into a gruelling 13 hour experience by taking you to other places on the way there and back. After spending an hour picking up other tourists from the other hotels on the strip we were taken first to a combined sinkhole, tequila museum and silver trinket shop, where we got lunch too. The sinkhole, at a place called Cenote Zaci, was surprisingly interesting – it is an underground cavern with a hole in the top, half-filled with water.

20131228-102457.jpgI wasn’t tempted to go in, but my Dad braved the water, swimming with the catfish and inspiring everyone else to get in shortly after.

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After the sinkhole we were driven on to Chichen Itza, where we were told to expect 50,000 other tourists. The guide was, I think, deliberately trying to lower our expectations for some reason. In the event, the site had been quite well managed, so that it did not feel particularly busy at all once inside the ancient city.

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Chichen Itza is thought to have been constructed and inhabited between roughly AD600 and 1200. The Mayan people who built it were mysticists who had a strong affinity to the sun and the stars, and this shows in some of the astounding facts you learn there about their engineering of the city’s structures.

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The largest and most famous structure – El Castillo – features four staircases, each containing 91 steps. Adding those steps together, plus the platform at the top, gives a total of 365 – the number of days in a year.

The pyramid’s base is also a golden rectangle – that is, a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio (about 1:1.618). If you cut out a square portion of the golden rectangle, the remainder is itself a golden rectangle. The flag of Togo was designed to be a golden rectangle, too, but that is much more recent.

During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes the pyramid projects a series of shadows onto its north side that evoke a serpent wriggling down the slope. Because the Mayans had a serpent god known as Kukulkan, the pyramid is sometimes referred to as the Temple of Kukulkan.

The pyramid is also acoustically interesting. If you stand at the foot of the staircases and clap, the sound ‘boomerangs’ back at you as a ‘shriek’. Apparently, too, if you stand at the top you can speak at a normal volume and be heard at the bottom. We weren’t able to test this latter claim, however, as the pyramid has been closed to climbing for several years since a woman fell off it / some teenagers desecrated it (depending whom you believe).

Another structure with great acoustics is the Great Ball Court. This is regarded as the most impressive court in the world for the Mescoamerican ballgame. This game contains elements found today in football, rugby and basketball, but could last as long as test cricket and puts them all to shame in terms of its difficulty. Integral to Mayan ritual, the game was played by the culture’s most promising males, who were trained from an early age and kept celibate. The objective of the game was to hit a 9lb solid rubber ball into a goal, which in some courts – like the one at Chichen Itza – took the form of a stone hoop 10 feet above the ground. The catch? Players were only allowed to use their hips. The courts are huge, as you can see in the picture below. Depending on the city, the prize for scoring the winning goal (first team to score wins) was either death for the scorer, death for his whole team, death for the losing team or death for nobody.

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As well as looking at structures on a holistic level, there is plenty of intricacy to examine too. The city is covered in carvings of various ritual scenes, and the fascination with death is striking.

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I was a little skeptical about how real all of the stuff is at Chichen Itza. That is not to say that it has been wholly fabricated, but that some of the buildings and carvings look almost new, and I suspect they may have been subject to some ‘interpretive restoration’ (there are parts places with concrete all over them). Our guide may not have been the most reliable, either – after claiming that he had a Masters in Archaeology, he told us that there was a carving of Viking explorer Leif Erikson there, and that the Jade gemstones so beloved of the Mayans had no source in the Americas, but were imported from Mongolia in the time before Columbus.

Still, it is a wonderfully photogenic place, and some of the facts that sounded too good to be true really did turn out to be true! On the way back to Cancún we stopped briefly in the town of Valladolid, where we visited San Cervacio Cathedral.

20131228-102212.jpgThis cathedral was built by the Spanish conquistadors using stone ransacked from another Mayan pyramid, in a case of architectural vandalism begetting another pleasant building.

In Valladolid I bought some churros – a kind of deep fried dough snack you also find in Spain. Quite a tasty snack, which is perhaps more than I can say for the another interesting find in Mexico. Read the can – yes it really is Clamato-flavoured Sol! Actually, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I found it tasted a bit like a Bloody Mary. Probably a good hangover cure. I could have used some yesterday…

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• Dorset and East Devon Coast

Visit: 23rd December 2013

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By Tom

The site UNESCO calls the Dorset and East Devon Coast is better known in Britain as the Jurassic Coast, on account of the many fossils that have been found there. With the Christmas season upon us, people all over the world head home to their families. It happens that Ross’s family lives on the coast in Dorset, so it seemed like a good idea during a short visit I paid them for us to go and have a look at the famous coast. I had never been before, but had seen pictures of the distinctive Durdle Door (above) and a video of a climber repeatedly trying to climb up the inside of it and falling off into the sea below.

This particular day would not have been a good day to fall into the sea, as it was one of the most blustery days of the year. The wind was particularly strong down at the coast, and indeed we saw no other walkers during our whole visit there.  As soon as we got out of Ross’s dad’s car it became apparent why.

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As we started off down the path towards Durdle Door the wind was so strong you could lean into it with almost all of your weight and not fall down! I don’t know if the pictures capture the strength of the gale, but it was unlike anything I have experienced before. Since it was primarily blowing inland we decided we probably weren’t risking being swept off the cliffs, so pressed on down.

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The cliffs and jagged coast are quite impressive, and were made all the more so by the fierce waves crashing into them that day. The rock formations date from the Mesozoic geological period, which lasted about 185 million years. The inscribed WHS stretches 155km, so we only saw really a very small portion of it. I will go back and walk the rest of it some day, but on this occasion the weather slowed us down so much that covering any real distance was an impossibility.

We headed from Durdle Door and the Man-O-War rocks towards Lulworth Cove via a detour, which had been set up a a result of a landslip in which some of the cliff face had simply collapsed. The cliffs are white and chalky, just like the famous White Cliffs of Dover in places.

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After getting nearly blown down a set of steps we reached Lulworth Cove. From what I can tell, this is usually regarded as quite a tranquil place, with a quaint little cove sheltered from the sea. This was not the case on this day – a day in which trains were cancelled across the country, roads flooded and dozens of flights cancelled at Gatwick airport. It still lent itself to a pretty nice panorama, though – a feature I love to use on the iPhone.

20131223-143327.jpgBy this time thoroughly soaked, we found the local pub and dried out with a pint.

Heading home to my own parents’ house the next day (for a four hour Christmas) the aforementioned cancelled trains caused me to end up in Dorchester, where I saw this McDonald’s that I think you’ll agree takes the concept of “field to fork” pretty much to its limit…..

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• Blenheim Palace

Visit: 27th October 2013

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By Tom

The day after the Tower of London I managed a visit to the magnificent Blenheim Palace. My Dad was in the area with his van and had to pick something up in Swindon, so it made sense to continue on to Oxfordshire and see this site. This was the day the clocks went back, marking the arrival of the cold and depressingly short days of winter. It was also the day of “St Jude’s Storm”, though the symptoms were hard to discern at Blenheim.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was given the palace and his title as a reward for his decisive victory over the Franco-Prussian army in 1704. The English force had not been expected to win, so when they defeated King Louis XIV’s army – sending the message to the French monarch that he could no longer roam around Europe with impunity – Queen Anne and a grateful nation felt they needed to reward Churchill. The name Blenheim is an anglicised version of the site of the battle, Blindheim, in Bavaria.

The building, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, is an example of the short-lived English Baroque style of architecture. The grounds were landscaped by famous Victorian gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown

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The interior is extravagantly furnished in just the manner that befits the grand exterior. The state rooms are full of paintings and tapestries of battle scenes (all of them remarkably similar, we noticed). This room serves as the library, and at the end there is an organ that was being played as we passed through.

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the place, for me, is the fact that it was the family home of Winston Churchill, and indeed his place of birth. There is a small but fascinating museum dedicated to him in the house, where you can see the room in which he was born. In the film Young WinstonRichard Attenborough portrays Winston’s longing for the attention of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who was a government minister, yet finding his father always too busy to take notice of him. In the museum you can see original letters in which Winston implores his father to visit him at school and at Sandhurst. The film evidently did not need to use artistic licence in this respect.

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It was quite interesting to see letters with dates like 14.11.94 and to have to remind yourself that the year being abbreviated is not 1994, but 1894.

Fortunately my own father is not so distant, so we walked through the gardens together after a good lunch in the café. It is all very English, so when the rain started it seemed quite appropriate.photo 1 (2)

The palace is so English, in fact, that Downton Abbey would certainly feel at home here. The family history (it is still lived in now by the present Duke and his family) is not dissimilar to what I’ve seen on that programme, even down to having had a wealthy American heiress marry into the family. Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of a railroad magnate, married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895, a period of American history that was to become known as the Gilded Age.

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At £22, Blenheim Palace costs the same to see as the Tower of London, but is at least less crowded. Nearby you can see Churchill’s grave at the parish church at Bladon. We didn’t go there this time, but it is somewhere I would like to visit one day.

• Tower of London

Visit: 26th October 2013

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The Tower of London is one of those places I’ve been to before, but long ago, and I can hardly remember. I doubt that much has changed since I last went here about fifteen years ago, but it might as well have been new to me. I went along with my good friends Vicky and Kim, who until recently I lived with in Bristol. They have moved to London, so I went along to do a bit of sightseeing with them.

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The first thing to note about the Tower of London is that it’s pretty steep to get into, at £22 for an adult. The price doesn’t put much of a dent in demand, though, as – like the entirety of London this weekend – it was packed full of people. The Tower was founded by William the Conqueror in 1066, and has borne witness to the history of England ever since. Within St Thomas’s Tower, the first room on the main walking route is what is believed to have been Edward III’s bedchambers, where you can see what is presumably the definition of a king-sized bed. There is a little bit on punishment in the next building (Wakefield Tower), and it included a voting machine to canvas visitors’ views on the purpose of prison in the criminal justice system. As you can see if you squint, a rather illiberal consensus has emerged from among the visitors!

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Moving on you can see the spot that is customarily thought to be the one where Henry VI was murdered as he knelt to pray when he was held captive during the Wars of the Roses.

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The Martin Tower was an unexpected pleasure – within an unprepossessing corner tower unconnected to the main Crown Jewels building you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a selection of glinting crowns. According to the palace’s website:

…this tower was the scene of Colonel Thomas Blood’s fruitless attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. After the Restoration, the newly made regalia was kept in the Martin Tower (known at the time as the Jewel Tower) in sole custody of the Deputy Keeper of the Jewels, Talbot Edwards.

Blood, disguised as a clergyman, gained Edwards’ trust and on 9 May 1671 convinced the Keeper to show the Crown Jewels to two friends. As soon as the chamber was opened Edwards was attacked and badly injured.

Blood hid the State Crown beneath his cloak; one accomplice slipped the Orb into his breeches, while the other began filing the sceptre in half to make it more portable. When they were disturbed by Edward’s son, the three fled but were soon captured.

After his trial Blood obtained an audience with Charles II and for reasons not fully known, the King pardoned Blood, granted him a pension and promised that his Irish estates, seized at the Restoration, would be restored.

The Crown Jewels themselves demanded a lengthy queue, but the line moved quickly and were soon on a travelator going past crowns belonging to Victoria, George V and the Queen Mother. There were orbs and sceptres, and swords with scabbards that can best be described today as “blingtastic” – swords with names like “The Sword of Justice” and “The Sword of Mercy”.

It is interesting to think that these items that wouldn’t look out of place in a hip-hop video were once venerated in the Georgian and Victorian royal courts as the height of sophistication.

After the jewels, we headed into the White Tower, which is the heart of the fortress and, says UNESCO, a classic example of Norman military architecture. It was in the White Tower that the skeletons of two boys were found, thought to have been those of the two princes and rightful heirs to the throne imprisoned by their uncle, Richard III, when he ruled the country prior to his defeat by Henry VII and the start of 118 years of Tudor rule.

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Another interesting aspect of the Tower of London is that it is home to the regimental headquarters of the Royal Fusiliers, an infantry regiment that is active to this day. They have a museum in which you can read about their campaigns through time, as well as a great haul of medals earned by their soldiers and officers over the years. The number of Victoria Crosses there was hugely impressive, and you can read the citations describing the actions of those to whom they were awarded.

That was about all we had the time for in our visit, and I think we covered a good chunk of what was available. There is an exhibit on torture, but it had a long line of ghoulish tourists outside, so we gave that one a miss and went to the local Starbucks instead.

After the Tower, we went across town to somewhere I had not been to before, which is the Victoria & Albert Museum – the V&A. It’s not the kind of place you can fully appreciate in one visit (probably not even in ten), being full of statues from antiquity, Islamic carpetry, 20th Century furniture designs and enormous Raphaels. I was surprised to see in the Chinese section a couple of these armless statuettes:

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I immediately recognised these as terracotta concubines from the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi in Xi’an. Similar to the more famous Teracotta Warriors, thousands of these statuettes were buried along with the emperor, as well as all manner of other things that might be of use to him in the afterlife.

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After the V&A we went for dinner in Chinatown, which was absolutely heaving. We went to a place I knew from a two years ago called Dumplings Legend. The standard was not what I remembered, and the service was pretty poor, as it often seems to be in London Chinatown. Nevertheless, the ‘hot and spicy’ soup lived up to its billing, and I’m afraid to say I couldn’t handle the power. Needless to say, Vicky and Korean Kim had no problems. Korea seems to produce ironclad tastebuds – I once took V&K to my favourite Indian (Rupsha in Clifton*) and the Vindaloo with added chillis wasn’t enough to make him bat an eyelid!

* No longer trading, unfortunately, as of 2017.

• City of Luxembourg: its Old Quarters and Fortifications

Visits: 6th October 2013, 20th April 2014 & 23rd November 2014

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By Tom

In September this year Ross moved from London to Luxembourg with work. It seemed only natural that some of his friends would go over to visit, so after a month or so out there in peace and tranquility, Nowell, Chig and I showed up to ruin his weekend.

Whatever you may think about my motivations for visiting, the main one was to see our friend. It just so happened that Luxembourg is a World Heritage Site, having been inscribed in 1994. We all took a couple of days off work and flew down there from Gatwick for a long weekend. Here you can see the sheep that live opposite Ross’s house.

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Luxembourg is a strange place – it is a city of only about 100,000 people, but plays host to numerous major EU institutions as well as back office branches of most major global financial firms. Most of the workers must live in neighbouring France or Germany, because the place feels empty at the weekend. It’s full of impressive glass and steel buildings like this one, the European Court of Justice.

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On arrival we had a celebratory beer or two at the airport hotel – our first taste of the local brew, Bofferding. It’s a pretty good lager, and one of the most popular in Luxembourg. You can see Nowell holding his here.

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We spent most of the weekend eating and drinking. We met Ross’s colleagues and went to a German-themed restaurant where we had pork knuckles and steins of beer. We had a terrific lunch at Aime La Fourchette in the town centre, and some terrible sushi in a mall. The buses are all free in Luxembourg, so getting around is really cheap. People say the price level in general is high in the country (it ranks in the top 3 countries in the world by per capita GDP), but I didn’t find it too bad.

After a wild weekend in which one of our group was hit by a bouncer and another spent a rainy night in a park, we reached Sunday, when it was time to actually see the sights we had come for. Nowell, Chig and I walked into town to see the old quarter. It wasn’t as large as we had expected (maybe we missed a big chunk?), but it was medieval and attractive. The city walls were erected when Luxembourg was a major player in Europe, before it was invaded and occupied by the Spanish, the French and the Austrians.

imageThe Vienna Congress of 1815 was held to redraw the borders of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. Much of Luxembourg’s territory was seized from it, leaving it the tiny country it is today. In compensation it was given the title of Grand Duchy. Not sure they would have been too happy with that, but I don’t suppose they had much choice.

There is a municipal lift that takes you from the upper levels to the lower levels. This is necessary because of the rocky promontories on which the city was built. We found it rather hard to track down, but got there in the end.

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In the background below you can see the church of St Jean du Grund, and you can also get an idea of just how steep the cliffs are. We had a wheat beer down in at the ground level (Gronn in Luxembourgish – yes that’s a language) in a traditional bar called ‘Scott’s Pub’ [established 1985].

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The grandest building in Luxembourg, though, is the Notre-Dame Cathedral, which is just impossible to photograph in its entirety because of the number of large buildings that have since sprung up around it.

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It was originally a Jesuit church, its cornerstone laid in 1613, but it became a Roman Catholic church, and then a cathedral in 1870.

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I expect we will visit Luxembourg again, when I want to visit the French fortifications – about 20 miles of tunnels built into the cliffs for defensive purposes. If so, I’ll add more here, so watch this space.

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Addendum:

In April I revisited Luxembourg in order to have a “study weekend” with Ross. It didn’t turn out to be quite as productive as we’d planned, but it was a nice break from all the prep we’ve been doing for our CFA exams coming up in June. I had a nice flight over on BA, getting into Luxembourg airport in time to meet Ross and his colleagues for a BBQ back at his place. The marinated meat really was excellent, so congratulations to the chef.

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After a night on the continental beers, we went out for a ‘clear the head’ sort of stroll around the fortifications in Clausen, near Ross’s house. This is Fort Thüngen, which is pretty much a reconstruction. The original fort was destroyed after the 1867 Treaty of London, which required Luxembourg’s fortifications to be torn down. 

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Across the valley you can see the Bock casements. These were tunnels built into the cliff by the Austrians, with openings every so often for cannon emplacements.

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We walked down through the valley and up the Monteé de Clausen past what looks to have been an old city gate or guard tower.

20140420-113149.jpgI flew back on Easter Sunday into London City. It was my first time on Luxair (making it airline #47 for me). Because the winds were blowing from the east, we got impressive Canary Wharf approach into LCY, which meant I could take the photographs below. It is one of the more memorable approaches in the world – up there in my mind with Phuket and Istanbul. I believe Tegucigalpa and the Washington Reagan “river approach” are pretty memorable, too, but I haven’t experienced them…yet!

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2nd Addendum:

Nowell and I travelled back to Luxembourg for the final time in November 2014, shortly before Ross was due to move back to London. I was keen to return to our old haunt of Scott’s pub, which Ross was only too keen to oblige. There was some kind of all-you-can-drink night on, which suited us perfectly, and we had a good old fashioned WHS drinking session on the cobbled streets of Luxembourg’s Grund area.

The next morning we took a train out into the countryside with the intent being to visit Vianden Castle, close to the German border. After a false start – taking the train in the opposite direction – we turned around and got there eventually. The castle is at the top of a hill, commanding an impressive view over the local scenery. It is the first European chateau-type building I have visited, and if I’m honest it is more impressive outside than in. Luxembourg nominated it as a World Heritage Site a few years ago but was told to improve its interior before coming back again.

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Its origins date back to the tenth century, but it has been extensively rebuilt over the years. When we visited there happened to be an exhibition on of Dalí prints, which was fairly interesting (though not a patch on his full-scale paintings, which I had seen a month earlier in Figueres).

On returning to Luxembourg city we spent a cold evening at Ross’s beloved Christmas market before taking a bus into the city on Sunday for a visit to the surprisingly interesting Luxembourg National Museum of History and Art. A highlight for me was a fine copy of a Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary. 

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Ross & Nowell in Luxembourg city

• Old City of Dubrovnik

Visit: 15th – 17th July 2013

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By Tom & Ross

Having originally planned to travel throughout Montenegro and Croatia by bus, we ended up taking all three of our intercity journeys by taxi. Whoever sets the bus fares in Montenegro is either in the pay of the taxi companies or assumes that everybody travels alone. For us as a group of three, the taxi fare was always less than the cost of three bus tickets.

The road from Kotor to Dubrovnik first winds around the entire perimeter of the beautiful Bay of Kotor, which is attractive to look at but doesn’t go well with a hangover. After about an hour we arrived at the border – which, contrary to some of the comments I’ve read online, was no problem to get through.

At Dubrovnik, having annoyed the landlord of the apartment we were renting by not informing him when we were going to arrive and not answering the phone when he called 6 times (!), we stayed in the Old Town, within the city walls. This is certainly advisable. The architecture is similar to Kotor, with tiny medieval cobbled streets, orange roofed grey buildings and a picturesque harbour. The old town is full of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops (pricey). Looking at it all, it is incredible to think that only two decades ago it was being shelled by Serbian forces.

We dropped off our bags and had a walk around before dining. Unfortunately the restaurant we ate at was both more expensive and of lower quality than what we’d been enjoying in the country of the Black Mountain.

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After dinner we started the evening’s festivities with some vodkas in the flat before going out for some delicious local wine and beer. As we were sitting in the street drinking we noticed that by far the most common accent we kept hearing was Australian – not something we had been expecting. There were literally hundreds of Australians, and we happened to be sitting by the epicentre of “the Oz scene” in Dubrovnik. It turned out there were several Aussie cruise boats in town – apparently they love going to Croatia for their summer holidays. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them, they say, so we went for a few drinks in the Aussie bar. They don’t waste time on glasses, naturally!

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We ended up going to where everybody was going, which was a local club called Revelin. We certainly did revel in the Croat nightlife, which is much like anywhere else in Europe except possibly that they stay out later.

The following day was our last, and it was assigned solely to enjoying the cultural side of Dubrovnik. Ross and I went to the beach for a swim before meeting up with Chig for an early evening walk on the ancient walls. This is a must for any visitor to the city, though not if you have trouble with stairs as it’s practically made of them.

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The image of sunset on the red roofs is one of the enduring memories I think most people take away from cities like this, and I believe we were no exception.

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Our trip in context (WHSs in yellow):

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• Ironbridge Gorge

Visit: 4th August 2013

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By Tom

Ticking off my third Industrial Revolution-themed WHS (does the UK overdo it I wonder?), this was another revisit, this time to the town of Ironbridge – home to the site inscribed as Ironbridge Gorge.

Although there are something like 14 distinct things to see/museums in the vicinity, the eponymous Iron Bridge is the focal point. Completed in 1779, it was the first arch bridge to be constructed from cast iron. Whilst it isn’t particularly impressive when compared to modern bridges like Millau, at the time it was groundbreaking.

P1010788The bridge served two purposes: one, of course, was as a means of crossing the River Severn. This was an important thing for the town as it was at the epicentre of the early Industrial Revolution and was rapidly ramping up production of cast iron for export throughout the country and across the world. The second use of the bridge, however, was to serve as an audacious advert for the load-bearing properties of Shropshire steel. Anybody who didn’t believe the early claims of the steel barons had only to come to Ironbridge and see it himself.

P1010790Here is my Grandad, who remembers those days like they were yesterday!

Until 1950 the bridge charged a toll to all who crossed (except for the former ferry operators who it put out business). Its Quaker owners chose to enforce the toll indiscriminately, including even soldiers and royalty.

Elsewhere in the vicinity of Ironbridge there are museums such as Blists Hill Victorian Town, where several years ago I bought a tube of Thomas Crapper toilet roll for 1 Old English Penny! Be warned – the museums are not free like in Blaenavon. It costs £8.25 to get into the China museum, for example, and a pass to all the museums is £24! The area is all quite tranquil now, surely in contrast to the hive of activity it would have been in its heyday.

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The bridge is free, of course, and I satisfied myself by also visiting the Tar Tunnel (£3). This is a 3000 foot, 225 year old tunnel dug into the hillside by miners who struck natural bitumen. You can go about 50 metres into it, and see for yourself the tar oozing through the walls.

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Off to the sides you can see pools of black tar. The tar was used at the time to weatherproof ropes and ships.

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