Tag Archives: natalie

• Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)

Visits: 17th, 19th, 20th February 2016


Following on from the previous post about Tokyo and Himeji Castle, today I write about the famous Japanese city of Kyoto and its many historic monuments. The World Heritage Site of Kyoto consists of 17 separate shrines and temples which pepper the city and its surrounds. Kyoto isn’t an attractive city by and large, but is studded with gems that betray its historical status as the capital of Imperial Japan for a thousand years until Tokyo took its mantle in 1868.


25057390376_1acce7702d_bThe first temple we visited was called Byodo-in, located not in Kyoto itself but in the contiguous city of Uji. We took the Nara line 30 minutes out of town to Uji station, where it seemed that every other shop was a specialist in matcha – a prized powder derived from green tea leaves. We stopped at one such place, a restaurant on a beautifully peaceful spot overlooking the wide Uji river, to order tea and lunch. I had matcha-flavoured soba noodles with marinated herring. Natalie’s bowl of “highest-quality matcha tea” had a rich, bitter taste – quite unlike anything our matcha aficionado had tried before.

Byodo-in temple itself (the first two pictures of this post) is surrounded by a tranquil pool of water. The building in the centre is known as the Phoenix Hall due to its general likeness to a phoenix and to the two phoenix statues that adorn its roof. Also included in the site is a museum housing a collection of priceless Japanese antiquities. This was the first time on our trip that we were required to take off our shoes, which is something you will find very often when visiting Japanese cultural sites. The museum includes 52 wooden bodhisattvas, which seem vaguely similar to angels in Christianity.


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We crossed the wide Uji river to Ujigami-jinja. This small shrine was by far the lowest-key and the quietest of the sites we visited in the Greater Kyoto area. So quiet, in fact, that it joined the select list of World Heritage Sites at which we have found ourselves to be the only visitors. This means getting to enjoy a site deemed worthy of preservation for the benefit of all humanity all to ourselves (the others that come to mind have been Ta’ Ħaġrat temple in Malta,  Caernarfon Castle in Wales and The basilica of San Salvatore in Italy).


Ujigami was built as a guardian shrine for Byodo-in temple, and is dedicated to the third/fourth century Emperor Ōjin and his sons. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) has dated Ujigami as being the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, putting its construction date at about 1060 – around the time Edward the Confessor was losing his grip on England in his long-running feud with Godwin of Wessex and his son.

25185452415_07e82884da_bAfter Uji we took the train back in to Kyoto, stopping on the way at the famous Fushimi Inari shrine. It is not included in the 17 sites that made it into the WHS, but we were interested in seeing it because it is one of the famous Japan images – like Shibuya junction and Mount Fuji – that is known the world over for its long paths covered in torii gates.


It seems to be something of a custom for Japanese girls to visit shrines dressed in kimonos, complete with white socks and wooden sandals. On the way back into the centre from Fushimi we were warned of the dangers of selfie stick use and managed to buy a can of warm onion soup thinking it was a refreshing fruit-based drink – not a pleasant surprise!

Kyo-o-gokoku-ji (To-ji)

Located a short distance from Kyoto’s main railway station in the centre of town, Toji temple – known more formally as ‘The Temple for the Defence of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines’ is home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. As an auspicious five-story pagoda it stands as a recognisable symbol of Kyoto. The shrine once had a counterpart (which burnt down a thousand or so years ago), and together they stood either side of the gate to the capital city of the powerful Heian empire.

The site features a couple of single-storey buildings too: the Kodo (lecture hall) and Kondo (main hall). Each of these contains a selection of fabulous gilded statues positioned as a physical representation of the cosmology of Buddhism. Photos are not allowed in here, but you can see the sort of thing I mean on Wikipedia or in my soon-to-be-published post on the Horyu-ji Area.


A brisk walk north took us to another temple close to Kyoto station. This site is formally known as ‘Western Temple of the Original Vow‘, and was founded in 1602 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate and the same man who built Himeji Castle). The temple was a result not of his kindness but of his sharp eye for power, for he commanded that the Jōdo Shinshu sect split its Honanji temple into two in order to diminish its power.

Free to enter, at Hongan-ji we saw two large decorated halls into which ordinary Japanese would come to pray. The floors are covered with tatami mats, so again one must take off shoes to enter. It was very peaceful inside these buildings, and it almost felt as if we shouldn’t have been in there, being the non-Buddhists that we are. Occasionally monks would wander past, adding to the mystique of the complex.


Hongan-ji from above

Before leaving Kyoto that afternoon to head back to our hotel in Osaka we took a trip to the (rather expensive) observation deck at the top of the Kyoto Tower. At 100 metres you get a fine view of this low-rise city. I managed to spy through telescopes a number of the temples that dot Kyoto, as well as the global headquarters of a company I grew up knowing well: Nintendo! We then went back to Osaka for our second visit to the Ippudo ramen chain for a bowl of the good stuff.


Two days later, after taking a day out to go to Okinawa and then a morning at Himeji, we darted back to Kyoto in order to visit another shrine. This time we picked Tenryu-ji, which is on the western outskirts of Kyoto, close to the hills that have halted the city’s almost inexorable sprawl.


We were glad we did, because it turned out to be the best one of our trip. Consisting of a temple complex and a garden with a pond, designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty of Japan. Oh and I couldn’t resist reliving a Homer Simpson moment.

Tenryu-ji is the head temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. There seem to be so many branches of Buddhism that most temples we visited were the head temple of something. This temple was everything a tourist would want one to be: pretty, peaceful, garden, pond, raked gravel, bamboo, tatami mats, paper walls and quiet. The area outside the temple was pleasant to stroll about in, too – outside of the hustle and bustle of central Kyoto.



The following day – which was also our last day in Kyoto and indeed our last day in Japan – I decided to use the few hours we had spare before heading to Kansai Airport for our flight home to shoehorn in another temple. This was probably a mistake, because when we got there the heavens opened. And, unlike some of the other temples in Kyoto, Nijo Castle (another Tokugawa Ieyasu building) is not a small and indoorsy one! Surrounded by a moat, it is a formidable block in the heart of the city. We walked around the maze of corridors inside the Ninomaru Palace, squeaking over the nightingale flooring. The surface was deliberately designed to ‘chirp’ when walked on, in order that intruders would not be able to sneak up on the emperor unannounced.


When the heavens really opened on us as we walked around the castle grounds I threw in the towel and got us a taxi back to the railway station. From Kyoto we took a train to Osaka to pick up our luggage and then a one-hour Airport Rapid Service to Kansai International Airport. This airport is an impressive feat of engineering, for it was built entirely out of the sea. I managed to take a picture of it as we flew past several days before on our way from Itami to Naha – squint and you can see the H-shaped outline of the airport island.


Although we have reached the end of our Japan trip chronologically, I still have two more posts to write on the other WHSs we saw. Stay tuned!


• Kronborg Castle

Visit: 3rd January 2016


Kronborg Castle was the second of the two WHSs Natalie and I visited on our New Year weekend trip to Denmark. It is a historic royal palace, most famous globally for being the castle in which Shakespeare set the play Hamlet. Indeed, the play about the Danish prince is based upon a local legend about a prince called Amleth. Shakespeare simply moved the ‘h’ from the end of the name to the start.


Kronborg Castle is situated on a man-made peninsular beside the town of Helsingør. In English we call it Elsinor, and that is the name you will find is used by the Bard. Elsinor is a 30 minute train ride north from Copenhagen, and sits at a strategically important position on the west bank of the narrow Øresund strait that separates Denmark from Sweden. Putting aside the twentieth century Keel and White Sea-Baltic canals, Øresund is one of only three routes that shipping can take to get from the Baltic Sea to the rest of the world.


In 1429 King Eric of Pomerania (a major character in the history of that other WHS we visited that weekend, Roskilde Cathedral) came up with a plan to charge a toll to traffic passing through the three straits. This worked immensely well for the Danes, so much so that by the 16th and 17th centuries shipping tolls made up some two thirds of Denmark’s state income. Kronborg Castle – the site at which captains were required to make payment – was built lavishly with the proceeds.


We had spent the prior night in a hotel in Elsinor, so were up at the castle bright and early – easily in time for its winter opening hour of 11am. It was bitterly cold, with an easterly wind transforming the -4°C actual temperature into a ‘feels like’ at least 10°C lower. We walked around the perimeter of the castle and stood by the shoreline where the seawater had frozen solid to the rocks and shrubs.


Inside the castle it was fairly typical of European palaces, though not as impressive as fellow WHSs Brühl, Würzburg or Blenheim. There were plenty of local paintings on the walls and some mocked-up royal bedchambers, but overall it was quite bare, with no ‘knockout’ ceiling frescoes or the like. The chapel was nice, but difficult to photograph internally.


A good idea of somebody’s was to put photographs of the famous actors who have played Hamlet at Kronborg in what has become well established as an annual tradition. We watched a 1948 Lawrence Olivier film version as preparation for the trip, so it was interesting to see that he had also played the Dane in Elsinor itself, as you can see above. Other Thespians who have graced the castle’s lawns include Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud and Michael Caine (the latter as Horatio). I was temped to buy a novelty skull in the gift shop for a cheesy photograph, but it was just too cold for larking around outside!

24092468842_43db7f5838_bUpon finishing our self-guided tour of the castle (the colourful outbuildings above contain cafes and other modern facilities) we headed for the station and a train back to Copenhagen. I had been planning for us to walk through one of the parks that make up the newly-inscribed multi-site WHS, ‘The par force hunting landscape in North Zealand’, but our late-running train skipped the stop in a bid to catch up to its schedule, so that idea was rapidly canned. On the plus side, though, this gave us time for an unplanned visit to see the famous Little Mermaid statue on Copenhagen’s chilly waterfront.


It is about the size I had imagined it to be, and easier to access. You could climb up to it and touch it if you wanted to (and I believe some people, including vandals, have done). Sitting there gazing out across the Øresund towards Sweden, it possesses a serene and dignified beauty. I was glad we saw it, I thought, as we walked back along the city’s quiet streets to the central station for our airport train.

The flight back was with a new airline for me: Norwegian. I was impressed with its modern 737 and low fares (it cost only £20 per person for our flight back to Gatwick). On arrival I was expecting a fairly miserable trip home because the London-Brighton line that passes through the airport was suspended for engineering works. We were therefore surprised to find out how quiet the replacement bus services to East Grinstead station were: we boarded a coach that had just pulled up at the airport only for it to be immediately despatched with the two of us as the only passengers aboard!

• Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.)

Visits: 4th April 2015, 21st July 2015


Longobard temple, Cividale del Friuli

The Longobards in Italy is a serial inscription World Heritage Site, with seven constituent parts dispersed along the length and breadth of mainland Italy. The Longobards were a Germanic tribe who settled in what is now known as Italy in the period referred to in the title, between the sixth and eighth centuries. They are notable for having been early converts to Christianity, and the legacy they have left behind is evidence of a fascinating intersection of Classical and Christian architecture. See, for example, the Corinthian column capitals above, supporting a fresco depicting the Annunciation to the shepherds.

Of the seven sites I have so far been to three: two in Umbria and one in Friuli-Venezia Guilia. I’ll start with the first two, which Natalie and I visited on our April trip to Italy, breaking off from the rest of our little group on the way from Tivoli to Louise’s family home in Viterbo.

The Clitunno Tempietto


Clitunno Tempietto

Literally right after dropping off Ross, his mother Ayesha and his girlfriend Louise (and thus the only Italian speaker of the group), I made the mistake of turning back onto the highway and thus taking an entry ticket from the machine to enter the autostrade network. As soon as I’d driven through the barrier, Europcar’s satnav told me to “turn around where possible” – we didn’t need to take the autostrade at all. I pulled a quick U-turn and put my ticket back into the toll machine only to find that it didn’t like the look of it. An error message appeared and I pressed the help button, only to hear a garbled Italian operator pipe up who did not (or would not), he confirmed, speak any English. Cars started to build up behind me and then the machine made its draconian demand: seventy euros. For driving approximately zero yards. I meekly fished out my last €50 note. And a €20. And I don’t want to dwell on this ever again.

We ploughed on across the border from Latium into Umbria. Our first destination was the Tempietto at Clittuno. It wasn’t easy to find, but I had been prepared for that and we soon located it. The temple is a tiny building – that’s the entirety of it in the photo above.


For a while we were the only people there, which was nice. I love it when I go to a World Heritage Site and there is nobody else around – such a contrast to the well-known ones such as Pisa and Chichen-Itza where you have to fight your way through crowds. Again, you can see the Roman-style architecture of this temple – it looks nothing like a church, yet it was built for Christian worship in the Dark Ages.

17152584608_822a214f26_zInside there is a simple stone altar and faded frescos, which makes it feel as if looking back in time. Remnants from this period of history are not generally well-preserved; it is underrepresented on the UNESCO list, so you can really pick up something novel from visiting the Longobard sites.

The basilica of San Salvatore


Basilica of San Salvatore

The second Longobard site was just a short drive away, in the Umbrian town of Spoleto. It is a much larger building – the basilica of San Salvatore. Although it is rather more plain on the outside, this building also has Classical Roman features. It was completely empty inside – no pews or anything, just a large empty space with frescoes on some of the walls.


Although I described the Longobards earlier as a Germanic tribe, they in fact came from Pannonia – modern day Hungary – led by their King Alboin. The Duchy of Spoleto – in which this basilica is located – became the administrative centre of Longobard central Italy. The territories around Spoleto were controlled by elements of the Byzantine empire, and we can see in the basilica’s depiction of Christ the Teacher (a typical Byzantine manner of presenting Him) the influence of that civilisation on the Longobards.


The Gastaldaga area and the Episcopal complex

Our third Longobard encounter came three months later in a different part of Italy: the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the the northeast. After spending two nights in Trieste and having been to see the Škocjan Caves and Idrija mercury mine in Slovenia we crossed the border back in to Italy for a night in the charming town of Cividale del Friuli.


Italo-Slovenian border

This town is probably the most important of the Longobard sites inscribed, since it was their first capital. It was the first part of Italy that King Alboin’s men captured, and here that they established their first duchy. Nowadays – and despite it being so close to the Slovenian border – it is a classically Italian town with a wonderful medieval centre in which it’s easy to pass an evening drinking Aperols and watching the locals walk by. I always like to relax in a bar with a view of a WHS.


Cividale del Friuli

Within the town there is a complex of ecclesiastical buildings known as the Gastaldaga Area, in which the highlight is the Longobard temple. Much of it has been restored to some extent, but it contains many original elements.


The carved figures in the photo below were apparently inspired by the Porch of the Caryatids in the Erechtheion on Athens’ Acropolis.


It makes a refreshing change from the many churches and cathedrals that one visits as a World Heritage Site lover to see some quite different buildings of Christian worship from a time before the standard cruciform layout of a church had been properly established. Properties like this give the lie to the notion that the much-maligned Dark Ages were a time of no notable creativity, when the values of the Classical world had been left behind and the reawakening of the Renaissance was still many centuries in the future.


The four other Longobard sites in this WHS inscription are located in Lombardy, Campania and a part of Puglia that I came pretty close to visiting later in the week, but in the end did not. I’ll add to this post as and when I find myself nearby.

• Heritage of Mercury. Almadén and Idrija

Visit: 20th July 2015


I must preface this post with the fact that this WHS consists – quite absurdly – of two separate towns: one in Slovenia and one in Spain. Idrija is the Slovenian one, and it is there that Natalie and I visited the day after seeing Slovenia’s only other WHS, Škocjan Caves.

We did not overnight in Slovenia, but in fact returned to Trieste for the evening before heading back across the border toward the town of Idrija, tucked away in the rugged and undulating Slovenian countryside. Since we were travelling on their motorway network we were obliged to purchase a €35 permit, which seems unfair given that we don’t levy charges on Slovenians to drive in the UK. An hour’s drive found us snaking along a road following the bends in the Idrijca River, eventually arriving in Idrija a couple of hours early for the 3pm mine tour.


So what’s all this mercury business in the title? When I first read it I assumed it had something to do with a historical worship of the Roman messenger god, but it turned out to be the liquid-at-room temperature metal, Hg. For hundreds of years the two towns in the title dominated the global mercury market, since they were the major sources of the element. It served several purposes, but one of the major ones was amalgamation – a process by which liquid mercury is poured onto an area of recently mined specks of gold, creating a lump of amalgam (gold and mercury). The processor would then simply heat the lump elsewhere and watch the mercury drain away to leave pure gold — or something like that.

The demand for mercury boomed when the Spanish conquistadors struck gold and silver in South America and there was a mining frenzy. Later in history the price of mercury came to be determined more by demand for its use in weaponry. Our guide told us several times that during the Vietnam War in the ’60s the price of a canister of mercury was equivalent to that of a car, whereas in the ’80s – when the mine at Idrija was finally closed – it was as low as US$66.


The mine we visited is known as the Anthony Shaft and does a couple of tours a day. It was not busy; we went around it in a group of four, including ourselves. The guide took us along some tunnels and then down a load of stairs to some lower level tunnels. Like in the caves the day before, the temperature was a cool 12°C, giving us a respite from the stifling Slovenian summer. We stopped every now and then along the tunnels to see an exhibit of how they mined the mercury back when the site was operational. One notable sight was a small miners’ chapel, carved into the rock.


Aside from having a beer and going into a Slovenian Aldi (branded as “Hofer” over there), the only other thing we did in Idrija was to visit the Gewerkenegg castle, below. It contained exhibits on the town’s history and on the process of mercury mining. A small highlight is a bowl of liquid mercury.


Gewerkenegg castle

Since mining finished in the town it has not gone the way of the former coal mining towns of Wales and northern England. Jobs have been created in manufacturing, since an electronics company moved into the town to capitalise on the supply of labour. This means Idrija does not have a run-down feel to it, which is nice to see in a post-industrial World Heritage Site town.


View of Idrija from Gewerkenegg castle

Many of the residents suffer from diseases related to mercury exposure, typically from either working down the mines or from improperly-treated run-off. This is the sad side of the poisonous metal’s legacy – indeed it was not until the mine’s final decade of operations that full-face respirators were provided to the miners.

Most of the world’s mercury today comes from Asian mines in such countries as China and Kyrgyzstan. Whether they one day get added to this transnational World Heritage Site remains to be seen, but until then I still have Almadén to visit before I can properly ‘tick this one off’.

• Škocjan Caves

Visit: 19th July 2015


The Škocjan Caves are located in Slovenia, a short drive over the border from the Italian city of Trieste – where Natalie and I stayed for the first two nights of our summer holiday this year. The site is classified as a natural WHS, making it the first such natural site we have completed together (I have also been to the Dorset and East Devon Coast – but that was with Ross – whilst Natalie has been to the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve in Madagascar – but as part of a college group).


We went there on a Sunday and found the visitor centre thronged with people – mostly Slovenian tourists it seemed. The temperature was blisteringly hot, which made the caves an attractive refuge, no doubt. It cost €16 each for the main tour, making it the most expensive WHS on our trip, but it ended up being well worth it. We were led down to the cave’s entrance in a huge group of at least 70 people, so it was a relief when the guides announced we were going to be split into three groups, by language. We English-speakers were to go around with the Italians, and our guide delivered explanations in both tongues.

The tour set off along a narrow concrete tunnel, which wasn’t very promising. But it quickly opened up into the first cavern: an area of thousands of stalactites and stalagmites millions of years old.


We proceeded into what is known as the Silent Cave, so-called because it has no river rushing through it – unlike the noisier parts of the cave complex that we were to come to later. This is where the rock first opens up and gives you the sense of being in a grand space. As we snaked our way downwards on a beacon-lit path we felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings, journeying into the bowels of Mount Doom.


The caves are located in the northwestern tip of the Italian/Slovenian Karst region, which refers to a geological area of soluble rock. Some of this rock dissolved over time, leaving these wonderful caves, holes and underground rivers that we see today. Our guide told us that the Škocjan Caves had been discovered long ago, and first properly explored and documented in the 19th century. They were inscribed on the World Heritage list relatively early, in 1986 – which is normally a good sign. They were further placed on to a list of Wetlands of International Importance in 1999, where the wetlands referred to at Škocjan are of course subterranean.

The cave opens up into a much larger cavern as the tour proceeds to link up with the underground Reka river (one of the many tautological river names in the world). As we were visiting in the middle of summer the water was at a seasonal low, so it didn’t project the sense of power that one must feel when it is gushing through the caverns at up to 400 cubic metres per second.

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The path snakes around the walls of the Great Hall and includes an impressive bridge. As we neared the exit to the caves we began to notice the air becoming warmer before we sensed the any inkling of natural light. It had been a cool 12°C in the dry areas, but as we got closer to the rapids where the Reka sloshes into the caves’ entrance the temperature began to resemble more the outside air of 35°C. Here we encountered bats. Despite it being daytime, they flitted in and out of their nests in the semi-darkness, lending the cave a suitably macabre atmosphere.


The tour ended once we were fully ensconced in daylight at a large cave mouth. The guide offered visitors the option of either taking a funicular up to the high point from which we had descended or of walking up along the park’s trails. We went for the walk, and enjoyed the delights of the park’s surface rivers and woods. It was a sweaty endeavor, of course, but most pursuits are in that kind of climate when you are dressed in a most temperate fashion of jeans and a shirt.


After disappearing into the caves here in Slovenia the Reka flows underground for 34km until it emerges near the Italian town of Monfalcone to before flowing into the Gulf of Trieste.

I have seen caves like these on the TV, perhaps on Attenborough-type nature shows. But never have I been inside on myself, so it was a real first-time experience for me, and one I certainly won’t forget.

• Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces

Visit: 20th June 2015


The vineyards of Lavaux occupy a portion of the north coast of Lake Geneva, in western Switzerland. The area was inscribed on the World Heritage Site list in 2007 because it showcases the long-term interaction between people and their environment. Although Switzerland isn’t exactly famous for its wine, the Lavaux region has been producing it for at least a thousand years, and possibly as far back as Roman times. The cultivation of vines on the stepped slopes of the shore of Lake Geneva make for a pretty sight, and one that Natalie and I greatly enjoyed walking through on a fine Saturday in June.

18999168591_286eda677f_zWe had flown in to Geneva early that morning and taken a 40 minute train ride to Lausanne, where we were to stay the night. The Lavaux region covers the rural area between Lausanne and Montreaux – both synonymous with wealth and with jazz (Montreaux hosts a major international jazz festival each year, and Nina Simone was once a resident of Lausanne).

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Whilst it is often quite simple to say when one has ‘visited’ a WHS (eg. the Tower of London or the Old City of Dubrovnik), the rural ones can provide more of a challenge. How much, for instance, of the Wadden Sea do you have to have visited in order to say you have completed the WHS? Fortunately, in this instance, the Swiss Tourist Board has prepared a suggested walking route that happens to start at one end of the inscribed area and end at the other.


The 11km route, which you can see above, took us about four hours and gave us a real feel for the area. The Tourist Board was also helpful enough to suggest caves along the way in which to try the wine produced in the vineyards in which we were walking.


About 80% of the grapes grown in Lavaux are of the Chasselas variety, which is a white grape with a full, dry, fruity character. We stopped off once en route and again at the end of our trail, in Saint-Saphorim, to drink some Chasselas – whilst the proprietor of the latter cave spoke at us in French (undeterred by my protestations of je ne parlais Francais!).

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The locals have a saying that there are three suns warming the vines in Lavaux: the well-known Sun in the sky, its reflection from the lake and the heat that is stored up in the dry stone walls by day and radiated out to the vines at night. It is important to remember that the area’s Outstanding Universal Value (in UNESCO-speak) comes from the fact that it is cultivated and has been for such a long time. You are reminded of this when walking past the roller-coaster-type farming contraptions that are used to transport grapes (and farmers) up and down the hills when picking (I presume).


But all this farming doesn’t put off local wildlife – we saw kestrels, starlings and many a lizard, basking in the Solstice sun.

My only complaint about the area would be that it is impossible to try any of the damn wine until evening time! We must have walked past at least a dozen caves, but it was not until 5pm – at the end of our walk – that we were first able to go inside one and order a drink. Since none of the villages seemed to have any newsagents or similar it meant we were also pretty thirsty for plain old water (in the end we did manage to find a hotel that would sell us a midday drink, but it involved sort-of crashing a wedding reception – so wasn’t ideal).


Nevertheless, it really is a very pretty area, and provides good walking for anyone who likes a light hike. I had only ever visited Switzerland before in the winter, so it was good from my perspective to see it in the summertime, when it has that picture postcard look that is so satisfying to see.


With pretty much a whole day spare on Sunday I decided shortly before we set off for Switzerland that there was time for another WHS, and so it was that were soon found ourselves on the train to Bern – Switzerland’s low-key and often overlooked capital city.

• Old Town of Corfu

Visit: 1st June 2015


Old Fortress, Corfu

Located in the Ionian Sea just off the coast of the Balkan Peninsula where Greece meets Albania, Corfu is the Hellenic Republic’s seventh largest island. Natalie and I had a whole day to spare in Corfu’s old town on our way back from a couple of days on the nearby island of Paxos. Only reachable by boat, Paxos is less than 2% of the size of Corfu – but twice as charming. It was whilst we were there that Ross proposed to Louise on the shores of Plani Beach whilst Natalie and I filmed from afar. We spent four nights on Paxos, in both our rented villa near Lakka – in the north of the island – and in an apartment in Gaios – the capital, in the south.


Plani Beach, Paxos

It was the day of our flight home and the two of us had got up at 5.40am to catch a boat leaving Gaois’s New Port at 7. Although we had expected it to deposit us near Corfu’s old town – from where we had caught the boat over to Paxos four days earlier – it ended up dropping us off at a place called Lefkimmi, on Corfu’s southern tip. The Old Town of Corfu (where the airport is also located) is about halfway up Corfu island, on the eastern side, and the ferry company had, it transpired, arranged for a minibus to take us passengers the rest of the way by road.


Old Fortress, Corfu

On arrival at Corfu town we pepped ourselves up with a Greek coffee and some lukewarm quiche before heading over to the first of its two imposing forts. The Old Fortress, as it is known, dominates the city’s east side and commands a wide lookout over the sea. It was fortified by the Venetians, to whom Corfu was annexed at the end of the 14th century. The Republic of Venice held onto the island from 1386 all the way up until 1797, which gave them plenty of time to make their mark.  But they were not the first to build a fortress there – indeed the fort’s origins date back to Byzantine times, from about the 6th century.


The top of the fortress isn’t much to look at (that is it, above), although it was immortalised in celluloid in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (in which the Mercedes of the bad guy, Emile Locque, gets pushed off a cliff by Bond). You may remember that I spotted a Bond scene when we were in Istanbul. Well, I’m not really a Bond geek so I must admit that I didn’t notice the Corfu titbit myself – that fact is from Wikipedia.


Corfu Town Hall

After coming down from the Old Fort we wandered through town and had a drink. It is here I admit that Corfu isn’t really the most pleasant WHS out there. It has its charms, but the city is thronged with tourists (ourselves included, obvs) and shops selling tat. Given the narrowness of the streets it feels pretty crowded walking around, making the castles a pleasant respite from the bustle. I wondered if Valletta – a city that seems to have much in common with Corfu, in terms of its history and its character – is similar in the summer. We felt we might have been lucky after all to have had such cold, wet weather when we visited over New Year, since it meant we had the place more or less to ourselves.


In the heat of the day we proceeded to hike up the hill at the other end of town to reach the top of the ‘New Fortress’. This one was built from scratch by the Venetians, although the buildings that exist within the fortress were put up by the British. This fortress is more imposing than the Old one, but even harder to get a decent photograph of (see below). Although entrance is free, tourists are tricked (ourselves included) into paying €3 by a wily group who stand by the entrance and offer you a “free” drink if you pay them for admission. There I encountered some of the worst toilets I have ever set foot in – comparable to something out of Trainspotting. Ross would have loved it.


The climb is worth it, though, because it affords a better view of Corfu than does the Old Fortress. We spent a while talking to a fellow Brit, who had disembarked a cruise ship on a Venetian-themed tour of the Mediterranean, and we swapped tips on historical tourism.


With the sun sinking down in the west, it was time to make our way back to Ioannis Kapodistrias Airport to catch a child-filled Thomas Cook flight back to Gatwick. We had had a great trip, of which Corfu was really just a footnote – but it was good to have seen the city and to have been able to spend Euros in Greece for what may have been the last time!