Category Archives: Art and Architecture

Historic Istanbul, Turkey

sIstanbul has long been a lure for travellers in pursuit of the exotic, the city where Europe and Asia meet in harmony yet where the whiff of an alien culture is obvious.   Just over a hundred years ago, it was as far as the sensible person on the Grand Tour would venture and it was the stopping place for that most exotic form of transport in those days, the Orient Express.   It was where Christians met Muslims, a city of fewer than a million people, the city with a well-preserved heritage from Byzantine churches to Ottoman palaces.

Sunset in Istanbul
Sunset in Istanbul

Today’s world travellers venture much further in their quest for exciting destinations but Istanbul still manages to stir the senses.  This derives from many things, from the faces of its citizens who hail from many regions of the country and on whose faces is written the country’s history, the magnificent architecture ranging from early 5th century to present day designs in glass and steel, and from the mosques and churches with their mosaics and fine carpets that point to the continuity of the two cultures side by side.

If you have only one day there, perhaps on a cruise ship, then the two most important sights are the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.  But if you have longer, than take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus and have a fish sandwich at the end of it (fresh fish from the Bosphorus fried on board and slapped between two pieces of bread).

The following places should be included in your tour.

On the Banks of the Bosphorus, Istanbul
On the Banks of the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Basilica Cistern

A magnificent underground reservoir with 336 columns each one 9m high beneath a high vaulted ceiling.  Visitors walk through this forest of pillars on raised wooden boards above carp-filled waters which reflect the columns.    It was built in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine the Great and creates an impressive atmosphere.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapı -palace
Topkapi Palace with Bosphorus in Background

Topkapi is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive until today.  Situated on the site of the first settlement in Istanbul, it commands an impressive view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.   Once home to the Ottaman Empire’s ruling sultans from the mid 15th century to the mid 19th century this sprawling palace was turned into a museum on orders from Ataturk in 1924.  Inside it consists of richly decorated chambers, pavilions overlooking the Bosphorus which were part of the private world of the harem, and holds some of the fantastic diamonds and other jewels of the  Court.  Most famous of these is the Topkapi emerald-encrusted dagger.  Television still shows the Jules Dassin film of the same name, Topkapi, starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley which was about the attempted theft of this famous emerald. If you have never seen it, catch it next time it is screened: it is well worth watching.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Said to have been founded by Istanbul’s first  Ottaman ruler, Mehmet ll, the Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous souks in the world.  It is a town within a city, miles of alleyways lined with over 4,000 shops which makes it an easy place in which to get lost.  Everything from jewellry and carpets to Turkish delight and fake handbags is for sale here.  The salesmen are experts at their job and you need to be firm if you don’t want to buy a silk carpet (which they can ship home for you) or a rug or a kelim. Caveat Emptor.

The Blue Mosque

Its real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but everyone knows it now as The Blue Mosque, the only one ever to be built with six minarets.  One of the most famous monuments of Turkish and Islamic art it is a fine example of classical Turkish architecture.
The architect, Mahmet Aga decorated the interior in jewel-like colours and it features stained glass, marble latticework and thousands of beautiful blue tiles which give it its name.  It was built in the early 17th century and was originally part of a larger complex of baths, public kitchens, a covered bazaar, a hospital, schools and a caravanserai, few of which survive today.

If at all possible, try to view the mosque from the sea when, dominating the Old City skyline, it is breathtaking.

Aya Sofia


The Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, was responsible for the commissioning of this Christian church in 532 AD, the crowning glory in Christiandom’s crown for a millenium.  Under the Ottamans it became a mosque but it is now a museum, famous for the seemingly unsupported vast dome of golden mosaics and stained glass windows.

Hagia Sofia interior
Hagia Sofia interior

Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sofya or Haga Sofia) is one of the most visited Museums in the world.   Used as a Christian church for 916 years, it was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed and remained so for 482 years. In 1935, a decision by Kemal Atatürk and the Council of Ministers, meant that Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, which it remains to this day.

Hagia Sophia is open for visit every day except Mondays.

Istikal Street Monument
Istikal Street Monument
Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street


Syracuse, Sicily: Greatest Greek City in the World

Syracuse (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but the visitor to Sicily should not miss this city that was described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.

Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified by the Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Syracuse.

The façade of the cathedral is 18th-century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive altars to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to view the outside of the Duomo and see how nothing was wasted: the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena were incorporated into the church that superseded it.

Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo
Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the Duomo

Syracuse Town

Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa
Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is a scene of energy and life as the ground floors of the once-great palaces now mostly operate as restaurants, cafés and bars.  On a warm evening there is no better place in Syracuse in which to sit and enjoy an espresso or aperitif.

A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa
A Bridge Links Old and New Syracuse

There are two main areas in the town, the archaeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and remains, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.

The Archeological Area

Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa
Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Syracuse

In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.

Greek Theatre, Siracusa
Greek Theatre, Syracuse

The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodate up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.

The Ear of Dionysis

The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Syracuse.

The Ear of Dionysis 4

Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.

There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!

Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily
Roman Amphitheatre, Syracuse, Sicily

The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.

Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History

At only 1km by 500m, the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun at one of the cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island.   Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.

Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily
Clear Waters of the Bay in Syracuse, Sicily

One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious but it is one of the most important sights in Syracuse.

Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Syracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the freshwater spring that we see today.

The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.

Temple to Apollo 4
Temple to Apollo, Siracusa, Sicily

It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.

Citrus from Sicily
Citrus from Sicily

Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and it remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.


See also, Syracuse: The Other Bits

Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.

Arethusa Spring, Siracusa
Arethusa Spring, Siracusa

Italy’s Opera Offerings

For opera lovers, the upcoming summer season of glorious music in Italy is something not to be missed.  All over the country festivals are about to open, many in small villages but all the more passionate because the town or village will have a personal tie to the composer whose work will be honoured.    Places like the San Galgano Opera Festival at Chiusdino, Siena that runs from June – August, the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro 10th-23rd August, and dozens more are set to keep opera fans happy during the summer months. My own favourites, the ones I hope to visit each year, are the Verona festival, the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago and the Ravenna Festival, not just because of the music they offer but because they are in areas that allows touring during the day and longer trips on either side of the musicfest.

Arena di Verona

The Arena di Verona is one of the most magnificent arenas in Italy, capable of seating 20,000 patrons per performance but limited to 15,000 for safety reason.  The setting is truly magnificent, open to the elements and capable of staging the world’s most famous operas and adding props like real elephants and camels when the work calls for them.  This year the Arena celebrates 100 years and is offering Aida, Romeo and Juliet, Nabucco, Traviata, Trovatore, Rigoletto, and a Verdi Gala.    Among the special guests for the opening Gala are Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Andrea Bocelli.    June 14th – September 7th.

Verona from the hills outside the city.
Verona from the hills outside the city.

The home of the legendary Romeo and Juliet, there is no lack of sightseeing in Verona itself, but nearby is Lake Garda surrounded by delightful towns, further afield but an easy day trip is Venice, and the Dolomites are on the doorstep.  What could be better.

The Amphitheatre of Verona
The Amphitheatre of Verona

Puccini & ClefThe 59th Puccini Festival takes place in Torre del Lago from July 12th – Augst 24th, a festival created by the great man himself in 1930 and since continued.  The outdoor theatre close to Vlla Mausoleo where Puccini’s remains lie, is a wonderful setting in which to enjoy the music of one of the greatest opera composers of all time.  This year the offerings are Cavalleria Rusticana, Il Tabarro, Tosca, Turandot and Rigoletto. There is little accommodation in Torre del Lago and most visitors to the event choose to stay either at nearby Viarragio or Lucca (my favourite).

Madame Butterfly in Mosaic Tiles in Lucca
Madame Butterfly in Mosaic Tiles in Lucca

Lucca has the Puccini museum, is the only town remaining with its surrounding walls intact, the top of which can be walked or cycled around as they are very wide, and is known as the “tower town” due to the number of intact tall towers there.  A charming cathedral, free concerts in the evenings when not at the opera, some great restaurants, and Lucca could be the prize of the season.  Besides, it is just a short rail journey from Pisa and so perfect for connecting flights.

Puccini Statue in Piazza in Lucca (beside Museum)
Puccini Statue in Piazza in Lucca (beside Museum)
Magnificent 5th Century Mosaics in Ravenna
Magnificent 5th Century Mosaics in Ravenna

The Ravenna Festival from May to June  is hosted in its many theatres and churches.  The Byzantine basilicas, cloisters and piazzas combine to make a superb backdrop for the art and music on offer.  The finest opera companies with the finest singers converge on this small town for a very special festival, this one the 24th, and apart from opera and classical music, they will offer jazz, films and exhibitions.

For all other festivals, check out the following site which lists them all.

The Shard – London’s New Viewing Attraction

Daytime View from The Shard, London
Nightime View from The Shard, London

The Shard.  Ah!  I look up from the ground and marvel at the design, at the shards of glass that catch the light and splay out at the top.  I had watched it slowly take over its London site, putting in the shade even the famous green glass building that the locals have named The Gherkin.

Then last week during the World Travel Market at Excel, I was privileged to be invited to take a trip to the top of The Shard to experience the incredible views over London from this spectacular building designed by Master Architect Renzo Piano.  And what a vista.

London Bridge from The Shard

With a 360 degree view over the city to a distance of 64 km (40 miles), and from 800 feet up in the sky in the tallest building in Western Europe, London had never looked better.  The Shard is twice as high as any other viewing point in London and the only place in the city from which you can see all of London.

The View from the Shard

For the first time I could see how the River Thames has helped create this great city, how it snakes in and out, meandering north and south in ways I had never realized.   Tiny boats sailed on its muddy waters, like toys pushed off from river banks by little boys.

The Majesric River Thames

From high in our eyrie on Level 69 we could see all of London’s famous landmarks – even on a grey drizzly day.  Easy to pick out the Emirates Stadium (home of the Arsenal football team), Wembley Stadium, Windsor Castle, St. Paul’s etc. and by following the railways with their toy-trains for all the world like the Hornby set I played with a child I could find the railway stations and using this as a guide, find lesser known sites in the area.

Trains on London’s Railways as viewed from The Shard

Technical Help on Viewing Platform

One of the Tell Scopes on Level 69

Of course there are telescopes too.  Not just telescopes, but Tell:scopes, a state of the art system that provides both day and night views of London and information in ten languages.  One thousand years of history and some of the most iconic buildings in the world lie before the viewer as digital Tell:scopes  help visitors explore the cityscape in every direction.

From these viewing galleries it is possible to ascend even higher to Level 72 where, at the highest accessible point of The Shard, guests can stand in the open air, surrounded by the giant shards of glass that seen ti disappear into the sky.  The Shard title derives from the sculpted design which consists of glass facets that incline inwards but which do not meet at the top but instead, open to the sky to allow the building to breathe naturally.

Rood Gardens on the City’s Important Buildings

Further Details and how to book:

The View from the Shard will offer a totally immersive experience of one of the greatest cities on earth when it opens to the public on February 1st 2012.

Restaurants, offices, executive apartments and the Shangri-La Hotel their first time in London ) occupy different floors of the building.  Two lifts whisk visitors to the top in 30 seconds.

Tickets can be reserved for dates next year at at £24. 95 for adults and £18. 95 for children or via the box office hotline +44(0)844 499 7111.  Open 0900-2200 daily.  Nearest tube station is London Bridge, bus routes 43, 141, 148 and 521 stop there and bus 151 goes from London Bridge. Boat from Westminster Pier leaves hourly.

Not a Job if you Suffer from Vertigo!

Noto – Sicily’s Perfect Baroque Town

Sicily, with its dark history, rough mountains, ravishing scenery, and Etna, that brooding snow-capped volcano that is  never far from people’s thoughts, is one of the Mediterranean islands to which I am constantly drawn back.   I go there for the known attractions and for the food, heavily influenced by the cuisine of the many nations that conquered the island, and for the Baroque towns that sprang up after the earthquake of 1693 that devastated the south-east of the island.  All are beautiful, but the finest of them all is Noto, a town built of golden stone from a local quarry and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the earthquake, Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, employed the best architects of the day to rebuild the city just south of the original town: the result is a triumph of urban planning and harmony.  Noto is in the province of Siracusa, itself a gem of a city and one that should not be rushed through as it has some of the most beautiful buildings in the area, plus the world famous Duomo in the Piazza of the same name, a sea-front with a wall just made for sitting on while you feast on a gelato.  Noto lies about 35 kilometers southwest of Siracusa and is easily reached by local trains which run regularly.        

It was built almost entirely in the  prevailing style at the time, Baroque, and these near-perfect buildings are what makes Noto so special and which earned it the title of  UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is a very accessible town.  You can wander the length of the graceful Corso, stopping here and there for a coffee and one of Noto’s famous cakes, or a gelato or freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice.  Take a detour down the side streets and climb the steep steps to the top where the aristocrats lived, then come down to the next level which housed the clergy and other nobility, before arriving back at street level where the ordinary people lived.   One of the best streets in which to wander is the Via Nicolaci, famous for its buttressed balconies held up with playful horses, griffons, cherubs and old men, incongruous on an otherwise severely classical façade.

Just at the top of Via Nicolaci is the beautiful elliptical façade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine. I didn’t have time to count them, let alone visit them, but I was assured that Noto has thirty-two churches.  Think on that – thirty two churches.

So, what to visit when you are only there for a day visit.  If time is short my advice is just to wander.  Like Florence, the history of the town is in its buildings, their façades and the sense of life in the streets.  The Cathedral rises impressively above Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle and is approached by a wide and graceful flight of steps and its simple interior  

may well come as a surprise in contrast to its exterior.

I had initially mistaken the flamboyant Chiesa di san Dominica for the Cathedral, flanked as it is by huge palm trees and looking more Middle East than Mediterranean. The Municipio (town hall) has an exuberant trompe l’oeil ceiling and a “magic mirror” which is just a mirror of illusion.  My own favourite interior was the Vittorio Emmanuelle Theatre, still offering productions to its patrons, a fantasy theatre with red velvet and gilded boxes lining the walls echoed by heavy drapes curving round the proscenium arch.      

If you want to imagine what Italian towns looked like in the 17th century, then Noto should be on your list of towns to visit – it’s very special.    

Auxerre, Historic Town in France

Auxere on the River Yonne

Just over an hour from Paris by train and in the heart of the Yonne are of Burgundy.  You may be lucky enough to cruise some of the canals in the area, but if not and if you can drag yourself away from the charms of Paris, you won’t be disappointed in this town colonised by the Romans.

The vineyards that surround Auxerre from which are produced some delightful  wines, are among the most celebrated in France, and some of the oldest.   This is the area of the great Chablis houses and if time permits a visit to Chablis itself would be the icing on the cake.   It lies approximately 15 kilometres away, famous for its white wine from the Chardonnay grape, referred to here as liquid gold.   The oldest certified vineyard in France, the Clos de la Chainette dating back to the 7th century, is in the Auxerre area.

Centreville, Auxerre.  Auxerre (pronounced Ausserre), was originally an active port, being on the wine route, but as the railways superseded water transport it lost its pre-eminence and became the pleasant unhurried town it is today.  Situated as it is on the River Yonne, and with the growth of sailing and the popularity of France’s canals, river cruisers and hotel barges have once again made the river the focal point of the town.  Cafés and restaurants along the banks are ideal places from which to while away an afternoon.

The old town starts right behind the Quai and from here a walk through the steep narrow cobbled streets with their timbered houses up to the newly restored Cathedral St Etienne is an essential part of a visit.   The Tour de l’Horloge, a magnificent sundial, leads into the pedestrian shopping area.

It is a town that repays exploring on foot, as it has preserved an exceptional architectural heritage and every corner seems to hold a piece of art and history.  Its historic centre is crisscrossed by winding streets along which are boutiques, restaurants and houses of the local residents.  It may look like an open-air Museum, but  Auxerre is very much a living town.

Not to be missed: the Cathedral of St. Etienne, St. Germain Abbey, Plaçe St. Nicholas and the houses with wooden sides along the banks of the River Yonne.

Cathedral Entrance
Auxerre on the River Yonne