City Scene: Edinburgh

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It’s easy to imagine yourself back in time in Edinburgh, Scotland. A walk down the Royal Mile conjures up images of a busy marketplace where trader’s haggle over the price of goods, and horses trot back and forth down the ancient thoroughfare from the castle at one end to the royal palace at the other. In the middle of Old Town, a rowdy crowd of tartan and kilt-wearing clansmen stumble from pub to pub in search of another shot of whiskey or pint of ale. With lantern in hand, they belt out Scottish folk-songs as they make their way home through a maze of dark alleys and steep cobblestone streets in the wee hours of morning.

Our experience in Edinburgh was nothing like that, but it’s easy enough to imagine! As the last stop on our CIE tour of Scotland, I felt like we had saved the best for last. Don’t get me wrong, ALL of Scotland is beautiful! It is a diverse country with castles, rocks, highlands and lowlands, but Edinburgh has it all. Thanks to its spectacular setting high on Castle Rock (which is literally a plug in an extinct volcano), the view is of green hills, blue seas and some of the grandest medieval architecture you’ll ever see.

We arrived late in the afternoon with just enough time to explore the vicinity of the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel before dinner. From the look of things, Edinburgh was going to be incredible! Our Scottish evening included a meal, drinks and a show complete with delectable items such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, cheese and oatcakes, and of course haggis and black pudding. Cranachan (cream, honey, whiskey-soaked oats and raspberries) with strong black coffee was served during a lively song and dance show featuring bagpipes, fiddles and tin whistles.

The next morning was brisk and blustery; none the less, we started our tour at the highest, most windy spot in Edinburgh—the Castle. It totally dominates the city skyline. Archaeological evidence suggests the location of the castle has been a fortified stronghold since the 6th century and a royal castle has existed there since the reign of Malcolm III around 1060. Due to damage, decline and reconstruction over the years, little remains of the original structures. A small chapel on the highest point of the rock dates back to 1124 and is the oldest surviving building. The iconic castle, where centuries of royalty have lived and died, has stunning views of all that surround it.

After the castle tour, we strolled along the Royal Mile, a street which connects the castle to the Royal Palace. Because space was physically confined in the Old Town area, buildings were compelled to expand upward which explains the 6, 10, and even 12-story tenements. Most of the medieval structures have retained their original form over the years, so the area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most popular section of the Royal Mile is near High Street. Beautiful St. Giles Cathedral is here, as well as popular shops, pubs and restaurants.

At the lower end of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse as well as the ruins of a 12th century abbey, Holyrood Park (aka the Queen’s Park) and the Scottish Parliament. The Palace is the official residence of British royalty when they visit Scotland. Queen Elizabeth spends one week each summer at Holyrood, at which time they fly the Royal flag of the United Kingdom; at all other times the Royal Banner of Scotland is displayed.

The palace as it stands today was built between 1671 and 1678.  Next to the palace are the remains of what once was the finest medieval abbey in Scotland. The Abbey was enlarged over the centuries, its grandeur evident by the size of the roofless nave, the walls of Gothic windows and a vaulted ceiling. I found it hauntingly beautiful! The gardens were magnificent as well, offering a peaceful atmosphere and a kaleidoscope of color.

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We spent a few hours of our free time at the National Museum of Scotland. It contains a wonderful assortment of displays featuring science, natural history, world cultures and Scottish artifacts. Not far from the museum is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog who famously guarded the grave of his owner for 14 years until the dog passed away in 1872. We headed back along the Royal Mile where we checked out a few shops and had dinner at the well-known “World’s End” pub. It was a pleasant evening, so we walked to Princess Street after dinner. The street has no buildings on the south side to allow for unobstructed views of Old Town and the Castle. The Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure dedicated to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, stands in the Princess Street gardens.

Our tour group was headed for Belfast, Northern Ireland the next day, so it was time to say goodbye to Edinburgh. During our brief stay here, we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do, but it was long enough to appreciate the historic city scene of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Find my other City Scene posts here:

City Scene: St. Peterburg

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: St. Petersburg

DSC_0353 (3)St. Petersburg, Russia was a two-day stop on the Baltic Cruise we took for our 35th anniversary. It was a mixed bag of experiences, both enjoyable and not so much! We started off with a nonexistent welcome from immigration. The official didn’t smile or utter a word – he just looked at our passport, looked at us, then back at our passport. A nod of his head was our only indication to proceed through the gate. An air of unfriendliness continued throughout our visit, but the sights of the city were magnificent none the less!

The agenda for the day included a tour of Catherine’s Palace, lunch in the Czar’s Village, a visit to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, then a drive by the Palace Square, the Arch of the General and other highlights; but we weren’t the only tourists in town! Traffic was terrible, security procedures were strict, and it was crowded everywhere we went. It must be a daunting task to herd large numbers of people through historic structures while protecting them from potential harm. All that aside, Catherine’s Palace was spectacular! Even Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna was not this impressive! Although Peter the Great presented this estate to his wife Catherine in 1710, the Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered it completely redone. The result is why the Palace is now ranked as one of the masterpieces of world architecture.

Inside (where you had to pay to take pictures) the WOW factor continued! From the main staircase where the ceilings were decorated with 17th & 18th century paintings, to the Grand Hall with its gilded mirrored walls, to the State Study of Alexander the 1st, each room was stunning! None more so than the Amber Room! This famous room was originally constructed with over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber, but the Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during WW II and they have never been found. Russian artists began recreating the room in the early 1980s and it was re-opened to the public in 2003. Outside on the Palace grounds, we listened to an A cappella singing group perform for the crowd at one of the two garden pavilions near the lake.

Back on the bus, we searched over 30 minutes for the location of our restaurant for lunch only to discover it was back on the Palace grounds. Disappointment with our inexperienced tour guide and bus driver was setting in! After lunch we toured the Hermitage Museum—home to one of the greatest collections of art in the world! The building itself is a work of art, but the masterpieces inside it were barely visible because of the swarms of people surrounding them. There were Raphael’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s, to name a few, all right there under one roof, but we could only get a glimpse of them through the crowd. I’m sure it would have been an extraordinary experience under better conditions. If we ever do this again, we won’t go in June and we’ll spend the extra money for an “after-hours” tour! We were running late due to the lunch debacle, the snarly traffic, and the packed museum so we didn’t get to drive by all the planned highlights. We did, however, find time to stop at a souvenir shop where they were offering free samples of Russian Vodka. I think everyone needed a drink at that point, so why not! We bought a few sets of Babushka dolls as gifts, plus a charming Russian Egg Christmas ornament for ourselves. We ended the day aboard ship, and after a lovely dinner and show, we went to bed hoping for a better day two in St. Petersburg.

At 8:30 the next morning we got on the bus and were immediately relieved that our tour guide was not the same one as the day before. This one was pleasant, confident and informative – she even knew how to smile! Traffic was terrible once again, but we made it to our first stop at Peterhof, the summer palace complex of Peter the Great. We waited in line for an hour before entering the Grand Palace through its formal gardens. Although the front exterior was not as elaborate as Catherine’s Palace, the interior was equally lavish starting with the ornate ceremonial staircase followed by room after room of rich colors, intricate parquet floors, painted ceilings, fine silk wall coverings, gilded statues and massive portraits of the royal families of Russia.

The gardens behind the complex were amazing, with upper and lower fountains adorning the landscape between the palace and the Baltic Sea. It is the largest network of gravity-fed water fountains in the world. We ended our tour of Peterhof with a walk from the prominent center fountain, called the Grand Cascade, along a canal that flowed through the gardens to a pier where a hydrofoil took us back to St. Petersburg.

We enjoyed our jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Neva River. Approaching St. Petersburg by water gave us a new appreciation for the beauty of the buildings on the waterfront. The Hermitage, for instance, was dazzling from a distance!  After a nice lunch at the City Café, we hopped back on the bus for a drive by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the battleship Aurora, and the Rostral Columns before stopping at the most gorgeous sight in St. Petersburg—The Church on the Spilled Blood!

The church was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the gruesome name). Both the exterior, designed in the traditional Russian onion-dome style, and the interior are decorated with bright shades of marble and detailed mosaic tiles. According to restorers, it contains several thousand square yards of mosaics – more than any other church in the world. The church was closed in the 1930s when the atheist Soviets, who were offended by religion, began destroying churches all over the country for being “inappropriate symbols of Christianity”. The church remained closed and under restoration for years and was finally re-opened in 1997, not as a place of worship, but as a Museum of Mosaics. The pictures we took of this church are some of my favorite travel photos!

It’s hard to comprehend the damage the city has endured from various disasters including fires, floods and wars, especially the cruel Nazi occupation of WW II, but all the sites we toured have been restored to their original glory. Architecturally, the city ranks as one of the most splendid in Europe. The historic district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. While I didn’t find St. Petersburg to be a particularly congenial city, clearly there is a fondness for art, opulence and beauty here. With construction and/or re-construction continuing everywhere you look, it will one day be even more magnificent than the current city scene!

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Other City Scene posts:

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Auckland

There are many reasons why I think Auckland, New Zealand is a delightful city. It is picturesque, vibrant and friendly; and it’s geologically fascinating as well, since it has two large harbors and was built on a large volcanic field. It is also where we met up with our brother-in-law and his new wife to begin a cruise around Australia and New Zealand together. They proved to be the perfect travel partners – pleasant and laid back – just like Auckland!

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We arrived at The Rendezvous Grand, a beautiful hotel superbly located in the cosmopolitan center of Auckland and within easy walking distance to numerous city landmarks. Our companions had arrived a day before us, but on the afternoon of January 3rd they were waiting in the hotel lounge where they welcomed us with a drink and a toast… cheers to a wonderful trip ahead!

The four of us spent the late afternoon and evening walking up Hobson Street, passed St. Matthew-in-the-City, around the Sky Tower Complex, and back down Queens Street jammed with shopping, art and nightlife. Along the way we found Federal Street, one of Auckland’s newer foodie precincts for dinner at an open-air restaurant, complete with friendly birds who were loitering at the table next to ours, no doubt hoping for food. It was a perfect evening to be outside, quite unlike the winter weather we left back home.

The next day we were rested and anxious to see the city. The first order of business was to book our Auckland City Express Tour. Lucky for us, a bus was scheduled to depart just as we walked to the counter for tickets. Better yet, we were the only ones there. Timing is everything! It turned out to be a private 3-hour tour showcasing the highlights of what makes Auckland so special. From the many volcanoes, working farms and gorgeous gardens, plus learning about the Maori culture and history along the way, it was the best possible Kiwi experience.

On the tour, we visited Bastion point where the harbor views were stunning, drove past the glamorous houses on Paratai Drive, and stopped at Mt. Eden, the highest volcano in Auckland. This, and the 48 other individual volcanoes that surround the city, are all considered extinct although the volcanic field itself is merely dormant. We drove through Parnell Village to visit the historic Holy Trinity Church, and over the Harbor Bridge for a view of the Waitemata Harbor and to learn a bit of maritime history at the Viaduct.

We stopped at One Tree Hill to see a working farm on our way to the Auckland Domain. The Auckland Domain is the city’s oldest park where the explosion crater and most of the surrounding tuff-rings of the Pukekawa volcano can still be seen. I found it wondrously beautiful considering how destructive it once was!

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After the tour, we stopped briefly at the hotel for our city maps, then headed off on foot to the Sky Tower. The iconic Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and offers breathtaking views for up to 80 kilometers in every direction. As we walked around the observation deck, we spotted our hotel and our ship among the many amazing sights below and beyond.

Back down on solid ground, it was a short walk to Albert Park, home to some of the most majestic and distinctive trees I’ve ever seen.  On one corner of the park is the Auckland City Art Gallery and Gardens, and on the other is the original park-keeper’s cottage, now a museum. The park has earned a special place in the hearts of Aucklanders and visitors alike.

By mid-afternoon, we met back up with our travel partners who had opted to tour outside the city that day. We headed to Princes Wharf where cruise ships dock at the Viaduct Harbor. Checking in at the ship was quick and easy, so we returned to the pier to explore the area before embarkation. The harbor was full of handsome yachts, including those used in the America’s Cup race. We saw the KZ 1, a sailing yacht used to challenge for the 1988 America’s Cup, now on display near the National Maritime Museum. We toyed with the idea of having a nice, cold beer at The Ice House we passed, but we didn’t have enough time to warrant the cost, so we stopped at a cozy little bar next door and toasted once again to the cruise ahead.

We sailed away from Auckland at sunset just as a golden glow spread over the city. The sky was soon glazed in shades of orange; and with the Sky Tower and Mt. Eden in the background… it was the perfect final image of this City Scene.

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City Scene: Copenhagen

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For the second installment of City Scene, I have decided to re-visit Copenhagen, Denmark. It was from Copenhagen that we departed for our 35th wedding anniversary cruise. We had a wonderful time cruising the Northern European ports on the Baltic Sea, but it all began with an overnight stay in Copenhagen.

After a lengthy flight delay in Kansas City, we frantically ran from gate to gate for our connection in Newark. Once we caught our breath and settled in, the flight across the Atlantic was uneventful – thank goodness! We transferred from the airport to the heart of the city where we, along with good friends who were also celebrating their 35th anniversary, checked in at the historic Palace Hotel.

The hotel, a city landmark in Town Square, is right next to Tivoli and within walking distance of art, culture and museums. We had purchased tickets from home for the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour, so after 30 minutes to rest and freshen up, we made it to Stop One at the designated time – quite an accomplishment, I must say! Unfortunately, it was so crowded and confusing that we thought it best to compose ourselves over lunch. We found a quiet pub across the street from Tivoli Gardens, had a nice beer & burger, then tried the Hop On-Hop Off again. Success!

From Tivoli Square we traveled to Rosenborg Castle, the National Gallery & Botanical Garden, and the Langelinie Pier for a photo stop at the Little Mermaid statue. The Edvard Eriksen sculpture was inspired by the short story by Denmark’s favorite son: Hans Christian Andersen. It is supposedly the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, so we took a picture of her like all good tourists do!

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We “hopped” back on the bus and passed Fortress Kastellet, the Resistance Museum, and St. Albans Church on our way to the next photo stop at Gefion Fountain. From there it was on to Amalienborg Royal Palace, a place we would have explored further if we’d had more time; then to Nyhavn, or the “New Harbor” area, where picturesque houses along the river bank are over 300 years old.

One of the things we noticed about Copenhagen was the large number of bicycles in the city. It is known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Nearly 70% of Copenhagen’s residents cycle throughout the year, so the city’s bicycle paths are extensive and well used. Cycle lanes are not shared with cars or pedestrians, and often have their own traffic light which gives cyclists a couple of seconds lead, allowing them time to accelerate.

Back on the Hop On-Hop Off, traffic was heavy and slow near Tivoli Park, but eventually we returned to the Palace Hotel for a brief rest. We met up with our friends again for dinner as a light rain began to fall.  Lucky for us the Stroget, a cute cobblestone, pedestrian-only thoroughfare with numerous restaurants and shops was just around the corner from the hotel. We ducked into the first little pub we came to, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. I had the Danish Sailors Stew, or Labskovs, a traditional dish originating on ships back in the 1700’s. It hit the spot on a cool, damp evening! The rain had stopped after dinner, so we continued our walk down the Stroget. A little souvenir shopping, some sightseeing, a stop at the pastry shop; then we found our way back to the hotel and wearily put ourselves to bed!  It had been a long day!

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and after a great breakfast at the hotel, were excited to start the day! We had the rest of the morning to further explore Copenhagen before cruise embarkation, so we walked a short distance to the canal area where Christiansborg Palace and Ruins are located. Once there, the buildings were impressive enough to coax us into taking the tour and I’m so glad we did.

The palace was the fifth building to be located on the site. The first one was Bishop Absalon Castle built there in 1167. In 1369, the Copenhagen Castle was located there and was the seat of the royal family of Denmark for more than 350 years. The first Palace was built on the site in the 1700’s, but it – and the second Palace (built in 1828) – both burnt to the ground. We saw the remains of these former buildings when we toured the ruins beneath the Palace. Rebuilt in 1928, the current Christiansborg Palace is home to the Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court and is used by the Queen for formal receptions.

We had just enough time for a few more pictures at New Harbor and to buy one more scrumptious Danish pastry… then we transferred to the docks to board the ship! As we sailed away, we said goodbye to the colorful, captivating “City Scene” in Copenhagen!

City Scene: Vienna

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I am embarking on a new endeavor! I’ve added a section to my blog devoted entirely to travel, specifically to individual cities. I plan to call this new feature “City Scene”. My goal is to highlight a different city each month. They will be in no particular order, but I’m starting with Vienna. It was the arrival city on my very first European tour, so it made quite an impression. Here is my summation of Vienna:

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With great anticipation, my husband and I departed Kansas City on a Monday morning and arrived in Vienna, Austria the following morning their time. We were the last of our tour group to check-in and, darn the luck, had to accept the “Brahms Suite” at the Radisson Blu Palais since all the regular rooms had been assigned. Gorgeous rooms! Before we could get settled in, our tour guide lead most of the group on an unofficial pre-tour and left us behind, so we just ventured out by ourselves – a blessing in disguise really, as we felt a certain thrill in discovering the sights of the city on our own, a bit like Christopher Columbus except there were thousands of other explorers right there with us.

Across the street from the hotel was Stadtpark, the first public park in Vienna. Because Johann Strauss II gave his first concert there in 1868, a gilded bronze statue of him was erected, as well as numerous other monuments of composers who had entertained there. From the park we found our way to the center of the city where we were fascinated by the sheer number, size and architecture of the ancient buildings, sprinkled with colorful modern shops along the way. We snapped pictures endlessly even though we didn’t know exactly what we were seeing until the next day when our guide, Hannes, officially started the tour with a walk through downtown Vienna.

Most impressive on the tour was St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure in the heart of the city dating back to the year 1147. With its intricately tiled roof and tall south tower, the magnificent cathedral is one of the most important and beloved landmarks in all of Austria.

Equally imposing was the Hofburg complex which includes the Imperial Palace (home to the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire since the 13th century), the Imperial Chapel (home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir), the Spanish Riding School (with the famous Lipizzaner stallions), and the Imperial Treasury. Our first thought upon seeing both the cathedral and the Hofburg complex was how do we capture the size of these things in a photo?

That evening we had dinner at Heurige Mayer am Pfarrplatz, one-time home of Ludwig Van Beethoven where he began working on his Ninth Symphony in 1817. Beethoven moved 65 times in Vienna seeking privacy, and died in an apartment during a violent snowstorm that battered the city in 1827.

The next day in Vienna, our tour group crossed the Danube River to visit the former summer residence of the Habsburg imperial family: the Palace of Schonbrunn. After walking through the extensive gardens and fountains, we hoofed it up the hill to the Gloriette, which seemed to be an 18th century version of a gazebo, but elaborate, VERY elaborate! From the top of this hill was an extraordinary view of Vienna.

Back down the hill, we toured the inside of the Palace, a 1,441-room baroque style monstrosity built between 1696 and 1712 by Emperor Leopold I for his son, Joseph I. It was stunning and filled with Bohemian crystal chandeliers, porcelain tile fireplaces, lavish gold leaf ornamentation and hundreds of original oil paintings. We saw the Hall of Mirrors where in 1772, 6-year-old Mozart played the harpsichord for Empress Maria Theresa. It is said that after he played for her, he crawled onto her lap for a hug! We also saw the bedrooms of some of Maria Theresa’s 16 children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France who was beheaded by her own people during the French Revolution.

After a late lunch at Restaurant Ofenloch, we had a free evening. A group of us purchased tickets to a concert by the Vienna Symphony at the famous Vienna Concert Hall (Wien Konzerthaus). Beautiful!

We topped off the evening with friends and a little wine & cheese in our suite, where we discussed our favorite moments in this memorable “City Scene”!

(Note: all photos are by me or my husband)