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Travel Blog: Vietnam: a country in flux

Motorcycle Mania

Arriving in Hanoi and stepping out on to the city’s streets is to experience a sensual assault which is unlike anything comparable in Europe. The most obvious difference is the overwhelming number of motorcycles. It is estimated that between them, Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, have approxiamtely 12 million motorcycles. They are a formidable sight, especially when trying to cross the road, not least because they don’t slow down or stop for pedestrians, and rarely follow any lane discipline (including riding the wrong way on ‘one way streets’ and frequently mounting the pavement to avoid the traffic jams)

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In Hue city the motorcyle wave appeared a little more orderly

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Every available space seems to be occupied by parked motor cycles. Until the 1990’s the bicycle was the main means of transport. There are still a few brave, often elderly, cyclists and pedestrians trying to navigate the streets alongside a growing number of cars.

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When attempting to cross the road, the key advice is not to stop or run as this will not be anticipated by the oncoming motorcycles and cars – just keep walking at a steady pace and the traffic will magically weave its way around you

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The (tourist) buses in the above picture are not a common site. Public tranpsort is severly lacking, although the authorities have woken up to the serious problem of poor air quality in the cities, and begun to invest heavily in a city metro service. The most ambitious scheme in Ho Chi Minh city was due to start service in 2014, but this has now been postponed to 2020.

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Constructing the new metro on Ho Chi Minh city

In Hanoi, the railway is an option for a few destinations. One of the main lines travels alongside the front doors of houses where the local residents can be seen brewing coffee and tending to chickens

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A couple of minutes later, the evening express passes through

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It is possible to travel overnight from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south – the so-called Reunification Express, a distance of over 1000 miles. We sampled it between Hue and Da Nang

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Street Life

Vietnam is undergoing a period of rapid urbanisation – doubling from 20 to 40% of the population in the past twenty years. Many of its cities’ streets seem to replicate village life with families openly cooking, socialising  and trading. Indeed, there seems to be a constant stream of agricultural produce being transported along the streets by individual vendors or people delivering produce to the street markets, food stores and cafes/restaurants.

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Street markets can be found in every city and village.

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Of the many food vendors, the most common sight is Pho – a rice noodle soup with various meat and herbs added. It is eaten round the clock by the Vietnamese.

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Aside from food, there are a range of personal services available including hair dressers who offer to clean your ears (of wax) as well as cut your hair

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Personal massage services proliferate – the treatment of feet seems to be very popular

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As with many Asian countries, hand made clothes is a thriving industry, especially in tourist cities like Hoi An

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What is very clear from walking the streets in Vietnam is that its people are very industrious – working very long hours, and despite officially having a communist economic system, there is an irrepressible DIY entrepreneurial spirit.

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Politics and history

Whilst Vietnam is rapidly modernising with many of the outward signs of a global capitalist economy, it is still apparent that the Communist Party holds sway. 2018 is being marked as the 50th annivserary of the Tet Offensive when the Communist north launched a huge offensive against the south which many see as the key turning point of what the Vietnamese call the American War of 1964-75.

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Memories of the occupation of Vietnam by both France and the USA are very much kept alive throughout the country. For example, there is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, still known locally by its former name of Saigon, which contains a special exhibition of the devestation of the country caused by chemical weapons such as Agent Orange

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In Hanoi, Maison Centrale houses the prison built by the French to incarcerate local rebels, and then later employed by the Communists to house American POWs (nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’) such as future presidential candidate John McCain

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Depicting the French torture of Vietnamese

In Ho Chi Minh City, the old presidential palace, now renamed the Independence or Reunification Palace, has been preserved so vistors can see the opulence in which the doomed South Vietnamese President Van Thieu resided, before North Vietnam forces eventually triumphed in April 1975 – the tank which broke through the gates of the Palace still resides within the Palace grounds.

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The Presidential Palace cinema – The ‘Green Berets’ was reputedly the President’s favourite film

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The tank that smashed through the palace gates

Elsewhere, in Hue you can still see the rusting remains of American military hardware. To the north of the historic city (which was largely destroyed in 1968) there are a number of battlefields such as Hamburger Hill, which can only be toured with guides (to avoid being injured or killed by the large number of unexploded bombs which still blight many parts of Vietnam)

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Hue

Vietnam is a one party (Communist) state and there are plenty of signs of the party’s role in administering the country

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The ex- leader who is most venerated is (‘Uncle’) Ho Chi Minh. In Hanoi there are always long queues to visit his mausoleum where his embalmed body can be seen. There is a constant stream of school parties brought along to learn about their heroic leader.

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Elsewhere, Ho Chi Minh’s avuncular image is ubiquitous

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Ho Chi Minh City’s splendid Central Post Office

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The Communist Party’s presence is inescapable. In both city and country there are daily announcements relayed via loudspeakers to inform and educate the people. Sometimes, the images of the Party sit uneasily alongside those of capitalist enterprises such as the Vincon retail shopping centre in Ho Chi Minh city.

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Despite the authoritarian political system, Vietnam does not feel to be in the grip of any kind of police state. The local police have a low key presence

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Although there is no tolerance of any political oppostion, there is religious tolerance. Ho Chi Minh city houses a large Catholic cathedral,  Hindu temple and mosque dating from 1935

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However, it is the Buddhist religion which has a very strong presence throughout the country. We came across many beautiful historic pagodas during our visit

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Ganh dau Pagoda, Phu Quoc

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Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

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All kinds of gifts are offered in temples apart from incense

Environmental Costs

Unsurprisingly, given the breakneck speed at which Vietnam is modernising, environmental damage is all too evident. Apart from the obvious problem of air pollution in the cities, tourist areas are also suffering from lack of adequate environmental regulation. Phu Quoc Island, with its huge tropical forest and wonderful beaches, is being developed as a tourist centre without there seemingly being any systematic means of disposing of rubbish.

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The jewel in Vietnam’s tourist crown is the Unesco World Heritage Site, Halong Bay. However, the popularity of experiencing the unique beauty of the Bay and the local fishing communities has been threatened by a failure to restrict the numbers of cruise ships touring the area and the building of huge hotels, and finally, there is the damage wreaked by pollution from nearby coal mines.

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On a more mundane level, health and safety often seems quite rudimentary. Walking the streets of Hanoi often necessitates ducking under hanging electricity wires. The wiring pictured below is typical of neighbourhoods in Hanoi’s Old Town (note the loudspeakers used to provide daily public briefings)

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Hoi An: Struggling to retain its charm

Granted World Heritage Ancient Town status by Unesco, Hoi An is undoubtedly a beautifully preserved and captivating town. However, because of its magnetic appeal, it is in danger of becoming a form of Vietnamese Disneyland. The town’s colourful lanterns, ancient buildings and laid back charm are very enticing, especially at night, but unfortunately it struggles to preserve its charm in the face of busloads of tourists

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Artistic expression

Art is alive and well in Vietnam. Most typically it can be found in the tourist oriented galleries which combine traditional images with more modern abstraction

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Ho Chi Minh City has the elegant old Fine Arts Museum dating from 1929 which houses some of the best known 20th century Vietnamese artists as well as inspiring some live artists.

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Nyguen KhanHoi An’s

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Hoi An’s Couleurs d’Asie Gallery houses the work of French photographer Réhahn who has photograhed most of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities

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Finally, there is a buoyant market for recycled old propaganda posters from the American/Vietnam war (largely aimed at western tourists). Whilst some of the striking political images seem inspired by soviet Russian propaganda art, others have a very original Vietnamese style.

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Ca Phe Culture

Whilst the French occupation of Vietnam was imperialist in nature, the French were responsible for introducing the country to coffee. It is estimated that Vietnam cities have more cafes per head of population than anywhere else in the world. Vietnamese grow their own coffee beans (second only to Brazil in global production) . The roasted beans are put into a crude drip filter called a phin and the outcome is invariably a very enjoyable cup of coffee with its unique distinctive taste.

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For coffee afficianados, there are a range of different styles depending upon the beans. Being a generally hot country, the majority of locals prefer iced to hot coffee, and in Hanoi you can also enjoy the delights of egg coffee (ca phe trung) – a sort of Vietnamese version of tiramisu, as well as coconut coffee and other unique combinations. The smooth sweetness of the drink is created by adding Vietnam’s own form of condensed milk.

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The Changing face of Vietnam

Vietnam has a very young population – over 70% population are under 40. With memories of the war fading fast, and rapid urbanisation/modernisation, it really feels like the traditional ways of living are fast disappearing.

Below are some images which reflect some of these social, economic and cultural changes.

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Ho Chi Minh city’s changing skyline

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Hanoi’s old town

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The view from the Bitexco Financial Tower in Ho Chi Minh city

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Latin dancing by Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake

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Break dancing in Hanoi

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A street concert in Hue

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Karaoke is hugely popular (if usually off key)

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The old man has just begun reading a long letter in Saigon’s Central Post Office

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Posing for a photo outside the Louis Vuitton store in Saigon

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Children enjoying Springtime flowers

The last picture of a family’s open front room (in Ganh Dau village, Phu Quoc) seems to epitomise many aspects of contemporary Vietnam – the motor cycle, televison and music centre, a Buddhist religious ‘shrine’ with symbolic offerings, the portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and the children’s fluffy toys combined with the openness of the room to the outside (neighbours and passers by) world.

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For further reading about how Vietnam’s development from the 1990’s, Bill Hayton’s Rising Dragon is essential reading. The website Everyday Life  provides a useful concise summary of how the country is changing

Travel blog: Miami Beach – art deco paradise

Miami Beach was developed as a luxury tourist resort in the early 20th century and the heyday of building was in the late 1920s and early 1930s during which the dominant design was arte moderne, or art deco, as it came to be known. Unlike in most of the USA, the buildings from that era have largely been preserved. They are concentrated in an area of South Miami Beach which is now known as the Miami Beach Architectural District – the area is in fact characterised by several architectural styles

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courtesy of the Art Deco Welcome Centre

However, the predominant syle is art deco

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The fact that so many of the original buildings have survived is mainly due to the efforts of the late Barbara Capitman who was instrumental in forming the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976. They led the fight against plans to demolish the historic buildings which made South Miami Beach so unique

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The stylish design and seductive colour of these buldings, especially the hotels, makes for a stunning sight as you stroll along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue and beyond.

We stayed at the Hotel of South Beach, formerly known as Tiffany, which is illustrated in the above poster. The Tiffany tower still beams out at night

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Here is a sample of some of the hotels we encountered whilst strolling through the district

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Hotel Delano

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Hotel National Bar

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sunrise at the Beacon

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Apart from the hotels and houses, the style even extended to the post office with its beautiful interior

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Close by is what used to be Hoffman’s Cafeteria but is now Senor Frogs, a Mexican restaurant

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To add to the period charm of the area, a few classic American cars from the 1950s can be found at various locations

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Along the beach itself are a stream of lifeguard towers that were introduced following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which had destroyed all the existing towers. These have an appealing quirky design which adds a vibrant colour to the beach scene

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Towers receiving a new lick of paint

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Facing east across the Atlantic Ocean, Miami Beach is the perfect place from which to view the sunrise

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At which point it is time to take breakfast at the News Cafe, where to the backdrop of classical music, you can read the morning paper and enjoy Ocean Drive coming to life.

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Sadly, this was the last place visited by Gianni Versace, who after collecting his morning papers, was gunned down on the steps of his nearby mansion  in July 1997.

Travel blog: New Orleans – jazz and oysters

The musical heritage

Known locally as NOLA or by a wider audience as the Big Easy, New Orleans is probably best known for its musical heritage, most notably jazz. It is considered to be the birthplace of what has come to be known as traditional or dixieland jazz.

Wandering the streets of the French Quarter, jazz music seems to be alive and well alongside the blues and even DIY percussion

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Dedicated to keeping the jazz traditions of NOLA alive is Preservation Hall in which there are daily concerts celebrating the music

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Nearby in Treme is the Louis Armstrong Park, named after the most famous of the city’s jazz musicians, but which also includes the Mahalia Jackson Theatre. Like Armstrong the great gospel singer was born in New Orleans

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Just across the road from the park is the site of the old J & M recording studio which many see as the birthplace of rock n roll. It is now a laundrette –  a cool place to wash your clothes.

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The best live jazz and blues music in New Orleans can be found in Frenchman Street at the end of which lies the New Orleans Music Factory, an impressive music store

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The French Quarter

The most famous district of New Orleans is the historical French Quarter to which tourists flock in their thousands. Whilst little remains from the original architecture of the French colonial period of the 18th century, there is is still a distinctive architectural style which can be summed up as creole plus greek revival – complete with iron balconies.

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Faulkner House – where the novelist William Faulkner once lived (now a bookshop)

Despite the mainly easy going atmosphere of the local streets, we happened upon the aftermath of two separate car accidents in the space of an hour – much to the bemusement of the locals.

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Bordering on the French Quarter is Canal St. Among its buildings  is the magnificent Saeger Theatre which opened in 1927. At the time of its construction it cost $2.5 million and seated over 4000 people. It recently re-opened after being extensively damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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A complex history

The history of new Orleans is long and complex but suffice to say that colonialism and slavery are at the heart of it.

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A poster for a slave auction from the 1850s – New Orleans Museum

Staying in the Garden District with its miles of leafy 19th century mansions, it is hard not to contrast it with other parts of the city where poverty is all too apparent. The few black faces we came across in the area only seemed to reinforce traditional racial roles – with a maid acting as nanny to white children, a man passed by with his bicycle….

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Also of note are the historic public cemeteries including Lafyaette no 1 which was the inspiration for Anne Rice’s vampire novels

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Two notable historic traditions of New Orleans are Mardi Gras and voodoo. Mardi Gras celebrations on Shrove Tuesday, which date from the 18th century, are evident all year round via the beads strung up in trees whch seemingly never get removed

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Meanwhile, Voodoo  has its roots in Afro-American religion, but has now become heavily commercialised for the tourist trade

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Streetcars

Despite the rather poor local public transport infrastructure (a car is essential for many journeys in the city), New Orleans boasts the oldest tram (or streetcar system) in America – the Charles St line which has run continuously since 1835. The current trams date from the 1920s and operate round the clock, if a little unreliably at times. More recently, the tram system has been partially restored after decades of closure (including the famous Desire destination of Tennessee Williams fame)

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The Desire line closed in 1948

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A Charles Street tram

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Two trams at City park terminus

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Canal St tram

Creole cuisine

New Orleans is renowned for its distinctive cuisine – a fusion of creole, cajun and soul food. Seafood is to the fore, especially oysters, which are served up in multifarious ways at amazingly low prices (compared to Europe)

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DSC09517The above picture features the Bourbon House restaurant which specialises in oysters and bourbon whisky. It is also home to the New Orleans Bourbon Society (aka as NOBS)

A more basic food tradition is the po’boy (derived from poor boy) – a thick sandwich containing meat or seafood

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A prominent local food company is Zatarain’s as highlighted in this colourful advertisement which fuses music and food, the lifeblood of the city

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Travel Blog: Denver to El Paso Road Trip

Denver: the Mile High City

With an elevation of over 5000 feet, Denver is known as the mile high city. Nestling in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, it is one of the fastest growing American cities reflecting its prominence in the hi-tech boom and its reputation as a centre of progressive liberal values (Colorado recently legalised marijuana). Like many American cities, its downtown area is undergoing a rejuvenation as reflected in new business towers, colourful murals and investment in public transport, such as the 16th St Mall bus service – a conveyor belt of free electric buses

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Some older buildings have survived such as the Paramount, an art deco cinema which opened in 1930

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Other buildings have been redeveloped – most notably the fabulous Denver Union Station which originates from 1914. It has become a hub of commuter services.

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Denver is also home to a range of art museums including one devoted to the relatively unknown abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still  

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Change US foreign policy?

Whilst in the Denver Museum of Art we encountered a charming museum guide who very kindly offered to drive us up to Red Rocks Amphitheatre a historic and atmospheric music arena in the hills overlooking Denver. Its illustrious list of performers includes The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty. Many thanks to ‘Paunch’ who is testimony to the enduring spirit of bohemianism.

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DSCF6229 On our journey south from Denver we passed through Walsenberg, an unassuming small town complete with faded main street. It was a pleasant surprise to see the old (dating from 1917) town cinema, The Fox, being restored. As a bonus, following our enquiry as to why the redecoration was proceeding, we were given a short tour of the cinema and a couple of souvenir t-shirts. Here is a brief history of the Fox cinema 

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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Containing the tallest sand dunes in the USA, the area was only given national park status in 2000, and so is relatively unknown compared to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain or Mesa Verde National Parks. Visiting in early November meant the temperature was near perfect for scaling the huge dunes as well as having the park much to ourselves.

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Taos

Situated in northern New Mexico, Taos Pueblo is the site of what is claimed to be the oldest continuous settlement in the USA, dating from between 1000-1450. The distinctive buildings are made of adobe – a mixture of baked earth, water and straw.

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Since being conquered by the Spanish, the Taos Indians who still occupy the village, are mostly Catholic but also retain ancient religious rites and beliefs.

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The most significant economic activity is now tourism, especially selling jewellery, although the turquoise jewellery for which New Mexico is famous, is now mostly imported from China.

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Taos itself is small town renowned for its art and bohemian legacy, including several hippie communes in the 1960s and 1970s. It still retains an air of laid back charm

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A frequent visitor to Taos was the film actor Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider, which Hopper directed, included some location shooting nearby, and Hopper’s funeral in 2010 was held at the St Francis of Assisi Mission church dating from the 18th century

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Hopper is buried in nearby Jesus Nazareno cemetery. His grave is suitably bedecked with Easy Rider regalia

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Tent Rock National Monument

New Mexico is blessed with a huge diversity of landscape. Using Santa Fe as a base enabled us to experience some of the state’s most striking scenery, not least Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The name derives from the cone shaped volcanic rocks formed by erosion over the past 6-7 million years. A 1.5 mile hike takes you to the top of the mesa for superb views of the surrounding mountains.

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Even the plains below looked attractive in the Autumn colours

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Santa Fe

At over 7000 feet the state capital enjoys bright blue sunshine and chilly nights during the Autumn. The city’s architecture reflects its native American/Spanish historical roots, an attractive aesthetic which has drawn legions of artists – there are over 200 galleries, including one devoted to the most famous artist who established her home there, Georgia O’Keefe

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Santa Fe is also the town where Billy the Kid was finally captured (but later escaped)

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Santa Fe still has the splendid Lensic cinema dating from 1931 alongside other attractions

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The city also benefits from a new railway station with a commuter line to Albequerque which has revitalised the area of the city formerly dominated by freight yards

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We took adavanatge of the new commuter line to pay a day trip to Abuquerque.

Here are two contrasting views from the carriage window

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Albuquerque

Most recently Albuquerque has been the beneficiary of being the loaction for the celebrated tv series Breaking Bad. Prior to that, its reputation was due more to its location on the mythic Route 66 an association which is being exploited long after the demise of the famous cross country highway,

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Downtown Albuquerque like many other American cities is a mixture of poverty, homelessness, business towers, old warehouses converted into loft apartments and some long standing original shops such as the Man’s Hat Shop

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Better Call Saul

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Los Alamos and Bandalier National Monument

North of Santa Fe lies Los Alamos, the once secret site selected as the centre for the Manhattan Project between 1942-5. From this select scientific community led by Robert Oppenheimer, emerged the world’s first atomic bomb which was tested further south in the new Mexico desert. The bomb was subsequently dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the Second World War, and ushering in the nuclear age.

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Close to Los Alamos is Bandelier National Monument an area where there is evidence of human settlements dating back over 10,000 years. This is evident from the numerous sculpted caves which can be inspected along the canyon walls, some of which require ascending a series of rope ladders.

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Leaving Santa Fe, we drove through freezing fog for a couple of hundred miles, but as we neared southern New Mexico the fog cleared and the temperature quickly rose from 0º to 20º C. There were few settlements along route 54, and little sign of human life in places such as Corona in Lincoln County (Billy the Kid territory) and Carrizozo, although the latter had a colourful ice cream parlour (closed)

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Abandoned cars and trucks gathering rust and weeds were a frequent sight in fields and enclosures

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Eventually we reached our next destination

White Sands National Monument

The world’s largest gypsum dunefield is a beguiling sight, especially as the sun is setting. Despite the harsh landscape vegetation manages to survive and reputedly over 800 species of animals. Fortunately, in November there was no need to carry extra water as the temperature was a balmy 20º

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We left as the sun set on the dunes with the Sacremento mountains in the distance

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El Paso

From the sublime solitude of White Sands we drove across the Texas state line to encounter the frenetic evening rush hour traffic in El Paso. A night at the Comfort Inn besides Interstate 10, within sight of the city’s refineries, is not the most tranquil scenario. However, a bus ride to the downtown area proved a pleasant surprise. We alighted in El Segunda Barrio a square mile of the city which is right on the US-Mexican border. The historic area is unsurprisingly domiated by Hispanic culture including the remarkable murals

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The area is not very affluent as reflected in some of the shops and services

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Nevertheless, El Segunda Barrio is a colourful and vibrant neighbourhood and deserves the case which has been made for preserving its historical status

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Adjacent to El Segunda Barrio, the central business district contains some striking buildings including the Convention Centre as well as signs of its commercial legacy before suburban shopping malls intervened

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We departed El Paso via The Sunset Limited, the historic rail service which links Los Angeles to New Orleans and now run by Amtrak.

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Waiting patiently for the Sunset Limited – it was 90 minutes late

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Travel blog: Poland – a troubled history

During our recent trip to Poland, we visited four of its largest cties: Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Poznan. It quickly became apparent that Poland is a rapidly evolving country, both economically and culturally, but also a country whose recent turbulent and tragic history is all too evident.

The changing urban landscape

The image below features Warsaw’s Palace of Culture which provided a dramatic night time spectacle from our hotel bedroom. The picture neatly encapsulates Warsaw’s (and Poland’s) recent history.  in the foreground there is the open expanse of walkways above the Centrum metro station, car parks, etc. an area, like 90% of Warsaw, which was systematically flattened by the Germans during 1944-5 as retribution for the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944.

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The Palace itself dates from 1955 and the era of Communist rule (it was originally called the Josef Stalin Palace of Culture and Science). It functions as a multimedia centre and houses several theatres, cinemas, a swimming pool, university departments, and an observation tower amongst other things. As a symbol of Soviet domination over Poland, it has not always been particularly loved by the citizens of Warsaw, but belatedly it has become more popular. Interestingly, The Rolling Stones played there in 1967. Presumably they sang ‘ (I can’t Get No) Satisfaction’.

Finally, on the far left are the modern tower blocks built during the period since Poland regained its independence in 1989. These include Zlote 44, Europe’s tallest apartment block – seen here opposite the Communist era Congress Hall. Below that is a view of the towering 5 star Marriot Hotel built in 1989 where President Obama was caught on camera lifting weights during his visit to Poland in 2014.

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Britain’s Norman Foster was responsible for the Metropolitan office complex on Warsaw’s Pilsudski (formerly Victory) Square. This is a site for important ceremonial occasions, as can be seen here with the changing of the guard marching to and from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Elsewhere, we came across other examples of striking modern architecture as with the National Forum of Music (2015) in Wroclaw, Below that are two pictures of Poznan’s Stary Browar shopping centre, an impressive shopping centre and art gallery complex converted from an old brewery.

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Outside the city centres, you don’t have to look too far to find the stereotypical urban landscape which typified life under communism. This shot was taken on the outskirts of Wroclaw complete with uniform tower blocks and very wide highways.

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To the east of Krakow is Nowa Huta (translated as the New Steel Mill), a showcase ‘city’ of originally 200,000 people.

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Since 1989, the authorities have subverted its intended status as all that was meant to be best about life under Stalinism, e.g. streets and squares have been renamed after Ronald Reagan and Solidarity

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However, we found that it still feels very different from the relatively affluent and westernised Krakow city centre, not least because of a seemingly much older population not evident in the downtown areas we visited. The Restaurant Stylowa still retains the 1950s feel of communist life complete with a mini statue of Lenin.

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Gentrification

It is apparent that many urban areas in Poland are undergoing a process of gentrification. In the Warsaw district of Praga, an old industrial area has been transformed into a cluster of hi-tech workspaces, retail outlets, cafes etc. with the Soho Factory at its core. Hipster culture has become established in a manner which would not be amiss in London’s Shoreditch or Barcelona’s El Born neighbourhoods.

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Curiously, deckchairs seemed to be made available (free of charge) for taking a break all over Poland. It almost seems to be a public utility.

Krakow’s Kaziemierz, the old Jewish district, has very clearly been transformed into a thriving hip area awash with restaurants, bars, cafes, and artistic enterprises, making it a fashionable place to buy a newly converted apartment.

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Communist neon

Warsaw’s Soho Factory is a large complex of converted industrial buildings which intriguingly includes a museum dedicated to neon lights which were a prominent feature of the urban landscape during Communist times. Such lighting outside shops and cinemas helped to create the illusory glamour and excitement which was associated with the West.

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                       An old sign for the ‘Ladybird’ milk bar in Warsaw

In Wroclaw some of the old neon lights have been installed in an alleyway to create the atmospheric backdrop for the Neon Side Club

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Nostalgia isn’t confined to neon lighting. There is a growing market for tours which highlight former communist institutions and neighbourhoods. These are usually offered in 1950s cars or minibuses built in state owned factories

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In addition, there are a few museums which aim to depict everyday like under communism, such as Warsaw’s Museum of Life under Communism

As if to show the continuing allure of the West during the Cold War years, we spotted a few vintage USA cars on the streets of Poznan

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History Looms Large

Given Poland’s traumatic history between 1939 – 1989, it is not surprising to find continual reminders of some of the more tragic events and inspirational characters who emerged during that period. Schindler’s factory in Krakow is a moving memorial to the story of life under Nazi occupation with a focus on the fate of the Jewish population (as illustrated in the film Schindler’s List)

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St Elizabeth’s Church in Wroclaw contains some  striking stained glass windows which highlight both the Katyn Massacre of Polish troops by Russians in 1940, as well as the network of Nazi concentration camps of which Auschwitz is one of the best known

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In Krakow, there is an impressive statue of Jan Karski, a prominent Polish resistance fighter who helped keep the Allied governments informed of Nazi atrocities in Poland.

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There are numerous Jewish cemeteries in Poland containing a fraction of the three million Polish Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The Jewish cemetery in Poznan was the last Nazi stronghold in the city before it fell to the Russians as can still be seen by the shrapnel damaged and broken tombstones

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Poznan also witnessed the first major uprising against Soviet rule in Eastern Europe in 1956 (preceding the better known Hungarian uprising of the same year) during which thousands of factory workers led a revolt which was ruthlessly suppressed by the army. It is commemorated by an imposing statue as well as a small museum

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Finally, on leaving Wroclaw railway station we came across an arresting collection of street statues dubbed the Anonymous Pedestrians. It was unveiled in 2005 in remembrance of the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland, a period in which many ordinary citizens disappeared during the night and were never seen again.

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In the light of Poland’s tragic history of late, it is a little depressing to observe the recent ascendancy of right wing nationalism in the country, as illustrated by the coming to power of the populist Law and Justice Party. It is similar to the UKIP party in Britain, which, given the economic benefits Poland has enjoyed since joining the EU (not least from German funding), seems an unfortunate political development.

Polish nationalism was evident in Warsaw with the national football team in action

Polish retail

Despite the rapid shift from the era of state controlled retail outlets to the dominant contemporary pattern of global chain stores and outlets, Poland still has its own distinctive retail choice including individualistic clothes shops

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Global chain stores are very much evident – in Wroclaw they have infiltrated a former state department store

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Caffe Nero, the British coffee chain, seems to have an outlet on every shopping street in Warsaw, but here they are called Green Cafe Nero, having merged with a local coffee chain

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Polish Cuisine

Whilst there is a strong emphasis on meat (especially offal) in the Polish diet, it is possible to find alternatives. Many restaurants specialise in Polish dumplings (pierogi), parcels of dough with a large variety of fillings which are typically washed down by a beer such as Tyskie

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Borsch (beetroot soup with sour cream) makes for a delicious starter

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Like in Russia, ice cream is available in abundance including otherwise spartan housing estates, as here in Warsaw’s Nowa Huta

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For a healthier option, pop up vendors selling red berries and cherries seem to be ubiquitous in Summer

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Low cost cafes and self service restaurants provide cheap eating, as with these examples in Wroclaw

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In contrast, it is possible to experience the luxurious ambience of the Cafe Bristol in Warsaw, a rare surviving pre-war building

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We found fast food chains housed in the opulent grandeur of Wroclaw railway station – KFC and McDonalds respectively. Lovely setting, shame about the food

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Transport

Travelling by public transport is extremely cheap in Poland. Few of the trains match the high speeds found in France and Spain, but in a throw back to  British trains from decades ago,  you get the chance to share compartments with fellow passengers

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Every Polish city appears to have an excellent tramway system with a 24 hour ticket costing around £2 – half the cost of a single ticket on London’s tube.  Krakow offered the most scenic rides

Finally, the most beguiling transport encounter on our Polish visit was with the Train to  Heaven, an old steam engine which has morphed into an art installation just outside the Wroclaw Contemporary Museum

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Travel Blog: Downtown USA

We recently visited the USA for the first time in many years, primarily to enjoy the experience of travelling on one of the america’s great trans continental train journeys (see Riding the California Zephyr). We also spent some time in five major cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each has its own distinctive character but there were some features common to all five:

Dramatic skylines

Of course  downtown areas of American cities have long been characterised by impressive clusters of skyscraper buildings. For European visitors such as ourselves, arriving in New York and confronting its towering skyline is still a spectacular sight, especially at night. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy part of the this skyline from our bedroom window, the highlight of which was the Chrysler building, the world’s tallest building when it was built in 1931 and still the world’s tallest brick building.

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Chicago has always struggled to match the majesty of New York’s skyline, especially the status of having the world’s tallest building (twice during the 1970’s) but it still manages to impress

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Anish Kapoor’s Cloud  Gate sculpture known locally as ‘The Bean’

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The Chicago River

Chicago also offers spectacular rooftop night time views to rival that Of New York’s Empire State Building

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New York looking to Freedom Tower and Lower Manhattan

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Views from Chicago’s Hancock Tower (now called 360 Observatory), the latter picture showing the Navy Pier and Lake Michigan

Neon Lights

Leaving aside the advertising overkill in New York’s Times Square, neon lighting is still very striking in American cities. We found this especially true of California whose film industry has done so much to help create the distinctive atmospheric (and frequently very dark/noirish) mood associated with neon e.g. Sweet Smell of Success, Blade Runner and Vertigo (see movie scenes below)

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Elmwood Cinema, Berkeley

In Los Angeles, even some of the metro stations use neon as part of the station identity

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Of course some of the most famous neon landmarks can be found in Hollywood

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The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St.

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The infamous Frolic Room which dates from the 1930s

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A neon lit film poster on Sunset Boulevard.

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A choice of beer

Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, we stayed in Pismo Beach which felt almost like slipping back into an early 1960’s surfer movie.

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Sometimes, passing a late night urban cafe/restaurant could seem like you were witnessing a scene from an Edward Hopper painting, as in this picture from Chicago’s Rosebud restaurant.

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Public Transport

Despite the fact most American cities primarily cater for the motor car, it is still arguably much more interesting to navigate large cities like New York, and even much of Los Angeles, by public transport. In New York this includes the best free ride in town, the Staten Island Ferry

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Otherwise, the best way to visit New York’s urban highlights is via its much maligned subway system. A few stops will take you through some very diverse neighbourhoods.

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Chicago’s best ride is the CTA loop, an elevated subway track which provides a great view of the downtown area

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San Francisco is known for its cable cars designed to cope with some of the city’s very steep gradients, but these are purely for tourists. Just as attractive are its fleet of trams many of which date from the 1930’s.

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Los Angeles also has an historic ‘tramway’ the Angels Flight funicular. Built in 1901, it was designed to climb the ascent up to Bunker Hill. Sadly, we discovered that it ceased operating in 2013 for ‘health and safety’ reasons (which meant we had to navigate the very steep climb to our hotel on foot).

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The Angels Flight funicular

Finally, New York and Los Angeles boast two of America’s most beautiful railway stations, Grand Central and Union Station respectively.

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Glorious libraries

In a country with seemingly minimal commitment to public services,  the grandeur of these two railway stations is somewhat surprising. It was almost just as surprising to discover some of America’s great American city libraries during our visit.

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New York Public Library

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Boston Public Library

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Chicago’s magnificent old Central Library, now the City Cultural Centre

Art Deco

Despite the demolition of many classic buildings from the art deco era, thankfully it was still possible to find some remaining gems in all the cities we visited. In New York, one of the standout examples is the Chrysler building dating from 1931

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Chrysler Building exterior and lobby (below)

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The 1929 Chanin Building in New York

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Empire State building 1931

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Chicago’s Carbide and Carbon Building 1929

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Los Angeles 1928 Oviatt Building, Cicada Restaurant

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Los Angeles Subway Terminal building 1925, part of the city’s first underground subway station

The ever changing city

All the cities we visited seemed to be undergoing significant change and renewal. New York, in particular, was a very different city from our previous visit in the 1980’s. The gentrification of Lower Manhattan is now virtually complete. Google has taken over the Port Authority Building and chauffeur driven luxury 4 x 4 cars sit outside Prada in SoHo.

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In midtown Manhattan, Hudson Yards is the sight of the largest ever American construction project. It is a mini city being built on stilts above a huge railway yard (rather than a lagoon like Venice).

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Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the development of the once rather rundown downtown area is still continuing with the recent addition of two striking adjacent 21st century arts buildings, the  Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, and the recently opened Broad Art Gallery, which contains the impressive modern art collection of Eli Broad, an art loving businessman.

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Disney Concert Hall

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The Broad

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Inside the Broad

Alongside the obvious wealth of much of the downtown areas, it was difficult not to notice the large amount of homelessness, especially in California (where the weather is not so severe in Winter). They might be propped up at a tram stop or have left their belongings in a supermarket trolley. It was clear that many were in urgent need of mental health care

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San Francisco

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Los Angeles

Being election time, it was encouraging to see that Proposition HHH, a proposal to raise $1.2 billion to support care of the homeless was on the ballot (and was indeed passed)

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Other proposals seemed less charitable

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Seen outside Los Angeles City Hall

Back in new York, we witnessed a lone protester trying to draw attention to the downside to one of the presidential candidates. Sadly, very few people seemed to be listening.

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A Tale of Two Cuisines

One of the great pleasures provided by American cities is to sample the differing culinary choices on offer. In New York we stopped by the legendary  Katz’s Delicatessen in the Lower East Side, which has been serving Jewish food since 1888. It did not disappoint in terms of atmosphere, quality and portion size.

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In sharp contrast, the eating experience in the Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard (Los Angeles) was distinctly contemporary –  from the condiments to the wacky ice cream flavours on offer. dsc06421dsc06424

If the food wasn’t healthy enough then you could always nip along to the beach and tone up your muscles.

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Movie scenes

American cities have been the location for countless films. Here’s a small sample of the many locations we came across (or more often, sought out)

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Two locations from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, San Francisco

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The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, location for Blade Runner and many other films

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Touch of Evil mural, Venice beach

 

Travel Blog: Riding the California Zephyr

Crossing America by train is a superb way to enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular scenery as well as an opportunity to get to know some fascinating fellow travellers sharing the epic journey from Chicago to San Francisco.

The Zephyr originally ran from 1949 until 1970 when it was withdrawn due to falling passenger numbers. Amtrak, the American rail network revived it in 1983, and it still takes the same 52 hours it required in 1949 to traverse the nearly 2500 miles of the route to the Bay Area of California. 

Here is a a more detailed map

We started our journey at Chicago’s magnificent Union station, the location for many famous films such as The Untouchables, Dark Knight and Blade Runner

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On leaving Chicago we quickly moved into the flat cornfields of Illinois. The train made periodic scheduled stops which sometimes provided a chance to alight and stretch the legs such as in Galesburg.

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An old preserved pacific steam locomotive Galesburg railway museum

Despite the many miles of prairies and small towns of Illinois and Iowa, there was a range of interesting sights along the way, such as election posters and small town high streets which had seen more prosperous times.

A milestone on the journey was crossing the Mississippi River in Burlington Iowa.

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After our first evening meal, it was soon time to retire to our compartment for the night which involved converting our seats into bunk beds – not the most spacious sleeping accommodation but all part of the fun. It required quite careful organisation to maximise the limited available space. The bedtime experience is certainly unique, especially the additional roll you get from being in the upper deck of the carriage at the tail of the train. The continuous blast of the train horn during the night as it roared through the mid-west added an almost 1950’s cinematic touch to the ride. In case you want to share the sound    take a listen.

Our first night’s sleep ended as we arrived at Denver’s Union station at dawn. It was quite magical pulling up at the platform just as the sky turned pink on a chilly morning at 7.00 am. We emerged for a 30 minute break to admire the recently restored station which was buzzing with commuters rushing to grab their morning ‘artisan’ espressos. Judging from the station, it certainly justified Denver’s reputation as a thriving hi-tech and financial centre, the ‘Wall St of the Rocky Mountains’.

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Climbing through Colorado, the scenery was becoming very attractive as we snaked though the Rocky Mountains (including 33 tunnels), crossed the Continental divide at over 9000 feet, and began travelling alongside the Colorado River via some spectacular canyons. dsc05647dscf4013dscf4020dscf4034

dsc05665 To enjoy such scenery from both sides of the train we took a seat in the observation car

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Apart  from the beautiful landscape,  the most memorable aspect of the journey was our encounters with fellow passengers, whether in the observation car or during mealtimes, when the choice of sharing the dinner table was left to the catering manager.

Our first such encounter involved a man who without much prompting, began pouring out his life story about the rise and fall of his rental business (he ended up in jail) and  which climaxed with him tearfully rueing the fact his sister had financially (and morally) betrayed him whilst he was in jail, and he was only now recovering from bankruptcy and depression.Another  passenger casually revealed she had just left her man in Alabama (‘a bad situation’), was carrying all her belongings in a suitcase, and starting a new life in Oregon. Aside from these rather down beat stories,  we met many delightful passengers from very diverse backgrounds, the only common factor being the joy of travelling by long distance train.

Come the need for rest or privacy, we could retreat to our compartment and bed, but the hardy Amish family in the picture spent the whole journey at their observation car table.

Our last two stops in Colorado included Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. The last call on the notice board (in the second picture) had to be taken seriously for those passengers stepping off for a short break. We later learned we had left one passenger behind in Reno – a regular occurrence according to our conductor.

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Grand Junction

As the sun lowered and we crossed over the state border into Utah, the view from the train became quite riveting. It began to feel like the wild west.

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As the sun set over the Utah desert we passed by two largely abandoned towns, Cisco and Thompson Springs, which had featured in the film Thelma and Louise. One of those moments when it was frustrating not to be able to get off and explore.

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Cisco

During our second night we stopped at Salt Lake City, and then travelled across the salt flats before entering Nevada. Breakfast was served as we pulled into Reno. Before long we had crossed the state boundary into California. Our first two stops were Truckee and Colfax

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Truckee

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Colfax

At this stage an Amtrak employee provided commentary (from a script) as we traversed the Sierra Nevada and passed through the Donner Pass. Not everyone was fully engaged with his revelations.

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By now we were a little punch drunk on the scenery but just as intrigued by the range of passengers we were meeting – a hirsute delivery driver regaled us with his tales of panning for gold in the hills, an activity I assumed had long since been abandoned.

After a largely neglected lunch – the rather bland Amtrak menu had become a little repetitive, we soon descended into Sacramento, the state capital, followed finally by the long coastal skirting of the San Francisco Bay Area. Compared to the grandeur of Chicago’s Union Station, it was somewhat anti-climatic to arrive not at San Francisco but the neighbouring small city of Emeryville, amazingly nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

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Dollicia, our wonderful attendant

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A little exhausted, but still feeling a residue of euphoria from our memorable journey, we were glad to be met by friends, and could soon enjoy watching the sun set over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge whilst we sipped our beer across the bay in Berkeley.

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Travel Blog: Puglia – Italy’s seductive stiletto

Occupying the southern ‘stiletto’ or ‘heel’ of Italy, Puglia is a long way physically, but more notably culturally, from  the sophisticated modernity of Italy’s northern cities like Milan. Whilst tourists are attracted to its beautiful coastline, the quaint trullis (dry stone conical buildings) in the towns of the Itrian valley, and not least the area’s marvellous cuisine, when visiting the centro storico of towns like Gallipoli and Bari, it almost feels like being transported back to another era when, to coin a cliche, life was a bit simpler and more relaxed. How long this mode of living survives is debatable, as it feels like a rapidly diminishing feature of 21st century Europe.

Here are a few cultural impressions arising from our recent visit:

Fishing and seafood

Being sandwiched between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, it is not surprising fishing plays a significant role in the local economy. Ports like Gallipoli and Bari still have a large number of traditional fishing boats bringing their daily catch on to the shoreline.

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Gallipoli

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Bari Port

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The spiky creatures in the picture are sea urchins

Street Life

The streets of Bari’s Barivecchia and Galiipoli’s centro storico comprise narrow passages opening out on to communal piazzas which usually contain a church. Whilst wandering the streets,  there seems little private space. Living rooms and kitchens are open to the public gaze and friends and family engage in conversation whilst children are free to roam.

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Gallipoli at night

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Barivecchia

Every doorway has a distinctive character

Whilst some doorways lead into courtyards

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Often it is possible to glimpse men playing cards or a barber shaving a customer

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As in other Italian cities, football is still avidly played and watched

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Men tend to dominate public space often engaged in animated conversation or simply playing cards

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In contrast, women will often be looking out from their windows or balconies

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It seems religious festivals are a regular occurrence which made for some atmospheric lighting along Gallipoli’s passages

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Chiesa del SS Crocifissio

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Food

Puglia is renowned for its cuisine. It is Italy’s biggest supplier of olive oil and durum wheat (for pasta), and fruit and vegetables are in abundant supply. As such, it is no surprise many foodies make a pilgrimage to the area.

No need for Tesco express here

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We enjoyed some superb meals comprising locally grown produce at a fraction of the cost you would pay elsewhere in northern Italy or Britain.

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Antipasto in Peccato di vino, Otranto

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Solito Posto, Gallipoli

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Terranima, Bari

In an area with such a string emphasis on public engagement, cafe culture is vibrant.

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Caffe Trieste, Martina Franca

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Caffe Colella Battista, Bari

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Caffe Parisi, Nardo

In a Starbucks free land, it was surprising to find Puglia has its own cafe chain called Martinucci We found ourselves drawn towards its sumptious pasticceria, not least the pasticiotti –  local shortcrust pastries with various fillings.

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Lemon and almond pasticiotti

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Martinucci, Lido Marini

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Martinucci, Bari

Puglia’s urban highlights

Lecce is probably Puglia’s most attractive town with respect to its well preserved baroque architecture and university, but we fell for the following three places:

Ostuni

Known as the ‘white city’ for obvious reasons

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Gallipoli

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 Bari

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Aldo Moro University 1925

And finally, to inspire a burst of song, the statue in Polignano sul Mare of Domenico Modugno, the composer and singer of Volare (flying)

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Travel Blog: Summer in the city – Lisbon

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Fortified every so often with a bica (espresso) and pastel nata (egg custard) Lisbon is a great city to explore. It has overtaken Barcelona (which shares many similar characteristics)  in our affections partly because of its more manageable scale, but mainly because it seems more at ease with tourism and the transition from tradition to modernity. Apart from a few tourist favourites, like the castle and the number 28 tram route, it is possible to wander its neighbourhoods in relative solitude, and enjoy the multitude of pleasures Lisbon has to offer.

Champions of Europe

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Our arrival coincided with the city celebrating Portugal having just won the Euros final in Paris  the previous evening. We just missed the open top bus parade, but hundreds of fans were still in joyous mood parading the streets with their flags, banners, etc.Sporting triumphs do help to unite people, even if only temporarily, and Portugal, still suffering from the financial crisis of 2010, could certainly do with some reason to cheer.

The hilly city

Moving around and between Lisbon’s neighbourhoods usually requires engaging with steep ascents and descents because the city is built over seven hills. Aside from the health benefits of navigating these hills, there is also the reward of arriving at one of the many miradors which afford the opportunity to gaze across the cityscape and admire the views.

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Lisbon’s wonderful trams

If you don’t have the energy or inclination to walk there’s always the trams. With most of the fleet dating from the 1930’s, riding on a late night tram along the cobbled streets of Alfama or Graca, whilst almost brushing the old terraced housing, it is easy to imagine you have been transported back to pre-war Europe.

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(and Train Station)

Rossio Station (formerly Central Station) which dates from 1887 has a most stylish facade and interior which not even being partly occupied by Starbucks can spoil.

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Besides the sea

Being mid-Summer, you might expect the heat to be oppressive. However, being next to the sea, Lisbon enjoys pleasant cooling breezes, and if it does get a bit too hot then you have an excellent choice of beaches near to hand. One option is the train along the Tagus estuary to the beaches at Estoril and Cascais.  Alternatively, a short ferry crossing and bus journey will take you to the miles of sand dunes and windswept beaches of the Costa Caparica.
A mini-train will take you along the beach until you decide to hop off and ponder the colourful old beach houses before relaxing on the beach seemingly miles from the urban milieu of Lisbon.

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Crossing back over the Tagus river by bus provides a different perspective from the 25 de Abril  bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge not dissimilar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
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25 de Abril Bridge taken from the superb Atira-te ao rio restaurant in Cacilhas

Further inland, The Vasco de Gama Bridge provides the second crossing of the Tagus. At nearly 11 miles long, it is Europe’s longest bridge. I am sure Thomas Telford would have been impressed, as we were, by its beautiful design.

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Street Art

Whilst Lisbon has more than its fair share of ugly graffiti, genuine artists have left their mark on many of the city’s buildings, often brightening up unattractive paces like this metro under-passage.

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There are more traditional sights to be found in Lisbon including groups of older men gathered around communal tables to play cards and socialise.

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Plenty of bookshops

It’s also pleasing to find bookshops still thriving. These include Bertrand, reputedly the world’s oldest bookshop dating from 1732 (although the original bookshop was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755)

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Sa Da Costa antiquarian bookshop dating from 1943

In the LX Factory in Alcantra, the old printing press lies dormant but almost poetically is surrounded by books as part of the Ler Devager bookstore.

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Stylish cafes

Lisbon is blessed with some very beautiful and historic cafes. Here are some of our favourites.
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Pastelaria Versailles 1922

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Cafe Nicola 1929

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Cafe Benard 1912

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Pastelaria Sao Roque

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Confeitaria Nacional 1829

Splendid seafood

Being next to the sea and having a great culinary tradition, it is not surprising that seafood lovers are abundantly catered for in Lisbon. Much of the best shellfish can be found in cervejarias (‘beer-houses’) like Ramiro below. It’s the most popular cervejaria in Lisbon, but it is worth tolerating the lengthy queues, not just to enjoy the fantastic crab and lobster, etc. but to witness the almost theatrical atmosphere inside.

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Cervejaria Pinoquio

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Travel Blog: Bologna – porticos and pasta

Bologna is known in Italy as ‘La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa’ which roughly translated  means ‘educated, red and fat’. Educated, because it has Europe’s oldest university (1088) and currently numbers 85000 students across its several campuses. Red, because of both the colour of its buildings and its socialist political allegiance, and fat because it is seen as the culinary capital of Italy.

Like many Italian cities, Bologna’s historical architecture is very striking but what is truly remarkable are its porticos (covered walkways) which reputedly stretch for about 25 miles.

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Via dell’Independenza, Bologna’s main shopping street.

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The racks of vintage magazines by the historic Libreria (bookshop) Nanni

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The portico leading up to the San Luca Sanctuary is the longest of Bologna’s porticos, stretching for nearly 2.5 miles with 666 arcades. It appears to be a popular route for dedicated local runners

Apart from their beauty, the ubiquity of the porticos mean you can easily navigate the city without the need for an umbrella (apart from crossing the odd road).

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In addition to the porticos, Bologna was once famous for its proliferation of towers, sometimes seen as the forerunners of the modern skyscraper, such that it has been dubbed as once being the mediaeval Manhattan.It is thought that they were constructed mainly as a show of status and/or defensive refuge. Only a few survive, the most notable being the original ‘twin towers’, 12th Century Due Torri. Only one of these, the  Asinelli Tower, is still intact, and it can be ascended (via 498 steps) for a superb view of the city.

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The start (and finish) of the climb.

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Bologna is a foodie’s delight.In the quadrilatero, just off Bologna’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore, you can find some of Bologna’s finest food stores as well as places to sit and enjoy a taste of cheese, ham, tortellini, etc.

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Tortellini is Bologna’s most popular pasta choice, but you will also find several other pasta shapes rarely found in British restaurants or supermarkets e.g cappelletti, cavatelli, gemelli, and orecchiette

One notable venue for sitting down to enjoy your takeaway food is the Osterie del Sole, a wine bar dating from 1465, which serves only wine and beer, and which positively encourages you to bring your own food.

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It is not the most obvious place to discover as there is merely a vino sign above a doorway. We initially popped in naively hoping for a mid morning coffee. Whilst exiting, we noticed some of the local senior citizens had already gathered for a convivial morning drink.

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Equally historically atmospheric is the Donatello Ristorante adorned with dozens of pictures of past patrons.

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Bologna is more socialist than devoutly Catholic. However, on the edge of the quadrilatero, we came across a local priest trying to raise money by selling a range of religious items under the shadow of an engraved mural celebrating Padre Marella, a Bologna priest who had helped destitute boys.

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He seemed to be doing quite well as he was counting a hefty wad of euros.

One of the highlights of our visit was unexpectedly gaining access to the Cathedral bell tower on the Saturday night of our visit (it was a fund raising event). It was a chance to see Bologna in its night time glory.

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The church on the distant hill top is the San Luca Sanctuary which is linked to the city by the world’s longest portico,  2.5 miles in length.

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Much to our delight, an Edward Hopper exhibition was widely advertised during our stay.

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Spot the interloper

Bologna is close by a number of very attractive towns including Ferrara which was ideal to explore by bicycle.