Behind the Eurovision Fever in Malmö

Wikimedia JorchrThe magnificent city of Malmö is playing host to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The fifth time Sweden has staged this illustrious event, many expected Malmö to be buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Though there are hints all over town that an important and lively event is in the pipeline, eurosong fever has not matched that of Baku last year.

Indeed, the streets of Malmö are quieter, more akin to Düsseldorf which hosted the event two years ago. For Azerbaijan, it was a chance for that country’s oppressed people to lose themselves in a rare moment of cosmopolitan ecstasy. For Malmö, it is a chance to demonstrate its qualities and excellence to hundreds of millions of television viewers in Europe and beyond.

So what kind of research does one need to carry out before going on an expedition to this northern pearl, perched at the Öresund?  Just find a way to get there and let Malmö do all the work for you. It is the kind of city that embraces you and makes you its own. Both Malmö airport and Copenhagen airport have excellent bus connections to the city centre.

The train ride from the Danish capital lasts a mere 25 minutes and you arrive in the very centre of Malmö. The city is a pleasant size with a population of around 300,000. The entire metropolitan area has a population of roughly 660,000 people.

Disembarking from the train and leaving the station, you will find yourself in an extremely modern district, full of stylish glass and concrete buildings. It is very easy to go wrong with this type of architecture but Malmo makes a magnificent first impression. Old buildings straddle one side of a wide canal, while newer ones stand opposite, the glass panes reflecting their forebears whenever the sun shines.

At the very end of the water, a white and red lighthouse juts out from the scenery, imposing itself on the cityscape. The best mode of transport in Malmö is the bicycle and it is possible to rent one from several locations around town. The infrastructure is very cyclist friendly, as are the drivers.

Crossing the bridge onto Norra Callgatan, it is a short walk or bike ride to the Big Square (Stortorget), a place full of beautiful old multi-coloured buildings. There is statue of King Karl X Gustav of Sweden in the centre of the square, resplendent on horseback. He was responsible for freeing Malmö from Danish dominion. The City Hall was built in 1546 and can be found on the eastern side of the Stortorget – it is a grand and imposing structure.

The northwest corner plays host to Kockska Huset. This is the house of Jörgen Kock, a German immigrant who became wealthy by taking over the city mint and becoming mayor. The Stortorget is a great place to take a break and pause for a coffee during the summer months. In the dark and cold depths of winter, the square turns into a large ice-skating rink.

Another great place to relax in the sun with an espresso or cappuccino is the Little Square (Lilla torg), a few metres away through a small pedestrianised street. It is a pleasant area, packed with pavement cafes and half timbered buildings. It is the primary spot for socialising in Malmö and tends to get very busy during the evening hours.

Any expedition to the city is not complete without a visit to the Malmöhus Castle. This beautiful old fortress was built by Erik of Pomerania in 1437 and can be found just west of the city centre. It was inhabited by the kings of Denmark way back in the 16th century before becoming a prison, a role it fulfilled until 1914. These days, it plays host to various different functions, containing a history museum, art museum, aquarium and terrarium.

The Fiskehoddorna is just adjacent to the castle. This small complex of red, brown and blue wooden buildings contains a traditional fish market and the food is absolutely exquisite. It is well worth a visit after exploring everything the castle has to offer.

The Slottsträdgården is located directly south of the castle. This spacious and beautiful park area is a relatively new addition to the city. It is divided into eight different gardens, full of wild flowers and glistening lakes. The people of Malmö flock here whenever the sun shines. The pubs and restaurants of Sweden are expensive and of course, Malmö is no exception. If you are trying to save some money and still have a great time, buy some wine or beer from the supermarket and visit the Slottsträdgården for a nice picnic.

If you happen to find yourself in Malmö during the weekend, head towards the square at Möllevångstorget where you will come across a bustling market. It is loud and the prices are reasonably cheap – you can find some great bargains there. The side streets are full of African, Asian and Middle Eastern shops and restaurants. The whole district really forms the cosmopolitan heart of Malmö and walking around the busy streets is an enjoyable weekend activity. If you want to experience the polar opposite, visit Gamla Väster, a hip and upper class area full of expensive boutiques and restaurants. It is soulless, yet relatively fascinating all the same.

The Tekniska och Sjöfartsmuseet or Technology and Maritime Museum, is one of the very best museums in Malmö. It is primarily dedicated to various forms of transport, particularly aviation and maritime travel. One of the most notable displays is a Swedish U3 submarine dating from 1943. It is fully accessible, though its size means most visitors will have to crawl through its low and narrow passages. The major downside of this museum is that all of the displays are labelled in Swedish. Nevertheless, it is a great place to spend an afternoon, particularly if it rains.

Every major city has its own major landmark – Berlin has the Fernsehturm and Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Malmö has the Turning Torso, a 190 metre tall skyscraper. It is the tallest building in all of Scandinavia and mainly contains apartments, along with some offices. Unfortunately, there is no observation deck, a major disappointment considering the beauty of the landscape surrounding Malmö.

If you want to blur the lines between the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, head towards Ribersborgsstranden at the height of summer. This sandy beach stretches for two kilometres and provides an excellent point of escape for those seeking a way out of the urban bustle. During winter, it turns into a having for ice-swimming, ideally combined with a hot Swedish sauna.

When the evening arrives, hit Kulturbolaget, Malmö’s premier rock club and a great party hotspot when the weekend rolls in. Fagans is the city’s quintessential Irish pub, though like most places in Malmö, it is very expensive.  If you want to dine on a budget, head for La Empanada where you can dine on Latin American and Swedish meals. If the cost really gets to you and you are looking for a cheap place to eat, why not visit the most famous Swedish institution of all? IKEA.

So Malmö is a fantastic host city for Eurovision 2013. Old cobble squares meet modern boulevards, creating a city packed with personality and atmosphere. Seagulls glide above the streets, while the cool refreshing breeze blows in from the Baltic Sea. The very best thing about Malmö is that it is completely devoid of stress. Hire a bicycle and make your away around the compact city-centre before venturing out beyond it in the direction of the castle and sandy beaches. It is an exciting and carefree choice for an expedition – a trip here certainly will not leave you disappointed.

Imagenote: Jorchr/Wikimedia/CC

Taking it Easy in Villefranche-Sur-Mer

Wikimedia Berthold WernerMost tourists visiting the French Riviera flock to the seaside playgrounds of Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez and Monaco. Full of glitz, glamour, celebrities, buzzing promenades and azure blue water, visitors can enjoy exquisite cuisine washed down with delicious red wine under the warm Mediterranean sun. As wonderful as these cities may seem, they can become tiring – traffic snarls through narrow streets, emitting choking fumes, while an air of arrogance often reveals itself through unfriendly service and highly inflated prices.

When it all becomes too much on the Côte d’Azur, it is important to find a nice haven where you can escape the crowded restaurants and packed beaches of Cannes, Saint Tropez and the other cities around this jetsetter’s paradise. Where better than Villefranche-Sur-Mer, a small and charming harbour town perfectly nestled nicely between Nice and Monaco?

Located just six kilometres from Nice and 10 kilometres from Monaco, Villefranche is nicely positioned on the train line between the two cities. Although the region is often justifiably criticised for its high prices, public transport including train tickets sold by SNCF are excellent value. It is also possible to cycle to Villefranche from Nice, a delightful though somewhat tiring experience.

The high hills of Mont Boron, Mont Alban and Mont Vinaigrie surround Villefranche and provide welcome shelter from the elements. The bay stretching out from the town’s promenades has often been considered one of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean, reaching a depth of 95 metres. It provides safe anchorage for large ships and it is not uncommon to see massive cruise ships and naval vessels passing through. Much more common are innumerable snow white yachts and sailboats dotted around the pristine blue bay.

Even though they are stunning to behold, the visiting yachts have lead to a price hike in Villefranche’s shops and restaurants, which have become increasingly tourist-orientated. This does not take away from the town’s wonderfully picturesque qualities, however. The very heart of the town is its promenade. Though it cannot compete with Nice’s renowned Promenade des Anglais, Villefranche’s Promenade des Mariniers is far less crowded and much more intimate.

As you stroll along the dockside, multicoloured canopies jut out from restaurants and stretch as far as the eye can see. Red, green, yellow – delightful restaurants thrive beneath the canopies and their tables have spread across the road to the waterside. It is the epitome of French summer. Flamboyant waiters dash back and forth, carrying mouth-watering meals and, naturally, countless bottles of wine.

Flower boxes full of lavender add even more colour to the scene, not to mention a fantastic smell, as do the green palm trees that amplify the summer atmosphere. Away from its wonderful restaurant scene, Villefranche is also home to an impressive collection of historic buildings including the pale yellow and pink Église Saint-Michel. Built during the 1750s in a baroque Italian style, this charming church houses several famous works of art and an organ built in the 1790s. The Chapelle Saint-Pierre is also well worth a visit. This delightful little chapel dates from the 16th century and was used to store fishermen’s nets for many years. It was restored in 1957 and contains famous murals created by Jean Cocteau.

The Rue Obscure or literally “Dark Street” is also well worth exploring. This passage dates from as far back as 1260 and passes underneath some of the houses at the harbour. It was originally a core component of a labyrinth of old laneways running alongside the medieval ramparts of Villefranche. The subterranean passageway was intended to protect the town’s inhabitants from attack, a function it continued to fulfil as recently as the Second World War.

The stone walls of the Citadel provided even more protection to the people of Villefranche over the years. This structure dominates the view over the harbour and contains some free museums in addition to the town hall and a chapel. Walking along the old walls and ramparts, visitors are presented with wonderful views over Villefranche and the surrounding landscape. If all the exploration becomes too much, it is definitely worthwhile walking in towards the north side of the bay in order to sample more of the laid back lifestyle Villefranche is renowned for.

While the Plage de la Darse forms a pleasant beachside haven behind the harbour’s main jetty, the Plage des Marinières has to be considered the very best beach in Villefranche. It stretches for one kilometre beneath that same train line connecting Nice with Monaco. It is a very relaxing place (but quite busy during the summer months), though the tranquillity is often interrupted by a train thundering along the tracks above. Nevertheless, it is an excellent sandy beach, far removed from Nice’s overcrowded pebble filled shoreline.
So an expedition to Villefranche-Sur-Mer is an expedition that does not require research. It is very well connected to all major cities in the region and its size is ideal for a short break.

A car is completely unnecessary in the town’s medieval cobblestone streets. Its sheltered bay forms a safe haven for ships attempting to escape stormy waters over the horizon. In the same way, Villefranche-Sur-Mer provides a safe haven for tourists attempting to escape the chaotic bustle of the Côte d’Azur’s major cities, packed with the rich and famous.

Still, you may encounter the odd celebrity in Villefranche. Film makers are often attracted by the region’s rich scenery with Robert De Niro memorably strolling through the city’s harbour district in Ronin. It is also well known that Bono, the lead singer of U2, owns a house just up the coast from Villefranche-Sur-Mer and is a frequent visitor to Villefranche-Sur-Mer. Watch out for him and other celebrities in the restaurants by the dockside!

Imagenote: Berthold Werner/Wikimedia/CC

The Best of Belize!

Wikimedia Walter Rodriguez

Did you ever think of visiting somewhere in Central America where English is the primary spoken language? After some quick research, you’ll either be travelling to Belize or the Falkland Islands on your expedition. If you decide to make a trip to the former, you’ll find yourself visiting the old colony of British Honduras and the only country in Central America without a Pacific coastline.

Interestingly, American, Mexican, Canadian, Singaporean, Jamaican, Australian, Malaysian and EU passport holders do not need a visa to travel to Belize. However, they do of course need a valid passport, though this is unnecessary for visitors arriving via cruise ship. Make sure you’re prepared for the country’s tropical climate – hurricane season lasts from June to November, the dry season lasts from February to May and the rainy season lasts from May to November.

Belize is very hot and humid – dress appropriately and always drink plenty of water! More than likely, you’ll arrive via plane at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport, which serves the nation’s largest urban centre, Belize City. Forget the airport bus, take a taxi instead. The bus is very unreliable and a nice taxi trip serves as a nice introduction to the friendly locals. Belize City is a relatively small place and not so interesting aside from several museums. However, it does form an excellent transport hub, acting as a gateway to Belize’s wild and exotic countryside.

Belize is quite small and a network of buses provides access to most interesting areas. Fares are cheap and the majority of journeys are seldom long and arduous. All of the locals speak English, as well as Kriol and Spanish, though the Caribbean accent may take some adjusting to. Tourism is thriving in Belize and 917,869 visitors arrived in 2012 – the country has poured money into this sector and it is considered its second most important priority after agriculture. If you visit Belize, a trip to see some of the country’s incredible Mayan ruins are an absolute must.

The most important historical sight is Caracol, 40 kilometres south of Xunantunich and San Ignacio Cayo. You can spend days wandering through the ancient ruins and interestingly, people are still allowed to climb them, unlike in many other countries. The site at Caracol is massive and magnificent with the ‘Caana’ or ‘sky palace’ making the greatest impression. It remains one of the largest man made structures in all of Belize.

Cerros is another interesting site, located on Chetumal Bay. This place is spectacular. Stepped pyramids, an acropolis and two ballcourts straddle a picturesque beach with clear blue water. Cerros is notable as being one of the earliest Mayan sites. It contains a rare structure known as an E-Group, a central component of a Mayan settlement. Lamanai forms the third ancient Mayan site of major interest in Belize and is the longest continually-occupied site in Mesoamerica. If you make it here, be sure and explore the old temples – namely the jaguar, mask and high temples. Ascend the latter and you’ll be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view over the entire site.

The Caribbean coast of Belize offers some of the most pristine water found anywhere on the planet. The warm currents of the Belize Barrier Reef form one of the world’s best sites for snorkelling and scuba diving. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are wonderful beaches, both for sunbathing and underwater activities. Likewise, Hol Chan marine reserve and Shark Ray Alley are great spots to explore some coral reefs and get in touch with Belize’s exotic marine wildlife. Be aware that an extra $10 is usually charged at these diving spots, a form of tax used to protect the reef system.

The karst landscape of Belize has resulted in a plethora of sinkholes and cave networks. One of the most incredible sites in the whole country is the Great Blue Hole, a massive underwater sinkhole which has to be seen to be believed. It’s located near the centre of Lighthouse Reef, 70km away from the mainland. Divers are attracted by the exotic wildlife here, including nurse sharks, hammerheads and various species of reef sharks. However, they usually have to pay a little more for the privilege of diving here, such is its international renown and fame.

The water is breathtakingly clear and the depth of the Great Blue Hole is 124 metres. The massive sinkhole and the entire Belize Barrier Reef has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, the Discovery Channel named the Great Blue Hole as number one on its list of “The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth”. It’s most definitely worth a visit, even from a boat above the waves. Diving is far more spectacular, so try and take the plunge! It’s a really good idea learning to dive before you travel to Belize!

Cave exploration is certainly popular with tourists and locals alike. If you want to take part, head to Cayo. The limestone hills found here contain underwater rivers, sinkholes and caves. Tight passages open into dramatic caverns containing plunging waterfalls, as well as elegant stalactites and stalagmites. It’s both dangerous and illegal to enter the caves alone, so make sure you hire a guide first! Most are versed in geology as well as the mythology of the caves and will be more than happy to share their immense knowledge with tourists.

There are innumerable other activities to enjoy in this wonderful country, including horseback riding and sport fishing. At the end of a long day filled with outdoor activities, find a nice restaurant overlooking a white sandy beach lashed by crystal clear water. Sample local food like chicken served with red beans and rice, all washed down with a cold bottle of Belkin, Belize’s most famous and best beer. Converse with the chatty locals in English and just enjoy – you are in one of the world’s friendliest and most beautiful nations. What a fantastic expedition!

Walter Rodriguez/Wikimedia/CC

Wonderful Wangerooge – North Sea Expedition

Wikimedia ArminiaThe Frisian Islands, also known as the Wadden Islands, form an archipelago between the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. These windswept islands are much loved holiday destinations for people from all three countries. However, for visitors from further afield, they are still very much an unknown entity.

Some islands are more popular than the others, most notably Sylt and Borkum off the German coast. German holidaymakers flock to these two islands en-mass during the summer months, and they can prove quite uncomfortable as a result. In order to make the most of any possible trip to the Frisian Islands, make sure you do some research beforehand and choose a quieter spot.

The smaller island of Wangerooge is one of the East Frisian Islands. Indeed, it is the smallest inhabited island within the group. Around 900 people live on Wangerooge and tourism has taken over from fishing to become the island’s primary industry. Like other North Sea islands nearby, it can get quite crowded during the holiday season, so make sure you avoid visiting in July and August when the German school holidays are fully underway. On the busiest days, 7,000 people visit the island on average.

Wangerooge has a temperate climate and is influenced by the Gulf Stream. Yearly, it is known to experience 1,670 hours of sunshine, higher than the usual German amount of 1,550. For such a small piece of land, Wangerooge is certainly a place of contrasts. Long, sandy beaches make for pleasant walks, while bountiful dunes are exciting to explore. It is also possible to find salt marshes on the island.

Visiting the from northern Germany is exceedingly easy. It is possible to reach Wangerooge by ship from Harlesiel, though sailings depend on the tide. Alternatively, flights also serve the Wangerooge’s tiny landing strip from Harlesiel, Bremen and Hamburg. Once you do arrive on the island’s shores, there is a chance to experience a certain novelty, and the island’s most important piece of infrastructure – the Wangerooger Inselbahn. This is an unelectrified stretch of narrow gauge railway connecting the harbour with the island’s main town. Interestingly, it is the only a narrow gauge railway operated today by Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s state rail company.

One of the very best things about visiting Wangerooge in comparison to somewhere like Sylt is the complete lack of cars. This leads to an extremely relaxed atmosphere where people can jog and cycle without having to worry about busy roads. The island is 8.5 kilometres from one end to the other, and walking its length is a delightful afternoon activity. One of the most distinctive structures on the island is the red and white lighthouse, constructed in 1856. A newer and less beautiful one is also in place on the eastern coast.

If you venture into the island’s sand dunes, you may find some bunkers and bomb craters, evidence of Wangerooge’s turbulent history. Its strategic location made it a vital military outpost during the Second World War and 482 bombers attacked the island in April 1945. Emerging from the dunes, you will return to modernity instantaneously. The sands of Wangerooge’s coastline are a sun worshipper’s paradise and hundreds of wicker beach chairs stretch out as far as the eye can see. During the holiday season, every single one will be occupied.

The slow pace of life on the island makes it the perfect place to do absolutely nothing, save for walking, resting and eating. For its size, the place has a great choice of restaurants. There are also pubs and cafes where you can sit back with a glass of wine or coffee overlooking the beach. Just relaxing on Wangerooge counting the hours as they pass by is blissful. For those who want an even better rest, why not try the island’s health and spa centre? It is the perfect way to restore your body and soul!

Imagenote: Arminia/Wikimedia/CC

Seeing the Sights in Stein am Rhein

20130330_151059Northern Switzerland is often neglected by tourists who flock to the country’s scenic lakes and ski resorts. However, the northern cantons do offer a whole host of terrific urban travel options that really need to be embraced more by visitors. The borders of Switzerland, France and Germany meet in the wonderfully cosmopolitan city of Basel, while tourists can venture further and experience the financial flair of Zurich. Nearby, travellers will stumble across one of the country’s most charming places – Stein am Rhein.

This small town is nestled just off the western shores of Lake Constance in the canton of Schaffhausen. It has a rough population of 3,000 and is divided into two parts by the Rhine River, from where it takes its name. In fact, Stein am Rhein literally means ‘stone on the Rhein’. The town is famous for its well preserved medieval centre and countless spectacular frescoes. The potential of the area was first spotted by the Romans and they started a settlement on the eastern bank of the Rhein which grew steadily.

These days, Stein am Rhein remains quite small in size – its population has doubled since the 17th century, a remarkably slow growth pace in comparison with other Swiss towns and cities. Despite the fact that Switzerland’s northern towns have never really proven a magnet for mass tourism, Stein am Rhein still manages to lure huge crowds. Up to one million visitors pass through annually, and this may spoil some of its winding laneways and old houses for those seeking peace and quiet. This should be no surprise – Stein am Rhein is quite correctly viewed as the very best preserved medieval town in all of Switzerland.

So before you make your expedition to this enchanting little place, its very important to do a little research. Stein am Rhein’s location is really excellent – the town is just 56 km north of Zurich which equates to less than one hour’s drive. It is also easily reachable by train from both Zurich and nearby Schaffhausen, as well as German cities like Konstanz and Freiburg by car.

If you arrive by car, you should park in the public car park at the junction of Chlini Schanz and Undertor. There are usually plenty of spaces but come as early as possible, just to be sure. The charges are relatively expensive like everything else in Switzerland, but thankfully, the machines take both Euros and Swiss Francs. From there, it is a short walk to the town’s main gate. As you pass underneath it, you may well feel like you have been transported back in time. For Stein am Rhein’s ancient street system is remarkably intact. The entire centre has now been pedestrianised and as you stroll down the Understadt (the main street), you will be mesmerised by wonderful half timbered houses on either side.

This street contains a plethora of little shops selling various Swiss souvenirs. These include that most enduring product of Switzerland, the Swiss army knife or delicious chocolate brands like Cailler and Toblerone. The very best thing about Stein am Rhein is its small size. It is effortless to walk around the town’s open cobble streets or narrow winding lanes. As you stroll further down the Understadt, you will find the Stein am Rhein’s most breathtaking sight – the Rathausplatz.

The central point is a small fountain surrounded on all sides by beautiful multi-coloured housed adorned with amazing frescoes. The centrepiece is the town hall, which was constructed between 1539 and 1542. During the summer, this spectacular half timbered building’s windowsills bloom with red flowers while its blue clocktower blends in with the cloudless sky. The Monastery of St. George is just around the corner from the town hall, directly at the riverfront. This was the very first building in Stein am Rhein and is therefore regarded as a sight of immense cultural and historical significance.

Afterwards, it might be a nice idea to venture back towards the Rathausplatz for a closer look at those incredible frescoes. The Weisser Adler house (White Eagle) has the oldest and most precious frescoes that date all the way back to 1520. The Vordere Krone house (Fore Crown) is stunning – it features a Renaissance and Baroque interior. The Sonne house (Sun) is the oldest guest house in Stein am Rhein and its frescoes show Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Joshua and Caleb with a giant grape are the subject of the fresco on the Steinerner Trauben (stony grape house), while the Rother Ochsen (Red Ox) house features wall paintings from 1615.

The Lindwurm Museum is also well worth a visit. It costs 3 Swiss Francs and charts the life of a bourgeois family in 1850. The entire interior is a perfect recreation of an upper class residence from that timeframe and the oldest elements of the museum have been traced as far back as 1279. The whole place really feels like a time capsule and offers an incredible glimpse on the life of the bourgeois in 19th century Switzerland. Dominating the landscape above Stein am Rhein is Hohenklingen Castle. It is quite a hike up to the castle but for those with enough energy, it is more than worth the effort. On clear days, the views over Stein am Rhein and Lake Konstanz are stunning. When the weather is especially good, you will be able to see all the way to the Alps.

Unfortunately, on the way to Hohenklingen Castle, you are forced to cross the Charregass Bridge. This soulless metal structure is totally out of character with the rest of the town, and merely carries the weight of loud smoke belching tourist busses and cars. From the middle of the bridge, however, the view of the town is also impressive. Ships and tour boats leave the promenade of Stein am Rhein frequently and pass underneath, packed with smiling tourists. The amount of visitors can make the town a busy place during the summer months so make sure you do the bulk of your exploration early in the morning or late in the evening to make the most of a lull in the crowds.

If you want to grab a bite to eat after all that walking, look no further than the Hotel Adler. You can find traditional food like schnitzel, liver and rösti all served with delicious wine variations. The staff are extremely friendly and speak English, making for a welcoming atmosphere. As you wander around Stein am Rhein with a full stomach and a mind absolutely packed with culture, you might have trouble detaching yourself from this fairytale town. As soon as you do, you might wonder why northern Switzerland does not receive more international attention. For it is home to some of the most spectacular sights Europe has to offer. Photographs do not do places like Stein am Rhein justice – you just have to experience them for yourself. Fly into Zurich, Basel or Friedrichshafen and head for the most spectacular town Switzerland has to offer!

An Expedition to the Centre of Iowa

Wikimedia Tim KiserDes Moines is the capital of Iowa, a concrete island in a sea of cornfields. Named after the Des Moines River, this city has garnered a reputation as a boring, lifeless metropolis devoid of culture. Indeed, its location in the very heart of the United States, far any coastline and neighbouring cities has made Des Moines feel distinctly isolated. Nevertheless, it is possible to make interesting discoveries in Iowa’s capital, as long as you carefully research any expedition beforehand.

If you are travelling directly from a foreign destination, you will more than likely arrive at Des Moines International Airport via a connecting flight. Even though it is labelled an international airport, there are no direct flights to destinations outside the United States. From there, it is possible to reach downtown Des Moines via an infrequent bus connection. Sometimes, you might find yourself waiting for hours – check the times beforehand or consider sharing a taxi with other frustrated travellers.

Alternatively, you might find yourself arriving on the interstate. Even though Des Moines is relatively isolated, it is possible to reach Chicago in around five hours by car. If you visit Iowa during the summer months, be prepared. Its location in the centre of North America, far from any considerable bodies of water (Lake Michigan is probably the closest) has resulted in the state experiencing a hot, humid climate. While winters are bitterly cold, summer temperatures often hit 100 °F. Make sure you take plenty of water with you and avoid prolonged outdoor activities.

The skyline of Des Moines underwent a transformation during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when several tall skyscrapers were built. The tallest building in Des Moines, and indeed in all of Iowa is Principal Financial Group’s 801 Grand, constructed in 1991. This sandy coloured building rises 45 stories and acts as a great landmark. There is an extensive skywalk system connecting all of the urban sites. Des Moines has over four miles of enclosed walkways, one of the most extensive such systems in the United States.

Skyscrapers such as the Marriot, HUB Tower and Plaza building have all left an imprint on the city, making a bold statement about its prosperous business scene. Today, Des Moines has become a major financial centre, home to several large insurance companies including Allied Insurance, Wellmark Blue Cross and Aviva. Other major firms including Wells Fargo, ING Group, and Electronic Data Systems have also been lured to Iowa’s capital due to its flourishing financial scene and successful reputation.

Even though Des Moines has a somewhat bland cultural scene, according to most visitors, it is possible to discover some interesting sights. The Civic Center of Greater Des Moines is a horrifically ugly building reminiscnet of a bunker, yet it stages excellent live music events such as the Phantom of the Opera. The Des Moines Metro Opera is located about 12 miles outside the city centre and is considered another excellent venue for music lovers. The arts have a noticable presence in the city as well. The Des Moines Art Centre houses an exceptional collection of 19th century artwork and is a delightful place to spend an afternoon.

When you need a break from Des Moines’ cultural attractions, make sure you visit the Iowa State Capitol, the most iconic landmark in the state. This building is grand and imposing, with a large 23-karat gold leaf dome. This is in turn surrounded by four smaller copper domes. Extremely elegant and beautiful, it comes as no wonder that this is one of the country’s most popular capitol buildings to tour. You can visit every day except Sunday for a guided tour. You can view historic U.S. flags dating from the civil war before  ascending 298 steps into the golden dome for a panoramic view over Des Moines, as well as the cornfields beyond.

One thing you may well notice from this magnificent vantage point is just how green Des Moines really is. The city has 76 parks. The most sought after open spaces are the zoo and the Des Moines Botanical Center. The latter is an excellent place to visit during the winter months. Located in a delightful green setting just by the river bank, the Botanical Center contains 15,000 species of exotic plants beneath a glass dome. The entire place blooms with flowers all year round, and outside the dome, you can discover wonderful gardens including a three story Chinese pavilion.

The capital of Iowa also holds various events. Chief among them is the Iowa State Fair, which attracts upwards of one million visitors each year, and is primarily centred on agriculture. Food is a vital component of the event, with various stalls serving up delicious meals. Live music fills the air as the sun goes down while beer stalls come alive with revellers. It truly is an excellent event. If you are visiting Des Moines during summer, make sure you attend the State Fair in August! You can also visit the Des Moines Arts Festival in June. This usually lures about 150 artists from all over the country, and is also notable for serving exceptional food.

Sadly the bar scene in Des Moines is somewhat depressing, as is the music scene. Heavy metal has always been popular in the city, especially since Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat during a live performance in Des Moines. If you want to combine good music with tasty beer, look no further than Hairy Mary’s. They have live music every night and it is one of the liveliest spots in the entire city. House of Bricks also hosts entertaining rock gigs and is becoming increasingly popular. You might get the feeling that the bars in Des Moines cater more to a ‘thirty something’ crowd and you are probably right. Nevertheless, you can always find some entertainment if you look hard enough.

So in conclusion, Des Moines is dull. However, the city is really attempting to cast off its shackles and demonstrate some form of new found flamboyance. Even though its cultural scene pales in comparison to other American cities, this is slowly changing. Now is a good time to visit Des Moines. It seems to be in the throes of a slow evolution towards a more charismatic and ‘fun’ city. So if you find yourself wandering through the cornfields of Iowa, stop by. There are more than enough possibilities on offer for a fun weekend in the centre of North America.

Imagenote: Tim Kiser/Wikimedia/CC

Visiting Gritty Arkhangelsk

Wikimedia Ларин АндрейThe gritty city of Arkhangelsk straddles both banks of the of Russia’s Northern Dvina River for approximately 40 kilometers. An unlikely destination for many travellers, a trip to Russia’s far north can actually result in a rewarding expedition, provided you do a little research beforehand. Arkhangelsk is located near the Northern Dvina’s exit into the White Sea, which is itself a southern inlet of the Barents Sea. In this part of Russia, winters are bitterly cold and windy, with temperatures often plummeting as low as -30 degrees. Between November and May, the Northern Dvina and White Sea are choked with ice and ships can only navigate them with an icebreaker.

Arkhangelsk is located 300 miles south of the Northern Polar Circle. The city’s major port used to close during the winter months but advances in icebreaking techniques now enables it to stay open all year round. Summer is by far the best time to visit Arkhangelsk, though you should be prepared for bright sunlight illuminating your room at 3AM in the morning. It is a much more pleasant experience than winter, where daytime sometimes lasts as little as three hours.

If you try to reach Arkhangelsk by car from Saint Petersburg, the journey will take roughly 16 hours if everything goes according to plan. You could also try and cover the 1,200 kilometres from Moscow by car, but flying is more often than not a better and far more comfortable alternative. There are six daily flights from Moscow and four from Saint Petersburg – most cost around 4000 rubles and take at least two hours. A taxi from the airport to the centre of Archangelsk would set you back 200 rubles while the irregular bus connection costs 16.

The train from Yaroslavsky Vokzal in Moscow takes about 20 hours and arrives at Arkhangelsk’s main station. After you disembark from the train and emerge from the station, you will be greeted by a grey-coloured scene, filled with boisterous characters and immersed in dirty black clouds of smoke.  The grey and depressing introduction is sporadically interrupted by a bright red GAZ-3110 passing by, a loud whine emanating from its struggling engine. An intimidating bald man sitting in an idle Lada Niva across the road may remove his sunglasses as he casts a glance in your direction, waiting to make his pickup from the station. There are also innumerable kiosks, most selling cheap cigarettes and water melons.

Despite the less than endearing start in Archangelsk, it is vitally important to persevere and discover the city’s true colours beneath its tough and shabby exterior. The people of Archangelsk have forged a reputation among travellers as some of the friendliest and most welcoming in all of Russia. Unfortunately, the city’s sheer size sometimes makes exploration difficult – in Archangelsk, 350,000 people are spread out over 42 kilometres. The city is equipped with a large network of regional trains, trolleybuses and that quintessentially Eastern European phenomenon, the marshrutki. These shared buses can prove tricky to use if you do not speak Russian, so take a taxi if you encounter problems. Taxis are quick and cheap. Public transport is even cheaper (16 rubles for a ticket) and can prove far more exciting. Thankfully, most of Archangelsk’s attractions are all located in a relatively central part of the city, meaning visitors can walk between them with relative ease.

Several academic institutions merged to form the Northern (Arctic) Federal University in 2010. With over 20,000 students, Archangelsk has a distinctly youthful vibe. Strolling around on a summer’s day, you’ll find yourself in extraordinarily diverse cityscapes. Streets lined on either side by ugly concrete edifices give way to winding dirt roads full of old wooden houses. Walk on and these will open into Parisian tree-lined boulevards and when you get close to the Northern Dvina, you will find yourself on a promenade with Mediterranean flair.

Just off the promenade, you’ll find a square with a statue of Lenin surrounded by ugly office blocks. It is an interesting place and really sums up the communist history of Archangelsk. The shabby buildings in the background and the wild overgrown shrubs bare testament to a city that has seen far better days. There is a wonderful café located at Lenin Square called Biblio-café. It is a great place to take time out and grab a coffee – its walls are adorned with portraits of writers and the actual café is shared with a library. Walking further along the promenade and away from the depressing statue of Lenin, you will discover the very best of young and contemporary Archangelsk – the Dvina beach. During the summer, throngs of residents and visitors alike flock to the beach at the river bank. It is a warm and pleasant atmosphere, contrasting hugely with the city’s dark and bleak winter persona. It is further evidence of the benefits of a summer visit.

The plethora of decaying and shabby communist-era apartment blocks may conceal evidence of Archangelsk’s historic core. Many older buildings in the city were constructed from wood and failed to withstand the harsh winter months of northern Russia. Some have survived the test of time and the very best examples can be found at Chumbarova-Luchinskogo street. Some are immaculately preserved and stunningly beautiful while others have fallen into a state of rotten deterioration. Still, the contrast is quite fascinating and the spectacular wooden houses that still stand have quite an impact on visitors to Archangelsk. Wood was such an important commodity in the city that some sidewalks were made entirely from planks. If you search long and hard enough, you can still find surviving stretches.

One of the city’s most notable landmarks is its 151-meter tall TV mast. This red and white tubular steel structure has six crossbars with gangways spreading over two levels. There are antennas installed along the crossbars and the structure is equipped for FM and TV broadcasting. It was built all the way back in 1964 and is unique in comparison to the boring TV masts found throughout much of Eastern Europe.

For lovers of culture, Archangelsk has plenty to offer including the Lomonosov Drama Theater, the Philarmonia, and a Youth Theater. It also has several museums and the very best ones are the Arkhangelsk Oblast Museum, the Art Museum and the Stepan Pisakhov Museum. The last museum is dedicated to one of Archangelsk’s most famous sons, Stepan Grigoryevich Pisakhov, a famous writer and fairytale author who died in 1960. After several hours exploring Archangelsk either on foot or through adventurous marshrutkis, you’re going to be hungry. So where better to recharge your batteries than the city’s best restaurant?

Head to Pomorskiy on Pomorskaya street. Simply put, this place is fantastic. It has an excellent selection of northern Russian meals as well as more international variations. It really has something for everyone. The service is excellent, as is the food, and the entire interior is reminiscent of a northern Russian village. If you come from Western Europe and you feel homesick, you can always try the Irish Pub at Irish Pub on Shubina street for a cold pint of Guinness. So if you find yourself in the far north of Russia, there is no finer city to explore than Archangelsk. It is extraordinary – old wooden buildings give way to concrete Stalinist-era office blocks before you come across the modern glass and steel architecture of a new Russia. There is so much to see in this city! It is a really exciting and rewarding choice for an expedition! Just make sure visit Archangelsk during the summer months!

Imagenote: Ларин Андрей/Wikimedia/CC

 

 

A Nice Break in Wittenburg

Wikimedia QuellenhofIf you ever find yourself driving on the clogged A24 autobahn between Hamburg and Berlin, take exit number 10 leading to the scenic little town of Wittenburg. It’s the ideal place to take a short break or a longer overnight stop if you’re in the middle of a long journey.

Located in Ludwigslust-Parchim in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Wittenburg is home to 5570 people. The town is very compact. However, it has all the amenities necessary to function efficiently. It has a small train station, great connectivity to the A24 autobahn, six supermarkets and perhaps most importantly, personality.

The small districts of Helm, Klein Wolde, Wölzow and Ziggelmark come together to form Wittenburg and the very first thing you’ll notice as you stroll around town is just how green everything is, especially if you visit in spring or summer. During the GDR-era, two large farms dominated life in Wittenburg. However, a technical mindset quickly blended together with the town’s agricultural heartland, leading to more and more development. A large milk canning facility and numerous workshops sprung up and formed the town’s economic livelihood for years.

Exploring Wittenburg’s former and current agricultural orientation is both fascinating and scenic. On the outskirts of town, you can lose yourself in delightful country walks. Big yellow and black bumblebees hover in mid-flight as you make your way down alluring lane ways, past well-kept gardens and muddy fields.

Peering over low grey walls, curious cattle will raise their heads in your direction, eyeing you with an air of inquisitiveness. If you’ve had enough of strolling along the scenic back roads of Wittenburg, make your way to the town centre. As you walk, you might notice an unusual and pleasant aroma wafting through the air. The further you walk in the direction of the town centre, the more intense it becomes.

Eventually, you’ll happen upon its source, a massive cream-coloured building bearing the distinctive logo of the Dr. Oetker food processing company. They manufacture frozen pizza, baking powder and cake decorations amongst other things at this factoy, so no wonder Wittenburg is one of the best smelling towns in Germany! Unfortunately, as you walk along Hagenower Chausee, the view won’t match the wonderful smell. The industrial landscape is bleak, so you should turn onto Steintor to escape it as quickly as possible.

Eventually, you’ll find Wittenburg’s historic core. Once an ugly, decaying district, it was extensively modernised and looks absolutely splendid today. The unsightly dairy facility was demolished and replaced with supermarkets and attractive residential housing. The town hall is one of Wittenburg’s most striking buildings, dating from 1852. If you imagine a cross between an elegant palace and an imposing defensive castle, you’ll have the perfect image of the town hall. This important structure from the period of historicism is well worth a visit – both its interior and exterior were extensively renovated in 1996. Now it looks pristine.

St. Bartholomew’s church is located nearby and was constructed all the way back in 1240. A bell tower was added to this historic gem in 1909, and it’s one of Wittenburg’s most treasured sights. Green trees surround the entire church and a dark red-brick façade contrasts sharply with bright-red roof tiles. Venture inside and you’ll find a plethora of historical riches, from 17th and 18th century epitaphs to a wooden pulpit dating from 1666.

As you leave the church, your attention may be drawn to the ‘Henrichstein’, a monument from the second half of the 12th century, commemorating the battle of Waschow. Walk on and you’ll find countless reminders of Wittenburg’s fascinating past. Wandering through the historic town centre, you’ll pass a 17th century half-timbered house, one of very few remaining in all of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. You’ll also catch a glimpse of the old city wall, just a stone’s throw away, complete with an old red-brick tower. These fortifications were constructed in the 13th century.

Once you’ve exhausted yourself delving into Wittenburg’s past, it’s time to sample more of the town’s wonderful present. If you’re hungry, you have plenty of choice! If you’re in the mood for something traditional and typical of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, visit Landhaus Wittenburg. Here you can order delicious German food at reasonable prices, all washed down with some cold beer. Alternatively, head to Lara’s, an American-style diner located close to the autobahn. The atmosphere is friendly, the food is exquisite, and the portions are massive. What more can you ask for?

Just across the road, you can visit another one of Wittenburg’s famous sites, the Wittenburg Muehle or windmill. The main structure is brown in color, while the blades are white. It’s a real eye-catcher on a sunny day and there’s no finer place to relax when the sun shines. Once you’ve gorged yourself on Wittenburg’s up and coming restaurant scene and taken photographs of the windmill, it’s time to go skiing. Wait a second…skiing in July? Yes, it’s possible in Wittenburg!

In December 2006, a massive indoor ski hall was opened, bringing an Alpine atmosphere to northern Germany. Named Snow Funpark, its main slope is 330 metres long and 80 metres wide. The temperature is constantly kept at -1, drawing winter sports enthusiasts all year round. It’s probably the main attraction in Wittenburg and acts as a crucial component in the town’s economy.

Whenever you find yourself on the A24, keep your eyes peeled for those blue signs bearing the name of Wittenburg. It’s a delightful little place for a quiet weekend away from the bustle of busy cities like Hamburg and Berlin. It also provides an excellent stopover point for tired drivers. You don’t really need to research a trip to Wittenburg – just remember to pack your ski-gear, even you’re visiting in the middle of July.

Imagenote: Quellenhof /Wikimedia/CC Wikimedia

Breathing the Black Sea Air in Balaklava

Wikimedia OlaffpomonaWhen most people hear the word balaclava, they picture a militant or bank robber wearing an intimidating ski-mask. Very few picture a magnificent seaside haven located in between rolling hills covered in cypress and juniper plants. Little multi-coloured motor-boats and millionaire’s yachts bob up and down in calm waters amid the dramatic backdrop. This is Balaklava, the stunning Crimean town which gave its name to the infamous woollen garment.

If you’re planning an expedition to the southern part of the Crimean peninsula, you’ll have to do a little bit of research beforehand. You might have the option of flying to the small airport at Sevastopol, just a stone’s throw away from Balaklava. More than likely, however, you’ll land at the major international airport at Simferopol, well connected to Russia, Ukraine and other destinations. Once you land, it’s a two hour train journey to Sevastopol. Unfortunately, the train line between the two cities is well known for corruption – the staff onboard purchase many tickets themselves and resell them at inflated prices. You may have to pay between €5 and €10 above face value.

Balaklava is officially part of the city of Sevastopol which is a highly fascinating destination in itself. Whether you want to experience sites and museums dedicated to the Crimean war or gaze upon the rusting metallic hulks of the Soviet Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol harbour, the choice is yours. However, when you seek tranquillity in the southern part of the Crimea, there’s just one place to go and that’s Balaklava.

The Balaklava inlet cuts in from the Black Sea coast, forming a sheltered natural harbour. From both sides of the turquoise channel, steep hills covered in sun-dried grass rise up to dominate the landscape and create truly spectacular views. Balaklava oozes history and you can find over 50 different monuments devoted to various historic events scattered throughout the town. Chief among them has to be the ruins of the old Genoese fortress perched on one of the hilltops overlooking the entrance to the inlet.

The hike up towards the old fortress can certainly prove arduous on a warm summer’s day. The Crimean peninsula has a warm Mediterranean climate, with temperatures often surpassing 30C during the summer months. Once you arrive at the crumbling towers of the Genoese fortress, take a deep breath and admire the stunning view of Balaklava and its harbour far below. The water glistens in the sunlight as little fishing boats move back and forth. The colour of the water is so intense that the wakes generated by the boats start to resemble vapour trails in a cloudless sky.

As the wind howls through the gaps in the brickwork, turn away from the fortress and venture further up the winding path in the direction of the Orthodox cross. Blood red poppies and straw coloured grass will line both sides as you make your way over the crest of the hill. There, at the very top, you’ll find a German bunker network and trench system dating from the Second World War. Balaklava was the most southerly point in the Soviet-German lines during the war. The bunkers are very interesting and fun to explore – make sure you take a flashlight with you!

As you make your way down the hillside in the direction of town, pause for a moment and cast a glance over the countryside. Vineyards line the slopes and the silence is only broken by some seagulls squawking in the distance. The view is spectacular enough during the day but a trip back here at sunset is highly recommended. Sitting on a slope overlooking the harbour with a bottle of wine as the sky turns pink and the city lights flicker a bright yellow is simply unforgettable. Just make sure you keep that flashlight from the bunker exploration handy as you make your way down some tricky paths afterwards. You can really experience the very best of the Ukrainian summer in Balaklava.

The town is also highly notable as the location where the famous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ took place in October 1854. A British cavalry unit was mistakenly sent on a frontal assault against an artillery battery well defended by Russian soldiers. In the ensuing slaughter, 250 men were killed or wounded with 400 horses lost. The very best cavalry unit in the world at that time was almost wiped out. You can visit the site of the action, which is located roughly 4km outside Balaklava. There isn’t too much to see anymore, apart from some small monuments. The sprawling battlefield has been changed by the sands of time and most of the area has been turned into a vineyard.

Wandering around the coastal inlets adjacent to the harbour in Balaklava, you might notice something unusual etched into the rock face. What looks like a maritime tunnel is actually the entrance to a secret Soviet submarine base, operational until 1993. The last Russian submarine left the facility in 1996 and it’s now open to the public. You can stroll through vast cavernous tunnels and explore underground rooms where both conventional and nuclear weapons were stored. It’s also possible to visit the subterranean channels where the submarines used to berth and there’s also an underground dry-dock. The entire facility is hugely impressive and feels like an impenetrable fortress.

The bright and warm Ukrainian sun might prove a shock to your system when you reach the surface again. After all of the hiking and exploration – both above and underground, it’s time for food and a well earned beer. The waterfront has an excellent selection of cafes and restaurants. Cafe Argo is a good place to start – you can find some delicious Georgian meals here, together with some cheap and refreshing beer.

As your stay in Balaklava draws to an end, you might wonder about the town’s rich history and stunning beauty. Mainly, you might wonder about that woolly garment and why it bares Balaklava’s name. During the Crimean War, knitted facial masks were sent to British troops to protect them from the cold weather as their own equipment proved inefficient. The term ‘balaclava helmet’ evolved later, sometime during the 1880s. There is no need to be depressed when your expedition to Balaklava comes to an end. Sevastopol and Yalta provide ample opportunities for more Crimean fun, so continue soaking up that Ukrainian sun and enjoy every minute of it!

Imagenote: Olaffpomona/Wikimedia/CC

Reconnoitring Rostov-on-Don

Wikimedia Vlad2000PlusRussia has much to offer. There are so many interesting cities to visit across this immense nation, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Southern Russia and the Caucasus region in particular are bracing themselves for success after the city of Sochi was chosen to host the Winter Olympics in early 2014. One of the cities most people will pass through on their way to Sochi is Rostov-on-Don, a major rail junction in the region of Rostov Oblast, just north of the Caucasus.

Of course, an expedition to Rostov-on-Don isn’t on most people’s research list. However, this sprawling city straddling the northern banks of the Don River has plenty to offer, and is well worth a visit. More than likely, you’ll arrive at Rostov-Glavny, the city’s main train station. The platform is always a hive of activity, underlining the city’s importance as a crucial railway junction for southern Russia. The station is literally the heart that makes the entire region of Rostov Oblast beat.

As you step off the train, you’ll be greeted by a plethora of noise. Trains arrive and depart constantly at Rostov-Glavny. Modern trains sound their horns as they flash past old Soviet varieties where weary tourists hang out of the windows, observing the scene in the light summer breeze.

Fat tourists stroll around the platforms, clinching guidebooks to the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. A flock of nuns pass by, rushing to make their connecting train. You can’t help but wonder where all these interesting people come from as you pass through the chaos. Perhaps some took the train from nearby Ukraine. The ones rubbing the sleep out of their eyes almost certainly arrived on the Tikhiy Don, the night train connecting Rostov with Moscow.

Once you leave the madness of Rostov-Glavny, you’ll emerge onto surprisingly placid leafy streets. The city is spread out over a very wide area and it’s very easy to feel its open nature. The first thing that might strike you about Rostov-on-Don, at least in comparison to other Russian cities, is its rich architectural mixture. Of course you can find the typical bland communist-era apartment blocks scattered across the urban landscape, but you can also discover a wealth of beautiful historic architecture. These stunning buildings are interspersed with more modern ventures, making the city even more alluring.

Wandering away from the main streets, you’ll encounter serious examples of urban decay. Once splendid buildings lie crumbling, their former bright facades now faded by decades of harsh winters. Weeds make their presence felt everywhere during the summer months, sprouting out of the old brickwork and manifesting themselves under the old wooden window-frames. Old Lada and Volga cars sit rusting in front of the dilapidated dwellings – sometimes Rostov-on Don conjures up incredible feelings of nostalgia.

Getting around town can prove problematic at the best of times. There is no metro in Rostov-on-Don, despite the fact that a system has been promised by officials on numerous occasions. The best way to navigate the city is through the bus network, an adventurous undertaking. Both conventional buses and trolleybuses rumble through the streets of Rostov-on-Don, the former constantly spoiling the fresh summer air with dirty diesel fumes. You can also avail of Marshrutkas, a cross between a taxi and a bus. Hopping onto one of these is always a memorable experience. Find out for yourself!

When it comes to the sights, Rostov has plenty to offer – at least 543 architectural monuments are listed. Chief among them is the spectacular Cathedral of Virgin’s Nativity. This is probably the most notable building in the city centre, and it really stands out on a clear summer’s day. The belfry is separate from the main part of the cathedral and altogether, five golden onion domes glisten in the summer sunshine, working in tandem with the chalk white walls beneath to stun passers-by.

At sunset, head to the Voroshilov Bridge, one of Rostov-on-Don’s key landmarks. It was constructed between 1961 and 1965 by an engineer named Kuznetsova and an architect named Kleinman. Even though its red steel looks radiant as the sun sets, generally this bridge may not seem too spectacular. However, it is highly notable in world architectural history as the very first bridge where welded or bolted connections were ditched in favour of applied adhesive joints. It connects the city with the satellite towns of Bataisk and Azov. Strolling along the bridge at sunset, one is afforded spectacular views of the River Don and Rostov-on-Don’s skyline.

You should also wander around the massive central park on Bolshoi Soldova. It’s a nice place to relax when the sun is shining, or if you need a bit of quiet time away from the bustling city. You can find stalls here selling traditional Russian dolls and other handicrafts. If you walk a bit further, you can also find artists selling their paintings. At the very far end of the park, there is a restaurant named the Goldfish. Make sure you try it! They serve up some of the best meals in the whole city!

Heading east from the park, you’ll pass Rostov-on-Don’s live theatre, ballet theatre, and opera house, all grand and imposing buildings. The fountain park is located nearby, home to one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Of course, judging by the name of the park, you might have correctly guessed that the much cherished landmark is a fountain. It’s very impressive and is also illuminated at night. The park is much loved by the people of Rostov-on-Don, and its benches are a great place for a spot of people-watching.

When you visit Rostov-on-Don, a steamboat trip along the river is obligatory. Indeed, the River Don is the lifeblood of the city, where water routes lead to the Black, Azov and Caspian seas. Walking along the embankment where the locals gaze out over the flowing river from wooden benches, you might even feel like you’re strolling along a Mediterranean promenade. Lines and lines of snow-white steamboats are moored here, and the price for an hour long trip is around 180 rubles. The city appears very different from the Don and keep an eye out for the spectacular golden domes of the Cathedral of Virgin’s Nativity, easily discernible behind the city’s new hotels and office blocks.

If you have more time in Rostov-on-Don, make sure you travel a little outside and visit a stanitsa, the name given to a Cossack village. You can learn about Cossack life and chat to friendly locals who might even teach you some traditional songs! The area around Rostov-on-Don is even suitable for vine-growers and you can take a wine tasting tour.

So if you find yourself in southern Russia, especially if you plan on heading to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, stop by Rostov-on-Don. The city is full of friendly locals and there’s a new discovery around every corner. The wide leafy streets, trendy cafes and bustling promenade sometimes make you feel like you’re in southern France. But no, this is southern Russian civilisation at its very finest – come and experience it for yourself.

Imagenote: Vlad2000PlusWikimedia/CC