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A Weekend in Riga, Latvia

I’ve recently spent the weekend in Riga, Latvia and it has to be one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I’ve visited to date. There’s plenty to do and see in the city, with many of the sights within close proximity to one another in the Old Town.

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Cathedral Square, Riga

One of the best known buildings is the House of the Blackheads, originally built by a guild of merchants of the same name (similar halls can be found across Scandinavian, including in Tallinn). The original hall was built in the C14th but, after sustaining severe bomb damage in 1941 at the hands of the Nazis, was subsequently demolished by the occupying Soviets. It was reconstructed in the 1990s and, despite how controversial the reconstruction is considered, it is an impressive and imposing building.

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The House of the Blackheads

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The House of the Blackheads with the spire of the Church of St. Peter in the background

Other sights in the Old Town include the C13th church of St. Peter with its elaborate, layered spire. Close by is the sculpture of the Bremen Musicians, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale in which a disgruntled donkey, dog, cat and rooster team up to form a musical quartet but on the way to Bremen, after scaring off a band of brigands, discover a safe haven where they live happily ever after.

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The Church of St. Peter

Elsewhere in the Old Town is the C13th Cathedral, situated in a large square which also houses brightly coloured buildings. Close by, in yet another cobbled square, is Riga Castle where the Latvian president resides. It’s quite an understated building, painted in a vibrant yellow.

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The Musicians of Bremen

In the more modern part of the city, there’s some beautiful architecture to see in the Jugend district which is characterised by Art Nouveau style buildings. There’s also the Orthodox Cathedral with its golden domes and elaborately painted interior.

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Art Nouveau architecture in the Jugend District

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The Orthodox Cathedral

The Freedom Monument, erected in the 1930s to honour the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920), is also situated at the edge of the new city. It stands at 42 metres and the figure of Liberty stands atop, holding three stars symbolising the three regions of Latvia. The statue has a Guard of Honour, with two soldiers (weather permitting) present at the monument.

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The Freedom Statue, Riga.

I visited Riga in January and I’m not sure if it was because it’s a relatively quiet time of year to travel but it certainly made a difference as parts of the Old Town were practically deserted. Fortunately, if you’re as deeply unnerved by crowds as I am, this is no bad thing! The weather was also surprisingly mild with temperatures around 7 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, I did miss out on a few things whilst I was there for which I’m blaming a particularly unpleasant hangover and bizarre opening times. These included the Latvian National Museum of Art (closed until 5th May 2016 for renovation work), the Museum of Latvian Occupation (also temporarily closed for renovation) and the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust Museum (closed on Saturdays). They’re all highly recommended in travel guides and on TripAdvisor so if you’re in Riga, they’re definitely worth considering.

Finally, this bollard cannot go without comment – look how dashing it is!

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Thanks for reading x

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Here’s What You Need to Know about Pompeii’s ‘Main’ Brothel

If you’re planning on visiting Pompeii or have ever visited this magical ancient site at the foot of Vesuvius, then you may have heard some pretty tall tales about the ‘main’ brothel (lupanar). So if you want to be one step ahead of the tour guides, here’s what you need to know about the most visited building in Pompeii:

An erotic scene from the brothel in Pompeii.

It’s One of Many

There’s an estimated 35 brothels in Pompeii (Varone, 2002) which range from small cells leading directly off the street (cellae) to lavish villas. This number is an overly high estimation as it means there was one brothel for every 75 Pompeian males (Beard, 2008). We need to consider that many of these men had wives, slaves or others to satisfy their sexual needs. The building in question (VII.12.19) has been frequently confirmed as a purpose built brothel owing to its unusual layout. It’s located in the west of the city near two main gates and consists of the ground floor of a corner building. It’s separated into six small cells and a toilet. Above the brothel is a small apartment which is reached by an external staircase.

We Don’t Actually Know How it Worked…

No one’s entirely certain if the prostitutes were slaves, owned by the brothel’s proprietor, or if they were independent prostitutes who rented out a cell as and when they had a client. The prostitutes who worked there may have even lived in the tiny cells. An alternative theory is the prostitutes lived in the small apartment above the brothel. This would certainly make sense if some of the women, as a result of the nature of their work, had children.

One of the tiny cells inside the brothel.

It was Noisy, Smelly and Uncomfortable

If you’re labouring under the illusion the brothel was at all romantic, then you’re sorely mistaken. The building was utilitarian and each dark little cell was equipped with a stone bed. Even with soft furnishings, the beds would still have been incredibly uncomfortable. There was also very little privacy. None of the cells or the toilet had doors and there was even a gap between each cell. Assuming the cell doors were covered with curtains, one can only imagine the sounds and smells emanating from the cells… and the toilet!

Women AND Men Worked There

From what we can glean from literary sources, it was only acceptable for men in ancient Rome to visit brothels and there was plenty of services to sate any appetite, including homosexual sex. Homosexuality in the ancient world was considered reasonably acceptable if you were the active i.e. penetrating partner. The evidence we have of men working in the brothel comes from the ‘waiting rooms’ – the two cells on either side of the main door – where graffiti written by clients attests to the sexual prowess of men working within the brothel.

One of the erotic wall-paintings in the brothel.

The Sex ‘Menu’

Tour guides are keen to claim the seven erotic images above the cell doorways were some form of menu for clients to pick and choose their services. Many guides claim the pictures enabled clients, unable to understand Latin or possibly unable to communicate with prostitutes of foreign birth, to demonstrate what service they required. However, the positions depicted are hardly overly complicated and even the most basic of gesticulation would have achieve the same result without such artifice. Furthermore, the pictures do not include all the possible services on offer (including homosexual sex). Considering the unpleasant conditions in the brothel, the pictures may simply have been aesthetically pleasing. Alternatively, as the couples in the pictures are depicted in far more luxurious circumstances than those of the brothel, the pictures may have provided a distraction by showing fantasy scenarios.

If anyone wants to have a proper nosy around Pompeii but can’t afford the travel costs, take a look at PompeiiInPictures. It’s also where I’ve borrowed these pictures from…

Thanks for reading x

Another erotic scene from the walls of the brothel.

Thanks for reading x

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Istanbul: A City Of Minarets, Ornate Palaces & Byzantine Monuments – Part 2

On the third day of our visit we returned to Sultanahmet. We went first to the Blue Mosque which is a colossal building situated almost directly opposite the Aya Sofya. The grounds between the mosque and the Aya Sofya are worth walking around, especially in April when Istanbul’s Tulip Festival takes place. There’s also the outline of a hippodrome which still holds two obelisks and the lavish German Fountain, built to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm’s visit to the city in 1898.

German Fountain

The German Fountain in the Hippodrome, Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque was built in the C17th and is truly a work of art. Its gigantic columns support a series of highly decorated and stunningly beautiful domes. Only the ground floor of the building is open to visitors (outside of prayer times) as there have been some problems with the theft of tiles.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

The domed ceiling of the Blue Mosque.

The domed ceiling of the Blue Mosque.

Next we headed to the Basilica Cistern which was part of the water system built in the Byzantium period. The huge underground cavern is made of a series of columns which support vaulted ceilings. There’s not much to see but the site is hugely atmospheric and the architecture is incredibly impressive. Keep an eye out for the two Medusa heads and a tear drop column, features of other ancient sites which have been recycled to build the cistern.

One of the Medusa heads from the Basilica Cistern.

One of the Medusa heads from the Basilica Cistern.

Afterwards we went to the Topkapi Palace which has to be one of the most incredible buildings, or rather a series of buildings, in the world. It’s almost like something out of a work of fantasy fiction with its series of kiosks (small independent palace buildings), ornate tiles and plush divans. It’s the sort of place which has to be seen to be believed. The Palace itself is built around three courtyards which each have a number of rooms, stuffed with treasures, leading off of them. Yet, strangely enough, it is not the whole Palace but one section which is particularly fascinating: the Harem.

Topkapi Palace - Imperial Hall

The Imperial Hall in the Harem of Topkapi Palace.

Tiles from the Harem of Topkapi Palace.

Tiles from the Harem of Topkapi Palace.

The Harem was where the Sultan’s private quarters, and those of his mother, were located. They are particularly lavish and the tiles, ceilings, cupboards and windows have all been painstakingly decorated. It was also where the Sultan’s wives – he was legally allowed four legitimate spouses – lived along with his concubines. Indeed, the Harem could hold up to 300 concubines who were usually slaves from Eastern Europe. These women would be presented as gifts to the Sultan by foreign dignitaries, were captives of war, or simply bought to serve the Sultan. Although some of the women became concubines, there was a hierarchy within the Harem and the women would progressively work their way up. They would be trained in Turkish culture and language before serving the Concubines, then the Sultan’s mother and finally, if they were deemed pretty or accomplished enough, they would become concubines for the Sultan. Thanks for reading x

Tiles from the Harem.

Tiles from the Harem.

The Gardens of Topkapi Palace.

The Gardens of Topkapi Palace.

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Istanbul: A City Of Minarets, Ornate Palaces & Byzantine Monuments – Part 1

I’ve recently returned from three days away in Istanbul. It’s a magical but chaotic city. Magical because of its beauty, vast monuments and fabulous food but also chaotic because it doesn’t seem to know which culture it belongs to. I’d heard the old saying about how Istanbul is the city where the West and East truly meet but I didn’t realise how much the two cultures could both contrast so obviously and yet work together so well. There was a sort of beauty in the chaos and a whole spectrum of different people living side by side.

Galata Bridge

View of Suleymaniye Mosque from the Galata Bridge

 We visited a number of sites during our short stay in the city and ate a whole host of fabulous food. We arrived in the early evening of the first day and headed straight down to the Fish Market in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. The food in Istanbul was, from what we tried of it, delicious and always fresh. The fish was incredible and reasonably priced. We also tried Turkish pizza, known as pedi, which is diamond shape and traditionally topped with mince.

New Mosque

The courtyard of the New Mosque.

On the second day we crossed the Gelata Bridge, which has amazing views of the city, and headed straight to the New Mosque. The New Mosque is hardly new, as it was built in the C16th, but it is strikingly beautiful with fantastically ornate domed ceilings and vast chandeliers. Women have to wear headscarves and both sexes have to remove their shoes and cover their legs before entering the building. This is standard practice in all mosques so trousers or long skirts are recommended whilst visiting the city.

New Mosque ceiling

Domed ceiling of the New Mosque.

Afterwards, we headed up the extremely steep hill to Sultanahmet, the area where most of the major sights are located. We visited the Aya Sofya (also known as the Hagia Sofia in Greek) which was once a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. The vast building was built by the Byzantium emperor Justinian in 537CE and was a church until 1453, when it became an Imperial mosque. The whole place speaks of decaying grandeur and is certainly both breathtakingly beautiful but also delicate. Once you become accustomed to the sheer size of the building, there’s an awful lot to see including: the mosaics, a marble door, some possibly Viking graffiti and huge Islamic medallions. Perhaps most bizarre of all is the Weeping Column which was supposedly blessed by St. Gregory and is now moist. As the story goes, if you put your thumb in the hole in the column and your thumb is damp when you remove it, the moisture will cure your ailments.

The Aya Sofya from the gardens of the Blue Mosque.

The Aya Sofya from the gardens of the Blue Mosque.

After lunch (kebab – when in Istanbul and all that.), we headed to the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar. Shopping in Istanbul is not a relaxing experience: the vendors are attempting to lure you into their shops with flattery and are fairly persistent too. If you hate to haggle (as I certainly do) then be on your guard. Nevertheless the bazaars are beautiful and the assortment of olives, cheeses, spices, Turkish delight, baklava, lamps, tiles, cloth and jewels is certainly an assault on the senses.
Check back next week for part 2. Thanks for reading 🙂

The Aya Sofya

The Aya Sofya

Mosaics

Mosaic in the Aya Sofya. The Madonna and Child are flanked by the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (L) and the Empress Zoe (R).

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Berlin’s Free Monuments & Memorials

When I visited Berlin last year, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was my first visit to the city and my preconceptions had been influenced by years of studying modern German history at school: from the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was curious to see how the city remembered its past; whether any reminders were neatly hidden away to avoid embarrassment or if there was a sense of acceptance and openness about Germany’s recent history. It is most definitely the latter and the city is filled with monuments to those who suffered under the Nazi regime and later during the division of Berlin. The majority of monuments are free so they’re worthwhile places to visit for those on a budget.

Checkpoint Charlie

The sign denoting the different sectors in Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall divided the U.S., British and French controlled West Berlin from the rest of Russian controlled East Germany. Construction of the wall began in 1961 and it stood until 1989. During the decades of division, hundreds of people crossed the heavily fortified borders illegally. It is not certain how many people successfully crossed the wall but more than a hundred people were killed in attempts to cross, either from accidents or at the hands of the Wall’s guards.

There are three main monuments and memorials to those who suffered and died at the Berlin Wall: the Berlin Wall Memorial, the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie.

The Memorial contains only a small part of the remaining Wall but shows the extent of the fortifications on either side. One of the most poignant parts of the memorial is a panel of photographs of those who died attempting to cross the Wall. There is also an educational centre and interactive information points around the site.

The East Side Gallery is a 1.3km stretch of the original Wall which showcases numerous examples of graffiti art created in 1990 as a means of commemorating the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Wall. It is also the largest open air gallery in the world.

Checkpoint Charlie remains one of the most well known monuments in Berlin and is simply a small white hut in the centre of an office area. A replica of the sign denoting the different zones is also on display. The area around the Checkpoint contains displays about the efforts of diplomats and others to smuggle people across the heavily guarded borders.

Websites: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/ // http://www.eastsidegallery-berlin.de/ // http://www.berlin.de/orte/sehenswuerdigkeiten/checkpoint-charlie/index.en.php?lang=en

The Roma and Sinti Memorial in Tiergarten, Berlin.

The Roma and Sinti Memorial in Tiergarten, Berlin.

Tiergarten – Memorials to the Victims of the Nazi Regime

The Tiergarten is not only a beautiful area of parkland but it also holds a number of memorials and monuments. Some of the most interesting to look out for are the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust Memorial), the Memorial for the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered in National Socialism and the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the Nazis.

The Holocaust Memorial is vast and contains more than a hundred concrete blocks which range in height from the size of tombs to well above head height. Covering an area of more than four acres, at its centre, the Memorial creates a sense of claustrophobic. The site also includes a museum and education centre (free to enter).

Websites: http://www.stiftung-denkmal.de/startseite.html // http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/sinti-and-roma-memorial //  http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/memorial-for-the-nazi-era-persecution-of-homosexuals

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The Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.

The Holocaust Memorial.

The Holocaust Memorial.

Topography of Terror

By far one of the most fascinating but highly disturbing monuments in Berlin is the Topography of Terror. The museum, which is free to enter, is built over the demolished site of the Gestapo’s headquarters. The information points, both inside the building and out, detail the different people who were persecuted under the Nazis and how they were treated. Political opponents, Jews, homosexuals,  Roma and Sinti people, Poles, the disabled and those suffering from mental health constitutions are amongst those who were persecuted under the Nazi regime. There is also a focus on the propaganda used by the Nazis and what became of the Nazi criminals once the war was over.

Website: http://www.topographie.de/en/

The outdoor galleries at the Topography pf Terror.

The outdoor galleries at the Topography pf Terror.

If you’re heading to Berlin for the weekend, why not check out my two day guide to the city? Available on Unanchor.com and Amazon.

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6 Reasons To Love Bratislava, Slovakia

I’m not sure what it was about Bratislava – its harsh sounding name or the presumption that it would bear all the hallmarks of the Eastern bloc – which led me to believe I wouldn’t be terribly impressed. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised and entirely mistaken as Bratislava is quaint, beautiful, bustling and cheap.

Looking from the Old Town towards the castle.

Looking from the Old Town towards the castle.

Here are six reasons, in no particular order, to love Bratislava:

6. The Architecture

Its architecture is refreshingly different from the surrounding countries and is far less inclined towards the overbearing baroque of its closest neighbour Austria (Vienna is only 60km away and the two are the world’s closest capital cities). From the bizarre UFO which hovers over the Most SNP (a bridge crossing the Danube) to onion domed churches, there’s something to sate everyone’s architectural appetite, whether inclined to old or modern styles.

St. Martin's and the UFO.

St. Martin’s and the UFO.

5. The Nightlife

In the height of summer it’s almost impossible to find an outdoor table at one of Bratislava’s many bars. If you can, they’re the perfect places to people watch and observe the interesting fashion choices of the locals particularly the women heading for a night out (apparently less is more in Slovakia).

St. Martin's Cathedral.

St. Martin’s Cathedral.

4. It’s Cheap!

It also happens to be fairly cheap but fortunately remains undiscovered by stag and hen nights. Both beer and wine are very reasonably priced, with beers usually less than 3 Euros and a very large glass of wine for fewer than 4 Euros even in the more touristy areas. So it’s an ideal refuge for those who have been on road for a while!

Bratislava's Town Hall.

Bratislava’s Town Hall.

3. The Site Of A Truly Bizarre Ghost Story

Hidden in the treasury of St. Martin’s Cathedral is a piece of cloth which bears the outline of a hand. The legend goes a ghost convinced a local bigwig to build a religious statue as a means of demonstrating their piety. Before the statue was unveiled, the ghost decided to prove its power and connection to a higher power by placing its hand on the cloth covering the statue. The ghost’s hand burnt through the cloth, as the story goes, and it’s still on display today, next to a plaque bearing a far more eloquent explanation!

Bratislava Hrad.

Bratislava Hrad.

2. The Views

Although the city itself is relatively flat, there are plenty of places to view the Bratislava and its surroundings from on high. And who doesn’t love a good view? The castle (Hrad) boasts numerous viewing platforms whether you want to look across the Danube to the modern city or towards the hills where the Slavin War Memorial sits.

The view towards Bratislava's modern quarter from the castle.

The view towards Bratislava’s modern quarter from the castle.

1. The Tongue In Cheek Statues

The Old Town of Bratislava is well known for hiding a few sculptural gems which all happen to be rather cheeky. A “man at work” peeps out of a man hole; a soldier complete with Napoleon-esque hat leans against a bench; and a paparazzo peeps around the corner. Here’s also a few more, but that would give the game away – see how many you can find!

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Man At Work!

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The Uffizi Gallery, Florence: Top Sights For Weary Tourists

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy boasts one of the most impressive collections of Renaissance art in the world. The gallery is house in the 16th century building complex commissioned by Cosmo de’ Medici, at the time the head of the powerful banking family.

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Cosmo intended from the onset to use the building, not only as offices and meeting places for Florence’s rulers, but as a means of displaying the Medici’s large collection of art. And, of course, as a means for the family to show their wealth, power and good taste.

The Uffizi has served as a inspiration for artists; was the highlight of many a Grand Tour; and is now one of the most popular attractions in Italy. In summer the gallery is packed with tourists from around the world and many are willing to queue for hours to gain entry. The gallery is deceptively large so, if you’re running out of time and patience, here are a few of the sights you must see:

The Niobe Room

The Niobe Room

The Niobe Room acts as something of a respite for those struggling with the crowds. It’s generally quiet as people tend to toddle in, glance around and immediately leave. The room is lined with statues and huge paintings fill the walls.

Titian

The Venus of Urbino.

Similarly the Caravaggio, Titian’s work is on the lower floors of the gallery and on the way out. His Venus of Urbino resides here and depicts a beautiful reclining nude. The painting dates from 1538 and is amongst Titian’s finest and most famous works.

The View From The Top

Florence

The views from the top of the gallery and from the windows on its main corridors are incredible and have changed very little since the building’s completion. Make sure you stop to admire the view over the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio in the West Corridor.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Medusa.

The works of Caravaggio are hidden away on the lower floors of the gallery and, when you’re trying to find your way out, can be easily missed. However, they’re particularly fine examples and his Testa di Medusa is remarkable. He created one version in 1596 and another a year later, the second version is on display at the Uffizi. Also present in the room are his Young Bacchus and Annunciation.

Botticelli

The Birth of Venus.

By far the most sought out picture in the gallery is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and it’s certainly worth wading through the crowds to see. The painting, created in 1486, is larger than one would expect and dominates the vast room in which it is held. Unfortunately, its beauty is somewhat detracted as a large glass screen has been placed over it for protective but if you persevere and ignore everyone else around you, it’s definitely worth the effort.

The entire series of rooms devoted to Botticelli should also be explored especially as some of his other, less raved about paintings, are magnificent. These include Fortitude, the painting depicting one of the same virtues, which he completed in 1470.

Fortitude.

The Main Corridors

The East Corridor.

It’s easy to rush through these areas if you’re the hunt for Botticelli, but the main corridors alone are fantastically grand and should be considered an attraction in their own right. Make sure you look up as much as possible as the ornate ceilings are all unique and depict scenes from Greco-Roman mythology.

Famous faces from the Medici family glare down at visitors and the array of sculptures from their high vantage point on the walls. It’s also evident how much the Medici used classical art and its associations, particularly with the Roman emperors, to emphasise their own power. Keep an eye out for busts of the emperors Nero, Caligula, Trajan and Augustus.

The ceiling of the Uffizi.

The Tribuna

The Tribuna.

The octagonal room is filled with paintings and sculptures but its main attraction is its décor. The relatively small room was the main attraction for many on their Grand Tour during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The domed ceiling is highly ornate; the marble floor lavish; and the high windows providing the perfect amount of light for one to appreciate the hanging paintings and statues. It’s no longer possible to enter the room but it can be admired from its three doorways.

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