Archive for June, 2008

Kraków, the old “new” Prague

June 26, 2008

“Blah blah blah Prague, Blah blah Prague ad nauseum ad nauseum etcetera etcetera”.

Translation:

“I am a mindless sheep who would go anywhere an unimaginative travel agent reccomended”.

If I have already lost you then I suggest you close this page now and move on to something else, if you are with me so far then read on because, boy do I have a treat for you.

Before we go any further I should really clarify the above, don’t get me wrong Prague is a wonderful city with a myriad of  attractions and reasons to visit. However, by the time any city (outside the USA) has 7 branches of McDonalds and 5 KFCs it might be fair to say that said city has lost a certain element of the “Je ne sais quoi” which made it a tourist attraction in the first place. And don’t get me wrong fast food multiculturalism has already reached Kraków, but it’s impact has been far more restrained*.

You have probably already heard about Kraków. But in case you are not one of the 7 million tourist visitors who visit the city annually allow me to make the introductions.

Kraków lies in southern Poland, primarily on the Northern banks of the Vistula or “Wisla” River, with the Tatra Mountains to the South and the Carpathian Mountains to the north, and benefits from a temperate climate. It is one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland with a population of approximately 750,000. It was the capital of Poland until 1596, when Warsaw superceded it.

In 1978, UNESCO added Kraków’s historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz district and the Wawel Castle to its list of  World Heritage Sites. Kraków received even more attention when it was named the European Capital of Culture for the year 2000 by the European Union, and when Poland was admitted to the European Union in 2004 the steady trickle of visitor numbers increased further.

When I first travelled to Kraków in the early nineties I was wowed by a city that although considered to be a secondary city in comparison to Warsaw, outstripped it’s larger neighbour in both attractions and architecture. The reason for this is obvious. Notwithstanding the atrocities endured by the population of Kraków during the second world war Kraków’s medieval buildings, unlike the majority of Polish cities, escaped remarkably undamaged. So much so that Kraków is widely recognised as Poland’s prettiest city.

Kraków is also twinned or maintains close relations with, more than 30 cities around the world, including: Bordeaux, Edinburgh, Florence, Innsbruck, Milan, Rochester (New York) and Seville.

 

Kraków Centre

Kraków has been divided into 18 administrative districts, Stare Miasto (I) once contained within the city defensive walls and now encircled by Planty park, Grzegórzki (II), Prądnik Czerwony (III), Prądnik Biały (IV), Krowodrza (V), Bronowice (VI), Zwierzyniec (VII), Dębniki (VIII), Łagiewniki-Borek Fałęcki (IX), Swoszowice (X), Podgórze Duchackie (XI), Bieżanów-Prokocim (XII), Podgórze (XIII) until 1915 was a separate town on the southern bank of the Vistula, Czyżyny (XIV), Mistrzejowice (XV), Bieńczyce (XVI), Wzgórza Krzesławickie (XVII), and Nowa Huta (XVIII) east of the city centre, built after World War II.

Of these 18 some of the older neighborhoods were incorporated into the city before the late 18th century. These include the Old Town (Stare Miasto), the Wawel District, which is the site of the Royal Castle and the cathedral; Stradom, Kazimierz and the ancient town of Kleparz.

Among the most notable historic districts of the city Wawel Hill is home to Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral; the medieval Old Town, dozens of old churches and museums; and the 14th-century buildings of the Jagiellonian University.

Within the Old Town district of Kraków there are said to be some six thousand historic sites and more than two million works of art. Its rich variety of historic architecture includes Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic buildings.

When I visit Kraków I am fortunate to be able to stay with a friend who resides in the Old Town (Stare Miasto), and that is where most visitors start. The Main Square is where the majority of visitors begin, and the towering castle above it acts as the landmark for anyone who need to get their bearings.

The Royal Castle is located at the top of Wawel Hill, which commands a view of the whole town laid out below it. Popular attractions here are the Renaissance cloisters of the castle and the beautiful royal chambers, decorated with tapestries manufactured by Flemish masters. The most impressive of these is the Chamber of Deputies with its original carved ceiling featuring the heads of Cracovian burghers.

Adjacent to the castle is the Wawel cathedral, the origins of this magnificent structure date back to the year 1000.  The Wawel cathedral has witnessed royal coronations and funerals, and holds the tombstones of many Polish kings, national heroes and poets of the Romantic period, every visitor to Kraków should see the cathedral. The showpiece of the interior is the Renaissance Sigismund Chapel. At the western edge of the hill is the entrance to the Dragon’s Cave, where the legendary Wawel Dragon lived.

Below Wawel Castle is Kraków’s Main Market Square, which was the largest medieval urban centre in Europe. Lined with magnificent houses, the Main Market Square attracts crowds of tourists day and night. After long and successful rounds of shopping, they can sit and relax in the many restaurants and cafés located here; they can also enjoy savoury meals in the ambience of their original interior decorations.

 The Market Square is dominated by the Sukiennice, the large cloth hall at its very centre. A construction from the turn of the 12th century, the Cloth Hall was originally designed for the cloth trade. The Hall topped with gargoyles, acquired its decorative appearance in the 19th century, when arcades were added. Today, the ground floor continues to be a trading centre for crafts and souvenirs, while the upper floor houses the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Painting. The Cloth Hall also plays host to Kraków’s primary religious building,the sky-scraping St Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki) and the  Wieza Ratuszowa, a seventy-metre tower that is the only remnant of the 14th century town hall. The Town Hall Tower dominates the western section of the square; its basement containing a well preserved medieval torture hall, a theatre and a café. Both tower and church offer excellent views.

The Gothic St Mary’s Church is also referred to as the Basilica of the Virgin Mary and is  a symbol of the city and was built in the 14th century and features the famous high wooden altar carved by Veit Stoss. This  altar is acclaimed by some as the greatest masterpiece of Gothic art in Poland. A trumpet call, “hejnal mariacki”, is sounded from the church’s main tower every hour. The melody played ends unexpectedly in midstream. According to legend, the tune was played during a 13th-century Tartar invasion by a guard warning citizens against the attack. He was shot by a Tartar archer while playing, the melody breaking off at the moment he died.

In the southern corner of the square is the small, domed St Adalbert’s Church. A good example of Romanesque architecture in Poland and one of the oldest churches in Kraków.  

Head south of Wawel hill and you come to Kazimierz. This district has always been the home of the local Jewish population. Today Kazimierz is increasingly lively and a great place to eat out of an evening. Here you will find the main square Ulica Szeroka lined with restaurants offering Jewish cuisine. Be warned though you may need to book ahead or wait for a table, but the wait will be worth your while.

Eating/drinking

At the time of writing four Polish Zloty equates to approximately one British pound or two US Dollars so eating out in Kraków is an easily affordable treat.  I’m not going to go into a restaurant review here, but look out for the following treats on Cracovian menus: goulash ,maczanka Cracovian style ( pork stewed with onion and cumin), roast duck with mushrooms served with kasha. The only two original Polish sheep cheeses are made near Kraków. Cracovian  cheesecake is a tasty finish to any meal or you might want to try Papal cream cake.

Alternatively, for a light meal or snack try the traditional “jadlodajnia” – basic eateries  that traditional Polish food like potato pancakes (placki) at bargain prices.

If you fancy spending a little more over your meal, the Old Town is dotted with mid-price eateries (not just of the Polish variety). As a rule of thumb the nearer the castle you eat, the dearer your bill.

Those seeking a little alcoholic refreshment will hardly struggle to find it in Kraków. The Old Town is home to countless bars, and with a beer costing approximately three zloty (.75 pence) there is little risk of you running dry. I seem to say it in every piece I write but look out for the ubiquitous Irish Bar. Wherever you go the vodka is excellent.

Many places stay open way into the night. If you want to drink with the locals rather than fellow holidaymakers get yourself back to the Kazimierz district.

In the early part of the 19th century Kraków replaced much of the old city walls with a series of small gardens which now link together to form Planty Park. The gardens are in a variety of styles and augmented with sculpures and monuments.The park is a popular place to walk for Cracovians and has an area of 21 hectares (52 acres) and a length of 4 kilometers.

 Kraków has 28 museums and public art galleries. Among them are the main branch of Poland’s  National Museum and the Czartoryski Museum, the latter featuring works by Leonardo and Rembrandt. The city has several famous theaters, including: National Stary Theatre, a.k.a. The Old Theatre,  Bagatela Theatre, The Ludowy Theatre, and Groteska Theatre of Puppetry, as well as Kraków Opera and Kraków Operetta.

For those visitors who might prefer a spot of retail therapy to the delights of the Theatre of Puppetry and were not sated by the arcades of the Cloth Hall they should try the streets that lead off the main square (especially Ulica Florianska, which runs off the north-east corner), where boutiques and high end clothes shops offer rather more choice for your zloty.

Outside Kraków

Surrounding Kraków there are a number of attractions to visit – these range from excellent ski resorts to some of the blackest most God forsaken places on the face of the planet. All, time allowing, should be included in your itinerary.

The Wieliczka salt mine

 South of the city  is the town of Wieliczka, famed for its salt mine which has been in operation for at least 700 years. Like parts of Kraków, Wieliczka has been honoured by being included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Here you can see how salt is being mined but the highlight of the place, however, is the part of the mine open to visitors. Created partly by nature and partly by the very capable hands of Wieliczka miners, the tourist route of the museum takes you through an eerie world of pits and chambers; hand-hewn from solid salt are chapels, with altarpieces and figurines, statues and other adornments, all carved in salt! Here, there are even underground lakes. The mine is renowned for its microclimate and health-giving properties; therefore, an underground sanatorium has been established, where respiratory tract diseases, motor problems as well as rheumatic conditions are treated.

The Death Camps

Not for the faint hearted, I have seen stronger men than me made physically sick on visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau. These two former concentration camps are some 60 kilometres west of Kraków in the town of Oswiecim (trains leave regularly from Kraków central station, journey time 1 hour).

Believe me when I say you will be heartened by the hospitality of the people of Kraków, but I believe there are few greater examples of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man than this day trip. That said I strongly recommend this trip.  

To dispel the melancholy of the Death Camps I recommend a visit to the far side of the River Wisla.where faith in the better side of man’s nature can be found with a visit to Oskar Schindler’s Emalia factory.

Zakopane ski resort

Nestled at the foot of the Tatras Mountains, approximately 100 kilometres south of Kraków, Zakopane is the most famous mountain resort in Poland and the winter sports capital. Tourists continue to flock to Zakopane all year round, as they did in the second half of the 19th century. Time allowing any visitor could do worse than take a twin centre break in Poland, and I would strongly recommend a week stay in both Zakopane and Kraków.

Other attractions

 Despite the Polish performance in the 2008 Euro Championship Football fans are well catered for in Kraków. Attending a game is cheap by EPL standards.  The main teams are Cracovia Kraków and  Wisla Kraków. If those two are playing away from home look out for Hutnik Kraków, Wawel Kraków, Gabarnia Kraków and Juvenia Kraków.

The Cracovia Marathon, with over a thousand participants from two dozen countries annually, has been held in the city since 2002.

Other annual events include:

·                     March/April: Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival

·                     June/July: Jewish Culture Festival

·                     August: The International Festival of Mountain Folklore (the town’s leading cultural event).

·                     December: Cracovian Christmas Nativity Scenes Competition and my personal favourite Kraków’s New Year’s Eve Festivities in the Market Square (complete with “Champagne” available at £3 a bottle.

Kraków  also hosts many other festivals (check the calender for details) :

·        Sacrum-Profanum (contemporary music)

·        Kraków Screen Festival (popular music)

·        Festival of Polish Music (classical music)

·        and the Festival of Short Feature Films.

Kraków airport, (John Paul II International Airport is 11 km west of the city. Direct trains cover the route between Kraków and the airport in 15 minutes.

What else can I say, I dare you, in fact I double dare you to visit Kraków rather than take your travel agent’s first offer.

* For the record and the purposes of journalistic accuracy I should mention Kraków now has 5 branches of McDonalds and 4 branches of Pizza Hut.

Forget Florence, Pick Pisa

June 26, 2008

 

“She” has been on at me for ages to take her to Italy. Now usually that wouldn’t be a problem, it doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to throw some clothes in a suitcase and head off to the airport. A drop of a hat and you will find me in the departure lounge but Italy is one of those few remaining European countries I have yet to set foot in, that’s excluding a courier job I did once to Turin, but as I never actually left the airport on that occasion I still class myself in that rarest of species, the Italian virgins.

 

To make matters worse this wasn’t just a trip for two, our new son and his aunt, my sister, would accompany us on this trip. So, in a flash of inspiration I delegated the choice of destination to auntie, bowing to her self-proclaimed far superior expertise – little knowing that aforementioned expertise consisted solely of reading “A room with a view” and a penchant for anti-pasta.

 

With an unseemly lack of deliberation auntie spake. And so it was that I found myself making travel preparations for Belle Firenze or as you and I know it, Florence.

 

As our party consisted of one South Londoner and three Brightoneers airport wise there is only one choice and that is Gatwick. With Florence as a destination, airline wise again there is only choice, and that is the Italian based economy outfit Meridiana.

 

Meridiana have done well with their scheduling. With early morning and late afternoon runway slots secured in both directions business travellers can swoop in and out of Florence whilst the tourists can make the most of both arrival and departure days.

The leaning Tower

 

Our outbound flight took off on time and landed some 2 hours later. Punctuality being a prerequisite when you have a limited time frame – I can’t fault Meridiana there. However, I do object to not even being offered so much as a gratis cup of coffee or bag of peanuts as some recompense for spending two hours of my life sloughing the skin off my knees against the back of the seat in front of me.

 

Baggage retrieval at Florence is excruciatingly slow considering the size of the airport, making even the efforts of Heathrow’s newly opened fifth terminal seem speedy in comparison – fortunately the airport itself is only a 20 minute taxi ride from the historical centre of Florence – just long enough for the traveller to appreciate how linguistically advanced Italian taxi drivers are in comparison to our own and also how ordinary much of Florence is architecturally. Florence is certainly no Rome and is up there with the Coventrys and Dresdens of the world when it comes to post war-rebuilding failures.

 

This impression was reinforced when we arrived at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Minerva, and realised that the Piazza it is situated upon, Di Santa Maria Novella, is, like much of Florence currently undergoing renovation (at time of writing Apr 2008), and resembled more a building site than my expected site of antiquity.

Unlike Helena Bonham Carter’s room, our room at the front of the building did have a view and overlooked all the building works, now normally this would bother me but if you are travelling with a two year old obsessed with diggers, cranes, dumpers and tractors this soon becomes a positive rather than a negative, and as Forster says “I don’t care what I see outside, my vision is within”.

 

Bags downed we were out of the hotel and off to explore Florence, the Minerva had been chosen for it’s central location, and much if not all of what you would want to see in Florence is easily accessible from the hotel.

 

Although mum and dad had accepted auntie’s recommendation of Florence it was with some unvoiced reservations that perhaps it wasn’t the most child friendly city. These reservations were quelled by the thought that no child could do anything other than love a country known for it’s pizza and ice-cream. So that said some refreshments had to be first stop.

 

First stop for us was the Plaza Della Signorina and a chance to admire some of Florence’s better architecture, some great statues (Cellini’s “Perseus holding the head of Medusa” stands out) and enjoy an ice cream.

 

OK, now I am not going to quibble, “the boy” gets a very nice ice cream, but 10 euros nice? For that I would want it to be served to him by a living incarnation of Michelangelo’s David himself.

 

So with ice cream dribbling down the boy’s chin at a euro a blob we moved on to explore the city and take in some of Florence’s famed attractions. A job not made any easier by the apparent Florentine decree that a pavement width should be 20 percent narrower than the standard European pushchair median. Next up for us had to be the Ponte Vecchio –it’s Italian for “old bridge” apparently, and amazingly that is exactly what it is. The Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno River that runs through the heart of Florence, and has done so since the twelfth century. The original bridge has been rebuilt several times throughout history but was the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the retreating Germans during the final stages of the Second World War.

 

Originally the bridge was a home to the local greengrocers, butchers and bakers and the like, but these were replaced by royal decree by jewellers and more latterly souvenir sellers. The term bankruptcy is supposed to have originated on the Ponte Vecchio so possibly they were selling extortionately priced ice cream in Florence as far back as the 13th century.

 

With the early Spring weather taking a turn for the wetter and someone’s teatime looming we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. I also wanted to make a phone call to my financial advisor regarding the possibility of a cash advance for a Margherita pizza that had earlier caught my eye. I also wanted to speak to the reception staff regarding train times to Pisa, which was to be our destination the following day.

 

The following day saw us up early for an excellent hotel breakfast prior to departure for the train station, which is almost adjacent to Santa Maria Novella and shares the same name. The previous day’s mood was also lightened by the obvious adoration of the hotel staff for our son Charlie. In fact I felt as if I had fallen into an outtake of The Italian Job as Italian accented versions of his name echoed around the breakfast room. The old adage remains true “if the kids are happy so are the parents” and things seemed to bode well for the day’s activities.

 

Now I have never tried to purchase a train ticket at a station in England speaking only Italian but the ease with which the transaction was competed in English in Italy makes me sure it would not go as smoothly, and some 15 minutes after finishing breakfast we were comfortably ensconced aboard our train for the 89 kilometre, 1 hour journey time, second class fare approx. 2 ice creams.

 

Giardino di Boboli

 

Now this is where my title for this piece should really start to make some sense. The journey time between the two cities is inconsequential and is less than a lot of people’s daily commute. And what a contrast between the two cities. Where Florence’s streets are too narrow to comfortably manoeuvre a pushchair Pisa’s streets resemble more a Parisian boulevard. Pisa is the smaller of the two cities and yet you feel you have more space to enjoy. The roads aren’t so busy, in fact for most of the walk from the train station to Piazza del Duomo – the main historic centre, we actually eschewed the spacious pavements and sauntered down the middle of the road, hardly realising it wasn’t actually a pedestrian’s area.

 

 

It is a straight line from the train station to the Piazza del Duomo but it is well worth taking a deliberate detour, we did and found not only the obligatory Irish Pub but also street food markets, crammed with Italian sausage, tomatoes and fresh artichokes which, for me, really gave me the sense for the first time of being in the real Italy, whereas wandering Florence’s streets I just felt like I was a consumer in what could have been any one of so many European cities.

 

Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo one immediately looks for the Leaning Tower, and it is easy to miss the fact that the Piazza houses 3 other great monuments. As well as the tower the Piazza is home to: the Pisa cathedral, the baptistery, and the cemetery – all set out on a sward of manicured lawn.

 

My favourite was the cemetery, but then my wife believes we travel the world just to trawl around other countries’ burial places. Legend has it the Pisa cemetery was created in the 13th century to hold tonnes of soil brought back from the Holy Land, specifically the Calvary Mount, where Christ was supposedly crucified. Despite losing its roof and suffering fire damage during the Second World War many would have you believe this is one of the most beautiful cemeteries anywhere in the world.

 

We didn’t bother to enter the baptistery despite its claim to be the largest in Italy. Those who do visit recommend going first thing in the morning to really appreciate the amazing acoustics of the place.

 

We ventured off the piazza to grab a cold lunch which we then took back to eat at the foot of the famous tower, which we followed up with Pisa’s version of ice cream – equally good and like everything else here half the price of it’s Florentine counterpart. We could easily have killed more time just people watching – Pisa seems to be the world capital for humorous photo taking, but tore ourselves away to go and visit Pisa’s botanic gardens. A stone’s throw from the top of the tower these gardens were established in the 15th century and are supposedly the oldest in all of Europe. The gardens are home to species from all over the world and although Pisa isn’t a hectic place if you wanted room to unwind and grab a quiet moment here’s the place. We settled on just disturbing the peace of others and let “the boy” off the leash for an hour or so before making our way back to the train station and reluctantly taking the short journey home.

 

For our final day in Florence we had decided to do the art thing and planned an early morning visit to the Uffizi Gallery. The major drawback of doing this is the length of the queue to get in but someone had put me onto an advance ticket-booking site, www.polomuseale.firenze.it/english/benvunuto.asp, which cut our queuing down to minutes rather than hours. The gallery is made up of approx 40 rooms and has works of art by Michelangelo, Raphael and all the other ninja turtles.

 

For our last afternoon we had planned to head North across town to the Galleria dell’Accademia which houses the world-renowned sculpture of David prior to his battle with Goliath by Michelangelo. However, as the Sun was shining we decided instead to go South of the Arno River and let “the boy” explore the Giardino di Boboli. These are the largest gardens in Florence and are supposed to have inspired those of Versailles. The gardens are pleasant enough for a stroll, with copies of some of Michelangelo’s sculptures dotted around to break up the topiary. There is an admission fee of half an ice cream but personally I preferred the Pisa ones which also had the benefit of being free of charge.

 

Finally, tired and weary, it was time to head back to the hotel one last time to say our goodbyes, collect our luggage and meet our taxi taking us back to the airport. As we waited in the hotel lobby I took advantage of their wi-fi connection and my unexpired password. A brief search of the flight comparison websites showed a discrepancy between fares from Gatwick to Pisa and Florence. My random summary showed no frills Meridiana had availability for an average of £128, but no peanuts. British Airways had flights, with peanuts, to Pisa, for an average of £101. Sufficient difference for the train fare between the two. Take my advice if you are heading down this way forget Florence and pick Pisa.

 

 

 

 

 

Beijing – Olympic City 2008

June 26, 2008

 

Stuart Bass

 

Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the great liberator and champion of an open China policy more and more travellers have been heading East, pulling back the bamboo curtain and taking trips to China. This August with the Olympic games being hosted by China more visitors than ever will be following in the footsteps of Marco Polo.

 

I made my first visit to China over a decade ago and have been returning with sufficient frequency to make Beijing my second most visited capital outside the UK.

 

So, with the Olympics looming I thought I should take time out to make known my lists of “ Beijing do’s and don’ts” .

 

Beijing Do’s (in no particular order of merit)

 

1) Beihai Park, Dōngchéng District.

 

Just North of the Forbidden City stands Beihai Park- originally planned in the 10th century it remained part of the Forbidden City until the early part of the 20th century.

An excellent destination to try and escape the Beijing traffic, if not always, the crowds. Half the park is given over to a lake, which houses the famous White Dagoba in it’s centre. The Dagoba dominates the landscape of the park and is supposed to be the site where Marco Polo met the Kublai Khan.

 

Beihai Park also houses one of only 3 Nine – Dragon screens in China. The Nine-Dragon screen is as its name implies a screen…with nine dragons inscribed on it. You can see another in the Forbidden City but if you come across the third, situated in Datong city, Shaanxi Province, you are either lost or planning on spending a longer visit to China than the duration of the Olympics.

 

2) Beijing Underground City, Chóngwén District.

 

One of my favourite destinations in Beijing and one I believe which epitomises China perfectly. A destination I had to have on my list despite the fact that I have never actually been inside. On one of my first tourist visits to Beijing I was desperate to see something off the tourist map and the underground city The underground city fitted the bill perfectly. The City was mainly built in the nineteen seventies to safeguard against the threat of Soviet bombing and it’s passages are said by some to rival The Great Wall in length, Having spent the best part of an afternoon in locating the entrance my guide and I were ecstatic to finally find it – only to be met by three Beijing grandmas ensconced in their knitting. Without dropping a stitch the grandmas informed us that although the underground city was open, every one who paid the admission, currently 20RMB, emerged shortly afterwards non-plussed and demanding their money back. An enquiry as to whether we could peek inside to see whether we thought it was worth the entrance was flatly refused, but a request for a photograph of the three was warmly accepted. My advice is go –apparently these days a 20 minute tour is offered-but only to see if the knitting is finished.

 

3) Tiananmen Square, Chóngwén District.

Tiananmen Square is another part of the capital, which perfectly epitomises the country as a whole. Tiananmen is a huge open space surrounded on all sides by imposing official buildings. Apart from being a popular gathering place for tourists and kite flyers, it is still often used for any big celebration and for the government leaders to address the people.

Tiananmen SquareIf you can try to get there in time for sunrise as the raising of the flag ceremony is performed. People come from across all of China just to see this get there an hour or so before if you want the best view.

If at all possible, you must check out the square at night as well as during the day. The atmosphere at night is different again and the square is beautifully lit. But don’t arrive too late, at 10.30pm the soldiers come and evacuate the whole thing in minutes and its sealed off for the night.

 

In between sunrise and sunset at Tiananmen you can explore :

 

v The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

 

v The Forbidden City Front Gate

 

v Gate of Heavenly Peace

 

v Monument to the People’s Heroes

 

Also bordering Tiananmen is the Great Hall Of The People, but to be honest I wouldn’t recommend it. A very ordinary looking building used for conferences – enough said.

 

4) The Temple of Heaven, Xuanwu District.

 

Bigger than the Forbidden City but smaller than the Summer Palace. Built in the 15th Century as an altar for Winter Solstice sacrifices to heaven. Today the temple of Heaven is sometimes missed during a frantic visit to Beijing, but those who do miss out. Try to get there early in the day to check out the acoustics prior to the advent of the crowds of day-trippers. At the Three Echo Stones if you speak when standing on the first stone you will hear one echo, standing on the second stone two echoes and third stone …well you can figure out the rest for yourself.

 

More echo fun can be had at the Echo wall, but to appreciate that you need a friend or fellow traveller to stand at the other end of the wall.

 

Another attraction of the Temple of Heaven is the Vermillion Steps Bridge, which was believed by past emperors to lead directly into heaven.

5) Forbidden City, Dōngchéng district.

The Forbidden City is a vast complex of halls, temples and housing, which make up the former residence of the ancient emperors. Also known as the Imperial Palace, the complex is said to contain 9,999 rooms. The complex is divided into a northern and southern part. The southern area is where the emperor would hold ceremonies and entertain guests. The northern half was kept completely private residence accessible only to the select circles of the emperor.

If you take the audio guide you might recognise the English speaker’s dulcet tones as none other than Roger Moore, which pleased me greatly as I meandered round this imposing site.

Today, the Forbidden City is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions and lately becoming ever more popular with film crews who pay a hefty price to film Chinese period pieces. Be warned, the Forbidden City might have 9,999 rooms but on a busy day it will seem half of China is attempting to view the one room you wish to see. I first visited on China’s National Day and came away with a lot of photos of the back of people’s heads.

6) Jingshan Park, Dōngchéng District.

 

Any who has visited Beijing will tell you what a rewarding experience it can be. They will also tell you that the constant hum of man, engine and business can wear down the hardiest of souls. And for that reason another Park makes it onto our list.

 

Situated just North of the Forbidden City Jingshan Park has an excellent view of the City and Beijing itself. My advice is to take a packed lunch with you to the Forbidden City and then when you are finished there take the short trip up into the Park to recuperate. Just find yourself a bench (the Chinese aren’t great fans of grass dwellers) and enjoy the view ( smog permitting).

 

7) Confucius and various other Temples, Various Districts.

The Temple of Confucius was where people paid homage to Confucius between the 13th and early 20th Century. Today it is now home to the Beijing Capital Museum. It is the second largest temple in China erected in honour of China’s greatest thinker.

Look out for the Evil touch Cyprus tree in the courtyard – this 700-year-old Cyprus is supposed to have once taken the hat off a treacherous visitor to Confucius – so legend now has it the tree can discern between those of good and evil intent.

For those of you whose appetite isn’t sated by the Confucius Temple there are many more to choose from before Temple fatigue sets in. I have listed some of the more popular ones below. But inspiration comes from within and your favourite might turn out to be one not listed here.

 

  • The Lama Temple, is the base for the Yellow Sect of Buddhism in Beijing, the head of which is the Dalai Lama. Originally the home of a long forgotten prince and now home to the monks in this working monastery. The Lama Temple also houses what is supposed to be the largest wooden sculpture on Earth, an 18 metre tall Buddha carved from a single Sandalwood tree.

 

  • The Fayuan Temple, claims to be the oldest Buddhist Temple in Beijing and has some fantastic buildings. Famed for the hundreds of Lilac bushes it had which were unfortunately destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, pleased to say they have now been replaced.

 

  • The White Pagoda Temple also claims to be the oldest in Beijing and it’s architecture rivals anything The Fayuan Temple has to offer – one of the lesser visited temples in Beijing and because of that one of the more authentic and peaceful.

 

8) The Terrace Tea House, Dōngchéng District.

What could be more Chinese than taking tea in Beijing. And The Terrace Tea House have been dishing up some of the best for as long as anyone can remember. Situated within a teacup’s throw of the Forbidden City East Gate, the full address is 69 Donghuamen Dajie. Expect to pay £2 to £4 per cup – a small fortune by Chinese standards, but well worth it.

 

9) The Great Wall, Badaling section.

 


And in at number 10, it’s the pretender to the throne as strictly speaking it’s not really in Beijing but let’s face it if there was one thing you wanted to see in China then this is it. Great by name and it has to be said Great by nature. For me seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an was a big disappointment but my visit to the Great Wall lived up to all of my expectations.

From Beijing you can get to a few different pieces of the Great Wall within 2 or 3 hours by bus or car and the only negative I can draw against Badaling is that this section does suffer as being the day trippers preferred section of wall.

That said, the wall here is fully restored and you can walk for two hours in one direction before having to turn around – very few people do.

A word of warning though, in August it will be sweltering and the Great Wall is extremely hard work. Some sections have steps and railings, other sections are just gradual steep slopes. My advice pack extremely comfortable shoes, a lot of water, and a light snack and give yourself plenty of time.

For those spending longer in China you might want to try either the Simatai or Xiangshuihu sections for a rougher less manicured section of wall where you can escape the crowds somewhat and enjoy even more fantastic scenery.

 

10) The Summer Palace, outskirts of Haidian District.

The largest Imperial garden in China, again a short way outside central Beijing, built following the destruction of the old Summer Palace by British and French troops. In 1998 UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace an “outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole.”

 

Mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, three quarters of the Summer Palace is actually lake. The earth excavated for the lake went to make the hill. The Summer Palace is also home to a variety of palaces, gardens, and other classical-style architectural structures.

 

Do’s and don’t do’s…

 

1) Currency . The Chinese currency is the Reminbi, more commonly known as the Yuan. The Yuan is made up of 100 Feng. The system is exactly the same as sterling pounds and pence. Some universal rules apply in China as they would do anywhere:

 

ü Obtain currency before you go, try to get all of the major denominations and familiarise yourself with them. You won’t be able to obtain Feng but just remember the smaller the note size the lower the value. I have heard reports of people being given Feng change in China when they should be receiving Yuan.

 

ü Always try to change your currency at a bank rather than your hotel, you will get a far better rate of exchange. If you take traveller’s cheques The Bank of China will probably be the only bank willing to encash them. However, if you wish to withdraw cash from an ATM I have been able to do this at Bank of China and China Agricultural Bank.

 

ü

Finally be on the look out for counterfeit currency. As a tourist you will be regarded as an easy target for anyone wishing to dispose of funny money. The 100 Yuan note is the most commonly counterfeited.

 

2) Hotels

 

Like the majority of countries you will be unable to check into your hotel without a passport. Although you should carry a copy of your passport don’t expect to be able to use the copy at the reception desk.

 

Avoid any hotel which has a karaoke bar attached – unless you wish to stay awake until the early hours of the morning listening to drunken Chinese murder the hits of the seventies.

 

3) Road safety.

 

When crossing the road feel free to use Zebra crossings. Just bear in mind that to many Chinese drivers – cyclists included – they are a decoration rather than a regulation. Crossing the road in China was once explained to me as follows: Never make eye contact with the driver of a vehicle, as soon as you do responsibility for any accident passes from them to you.

 

If you are a passenger in a taxi the safest seat is always the one directly behind the driver.

 

4) Racism/ Discrimination.

 

Being a white male this is something I have never experienced in China however, there are widespread reports of prejudice towards non-Asians and women.

 

Every traveller in China though, becomes a “Laowai” the second your plane touches down in China. You will rarely hear this in Beijing but the further you are from the capital the greater of occurrence of it’s utterance. Laowai is used in conversation by all Chinese to refer to foreigners. Some travellers find it annoying to hear the words uttered by onlookers wherever they go, however, it is hardly ever said with anything but surprise and curiosity,

 

Bear in mind though that the old Chinese saying remains as relevant today as it did during the Boxer rebellion “We can always fool the foreigners.” Remember that you are visiting a country where many consider you a big nosed barbarian interloper.

 

5) Scams

 

Be careful of the bait and switch, where the item you select is not always the item that ends up in your bag. I have heard tales of this happening with electrical equipment at Beijing airport!

Beware con artists are widespread in China. Ostensibly friendly types invite you for tea, under the pretence of practising their English upon you. Your new found friend will then order food and say they have no money, leaving you to foot the bill. The variation upon the theme of this is that you are taken to a bar where your Chinese friend will order a whisky priced anywhere between 500-3000RMB. All prices are displayed, and the bar will deny all knowledge of your ‘friends’ association with them, they send in the heavies if you refuse.

Don’t take a taxi without the meter running unless the distance is very far and you agree a price in advance. Taxis will wait at train & bus stations and try to take you to a hotel of their own choosing -OR- they will ask you where you want to go then offer you a price without turning on the meter. It will almost always be a higher price than the meter would be. Better to go out to the street and flag a taxi.

Beijing in August you are going to need a lot of water and as in so many other countries the only water you ought to be drinking is of the bottled variety. However, the bottled option is not always legitimate. Some water sellers recycle bottles and caps and refill them with water from non-safe sources. The only way you can check this is by having a careful look at the lid and ensuring the protection circle is still around it and intact. You will see water bottles for sale with straws in them – these should be considered unsafe.

Be alert at all times if changing money on the black market. One trick is for the money-changer to take your money and then say he has made a mistake and wants to recount the money he has just given you. Taking the money back as if to recount it, the last you see of him and your cash is his heels moving at velocity down the road.

 

6) Prostitution


No matter how many stars your hotel has if you use the sauna/spa you will be offered a massage, however, apparently the Chinese translation of the word massage is “sex for money”.

 

Also, if you wander off the main thoroughfares in Beijing you may stumble upon some streets with more hairdressers than would seem normal. Furthermore these hairdressers might have more young ladies gathered within than might seem normal in the UK. If this is happens and you enter within expect to be offered more than just a haircut. Whilst there are many perfectly honest barbers plying their trade in Beijing many hairdressers across China are in reality a front for prostitution.

 

Bear in mind getting too intimate with Chinese residents, especially women, can land you in big trouble with the Public Security Bureau.

 

7) Theft


Wherever you are you need to keep your bag close! If you have a strap purse make sure it has a long strap to hang across you and keep it to the front. Wallets should be kept in either an inside pocket or a front closable pocket. If you use a backpack you may want to wear it with the bag in the front at times. I have used the sleeper compartments on Chinese trains and on two separate occasions have woken to find razor cuts in my bag allowing thieves access.

 

8) Pollution

 

Don’t expect clear blue skies here. Pollution is a serious problem in China and can make travel unpleasant for everyone, but especially if you have allergies, skin conditions, or chest, eye, nose and throat problems. According to the World Bank, China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. With Beijing being the 28th most polluted city within China.

9) Spitting

Not such a problem in the major cities nowadays but be warned the Chinese believe it is much better to expel than retain the bodily humours. The Chinese also fail to understand why Westerners would wish to retain body fluids, trap them in a handkerchief and carry it around in our pocket.

Spitting should not really affect your trip to China but beware if you sit at an open window on a bus or a train – sometimes things that are blown out are blown back in again.

10) Queues

There is no Chinese word for queueing! Instead when a bus/train arrives it is an oppurtunity for those present to audition for the national Rugby team.

 

11) General Advice


a) Obtain a free city map from the airport, bus station, or your hotel. If you can’t get a free one, purchase one.

 

b) Remember that all official documents have to be written in black ink.

 

c) At the very least you should learn the numbers and carry a phrasebook or electronic translator with you.

 

d) Don’t walk outside of crowded places by yourself at night. In other words, do not find yourself alone on a dark street.

 

e) This has not been confirmed to me but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest a scarcity of O group blood for transfusion purposes.

f) Never assume your fellow travellers are as honest as you are.

g) If something of yours is stolen, you should report it immediately to the nearest Foreign Affairs Branch of the PSB. If you have travel insurance (highly recommended), it is essential to obtain a loss report.

h) Carry your own plastic chopsticks and avoid using wooden ones.

i) Take your own toilet paper.

j) If travelling by train, retain your train tickets until you have left the train station – the reason for this will become apparent.

k) Give nothing to child beggars – in doing so you are rewarding parents who keep their children out of school in order for them to beg for them.

l) Don’t visit Beijing in August. A comparison of airfares to land you in Beijing in time for the Olympics gave an average airfare of £802.90. The same search for the day after the Olympic circus leaves town gave a fare of £437.30.

Finally, since this piece was written China has been hit by a natural disaster that comes only once in a generation.

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the relief effort can do so via:

 

The Chinese Embassy in UK has opened a special account for donation for Earthquake in Sichuan province in Bank of China(UK).

 

 

1)CHEQUES,TRAVELLERS CHEQUES AND POSTAL ORDERS SHOULD BE MADE
PAYABLE To
:
The Chinese Embassy In UK
Sichuan Earthquake Donation Account
ACCOUNT No:
10196750
CORRESPONDENT ADDRESS
:BANKING DEPARTMENT,
BANK OF CHINA(UK) LIMITED
,
90 CANNON STREET
,LONDON,EC4N 6HA


2)UK AND OVERSEAS DONATIONS CAN BE MADE QUOTING
:
Beneficiary Name
:The Chinese Embassy In UK
Sichuan Earthquake Donation Account
Account number
:10196750
Sort code
:405037 BANK OF CHINA(UK) LTD LONDON


3)CASH can be deposited at any branch of Bank of China(UK)Limited
,please
quote a/c no. 10196750