Siena, Tuscany, Italy

One of my favourite James Bond opening sequences is the chase scene in Quantum Of Solace in the town of Siena.   Fans of the movie will especially remember the horse race taking place around the Piazza del Campo

Siena is an easy day trip from Florence which can also include visits to the area’s wine-growing regions and other historic towns like San Gimignano.  Siena though will be the obvious highlight of the trip being declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site.   It is one of the Italy’s most visited tourist attractions.   If you are visiting Florence, Siena is a must see.  If this around July / August you could try and coincide the visit with the Palio di Siena – the traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo (although it will be insanely crowded).   However we were there on a relatively quiet, beautiful sunny day in December.  You can’t beat a beautiful day in autumn.

The other major attraction is the Gothic Siena Cathedral completed in 1380.  Geoffrey and I are the first to admit that we have little appreciation of the countless European Cathedrals we have obligatory entered.  However in the relatively small town of Siena, this Cathedral is an obvious standout and we actually spent some time inside – especially admiring the marble mosaic floors.

For the most part though we just enjoyed the sunny day and getting lost wandering the narrow streets and alley ways.   It’s a great way to relax – just exploring on your own, being your own guide getting a basic feel of the town in the short time you have available.  You turn a corner and come across all sorts of surprises.

Simply delightful …

Siena Cathedral

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“New Year’s Eve on Copacabana  beach” I exclaimed.  “With 2 million others…”  Geoffrey  ruefully replied.  But the fireworks display were something to be behold and easily surpassed anything we’d ever seen previously.  We’d walked from our hotel on a balmy still night with our bottle of champagne and savoured the festival atmosphere to find our spot on the beach.   Just about anywhere on the beach is fine.  The fireworks are launched from boats so everybody gets a perfect view.  There seemed to be dozens of cruise ships also anchored out to sea so the many thousands aboard were also getting perfect views.   The night probably could have done with a slight sea breeze as the fireworks went on for so long, the resulting smoke ended up obstructing some of the display.  But of course it’s also all about the atmosphere before and after midnight – sharing in the New Year with so many others in a celebration on a massive scale.

Geoffrey’s a keen runner and rose early the next morning to jog the 20kms along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and back to the hotel again.  I was a little worried as the mercury starts to soar after 10am.  However he had lots of drink stops along the way topping up with the very refreshing Guarana Antarctica local soft drink which we had both taken a liking to.

Rio is not one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere for a reason.  It has something for everyone.  Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; and Sugarloaf Mountain with its cable car; the Sambódromo are obvious must sees.   A tip …  if you have limited time, book tours to the major attractions to avoid the huge crowds (or go early).

We especially enjoyed the Dona Maria Favela tour made famous by Michael Jackson’s famous song “They Don’t Care About Us” and other walking tours away from the main attractions.

If the heat finally gets to you, there always the sanctuary of the beach or cocktails by the pool or the fabulous air-conditioned shopping malls!

The Carnival  before Easter is possibly the largest in the world …  now that’s got to be high on the bucket list!

Dona Maria favala

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Sambódromo

Prague, Czech Republic

“Prague or Budapest?   We can’t fit in both.”  I asked Geoffrey as I was thinking about the itinerary for our 2016 end of year trip to Europe.  Life can be so hard.   In the end it was Prague – and it was a good choice – a really fascinating interesting city to spend a few days.  To be fair, Budapest is possibly / will probably be just as interesting but we’ll save it for another time.

End of year trips to Europe has its definite pluses.  Generally it’s the best time of year for me to get away work-wise.  Secondly, the cities and countryside can be stunningly beautiful – especially with the absence of huge crowds that frequent the most popular areas in the summer.   You can normally get a lot more done as the queues are so much shorter.  We also love this time of year in Europe where the renowned Christmas markets are everywhere and which add so much life and colour to the city.

The downside, of course is that the days are shorter and it can at times get quite cold.  Our apartment was central and well heated (and this is important in winter this time of year!)  We had cooking facilities and a couple of supermarkets across the road so this was perfect.   All the Old Town attractions were in walking distance and we also used the public bus service which was easy to use and a chance for us to get up close to the locals!

Lots and lots to see in this historic city – you could easily spend a lot of time in Prague.  Geoffrey especially wanted to see the famous Astronomical Clock and I wanted to walk the Charles Bridge.  We generally don’t visit the Galleries and Museums as the popular ones are typically busy, enormous and it’s impossible to do them justice with the time available.

Pork knuckles are a popular dish in Prague – and in winter you can understand why.  Absolutely delicious and absolutely enormous!  Can easily share one between 4 people.  I ended up taking it away and managed a further 3 meals with it back at the apartment!

We also did a day tour to the town of Český Krumlov which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  We had a stunning perfect winter’s day.  Well worth visiting if you have an extra full day in Prague.

Charles Bridge

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Iguazu Falls

In December 2013 we visited Iguazu Falls as part of a South American private itinerary. I’ve picked out our visit to the Falls because this was one of the highlights from this amazing trip.

Geoffrey and I have seen a few of the world’s major falls but Iguazu would have to be our top choice to date. The great thing is that Iguazu can be seen from so many different perspectives and we took advantage of most of them! By morning, day and night; by land, river and air; by country (Iguazu spans the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay). The park has been developed to allow easy and close access without having impacted the natural surroundings.

It’s difficult to describe (without the usual superlative clichés) without going there and experiencing them yourself. Quite often you hear so much about a place but the reality lets you down. This is in part due to the internet where we are able to research anything and everything in depth, but which the downside is that the element of surprise is diminished when you get there. Not so with Iguazu – despite all the hype we were still blown away.

We spent 2 full days there and we could easily have spent another if the itinerary had allowed.

A must see and a high point for your Bucket List

A section of Iguazu

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