Recanati & Loreto, Italy

The old town of Recanati lies perched on a hill in the Marche Region of Italy. To the east the Adriatic expands to the horizon in beautiful shades of dark blue, while to the southwest the Abruzzi emerge like an apparition above the haze of the midday heat.

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Recanati is a nice, sleepy town that looks a lot like the setting of one of those old Don Camillo films from the fifties. Perhaps they’re just clichés, but it’s still surprising just how well Recanati lives up to those clichés: from the old grannies wobbling along the cobbled streets in all their finery on the way to mass, to the young ladies walking down the street in their skimpy short, languorously enjoying a gelato and seemingly, but only seemingly unaware of the effect they have on the young men that pass them in the street.

Close to Recanati is the town of Loreto, which was made famous by its basilica, in which the alleged house of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth is preserved.

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In Recanati I stayed at the Gallery Hotel, which is also where the meeting took place that I was attending. If you’re thinking of staying there, try to get a room with a view overlooking the valley. It’s worth it!

Here’s the link to the hotel.

La Habana

Havana is an interesting and eclectic mix that is difficult to take in and hard to understand. From a purely touristic point of view I can see that the city and country might have something to offer. Havana boasts a lot of very beautiful and old colonial architecture, with grand old buildings and elegant, imposing boulevards.

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Parts of the city have been beautifully restored to their former splendour, while in other quarters old and dilapidated buildings with trees growing through the floors and on the verge of collapse dominate the face of the city. And although that may not necessarily sound too appealing, strangely enough these buildings exude a charm of their own.

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But there are also a few down sides. The country is very poor and the local population really have next to nothing at all. The upshot of this is that literally everybody in this city is on the make and as a foreigner you are basically treated as nothing more than a walking bank. Everybody you meet will try to sell you some old useless crap. They’re not pushy but if you decline to buy, they will come right out with it and ask you if you have some money for them. I guess there’s nothing wrong with begging but somehow it comes across as rather undignified and leaves behind a rather unpleasant sense of desperation.

I’m not saying that the Western system we call capitalism is better or even good. But it seems to me that in Cuba’s interpretation of socialism, everyone is equal and in that everyone is equally badly off. The government’s propaganda follows you everywhere you go in Cuba and you cannot help but feel that its sole purpose is to justify the hardship the population is suffering. But surely, there has to be another way. Thus, it is my personal view that the Cuban government has failed its own people. The only thing that seems to work in the country is the healthcare system.

If socialism means living in squalor, in buildings on the verge of dilapidation and collapse, abject poverty and without the freedom to say that one plus one is two – because you know it and not because you’re told so – then basically the only conclusion I can draw is that socialism has failed. And Cuba is a sad demonstration of just that.

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

Location

The archaeological site with the terracotta warriors is located outside Lintong, a town close to Xi’an.

Getting There

The quickest and easiest way to get to the terracotta warriors, if you are not on a guided tour, is to take a taxi. The ride will take roughly twenty minutes from the Angsana and costs between RMB30 and RMB50, depending on whether or not you are in the mood to negotiate.

Entrance Fee

A ticket to enter the archaeological site will set you back RMB150, which is more or less EUR20. Cash payment only, credit cards are not accepted.

Guides

As you enter the site, you will be approached by one of the many official guides offering their services. A guide will also cost you RMB150 for a tour of two hours. Once again, payment for the site guide is cash only. On the one hand, a guide is probably not a bad idea, given that English descriptions of what you can actually see in the pits are somewhat scarce. On the other hand, you will manage even without a guide. Which also leaves you free to move around at your leisure and at your own pace.

Advice for a Visit

There are three pits at the site. Pit Two is the one they have done the least work on. All you can see here is the digging site itself with a few shattered pieces of terracotta lying about. In Pit Three the excavated figures are fully restored and reassembled, although the total number of warriors in this pit is limited to about thirty. And then finally, Pit One has the largest number of unearthed soldiers and horses. They are still working to complete the excavation and it is estimated that only about a third of the approximately 6000 figures have been unearthed so far. For the most spectacular effect, I would recommend you visit the pits in the sequence two – three – one.

So what’s the big deal?

The terracotta warriors were commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who obviously must have been something of a megalomaniac, given that he is also the man who commissioned the construction of the Great Wall of China. Although to be fair, not that many people can say of themselves that they founded a dynasty, so I think he may be forgiven.

In any case, the terracotta warriors were part of the burial site of the emperor, their task was to guide and escort the emperor to the afterlife. They date back to 210 BCE! Originally, the warriors were painted, although obviously the paint has since faded. But to see them standing together is still an impressive sight.

Admittedly, Xi’an is rather an out of the way place to get to. And the exhibition is clearly aimed to a Chinese audience. Even so, if you have the time and the chance, I can highly recommend a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of course one might argue that – like the great pyramids in Giza – the terracotta warriors are, first and foremost, testimony to the ruthless vanity of a single individual. But instead of taking a cynical point of view, I think it is equally fair to say that they are impressive monuments to all of mankind, that have successfully withstood the test of time. To me, it is awe inspiring to think that these statues still stand – decades, centuries and even millennia after they were erected.

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Pit 2

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Pit 3

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Pit 1

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Douglas, Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is sandwiched in between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, although the Isle of Man itself is not actually a part of the United Kingdom. As such, it is also not a part of the European Union.

The Isle of Man Railway is one of the island’s most popular attractions. In its heyday, the railway’s network ran along a distance of 74 kilometres, of which only about 25 kilometres remain today.

The city of Douglas is a good starting point for any excursion by train. Just in case it matters to you though, keep in mind that only the trains heading south from Douglas are steam powered, whereas the trains heading north are all electrically powered.

One classic itinerary sees tourists taking the train from Douglas station to Laxey and then transferring there on to the Snaefell Mountain Railway. On a sunny day it really is quite a pleasant journey and the view from Snaefell is rather breath taking. The train schedules are obviously all coordinated, so you rarely have to wait for any length of time for a train to arrive.

Pak Ou Caves

The Pak Ou caves are best known for the hundreds of miniature Buddhas that have been placed in them. There are two caves, both of which are accessible only by steps leading up from the landing jetty on the Mekong river.

The caves themselves are not really that spectacular to be honest, but the journey up the Mekong from Luang Prabang is quite scenic and tranquil. The caves are 25 kilometres away from Luang Prabang and the journey upstream will take you roughly two hours to complete. For those who are not so comfortable on a boat, there is the possibility to take a bus from Luang Prabang to Pak Ou village. By bus the journey only takes 45 minutes. However, even the locals agree that the road to Pak Ou is in such a bad state of repair that the longboat up the Mekong is probably the safer option. Besides, the village lies on the other side of the Mekong, so you will still need to take a ferry to cross from the village to the entrance of the cave.

All in all, even if you are not much of a culture vulture, I can highly recommend the trip up to the Pak Ou caves. If nothing else, than at least it makes for a very pleasant and relaxed way to spend an afternoon in the Luang Prabang province.

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Banteay Srei

Today I visit the temple of Banteay Srei, which lies about 30 kilometres outside Siem Reap. With the traffic and the narrow roads, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the temple grounds. Banteay Srei predates Angkor Wat, it is a temple dedicated to the Hindu gods. The layout of the temple is similar to that of Angkor Wat, with a moat leading around the temple proper and a causeway cutting across to the main entrance. Unlike Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei was never used by the king and only served as a place of worship for the monks. The entire constructions is on one level only.

Today, the temple is best known for the detail and delicacy of its sculptures, which are mostly still in amazingly good condition. The place is worth a visit, but try to be there just after seven in the morning, it gets rather busy during the day.

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Angkor Wat

It is still dark outside as we approach the temple. Save for the thin light of my guide’s torch we are enshrouded in darkness and the sound of the forest. It is five in the morning and I can already feel the sweat trickling down my back. The gravel crunches under my feet and around us I can hear the sound of the crickets rubbing their legs together to cool themselves. I point this out to my excellent guide and in reply he gives me a quick run down of the best way to eat crickets, which apparently is quite normal in Cambodia.

And then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the temple of Angkor Wat rises before me. I can barely make out its silhouette in the darkness. We ascend the steep steps to the top level of the temple, from where you have a breath taking view of the sun rising in the east. At this time of morning it is just us up here – us and a small lizard clinging to the outer wall, eyeing us suspiciously. Gradually the light increases to reveal the imposing magnitude of Angkor Wat and I become aware of just how privileged I am to have the chance to visit this magnificent place.

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Angkor Thom

At 6h30 in the morning I meet my guide and we set off in what is the Cambodian version of a Tuktuk for the south gate of Angkor Thom.

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Our first stop is the celestial palace of Bophoun, which used to be the state temple of King Udayadityavarman. The structure is built on three levels, which symbolise hell, earth and heaven. The walls of the celestial palace are covered with relief images of Angkor’s history. In fact, there does not seem to be any flat surface on the walls of the temple.

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There are towers at the corners of the temple on each of the three levels. Every tower has four faces carved out of stone, which face the four cardinal points of the compass. To save weight, the towers are hollow inside. It is not know, if the faces were carved to resemble the king who commissioned the temple or the Buddah to which the temple is dedicated. The temple took 21 years to complete, although it is not known how many people worked on the temple. Upon completion, only the king and two of his monks were allowed to enter the sanctuary of the temple, where they allegedly received the divine inspiration for the king to share with his people.

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The royal palace is just slightly further down the road. Unfortunately, it is not as well preserved at the temple. That is because the entire structure of the temple is built of stone, whereas the edifices with the king’s private chambers were built out of mahogany wood. When the Siamese invaded the kingdom of the Khmer, they raised the capital to the ground and set fire to the palace. The centre piece of the roaly palace is a temple that predates the one of Bayan, it is a Hindu temple.

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If you are visiting the area, I would really recommend making an early start. By the time we leave the temple area at around 08h50, the roads are already starting to get clogged up with tourist busses, Tuktuks and elephants.

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Not going for a run in Beijing

Before I started on this trip, I got the idea into my head that it would be nice to go for a run from the hotel around the moat of the Forbidden City. I am guessing it would be a run of about six or seven kilometres. Unfortunately, an accident with my racing bike just two days prior to my leaving on vacation left me with a fractured coccyx and some very sore muscles, which definitely put an end to my idea of going for a run.

Nonetheless, this morning I decide to go for a stroll down to Tiananmen square just the same. I leave the hotel just after five in the morning. The air is still heavy with pollution, but at least it is not so hot yet. I exit the hotel and turn left onto Jinyu Hutong. Eventually I reach a big square where Wangfujing Street intersects with Jinyu Hutong. Wangfujing Street has been turned into a pedestrian area. This is where you will find all the nice glitzy shops, including a large Apple store, Prada and the likes.

I turn left into Wanfujing Street and this is where things start to become slightly bizarre. First of all, in my European naivety, I had assumed that the place would be deserted at this time of day. But in fact that is not the case at all. The place is crawling with activity and most of the benches are occupied with people sleeping. Initially I am overcome by a sense of compassion and pity, until I realise that most of them are not homeless but are just lying outside presumably to escape the stifling heat indoors. A bit further down, I come across an elderly couple playing squash against the wall of a hat maker’s shop.

I keep on walking until I reach the end of Wangfujing Street. There is a huge hotel on the corner. It has no names but its three wings are marked as A, B and C. Everything else is written in Chinese. In the front yard of the A block they have set up a German beer garden which looks completely out of place in its surroundings…

I take a right and turn onto E Changan Avenue, which leads right past Tiananmen square and separates the square from the entrance to the Forbidden City. The place is literally crawling with Chinese tourists, including one family with a penchant for the partner look…

I think maybe the heat is just getting to me and I am just imagining all this. Somewhat dazed and confused I turn back to get myself some breakfast at the hotel.

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Çeşme

By Friday lunchtime, the course I am giving with the Turkish military has been completed successfully. My flight home to Zürich will not be leaving until noon the next day, so I am at a bit of a loss for what to do, given that it is quite hot in Izmir and there is not really that much to do or see in the city centre, unless you fancy shopping. So instead I decide to head out to Çeşme on the coast which, according to the course participants, has some of the best beaches in Turkey. Çeşme is roughly 80km due west of Izmir and there is a good autobahn all the way. It is a quaint little seaside resort with a nice old town littered with small souvenir shops that sell everything from handmade nargile to stickily sweet lokum. And yes, the beaches really are quite amazing here.

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In Çeşme I am staying at the Sheraton. I expect there are probably nicer, more intimate and modern hotels to stay at in Çeşme. However, the Sheraton’s redeeming feature is that it occupies one of the nicest stretches of beach and has a nice garden and pool area. Other than that though, the rooms are starting to look a bit old and dated. But at least they have a very large, well equipped gym.

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