Which is the best city in the world to live in? Answer – Vienna. Well, according to the latest annual survey of living standards compiled by the Mercer consultancy.
Personally I’m not surprised, when I was doing our Vienna audio tour of the old city and our Vienna iPhone tour of the city’s imperial buildings I found that Vienna is affluent, well run and comfortable. No wonder so many people love the idea of a Vienna city break.
Three German and three Swiss cities are included in the top ten. According to Mercer’s Slagin Parakatil European cities such as these “enjoy advanced and modern city infrastructures combined with high-class medical, recreational and leisure facilities.”
Mercer also issued a separate table ranking cities according to levels of personal safety. Luxembourg came first, ahead of Bern and Helsinki. Oslo was 24th, when it might have expected to come a lot higher, but it tumbled down the ranking because of the bomb in July detonated by Anders Behring Breivik.
Which is the best city in the world to live in? Answer – Vienna. Well, according to the latest annual survey of living standards compiled by the Mercer consultancy.
Scotland is going through something of an artistic renaissance at the moment. As we reported recently, the Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland has reopened following a multi-million pound face lift. This wonderfully elegant museum features on our Edinburgh iPod tour and it’s well worth a visit if you’re planning an Edinburgh city break.
Now, anyone planning a vacation in Scotland can also look forward to visiting the New Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which our Edinburgh mp3 tour guides you past. Go to other Scotland’s other main city and you can check out Glasgow’s Riverside Transport Museum which has over 3,000 objects on display. These include some old favourites along with some new exhibits such as the recently acquired South African locomotive, Glasgow Museums’ largest object.
Nearby in Ayshire is the new Robert Burns Museum. The museum comprises the famous Burns Cottage where the poet was born, the historic landmarks where he set his greatest work, the elegant monument and gardens created in his honour and a modern museum housing the world’s most important collection of his life and works.
I’m a bit of a museum addict anyway but this new collection of museums which tell us more about Scotland’s rich artistic, engineering and social history is to be welcomed by everyone who is looking for a vacation in Scotland.
The vast basilica near Madrid, which contains the body of the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, is a symbol of a time in Spain’s history that many Spaniards would prefer to forget. As we explain in our mp3 tour of Madrid and our Barcelona audio guide, the Spanish civil war was a terrible time for the country.
Now there are plans to exhume General Franco’s remains and to rebury them in Madrid’s El Pardo cemetery. I’ve always found this period fascinating. Reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, you can understand how bitter, destructive and grim this war was. Anyone taking a Barcelona city break today will have little idea of how the Spanish Civil War affected the country.
However, you listen to our mp3 tour of Barcelona which covers the Ramblas and the old town you’ll come to realise that the history of Spain’s civil war is all around you. Orwell fired from the roof of the Poliorama building in the Ramblas – you can see if you this if you walk along the Ramblas. Later we take you to the tiny square of Saint Felipe Neri and here the buildings are still pock marked from a bomb which was detonated by Franco’s forces.
The square contained a school and many children were killed or injured in the attack. It might sound grim but for me this violent history is part of what makes Spain so fascinating.
Venice has started to charge a tourism entry fee. Now the 20 million or so tourists who visit the city every year will have to pay something between 30 cents and five euros per night spent in a hotel for the first five nights of their stay there.
As we’ve discussed in our Venice mp3 tour, ensuring the that city is more than just a museum and that it can manage the vast number of tourists who swarm into it every year has long been a challenge. Our audio tour of Venice points out that in fact La Serenissima has been reliant on tourism for centuries as its trading and seafaring activities declined from the sixteenth century onwards.
Anyone who is planning a weekend in Florence will know, especially if they’ve used our Florence audio tour, that this other great Italian city has managed to maintain its economic activities alongside its tourism industry and its reputation as a place for great history and great art.
Personally I think Venice should go further. It’s not necessary the people staying in hotels who increase wear and tear on the city without contributing much in the way of income, it’s the day trippers. How about charging them for visiting Venice? It might not be popular with some tourists but it would help the city raise income. We could offer them a free copy of our Venice mp3 tour at the same time.
So El Bulli has closed. The world’s most exciting – and some might say bizarre – restaurant has served its last customers. Most of us who do a Barcelona city break never make our way up the restaurant, positioned, as it is up a moutainside outside the city. In fact only around 0.08 per cent of those tried to get a table to enjoy some of the 47-course dinners and dishes that were sprayed, syringed or painted on to the plate were actually successful. No wonder that I never included it in our Barcelona audio guides.
A reviewer in The New York Times magazine recalled: “Welcoming cocktails of a frozen whisky sour and a foam mojito were accompanied by popcorn that had been powdered and reconstituted as kernels, and a tempura of rose petals. A ‘Kellogg’s paella’ consisted of puffed Rice Krispies to which the waiter added an intense seafood reduction; on the side were a small, flash-fried shrimp, a piece of shrimp sashimi and an ampoule containing a thick brown extract of shrimp heads that you were instructed to squeeze into your mouth.”
Perhaps it’s just me but I’m not exactly salivating at this description. In fact as our Barcelona mp3 tour of the Ramblas and our Barcelona audio tour of the Gaudi district, reveal the city has some wonderful places to eat and to buy food from. And all of them give you a better chance than 0.08 per cent of getting a table!
For the first time, the Casa Batlló will be opening its doors to provide an in-depth insight into the magical world of Gaudí by moonlight. This new initiative is a wonderful invitation to enjoy a glass of cava and live music under the stars, on a stunning mosaic terrace on the majestic mezzanine floor.
I love this remarkable building – it’s such a riot of bizarre design. To me there is something very special about Barcelona’s unique architecture. Only this city with its creative talent, its unique cultural style and its sense of otherness could produce such a very unusual architectural style.
The Casa Batlló is one of the final stops on our mp3 guide to Barcelona and its Gaudi buildings. Anyone planning a Barcelona weekend break will be drawn immediately to the work of this remarkable architect.
It was once just an ordinary apartment building until the owners commissioned Gaudi to redevelop it in 1904. He added two new floors and bizarre new facades.
The front with its flowing forms, blue tiles and images of fantastic sea animals has an oceanic feel to it. Salvador Dali compared it to a lake while other people see the exterior as being like a giant prehistoric monster with folds of skin and balconies for eyes. It’s also been suggested that because Senor Battlo was a textile merchant this frontage could be cloth billowing in the wind. Take your pick.
The dramatic roof, though, is more clearly animal like with its tiles and guttering for ribs. It’s thought to be a dragon with St George represented by the cross on top of the building attacking it. It’s known to locals as the Casa del Drac or ‘House of the Dragon’.
You can go inside and see a development of these themes on the first floor and the roof with a guided audio tour.
Our Barcelona Gaudi mp3 guide is perfectly complemented by our Barcelona audio guide to the Ramblas, El Born and the Barri Gotic.
Casa Battló: Wed-Sun: 9pm-12.30am.
Price: 25 € (includes glass of cava and snacks)
When I was writing our York audio tour I naturally included the Shambles. Like the Minster, the river Ouse and some of the city’s most ancient churches, this narrow, well, let’s be honest, amazingly narrow street is near the top of most people’s list of things to do when thinking about a York city break.
Our guide to York gives you the whole history of the street, which was originally famed for its butchers. But one of the best known inhabitants of the Shambles is Margaret Clitherow.
I was shocked and quite touched when I researched the life of this Catholic martyr who was killed by being crushed to death during the reign of Elizabeth I because of her views.
Now a new book has been published which examines her life, the politics around her arrest and trial and religious debate in sixteenth century York, all of which still provoke controversy. “The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England,” by Peter Lake and Michael Questier discusses whether political rivalry amongst Catholic leaders in York might have actually led to her being reported to the authorities and prosecuted. Was she a devoted Catholic, prepared to die for her faith? Or was there something more to the events that led up to her refusal to enter a plea in court and her terrible death?
It’s a sad story but many people who have bought our York audio tour with its mp3 guide to the Shambles have been moved – and intrigued by it.
The Queen’s visit to Ireland has been hailed as a diplomatic triumph and a great step forward in the healing process between Britain and the Republic. The history of the two countries is long and the enmity that many Irish people have felt towards their English overlords is understandable.
Certainly, I didn’t realise what atrocities my countrymen had carried out on this very civilised, cultured first world country until I started writing our Dublin mp3 tour. As I toured the city, learning more about the General Post Office with its bullet holes still visible and Dublin Castle collecting information for our Dublin audio guide I was genuinely shocked by the violence of this recent history.
The GPO or the Post Office was built in 1818 although the only part dating from this period is the rather grand portico and the statues of Fidelity, Hibernia with her Irish harp and Mercury, above it.
This building was where the Republic was declared during the Easter Rising of 1916 and a proclamation was read from this magnificent entrance on that Easter Monday. But British troops attempted to stop what they saw as riot and an insurrection and they began to shell the building. The leaders of the Rising were arrested and executed and in all some 500 people were killed around this spot. The building was closed until 1929 and if you look closely, some people say, you’ll see evidence of bullet holes. Or they could just be evidence of weather damage. But even today, the GPO is the meeting place for rallies and demonstrations in Dublin.
Dublin Castle is the historic centre of the city. It’s situated on an ideal spot for a fortification – this is the highest point around which made it easy to defend and it’s just by the river which was good for communications. This was the original black pool or Dubh Linn in Gaelic. The Vikings built a castle here in the tenth century from which they controlled the whole of the Irish Sea. This was later overrun by the native Irish and in the thirteenth century King John of England built a castle here to shore up his dominance of Ireland. Over hundreds of years the castle was where the English rulers of the country, known variously as Viceroys, Lord Lieutenants or Chief Lieutenants, lived and worked. Prisoners were kept here – and made to pay for their meals and accommodation. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was a civil servant in the castle and Robert Peel worked here in the early nineteenth century to establish a police force as he had done in England with his Bobbies.
Dublin Castle was also, over the centuries, the seat of Parliament, the office of the Royal Mint and the headquarters for the police and the army.
Because of its importance, the Castle was attacked during the Easter Uprising of 1916 and James Connolly, one of the nationalist leaders, was held here for a week before being court martialed and sentenced to death. And it was also here that the Irish Free State, was signed into existence in 1921.
The highlights are the State Apartments which you’ll come to first and which are still used on ceremonial occasions. There is also the Gothic chapel royal and the Undercroft or cellar which still has the remains the Viking settlement. The Chester Beattie Library has a collection of artefacts, prints and books relating to the great religions and cultures o of the ancient and modern world. There’s also a restaurant and café inside the castle as well as some very pretty ornamental gardens.
I hope that people who use our Dublin mp3 tour appreciate the remarkable history of Dublin – and the amazing effect that the Queen’s visit has had on the way it’s viewed.
Venetians are unhappy about the number of cruise ships arriving at their city. A vacation in Italy almost has to include a visit to Venice and city breaks in Venice are a joy for millions. Our Venice mp3 tour as is our guide to St Marks Square and St Marks Cathedral is one of best sellers.
According to the International Herald Tribune in 1999 fewer than 100,000 visited as part of a cruise while in 2010 that figure had risen to nearly 1.6million – a remarkable increase.
Local people are unhappy about the numbers and about the effect on their homes. Windows rattle and light is obscured as huge cruise ships arrive.
I can feel for Venetians. Being overwhelmed by tourists is infuriating and annoying – and yet Venice relies on tourists. Almost all of the city is geared to hospitality. As our guide to Venice makes clear, there is plenty to see and enjoy in Venice. The city has little other industry. The real question is how to help people enjoy their Venice vacations but at the same time to encourage them to make a contribution to the city’s crumbling infrastructure. There have been suggestions that visitors should be charged as they enter the city, for instance. I can sympathise with this suggest and I’m conscious that whenever I go to this beautiful, historic city I’m part of the problem. We need to find a solution that will allow people to enjoy a Venice city break but will see this beautiful city preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Italy is 150 years old this year. It seems amazing that a country filled with ancient ruins and treasures (80 per cent of the world’s historic treasures are calculated to be in Italy) is actually just a century and a half old.
But it is. The fact that until half way through the nineteenth century Italy was a collection nation states continually warring with each other, is partly why the country has such appeal to anyone looking for vacations in Europe. When it was united just two per cent of the population spoke what we would recognise as Italian, the rest used a variety of very different dialect and even separate languages.
The fact that this unification is relatively recent means that from Rome with its Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona, (see our guide to Rome’s main attractions or our mp3 guide to the Vatican and Trastevere) to Florence with its stunning cathedral and Uffizi museum, both of which are in our Florence city guide, Italy has so much to offer in the way of art and beautiful things.
Venice was one of the most proudly independent of all these independent states and we talk about its struggle against unification in our Venice audio tour.
Our Nice city guide is one of my favourites but not many people realise that this city – Nizza – in Italian was part of Italy until the end of the nineteenth century when it was united with France. Italy’s great unifier, Garibaldi, is celebrated in Nice.
Even today there are many who wonder whether it is right that Italy whose inhabitants usually owe their with loyalties to various regions and cities rather than to the country has a whole should ever have been united.
Certainly, thinking about the art and architecture of Italy and all it has to offer those looking for a vacation in European this year, peace and cohesion are great but independence and tension have a lot going for them.