Monday, 29 May 2017

Villa Romana del Casale - Wonders of Sicily

By Margaret Farrell

A major highlight of our visit to Sicily was Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman Villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century and located about 3km outside the town of Piazza Armerina Sicily, southern Italy. It contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, and has been designated as one of 49 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy.

Historians have been unable to identify the owner, save to verify that he was extremely wealthy with the possibility that it was a holiday house for a member of the Imperial family. The villa had forty rooms including a gymnasium, bathhouse, basilica (huge meeting room), extensive dining room and a wide corridor stretching for about 70 metres. The floors in every room were covered in colourful mosaics, most of which have survived more or less intact. Needless to say, yours truly went crazy with the camera.

One large room features a number of Bikini Girls indulging in athletic pursuits. They are wearing a Roman version of that very modern article of clothing. Their bras, however, look more like breast bands, and the girls were pretty well flat-chested. 

The long corridor depicts the trials involved in importing exotic animals for the Roman circus, with handlers trying to cope with lions, tigers, elephants, bulls etc. The variety of animals is very impressive. Some of them, including the elephant, are being dragged on board ships by anxious looking workers.

There’s even a suite of rooms at the villa with children’s themes, probably the nursery.  You could easily spend all day here but there are many things to do in Sicily.  

Why not add on a private tour of Sicily with your small group tour of Corsica, Sardinia and Malta with Blue Dot Travel!    Click here for more information.
Sicily Map
The intricate mosaics oVilla Romana del Casale depend attentions

The mosaics reveal much about life in the times

Bikini Girls

Bikini Girls
Exotic adventures recorded at Sicily's Villa Romana del Casale in mosaics

Some of Villa Romana del Casale mosaics are worn from use but most survive unscathed

Some mosaics told exotic stories ....

... while others told tales from everyday life at Villa Romana del Casale

Monday, 22 May 2017

Lithuania, The Baltics - One of the gems of Europe

Island castle of Trakai

By Brett Goulston

Allow at least a week to see the best of what Lithuania has to offer, including the following highlights.

Without doubt, the capital city Vilnius, is a treasure.  The old town was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, back in 1994. It had a strong Jewish influence up until the 20th Century, so  much so that Napoleon is said to have called it the Jerusalem of the north! The city has many museums but if you are not a traditional museum goer then at least head to the fascinating and poignant Museum of the Genocide Victims.

Vilnius is a great place to eat or just pause for coffee not just because there are some good restaurants in the Old Town but because it must be one of the best people-watching places in the Baltics. There are numerous squares with locals and tourists going about their day, all set against beautiful architecture in every direction.  

The most popular tourist destination in Lithuania is the township of Trakai with its castle and other medieval buildings. Located about 30 minutes from the capital allow a good 3 hours to visit and do not forget your camera. A reflection of the orange towers on the lake, with a boat or two in the foreground, is pretty special. 

The former capital city - Kaunas – is another city definitely worth exploring. Ensure you make time to see the medieval castle and wander through the old town’s streets. There are numerous cafes (good coffee) and places to eat where you can sit and people watch.

For a fix of “quirkiness”, head to the Hill of Crosses in the north of the country. There are an estimated 100,000 plus crosses – of all sizes - placed on a small hill which origins are not properly known. It’s thought that the original crosses may have been placed there by family of the deceased, around 1830 after civil unrest.  

Visit Lithuania with Blue Dot Travel. Click here for our Baltic small group tour itinerary… 

Map of Lithuania
The capital city Vilnius with it's lovely architecture

The popular destination of Trakai

Hill of crosses

Port of Klaipeda

The popular destination of Trakai

Egle - Queen of the Serpents - Palanga Botanical Sculpture Garden

Monday, 15 May 2017

Tallinn, Estonia - Small city, weird language

The pretty cityscape of Tallinn

By Brett Goulston 

Arriving on the ferry from Helsinki, two things grabbed my immediate attention about this small, sophisticated, medieval capital city. First, it is one of the most charming and beautiful cities in Europe with its cobble-stoned streets, gorgeous terracotta roofs and church steeples providing for fantastic photos! Secondly, when speaking the native tongue, the locals are impossible to understand!  Estonia is a small country - smaller than Tassie - and its population of just over 1 million speak Estonian. Thankfully many also speak English. Our Latvian guide was unable to help with the Estonian instructions for my mobile phone SIM card. “Surely you guys understand each other?” I ask in hope? “Nope” was the very definite answer.  

There are lots of things to do in Tallinn, so allow at least a few days. If you like to stroll at leisure and take photos, you have arrived at the right place. The streets wind their way through the old town in no particular order or direction so getting lost is not hard. However don’t despair, given its relatively small size and that fact it is a walled city, you’re sure to eventually find your way back to where you started. Most streets lead to the beautiful town hall square in the middle of the Old Town. Everywhere you look is another photo opportunity. 

Of particular interest for travellers is the 19th century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built when the country was part of the Russian Empire. Kadriord Palace (translating to Catherine’s Valley) is another example of Russian architecture and well worth the visit. Today is stands as a museum. Toompea, the hillock in the old town, houses most of the government buildings. It is well worth the visit for the architecture alone.  You can see it from most vantage points in town. If you are into art, then the Kumu is another place you need to see. A fantastic museum with a decent café.  

Blue Dot Travel
small group tours visit Tallinn and other places in Estonia, along with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on our Baltic Tour. Click here for more information… 

What's where on the map of the Baltics?
Tall hall square of Tallinn

Inside Kumu Museum

Tallinn old town square

Riga's Central Market is located in old German Zeppelin hangars

The oldest town hall in the whole of the Baltic region and Scandinavia

Monday, 8 May 2017

Iceland - Lots of green and lots of ice

The polar region around Iceland offers its own distinctive beauty

By Brett Goulston

Iceland conjures up images of a remote island in the arctic, with freezing temperatures and a small population. After all, who could live on an island in the middle of nowhere with icy cold winds blowing for most of the year? 

While this is pretty much true, there are still many reasons to visit this relatively large island - put aside your preconceived ideas and visit Iceland during the summer months and find out why 
it is becoming more and more popular with tourists.

Iceland has amazing, unique scenery. Most of the coastal areas – particularly along the south coast – are bright green with waterfalls, mountains and valleys. Icelandic sheep and Icelandic horses running around, are in abundance. The entire island is bursting with seismic activity which makes it fascinating, not just for the scientists among us. We all remember when the 
unpronounceable volcano – Eyjafjallajökull  erupted in April 2010 and shut down many international flights as the ash drifted around the world. There are many hot water springs to take a dip in and while the locals will tell you its highly therapeutic, my experience is that you’ll end up looking like a prune if you stay in too long. Then there are the black volcanic sandy beaches, so vastly different to ours but just as beautiful. Apart from searching Google images, the next best way to get a feel for the scenery is to watch the Hollywood movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller, much of which is filmed in Iceland! 

The locals – a bit like the Scandinavians 
 could not be considered overly friendly but just the same, they are certainly happy to have a chat with you. They are a creative bunch and might appear a little quirky which is a much better word than strange. If they offer you a brenniven  their version of schnapps  you are obliged to say yes. It would be rude not to! 
Whale watching in the north is definitely worth the effort. Boats leave from Husavik township and depending on the time of year, you are (almost) guaranteed to spot minkes and humpbacks.  

The food is Scandinavian-esque. Fish, dairy and lamb is found at most eating places. And you’ll also find the history fascinating: just why did the Vikings decide to settle in this remote destination a little over a thousand years ago?  

Come and visit Iceland with Blue Dot Travel which include Svalbard, Norway.  Our next available small group tour departs in June 2018 tour and circumnavigates the island over 12 days. You’ll agree that there’s lots of green and lots of ice!  Click here for more information. 

Iceland travel map

Verdant hills with thrashing waterfalls are found all around Iceland

Polar bears
Atlantic puffin

Akureyri, Iceland's second city

Black volcanic sands on the southern shores                                                                                               

Stunning waterfalls are a feature of Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous bathing lagoon

Monday, 1 May 2017

Latvia - rich in UNESCO world heritage listed sites

Riga Latvia's Capital

By Brett Goulston 

Latvia, part of the Baltic States (a term used by the locals), is a small country with a small population. But there’s much to see and do, around the capital and also in the country side. If you enjoy medieval history, you will love Latvia. 

Riga is the cultural centre of Latvia. There are many churches, monuments to famous people and museums all over the city. In fact, there’s a museum for just about everything. If you want to learn about the horrors of the Nazi and Russian oppression, visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia – confronting but very interesting. 

The old city is UNESCO listed for its beautifully preserved and reconstructed art nouveau architecture. It is full of people – locals and tourists – wandering around without the hazard of vehicles which were banned many years ago. If you like markets, head to the Zeppelin Hangers, built before WWI and used today for all kinds of goods. Haggle for a bargain or buy your fresh local produce for dinner. 

Not far from the city - about an hour’s drive – is Rundale Palace, a classic example of baroque architecture built in the 18th century. The entrance is ever so grand, the gardens are amazing and most of the rooms have been meticulously restored and maintained. 

A visit to Turaida Castle is a must-do. About 50kms from Riga, originally built in the 13th century, this magnificently reconstructed medieval fort was excavated by archeologists in the 1970’s. Take your time to wander throughout. The reconstruction works are very authentic. You will feel like you are experiencing life as it was, 800 years ago.     

Sigulda, is a picturesque town and often referred to as the region’s Switzerland for its green fertile valleys and natural beauty. Head to Old Sigulda Castle for a history fix and then have lunch in town and visit the caves before you depart the area

Visit Latvia with Blue Dot Travel. Click here for our small group tours of the Baltic states.

Baltic countries map

House of the Blackheads

Old wooden Lutheran church in Turaida Park, Latvia

Sigulda New Castle, Latvia

The Old Town of Riga and its market square

The streets of Riga

Latvian National Opera House Riga