Thursday 24 July 2014

Burrowing through Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc (or 'White Mountain') is the natural mountain that acts as a border between France and Italy.  A tunnel was built in 1957 to facilitate traffic between both sides, and this Mont Blanc Tunnel is one of the longest car tunnels in the world, measuring over 11km.

This is also one of the few points within Europe/Schengen States that you will get a chop in the passport at the border checkpoint.   There is a small parking site on either side for you to pause and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. 

Exiting on the Italian side, the panoramic view of the deep valley gorge will find no rest for your eyes.  If you enjoy driving this is one of the routes in Europe that you cannot miss.

The first big town would be Aosta.  Stop by for sumptuous local fares that combine French and Swiss influences with Italy flair such as richly flavoured soups and risottos. 

Here is more information about the tunnel, including the toll charge:

Monday 14 July 2014

200,000 Palm Trees, 3000 years of history. Elche, Murcia.

On the south-eastern coast of Spain, where it was once ruled by the Muslim empire, is the city of Murcia.  The scenery of the region stands at a stark contrast from its northern neighbours, Valencia and Barcelona (Catalonia): miles of pale yellow sand and barren mountains toasted under the relentless sun.  Olive and palm trees peppered the landscape, but none of the green pasture we are so used to seeing in Catalonia is to be found here.  Even to Spaniards, this is an unspoiled region with little promotion of tourism and industrialisation.

60km northeast of the city of Murcia is the town of Elche.  This is a town that must warrant a day trip from Murcia, or even an overnight stay.  The main attraction is the cathedral, called Basilica of Santa Maria, and the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Elche Palmeral: a garden of 200,000 palm trees that trace its origin to the Phoenician in 1000BC.  It is a stunning sight to behold.

The Palmeral refers to a thick cluster of palm trees that were planted all over the town, which was founded by Greeks and later settled by Phoenicians (modern day North Africans from Tunisia).  Palm trees produce edible dates, and are indigenous to North Africa.  During the Muslim conquest of Iberia Peninsular (modern day Spain and Portugal) the Arabs started cultivating palm trees, perhaps to remind them of their home and to provide a source to one of their favourite foods.  The original spread of the palm grove was believed to be much larger; due to industrialization a lot of trees were cut down and preservation began in the 1920s.  Its inclusion into the UNESCO sites answer to the following criterion: "a remarkable example of the transference of a characteristic landscape from one culture and continent to another, in this case from North Africa to Europe".

You can catch a bird's eye view of the town and the Palmeral from the top of the church tower (2€ entrance and 166 steps).  The Palmeral, as mentioned above, spreads over the entire town; you can find the main park next to the Tourist's Information office.  A tourist bus (4€) takes you around the town in about an hour, with narration in Spanish only.


Murcia 位於西班牙東南部的沿岸,曾經被穆斯林帝國統治。Murcia 一帶的景色與其毗鄰的加泰羅尼亞省有著天淵之別,離開加泰羅尼亞省驅車南下後,綠油油的景色已經不再出現,佈景版上所換上的,是一片又一片的黃沙土地,以及遠處在烈日下暴曬的光禿禿的山脈。即使是對一般的西班牙人來說,這裏仍是一片未受污染的寶貴自然地帶,連在當地可以找到的旅遊資料亦不多。
從 Murcia 出發向東北走大概六十公里,便到達另一個不能錯過的小鎮 Elche。Elche 擁有一個屬於UNESCO世界文化遺産的棕櫚樹花園,這個花園的起源要追溯到公元一千年前,人們開始在這裏種植棕櫚樹。期後在羅馬大帝國統治西班牙地區的時期,來自非洲的摩爾人更將棕櫚樹花園擴大,希望把非洲家園的景觀移到歐洲。這個花園一直保存到現在,並植有二十萬棵棕櫚樹。
Elche 小鎮最初由希臘人建立,其後腓尼基人 (現今北非的突尼斯) 在這裏落地生根。棕櫚樹花園其實是指在包圍整個 Elche 小鎮的一羣一羣的棕櫚樹。這些棕櫚樹生産可以食用的棗,是北非的土產農作物。當穆斯林佔領伊伯利亞半島 (包括現今西班牙和葡萄牙的半島) 時,阿拉伯人已開始在這裏種植棕櫚樹,去緬懷他們的鄉愁之餘,亦給他們提供土產食物。本來這個棕櫚樹花園擴展得比現在的更大,但是由於工業化的關係,一部份的棕櫚樹已被移除,二十年代起政府才開始保育的工作。這個棕櫚樹花園景觀完完全全地把北非特色的景觀及文化轉移到歐洲,這正正符合了要列入聯合國教科文世界文化遺産的條件。


UNESCO 網頁的介紹:


Bibury - 'the most beautiful village in England'

One of the prettiest parts of England is the Cotswold, referring the southwest of central England, roughly where Oxford is.  During the Middle Ages, this region was well-known for its weavers and artisans, whose wealth contributed to countless churches and manor houses being built throughout the fertile land, many of those are preserved and have remained as important landmarks. 

Bibury, about 2 hours west of London, is a small village in the Cotswold that has caught the attention of visitors from near and far.  The poet and writer William Morris, who struck gold with his textile designs, visited Bibury and reportedly deemed it the most beautiful village in England.  What captures the hearts of every visitor is the row of stone houses on Arlington Row, where weavers used to dry their cloths after washing them in the river.  The steeply pitched roof is a common sight in the Cotswold, and this charming town has since become a great introduction to the region for travellers.

Due to its fame it can get pretty crowded with tourists, particularly Asians.  It is nevertheless a beautiful spot to take a stroll, or to visit the trout farm nearby.

More information about activities in Bibury:

Cotswold 是英國其中一個最漂亮的地區,位於英格蘭的中區西南部,著名的牛津市亦是屬於這一區。中古時期,很多織布工人及手工藝工人都聚集在這裏,從這裏無數的教堂及大宅建築可以看到當時住在這裏的人的財富。而這裏很多的建築物都完好地保留到今天,並成為了這裏的地標。
Bibury 是 Cotswold 地區其中的一條小村莊,距離倫敦西正大概兩小時的車程,這條迷人的小村莊每天都吸引到無數來自不同地方的人到訪。詩人及作家 William Morris 𨘋覽 Bibury 後說這裏是英國最漂亮的村莊。當中最引人注目的是村莊裏位於 Arlington Row 的一排屋頂傾斜的小石屋,從前織布工人在小石屋前的河邊把剛染好的布曬乾,而傾斜的小屋頂亦成為了 Bibury 的其中一個特色。
由於 Bibury 有著很高的世界知名度,每天來這裏的遊客都駱驛不絶,當中更包括了不少來自亞洲的遊人。遊覽過 Bibury 後,你亦不妨到附近的鄉郊漫步,或到附近的鱒魚場參觀一下。


Tuesday 8 July 2014

Sunset over Piran, Slovenia

Across from Venice on the other side of the Adriatic is the Istria Peninsular in the shape of a heart, spanning about 120km from north (Trieste) to south (Pula) - or roughly the same distance from Venice to Ravenna, or New York to Philadelphia.  It begins from Italy's Trieste in the north, passing through Slovenia, with the huge chunk of the heart belonging to modern day Croatia.  Piran is an ancient Roman town in Slovenia close to the Croatian border.

It is quite the popular tourist destination nowadays.  Tourists are kept busy visiting the city wall and beautiful marina, the Municipal Palace, the breath-taking town square, and many other historic buildings and monuments.  Never straying far from music, this was also the birth town of the famous Italian violinist composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770).  At that time Piran was part of the Venetian Republic so Italy lays its claim on his legacy, but Tartini was actually born into one of the most important aristocratic Piranian families.  The town square is dedicated to him with a statue of him holding what I can only assume is a Baroque violin bow (not a modern French bow).

The townsfolk had been fishermen since time immemorial, and it was incorporated into the Roman empire by 178BC.  The town's name probably came from the Greek word for red, or "pyrranos".  So named because of the red stones found in the area, which perhaps gave rise to many of the red houses found today.

To catch Piran on a quiet day would be seeing paradise: wandering through the narrow meandering streets, exploring many of the art galleries and shops, admiring the beautiful houses and medieval architecture, and, in my case, watching the sunset over the Adriatic.  It's hard to find a reason not to come back again.

Official travel guide:

斯洛汶尼亞的 Piran 位於伊斯特里亞半島。這個向南伸展的半島由北面的意大利邊境城市 Trieste 開始,經過中部的斯洛汶尼亞,一直到最南尖端的克羅地亞小鎮 Piran。
Piran 是古羅馬時代的克羅地亞邊境,當天留下來的古城牆、莊嚴的皇宮、遊人不絶的中央廣場,以及其他歴史悠久的古建築及遺跡,都成為了今天無數遊人的目的地。這裏亦是著名意大利小提琴作曲家 Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770) 的出生地。當 Giuseppe Tartini 出生的時候,Piran 是意大利的領土,但是他其實是生於一個當地顯赫的 Piranian 貴族家庭。現在,小鎮的中央廣場豎立了 Giuseppe Tartini 的銅像雕塑,我猜想他手裏所拿著的,是有別於現代法國琴弓的巴洛克時期小提琴琴弓。
Piran 自公元前178年起已歸屬古羅馬帝國,因此這個小鎮的名字有可能是源於古希臘文「pyrranos」,是紅色的意思,這亦符合了這一帶佈滿紅色石頭的景色。時至今天,這裏仍保有很多用這些紅色石頭建的小屋。
幸運的我在 Piran 享受了難得的不多遊人的一天。我在小鎮狹窄的小街道漫步,參觀這裏精緻的小商店及畫廊,欣賞了這裏無數的紅色小石屋及中古時期建築物,最後在這裏欣賞了無限美麗的日落,令我樂而忘返。
Piran 的官方旅遊網站: