Nikolaiviertel: Berlin’s oldest district

Berlin is an indisputably cool city. It is the punk-rock, graffiti-artist, high-school dropout of European capitals – the kind of character I am vaguely in awe of, slightly scared of, and will just never be. I was definitely in awe of the city; of its restored sections of Wall, complete with murals and graffiti, of the real-life punks, with shaven heads and hundreds of piercings, of the monumental, soviet, East Berlin architecture. But then, on our last morning in the city, my friends and I discovered Berlin’s oldest district, Nikolaiviertel, and I felt like I had found my little piece of Berlin. Nikolaiviertel is unmistakably medieval in appearance and character, though most of it has been restored since the Second World War. It is right at the centre of Berlin, between the Rathaus and Cathedral, very close to Alexanderplatz. But its small jumble of streets, just wide enough for a car to squeeze through, are pretty much undisturbed.   Tall, wooden town houses line the streets leading to the Nikolai Kirche – Berlin’s oldest church, and one which shows its gradual development in its oddly different sections, like mismatched jigsaw pieces. The bottom is traditional stone, above is a section of red brick, and finally, there are two copper spires. Outside is a statue of a bear – the symbol of Berlin. The whole city has capitalised on this with a series of Buddy Bears dotted about town, each bear decorated differently (there’s one at the American Embassy made to look like the Statue of Liberty) but in Nikolaiviertel, they’ve taken a far more nostalgic and charming approach, with...

The Fairytale Land of Castile-Leon

When you think of Spain, what springs to mind? I’ll bet the first things do not include weird rock formations, grand castles in provincial towns, or even chocolate. Yet this is the Spain I know, and it exists in a place north of Madrid and east of Galicia, a region called Castile-Leon.     I was a bright-eyed, eager student who had just arrived in Asturias, a little-known province in northern Spain, for a five-month stint at the University of Oviedo. On one of my first weekends there, my friends and I joined a welcome trip put on for foreign students and set out to explore the neighbouring region Castile-Leon. I had no idea what to expect – just a few months earlier, I hadn’t even heard of the town I was living in, so it’s safe to say that northwest Spain was not my speciality. However, we soon stopped at our first point of interest: the World Heritage Site of Las Medulas. The weirdly-shaped orange rocks certainly make an impression, but at first glance they look natural, some geological quirk. However, we soon discovered that this was once a Roman gold mine and the rock formations are due to their complex mining system. We spent time oohing and aahing, peering into caves and taking in the extraordinary landscape.   It wasn’t far to our next stop, the small town of Ponferrada. Although it was a Saturday, the town was very quiet, with just a few people out and about. It was intensely pretty though, with colourful squares and old stone buildings. Its most surprising feature was the enourmous...

Mountains: A Photo Essay

Mountains have the power to awe and inspire like no other landscape on earth. They remind us of our own insignificance in the world, they are a challenge to take on and they have an aesthetic, timeless pefection which leaves us weak at the knees. I spent much of last year living at high-altitude, waking up to views of the mountains, climbing them and even skiing down them. Now, living in a part of England which is as flat as a pancake, I miss the challenge and the beauty of mountains; I miss the way they make my soul sing.   First there was France – a brief sojourn in the glorious Alps…   After living for a while at the foot of the Pyrenees.   My more recent ‘home abroad’ was Ancash in Peru, where the Cordilleras Blancas kept me in their thrall day after day. You can’t go far in Peru before you reach one mountain range or another – Mountains define the country’s history and its present culture – and provide some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.   From the sparkling villages on the mountains around Cuzco…   …and the soaring peaks of the Sacred Valley…   …to the volcanoes of Arequipa.   Some mountains quite literally overshadow the lives and cultures of entire communities, like Cerro de Potosi in the Bolivian highlands. It is the kind of thing Spanish conquistadores dreamed of: a mountain full of silver. In those bygone colonial years, Potosi became synonymous with wealth, but today miners still work there, extracting silver for very little in return. Potosi, one...

Triadic

All good things come in threes – and Riccardo Di Capua came up with the title Triadic for Iain Mallory’s photo. That leaves just one more – you. Submit a photo which captures the theme Triadic and you could be our next Photo of the Week. Simply submit your pic to katy@starryeyedtravels(dot)com by Thursday 5th January and yours may become our featured photo! For more details about Photo of the Week, click...

New Year Travel Plans, Pirate-Style

As we bring in the New Year, I will be more than ready to set sail once more on voyages across the seas, so perhaps it is quite apt that I will be dressed as a pirate, a costume I have to get sorted this week! However, I will be land-bound for much of this year as I train to be a teacher, so I’m going to have to plan my travel pretty carefully indeed. Now, planning ahead is not exactly my strong suit, so this is going to be a bit of a challenge. So I’m starting early, whittling down my wishlist to a few realistic destinations and thinking about short trips close to home that will nevertheless provide some unforgettable experiences. 1. Whale Watching, Scotland I have long wanted to explore the rugged Northern coast of Scotland and its even more northerly isles and I am desperate to make 2012 the year I finally get out on a boat to try and spot some whales. I have never seen any of these incredible creatures and I am hoping to change that. What could be more wonderful than windswept beaches, solitary lighthouses and time spent out at sea? I need to make this happen. 2. Culture and Wilderness, Ireland Though it is on the doorstep, as it were, I have never travelled across the Irish sea to this ancient, mystical land, beloved by so many travellers. I have scant excuse for this state of affairs and need to rectify it at the earliest opportunity. There are so many parts of Ireland I would like to see, but even...
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