Cities: Return each year to be seduced all over again
Words by Glen Mutel
On my first visit to Prague, I awoke to find an agitated rail conductor barking at me for still being on his otherwise empty sleeper train. Two minutes later, I was stood shivering in the station forecourt. It was a bad start. Fortunately, Prague is one of those places where bad first impressions don’t really matter. However imperfect your initial approach, it won’t be long before it has you under its spell. Europe is spoilt for historic cities, but none offer quite so many layers of beauty, and as I made my way to the centre, each new street made a bold play for my attention. By the time I’d reached the Old Town Square, my walking speed had slowed to a crawl.
Amid this bewildering array of architectural achievements, I found myself searching for a single spot — that one striking building I could use to anchor my experience. There was no shortage of candidates: the ornate Charles Bridge, a medieval stage for buskers and artists; the castle complex, brooding on its hilltop perch; or the eccentric astronomical clock that draws tourists to the Old Town Hall Tower.
But whenever I think about that trip, I think first of Municipal House — an art nouveau masterpiece, decorated by the most significant fine artists of the time, with an inexplicably drab name. On my first rainy encounter, it seemed to rise up out of nowhere; two grand columns of arched windows spreading backwards from the domed entrance hall like a huge pair of white wings. Inside was a sumptuous selection of chambers, from the largest concert hall in Prague to a succession of implausibly lavish restaurants, bars and assembly rooms.
A classical concert was being held in a downstairs hall, and after a blissful hour of strings, I adjourned for a beer to one of the most beautiful cafes I’ve ever seen.
As I sipped and surveyed, a waiter appeared pushing a golden sweet trolley. It was laden with desserts. Suddenly, the agitated conductor seemed a very distant memory.
Experiences: Witness Once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomena
Words by Shaney Hudson
With 2012 coinciding with the peak of the sun’s solar cycle, I’ve travelled north to the Inari region of Finnish Lapland to witness the swirls of ethereal light that punctuate the skies over the Arctic Circle.
What makes the Aurora Borealis so special is that there are no guarantees you’ll see it. I’d read every book and scanned every guide before carefully selecting the ideal destination and dates. For three days I’ve fought cold and exhaustion in pursuit of the Northern Lights, but they haven’t shown up. In a cruel twist of fate, the night before I arrive, the Aurora has put on a mighty show, described by locals as the best they’ve seen all year, and by other tourists as the greatest thing they’ve seen in their life. When I booked the trip, I didn’t imagine how disappointed I would be if it didn’t show. I’m desperate.
My final night is spent at an isolated hotel on Lake Menesjärvi with little light pollution, perfect for Aurora watching. But just before dinner a vicious snowstorm hits, consuming me in white darkness, reducing the visibility to yards. I set the alarm for every hour after midnight, and head for bed fully-clothed, ready to be out the door should the Aurora appear, but in my heart I have let go of the dream. The weather is too severe. The lights won’t shine for me tonight.
As I drift into an exhausted sleep, the miracle happens. I rush outside, lashed by freezing, gale-force winds, to stand exhilarated beneath the Aurora Borealis. As I huddle in the car park, the Northern Lights pulse like a heartbeat in the sky, the light fading up and down like a giant creature breathing in and out. For an hour they perform as I shiver below. Delicate ribbons that divide the sky shape-shifting into wafts of milky green fire, then melting into arcing waves that swell across the sky in a tsunami of neon green light.
Like a soundless symphony, the Aurora builds to a crescendo of scorching white that burns the whole sky; a light so bright it illuminates the forest around me. And then it’s done, the curtains of clouds that have been threatening to steal it from me closing across the sky.
Unesco: Favourite wonders from Unesco’s worldwide sites
Words by Sarah Barrell
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, one of the most powerful symbols and tools of preservation worldwide. These heritage sites incorporate both cultural and natural wonders, and since the convention was established in 1872, the World Heritage List has grown to include 936 sites in 153 countries around the world, inscribed for their outstanding universal value.
Japan’s UNESCO hub, the historic city of Kyoto, boasts no fewer than 17 designated World Heritage Sites. Modelled on the ancient capitals of China, and the imperial capital of Japan from its founding in 794, Kyoto was the ornate seat of Japanese culture for over a thousand years, until 1868. Art and architecture combine to provide a blueprint for design worldwide. Alongside breathtaking formal gardens, Kyoto is crowned with towering pagodas, floating shrines and ancient wooden temples that bring the development of Buddhism in Japan into sharp architectural focus. On a walking tour of the eastern city, visitors can satiate their hunger for Orientalism, taking in a collection of imperial castles surrounded by halos of water and terraced gardens, ending up in contemplation among the rocks of Ry?an-ji temple garden.
Kyoto’s surrounding countryside is equally worth exploring, notably the wooden temples and exquisite gardens forming the ancient capital of Nara. The bullet train ride in and out of the city’s sharp modern station, surrounded by central Kyoto’s bland high rises, reminds visitors they’re in the 21st century, before they step back in time again with some hands-on cultural experiences — lessons in Japanese calligraphy, origami, or learning about the tea ceremony in one of the machiya townhouses lining the narrow streets of the Geisha district of Gion. Staying in a traditional ryokan, many with bathing houses or hot tubs fed by natural hot springs, is a wonderful way to enjoy Kyoto’s distinct seasons — the explosion of cherry blossom along the canal-side Philosopher’s Path in spring, or an autumn conflagration of maple colours that challenge America’s East Coast for vibrancy.
Architecture: Amazing structures to blow your mind
Niterói museum, Brazil
Words by Jonathan Glancey
A suburb of Rio de Janeiro, reached by road bridge or ferry across Guanabara Bay, Niterói has long boasted beautiful beaches, yet until 1996 offered nothing remarkable in the way of architecture. But that year saw the opening of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, designed by Brazil’s most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
The museum is an iconic spectacle tourists make a detour to see. And although it displays local art, it’s the architecture that draws visitors and takes their breath away; as all proper wonders of the world should, ancient or modern, from the Great Pyramid to the Chrysler Building.
Seen from the ocean bay, Niemeyer’s compelling museum is like a gleaming white flying saucer that has landed on the edge of the city. Perched on a single circular concrete column, it rides the waves crashing below, reflecting ever-shifting patterns on the curved underside of its seamless structure. The smooth, white concrete disc of the museum is reached via a long, sinuous, vivid red ramp. Inside, tinted windows — 70 in total, forming an unbroken circle — offer an exquisitely-framed 360-degree panorama.
Wedding couples pose for photos in the shade of the museum, while old and young alike sit enchanted by the cliff edge, listening to the waves reverberate as they crash against the taut, drum-like skin of this magical building.
Perhaps, though, an even greater wonder is the architect. Niemeyer, who was 89 years old when the museum opened, is still hard at work in his Copacabana Beach studio — at the ripe old age of 104.
Natural wonders: Remote, awe-inspiring natural wonders, from wildlife to rock formations
Great Migration, Kenya
Words by Helen Warwick
I heard them before I spotted them. A whisper crescendoed into a steady murmur of yelps and chatter. Thousands upon thousands of wildebeest, arriving early into Kenya’s Masai Mara, had come to a nervous standstill, calling to each other in a gloomy ‘guh guh’ as they contemplated the deadly river crossing before them, mindful of submerged crocodiles.
One of Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacles sees the mass migration of around a million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle from Tanzania’s Serengeti to the Masai Mara. Followed by a hungry constellation of predators, this is wildlife drama at its most raw.
The ’beests fear was obvious as they nervously lingered like a regiment of soldiers, waiting for the command to invade enemy territory. And after several minutes of doubt, one brave bovine launched itself into the river, paddling furiously to reach the other side and signalling the start of a mass stampede behind it.
Like a swarm of ants, they scrambled on top of one another, their yelps reverberating in haunting screeches with the arrival of some grim-looking crocs. I could barely watch as several made it to the other side only to foolishly turn around and swim back. The crocs showed no mercy, with one sidling up to a struggling calf, clamping the youngster within its jaws and dragging it into the depths. Just a few minutes ago, our truck had been a solitary riverside presence, but now the surviving ’beests engulfed the savannah, their guh guh slightly calmer now, their behaviour almost demure. But, in big cat territory, for how long?
Read the full article in the May/June 2012 issue National Geographic Traveller (UK)