Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pucon (1), Chile - check out the Villarrica Volcano

In April 2012 we spent 5 days in the beautiful town of Pucon. On the southeastern corner of Lake Villarrica, Pucon is one of the most popular destinations in the Chilean "Lake District". According to our guide book, "famous above all for visiting the 2840m active Villarrica volcano, which dominates the view to the south. Built across the neck of a peninsula, the town has two black-sand beaches, which are popular for swimming and water sports. Whitewater rafting us also offered in nearyby rivers and excursions are available to a number of thermal springs which lie to the east of the town. So, as you can see there is a lot to do and see in Pucon and the surrounding area.

View of Lake Villarica from the Gran Hotel Pucon
We flew from Santiago into Temuco, a flight of less than an hour before transferring by van to Pucon, which takes around an hour and twenty minutes. During the Chilean summer there are direct flights from Santiago into Pucon. We stayed in the Gran Hotel Pucon which as you can see from the photo above has a spectacular view. Sadly that's almost all we can say for the Gran Hotel, the service was shocking almost laughable, the hotel itself is in a real need for a makeover, the kindest thing would be to knock it down and start again. This is such a shame as the location is spectacular and the hotel should reflect the location!

View from the park in front of the Gran Hotel Pucon

Pucon beach

There are approximately 20,000 inhabitants in Pucon, this quadruples during the summer season. The town itself is very relaxed full of shops, bars and some very good restaurants. Check out Senzo (an Italian restaurant) and Cassis (for the most delicious pancakes), both are found on Fresia. The centre of the town is very attractive with a wooden "ski resort" style, no neon signs in sight.

Downtown Pucon

On our first evening we booked with the tour company based in the hotel, to climb the volcano the following day. Being out of season we were lucky that we were able to book a trip for just the two of us. The tour companies provide you with all the gear you need for this trek/climb, this includes crapons, helmet and iceaxe, just to let you know this is not a walk in the park. All you really need is to bring some warm long socks, some layers to wear under the gear they provide, sunglasses, suncream and some food and water to keep you going on the trek. The tour company will let you know if they do/do not provide food. 

Villarrica volcano

We left out hotel at around 7am for the short drive to the base of the Villarrica volcano, less than 30 minutes. From there if you are lucky and wind conditions permit it, you can take a short chairlift which reduces the uphill trek by up to an hour depending on your fitness. We were lucky! Having successfully negotiated the dismount from the chairlift we set off on a day which saw us learning how to use crampons, how to use an iceaxe in the event of falling and took us to the edge of the crater of a live volcano. A truly fantastic day, hopefully the following pictures will tell the story better than words.

A hint of the great views to come

First break, just another 3.5 hours to go

Getting icy, time for the crampons

Getting closer, yet perhaps the most tiring section lies ahead
Finally the crater

Short break before checking out the edge of the crater

Red hot lava deep down in the crater

After taking some time to enjoy the stunning scenary at the top, it was time to go down again, more pain to come. Fortunately if the snow conditons are ok, there are four "carved runs", where you can slide down using your iceaxe to control the speed. This was fantastic and the adrenalin buzz helped you to forget how tired your legs actually were. Climbing the Volcano was a brilliant experience which we'd highly recommend, just remember its not easy and you need to be reasonably fit. If you enjoyed this post, you can read more about Pucon, Villarrica and the region in our second post, Pucon (2).

Vienna, Austria's beautiful capital city

In December 2011 we spent a great long weekend in the stunning city of Vienna. We stayed in the Radisson Blue Palais Hotel, the location was great but the service for a five star hotel was poor. Maybe we were just unlucky however this is one hotel that doesn't make it onto Our Favourites list. We had three full days in Vienna however you could easily fill a week as there is a lot to do and see. December is a great time to visit the city as you get the added benefit of being able to enjoy the Christmas Markets. central Vienna includes the Inner City demarcated by Ringstrasse (Ring) and Franz-Josefs-Kai, plus the the area between Ring and Gurtel which is Vienna's second ring road. We spent our time enjoying the Inner City.


The origins of the district around Stephansdom date back to the 13th century, but much of it was changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when many churches and public buildings were refashioned in the spirit of the increasingly powerful Habsburg monarchy. Narrow, medieval alleys adjoin monumental Baroque structures and bourgeois townhouses, whose ground floors are often occupied by shops, cafes and restaurants. This is a great area to explore by day and by night.

St Peter's church, one of the oldest in Vienna, was according to legend founded in 792 by Charlemagne, as commemorated in a marble relief on the church's facade. The Chapel of St Michael, the first on the right contains a glass coffin with the relics of St Benedict. One of the many attractions of Vienna is the wonderful traditional cafes and their lovely assortment of pastries and mouth watering cakes, so when your feet are getting tired and sugar levels are low, be sure and check one out.

One of the highlights for us was the area around the amazing Hofburg Complex, this was the former Emperor's residence, a permanent reminder of the glory of the Habsburg Empire. This part of Vienna is one of the capital's most fashionable and lively areas, both during the daytime and at night when the former palace rooms serve as theatre and concert halls.

The Hofburg Complex
In this area you'll find many famous sights such as the Albertina art museum, Alte Burg and Josefplatz as well as the world reknowned Spanish Riding School. We visited the Silberkammer, a stunning display of silver, gold and porcelain tableware and vessels used at official receptions. You'll find the Silberkammer in the Alte Burg along with the tour of Franz Joseph's apartments and the Sisi Museum. Try not to miss either tour as they are both well worth a visit.

Inside the Silberkammer, seeing is believing!

The Albertina was once the Hapsburg palace of Duke Albert of Sachsen-Teschen and his wife Archduchess Marie-Christina. Today it houses one of the world's finest collections of graphics including works by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Durer, Rubens, and Manet. It is also home to the Sammlung Batliner, a collection of paintings under the motto "Monet to Picasso". As you can imagine the Albertina is very popular so to avoid the queues try and book your tickets or but them the previous day.


Now time for a little break from historic Vienna to take a peek at Vienna's Christmas Markets, enjoy as we really did.

It's always hard to choose a favourite travel destination, that said Vienna must be close to the top of our list as it offers so much to do and see. Below are a few final shots from this wonderful city. For a great meal check out Restaurant Danieli on Himmelpfortgasse, it gets very busy so try and book a table.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Visit the Royal Palace at Aranjuez, Spain

In October 2011 we returned again to one of our favourite cities, Madrid, this time with the plan to visit Aranjuez. Just a short train ride from Madrid the undoubted jewel of Aranjuez is the Royal Palace.

The curren appearence of the Palace is the result of reconstructions and additions which began with thw work of Juan Bautista of Toledo, architect to Felipe II. Over the course of time, others have also had a hand in the construction at the service of the Spanish Kings. Inside there are abundant baroque pieces such as those that can be seen in the clock, porcelain and painting rooms. The Palace is worth visiting just to see the Porcelain room if nothing else.

Another characteristic element of Aranjuez is its gardens. Opposite the east façade of the palace is the Flower-bed Garden, English in style, where the fountain sculptures are outstanding. A further two gardens begin near the buildings. Island Garden, so-called because it stretches between the course of the Tagus and the Ría, is another of the places worth strolling through. More wooded is the Prince's Garden, in a French Gothic style. 

The rest of the town also displays the same values, reflected in the layout of its streets, in the purest baroque style. Uniform buildings, tree-lined streets and spacious avenues are some of its features. A layout which makes it easy to visit other major sites, such as the Mariblanca Fountain, the Royal Theatre, the Servants' and Guest Quarters and Stables or the Food Market. There are also other palaces, such as Osuna, Medinaceli or Godoy. Among the religious architecture, fine examples are the Convent of San Pascual (work of Sabatini with paintings by Megs and Tiépolo), and the churches of Alpajés (a 
brick construction with a baroque portico) and San Antonio (with its great dome and lonic columns).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The World Heritage City of Toledo, Spain

The last leg of our holiday in September 2011 took us on a day trip to Toledo from Madrid before flying home. Its proximity to Madrid is another great reason to spend some time in Spain's wonderful capital city. We spent a wonderful day there, wandering round the winding streets enjoying the beauty of the city and from time to time seeking some shade and refreshment in the form of a cerveza and tapas.

World Heritage City Toledo was once the capital city of Spain, and it still retains the atmosphere and aura which are characteristic of so many European capital cities. Toledo is a magical place, possibly one of the most spectacular cities in the world. The buildings and winding streets contained within the old city walls hold hundreds of years of history, and the River Tajo which runs alongside the city walls adds to its charm and beauty.

During the 13th century Toledo became one of the few places in Spain where Moors, Christians and Jews managed to live together and tolerate eachother more or less peacefully (although not as idyllicly as some history accounts would have us believe), and the singular combination of styles and cultures which resulted from this period in Toledo's history is one of the city's unique characteristics. Visitors can still admire the remains of churches, mosques and sinagogues built during this time.

Toledo became a fortified city under Roman occupation - its location and the River Tajo made it an ideal fortress, and from that moment on the city became one of Spain's most important political, economic and cultural centres. The Visigods named Toledo their capital, and it retained its importance under Arab occupation. When the Spanish armies regained control of the city, it became the official residence to the Spanish Kings and Queens until the 16th Century.