It’s the question that gets me every single time.
“Is it safe to visit South Africa?”
Inevitably, my blood starts to boil as I brace for the next hammer blow, “Because you know, from what I’ve heard it’s very dangerous and they’ve told me not to visit”.
Who are the ominipresent “they”?
Have they ever been to South Africa?
Have they ever travelled through the many parts of our countryside?
Have they taken the time to educate themselves on our nation, or are they just regurgitating snippets that they’ve heard on the news, found on the web or overheard from some disillusioned, white, ex-South African who emigrated because “the country is going to the dogs under that black government”?
[Please, excuse my frankness, but those are often the people trash-talking South Africa]
But, despite the resounding success that was the 2010 World Cup, despite 19 years of freedom for all, despite everything, people are still reticent to visit South Africa because they deem it too dangerous, too risky, too threatening.
In my work with American tour groups, I find that the travellers have inevitably been warned (by well-meaning relatives and neighbors), not to book that package tour to South Africa, yet the groups all thoroughly enjoy South Africa and would “highly recommend it”. In the advent of travel bloggers, more and more bloggers are visiting South Africa and I have yet to hear a bad word spoken against South Africa.
Disappointingly though, despite all the positive experiences we hear about, negative media about South Africa still abounds.
Enough! It’s our job as responsible South Africans to change that.
So, I polled a variety of travel bloggers who have visited South Africa for their Top 2 reasons on Why You Should Must Visit South Africa. There were some common themes that surfaced together with some touching, heart-felt responses. Let’s hear what some of our favourite bloggers had to say….
Diverse & Spectacular Scenery
Not surprisingly, this rated highly on many blogger’s lists. Keith Jenkins of Velvet Escape highlights the “jagged snow-capped peaks of the Drakensberg to expansive savannah and rugged coastlines” as an example of the natural beauty that South Africa has to offer. Africa lover Sandy Salle (Hills of Africa) echoes this sentiment as she celebrates South Africa “for its spectacular wine lands, unspoiled beaches, as well as Cape Town, which compares to a mini San Francisco!”.
Perhaps one of the most enthusiastic votes for this category came from Wandering Earl who notes “From large, vibrant cities to beautiful coastal communities, from mesmerizing wine regions to tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, and everything in between, every region of South Africa feels as if it is an entirely different country in itself.”. Nothing quite beats an African sunset either for amazing colours against wide open skies. Check out Craig Zabranksy’s amazing gallery of South African sunsets, and see for yourself.
The “Big 5” Safari Experience
Many visitors to South Africa come solely for the purpose of visiting the Kruger Park to spot wild animals in their natural habitat. “Seeing all these amazing animals in their natural environment while enjoying the beautiful landscape” was a personal highlight for Earth Xplorer J.D. Andrews and “viewing the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant & rhino) in person was a remarkable experience” for Landloper Matt Long. Jen Pollack Bianco and Cailin O’Neil both share this common sentiment, after their visits to South Africa included a safari expedition.
Sandy Salle highly recommends visiting some of our many monkey and elephant sanctuaries, all of which offer guided sightseeing tours, allowing you to get within meters of the animals. Don’t discount our offshore wildlife either, home to whales, dolphins and Great White Sharks, all off which can be spotted along many parts of our coastline.
Delicious Food and Drink
There was no shortage of enthusiastic comments regarding the variety of top class South African cuisine. Some bloggers, like The Travel Tart, raved about particular South African dishes, quipping “There’s nothing like stuffing your face with a half-loaf of bread packed with tasty curry” (known as a Bunny Chow). Cailin O’Neil was particularly smitten with our local game meats, particular “springbok and kudu” and shares our fondness for a “braai” – the Afrikaans word for a barbeque. Cape Town in particular offers a huge diversity in cuisines and, if Indian food is your flavour, head to Durban where you’ll find some of the best curries outside of the subcontinent.
South Africa is well known for its world-class wines, something that Keith Jenkins is particularly passionate about. The Stellenbosch & Franschoek regions in the Western Cape are home to many award-winning wine-farms, so be sure to add this destination to your itinerary. And, if you prefer your tipple a little sweeter, be sure to sample Amarula, a cream-liqueur made from the fruit of the Marula tree. It’s exceptionally delicious, very South African and very, very addictive as Craig Zabransky discovered when he attended the World Cup in South Africa in 2010!
“It will change your life”
At a first glance, I thought The Explorateur’s comment about a visit to South Africa being a life-changing experience was a little bit of a cliché. But, as I received more and more responses along similar lines, I began to realize that she had a point. The Explorateur is well known in South Africa, and she found the “real” South Africa when she chose to break out of the “safety” of her hotel and took a tour through Soweto, a local African township. From meeting a tour guide who was imprisoned during the Apartheid era, to being musically serenaded by school children in tattered clothing, The Explorateur discovered that when you look beyond the surface of South Africa, “you’ll gain a whole new perspective on yourself and what’s important”.
Kirsten Alana recalls shared a similar experience, “I remember standing on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and thinking that if two Nobel Peace Prize winners could come from one such humble street, surely nothing was stopping me from changing the world.”
South Africans have long been recognized as some of the most hospitable people in the world, a fact graciously acknowledged by both Keith and J.D. If volunteering is close to your heart, you’d do well to pay attention to Sandy who notes, ”South Africa’s volunteer opportunities are some of the most humbling and rewarding experiences to be had and allow families, individuals, groups and couples to immerse themselves in the local culture, whilst providing locals with the gift of upliftment”.
Perhaps the last word in this section should go to Matt Long, who, like many bloggers, discovered that South Africa really does get under your skin. He says, “Before I first visited South Africa I was warned that the ‘bug’ would grab hold and not let go. Everyone tells me that I’ll love every location I visit, so I didn’t think a lot about it. This time was different though and by the end of my adventures in South Africa, I had indeed caught that mysterious bug. South Africa enjoys a unique mix of qualities including staggering beauty, a rich culture and people so kind your teeth hurt. These and many more factors coalesce and truly do become more than the sum of their parts. A special magic is created that doesn’t just ensure a great trip, but changes at a molecular level turn any trip into a personally transformational experience. Before you accuse me of extreme bouts of hyperbolic imagery, just wait. Visit South Africa for yourself and then, and only then, can you tell me that I’m wrong.”
Are you ready to book your trip to South Africa now?
Sincere thanks must go to all the travel bloggers who shared their heartfelt thoughts on South Africa. Please, keep spreading the positive news on our amazing country.
Tucked away in a corner of the old Eastern Transvaal is the hamlet of Kaapsche Hoop. Comprising little more than a sandy, rutted main road, lined with period houses and quaint shops, the town has become well known for the large number of wild horses that roam freely in the area.
We knew very little of the town prior to my partner entering the 2012 Kaapsche Hoop marathon. Advertising for the marathon announced the opportunity to “run with the wild horses”, but we had very little knowledge of the area, let alone the famous wild horses.
The day of the marathon dawned cold and misty and as we walked the “high street” towards the dreaded race porta-potties, a group of horses emerged from the mist and drifted towards us. Seemingly tame, a few approached me, sniffed my hands cautiously and allowed me to pat them. For the non-runners (like myself), this was really our only interaction with the horses, but for the runners, a forest detour on the race route was an opportunity to watch in awe as the wild horses galloped alongside them, a “magical experience”, as Davina reports.
The day after the race, we headed back to Kaapsche Hoop to get closer to these wild horses. Theories as to how the horses originate abound. Some suggest that when the area’s gold rush petered out, prospectors simply left their horses behind and moved on. Other theories range from horses left behind after the South African War (or the Boer War to us locals) in the early 1900’s to horses abandoned after the local police station shut down. Whichever story is true, these wild horses are the only herd in South Africa and are fiercely protected by the locals.
The current herd is estimated to number up to 200 horses and have full run of the town. We discovered a table of hungry visitors at a local pancake restaurant having to guard their breakfast from the foraging equines. You normally might lose your meal to a bird, a dog or even a monkey in Africa, but a horse? That’s a different story altogether!
We took a stroll through some of the open fields behind the local houses and discovered a group of about 8 horses, grazing contentedly. Some of them came up to us, clearly looking for some easy treats, so Davina headed off to the car to pick up a bag of apples.
Apparently they’re wild horses for a reason. No sooner had one horse sampled an apple, they were all clamouring around us to get a bite. Suddenly, they were showing signs of aggression, attacking each other to get to the bag and nipping at us (I have a rather nasty blue bruise on my arm from an impatient horse). We narrowly avoided getting kicked as one horse suddenly turned heel on us, so, tossing the last two apples into the field, we dashed back to the car as fast as we could, thankful that no hooves connected with our jaws!
It was only as we popped into a local store to fortify ourselves with a drink that we saw a “Don’t feed the horses” sign *sigh* …we should have known better. Next time you’re on your way to the Kruger Park or Mpumulanga, stop off at Kaapsche Hoop and meet the wild horses, but leave the apples and sugar lumps at home!
Right up front, I’ll admit that I’m not the world’s greatest rugby fan. Despite living in South Africa for nigh on 30 years, my English football roots are still strong. So much so that, on any given weekend, you’ll find me avoiding rugby like the plague and focusing instead on willing Liverpool to win a match, any match.
Now that you know this, you’ll understand my trepidation at the thought of attending the inaugural Jozi Tens rugby festival. A spin-off from the mightily successful Cape Town Tens festival (the biggest Tens rugby festival in the world), the Jozi Tens festival kicked off on Friday 14th September, fittingly with dark, heavy skies reminiscent of a Cape Town winter. Not knowing how 7’s Rugby differs in rules to regular 15-man rugby, the explanation that Tens rugby “is the same as 7’s, but with 10 men”, didn’t help me in the slightest. What I didn’t realise is that the Jozi Tens wasn’t just about the rugby, it’s an entire entertainment experience.
7 players, 10 players, 15 players – it doesn’t seem to matter, there are crunching tackles at every turn and, every so often, the ball will pop out from under a pile of men and be tossed to a nimble-footed giant who dashes down the line to score a try. The entire Jozi Tens tournament is geared around entertainment. Games are a mere 10 minutes per half and provide much more “running rugby” action than a regular game.
On the pitch, the players were out to win, but still managed to keep in the social spirit of the game by donning colourful wigs and massive American flag hats. With team names like “Disco Ninjas”, “Southern Faakers” and the “Zamalek Zulus”, you just know the object of the weekend was fun. However, it was the flatly named “MK Rage” team that ultimately beat the SA Rugby Legends in the final, doing what every other team had failed to do – steal points off some of the grand old dames of South African rugby.
However, it is the action off the pitch that provides the most entertainment at Tens rugby. Think music festivals, beer festivals and a beach party all rolled into one. Sadly, the “beach party” aspect didn’t materialize at Jozi Tens – perhaps it was something to do with the hail and rain on Friday night and the chilly temperatures on Saturday, but there was a distinct lack of bikini babes and shirtless jocks.
The beer hall action kicked off on Friday night with awesome live music provided by Me and Mr Brown, covering rock classics from across the ages. These guys have cemented their reputation at the Cape Town Tens tournament and they had most of the beer hall up on their feet, dancing like nobody was watching.
DJ Sox threw out the dance tunes as the hall filled up with party-goers, many dressed up for the “Tight and Bright” dress-up competition. And tight and bright many of them were. Fluorescent colours abounded, as did tighty whitey shorts, but my vote of the night had to go to the Morph Suit men. Anybody brave enough to wear a fluorescent body suit deserves a prize. Ard Matthews and Gareth Cliff both kept the Friday night party going and there’s no doubt there were going to be some very hungover rugby players on Saturday morning.
The Jozi Tens was a fabulous entertainment experience for the whole family and there is no doubt that, like the Cape Town Tens, it is going to cement its place on the Johannesburg sport and entertainment calendar. For those that can’t wait another year for the action, get yourself down to Cape Town for the 2013 tournament, on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd February. Blue skies, cold beer and hot bodies are guaranteed!
Many thanks to Getaway Magazine who sponsored our attendance at the 2012 Jozi Tens tournament; however, as always, all opinions and viewpoints are strictly our own.
Way back in 2010, we watched a fabulous movie called “Whip It”, directed by Drew Barrymore. The movie focused on a shy, retiring character called “Bliss” who discovers the sport of roller derby and, to her surprise, finds out she’s quite good at it. We thoroughly enjoyed the movie – girls racing round a track on roller skates, wearing short clothes and touting stage names like “Maggie Mayhem”. The movie was fun, but we didn’t give it a second thought and didn’t even think that roller derby existed outside the USA.
Fast-forward to 2012 and a friend of mine Facebook invited us to South Africa’s second roller derby. What? It turns out that roller derby is alive and well in South Africa, thanks to a visionary lady who not only watched “Whip It”, but who believed there was a market for it in South Africa and made it her mission to start a league here.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Wembly Arena, in Johannesburg’s industrial south inner city on a cold Saturday night, trying to decide whether we’d be rooting for the Raging Whoremones or the Thundering Hellcats in the C-Max Death Row Demolition Derby. Roller derby is a counter-culture unto itself and a big part of the sport revolves around team names, individual names and outfits.
The Raging Whoremones took to the track with bright pink helmets, button-down mini-dresses and, in many cases, leopard print panties. Fish-net stockings appeared to be optional! The Thundering Hellcats were kitted out in bandy yellow socks, equally short skirts and shorts, facial war-paint and kitty-ear-themed breast-plates (well, that’s what they looked like from the stands).
Not personally knowing any of the skaters, we really weren’t rooting for one team over the other, but in the first half (lasting 30 mins), it became pretty clear that the Thundering Hellcats were whipping the Raging Whoremones, so we chose to root for the Whoremonal underdogs! Teams consist of 5 skaters and points are scored when one nominated skater (known as the jammer and identified by the star on her helmet) breaks through the group of cyclists to lap the track ahead of the other team’s jammer.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but when there are 4 members (sometimes, er, substantially sized) of the opposing team trying to block the jammer’s progress, things can get a little messy. Pushing, shoving, elbowing and tripping up all seem to be part of the game – you do what you can to stop the opposing jammer breaking through.
Gasps of “Ooooh”, “Ahhhh” and “Ouch!” rang out from the 1000-odd spectators each time a skater took a fall – and there were some heavy, heavy falls. How there were no broken bones is anybody’s guess. Miraculously, only one skater was escorted off the track with medical assistance but I’m guessing most girls would be sporting some pretty impressive bruises the next day.
At half-time, the Thundering Hellcats had a substantial points lead over the Raging Whoremones, thanks mostly to the offensive, “go get ‘em” approach of their jammers. The second half bought a performance reversal though as we screamed and cheered for the Raging Whoremones, who started skating equally aggressively and stole a narrow victory from right under the Hellcats’ noses.
We’re not sure when the next South African roller derby will be, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be down there to cheer on the teams! Come to think of it, it’s the kind of sport I could see myself doing, but I bruise so easily I’d be terrified of the shape I’d be in afterwards! On reflection, I’ll stick to a supporter’s role – it’s so much safer!
People frequently have incorrect, preconceived ideas about Johannesburg and South Africa. One is that we have lions roaming the streets; another is that if you go into downtown Johannesburg you’re likely not to make it out alive; another is that South Africa is always hot and sunny.
I really don’t wish to burst your bubble, but that last one could not be further from the truth today. Yes, it’s winter (we’re in the Southern Hemisphere remember? Something I continually have to remind my American friends about) and yes, it’s cold – but yesterday it snowed. Snow. Fluffy, white, freezing stuff in Johannesburg!
We’re not just talking about a few flakes here and there, we’re talking about persistent snowfall for a good hour or so – enough to make snow angels, snowmen, throw snowballs with and for our puppies to have the time of their lives in.
All around Johannesburg people were pulling over at the roadsides, whipping out cameras and clicking photographs. Cashiers from supermarkets were outside the shops shrieking with joy; children were let out of class early and in downtown Johannesburg, immigrant Africans were dashing out to cars and having their photos taken next to the snowy windscreens.
We were lucky in our part of Johannesburg, we received more snow than most, but alas, it had melted within the hour, leaving only damp lawns and muddy footprints as evidence. For that hour though, it was wonderful to be able to feel like a kid again – full of wonder and amazement at the beauty of snow and excited about being alive!
Next time you’re travelling to South Africa, don’t just assume that it’s going to be sunny and hot. Check the weather forecast as you might just need to bring your ski gear along!
They came from Russia, the Ukraine and Khayelitsha. Acrobats, drag queens and skipping skeletons. Whether you’re looking for some risqué humour or jaw-dropping acrobatics, Madame Zingara’s has it all.
Started in Cape Town in 2001, Madame Zingara’s was a whimsical restaurant that firmly established itself as a local favourite. Tragically, the restaurant burnt down 5 years later and, in 2007, re-launched as a Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams. Hosted in the very first Spiegel tent to hit African shores, and propped up by 1000 bevelled mirrors, Madame Zingara’s is pulling in hundreds of people each night – 420 to be exact – to eat, drink and be merry.
We joined the excited guests on Friday night, after having had to book two months in advance. My partner Davina had no idea what she was in for and my impression of what the evening would hold swung somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and a dinner cabaret show. We’d heard that dressing up for Madame Zingara’s was de rigeur, so I’d dutifully visited China Mall and topped up on beads, boas and basher hats (sparkly, of course).
Our visual senses were overwhelmed at every turn – flashing hearts, swinging tea-cups, giant lollypops and gilded carriages greeted us as we entered the lobby. Inside the tent, we were shown to our table and offered complimentary vodka, mint and lime cocktails. With a full house booked, thankfully the service worked like clockwork and in a flash our Mediterranean-inspired mezze platter and espresso-cup starter of butternut soup was served to warm us up.
The El Milagro show opened with a compere who welcomed “old faces, new faces and old faces with new faces”, setting the tone for an evening of humour. A pair of acrobats set the tone, swinging from the tent’s centerpiece chandelier with nary a safety harness in sight. In between the Russian gymnasts, the Ukrainian chair balancer and South Africa’s biggest Dream Girls trio, we feasted on butternut ravioli (heart-shaped, natch), a lamb shank that literally melted in my mouth and a trio of granadilla (passion-fruit) pannacotta, chocolate mousse and raspberry sponge.
The glittering MC of the evening came close to stealing the show. Cathy Specific is South Africa’s “First Lady of Flight” and, with her two Trolley Dollies (Molly and Holly) kept the audience in stiches for most of the night. Sadly, there was a table behind us who couldn’t appreciate a “cock in a frock” and Cathy’s tale of reporting a “bumper lashing” at the local police station flew over many people’s heads (“Only the gay audience members got that”, observed Cathy).
The evening ended with a wonderful display by talented local artists. There was the gymnast who had us gasping as she rolled down from the roof of the tent, stopped from falling by only two broad ribbons and the skipping skeletons, three local lads from a Cape Town township who knew their way around skipping ropes like no-one we’d ever seen before. The stage was then cleared for the audience to take to the floor and dance the night away, which we did with much enthusiasm.
If you’re still debating whether or not to treat yourself to a night with the Madame (with ticket prices from R410 – R495 you may be thinking twice about booking) let me give you three words of advice – just do it. But you’d better be quick. At the end of August the Madame packs up her mirror tent and heads back to Cape Town, so phone them now and you might just get to party with the cast in August.
There is no doubt that Cape Town is home to some of the best restaurants in South Africa. Of 2011’s Top 10 South African restaurants, the Western Cape hosts 9 of the Top 10, with 5 of these being in Cape Town itself. Nobu makes the list and, as a speciality sushi and Japanese restaurant, must rate as one of the top places in Cape Town to eat sushi.
Not everybody can afford fine dining and Michelin-starred restaurants though, which is why my personal favourite for the freshest sushi in Cape Town has to be Beluga. Each year we make a pilgrimage to Cape Town for the Argus cycle tour and each year, we make a point of stopping past Beluga for a leisurely afternoon of sushi, dim sum and cocktails.
Beluga has hit on what has to be a winning combination – fine dining, excellent service and a daily half-price special. Judging by the popularity of Beluga, we’re not the only ones who appreciate the afternoon specials. An extensive selection of home-made dim sum and sushi platters are available for half-price every day from 12:00 noon till 6pm.
The outside courtyard is the perfect place in summer to enjoy Cape Town’s warm afternoons, but in winter, the large indoor seating area will ensure that you are kept warm and dry. We started our lunch by ordering a selection of dim sum dishes. With combinations like prawns & coridander, beef ragout & mozzarella and duck & barbeque sauce, it’s tempting to order the entire menu.
We settled on beef fillet, ginger and barbeque sauce cha siu baau (steamed buns) and prawn & coriander deep-fried wontons. The steamed buns were light, fluffy and literally melted in our mouths. The home-made prawn wontons were jammed full of delicious prawn filling and were crisp and perfectly fried. If you’ve never tried dim sum before, these are a great introduction.
One of the specials that have made Beluga famous is their half-price sushi platters and the “Blonde” platter in particular has been a perennial favourite. We ordered a platter to share and our mouths watered as 24 pieces of sushi and sashimi were placed in front of us for a measly R119 ($15). The tuna and salmon sashimi was melt-in-your mouth fresh and the caviar-topped sushi roses exploded with flavour at each bite.
Personally, I don’t drink, but my partner assured me that the Toblerone Martini (R22 or $7.50, at half-price) was delectable and the Blood Orange Coconut Mojito, Caramello Pear and Bellini Passion Fruit cocktails sound delicious enough to tempt even myself. My sweet tooth had to settle for the trade-mark jelly beans that accompanied our bill, a small part of the 4000kg’s of jelly beans that Beluga uses annually!
The 2013 Argus tour seems a long way away and we might have to schedule another trip to Cape Town before that, to satisfy our Beluga sushi and dim sum fetish!
Beluga is located at The Foundry, Prestwick Street, Green Point, in Cape Town.
London is one of those cities I always love to visit. If there is an opportunity to stop off for even a few hours in transit or for a single night, I’ll absolutely do it. “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life”, quotes Samuel Johnson and it’s a quote that many travellers will agree with.
Finding suitable accommodation in London can be a daunting task. It can also be a relatively expensive exercise if you look only at hotel options. Consider the possibility of self catering apartments in London or a bed & breakfast option if your budget is limited.
With London being such a thriving, diverse and huge city, it’s almost impossible to know what to do or where to start on your first visit, or when you have a limited amount of time. Here are some of my favourite London stops (in no particular order):
Lillywhites Sports Store
You have yet to convince me that there is a better sports store anywhere in the world. Lillywhites provides sports lovers like myself with 5 floors of pure, unadulterated sport porn. There’s a football floor housing every replica footy shirt you can imagine, an outdoor sportswear floor and, best of all a sale floor. Yep, the best thing about Lillywhites is the ongoing sale. It doesn’t seem to matter what day of the year you visit, there is always a sale on and the knock-down prices will leave your jaw gaping – even if you do have a horrible exchange rate conversion. Find them at Picadilly Circus, easily accessible on the Picadilly or Bakerloo tube lines.
Oxford Street is a perfect one-stop shopping street. Littered with sports stores galore (yes, I’m obsessed. So what?), electronics stores, souvenir stores and retail and fashion giants such as H&M, Next, Selfridges and Gap, this is the only shopping street you’ll ever need in London. Put on your walking shoes prepare to shop ‘till you drop
Harrod’s Food Hall
Harrod’s, perhaps the most famous department store in London, houses one of the most enticing collections of food ever. I find it difficult to stay away from their extravagant food emporium. Divided into multiple sections over an entire floor, each section is dedicated to a particular foodstuff. Whether you are looking for seafood, charcuterie meats, chocolates or cheeses, the selections and displays will leave your mouth watering. Each section has a dedicated food bar where you can order lunch and watch the shoppers go by.
One of the things I love about London are the lovely parks. Whilst the streets can be cold, grey and concrete, you don’t have to walk far to find a patch of green. In summer you will find any available patch of grass strewn with locals who are soaking up the sun, eating lunch, reading a book or just watching the world go by. Hyde Park is one of the bigger and more popular parks in London and is home to recent memorials honouring Diana, Princess of Wales and the victims of the 7th July 2005 London Bomb blasts. It’s a great place to wander and soak up the natural environment.
City Lights at Night
Night-time can transform a city. The veil of darkness can hide a city’s least attractive attributes and a string of lights can make it the most enticing place on earth. Not that London is the least bit unattractive, but Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge all shimmer and shine at night. The London Eye makes for fantastic photographic opportunities, both from within the capsules and as a star photographic attraction itself. Take your tripod and hit the streets after dusk to see London come alive.
This is a sponsored post, but all opinions and experiences expressed in this post are the author’s own.
No visit to Rome is complete without a trip to the Vatican City. With all there is to see and do in St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, you’d do well to allocate an entire day to your visit. You’ll want to spend at least 4 nights in Rome and there is no shortage of accommodation options, from 5* hotels for the luxury traveller, or Rome holiday apartments for budget-conscious traveller. We were fortunate enough to stay in the Visconti Palace hotel, courtesy of our travel club and found it to be a great, central base.
Taking an organized tour of the Vatican is undoubtedly the best way to see this historical and religious landmark. You’ll get to bypass the inordinately (even in winter) long queues and a professional tour guide will give you far more insight and knowledge than you could possibly gain on your own or through an audio tour.
Our tour started in the Vatican Museums, staring at the most impressive collection of marble statues and busts. It is estimated that there are so many treasures in the Vatican, that if you spent just 60 seconds looking at each one, it would take you 12 years to view each piece.
The statue of Laocoön and His Sons was particularly fascinating. Estimated to date back to 25BC, the statue was unearthed in 1506, with Laocoön’s right arm missing. Michelangelo (yes, he of the Sistine Chapel) proposed that the missing right arm was bent behind his head. Raphael (yes, the Renaissance painter) adjudged that the right arm was extended upwards and a replacement, extended arm was attached to the statue.
In 1906, an archaeologist discovered a bent marble arm in a Roman building yard and, believing it to be Laocoön’s arm, he donated it to the Vatican Museums. It lay in the museum storerooms for 50 years until the Vatican decided that perhaps, after all, Michelangelo had been right and affixed the bent arm to the statue.
Many of the museum rooms are dedicated to particular items, for example the Map Room, where the map of Venice is exactly correct, even though it was first drawn hundreds of years ago. Interestingly, each map was drawn with the assumption that Italy was the centre of the universe so many maps are “upside down” relative to what they should be.
A great addition to our tour was the chance to enter the “Vatacombs”, the underground part of the Vatican where the tombs of former Popes are located. Unsurprisingly, no photographs were allowed in this area and for many people this is perhaps the most religious part of the tour. Yes, even I kneeled at the tomb of Pope John Paul II and crossed myself!
Both the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica are highlights of the Vatican City. The size of St Peter’s is awe-inspiring and the focal points are both the central dome and the massive baldacchino, designed by Bernini. An optional extra to most tours is to take the lift and then climb the steps to the roof of St Peters. Affording 360° views of Rome, most impressive are the statues of Christ, 11 of the Apostles and John the Baptist. The sheer size of these statues makes you realize how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Be prepared to be amazed by all the Vatican has to offer and set aside at least an entire day to explore all the treasures – you’ll be glad you did!
This is a sponsored post, but all opinions and experiences expressed in this post are the author’s own.
Paris. The name conjures up visions of love….and food. Well, it does in my mind at least. So when the opportunity arose to take the Eurostar from London, to spend a weekend in Paris, we leaped at the opportunity. Long summer nights, wandering down the Champs-Élysées and munching on croissants, what could be better?
With only 48 hours to make the most of one of the world’s most visited cities, we had to hit the ground running. Luckily a cousin of ours, who has lived in Paris for many years, was on hand to show us the sights and sounds. Thanks to our family connection, we didn’t have to look far for a place to stay, but if you’re short of Parisian friends, there is no shortage of hotels or Paris apartments to rent for the weekend.
Hungry and thirsty after an early morning Eurostar trip, we headed to the local supermarket to pick up a feast of food. Colourful fruits, crusty breads, delicious patés and more cold meat and cheese than we’d ever seen before greeted us. In South Africa, we’d have to have visited a specialty store to sample such delicacies.
In truth, you need way more than 48 hours to make the most of Paris, but we did what we could. Many guidebooks made mention of a visit to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, in Montmarte. Situated on the highest point in the city, it serves both as a Roman Catholic Church and a political and cultural monument. A good pair of walking shoes comes highly recommend, you’ll be walking up some steep cobbled streets and a significant number of stairs to reach the summit! We were there in the height of summer, so the steps of the Basilica were crowded with tourists and locals alike, unwinding on a Friday afternoon and enjoying the slowly setting sun.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is every bit as impressive as it is made out to be. The detail in the architecture is nothing short of amazing and the gargoyles keep a watchful eye around each wall and parapet. After a quick, brief glance inside the cathedral, we briefly toyed with the idea of climbing up to the top of the towers for a sweeping view of Paris. However, mention of climbing 387 steps (there is no lift like there is in the Vatican!) in the muggy heat, combined with the queue that snaked around the cathedral and down the road soon put paid to that idea.
No trip to Paris would be complete without two things – a viewing of the Mona Lisa and a trip up the Eiffel Tower. In truth, we could happily have skipped a trip to the Louvre, but a sudden attack of culture from our teenage son had us joining the crowds, staring at the postage stamp size picture that is the Mona Lisa. We didn’t get what the fuss was about – she’s small, non-descript and not particularly attractive either. And what’s with that smile? But, it was something else ticked off the list and at nightfall we set off up the Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I think that most cities look best at night. The dark skies eliminate the smog, dirt and dull grey buildings and a scattering of lights makes every city look like a fairy tale. Paris is no different and the 360° view afforded by the top viewing platform of the Eiffel Tower is breathtaking. We could have spent hours staring into the sparkling lights that truly did make Paris feel like the City of Love. Alas, our trip had to come to an end far too soon, but I’m sure we’ll find another reason soon to visit Paris again.
This is a sponsored post, but all opinions and experiences expressed in this post are the author’s own.