Building work on Palma Cathedral or, to give it it’s full name, the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, started in 1229 and wasn’t finished until 1601. It’s Catalan Gothic style has undergone work and changes throughout the centuries to bring it to the point it’s at today. It has one of the largest rose windows in the world (known as the Gothic Eye) and is the main focus of Palma’s coastline, overlooking the Parc de la Mer and the port.
As often happens with me and tourist attractions, I got so engrossed that I couldn’t stop looking at it and taking photographs. Even though we passed it multiple times during our short stay, I never tired of marvelling at the detail or the sheer scale of the building.
In truth, for me, the outside was probably more impressive than the inside, purely from an aesthetic point of view. I mean, just look at that detail! The intricate carvings and turrets are incredible. But the Gothic Eye and other stained glass windows are very beautiful and bathe the light stone interior in lots of colours, and for just 7 euros entrance fee it’s certainly worth a visit.
It’s also possible to book a tour of the cathedral terraces, which aren’t open to the general public, but we didn’t get chance on this occasion.
I’m quite the fan of going away for May Bank Holiday weekend – you get an extra day “free” and generally the weather in Europe is better than at home so its good time to soak up a bit of culture and avoid the wash out that is usually a UK bank holiday.
Imagine my chagrin then, when the weather forecast in the lead up to our weekend in Palma last month was predicting rain, while the UK was in for a heatwave? That’s not how it’s supposed to work! (although, thinking about it, our May Bank Holiday trip to Lyon a couple of years ago came with rain and wind, although at least the UK had the decency to be having the same weather at home).
Ever the optimist (seriously, I’m the kind of person who will look through ALL the weather forecasts until I find one I like!) off we went on our early morning flight to Palma with me declaring it would “all be fine” and if it does rain “it won’t last long”.
Well, it was raining when the plane touched down, raining when we left airport arrivals and absolutely torrentially bucketing down by the time the taxi dropped us off at our hotel about an hour later. It was too early to check in and we were only in the city for 3 nights so we left our luggage at the hotel, dug out our brollies and headed out into the narrow cobbled street (me in open toed sandals, told you I’m an eternal optimist, I didn’t pack any wet weather shoes!)
It rained all the way through lunch in Placa Espanya (although I still insisted on sitting outside “because were on holiday” even though we got dripped on from the welcome but not completely covering us awnings) but by the time I’d finished my second goldfish bowl glass of sangria the clouds had started to break and that was that for the whole weekend.
Palma de Mallorca is the capital of Majorca, largest of the Balearic Islands and around 2.5 hours flight from Birmingham. Lots of people land on the island and head straight to the beach resorts, and of course there’s the hideous party town of Magaluf that doesn’t do Majorca’s reputation any favours but the island is very beautiful, with so much more to offer than white sands, cheap beer and a really good climate (arrival day excepted). Just 20 minutes in a taxi from the airport, the capital is a maze of cobbled streets, bright plazas, a bustling harbour with cruise ships coming in and out and the piece de resistance, Palma Cathedral. It has a wealth of great shopping opportunities (we weren’t there to shop, but if you were you wouldn’t be disappointed), some great food and wonderful architecture.
We did our usual open top bus tour to get a feel for the city, wandered through narrow streets, ate delicious ice cream, looked up at the buildings, looked out at the sea, took a train journey away from the city and up through the mountains (more on that in another post) and generally just had a lovely time.
Here are some pics.
We stayed at the Dalt Murada hotel which is in the Gothic Quarter and very well located for the cathedral, seafront and lots of places to eat. It’s a 16th century building situated on a very narrow side street which would, at some point, been lived in by a well to do family. There’s lots of dark wood, stone floors and old paintings, a bright breakfast room opening up on to an internal courtyard (we didn’t eat breakfast in the hotel) and a rooftop terrace with views towards the cathedral. It was reviewed in The Telegraph and I’d say it’s pretty bang on. I’d always rather have a bit of character than a faceless place to stay, given the choice.
Have you ever been to Palma? Or to Majorca? Let me know in the comments!
When I say hidden treasures, I obviously don’t mean in the true sense of the word; the Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain are all very well known Roman attractions. But I was super surprised by their location within the city, and how unobvious they were!
Let me explain. On our first day in Rome we went on a city bus tour. We like to do this on most city breaks because it gives a good feel for the city, the highlights, etc and then we generally go back in our own time to visit the places we want to see. During our bus tour around Rome, the commentary pointed out that both the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps weren’t visible from the bus, and we’d need to get off at the nearest stop and walk to them, which we resolved to do at a later point.
That same afternoon, after lunch, we were wandering around the area near to our hotel and I said we should go the the Pantheon. Do you think we could find it? Even the power of Google maps on my phone wasn’t enough to locate this world famous landmark (admittedly my map reading isn’t the best, I have to get in the map like Joey in Friends). We were tantalisingly close and we knew it but just couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Later on we would find the reason why – it’s tucked away in a piazza with no fanfare or big signs or feel of a huge tourist attraction – it’s just there. We rounded the corner and there it stood in front of us.
The first time we went in was dark, so when we looked up the dome we couldn’t tell whether the black dot in the middle was a window, or something else.
Insisting on returning the next morning, we found that it’s an oculus – an opening into the sky with no glass or covering. Rain falls through the hole and is then carried away by the drains inside the building. I found that pretty amazing; that it’s existed for all those years with such a design. The Pantheon has existed, in it’s current incarnation, since 126 AD.
Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Wow!
I loved the Pantheon. It was possibly one of my favourite buildings in Rome, which is quite a bold boast. Maybe it’s because we tried so hard to find it! Or because we saw it most of all (once we’d come across it the first time it felt like we passed it 3 times a day!) but I never tired of taking photos of it!
It was certainly special enough to be the host to our final lunch, where I ate unctuous lasagne and drank chianti and bathed in winter sunshine and the glory of an amazing trip.
The Trevi fountain is similarly tucked away, more so than the Pantheon (although better signposted). Walking down narrow streets we could hear a hum of people, and then turned a corner and there it was, in all it’s carved, watery glory.
It’s very beautiful, and very crowded – both due to it’s popularity and the limited space (as I said, it’s in a small piazza surrounded on 3 sides by buildings). As such it’s difficult to get many good photos, but just looking at these brings back the amazing memories.
We also went back during the daytime, because I like to squeeze every last drop out of every trip, but I preferred it in the evening because of how beautifully it was lit, and also because the bright sunshine cast shadows over the incredible detail (not that I’m complaining about the sunshine you understand; we were incredibly lucky with the weather and it made everything even better).
And finally, the Spanish Steps, tucked away at the end of a long shopping street (where I spent some of my birthday money on Pandora charms). Again we’d struggled to pinpoint the area, and it was our last stop before our final lunch at the Pantheon, and the poor old husband’s legs and back had given way after days and days of me walking him all over the city.
I didn’t know what to expect and that’s probably to my detriment because I guess I thought it was a tourist attraction in it’s own right, but really it wasn’t. I climbed the steps to the top, because I was there, and the architecture surrounding them is beautiful, but there’s no wow factor as there is in all of the other tourist attractions in the City (and there are a lot). The steps are just steps, and very crowded too.
Trinità dei Monti Cathedral is the imposing building at the top; I didn’t go in but it’s twin spires were very imposing against the beautiful blue sky (there’s me banging on about the weather again).
Long ago, before Rome was even on my radar, I read a blog post which mentioned the Scavi tour, which is the underground necropolis at St Peters Basilica. It isn’t open to the general public – you have to send an email to the Vatican to ask about availability and, if there’s a space (only 250 people are allowed through each day, with a maximum of 12 per tour, compared to the 30,000 per day that visit the Vatican Museums), they will book it for you and send an invoice which you pay online. I kept this piece of knowledge in the travel portion of my brain (which is a lot bigger than, say, the common sense portion) to be used at a future date.
Fast forward then to September 2017, when plans for our trip were taking place, and I unearthed this memory and sent an email directly to the Vatican (I like to think the Pope himself opened and read it) who confirmed our booking in writing, with a request for payment of just 13 euros each. Although neither myself or the husband are of any religious persuasion, we do enjoy religious architecture and history and not missing out on ANYTHING (OK, the latter is just me) so this was a no brainer. We were booked for 1.30pm so it made sense to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in the morning. Checking on the website I found that you can also book and pay for timed museum tickets in advance, which made sense as we knew our itinerary and I guessed that the queues may be quite long (more on that later).
It was another beautiful morning with bright blue sky so we set off on foot across the Ponte Umberto bridge to the other side of the River Tiber. St Peters Basilica is visible from quite a way away, its dome dominating the skyline as you walk down the long wide road towards it.
We were approached a few times by people asking for money; old and disabled brandishing a paper cup towards us, which I found especially disturbing considering the location – isn’t the Church supposed to look after everyone? I was even more disturbed after our museum visit, because the amount of wealth is catch your breath obscene. Perhaps the Vatican City could rely less on harbouring so many priceless historical artefacts and more on looking after it’s own. But that’s a whole other post!
All around the area are ticket touts trying to sell tours, but also lots of tourist information people who are there to offer advice and directions, which was very helpful because, as expected, it’s incredibly busy with hundreds and thousands of people. As we rounded the corner to the street leading up to the museum entrance, our decision to prebook tickets really came into it’s own – the queue was 4 people wide and a good 300 metres long. We approached a tourist information person and showed him our booking, and he advised us to go right to the front, result!
Security is akin to going through an airport; you have to put your belongings in trays that go through an X Ray machine and then walk through a full body scanner (we felt safe everywhere in Rome; all the main attractions had armed police nearby, and the size of their guns would be a deterrent to anyone).
I’ll be honest here, I didn’t really know much about the Vatican Museums. OK, anything. I’m aware of the Sistine Chapel but hadn’t anticipated everything else that made up the attraction, and it was mind blowing, and somewhat overwhelming. We’re talking gallery upon gallery of priceless paintings, tapestries, sculptures, historical artefacts – even the ceilings are complete works of art. The amount of gold leaf was akin to nothing I’ve ever seen and we marveled at how so much of what was on display was completely priceless – how do you insure an Egyptian mummy?!
The sheer volume of stuff, for me, meant that I became a little bit complacent about what I was looking at. In a long narrow gallery full of sculpted busts and statues it became a little bit “oh look, there’s another centuries old piece!” which is bad but understandable, because its impossible to take it all in, and you find yourself drawn to the bigger pieces which means you could be missing out on something amazing next to it because it’s a bit smaller in size.
By selling off even 5% of the collection, the museum would still be an absolutely amazing place to visit but maybe, just maybe, the poor and needy begging outside would have homes to live in and food to eat.
Another thing I was surprised by – it’s a bloody long way to the Sistine Chapel! I’m talking thousands of steps on your FitBit! You keep following the signs, thinking it will be in the next room, or the next room, but instead there’s another gallery of statues, or more irreplaceable artwork and while it’s amazing, I started to think, just get me to the Chapel already! And then, when I got there, another honest admission, I was totally underwhelmed. Like severely “is that it?” Which is probably very heathen like of me and, if I believed in him, I’m sure God would strike me down but I’m not going to pretend I thought it was amazing when I didn’t. I expected it to be a wow moment, which I’m sure for religious people it is, and maybe it was because we’d already seen so much amazing stuff, but in contrast to the bright colours and intricate artwork of the galleries we’d already walked through it was a bit meh (there’s God, trying to strike me down again). For a start off it’s very dull and poorly lit (presumably to protect the paintings) and the ceiling – arguably the main attraction – isn’t at all what I expected it to be; I thought it comprised mainly of the Creation of Adam but actually it’s lots of different paintings in a collage. I know Michaelangelo and this ceiling are highly revered, but it didn’t tick any boxes for me.
I was much more impressed with everything that came before and afterwards.
Every ceiling was incredible!
The walls of this hall were lined with tapestries depicting the Italian coastline and dated back to the 16h century. Look at the ceiling as well!
I would recommend the museum to everyone visiting Rome because it really is quite something; even if you’re an atheist, critical, non arty heathen like me!
After a quick lunch it was time to join the aforementioned Scavi tour; again we were thankful of the tourist information guides as the location wasn’t immediately obvious. More security ensued and we joined our group of 12 people in a courtyard behind St Peters Basilica ready to embark on a part of the Vatican City that not many people get to see.
Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, talking us through the history of how the excavated space came to be. The Vatican commissioned excavations to be carried out there before Pope Pius IX was set to be buried in the space, in the 1940s, expecting to find very little, but archaeologists found a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating all the way back to the 4th century; the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time, and a funerary monument with a casket engraved with wording that translated as Peter is here (Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down in Rome during first century AD and his remains were interred in a tomb on the Vatican Hill. Bone fragments proven to belong to St Peter have been found and are now kept in a shrine deep underground which you get to see on the tour. He’s important because he’s said to be one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and so to religious folk he’s quite a big deal – hence having a whole basilica built in his name).
The necropolis is basically a city of the dead, and was the part of the city where people built mausoleums for their bodies to be interred after death. You can still see the layout of the Roman streets and the decor on the walls of some of the mausoleums (it reminded me, in a way, of parts of Herculaneum which we visited a couple of years ago). It’s crazy to think how old it all is, and that you’re actually walking on centuries old ground. The reason it was built over is because there was a huge fire which destroyed parts of Rome, but because it didn’t cross the River Tiber, this area of the city wasn’t damaged. Emperor Constantine gave the order to build on top of the Necropolis, and it wasn’t disturbed for thousands of years.
It’s very warm in the necropolis (you’re quite a way below ground level) and a lot of the areas are quite small and cramped. The tour takes around an hour and I would wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you’re not a religious person. Strict rules apply – no large bags (they have to checked in at the entrance and collected later), shoulders, arms and legs covered (this is a very religious space, whatever your own beliefs or non beliefs) – this wasn’t a problem for us as we visited in Winter, but one to consider for summer; and no photographs. The pictures below are taken from official sources because, although I wanted my own photos, I also didn’t want to get chucked out for breaking the rules!
You exit the tour in the crypt where lots of previous popes are buried; many of them have their own altars, some were restricted public access and there’s a lot of marble. When you exit the crypt you can enter the Basilica without the need to queue, which was fantastic because by that time of day the queues were thousands of people deep. For that reason alone it’s worth booking the Scavi tour – queue jumping and a behind the scenes look at parts of the Vatican City very few people have ever seen.
Inside the basilica is less impressive than expected, if I’m honest, it’s certainly not up there with the most beautiful places of worship I’ve ever seen (or maybe I was still reeling from the amount of artwork in the Vatican Museums!)
I was much more impressed by the outside, which really is stunning, especially against the clear blue sky. The columns are immense!
The Swiss Guards, who are solely responsible for protecting the Pope and must be of Swiss birth, Roman Catholic and between 19 and 30 years of age, were the only burst of colour against the stone of the building, and very snazzy they looked too!
Would I recommend visiting the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica? Absolutely. But more than the visit, I would wholeheartedly recommend prebooking tickets for the museum and Scavi tour, even more so in high season, to avoid the lengthy queues.
The temple is just outside of the capital, George Town, in the Air Itam area. You can reach it by local bus, the hop on hop off tourist buses, or taxi. We opted for the latter to make the best use of our time and get there as quickly as possible. If you’re accessing the temple from the street then you could quite easily miss the entrance, it’s a little dark passageway which looks like it leads nowhere, through stalls selling cheap bits and pieces, fake clothes and bags, and up a number of stairs. Once we got through this bit we saw that there’s an upper entrance to the temple grounds with a car park, where, in retrospect, the taxi driver could have dropped us. Never mind – all those steps are good for you, and certainly lead to a sense of achievement!
The construction of the temple started in 1890, although further development and building work continues to this day. The temple and connecting areas are now very heavily commercialised, with shops selling trinkets and souvenirs at every opportunity and around every corner (we found this very surprising).Although the temple is free to enter, there are nominal fees to enter certain parts of the development, but these are only a couple of pound each and well worth it.
It probably took us around 90 minutes to get around all areas of the temple; which included a slow amble, stopping off to take lots of pictures, sheltering from a couple of rain showers and climbing all the steps to the highest points possible to make the most of the views below.
The 7 story main pagoda has Chinese, Thai, and Burmese influenced architecture. This was completed in 1930.
This 99ft bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, was built in 2002. A pagoda has since been built around and over the statue, and there is currently scaffold and some work happening around it.
The whole site is a riot of colour, with bright decorations, flowers and gardens.
There are buddhas everywhere! Big, small, printed on tiles – they’re all over the place!
This really was one of the highlights of our entire trip, and certainly is not be missed if you ever visit Penang.
I had planned this post as a standalone to my other Malaysia trip posts as soon as I left the Kapitan Keling mosque in Penang and, in view of the bombing in Manchester, which has now been claimed by Muslim terrorists, today seems the right time to write it.
I love religious architecture; the grand scale, the intricate detail, the commitment to beauty. As I mentioned in my previous Malaysia post, the temples were one of the things I couldn’t wait to visit on our trip. I’m fascinated with churches, despite being a firm atheist, and will always seek out grand religious buildings whenever we’re on a trip.
Yet I’ve never been in a mosque.
On one of our visits to George Town, capital of Penang Island, we walked past the Kapitan Keling mosque – a stark, white building in the middle of the city, with it’s strong arches, rounded domes, and towering minaret.
We took some pictures from the outside and were spotted by a volunteer in the foyer, who invited me in. I was given a scarf to cover my head (I was already dressed conservatively, with my legs and shoulders covered because of the possibility of visiting religious sites, but people who were dressed in strappy tops and shorts were cordially invited in and given clothes to cover themselves) and the young female volunteer began to tell me about the history of the mosque, and more about the Muslim faith.
I was struck by the simplicity of the inside of the mosque. In contrast to churches, and the Buddhist and Thai temples we had visited earlier in our trip, there were no physical depictions of Allah, no decorations or ostentatious shrines.
My guide explained to me that Allah’s physical appearance was never described anywhere in the Koran and so there are no imaginations of what he looks like anywhere – not just in a mosque but in every day life. Also, it is against the religion of Islam for any person or animal be represented in a mosque, part of which is that it can lead to idolatry, and also that there is no distraction during the praying process. Praying is a direct connection between the individual and Allah.
She explained to me about the pre-prayer washing process, which has to be done in a particular order, and that prayer water is inhaled into the nose and mouth for healing and purity reasons. She explained to me about the call to prayer, and prayer times – I incorrectly thought a prayer time had to be adhered to exactly, but she told me that as long as prayer is taken between the first call to prayer time and before the next call to prayer then that’s acceptable. She pointed out the segregated women’s prayer area, showed me the Koran, and read the Islamic prayer which is said to Allah 5 times each day.
It was incredibly enlightening, calming and interesting.
When I left the mosque she gave me some leaflets to take away and, because I’d been gone for a while, the husband joked that I’d been radicalised which is just the kind of sense of humour we have but not quite so funny in view of recent events.
When we got back to the hotel I sat and read the leaflets (more inappropriate radicalisation jokes!) which are designed to dispel some of the myths, rumours and negative press that Islam gets across the world.
Two quotes stand out to me:
“Have you ever wondered why a nun can be covered from head to toe and she’s respected for devoting herself to God, but when a Muslim woman covers, she’s viewed as “oppressed”? Or why a Jew can grow a beard and he’s just practising his faith, and when a Muslim does that, he’s an “extremist”?”
“Would you send your car to a butcher for repair, or a sick child to a florist? Of course not. A butcher is not qualified to repair a car, nor a florist qualified to treat the sick. Likewise, people without Islamic knowledge are not qualified to inform others about Islam. So why is it that people are willing to accept information about Islam from those that do not have the required knowledge?”
I’m not here to preach or change people’s minds, or even to share the content of the leaflets, but the way they approach common misconceptions was definitely an interesting read, and something I believe a lot of people could benefit from reading (EDL and Britain First members, I’m looking at you).
Whenever there’s a terror attack, the level of vitriol towards the Muslim community rises, and it’s so often misplaced – aimed at innocent people who simply believe in a religion and a God who is there for them; in the same way as a Christian or Catholic may believe in religion and God. We don’t turn against Christians when a Christian fundamentalist commits a murderous crime. We don’t see the religions of criminals reported in the news – unless they’re Muslim.
Crimes committed by Muslims in the name of Islam are anything but what they profess to be. They are extremist individuals who have a twisted view of “their” religion and the world at large, and try to justify a thirst for blood and an anger against a perceived threat in the name of a God who would deplore such actions.
Apologies if there are any inaccuracies in my writings about the mosque, but that’s the information as I recall it.