28 February 2015

pilzen - the european capital of culture

Fotogalerie k volnému využití

Have you thought about a short break trip this year? Its a trend that is now as popular and relevant as a main holiday these days. Jetting off for a short break away from the humdrum of modern life. Well may I suggest a place for you if still unsure? Lying in the West of the Czech Republic - Pilsen is a city that is putting itself firmly on the European map due to it being the European Capital of Culture 2015. I am a bit bias in recommending it as I once lived near there in a small village called Plasy and had some wonderful experiences. So today's post is a snapshot guide to this lesser known Czech gem, which is now vying for tourist trade among the more famous Czech cities of choice.  

Hidden City?  
Pilzen is easily accessed from the Czech Capital by road or rail (about an 1 hour drive) and is nestled in the West Bohemia region, close to the German border. The city is surrounded by bountiful amounts of woodland and picturesque hills, and has a population of around 170,000. Its a city that is once more attracting visitors because of its vibrancy, youthfulness and wonderful hospitality. Have I mentioned beer yet? 

Fotogalerie k volnému využití

So what does it offer? Well it's centrepiece is St Bartholomew's Cathedral and Republic Square, where major events take place and people gather in the cafes and bars. It's complemented by having modern, futuristic fountains (see the image above). Gothic meets modernist attitudes perhaps? Climb up the cathedrals tower to give you a panoramic view of the square, the city and woodlands beyond.

Wandering the streets
When I lived there I enjoyed nothing more than wandering around the streets, frequenting the cafes and bars. I will never forget seeing people drinking large glasses of beer for breakfast! The city also boasts some fabulous gardens, a perfect place to relax on a summers day. Hidden alleyways and majestic buildings like the Great Synagogue, theatre and the railway station add grandeur and aesthetic pleasure to your wandering eye. Is it me or is there something special about busy, bustling railway stations, especially traditional, old style European ones? 

How to Enjoy Pilsen at the Weekend during the Festival of Lights?
Looking towards Pilzen centre
Beer, beer If there is one place to visit that should not be missed then it's the cities most famous export and attraction; The Brewery. Who hasn't heard of Pilsner Urquell? Pilzen of course is the home of beer and the brewery tour is a must, as is a drink or three of the amber nectar in the brewery bar afterwards. The best beer in the world? Probably. Lets debate about that. To throw my pennies worth in. When I lived there I did comparison tests of various Czech beers from different regions (like you do!) and always came back to Pilsner Urquell. 

Beyond the beer halls
Pilzen offers so much more besides. Exciting night life, from beer halls to bars, cinemas to museums. Sport is also extremely important. Viktoria Plzen are the local football team and have in recent times become very successful, we're talking Champions League standard. Ice hockey is also popular. Basically it has something for everyone, whether young or old, keen on design or history, food or drink. 

So there you are, brief but hopefully its wetted your appetite. Hopefully I'll do some more in-depth analysis in future posts? But take it from me, spend a weekend here and you won't be disappointed. I promise.


My thanks goes to brilliant marketing team (Helena, thank you) from the Visit Plzen site for use of the pictures and advice. (The last time I visited Pilzen digital cameras were just a distant idea!) 

The link to their website is given below which gives you a comprehensive guide to the events taking place this year. So please take a look.


20 February 2015

Up the Worlds Tallest Tree

As towers go then this must be the ultimate one, what with it being the worlds tallest. Rising to a height of 634m (2080 ft) Tokyo SkyTree should be a must on any visitors itinerary to the big city. Its not just about getting a great view from the two observation decks you can go too but also because it can be part of a day's experience, with enough to keep you occupied for many an hour. So here is why it should be the first place you visit when coming to Tokyo.

Tokyo SkyTree sits rather awkwardly, alone without other skyscrapers to keep it company, unlike its now dwarfed cousin Tokyo Tower. Because of this SkyTree dominates the landscape and when close up is an imposing site, reaching up and touching the sky. Once inside you are welcomed by friendly attendants and large queues. Its advisable to pre-book your tickets to jump the queue (link to a really good website is given below). You are then whisked up to the Tembo deck thats at the 350m (1148 ft) mark. From there you have panoramic views of the giant metropolis extending ever outwards, Mt Fuji and the mountains far into the distance (as long as the weather is good of course).  There is also the obligatory (in towers anyway) glass bottomed floor to stand on, not for the faint hearted that part.

You can go further, up to 450m (1476 ft) and take the Tembo Galleria, a spiralling walk the takes you up to a more conventional observation deck. I hope that the pictures do it justice? The views are amazing and although very crowded you should get an opportunity to have a little time to observe and take in the surroundings. There are also interactive screens that help to point out key features and will keep the children amused. Cafes, gift shops and a restaurant attempt to keep you there for as long as possible. If these don't take your fancy, you could easily spend a good hour perched on top of the tallest tree just looking out. Although not cheap, just over 2000 yen for adults, its still well worth the expense. Once you've conquered the tower your day doesn't end there, oh no. There's shopping and eating to be done! Well it is Tokyo and Japan.

Tokyo SkyTree Town is a niche shopping mecca. Quirky outlets selling fashion and gifts, speciality foods and cinematic experiences can be had here, and large amounts of your cash if not careful! Theres also the very popular Studio Ghibli store with all your favourite characters such a Totoro. It all adds up to a rather fabulous day out. So why should Tokyo SkyTree be number one on your list? Because its cleverly managed, shops and restaurants, cafes and other gimmicks help to keep you there for as long as possible. And at the end of the day its just a tower with a view but boy its one hell of a view!

Do you agree? Let me know if you've been there and if its all its cracked up to be? 

Next from Sketches in Travel: We head back to Europe and a city that will get lots of exposure this year.   

17 February 2015

Pub Brawls and Fete Stalls

Case 2: On the Trail of the Yellow Fingernail - Part 3

The Next Day

After the meeting in the shed I was ordered to go home and start prepping. Wasn't exactly sure for what but still it was a chance to grab some extra sleep. The next morning I was rudely awoken by the alarm and after a sluggish walk down the stairs discovered Mr Kiln once again drinking a cup of tea in our kitchen. Without a moments hesitation he spoke.

"There is a meeting being held in the pub at 11am. All the village is invited. Make sure you are there and ready to start investigating. Some new evidence has come to light but I now feel the rest of the village should know. It's far worse than we first feared". 

And with that he was gone. I looked at Mother, who just shrugged her shoulders and went about her business. Must be serious I thought, and with that attacked my scrambled eggs with renewed velour. 

At The Swan

I arrived at the pub to find everyone already there; and in rather good spirits. Having it seemed, all been given free beer! A table was positioned in the centre which behind stood PC Bob Pig, Mr Kiln and the tramp Mr Partridge. Mr Kilns henchman. Whatever he was he still stank. A hush suddenly befell the room and Mr Kiln spoke, after clearing his throat and blowing his nose; rather too loudly for many in the room.

"Ladies, Gents and others (looking at Mr Partridge, who had taken to eating some pork scratchings). Early this morning I found a note in my office". I could hear people mumbling, saying they thought his office was a shed. 

"All it states is that they have all the fetes stalls and its signed by someone called The Yellow Fingernail". 

Gasps of surprise filled the room, many took a swig of their beer. Mrs Bentley fainted, hitting a table as she did, spilling Mr Johnsons beer, who hated spilling his beer and angrily reacted; pushing others to get at Mrs Bentley. Some didn't like the pushing, more beer was spilt and a scuffle ensued. Meanwhile Mrs Bentley awoke to a battle royal between a number of the crowd. Fearing she would be blamed she felt it better to pretend being unconscious, that way avoiding any further accusation. After what seemed an age the fighting stopped, probably because Mr Partridge had decided to join in. He really did stink. The smell enough to stop anyone from fighting. 

Mr Kiln continued "Mr Wilson over there", pointing to me, "is going to investigate this most heinous of crimes and shall try to retrieve our stalls and capture this criminal. The fete will go ahead".

And with that he marched me out of the pub and handed me a scribbled letter of instructions (above). With a final shove he turned and went back inside to his beer. 

So the village had finally recognised my true worth given me the chance to prove myself. With a little skip of delight I headed for home, pulled out my dusty detecting blue coat and went out to my 50cc scooter. So they were headed for Hemel. I'd never been there (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It was one of those new towns, all modern buildings and no heart). I kick started my scooter and headed off in pursuit of The Yellow Fingernail. Which wasn't very quickly as the 50cc engine wasn't the most powerful. I'd probably get there quicker by walking. I passed the pub again, as it was on-route. A small crowd had gathered and were waving me on my journey. It almost felt like they couldn't wait for me to leave! Putting this thought to the back of my mind I crawled away from the pub and so started my pursuit of the Yellow Fingernail. 

Coming soon: Part 4 - Fancy Some Chips? 


12 February 2015

Anpanman: The Museum for kids

Tucked away on the edge of the harborland development in Kobe lies a museum that for any 4 year old is nothing short of heaven; especially if you love the cartoon character that it's based on; Anpanman

Anpanman is the brainchild of Takashi Yanase, who created the character in 1968 as a manga series, publishing his first works in 1973. In 1988 it became a childrens TV favourite and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of characters in an animation series. Thats 1768 different characters across 900+ episodes! And probably more now? Among the many favourites are the following;

Characters include; Anpanman, Dokinchan, Baikinman, Horrorman (right) and Uncle Jam, amongst the many more! 

Although the museum is not unique (there is one in Yokohama), it's still a major attraction in Kobe and signs (Anpanman faces) lead you from the station to the museums entrance. From there on in its all about the kids and Anpanman. Shops, shows, themed cafes and restaurants entice the visitor to stay for as long as possible (a good old tourism trick). Once in the museum itself there are themed areas for the children to play in, characters to climb on and other displays that allow the children to run around, touch and drive; all helping to bring these popular images into a realistic, playful world. They also show some of the cartoons and there is again an appearance from the hero in a short live show. It all adds up to a 3 to 4 hour feast of Anpanman fun (for the kids). And a rest for the parents. Although I felt just as tired having to keep up with the constant moving around. So as an attraction it gets a big thumbs up from me, even though its not the cheapest attraction in the area; 1500 yen entry fee! (see last weeks post for cheaper and more adult themed attractions ). 

This got me thinking about the role that manga and anime characters play in Japanese culture. It transpires they are incredibly important. At each stage in a child's development there is a character that they can relate to, Anpanman being one of them, going onto more complex figures and I include Godzilla in that. They help to give an insight into Japanese life, the culture, the customs ect. A doorway for the rest of the world into this unique culture. All too often it seems that a certain type of anime is all that is portrayed to the world (I'm sure you know what I mean?), and that gives a false impression. Japanese manga and anime covers so much more, it can be gentle, educational and just plain fun. So here's to Anpanman, a childrens favourite, lets applaud its place amongst the anime world.  

Do you agree? Have you ever seen or heard of Anpanman? To get more information about the attraction please follow the link (especially if you have kids!). 


5 February 2015

Kobe - the city that arose from the ashes

Kobe Harbour area
Kobe lies south-west of Osaka along the Southern coastline and is among one of Japan's ten largest cities. It is a city that has risen from the ashes, having been hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Five thousand people were killed and thousands of buildings destroyed. It is hard to believe that now as you walk the streets because it is once again a thriving and beautiful port city. Different in feel to Hiroshima, Kobe is a city that seems to sweep down from the nearby mountains and onto the seafront. When you survey the high rise buildings and tightly packed houses, you marvel at just how they managed to rebuild the city. For this post the main emphasis and recommendations will feature the harbour area, as this was where we explored. I'm sure there are many other wonderful places in and around Kobe but that is for another day. 

When you arrive at the port area you are greeted with modern buildings and open spaces with views across the harbour and out into the open waters. Here is where you'll find Harborland, with its Ferris wheel, restaurants and Meriken Park with Kobe Tower and the maritime museum. You can happily spend a day in this area, and when the sun is shining there may be no better place to chill out, away from more typically chaotic city centre? Kobe Tower (around 700 yen) is the most prominent feature and from the top the views out across to Osaka (to the left as you look toward the sea) and Kobe to right, give you a great perspective of this developed landscape. Across from the tower and park lies the shopping and restaurant area, appropriately named Harborland. Here there are small boutiques and restaurants as well as a museum for the extremely popular cartoon character Anpanman. Again its easy to spend a good amount of time there, especially in the museum if you have young children (more on that next week). So here are my five things to do in a day:

Kobe Tower

* Kobe Tower - for around a 1000 yen you can also visit the maritime museum 
* Marine Museum
* Visit the shops, restaurants and cafes of Harborland
* For children: A visit to Anpanman Museum
* Chill out in Meriken Park

Away from the harbour, if you have some time to spare before catching your Shinkansen then why not take a hike up the Rokko mountain chain. Signs from the Shin-Kobe station lead you to the hiking trails and if you are of the energetic type, after a short climb you won't be disappointed with the views (see below) as Kobe appears before you. If you are prepared to spend a bit of time you can reach the Nunobiki waterfall. There is a cable car that takes you to an observation point high in the mountain,so if you have time then its certainly an option worth considering. Either way you will not be disappointed and is a great way to stretch those legs and get a different perspective of this wonderful city. So there is a snapshot of Kobe. Its a pleasant city with enough to keep any traveler occupied for a day or two and should be on any adventurers list of places to visit whilst in Japan. If you have been let me know what you think of this reborn city.

Next week we look at the Anpanman attraction, the perfect place for those of a younger age. 



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