2008 Places Retro (1)

I have had been fortunate to visit some of the most beautiful and exotic destinations in 2008. All have been visited while I was on business, so I have only experienced a short while in these cities, yet even a few short hours have left some indelible impressions. In reverse order, here are numbers 10-6 in my top ten (or eleven) places visited in 2008.

At no. 10 is Liberec, Czech Republic. I spent a week in Liberec in May this year, as I have done for the previous six years. I am a visiting scholar at the Technical University of Liberec, and run a week of study there for the first year students of the European funded University Neisse, made up of Czech, German and Polish students. Liberec is an hour north of Prague near to both the Polish and German borders, in what used to be called the
Sudetenland. Liberec is overlooked by the conical Jested mountain, atop of which is a luxury hotel. There is a ski lift there which takes you up to the ski centre - in 2009 Liberec it will host the World Nordic Ski Championships. The architecture in Liberec is in places an almost inappropriate blend of the old and the new, the mundane and the stunning, the gothic and the avant garde - it has a certain je ne sais qua (OK. That's enough of the foreign words - Editor). I don't think I have ever visited a city with so many different mixes of buildings, all standing next to each other, in splendid proximity. The people are very quiet and reserved, but determined, and once you get to know them, they are warm and friendly toward you. Just a few choice Czech words thrown in here and there, and they beam with smiles - and are your friends for life. Liberec has an excellent zoo, some superb restaurants, bars and cafes, and is surrounded by wooded hills, which are ideal for taking the mountain air.

In 10th equal spot is London, England. I have been to London many times, twice to walk around parts of it on day trips, but usually to travel through it to get to somewhere else. On this occasion I was staying in the East End of London, near to the Docklands, in sight of the famous Pickle (Swiss Re Tower pictured). The conference was Handheld Learning, about which I have blogged elsewhere recently. I went out twice with some friends to an excellent Italian restaurant, the Alba, which made my stay in London surprisingly enjoyable. I didn't get to do much else other than the inside of the conference venue, my hotel room, Old Street tube station and Victoria Coach Station. But there are many things to see and do in London which will take up a month of sundays. There is the London Eye, the Tate Modern, The V and A Museum, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben (St Stephen's Tower), Westminster Abbey, the National Art Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards Parade, and of course Buck House, to name just a few attractions. Shopping in Oxford Street and eating out in one of the many watering holes after a West End show are all a must. One of the visits I have promised myself on a future occasion is to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which I have heard nothing but good reports about.

No. 8 - Cork, Tralee and the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland. I flew into Cork on a cold and blustery day in February for a five night stay in Tralee, near the Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland. Ireland in February is a wild, windswept but very green little world. Our hire car took us down winding roads and country lanes, past spectacular mountain ranges and foaming sea scapes. My stay in Tralee was comfortable but a bit chilly, and the visits to the local hosteleries were a welcome distraction with the roaring fires and strong Irish cider and Guinness taking our minds off the weather. To be fair, the weather was fairly kind to us with only a few rainy intervals. We spent one day, along with the staff and students of the Atlantis Project (Irish, German and Polish computer science students) on a trip down around the Dingle peninsula - the most westerly point in Ireland and an area replete with stoneage history. The cliffs and beaches were windswept and bitterly cold, but they had a stark beauty. The highlight of the day out for me was the visit to the neolithic site known as the Beehive. It was 'back to my roots' for me, because Cork is the birthplace of several of my ancestors. Cork is a great place, and I will one day go back there again, er ... when the weather is more favourable, of course.

No. 7 - Warsaw, Poland. Parts of Warsaw are places you wouldn't want to visit, but some of the old parts of the town (totally rebuilt in the 1950s as replications of the centuries old buildings that were completely destroyed during the Second World War) look beautiful (pictured). I spent some time with a Polish colleague after I had given my keynote speech to the Polish Virtual Universities Conference. He showed me around some of the royal palaces and botanical gardens near the embassy district of Warsaw. The Royal Castle and the famed Bristol Hotel are grand old buildings, as is the Presidential Palace. Some great restaurants and cafes line the way from the Parliament building area where I was staying, to the Old Town (Stare Miasto - pictured) and I sat in one or two to sample their wares (I bet you did - Editor). There was a rock concert and festival to celebrate Mid-summer day on my last night in Warsaw. I walked for over an hour through the streets to get there and it was very much worth the effort to find the concert - held on the banks of the Vistula river. It was truly spectacular, with a great light show and three excellent live bands. I had heard a lot about the famous Pole dances, but never saw one the whole time I was there.

At No. 6 is Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was an unscheduled stopover, which was paid for by Sri Lankan Air after they totally screwed up my return travel from Kuala Lumpur when they put my flight time forward by over an hour without telling me, and made me miss my plane. They made up for it, by putting me up overnight in a lovely, paradise island style beach hotel (pictured) just outside Colombo, in a place called Nagombo - home of the Tuk Tuk and other strange indiginous beasts. I spent a nice hour or two in the waning heat just before the sun set, walking barefoot across the idyllic golden sands beneath the palm trees, and paddling in the warm Indian Ocean (or more accurately, the Bay of Mannar). I met a wiry little man on the beach who tried to convince me he had been the opening bat (and also the wicket keeper) for the Ceylon national team that toured England during the summer of 1958. He was very knowledgeable about England cricket players such as Freddy Truman and told me all his anecdotes. Then he tried to get hold of my personal banking details so I could 'contribute' to his favourite children's charity. I smelled a rat (not hard to do in certain parts of Sri Lanka - Editor) and beat a hasty retreat. Just shaking his hand convinced me he had never been a wicket keeper. He had tiny soft hands like a small child. Couldn't blame him for trying though. I spent the rest of the evening being amused by the antics of the small lizards, stripy squirrels and other wild life as I ate my evening meal at the hotel.

I have run out of space. No, really I have. I will have to continue this countdown tomorrow. You''ll have to wait for the top five. Same space - different time, depending on when you come back to this blog to view the contents.

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