The Saviour of Suncheon Bay

Located in the southern province of Jeollanam-do, Suncheon is a natural jewel. Great mountain trails, calm beaches, and sprawling parks entice visitors to a city that possess all the wholesome beauties that nature can provide and people can facilitate. It is in this marriage of nature and society that Suncheon Bay National Garden emerged. Prior to the garden’s conception, the city was facing an ecological crisis. Suncheon Bay, a marvellous coastal wetlands site, was taking in more visitors than the area could sustain. And so the National Garden came into being. Unveiled in Expo 2012 in Yeosu, the international exposition’s theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast” focused on environmental sustainability and protection of sensitive lands and species. It is here that the Suncheon Bay National Garden was opened to the public.

Covering a little under 1.12km2 of land, the SBNG is recognised as South Korea’s top national garden. Intended to help absorb the sheer numbers visiting Suncheon’s wetlands, the expansive park was designed in cooperation with the surrounding natural landscape. Artists, landscape designers, and many other creative individuals were locally and internationally sourced, all coming together in Suncheon to design a garden that welcomes ten of thousands of visitors every year. Over 860,000 trees (covering more than 505 different species) call the garden home, as do 113 species of flowers that change in accordance to the seasons. After visiting the Suncheon Filming Location, we headed towards the Dongcheon River to see SNBG in the afternoon light.

With only enough time to focus on one side of the garden, we decided to spend the rest of our day on the east side of SBNG. Here we found flora both indigenous and foreign to Korean soil, miniature gardens inspired by the architecture of outside countries and cultures, and a colourful design spirit that made every part we explored a unique and memorable experience.

In the six hours that we spent in SBNG the time flew so quickly, I couldn’t believe it when the sun started to set! Listed below are our Five Reasons to Visit Suncheon Bay National Garden.

The World Around Us and The World That Once Was

Entering the east gate, the Indoor Garden is one of the first exhibits that SBNG offers its guests. Once indoors, the sunlight is muted, radiating the warm glow that lights the building’s interior. Bougainvillea, first discovered by a French explorer of the same name, is the first flora to greet you. The path through the Indoor Garden bends this way and that, slowly leading you forward. Air purification plants, their vines spindly white like unwound cotton, hang neatly overhead and give the air inside a refreshing presence. Floss silk trees are tall and stately, their thorny trunks heavy with water in preparation for the dry season. The Wollemi Pine Tree sits nearby. A tree that dates back to the Jurassic period (201 – 145 million years ago), the Wollemi Pine was thought to be extinct. Miraculously, in 1994 it was discovered in the Blue Mountains of Australia. One of the rarest trees in the world, a few call the Indoor Garden home.

Near the back of the building, an area called Uami Garden is sectioned off. Here all the crucial elements of a traditional garden have been recreated, taking on the look of Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897) gardens in aesthetic details and the traditional organisation of such spaces. Entering Uami Garden, a Korean traditional totem pole welcomes you. A fake river is constructed to show visitors how pavilions would be constructed to exist harmoniously with their natural surroundings. The Bullo Gate (“Gate of Eternal Youth”) sits across from the pavilion, its sleek and simple design free of all signs of age, promising the visitor everlasting vitality.

The World Garden Zone

You don’t have to leave South Korea to see the world. Within SBNG lies a space where the cultural values and aesthetic tastes of eleven different countries are brought to life. Thailand, America, Germany, and many other exciting destinations are condensed into charming gardens that capture the design elements integral to each country’s global image, as well as the essence that makes each one distinctive.

Of the eleven countries, five hold a special place in my memory. While they are all stunning in their own right, my own tastes made me partial to the Mediterranean opulence of the Italian Garden, the Austen-esque romance of the British Garden, the colourful flowers that surrounded the Dutch Garden’s giant windmill, the Mexican Garden with its colour contrasts that brought Picasso to mind, and the heartbreaking tale of The Butterfly Lovers whose sentimental spirits shone through the style of the Chinese Garden.

Fun for the Little Ones

While I don’t have any of my own, it warms my heart to see children having fun. Summer days can be a logistical nightmare for families. Wanting to enjoy the sun without suffering in the heat, SBNG gives parents reprieve and their kids a way to enjoy their holiday without developing heatstroke. The adorably named Wriggling Garden has both covered play areas for the children and an outdoor water-play station with tall structures that spout water. Its cute name is derived from a long wooden tunnel. Donning every colour of the rainbow, the tunnel turns about like a snake finding its way in the grass. Each colour is a different section with its own means of entertaining the kids (from mirrors, to a ship’s steering wheel, to climbing ropes).

The City Reimagined

When your eyes set on Suncheon Lake Garden, it is difficult to think beyond its beauty. The elegant slopes of its five hills and the seemingly impossible wisp of a bridge that winds through them make for a breathtaking vision. What is truly amazing is that the lake garden, fitting so perfectly with its surroundings, was not always there. The artificial lake is the centerpiece of SBNG designed by American landscape designer, Charles Jencks. A person whose vision combined nature with science, Jencks designed the lake to illustrate the city of Suncheon in miniature. The hills are the city’s mountains, the wooden deck is Dongcheon Stream slicing through the landscape, and Suncheon itself is symbolised by the lake.

A Bridge Made of Dreams

SBNG was made with a vision of protecting and maintaining the wildlife surrounding it for future generations. The Dream Bridge perfectly encapsulates this goal. Designed by installation artist Kang Ik-joong, the bridge connects the east and west sides of Dongcheon River, giving visitors the opportunity to explore Suncheon Bay. Built for Expo 2012, The Dream Bridge was made in the spirit of the expo. Constructed with thirty abandoned and recycled cargo containers, it is charmingly decorated with 140,000 tiles made by as many different children from sixteen countries, reminding visitors that the environment is a global treasure, and that it is the children of today who will have the world of tomorrow.

Bringing the world to this city in southern Korea, Suncheon Bay National Garden is a place where you can spend the day, becoming lost in beauty created by both Mother Nature and the world’s artistic minds. 

The Seaside Wonder of Haedong Yonggung Temple

A visual masterpiece overlooking the East Sea, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a unique complex that stands in contrast to the typical temple located among mountain ranges. From the fresh sea-salt air, to the exquisite statues and structures that can be found within the complex, here are Five Reasons to Visit Haedong Yonggung Temple.

Location, Location, Location

Many Hindu and Buddhist complexes factor in the number 108, and visitors – knowingly or unknowingly – experience this. Haedong Yonggung is no exception. In Buddhism, the number 108 has several meanings. It is the number of earthly desires mortals have, the lies they tell, and the delusions they harbour. In the seaside temple, there are 108 steps leading to the centre at Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary.

One of a few seaside temples in all of South Korea, Haedong Yonggung occupies part of the rocky cliffs that make up Busan’s northeastern peninsula. Its unique location provides stunning views of the sunrise and sunset, which is one reason that attracts scores of visitors to the distant temple.

Two Divine Visions

Like countless places of worships, the temple was built as an answer to social struggle and human suffering. A drought plagued the entire country, leading to failed crops and a terrible famine. Feeling betrayed by the gods for not providing rain, the people started to turn away from Buddhism, which was already struggling under rampant corruption within the religious community.

According to legend, the idea came to Meditation Master Naong Hyegan in a dream. Visited by a sea god, Naong was told that if he built a temple on the edge between a specific mountain and the sea and prayed there, the people’s sufferings would be lifted. And so the now former royal consultant set off on his task. When he reached the site, Naong felt the auspicious energy of the environment. In accordance to the principles of pungsu-jiri-soel, the Korean principle of harmonising all aspects of nature, in 1376 he began work in earnest. The mountain that the sea god specifically noted was dubbed Dongrae, a reference to the pure state of mind that is gained through total isolation. The temple was called Bomun, in honour of the Gwanseum-bosal, the Goddess of Mercy.

Hundreds of years later, in 1974, a deity appeared once more. Jeong-am, newly appointed as the temple’s head monk, was dedicated to his practices of jeong-geon kido (“100 Days of Intensive Prayers”). In his devout worship, a vision of the Goddess of Mercy came to him. Dressed in a white gown, the goddess appeared on the back of a dragon. Behind them, a colourful stream of light shone brilliantly. When his intensive prayers were complete, the complex was given its current name, which means Dragon Palace Temple.

The Twelve Zodiac Statues

Before entering the temple complex, visitors are met by a neat row of statues. These are the Twelve Deities of the Oriental Zodiac. Representing the ultimate truth of the universe, the physical stone statues originated from China. Guardian deities who protect mortals, the anthropomorphic statues have human bodies and are differentiated by their animal heads.

In Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha, the Founder off Buddhism, requesting an audience with all the animals of the world before he left this earth. All of twelve came to see Gautama. As a reward for their devotion, he named a year after each of the animals, resulting in the ever-revolving zodiac years. The years were given in the order of their arrival, with the rat arriving first and the pig last to give Gautama his well wishes.

An Abundance of Wishing Opportunities

Speaking of wishes, Haedong Yonggung has many opportunities for visitors to toss a coin and shut their eyes tight.

Walking the 108 steps that lead into the temple, visitors are greeted by the sight of miniature Buddhas. Just past the grand entrance gate sits a squat Buddha statue. Bald and beaming, the statue’s tummy is darkened from years of hopeful patting. He is the “Buddha of Granting a Son”. Further along, a series of Buddhas are comfortably protected underneath a makeshift tin roof. At their feet are rosaries, coins, and small gatherings of wildflowers. They are the “Buddhas of Academic Achievement”.

A staggering three-section wishing pond holds three shallow wells and two smaller basins. Visitors aim for the smaller basins, each held by a statue of a monk, equating the challenge with greater chances of their wishes coming true. Throwing your offering over an ornately carved stone bridge, another popular choice for aiming your coin is the farthest well. In the middle of it stands a statue of Buddha, glowing in its gold painted exterior. A towering stone wall surrounds the right side of the pond. Situated on top of the wall, twelve monks and a rabbit observe the scene below, watching as hopes and dreams fall into the small space.

Past the bridge are three notable golden figures. A larger-than-life statue of Maitreya Buddha, a figure that will appear in the future to succeed Gautama, sits comfortably with a cheery smile on his plump cheeks beside Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary. Close to Maitreya are two golden pigs. Comparably rotund and content, the happy pair are said to bring good fortune to those that pet them.

All around the complex, miniature monks sit on rocks and tree branches, similarly decorated with offerings of money and religious relics. A great portion of these monks can be found behind the statue of the Goddess of Mercy.

The Goddess of Mercy and the Beautiful View

A steep incline of stone steps guide you up to the grand sight of Gwanseum-bosal. Intrigue surrounds this monument. Very little snow has settled among the goddess in the temple’s long history, and arrowroot flowers still grow here in the cold winter months. Three days after it was settled, it is said that stunning lights, similar to those from Jeong-am’s vision, appeared out of nowhere and bathed the goddess in their brilliance.

From the Goddess of Mercy’s platform, visitors can also experience a full view of Haedong Yonggung and the surrounding East Sea. For lovers of panoramic views, the Goddess of Mercy statue, and the sunrise viewing platform, are top of the Busan to-do list.

Things to Know Before You Go

The Long Journey Ahead

Approximately an hour away from the city centre, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a popular site that can be reached by public transportation or taxi. If you show metro workers, bus drivers, or taxi drivers a map or the Korean for the temple name, they will happily point you in the right direction.

Feed Your Snacky Mood

Visited by Koreans and foreigners alike, local businesses thrive in the immediate vicinity. You can purchase fresh smoothies, grilled and skewered meat, sweet fruit, and much more to keep that hangry mood at bay.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

For the sake of your safety, leave fashion for the day, at least where your feet are concerned. The steps are steep at parts, the trail diverges onto winding dirt paths, and the bridge connecting the steps to the temple complex is a perfect circular curve. While great for photos, it can be a bit of a challenge for the feet.

A site that offers visual marvels both manmade and natural, Haedong Yonggung Temple is a great place to visit for all that appreciate art, architecture, cultural history, and sheer grit and determination of our ancestors!

Ancient Beauty in Modern Seoul

The second of five palaces built in the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung Palace’s architecture is unique in its intentional harmony with the surrounding environment. Its name directly translates to “Prospering Virtue Palace”. The approximately 58-hectare complex has weathered political revolts and wars. Though architects could have modernised its design during various stages of reconstruction, the palace grounds were always rebuilt in accordance to their original design. Thanks to this appreciation for Joseon-era architecture, Changdeokgung Palace is an oft referred to example of traditional Korea’s beauty.

Building It Up

In 1405 Emperor Taejong (third emperor of the Joseon Dynasty) built the new palace Changdeokgung, a physical symbol of his decision to change the country’s capital from Gaegyeong (modern Kaesong) to Hanseong (now known as Seoul). Construction of the palace complex was finished in seven years. Over a century later, the fourteenth emperor of the Joseon Dynasty, Seonjo, expanded the palace. His additions to the complex included Huwon. Nicknamed the “Secret Garden”, it is nestled at the rear of the complex and houses more than 56,000 different specimens of trees and plants.

The front view of Donhwamun, the main gate

Fights and Fires

In 1592, Japan invaded Korea in aggressive moves that sparked the Imjin War (1592 – 1598). Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hieyoshi met initial success, conquering significant portions of the Korean Peninsula. Shook by the increasing presence of the Japanese army, the royal family fled from Changdeokgung. The citizens of Hanseong were livid. Feeling abandoned by their monarchy, they marched to the complex and burnt the palace down. The damage was repaired in 1611, its reconstruction ordered by Emperor Gwanghaegun two years prior.

This hard work was soon ruined. In 1623 the palace was set aflame. Despite being a skilled administrator and diplomat, Gwanghaegun was widely unpopular. Neither the first-born nor legitimate son of Emperor Seonjo, Gwanghaegun was Seonjo’s second son, born to his father’s concubine, Kim Gyeongbin. The Greater Northern faction suppressed views against their monarch. To silence those disputing Gwanghaegun’s rule, Prince Imhae, Seojo’s oldest son, and Grand Prince Yeongchang, the Queen’s son, were killed. Infuriated by their illegitimate monarch and his supporters, the Western faction staged a coup. The palace was destroyed, Gwanghaegun was exiled to Jeju Island, and two leaders of the Greater Northern faction were murdered. Injo, Seojo’s grandson, was crowned and became the Western faction’s puppet.

Injeongjeon, the Throne Hall

Pungsu-jiri-seol, Korea’s answer to Chinese Feng Shui

Translating to “wind-water-earth-principles theory”, Pungsu principles are a study in geomancy – the art of arranging sites to draw from the auspicious aspects of the natural environment. Changdeokgung palace was built in accordance to these beliefs. Behind the complex lies the peak of Mt. Bugaksan, the main guardian mountain for the area. In front of the palace, river Geumcheon steadily runs along. Also in agreement with Confucian ideology, the overall style and layout of the palace grounds are relatively simplistic. This compatibility with the environment makes Changdeokgung unique among Seoul’s palaces.

While the location harmonises with nature, the buildings align with traditional palace composition. They are wooden constructions atop stone foundations, largely consisting of tiled roofs and aesthetic additions such as corbels and carvings. Utilising the principles of “sammun samjo”, there are three main gates:

Donhwamun, the main gate, is a two-storey wooden pavilion. Built in 1412, it was set on fire during the Imjin War and restored in 1608.

Jinseonmun, the middle gate. Before it lies Geumcheongyo Bridge, built in 1411 and the oldest bridge in Seoul.

Injeongmun was built in 1405 during Emperor Taejo’s reign. It precedes the throne hall, for which it shares a name.

Two modern princesses posing inside Nakseonjae Complex

and three main courts:

Huijeongdang, the administrative court. Originally the emperor’s private chambers, daily meetings were shifted here from Seongjeongjeon when more space was needed to discuss matters of state.

Nakseonjae, the royal residential court. In 1847, Emperor Heonjong built the residential compound. It was separated from the rest of the complex, having been built for his concubine, Kim Gyeongbin.

Injeongjeon, the official audience court. It is a two-storey building where the emperor conducted official business and received foreign visitors. Its construction was part of the original development in 1405.

Must-See Sights

If time is of the essence, here are structures of Changdeokgung that capture the spirit, style, and history of the awe-inspiring compound.

Among the Palace Buildings

Injeongjeon, the throne hall, was built in the fifth year of Emperor Taejong’s reign. It was among those destroyed by fire in the Imjin War. Approximately two centuries later, Injeongjeon was ruined by fire once again. In 1804, Emperor Sunjo ordered the hall’s repair. Aside from being used for official duties and meetings with visiting dignitaries, the grand hall was also a site of commemoration. Many coronation ceremonies were held within it, and when the royal family found cause for celebration, their festivities would take place in Injeongjeon.

Seonjeongjeon began as the meeting point for the emperor and government representatives to talk about state affairs. A narrow corridor connects Seonjeongjeon to Seonjeongmun gate. This corridor was used in the funeral procession when the building was reestablished as a royal shrine.

While Huijeongdang, the administrative court, retains its traditional Korean exterior, its interior is a reflection of Western tastes from the early twentieth century. A fire ruined most of its interior in 1917. Occurring in the early years of Japanese occupation of Korea (which lasted from 1910 – 1945), the Japanese government reconstructed Huijeongdang’s inner workings with modern amenities such as wooden floors, electricity, glass windows, and curtains. In this way, Huijeongdang is unique to all other buildings within Changdeokgung.

A true labour of love, Nakseonjae Complex was intended as a place that Kim could call her own, free from the prying eyes of the court. After Emperor Heonjong’s first wife died, his mother Queen Sunwon arranged the selection of brides for her son to choose from. Among these accomplished and beautiful women, Heonjong was most interested in Kim Gyeongbin. But his mother preferred another, Hyojeong. And so his mother’s choice became the emperor’s second wife. When it she could not conceive, a concubine was needed to produce an heir. Gyeongbin was brought in, and Nakseonjae was built. Overlooking the lower palace grounds, the simple and elegant complex was opened to the public in 2006.

Within Huwon

Previously known as Geumwon (“Forbidden Garden”) and Naewon (“Inner Garden”), the large garden holds pavilions, ponds, and carefully maintained trees, flowers, and lawns. 32 hectares in size, the garden was accessible only to the royal family. Excepting the military, which performed inspections and parades at the emperor’s behest, few were allowed to wander its magnificent grounds.

The first stop in the Secret Garden Tour, Buyongji Pond and Juhamnu Pavilion are remarkable in style. The pond sits before Juhanmnu Pavilion, a two-floor structure. Its construction coincided with emperor Jeongjo’s ascension in 1776. The first floor comprises of Gyujanggak, the Royal library. Heading up to the second floor, the reading room overlooks the tranquil pond. A gate named Eosumun sits before the pavilion. Its name is derived from the Korean adage, “su eo ji gyo” (水鱼之交), meaning that like fish and water, the emperor is inseparable from his people.

Due to the heat and humidity, our tour of Huwon was abridged from an hour to forty minutes. Jondeokjeong Pavilion was our last sight, and one that ended the tour on a high note. Built in 1644, Jondeokjeong is the oldest of the palace pavilions. A solid wooden structure with a tiled roof and pillars painted red, the inner ceiling is decorated with twin dragons bearing cintamani, a wish-fulfilling jewel found in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. A powerful symbol of compassion and knowledge, it is suggested that this design reflects Jeongjo’s desire for a return to emperor’s holding full royal authority.

Things to Know Before you go

Remember to Buy a Ticket for the Palace and the Garden

Simply purchasing a ticket to the palace grounds limits you to seeing only the first third of the entire Changdeokgung. To see Huwon as well, you have to pay extra. Definitely worth the price of admission, in cooler temperatures the tour covers the entire garden, with the guide spending between an hour to an hour and a half discussing its history and giving people plenty of time to get that perfect picture.

Wear Comfy Shoes

We spent an entire day exploring the palace grounds, and our feet certainly let us feel it the next day! Most of the path is a mixture of concrete and dry, compressed dirt, both of which put a strain on your feet after some time. If you start to feel aches and pains, give yourself a moment to stretch your hamstrings before continuing on.

Changdeokgung reflected inside Hongsigung café

Eat Out

There is all of one café located inside Changdeokgung (a small establishment that shares a space with the gift shop), but fear not. Once you’ve purchased a ticket, visitors are allowed to leave and re-enter. To break up the palace grounds into manageable portions, I recommend wandering the surrounding area for a bite to eat. We took a break from the Korean sun in Hongsigung. Situated on the second floor, the café offers a clear view of the palace’s outer walls and a sneak peak of its tiled roofs. Its interior, a powerful contrast of concrete, wood, grey tiles, and marble tabletops, tall plants scattered around the area add to its intriguing atmosphere.

Bring Water

The large palace complex provides water in all of two areas – the gift shop and a water fountain located at the foot of the entrance to the Secret Garden. Water bottles are allowed inside, so bring as much as needed for a day out.

I hope you’ve found this information fun and informative, and wish you luck on your travels – feel free to share your experiences, a traveler’s world never has too many stories!

The Long-Ago Charms of Valletta

Starting off our island vacation with the slow, easy pace of a turtle with time, we began our first full Maltese day at noon. Leaving our accommodations, the weather was wonderful. The sun was high in the sky, warm rays of light causing us to shed off our coats. A strong wind kept things interesting. In response, our steps were steadier, filled with the determined purpose of people with places to go and things to see. We joined many others in waiting for the ferry to Valletta. Arriving every fifteen minutes, we had just enough time to spread our arms wide and engage in photosynthesis. Even in the middle of December, many people were exploring the beautiful island. I couldn’t blame them. While temperatures remained comparable to Europe, the sun and the stunning sights made it feel like summer. The ferry ride was all we could have hoped for. Short and stunning, at the low cost of 2.80€ for a return ticket, we certainly got our money’s worth simply by wandering around.

Valleta is a district to be enjoyed at all angles. From street view to sky, there is always something to captivate you. The rolling nature of Valletta’s steep streets gave us a proper workout. We were both glad to have worn shoes fit for the task. Our walk around the district comprised of many short breaks. Stopping to admire and capture the beauty of its architecture, the day was spent discussing our favourite parts of each building and imagining the charmed lives of the people who had the good fortune to call this island home.

Alongside exquisite residential architecture, Valletta is a place proudly preserving its cultural past. Of these gems, our favourite was St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Located in the city centre, the Roman Catholic Co-Cathedral was constructed in the late 16th century between 1572 and 1577. Unique to St. John’s are its inlaid marble tombstones. Covering most of the flooring, these tombstones celebrate the lives of Knights of the Order, as well as illustrious aristocratic families of Europe. Immaculately preserved, these marble slabs are cordoned off, lest the details get worn away over time.

Most impressive were the portraits detailing the ceiling. Framed in gold and with shocking detail and expressive colours noticeable even at ground level, the ceilings were a tribute to the artistic talents of the 16th century, a solemn nod to the painters and carpenters that made such awe inspiring works bring even more life and admiration into these houses of worship.

After a day of admiring the beauty that Valletta had to offer, we stepped back in time for dinner. A space enshrined in the beauty and simplicity of the 1940s, Jubilee’s Café was exactly what we needed. Reasonably priced, most of the dishes came at under 10€ each. I ordered the lampuki – a fish native to Malta’s waters , more commonly referred to as mahi-mahi – pie and an infusion of ginger, lemon, and green tea. After a long day of walking and photographing, this hearty meal hit the spot. So hungry after our wandering, we finished our meals in half an hour, heartily thanking the staff for the energising meal.

If cities that belong in fantasy novels are your cup of tea, Valletta is definitely a place to see.

Going Around the Getty: A Beautiful Day Seeing Art in LA

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With the sky a perfect shade of blue and the occasional breeze complimenting the warm rays of the sun, my Saturday in LA was too lovely to stay indoors. Easily making my way to the hillside site of the Getty Centre, a free tram system led visitors from the foot of the hill to the museum entrance. Even though I arrived half an hour prior to opening time, the line was considerably long. People mostly came in groups, and all wielded a camera to capture their favourite pieces for posterity.

What I enjoyed most about the museum was how it shifted between eras and genres of art; from Renaissance theistic art to Roman-Greek statues, furniture from Versailles, a modern installation on the changing nature of the written word, and even a cactus garden. There was something for everyone, and not a soul I passed was without a smile.

There is always something to be gained from exposing yourself to the past. In art, something fantastic and awe-inspiring can be discovered in any and all forms. There is always wonderful to be discovered within weird. Through enjoying varieties of art, maybe you’ll find a way to enjoy parts of yourself you’re less certain of.

Wandering Around Oxford: The City’s Best Walking Route

During my fleeting four-day stay at Oxford, every single adventure began and ended with walking. Though I was staying at a friend’s house that was almost an hour from the city centre on foot, I didn’t tire from all the traipsing around. There was too much to see, from the classic architecture to the variety of life being lived in this fine university city. Students rushing from class to class, tourists armed with expensive cameras and comically large guide maps, stall keepers selling jewellery and collectibles designed to catch the eye, and crooning buskers who gave a smile to anyone who stopped and took the time to listen to the music.

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With all this walking, naturally my mind decided upon its favourite routes taken. Funnily enough, these three routes were all taken on the same day, one leading directly into the other.

The Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, charging a small fee to visitors and students alike, is well worth the price of admission. Glasshouses hosted flora originating from tropical climes. The gardens were coloured with a myriad of flowers and herbs. Sturdy trees, their leaves expressed in the form of either a wide umbrella or arms lazily swaying in the air, provided plenty of shade and comfort. Everyone I passed by was in good spirits, enjoying this little piece of heaven tucked away in the city corner.

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Leaving the gardens, I headed along Dead Man’s Walk. So named for its medieval history as a processional path for Jewish funerals, its sombre past did nothing to diminish the peace and tranquility of the walk. Trees lining either side of the wide path kept the afternoon glare of the sun away. What light managed to filter through the leaves created wonderful shifting patterns on the dusty path.

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Christ Church College greeted me at the end of the short walk. Perfect for lovers of history, fantasy, and beauty, Christ Church was one of the filming sites for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, its grand staircase utilised in the scene where harry met Draco Malfoy for the first time. In the College’s Great Hall, another fantasy world is brought to life. Housing the infamous Alice Window, all of Lewis Carroll’s most popular characters are immortalised in stained glass, from Alice’s signature sky-blue dress to the Dodo Bird’s brilliant plumage.

To all who have little time to enjoy the fascinating city of Oxford, I highly recommended walking along this path.

Hardwick Hall: More Glass than Wall

Even now, the flamboyant and spirited nature of Bess Hardwick is one to be admired. Born into a minor gentry family in 1527, Bess’ life unfolded into a series of personal tragedies that she never allowed herself to succumb to. Instead she persevered with grace and dignity, her situation and station improving each time. Over the course of sixty-six years and four marriages, Bess elevated herself from the daughter of a ‘gentleman-yeoman’ house to an exorbitantly wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Queen Elizabeth.

Located in the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall stands as a glorious symbol to Bess’ lifelong ambitions and achievements. “Hardwick Hall – More Glass than Wall” is a popular saying associated with the spectacular estate. It is more than a cute rhyme. All four sides of the three-storey building are neatly lined with grid windows. Back in the Elizabethan age, windows leaked out indoor heating like no man’s business, making the act of heating an entire home even more costly.

Following the disastrous end of her fourth marriage to George Talbot – the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury – the now Countess Elizabeth Shrewsbury moved back to her family estate of Hardwick. From 1587 to 1597, she supervised the construction of the two Hardwick Halls. Money was no object, and both buildings stand as lavish displays of this great woman’s wealth.

Hardwick Hall, a seven year endeavour, spreads over three floors. A pioneering structure, the estate was one of the first in the country to be designed by an architect – in this case, Robert Smythson. Diamond pane windows range in size between floors to delineate the purpose of each room. The interior provides no less of an affluent air. Set in the second floor, the Long Galley runs through the entire east side. Displaying tapestries and portraits with immaculate detail and a plethora of colours, these intricate pieces would have signified the depth of Bess’ wealth to all her guests.

The windows, both grilled and diamond paned, pour sunlight over the ornate decorations. And it is not only the wall art and windows that help Hardwick Hall maintain its classic style. The floor of the Long Galley is fully carpeted with rush matting. Handwoven and sturdy, plaited rush matting was a staple of Tudor households. Made of bulrushes harvested from reed beds, the dried material is interwoven with camomile, lavender, herbs, and wormwood to subtly perfume the space. When fraying, the matting in Hardwick is either patched together and reused or given new life as mulch for the garden or bird nesting support.

Standing at the foot of Hardwick Hall’s grand façade sits its gardens. A mosaic of rectangular courts, the gardens grow both culinary and medicinal herbs. More than being aesthetically pleasing, the vegetables and herbs grown in the gardens are used in the Great Barn Restaurant. During the months of July and August, visitors are able to sample all the flavours the garden has to offer with Taster Days. Great lawns dotted with crab apple trees have comfortable lawn chairs provided by National Trust. With a cool breeze running through the trees and plenty of shade provided by trees and archways, it is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll.

Continuing the stroll through the estate, Hardwick Old Hall hangs at the periphery. Only five years younger than Hardwick Hall, the old hall drew on contemporary innovations in Italian design. When Bess died in 1608, her son William Cavendish was left in charge of the estate. William re-situated the family in Chatsworth, which became the family’s preferred seat over time. By the 1750s, the family commissioned for the partial dismantling of the old hall. Vulnerable to the elements, many of the original overmantels still stand to the this day. The ruins overlook an endless horizon of countryside on all sides. When construction for the new hall began, the old hall was still incomplete. This is not to say the first hall was abandoned. The two were intended to complement each other. And though it stands a shadow of its former glory, the remains of the Old Hall are still a sight to see.

Leaving with a neck sore from marveling at tapestries and architecture, I left feeling inspired by the sheer grit of Bess Hardwick, a remarkable woman who faced the odds and came out victorious.

Admiring Ancient Rome

Even in May, the heart of Italy slows you down with an intense heat. Covering all that it can reach, only tunnels built into the ground and indoor stores and restaurants are able to provide momentary respites from the glaring sun. This is actually a blessing in disguise. With your feet moving at a slower pace to combat sun lethargy, your eyes have the opportunity to pour over the sights and wonders of Rome with the care of a fine-toothed comb.

More than a little obsessed with architecture, my eyes couldn’t get enough in Rome. Both the  modern and ancient infrastructures fascinated me. From sunny shades and even tiles to elaborate stone carvings and shattered marble, it was all bewitching. My friend patiently waited as time and again I stopped in my tracks to stare, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at some beautiful detail or enchanting colour. Faces pulled out of hard stone from artists who knew where to look. Light shades that, when caught by the sun, burst in their vibrancy and seemed to collect a piece of the shining star, if just for the moment.

Of our three days in Rome, four sites stand out most prominently in my memories; the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Trevi Fountain. Being able to walk through history is always a treat. I find myself taking the time to wonder at the lives of those who had wandered in the same location thousands of years ago. What were their hopes, their dreams? What daily aggravations filled their heads and dominated conversations with peers? Did they admire the beauty of the city, or did they take it for granted?

Even before the busy season, Rome was packed. Tourists and locals alike flooded the streets. All steps were occupied by those taking a respite from the sun. In the Roman Forum, a middle-aged man slept soundly under the shade of a young Stone Pine. If it were not for the many public water fountains dotted throughout the grand city, we would have spent an absolute fortune hydrating ourselves. Thank goodness for thoughtful touches.

Stunning even in ruins, I envied those who had lived when these buildings, arches, and statues were in their original state, carefully painted and displaying none of the effects of time. Difficult to leave, I find myself pouring over the photos from time to time, feeling the dry heat rush over my body and revelling in the cool protection of underground tunnels built centuries ago.