Thursday, February 26, 2009

Prague, Czech Republic

The Czech Republic's capital and international showpiece, Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Eastern Europe. Its attraction lies in the physical beauty of the city with 600 years of architecture amazingly untouched by war. The centre has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it demands to be explored on foot, an entire outdoor museum of history and a haphazard mixture of splendid architecture.
In the 14th century Prague enjoyed a reputation of being one of the most important cities in Europe, but after the Second World War it disappeared completely behind the Iron Curtain. Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the end of Communism, Prague has thrown off the years of repression with alacrity and is returning to its earlier grandeur, enticing tourists with its fairytale quality and romantic atmosphere. In recent years Prague has also become a popular weekend destination for stag and hen party groups, attracted by the lively nightlife, world-famous beer and low prices.
The historical centre of the city is compact and its attractions are all within easy reach. The core comprises the Castle District (Hradèany) west of the River Vltava, and the Old and New town (Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto) to the east, joined by the famous Charles Bridge. The Castle District situated on the hill overlooking the city incorporates the main attractions, including the Castle itself and the Cathedral. The Old Town is a maze of alleyways, cobbled streets and passages winding their way towards the beautiful Old Town Square, Staromestské NámestÃ. Josefov Ghetto, the old Jewish Quarter, is enclosed within the old town. The New Town, in contrast, is modern and has been laid out in wide boulevards, most famously Wenceslas Square, the fashionable shopping boulevard leading up to the foot of the grand National Gallery.
The city's cultural scene also features high on the list of things to do in Prague, with classical music concerts, opera and ballet, as well as the many art galleries around the city. It is constantly adding small new museums to its summertime list, often strange but curiously interesting. This beautiful city, a 'symphony in stone', built along the river and on the surrounding hills, has never ceased to capture the hearts and imagination of visitors, painters, photographers and poets.

Prague has a cheap and efficient public transport system consisting of an integrated network of buses, trams, metro and a funicular on Petrin Hill. The historic centre is compact and pedestrian-only, but trams offer an inexpensive way of seeing the rest of the city and there are plenty of metro stations in the centre. Tram lines criss-cross the centre and are the best way to get around, after the metro. Buses need rarely be used, as they tend to operate outside the centre and are more irregular. After midnight night trams and buses offer a limited service, usually every hour. Tickets are valid on all modes of public transport, but must be bought in advance and validated before each journey. A number of travel passes are also available; these are the best way to avoid the hassle of different single tickets and need only be stamped once at the start. Prague is inundated with dishonest, unregistered taxi drivers who attempt to rip off tourists. It's best to book taxis over the phone and demand a receipt for the fare before setting out. ProfiTaxi or AAA Taxi are the most reputable companies. A car is unnecessary since much of the city is pedestrianised, parking is a major problem and vehicle crime is rife. Car rental is also expensive.

When Franz Kafka wrote that his home city had ‘claws' that prevented him leaving, he was not paying nefarious Prague a compliment. These days Prague has a similarly magnetic, though much more positive, appeal for the soaring numbers of tourists and business travellers who flock to the Czech capital every year.
Prague is quite simply one of the most stunning cities in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage listed gem, eulogised as the ‘City of a Thousand Spires'. Prague has become the archetypal post-communist city success story with seemingly not a month going by without another city being hailed as the ‘New Prague'.
This is a city where just ambling around the impressively well-preserved historic core, stopping off for a fortifying glass of one of the excellent local beers, popping into boutique shops or one of the many museums is the real pleasure.
Prague's story goes back to the distant days of the Celtic tribes, as early as 400BC. The city's real golden age commenced when Charles IV of Bohemia was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1346. The ambitious gothic building programme, including St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, the University, and the New Town, centred on Wenceslas Square and transformed the city into one of the greatest and most powerful in Europe.
The 20th century brought massive trauma for Czechoslovakia and Prague as the country was occupied by the Nazis during WWII and then spent the best part of five decades subjugated under Soviet communist rule, with all attempts to win greater democracy in 1968's ‘Prague Spring' brutally crushed under the weight of Russian tanks.
The Czech spirit remained undaunted and in 1989, as the Berlin Wall tumbled, the Czechs finally broke free of communism during the ‘Velvet Revolution', which was quickly followed by the ‘Velvet Divorce' as the Slovak portion of the old Czechoslovakia chose to go its own way.
With poet and president Vaclav Havel at the helm, Prague became the hub of the post-communist eastern European revival with expats flocking to the city in the 1990s, quickly developing a buzz that brought comparisons with 1920s Paris.
This post Velvet Revolution buzz has faded to some extent and these days there are as many foreign as Czech voices on the streets with the city massively popular as a tourist destination and as a business hub. In 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union, further cementing the city's importance and popularity.
Part of Prague's charm is that it is a rewarding place to visit at any time of year. Winters can be long, harsh and dark, but spring and autumn are often idyllic with summer bringing some very warm central European temperatures.
Whether easing under Charles Bridge on a rowing boat on a balmy summer evening, or trudging across the crisp snow of the Old Town Square and enjoying a glass of mulled wine at the Christmas Market, this slick, but still deeply characterful Czech capital seldom disappoints.

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Monday, February 23, 2009


Florida is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with visitors heading to ‘The Sunshine State’ in search of fun, sun and thrills. Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom Park and Busch Gardens are just a few of the man-made attractions for which the State is famed. Orlando is the face of Florida that most people recognize, with its enormous number of theme parks, movie studios, water parks and entertainment facilities.
But there is more to Florida than Mickey Mouse and white-knuckle rides. Winding waterways, freshwater lakes, hills, forests, exciting cities, 13,560km (8426 miles) of coast, countless bays, inlets and islands, and a legendary climate make this one of the most popular States in the USA.

Florida is divided into eight geographical regions: Northwest; North Central; Northeast; Central West; Central; Central East; Southwest; and Southeast Florida & the Keys. Situated on the southeastern tip, Miami and Miami Beach have long been a haunt of the rich and famous, and star-spotting is a popular pastime here. Palm Beach scores equally highly in the glamour stakes. Fort Lauderdale is a popular spot for families, offering a wide assortment of sports and recreational activities. To the south, the Florida Keys offers a tropical climate, beautiful beaches and clear blue waters.

The capital of Florida, Tallahassee, is geographically closer to Atlanta than Miami and is strictly Southern in tone. It was chosen as the State capital in 1823, as a compromise between Pensacola and St Augustine, which had both been vying for the honor. Today, it is often described as ‘The Other Florida’ with its rolling hills, oak forests, cool climate and distinctly Southern feel.
Tampa and St Petersburg are the main cities in the Central West region. Sarasota is the cultural capital of the region, thanks to John Ringling and his wife who amassed an impressive art collection, which is today displayed in their restored mansion. The southwestern region is home to Naples, a popular seaside retreat. Just off the mainland, Marco Island stands as a model of ecological preservation.

In the northeastern corner of Florida stands Jacksonville, named after General Andrew Jackson. Nearby St Augustine is known as ‘America’s Oldest City’ and is home to more than 60 historic sites. Amelia Island, often called the ‘Isle of Eight Flags’, is the only site in the country to have been governed by eight different countries during its history. At its heart lies Fernandina Beach, the nation’s second-oldest city. Daytona is located in the slender Central East region. The beach is the city’s main attraction, with a 510m (1700ft) boardwalk brimming with amusements, rides and snack bars.


S Florida, USA; swampy, subtropical region, length c.160 km/100 mi, width 80–120 km/50–75 mi, area c.12 950 km²/5000 sq mi; covers most of the Florida peninsula S of L Okeechobee; consists of saw grass savannahs and water dotted by clumps of reeds; in an area of heavy rainfall only a few metres above sea-level; drainage and reclamation schemes have made a large amount of land productive, mostly in citrus fruits and sugar; Seminole Indians fled to the area in 1842, during the Seminole War; Everglades National Park (area 5668 km²/2188 sq mi) in the S includes much of Florida Bay, with its many keys; a world heritage site.
The Florida Everglades are subtropical marshlands located in the southern portion of the U.S. state of Florida, specifically in parts of Monroe, Collier, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward counties. Although much modified by agricultural development in central and southern Florida, the Everglades is the southern half of a large watershed arising in the vicinity of Orlando known as the Kissimmee River system. Water leaving Lake Okeechobee in the wet season forms the Everglades, a shallow, slow-moving flood at one time 40 miles wide and over 100 miles long moving southward across a nearly flat, limestone shelf to Florida Bay at the southern end of the state.

The Everglades extends from Lake Okeechobee on the north to Florida Bay on the south and was once bordered by Big Cypress Swamp on the west and the Atlantic Coastal Ridge on the east.
Some 50 percent of the original Everglades has been lost to agriculture. Water from the Everglades is still used as a water supply for major cities in the area, such as Miami. The Everglades is crossed from west to east by a toll road called "Alligator Alley", now part of Interstate 75.
There are several small outlets, such as the Miami River and the New River on the east and the Shark River on the southwest.

Everglades National Park preserves the southern portion of the Everglades (all south of Tamiami Trail), but represents only 27.3% of the original area. There have been recent expansions to the park's tourist facilities to bring in more money to Florida's economy such as a massive extension to the visiting center, many outposts along the bridges that span the Everglades that teach people about the many birds and other wildlife native to the Everglades and also a small petting zoo.

The Everglades also face an ongoing threat from the melaleuca tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia). Sprinkled from airplanes using salt and pepper shakers, the tiny seeds of the thirsty tree were intended to suck up the water and make the "land" of the Everglades suitable for development.
Brazilian Pepper (Florida Holly) has also wreaked havoc on the Everglades, exhibiting a tendency to spread rapidly and crowd out native species. The Brazilian Pepper problem is not exclusive to the Everglades;
Native to southern Asia, the Burmese python, Python molurus bivittatus is a relatively new invasive species in the Everlgades. The Everglades habitat is perfect for bivittatus, and this species is said to be reproducing rapidly.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Destination Tokyo City

Visiting Tokyo for the first time can feel like visiting another planet. Tokyo is very different from Western capitals, but what really sets it apart are its people. With a growing population of over 12 million within 1,300 square kilometres, Tokyo is Japan’s largest and most densely populated city; a bustling, state-of-the-art marketplace full of energy, humanity and astonishing contrasts.
Millions of people pack the subways, sidewalks, and stores to maximum capacity every day and every hour. In some parts of the city, the streets are as crowded at 3am as they are at 3pm. With its full-force, sensory overload, Tokyo makes even New York City seem like a sleepy town.
Despite its limited space for harmonious living, Tokyo remains one of the safest cities in the world, with very little crime or violence. People will go out of their way to help you. Hardworking, honest, and helpful to strangers, the Japanese people are Japan’s greatest asset.
Under Tokyo's concrete casing is a thriving cultural life. If you're interested in Japan's performing arts and traditional culture, Tokyo offers the most choice. It is full of museums, kabuki theatres, sumo wrestling and the largest collection of Japanese art in the world. Traditional kabuki thrives alongside opera, ballet and symphony, while Tokyo-dwellers are passionate about sumo, baseball and now football (soccer).
The capital city was founded in 1590 as Edo, the headquarters of the Shoguns, or military power. Edo boasted its own vibrant culture of pleasure quarters, theatres and cherry blossoms. Following the fall of the Shoguns in 1867 and the restoration of the Emperor’s power, the city was renamed Tokyo.
Tokyo consists of various districts, each with their own flair and flavour, usually centred around the main railway and subway stations. The city defines itself by its commercial, cultural, and entertainment centres of Ueno, Asakusa, Ginza, Roppongi, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku.
Sinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza are large areas of commerce where the latest fashion trends are born and worn. Shinuya Station resembles New York City’s Time Square with enormous video screens and a sea of people and neon lights.
Ginza is home to top designer boutiques such as Chanel and Gucci, high-priced cups of coffee and the classic Kabukiza kabuki theatre. During the weekends Ginza’s Chuo Street is closed to traffic and becomes a festive swirl of shoppers and onlookers.
Tokyo Bay offers a bit of breathing space from the concrete jungle as does Shinjuku’s Gyoen Garden and Asakusa’s best kept secret – Dembo-in Garden. Of course, people do not visit Tokyo seeking peace and quiet. If it’s non-stop action that you are looking for, Tokyo is the place for you!
On the other hand, if you become overwhelmed, you can retreat to quiet cobble stone lanes and serene gardens for that sense of stillness that the Japanese have mastered for centuries.
The best time to visit Tokyo is in the spring from March to May when the cherry blossoms are blooming, inspiring sake-soaked picnics in the parks. However, try to avoid Golden Week (late April-early May) and New Year (late December-early January), because most of the city closes down. July and August bring sweltering heat and humidity, yet also host an array of lively festivals. Winter in the city is cold and crisp, while autumn (September to November) sees colourful foliage and warm, balmy days. Festivals are celebrated almost every week, offering visitors something of the old Japan to experience.
As Tokyo races into the future while honouring its past, the uniqueness of the city and its people provide visitors with an experience they will never forget.

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