Tallinn, Estonia

A cotton candy confection of pastel hues, the Old Town of Tallinn is a city right out of a fairy tale. Pink and yellow and green and blue buildings around every corner, it bubbles and sparkles with charm. Golden crosses atop onion shaped domes shimmer in the sunshine. The medieval passageways are a labyrinth of well trod cobblestones. An old Russian barracks turned prison, imposing towers and a pretty pink palace hint of the presence of a colourful and sinister villain - a must in every good fairy tale.

We arrived by sea, crossing the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki aboard a large cruise ship. On our arrival, we caught a cab to the top of the old town to view the city from above. We strolled slowly down the winding streets to the large market square, bustling with vendors and shoppers alike.


Verona, Italy - Shakespeare's city of tragic love

Verona is one of my favourite towns in Italy - its maze of sun-drenched streets is charming, the myriad colours of the buildings captivating and the story of its history can be seen on its walls, its streets, buildings and statues. Three of Shakespeare's plays are set in Verona - the most famous, of course, being Romeo and Juliet.

No wonder, then, that thousands of tourists flock here every year - visiting Juliet's balcony, rubbing her bronze statue in the courtyard for luck in love and leaving love notes in the walls of the entryway.

Beyond Juliet's house, however, there are many other enjoyable activities to do in Verona:

  • Visit the stunning Arena di Verona - in ancient times the amphitheater was the site of gladiator battles held in front of crowds of 30,000 people. It is currently open for daytime tours and evening musical spectacles, including operas, ballets and other musical performances.
  • Sit in quiet reflection at one of many sacred buildings, such as the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore or the Duomo Santa Maria Matricolare.
  • Wander the stunning gardens at Giardino Giusti.
  • View ancient weaponry, statues, sculptures and more at the Museo del Castelvecchio - located in a restored palace.
  • Shop at the outdoor market in Piazza Erbe or window shop at the numerous luxury shops.
  • Drink coffee or enjoy a good meal at one of the many cafes and restaurants. For the best food and prices, always wander the side streets and look for a place where the locals gather.
  • Hike the nearby hills to get epic views of the city of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I've always found the best way to visit a new city is to first visit the main tourist attractions and then to simply wander and discover the hidden gems. Verona has many treasures - all waiting to be discovered.

Piazza Bra - Verona, Italy

Town gate on the Corsa Porta Nuova - Verona, Italy

Arena di Verona - Roman amphitheatre

Juliet's balcony - Verona, Italy

River Adige - Verona, Italy

Markets and crowds in the Piazza Erbe - Verona, Italy

Duoma Santa Maria Matricolare - Verona, Italy

Piazza Bra - Verona, Italy

European Christmas markets

Fresh baked beignets rolled in sugar and filled with hot jam.

Steaming gluhwein and gloggi that warms you to the bones.

Huddling together inside packed cathedrals for caroling by candlelight.

Ice skating and carousels, Ferris wheels and light shows.

Beautiful store windows and outdoor stalls overflowing with wonderful homemade gifts.

Happy crowds. Delicious aromas.  Falling snow. 

These are a few of my favourite things.

Lest We Forget

In 2008, ninety years after the end of World War I, a few of us decided to visit Ypres (Ieper). Across Europe, many towns and cities were commemorating the end of the Great War and we wanted to visit one of the places that was of great significance to Canadians.  Standing directly in the path of Germany's march across Europe, Ypres and the surrounding fields, hills and valleys were subjected to heavy fighting and bombardment throughout the war. By its end, the town was in ruins.

Many Canadians gave their lives fighting in this region and their sacrifice is remembered and honoured by the Belgians and other European Allies. Memorials, churches, statues and cemeteries were surrounded and covered with remembrance crosses and poppies.

The train from Brussels left early in the morning and two hours later we arrived in Ypres to somber gray skies - suitable for the occasion. As we wandered through town, the streets were bustling with people and signs of Christmas were beginning to appear. 

After visiting the Cloth Hall, Flanders Fields Museum and St. Martin's Cathedral, we made our way to the Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate is a war memorial to the 54,395 missing Allied soldiers who died fighting in nearby battles but whose bodies were never found. The names of the missing are inscribed on the walls of the memorial. Flowers and wreaths, poppies and crosses filled the vast space. 

We met up with a local tour company for the afternoon. Our mixed group of Canadians and Europeans spent the afternoon touring cemeteries, memorial sites, trenches and a museum.

Our first stop was Essex Farm - where 15-year old V.J. Strudwick was laid to rest - and the John McCrae memorial site - where the doctor worked in a dressing station and wrote his famous poem. The young Canadian boy in our group read In Flanders Fields. The rest of us listened, remembering school Remembrance Day ceremonies of our youth.

The Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world. Many Canadian soldiers are buried here, including Victoria Cross recipient Private James Peter Robertson.

The St. Julien memorial marks the area where poison gas was used for the first time by the Germans in 1915 against 18,000 Canadians. Two thousand men died and were buried nearby beneath the gaze of the Brooding Soldier.

The nearby German cemetery, Langemark, is different from the many Allied cemeteries. The graves lie flat with groupings of three crosses scattered across the grounds.

The fields surrounding Ypres appear peaceful and fertile - it's difficult to imagine that war ever touched this place. Looking at old photos, however, a very different picture is revealed. Heavy rains turned the earth to mud - often drowning men and horses that fell off the walkways.

Australian soldiers on duckboard track over mud and water (Australia War Memorial)

Even today, the serene landscape hides a unseen menace - buried shells, bullets, grenades and mines that find their way to the surface. Some are dug up by farmers tilling their fields, others are discovered by work crews conducting road repairs and some pushed to the surface by growing trees.

Such dangerous and potentially deadly weapons, some of which contain poisonous chemicals, can explode at any time. They can be seen placed by the roadside to be picked up by an army unit that specializes in their removal and detonation.

One of the most devastating battles fought during the war occurred near the village of Passchendaele, where more than 4,000 Canadians died and almost 12,000 were wounded. It was at Passchendaele that Canada established itself as a strong and independent fighting force.

At the Yorkshire trench, we walked through the narrow passageways, clean and dry now but filled with mud and horror during wartime. 

Shell craters at Hill 62 reveal the destruction caused by a single explosion and the Sanctuary Wood Museum displayed odds and ends of war memorabilia, including a British Army Cook's wagon and some fascinating 3D photographs.

After returning to town, we found our way back to the Menin Gate to watch the remembrance ceremony that are held every evening.  Beneath the soaring arches, buglers played the Last Post in remembrance of the fallen. There was a moment of silence. A final Reveille. 

Let us never forget!