Friday, February 6, 2015

Ten great travel surprises

Excavated ruins of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE Among the many joys of travel are the moments of spontaneous surprise or when an attraction or destination exceeds expectations.

For me, travel surprises are not necessarily “unknown” places. Rather they are sites that capture your imagination in a way that leaves a lasting impression. Here is a personal alphabetical list of ten unexpected treasures that should impress even the most veteran traveler.

Stunning beauty of the Amalfi Coast near Naples, Italy  (San Pietro)
 1 – The Amalfi Coast (Italy) – Few places offer more breathtaking scenery per mile than the 25 mile serpentine ribbon of road called the Strada Statele along the Amalfi Coast. The most spectacular way to access the region is by car or bus from the Mount Vesuvius side of the mountainous spine that divides the coast from the congestion of Naples. After a 20 to 25 minute meandering ride through several small villages, you crest the mountaintop where an unbelievable vista spreads before you leading to Amalfi. If it doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will ever impress you.

Desert fortress of Masada in Israel overlooking the Dead Sea  (Taylor) 
 2 – Masada (Israel) Herod the Great began fortifying Masada nearly four decades before Christ as a personal refuge in case of a revolt. Though Herod never occupied the stronghold, a small group of approximately 500 Jewish rebels held off the Roman army from its strategic location overlooking the Dead Sea for several months in the first century CE. Today, the Israeli army pays tribute to Masada by honoring new recruits at the site.

Interior of a subway station in Moscow  (wikipedia)
 3 -- Moscow Metro (Russia)Like any mass transit system, Moscow’s subway system is frequently crowded and congested. Unlike other metros however, each station in the Russian capital is practically a museum within itself. These eclectic “peoples palaces” feature all manner of artistic styles and architecture including sculptures, friezes, chandeliers, stained glass windows, mosaics and historical reliefs from all aspects of life such as sports, war, industry, agriculture and history. The system began in the 1930s but the cultural magic remains today. 

Interior of the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy  (wikipedia)
 4 – Orvieto (Italy) – The city of Orvieto sits upon a relatively flat volcanic outcropping of rock with vertical cliffs that not only make it dramatic, but naturally impregnable as well. Combined with its spectacular setting, Oriveto lays claim to a vast labyrinth of tunnels beneath its surface. The Duomo, or cathedral, which began in 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV, is an architectural masterpiece. If that isn’t enough, Umbrian wines are superb.
The facade of the magnificent Treasury in Petra, Jordan  (wikipedia) 
 5 – Petra (Jordan) Discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt who disguised himself as a Bedouin to gain access, the “rose-red city half as old as time” has been listed by Smithsonian Magazine as one of “28 Places to See Before You Die.” This ancient Nabataean city located in modern-day Jordan is accessed through a narrow mile long canyon that eventually opens to the sculpted façade of the Treasury. Indiana Jones fans will recognize it immediately, but seeing it in person is infinitely more impressive.

Cascading water at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia  (wikipedia)
 6 -- Plitvice Lakes (Croatia) – If you like cascading water, then you will love the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. No less than 16 lakes merge in a myriad of natural dams and layered rock formations to create an incredible series of canyons and vegetation. Thanks to mineral content in the water, the lakes become a kaleidoscope of alternating colors which changes according to the sunlight. Plitivice gives new meaning to the word “waterfall.”

Ancient street in Pompeii with lanes for chariot traffic  (wikipedia) 
  7 – Pompeii (Italy) – The biggest surprise you will get at Pompeii is how big it is. The onetime Roman city that was covered in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD is a fascinating look into the life and times of the Roman Empire at its peak. Visit with a guide for a wealth of information as you savor the excavated ruins of daily Roman life.

Interior of Temppeliaukio Church, constructed within a giant rock in Helsinki, Finland  (wikipedia)
  8 – Rock Church (Finland) – What do you do when you have a giant rock in the center of town? You turn it into a church. That is what architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen did when they designed Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki. The church features a glazed dome that allows natural light to pour through the interior. Because of the rock surfaces that comprise the walls, the Rock Church has superb acoustics that make it a popular site for concerts.
The incredible frescoes of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in Rome  (wikipedia)
  9 -- Sistine Chapel (Vatican City) – Michaelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have been a masterpiece since they were completed in 1512. For nearly 500 years the stunning beauty of the ceiling enthralled visitors from all over the world. In 1984, a controversial restoration, which lasted two and half times longer to complete than it took the Florentine artist to paint the original, gave bold new meaning to the work. When the chapel re-opened in 1994, the magnificent colors that had been muted for almost five centuries completely altered previous interpretations of Michelangelo’s work and his techniques.
Ancient sculptures and temples as Sukhothai, Thailand  (wikipedia) 
10Sukhothai (Thailand) The ruins of the ancient capital of modern-day Thailand are both mysterious and exotic. The Kingdom lasted two hundred years from 1238 until 1438. The ancient civilization filled with temples and Buddhas surrounded by lush vegetation transports visitors back in time to the realities of the past in a manner normally found only in the imagination.

Tunnel to paradise at Plitvice National Park in Croatia
This list is by no means definitive. Be brave. Challenge yourself to boldly journey through new gates of discovery.