Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas and Happy New year

Best wishes to all my readers for the festive season. My thanks to you all for your support, comments and ideas throughout the year. Travel Wonders will close for a week restarting soon after the New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Discover the Most Beautiful Villages in France

With its excellence in selling itself, the French encourage visitors to enjoy some of France's most elegant and photogenic villages. Highlighting villages with populations of less than 2000 people that boast at least two historic monuments or sites and striking architecture, unique culture or natural beauty, an initial book published in the early 1980s led to an association of around 150 villages that proudly call themselves The Most Beautiful Villages in France. Sprinkled throughout the country and highlighted by the above logo, here are ten personal favourites from those that I have visited over the years in this most enchanting of European countries.


Bordering the sparkling beauty of Lac Léman (as the French call Lake Geneva), this medieval fishing village with its stone houses and wooden balconies glisten in geranium and wisteria blooms in summer. Whether wandering its narrow streets spotting signs of its ancient castle its 700 years of history, paddling the shores in a tiny canoe or enjoying the colour of the Garden of Five Senses, Yvoire is a wonderful diversion heading towards Switzerland.


Experiencing Rousillon has two contrasting feels - the narrow paths, archways and roughened walls of the historic village (over 1000 years old) and the other-worldly trail through the golden yellows, burnt oranges and flame reds of the largest ochre deposits in Europe. The area is sprinkled with painters and their easels enjoying the rich colours and strange shapes of the historically-valued clay fields or the towering bell tower and expressive town squares.


Surrounded by its World Heritage-listed defensive walls and shaped like a boomerang, the tiny town offers its best panorama from Fort Liberia. Boasting delicate formations in its neighbouring limestone cave, the town is the launching pad for the superb Pyreneean rail journey on the Little Yellow Train.

More of France's most beautiful villages can be found here.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Exploring the Christmas Markets (England)

guest post by David Collins of

Each year, cities in the UK play host to continental markets, bringing with them delicious food, warming drinks and a whole host of gifts and knick-knacks for the festive season. City centres seem to sprout wooden shacks, which sell everything from wooden toys, glassware and quirky little gifts that can make perfect stocking fillers.

As well as the trinket shops, the smell of freshly cooked food and mulled wine emanating from the food stands is enough to draw you in with the promise of something to warm you up against the cold winter air. Christmas markets can be a perfect opportunity to try new things and stock up on gifts for your friends and family.

Many of the Christmas markets are open from 10am to 9pm, although this can vary from place to place, so it’s always best to double check before you travel. Here are just a few location ideas to help you decide which one to visit:

London (mid-November – Christmas Eve)

There are a number of market areas around the capital, from the bustling streets of Camden to the banks of the River Thames, where you can stop by on a shopping trip to London and enjoy some food and drink and even pick up a gift or two along the way.

The Cologne Christmas Market runs from the Southbank Centre to the iconic London Eye, and is also located a short walk away from some of the main tourist draws in London – including the Houses Of Parliament and Tower Bridge.

So why not spend a festive weekend in the capital? Be wary that hotels in London (as well as the other cities on this list) can get busy over the Christmas period, so book as early as you can to ensure you get the most out of your visit, and may be look into getting an Oyster card for the duration of your stay, to make travelling around the city by bus and Tube that little bit cheaper.

Lincoln (early December)

Lincoln plays host to one of the oldest and most established UK Christmas markets, and whilst it may not be the longest, the Lincoln market is one of the most popular. Set in and around the grounds of the city’s cathedral and within the walls of Lincoln Castle, which comes alive with stalls selling everything from wooden trinkets to tasty foodstuffs from the continent, as well as a host of live entertainment to help get you into the festive mood.

Most of the market takes place at the top of Steep Hill, but there are also a few stalls in the city centre, allowing you an excellent chance to do some Christmas shopping. The nearest train station is at Lincoln Central and there is also a Park’n’Ride service available from the Lincoln Showground on the outskirts of the city, which will drop you off in the vicinity of the main market.

Birmingham (mid-November – Christmas Eve)

Being twinned with Frankfurt, Birmingham is home to the largest German Christmas market outside of Austria and Germany, and has become a favourite for UK tourists. From New Street station you can step straight into the festivities and enjoy perusing the festive gifts and foods on offer, why not combine your visit to the Bullring shopping centre, with a stroll around the market this holiday season?

Manchester (mid-November – few days before Christmas)

There are eight market sites spread around the city of Manchester, including outside the town hall at Albert Square and Exchange Square, where you’ll find a number of big name brands and the famous Manchester Wheel – a ferris wheel which gives you spectacular views of the city from above.

To make the most of a visit to Manchester, take the train to Manchester Victoria station and begin your journey around the market stalls at the Manchester Wheel, where you’ll also find shopping centres such as the Triangle and the Arndale Centre as well as the entertainment centre at Printworks, where you’ll find a selection of restaurants and an IMAX cinema.

You’ll find wooden market shacks along the way as you head towards the main market at Albert Square, where you’ll find the majority of the food stalls and a sheltered bar area where you can enjoy some mulled wine and continental beers and ales to finish off a busy day of shopping.

Liverpool (late November – few days before December)

Liverpool’s Christmas market has grown from year to year, and this year promises to be one of the biggest in the UK. With stalls selling crafts and foodstuffs from all over the world, present at locations all around the city centre, giving you the chance to make a day of it and explore the stalls along with a visit to the Liverpool One shopping centre.

So why not make the most of a seasonal city break with a visit to a Christmas market as part of your trip? Take in the sights, do a bit of shopping before warming up with some hot food and drink from the continent.

Photo Credits: London, Lincoln, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool Santa Dash

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pont du Gard: A Roman Marvel (France)

The first sight of Pont du Gard is striking. Set in a picturesque valley and with its towering three arched structure reflected into the peaceful river below, it is extraordinary to realise that the bridge was built around the time of Christ as part of a water supply system to the Roman capital of the area, Nîmes (which is well worth a visit with its Roman amphitheatre, Roman house and ancient gates). The huge limestone blocks (many over a tonne) are held together without mortar – a remarkable Pyramid-like construction effort.

Its three layer grand arch stands nearly 50 metres tall (the highest Roman aqueduct in the world) and delivered 200 million litres of water per day from the springs in Uzès to the good folks of Nîmes (the exit point still exists today). The engineering for the times is exceptional, the waterway dropping just seventeen metres over the distance of 50 kilometres (the water took over a day to make its full journey, much of it via underground trenches) and the bridge being responsible for a drop of just one inch over its span of half a kilometre.

Somewhat fortunately, the bridge survived the middle ages, being a tollway granted to the church in exchange for maintaining the structure.

Walks in the area (as well as across the bridge) offer a variety of views of the bridge and surrounding area with information signs along the paths highlighting the rich history of the bridge. Sadly the bridge is ridiculously popular in summer and has been somewhat commercialised with mediocre extras such as a museum, film and info centre.

Being so shallow, the waters of the Gard River are warm, many visitors escaping the heat of southern France by swimming, canoeing or liloing on the gently flowing stream.

Go early in the day to avoid the crowds and the heat, the Pont du Gard being only a short 25 kilometres from Avignon. It makes for a worthwhile diversion to marvel at the remarkable scientific and engineering skills of the Romans, protected with its entry on the World Heritage List).

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

e-Book Review: Ultimate Tech Guide for Travelers (Anil Polat)

Anil Polat, the author of the popular travel blog Foxnomad has just launched his e-book titled The Ultimate Tech Guide for Travelers. He kindly sent me a complimentary copy for review.

With a professional career as a computer security consultant and as a long term traveller, Polat is almost uniquely qualified to write on his pet topic. With a striking design, the book is easy to read, well written and targeted for anyone with a little computer familiarity but is bound to have some new ideas for the fairly experienced computer user. It is packed with money-saving ideas for using computers on the road, a place fraught with expensive hotel wifi and dodgy internet cafes. It is targeted at both Windows and Mac users with lessons for Linux users as well.

The e-book is rich in links to sites that offer further detail or explanation on a specific topic along with links and suppliers and companies of recommended services. One excellent aspect of the design is the highlighting of key tips which stand out when referencing the book at a later date.

The nine chapters covers all the major areas of travelling with computers including:
- selection of the most suitable computer for travel;
- finding free or inexpensive software for email, photo editing, office tasks, language translation, travel budgeting and data security;
- backing up data (in multiple places);
- securing data;
- establishing wireless connections on the road (even in remote locations);
- good habits at internet cafes;
- getting open internet access in restrictive countries;
- using e-book readers and mobile (cell) phones
- great tricks and tips for getting discounts while travelling (such as cheaper airline flights and saving 30% on Apple purchases).

Most importantly, Polat backs his book with six months of free consulting to assist the purchaser to setup their own computer travel setup whether it be to save photos on the way or setup free telephony back home. It also includes a year of free updates and is available on Kindle and Nook, along with being a standard PDF.

At $37, the price is on the high-end for travel e-books though it is an excellent resource. However by taking advantage of two or three of the tips could comfortably save more than the cost even before considering the value of six months of access to Polat's expertise (you typically can't get much consulting time for $37 so this alone makes it good value - don't hesitate to take advantage of it). That makes for excellent value and hence Ultimate Tech Guide for Travelers is a book and resource that I can heartily recommend.

Disclosure: Travel Wonders receives a small commission on any sale of the book made from this website.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Photo of the Week: Cotopaxi (Ecuador)

Photographed almost a decade ago, Cotopaxi cuts an impressive figure at sunset in darkening conditions. Ironically it was covered in cloud nearly all day but the clouds lifted just as the last vestiges of sunshine lit this Ecuadorian giant. Still an active volcano, it stands just under an imposing 6000 metres with a rough road that runs to an overnight hut (mainly for climbers) at 4600 metres.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Seven Tips for Effective Travel Insurance

Guest post written by Mark of Travel Wonders on behalf of, providers of travel essentials including travel insurance, car hire and airport parking.

I continue to be surprised by the number of travellers I meet that are uninsured relying on little more than good fortune. Travel insurance typically includes a variety of benefits such as medical and injury expenses, loss of bags, unavoidable interruption to travels, Evacuation and/or medical care in some countries is astronomically priced and no treatment will be forthcoming without up-front payment.

Read the Policy

While insurance policies can appear a little daunting, it is important that you read the terms and conditions before signing or paying for any travel insurance. It is an individual’s own personal responsibility that they have the required coverage for their journey. Check for suitable coverage for the countries on the itinerary, the planned activities, the traveller’s age (policies typically have explicit terms for people over a certain age) and for any pre-existing medical conditions. All the tips below require that the policy is checked carefully - this is one time to sweat the details.

Use a Comparison Site

Avoid taking the travel insurance offered with travel agencies. It is one of the highest margin elements of an agent’s business with large commissions paid by insurance companies and rarely offers good value. Travel insurance comparison sites offer quick and easy contrast between different companies based on price and features. After all, if the agent works out cheaper, you can always go back and take out the insurance.

Insure Early

It is strongly recommended to obtain your insurance early. Though the payment is related to the length of the actual holiday, coverage automatically commences for unavoidable cancellation or delay of your holiday.

Ensure Coverage for Planned Activities

Many policies have exclusions including snow skiing, scuba diving, golf, rock climbing and trekking. Ensure that any planned activities are covered by your policy (even if it costs more) by checking the policy document before signing up. Many policies require that the traveller informs the insurer of the adventurous activity before departure.

Understand Coverage For Costly Items

Ensure that you understand and have desire coverage for expensive single items such as photography equipment, laptops and electronic gadgets. Some travel insurance policies have a single item maximum which can be extended for an extra fee. Some home contents insurance policies also provide coverage for portable goods for an increased premium.

Avoid Excess Car Hire Insurance

Most car hire companies demand an extra fee of $20 to $30 to waive or reduce the outrageous excess on car insurance, often several thousands of dollars. Travel insurance typically pays out the excess on car rental insurance if you have an accident in the rental vehicle.

Multiple Trip Coverage

A number of insurers offer good value for year long coverage for multiple journeys or vacations (as against one year-long holiday). Each journey is typically limited to periods of 30 or 45 days, but can include as many vacations as you wish. If you foresee having more than one break, often including breaks in your home country (read the policy), then take the multiple-trip insurance policy.

Stories on the internet and in magazines are rife of dream holidays spoiled by a failure to insure or by a badly chosen insurance policy. Make insurance an aspect of planning a trip and help ensure that an unexpected event during a holiday is only an inconvenience and not a long term financial disaster.

Photo Credits: stretcher

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Drinks Around the World: Bibicaffe (Italy)

Again a product of an age-old family recipe, Bibicaffe is one of the more unusual soda drinks I have ever tasted. Bibicaffe is a bottled, mildly carbonated coffee drink - a sparkling espresso. While a fraction sweet to me (though at least it is real cane sugar), Bibicaffe has subtle flavours of caramel and vanilla woven into a strong coffee flavour, presenting one of the most unusual drinks I've tried and very refreshing straight from the bottle (small bottle with the traditional bottlecap) on a hot Italian day (exploring Pompeii).

Alternatively, Bibicaffe is served in cafes poured over ice and with a dash of cream (like a bubbly macchiato). Reading their website, it is also used in a range of suggested cocktails. Incidentally, the Bibicaffe website is one of the most painful and cheesy sites I've ever witnessed with cringe-worthy music and painful cartoon-like graphics. Visit at your peril!!

For those who like coffee, Bibicaffe is well worth trying when exploring the wonders of Italy. Whether it is for refreshment or a bit of a lift, it is one of the most unusual and best soda drinks I've drunk and a real taste of Italy.
Travel Wonders highlights a characteristic drink experienced on his travels. Prior articles have featured drinks as widely varied as Vietnamese slow-drip coffee, Austrian Almdudler, Green Mint Tea from Morocco and cherry beer (Belgium).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Photography in the Himalayas (Nepal / India)

Two close friends of mine have recently departed for a trip to the Indian Himalayas for a multi-week trek. Before leaving, we had a long discussion about SLR photography needs based on my prior travels to Nepal and India. This article summarises some of our thoughts on photography for such a region. Many of the ideas apply equally to African safaris and other long treks and hikes in more remote parts of the world. While the list is hardly exhaustive, hopefully it will prompt some thoughts before embarking on travel to this mountain wonderland.

Batteries are a significant challenge in Nepal and India. The cold saps the life of batteries and recharging batteries can be difficult. Take a number of camera batteries and charge them in the teahouses wherever a source of power (typically solar or generator) can be found. Most importantly, keep your batteries warm by wrapping them in a beanie or jacket and keep them in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night. Keep spare batteries warm in your pack during the day. Remove the active battery from your camera before going to bed. Save considerable battery life by limiting the use of the on-board flash and limiting the viewing of images on the LCD display.

By contrast, keep the camera cool. On the day of the main pass of the trek I undertook, the temperature before dawn (when we set off) was -25°C (-13°F). If the camera is taken from the warmth of a sleep bag then it will instantly mist up due to the sharp contrast in temperatures. Leave the camera settle into the ambient temperature before setting out.

Bring lots of memory cards (or an external storage device). The Himalayas are photogenic attracting many more photos can you’ll plan on taking so pack those extra cards. Change cards regularly to avoid risking all your photos to a single card.

Plan out exactly what gear you want to walk with each day. Lens, cameras and accessories weigh a fair amount that may be regretted in the rarefied air of higher altitudes.

Dust is difficult to manage in these regions. Every time that you swap lens, dust sneaks into your camera. Keep your gear as clean as possible (a job for each evening) and keep lens swapping to a minimum. It is disappointing and hugely time-consuming to remove dust spots off thousands of photos at the end of a journey (and they show up badly against blue skies and snow-capped mountains). An ounce of prevention...

As in most locations, the early morning and dusk provide wonderful photos. The mountains are painted in a golden yellow, the morning skies are often at their clearest and the small mountain villages are a buzz of activity.

Panoramas help capture the amphitheatre of towering snow-capped mountains that consistently surrounds your trekking in the Himalayas. Become practised in taking panorama sequences of photos before you leave to capture the stunning mountain vistas that accompany your trek. I strongly recommend Autostitch (see Autostitch guide) for joining the photos together later and start and finish each sequence with a meaningless photo to help easily identify the groupings after download. Overlay each photo generously (I suggest 20 to 30 percent) and keep the camera settings the same for the full sequence.

Keep a notebook detailing the names of the mountains and villages. With a bundle of photos and a fading memory, it is difficult to identify the mountains photographed when sorting through them back in the comfort of your own home. If it is important to you, only noting names as you go avoids confusing your shots of Thamserku from your photos of Gyachung Kang.

Most treks pass several Buddhist monasteries (gompa), a location of spiritual succour to most of the local population. Note that the sherpas and porters treat these locations with reverence. Ask permission before photographing inside the monastery and before photographing any people. Note that the monasteries are dark so consider cranking up the ISO or find a place to rest the camera. In my experience, the porters and sherpas are familiar with travellers’ photography habits and are happy to be photographed while many other local people are very uncomfortable. If you promise to send photos back, then follow your commitment through.

Take lots of photographs and include many incidental events and sights along the path each day. The steep roughly hewn stone stairs, the yaks, the campsite or teahouses, the rickety bridges, the prayer flags, village life and the landscape all add to the overall trekking experience.

Most importantly, spend considerable time without your camera. The Himalayas are a spectacular natural travel wonder of the world that heightens the senses. Stop and enjoy the exceptional vistas of the world’s highest mountains, the freshness of the mountain air, the rage of the mountain streams, the colour and sounds of the monasteries, the buzz of village life and the refines culture of the Buddhist people.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Benefits of a European Cruise -v- a Package Holiday

by Gill Cruise

Want to get the most bang for your holiday buck? Then choose a European cruise rather than a package holiday. While package holidays often include transportation, tours and some meals, these holidays cannot compare with the variety and quality available to those who choose a European cruise.

Tour Options
When you choose a package holiday, tours are often part of the deal. The problem is that there is often very little room to customize the tours to suit your interests. For example, if you're into historical sites but the available tour centres around art, you may be forced to skip the historic sites completely.

With a European cruise, you are free to spend your time in port however you wish. You can choose from a variety of tours and outings or simply explore on your own. In most cases, each tour is paid for separately, so you never pay for a tour that you do not take.

All of the time spent in port is free time and can be spent in ways that most interest you whether that means lounging on a beach, exploring historic sites or spending the afternoon shopping.

Meal Plans
It's no secret that meals on board a cruise ship are amazing. Good luck trying to stick to a diet if you prefer cruise holidays! While finding it difficult to keep trim is a downside to the vast array of food choices on a cruise ship, the upside is that the variety means being able to eat what you want. If you want Italian and your spouse wants Mexican you can both have what you're craving. Another bonus? All meals and snacks are included on a cruise. Some meals may be included on a package holiday, but there will not be anywhere near the options.

Getting There is Half the Fun
A European holiday is certainly a great time, but getting there is not always so pleasant. When you opt for a package holiday, you may be forced to fly in cramped seats and often have to endure long layovers. With a cruise, however, getting there is half the fun!

While at sea, passengers enjoy an abundance of amenities such a shopping, swimming pools, fitness centres and nightly shows. You will be able to choose the type of cabin that you want. Whether you choose an affordable inside stateroom or a suite with a private balcony, the room is likley to be comfortable and well-appointed.

Unlike other types of holidays, when you choose a cruise, the transportation is not just a method of getting you to the holiday destination, but is instead part of the holiday experience.

Just a few of the many fabulous ports you may visit are described briefly below.

Lounge on the beach whilst working on your tan, or spend the day exploring on a boat tour to Morocco. If you're in the mood for a bit of adventure, consider rock climbing or white water rafting. There are also historic sites you can visit, such as Alhambra Palace (pictured).

Party the night away in one of the many clubs that have helped to put Ibiza on the map. If you're not into the party scene, there are also beautiful spots to explore which are protected as United Nations World Heritage Sites.

Spend your time in Barcelona visiting some of the dozens of museums or historical sites located in Spain's capital. If you're not in the mood for art and history, you can choose to spend your time sunning and relaxing on the beach whilst reading a good book.

You'll feel as though you have stepped back in time when you visit some of the many ancient arsenals, fortifications and other historic sites that are in the city. If you want to learn even more about the history of the area, make a stop to one of the museums that focus on local archaeology.

Stretch your legs after spending a few days out to sea by hiking, rafting or mountain biking whilst in Gibraltar. With many outdoor activities as well as museums and the famous Barbary apes, you will find plenty to do whilst in port here.

Choose a European cruise for your next breakaway. You'll be glad you did!

Photo Credits: Alhambra

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Photo of the Week: Lets Talk Turkey

As turkeys are a strong theme with the celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States, a photo of an Australian brush turkey (or scrub turkey) seemed appropriate. Unrelated to the American turkeys that are about to be feasted upon, the brush turkeys are popular in Australian bushland and picnic areas with limited fear of people.

These impressive birds live in groups with a communal nest tended by the dominant male. He monitors the temperature of the nest with his beak adding or removing leaves, stones and twigs to ensure the ideal incubation temperature. Their bright red and yellow head colouring and wattles make them a highlight of any bush walk.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In the Footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci - Part Four (Amboise, France)

See parts one, two and three covering Leonardo's boyhood years in Vinci, Leonardo's apprenticeship in Florence and Leonardo's time in Milan.

Leonardo’s time in Milan finished after the French occupied the city, starting sixteen years of travels around Italy in various roles, including visits to Venice, Florence and Rome. In this time, Leonardo continues to produce his extraordinary notes and work. During the time he painted the famous Mona Lisa before finally being offered a painting and advisory role to the French king and moving to the Loire valley and the town of Amboise. He took his valued belongings with him (including the Mona Lisa) a reason the Louvre holds five of Italian Leonardo’s rare paintings.

Leonardo was granted a mansion in Clos Luce connected by underground passage to Amboise Castle. This mansion still survives and pays homage to Leonardo with the house furnished in the style of Leonardo.

The property is surrounded by extensive leafy parklands with pleasant walking tracks lined with a number of models of Leonardo's works. Unlike in other museums, these models are made to be touched and enjoyed. The paddleboat can be ridden on the stream, the multiple firing gun can be fired, water raised from the river and the portable bridge crossed.

In a separate room, a number of his other models are on display highlight Leonardo’s fascination with flight and transport. His extraordinary vision for a geared car shows a model that will run on a spring for over 100 metres and a wooden tank that could be used in warfare.

Leonardo only lasted three years in Clos Luce before dying. Cherished by the French king, François 1,”No man ever lived who had learned as much about sculpture, painting, and architecture, but still more that he was a very great philosopher.”, his remains were buried in a chapel in Amboise Castle in a simple tomb.

For his time, Leonardo was exceptionally well travelled. Leaving behind precious little of his times outside of his drawings, famous paintings and notebooks, he is unmatched in history for his breadth of works and was unmatched for centuries in the inventiveness of his thoughts and ideas. As an engineer, he has left behind helicopters, gliders, armoured tanks and a parachute. His anatomical studies were not bettered for hundreds of years. Leonardo is the true “Renaissance Man” and has left enough snippets of his life to make travelling in his footsteps an intriguing journey.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

In the Footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci - Part Three (Milan, Italy)

See Leonardo's boyhood years in Vinci and Leonardo's apprenticeship in Florence before his time in Milan.

Leonardo received increased opportunities as he moved to Milan to serve the powerful Duke of Milan – a city of less than 80,000 people in 1480. Leonardo was partially adopted for his ability to design defences and war machines for the Duke – an ironic twist for this pragmatic but pacifist being. By this time, Leonardo was starting to become noteworthy and Milan has more evidence of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo also commenced his famous notebooks (or codices) filling between 20,000 and 30,000 densely filled pages packed with ideas, sketches, creations, maps and thoughts. Leonardo was a pioneer in virtually every field he studied and researched – an unmatched achievement in human history.

Broken up and sold over time, only 7,000 pages exist stored in twelve modern codices and held by various libraries and institutions (and one by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and one by The Queen of England) around the world. Most have been scanned and can be viewed through the internet to see the unusual mind of Leonardo – the same page potentially containing an anatomical sketch of a limb, notes on water flow and a drawing in preparation for a painting.

When virtually everyone wrote right-handed, Leonardo’s famously wrote left-handed and in a perfect mirror-script. Experts argue as to whether this was for a sense of secrecy or the practical reason of not smudging the ink before it dried.

On one page, Leonardo recorded his observations of fossils suggesting correctly that they were ancient creatures preserved by time. His notes include the identification of tracks and burrows left behind by ancient creatures, controversially against the teachings of the church (who claimed it was either from the Great Flood or simply bits of coincidental rock) and hence never spread beyond his notebook. Such ideas would only be matched by modern naturalists hundreds of years later.

On another page is the familiar Vitruvian Man highlighting the proportions of man (now in the Accademia in Venice) while another details a fully functioning robot capable of playing drums automatically.

I have sighted several of these codices though sadly most only go on display for special events. Codex Arundel at the British Museum and Codex Windsor at Windsor Castle are the most likely to be on public display while Bill Gates loans his codex on an annual display somewhere in the world. The two in Milan at the Ambrosiana Library (largest codex) and Sforza Castle are rarely sighted.

The highlight in Milan is undoubtedly Leonardo’s extraordinary Last Supper painted on a wall of the dining hall of the monastery at Santa Maria delle Grazie (visits are limited to a strict 15 minutes and only accessible by ticket – buy them well in advance online).

The outstanding Milan National Science and Technology Museum includes a rich selection of models from Leonardo’s notes highlighting paddle boats, gliders, cars, winches and cranes with notes from his pages showing the original drawings.

A cruise on The Milan canals (sadly many are now filled in) reveals much of Leonardo’s thinking at work. While the canals existed well before Leonardo’s time, he dramatically improved and interconnected them with the development of lock designs and sluices some of which remain in usage in Milan today.

Sforza Castle remains a major landmark in Milan, highlighting the power of the dukes in the middle ages. Today it hosts a number of museums and art galleries. Leonardo assisted in designing the defences of the castle (including a moat, now grassed) and decorated the Tower Room (sala delle asse) which was eventually given to him as his own private room. Leonardo constructed a bridge over the moat to gain access and decorated the room with an exceptional (but heavily restored) fresco of eighteen willow trees with a single golden rope intertwined and looped through the branches and the Sforza coat of arms in the centre.

Milan is an elegant city based on its unusual mix of fashion and finance, often excluded on Italian itineraries for the popular Florence, Rome and Venice. For those seeking the treasures of Leonardo, it highlights a number of elements of Leonardo’s life at the time when Leonardo was at his most prolific and inspirational.

The final part takes up Leonardo's last years in France.

Photo Credit: salle della asse

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