Escaleras Electricas: things to do in Medellin

Escaleras Electricas: things to do in Medellin

…or the giant urban escalators of Medellin

A system of outdoor escalators has been built in what was once one of the poorest parts of the city of Medellin.  The escaleras electricas: fun things in Medellin are educational  interesting and functional.

In the barrio (district) of Las Independencias, la Comuna 13 de Medellin sprawls down the impossibly steep mountainside.  Its residents – twelve thousand citizens – have benefited enormously from this public transport installation.

Escaleras electrica: fun things to do in Medellin

Comune 13 from the escaleras electricas

Not so long ago Comune 13 was considered dangerous and off limits to most people. Steeped in poverty, crime was rife among the narrow little streets and the inhabitants felt disengaged and forgotten by the government.  The area was little more than a slum or a shanty town until 2011 when everything changed.

Social impact of the urban escalators

The building of this new transport system has had several benefits.

  • It makes the residents feel a part of the city of Medellin; that the government does care about them enough to invest money in their run down area and now includes them in the modern transport systems that serves the city.
  • It makes day to day living a whole lot easier for the residents who no longer have to drag everything up and down hundreds of steps.
    • It opens the area up, enabling police and security forces easier access and the ability to respond more quickly to crime and troubles
    • It has provided a canvas for some astounding graffiti and street art and a space for community exhibits, performances and events which builds a more cohesive community among the residents.
    • It has opened the area up to tourists and visitors who are attracted by the street art and the views over the city. Some property prices have began to rise as new residents are attracted to this area and judging by the lovingly painted houses and tiny little gardens and terraces there is a pride in this area.
Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin

colourful houses scramble up the mountainside

1500 journeys are taken on these escalators daily, some by visitors or tourists but the majority are made by the local inhabitants of this area just going about their day to day business.  They travel to school or work, visit friends and family and get their post delivered.

Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin

Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin

Prior to the installation of this system the only way to reach the majority of the houses here was on foot.  People had to heave children, food and everything else up the 350 concrete steps and along the narrow alleyways which cling to the side of the incredibly steep hillside which is inaccessible to cars or busses.

The area became a no-go area for law enforcement because gangs and criminals could quickly and easily hide and escape from the police among the narrow alleyways because it could take so long for help to arrive; if anybody bothered to notify the authorities at all.

Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin

Street art

Comune 13 still has a reputation for danger and crime so be careful when you visit – but no more than in any city that you visit. Don’t wear expensive jewellery or flash your camera around – although you will want certainly want to bring your camera here. Check out the latest prices for the compact Panasonic Lumix camera here.  It is small enough to slip into your pocket when you are walking around but has a great zoom and is easy to use.

Colourful murals are everywhere. Even the tin roofs of the houses have not escaped the paint brushes and spray cans and they are adorned with flowers and birds which shine in the sun. University students, artists and local people have all contributed to the art which covers walls, doors and alleyways.

Escaleras Electricas: Fun things in Medellin

Obviously riding the escalators and peeping into people’s yards is fun.  Take your picture with some of the fantastic murals that are everywhere or you can take a slide down a part of the mountainside.  The architect obviously had a sense of fun with these slides.

The staff at the information centre were very helpful when we visited the area and as it was quiet, one lady joined us on our trip back down, pointing out some of the interesting art and even riding the slides with us.

Hopefully, the barrio will continue to be a safer place and vandalism, crime and disconnection will not set in again.  Medellin has an amazing city metro system which includes cable cars as well as the escalators and the city planners have been working hard to lift the city out of its shady past by opening up the previous dangerous spaces.

How to get there.  Take the Metro train to San Javier station. Cross the road outside the station at San Javier and wait for the bus # 221. Tell your driver that you want to get out at the escaleras eléctricas. You will be on the bus for about fifteen minutes. Leaving the bus you need to continue to climb, bearing slightly to the right. You will emerge at the top of the system of escalators where you will find the offices and administration centre for the transport system housed in a large concrete building. From here, its all downhill, although my friend Lisa (Girl about the Globe) and I went around a couple of times so that we could take it all in.

If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Medellin, there are plenty of places to choose from here at Hotels Combined

Medellin is a crowded sprawling city but it is relatively easy to navigate around and there are countless hotels to suit all budgets.

Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin

Street art

N.B.  At the time of writing the number of the bus was correct.

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Hue to Danang, Vietnam

Hue to Danang, Vietnam

We had crossed the border from Laos and we had travelled by bus to Hue which is a large city near to the coast in the middle of Vietnam.  In order to avoid the cold weather we had crossed just where the climate changes and where the country is divided by a range of mountains.  We planned to head south from Hue to Danang.

At first, after a month of peace and tranquillity with the down to earth people of Laos it took us quite a while to warm to Vietnam.


Gosia and I arrived in Hue quite late at night and we were quite overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos that surrounded us as we stepped off the bus.  It was like South America all over again as touts and porters tried to grab our bags and insisted that we use their taxis.

After the gentleness of Laos the noise was confusing and disorientating.

Hue to Danang

Hue to Danang – feeling disorientated after Laos

Neon lights flickered, horns blasted and the fumes from the motorbikes burnt our eyes and throats.

We had a night booked in a hostel and arriving there a party was in full swing.  What on earth had we let ourselves in for?

The Perfume River runs through the city of Hue.  Some lovely walks through parkland run alongside much of the river.  Modern office blocks and hotels rub shoulders with some lovely old houses.  Workers in business suits walk past shoe-shine men and traders who squat on the pavements.  And there are motor bikes everywhere.

We spent a couple of days in Hue acclimatising to a new language and new customs and window shopping.  It seems that everybody in Vietnam is a tailor or a seamstress and whole streets are dedicated to the craft of dressing you beautifully, quickly and cheaply.

The Imperial City and the Citadel

Probably the most impressive attraction in Hue is the Imperial City.  This massive complex is sited inside the Citadel – the whole of which is surrounded by walls and a moat.  Inside are many areas, including the Purple Forbidden City.

Hue to Danang

the Imperial City

Building began in 1804 and now the area has a UNESCO status to protect it.  While there is an effort to rebuild and renovate the damaged buildings it is sad to know that they were destroyed relatively recently during the Vietnamese/American war when house to house fighting took place in Hue.

I spent a good few hours wandering around the overgrown grounds with my Turkish friend Eray who I had met at the hostel.  There are intricate carvings on the doors and roofs and beautiful colours are painted on window shutters and enamel work.  Incense burns in large cauldrons and fish swim in ponds, yet in other places piles of rubble lie as testimony to the war.

Hue to Danang

the Imperial City

The train from Hue to Danang

Despite the ancient city we couldn’t really settle so we decided to head south from Hue to Danang.  The guidebooks told us that both the road and the railway journeys from Hue to Danang are quite spectacular and we opted for the train.  The books are right – it is a really beautiful train journey.

The tracks soar high up into the mountains and then swoop down towards the coast, passing through jungle and towns and villages.  At every single road crossing were men who were controlling the traffic and waving flags and there were even a couple of people stealing a ride on the top of the train carriages.


We got off the train in Danang and although we had planned to stay here for a couple of nights we soon decided against it once we had finished our coffee in a little cafe.  We asked the proprietor to negotiate a cab for us to the small beach town of My Khe which was nicknamed China Beach by the US soldiers who swamped it for R&R during the war.

The beach is basically a suburb of Danang and is not far down the coast and our guide book told us about a not-to-be-missed hostel there.  However, when we arrived in to the little town we were told by a vendor that this hostel had been closed down.  Suspicious of a scam to divert us to her brother’s hostel our cabbie phoned our planned destination, spoke to the owner and soon deposited us outside a small bar (no hostel) and proceeded to demand triple the agreed fare from us.

So far Vietnam was failing to impress us!

Hoa’s Bar

Hoa is a small man with a huge heart and he welcomed us into his bar, promising us that he would help us to get some cheap accommodation for the night and he assured us that the price quoted by the cab driver was correct and the staff in the coffee shop had been wrong.

Hoa was chatting with a couple of US veterans who had returned to live in the area and had made it their home and over a beer he told us how he had been forced to close his hostel by the authorities who wanted the land for development and he was now running the bar in this new area by the beach.

Hue to Danang

Hoa and his bar

After a cold beer and time spent with the irrepressible Hoa we began to feel a bit more positive and we arranged to return the following morning for breakfast and then again the following evening for a traditional family dinner which was to be cooked by Hoa’s wife and sister.

Marble Mountain

The town at the foot of the Marble Mountain is VERY strange.  The main occupation of just about everybody is sculpturing blocks of marble into statues.

Some of these statues are massive and destined for temples or large hotels; others are small and targeted at tourists from the line of shops which run along the main street.  Running the gauntlet of the touts who were determinedly trying to get us into their shops we set off to climb the Marble Mountain.

Hue to Danang

These statues were huge

Hundreds of stone steps and pathways crisscross up the steep mountain side (there is an elevator some of the way up for the less able).  Temples, statues and pagodas are tucked into every little nook and cranny.

Cave complexes spread into the mountain rocks like swiss cheese where you can find hidden grottos and both Hindhu and Buddhist temples.  In the pitch black depths of one you climb up a tight squeeze of a funnel and you emerge on the top of the mountain where you have some spectacular views.

As we looked all around we learnt (by eavesdropping on a tour guide) that there used to be five of these large mountains sticking up from the flat plain but they have been decimated by man’s desire for the marble.  The government has thankfully called a halt to any more quarrying but the town still chips away at huge blocks of marble which are transported in from other sites which are presumably being destroyed in the same way.

Hue to Danang

two of the remaining mountains

I also learnt from the same guide that during the war the Vietcong had a hospital on the mountain – in full view of the American air field and the beaches where their enemy troops lazed around and recuperated!

My Khe or China Beach

China Beach is a long side stretch of white sand and I guess in season is thronged with tourists but for now, Gosia and I had it to ourselves, apart from some fishermen who were paddling their small boats around.

I was particularity fascinated by these boats as they are just like the coracles that were on the rivers of Wales in the past.  Their roundness and similarity to corks bouncing along on the waves frightened every water hating molecule in my body although the skill of the fishermen had me in awe.

Hue to Danang


The Dragon Bridge, Danang

After a couple of nights at the beach we decided to give Danang another chance and we set off on a local bus for the weekend.  After the hospitality of Hoa and his family we were disappointed to have a total dragon of a bus conductor on the local bus – she insisted on charging us double for the journey – we had to pay a fare for our backpacks even though the bus wasn’t full – and then she made us get off the bus a good forty five minutes’ walk from out destination in the drizzle (it seemed that she understood our not so polite comments about her attitude in English!)

Luckily our hostel was nice and clean and breakfast was included but we were still both totally overwhelmed by the traffic in the streets.

Vietnam has a great culture of what I can honestly say is the best coffee in the world (in my opinion) and countless little cafes and coffee shops are on every street corner.  Bizarrely you usually sit on tiny little plastic stools all lined up facing the road – but actually this is perfect for traffic watching which is far more exciting than any television programme.

As we set off for the Dragon Bridge that night our receptionist warned us not to stand close to the head of the dragon.  Why on earth not?  We had made this special trip back to Danang and we wanted a good view from the road not from the banks of the river where the majority of the people were standing.

The police closed off the road bridge and pushed us all back towards the end.  This bridge has a large metal dragon snaking its way across the centre which at weekends breaths fire.  The head clicked and whirred and then flames began belching from the dragon’s mouth.

In the darkness and the light drizzle it was hot but not unbearable.  Our receptionist obviously was erring on the side of caution and Gosia and I were looking forward to finding a club and going out dancing after the fire demonstration.  We took pictures and awed and ahhed with the crowd – and then the flames turned to smoke.

Hue to Danang

The dragon bridge

The dragon was puffing out steam high into the night sky.  Then to our horror, the steam condensed when it hit the cold air…….. and it fell to the ground in a torrent!  It was as if a million buckets of water had been tipped over us all at once and we were soaked through to the skin!

There was no escape as wave after wave fell heavily onto us and then we simply had to see the funny side and laugh.  There was no dancing for us that night as we made our way back to the hostel and dry out our money, our phones and our underwear.

We had seen a wide variety of things from Hue to Danang but now we decided to get a bus further south to Hoi An.  Maybe we would like that town better.


Champasak shadow puppets, Vat Phou & more

Champasak shadow puppets, Vat Phou & more

We had a dilemma!  Gosia and I were planning to spend New Year in the 4000 Islands in the far south of Laos, but the question was, should we break our journey and go and see the Champasak shadow puppets? 

Champasak sounded like a tiny one street town (it was), with few guesthouses (true) and not many tourist attractions (correct), so should we press the pause button for a few days or continue to Laos?

Champasak: Shadow puppets & Vat phou

on the way to Champasak: nobody is around

We flipped a coin and it came up as a yes. Since I started travelling I have allowed myself to trust in fate more and more and as a result my self-confidence has been growing – to such an extent that I now coach others.

As the bus driver pulled up alongside a deserted beach on the banks of the river Mekong and dumped us out onto the sand we began to wonder about trusting our luck to a toss of a coin when there was no visible means of a crossing in sight.

After a thirty minute wait, some floating planks (a ferry) eventually approached and we were taken across to Champasak. 

Champasak; shadow puppets and Vat Phou

Champasak: the ‘ferry’

Champasak: the village 

It’s stretching it a bit to call Champasak a town as it is just a couple of streets.  They are however very long and lined with little ‘shops’ which all sell the same noodles, crisps and sweets and drinks with not a lot else. 

The budget accommodation mostly consists of various little wooden cabins.  They are usually grouped around leafy gardens and with dining areas suspended over the Mekong on wooden decks. Most offer breakfast or lunch time snack and nearly all are quiet, calm and peaceful.


breakfast in Champasak

There are a few choices of small places to eat and just at the edge of the village is a neat place – the Nakorn cafe and restaurant where you can get really decent coffee and food and is run by a Belgium man called Jacques and his wife. 

The Champasak shadow puppets.

The Champasak shadow puppet theatre was the main reason that Gosia and I had wanted to stop in this tiny town and we were certainly not disappointed.

Champasak: shadow puppets, Vat Phou

Champasak: shadow puppets

Drinking coffee and Thai iced milk tea in the Nakorn coffee shop we met Yves Bernard, the director and the man who had brought the old puppets and the theatre back to life through his project the Theatre de Ombres de Champasak ATOC.

The theatre had ‘disappeared’ in 1975 but six years ago the puppets were discovered in the back of an old temple.

Yves who is originally from France came to stay and helped the local people to dust off their puppets, get out their instruments and revitalise this ancient art. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

after the show – demonstrating the puppets

You have a choice of two shows – depending on the day of the week that you are in town.

  1. The tale of Phralak-Phralam: the Lum Siphandon song which you can see on a Tuesday and Friday or
  2. Cinema Tuk-tuk:  Chang, once upon a time in the jungle.  This is Cooper and Scoedsack’s black and white movie about everyday life in North Laos in the 1920s and set to live music on a Wednesday and Saturday

We paid our small entrance fee and we went in to watch the tale of Phralak-Phralam.  As we chose our places on the colourful raffia mats and the floor cushions one of those big fat, blood red full moons rose alongside us above the river Mekong, the crickets chirruped and the sky was dusted with brilliant stars. 

The ‘theatre’ was outdoors under a canopy of trees where the scents of night jasmine and frangipani mingled with the sweet smell of sandalwood from the village cooking fires. 

Local children had free access to all of the shows and a small group of them shoved and giggled on the benches at the side of the little arena while the small audience of just 24 settled down and got comfortable. 

The troupe of 13 musicians joined us and sat together cross legged, smoking and laughing while they tuned up their traditional instruments. 

Yves Bernard stood and outlined the storyline to us in his native French and halting English. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

the musicians start to tune up

I got a little bit confused and once the play started I got hopelessly lost but it didn’t matter: it was magical!

The music the puppets, the narration in Lao, the stunning setting – it all combined into one of those truly never-to-be-fogotten experiences.

Yet it was all so simple. 

A sheet strung between some trees and a few spotlights; actors working their puppets on sticks; the musicians who were having a fine old time and a chilled audience sprawling on the floor.

We could have been any group of people from any time in the previous two hundred years spending a summer evening together.

After the show Yves explained how the musicians were all local men who got on with their normal lives during the day time.

 Allegedly, the best musician in the South of Laos is a blind man and he plays in this orchestra.  Another of the men regularily rises at 4am to take 40 ducks on the back of his motorbike to sell in Pakse market, the director of the project works at the temple and one man is a hairdresser operating out of his garage.  

These were physically tough men – hard and wiry with muscles from a life time of hard work and with skin and teeth which glittered under the full moon.  

They played the most intricate and traditional Laotian instruments and together they transported us to another realm for the duration of the show.

If you have read some of my other articles about Laos, you will remember that I have told you about the author Colin Cotterill.  

One of his books – Thirty Three Teeth – includes a story-line about superstitions in Laos (well most of his books do because the Lao tend to be superstitious people).  

Colin’s books are well worth a read and are written with beatifully descriptive language and humour and as a bonus the royalties from his sales are distributed to good causes within Laos. 


To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.


Vat Phou – some ancient Khmer culture

The day following the Champasak shadow puppets, Gosia and I hired bicycles and foolishly headed off under the mid-day sun.  We cycled along the road for about an hour, passing clusters of the cutest Laotian cows and we were overtaken by farmers driving their strange two wheeled tractors known as Iron Buffalos or Tak-taks while people worked in the paddy fields, farming by hand or with buffalo. 

Champasak: shadow puppets

iron buffalo

Expecting a bunch of ruins and temples similar to all of the others that we had seen we were amazed by Vat Phou (the name is often Westernised into Wat Pho)

We were yet to visit Siem Reap but this temple in Laos which was built between the 7th and 12th century is an offshoot of that ancient Khmer complex. 

Pronounced ‘wat poo’ this temple is built into the side of a sacred mountain and is accessed by a scramble of steep, stone, lichen covered steps. 

At the base of the mountain are two large reservoirs of water and everywhere there are large stones and columns from collapsed buildings. 

Champasak: Vat Phou

Champasak: Vat Phou

Wandering around the remaining standing buildings in the silence that accompanies the hottest part of the day I could feel the energy crackling around me and I could fully understand why the Khmer chose to build their temple here. 

Hauling ourselves up this stairway to heaven we passed under a corridor of fragrant frangipani trees.  The view across the plain below was uninterrupted rural-ness and an aura of peace and serenity bathed this spiritual place.  You could feel the energy seeping into your body and mind.

Champasak: Vat Phou

Champasak: Champasak: Vat Phou

We wandered among the large boulders which crowded the land at the back of the shrine and we found the rock believed to have been a sacrificial altar.  There were also rocks carved with crocodiles and other creatures.

We sat quietly and looked down over the plain and we saw how the holy water ran around and through the shrines to Buddha, cleansing and purifying as it flowed. 

This temple complex is yet another reason why you shouldn’t by-pass this tiny town.


Forgotten palaces 

We extended our stay in our little wooden cabin (shed) for a further night and taking to our bicycles we followed the river.  We rode through small indigenous communities where life is still lived almost exactly as it has been lived for years.

Champasak: Vat Phou


Dilapidated wooden houses on crooked stilts cluster around the river edge, and whole families hung and swung in their hammocks in the shade or dozed on the cots (bamboo platforms) which were outside every home.

Smoke lazily rose from the charcoal and wood cooking fires and little children shouted ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to us as we passed.

Dodging chickens and sleeping dogs we pedalled along the overgrown path by the river until we came to a couple of grand houses.

These were once the summer palaces of the King of Champasak but they had long since been abandoned.  Monks had adopted the grounds and some of the buildings into one of their temples, but the grand facades are slowly decaying and crumbling as nature claims them back for her own. 

Despite wandering miles from anywhere among the jungle paths and small hamlets of inquisitive people we never felt unsafe or worried.  The Lao are a beautiful gentle people. 

STAY A WHILE IN CHAMPASAK.  Allow her to weave her magic around you too.

What interests you? What would you like to learn more about?

The Smash the Pumpkin Project shows you how you can explore new things and integrate them into your life.  You will engage with a series of personal challenges that will guide you to more self-confidence and self esteem while you follow your dreams and passions.

If theatre or performance lights your fire, shadow puppets are an amazing art form to explore.  You don’t need to go all the way to Laos – but who knows.  Why not!

Click on the button below to find out more about the project


Smash the Pumpkin

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Top things to do in Milan:  Scarlet’s Travel Guide

Top things to do in Milan: Scarlet’s Travel Guide

What are the top things to do in Milan?

If you have 3 days in Milan you can cover most of the sights and get a really good feel for this Italian city.

Milan is a chic, charming city full of style. Quietly confident yet understated, it’s full of little boutique cafes and bars where people watching is the local pastime.

Milan’s Duomo

Top things to do in Milan

Milan’s duomo

The centre of the city is dominated by the Duomo – the massive cathedral which was begun in 1387 but which wasn’t completed until the 1960s.

For the best ‘wow’ factor transfer into the city centre via the metro and if you are lucky choosing your exit from the station you will come up the steps and exit into the piazza and see the main facade of the cathedral directly in front of you.

The Duomo’s dome completely dominates the skyline yet it appears to float to float delicately above the huge piazza on which it sits.

Despite its massive size, the intricate stonework and marble gives it a feather-soft beauty, catching the changes in the light and ensures that it looks magical whatever the weather.

If you are physically able to, do pay to go up inside the tower and explore the roof of the cathedral. Clambering around on the sloping lead tiles and scrambling up and down steps at eye level with the old stone gargoyles, you really get an idea of the sheer scale of the building.

The main roof slopes gently away either side of the ridge but it’s easy to negotiate and there are many small corridors, balconies and nooks and crannies to discover.

The view across the rooftops  of Milan from the top of the Duomo is, as you would expect, quintessentially Italian with countless domes and stone church towers poking up between the rusty coloured terracotta roof tiles.

Flocks of pigeons scatter in the path of children who run around on the large chequered piazza below and over in the distance you can see snow capped mountains.

For the best view of Milan’s Duomo

There is a large department store called La Rinascente which is just alongside the Duomo.

Take the escalator to the 7th floor where you will find a row of restaurants and bars and arguably the best place to experience the Duomo as you are looking AT it, rather than from it.

These little bars range from ‘not so cheap’ to posh, but do order a drink and sit and watch the tourists who are watching you from the balconies of the cathedral.

In nearly all of the bars in Milan you will be given tiny little plates of nibbles to go with your drinks. These nibbles can range from some nuts in a bowl to dainty crostini, pieces of chorizo or cheese and olives, to hunks of bread or cakes.

Snacking in Milan

Going out for a drink in the early evening in Milan can take this snacking cuisine to a whole new level. Track down a bar which is serving aperitivi and you are sorted.

Buying a drink (choose a Negroni or a sbagliato) in one of these bars advertising aperitivi and you will get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The drink may cost a little bit more, but the food will certainly make up for it. A myriad of tapas style snacks or a large pot of stew served with beans, a bar somewhere in Milan will be serving something that you like to eat.

And to drink? Milan has made the aperol spritz its own. Made with prosecco, Aperol and soda water and served in oversized wine glasses over ice and a slice of an orange, you should order one, settle back in your seat and watch the world go by.

top things to do in Milan

Aperol spritzer

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

For a shopping centre with style, visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is also in the main square with Milan’s Duomo.   

When it was constructed it was way ahead of its time, and now the iron and glass arcades are filled with the likes of Prada and Gucci and old-style cafes where waiters silently glide around in starched cotton aprons.

The architect Giuseppe Mengoni plummeted to his death from the glass roof just before the project was completed.

To ward off similar bad luck, stand on the testicles of the mosaic of the bull which is set into the floor near the centre and spin on your heel.

top things to do in Milan

shopping in style

The Last Supper

Probably one of the most iconic paintings in the world is in Milan.

Technically not a painting but a fresco The Last Supper is well worth a visit but you will need to be a bit of a detective to obtain a ticket.

You can always buy a grossly overpriced ticket from an agent and you can of course, go along to the ticket office, but tickets generally sell out days or even weeks in advance in high season.

There is a website but I personally didn’t find it to be very user-friendly and I resorted to asking an Italian friend of a friend to organise one for me.

However, once you are armed with your ticket and you have found the building that the fresco is in, you wait for your time-slot and you are allowed into the hall with its subdued lighting.

The fresco has been damaged by time and also by the priests who once hacked a new doorway to the kitchens through it. The colours are now cloudy and lumps of plaster have dropped off it but the scale of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, not to mention the conspiracy theories and fictions which surround it, make it one special piece of artwork.

No photos are allowed inside, and to be honest, no pictures can do it justice, so you will have to go and see it for yourself.

Castel Sforzsco

Milan has a castle, the Castel Sforzsco . With imposing walls it sits in a large park, complete with a lake and a bandstand and lots of paths to wander around.

It began life as a fortress before being taken over as a stately home and it now houses a museum.

Arco della Pace

At the far end of the park with the castle is a piazza that is dominated by the Arco della Pace – a triumph of giant statues and arches. Sit on the steps or pause for a drink in one of the little bars that line the crossroads and the road to Paris and marvel at the pomp and splendour of the gateway.

top things to do in Milan

Arco della Pace

La Scala

You may not be interested in opera or your visit to Milan may not coincide with a performance, but a peep inside La Scala theatre is a glimpse into another world.

Opulent red velvet and gold provide a spectacular colour theme and posters and costumes make you feel as if you have stepped back in time.

La Scala is one of the iconic theatres of the world and retains all of its old world magic.

The Navigli district

The Navigli neighbourhood runs alongside the canal, and while it is now sleek and modern and packed with bars, restaurants and independent shops, it still manages to retain a bohemian atmosphere.

On the last Sunday of every month antique dealers and second hand traders set up their stalls alongside the canal.

…and the other top sights in Milan?

The railway station.

If you happen to be passing take ten minutes to pop in and take a look at the marble columns and panels that were in vogue when it was built

Art – contemporary or ancient.

Home to many of the renaissance art schools and now dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century, somewhere in Milan you will find a gallery or a museum to interest you.

Wander around the masterpieces of the Pinacoteca di Brera in the substantial stone building with its sturdy veranda running around the central courtyard or find a modern gallery – its all here.

Leonardo da Vinci.

You have The Last Supper and the Museo Nazional della Scienza e Technologia Leonardo da Vinci with its reconstructed models of his ideas.

There are the fortifications of Castel Sforzsco which da Vinci designed and posters and references to him everywhere – you can’t escape reminders of this prolific man.

Shopping and fashion

From designer to vintage, artisan crafts or ingredients for the most discerning chef, the shops are a work of art in themselves. Never shabby or run-down they epitomize Italian chic with their tasteful window displays.


Find a little backstreet pizza restaurant with an authentic stone oven and you are in for a treat. Where better to enjoy a pizza and a glass of wine or an aperol spritzer than in Milan

These are my top things to do in Milan.  But don’t take my word for it.  Go over there and see for yourself.

When is the best time to visit Cuba?

When is the best time to visit Cuba?

Without getting into the politics of Cuba or the rights and wrongs of the Castro regime, there are some very good reasons why NOW is the best time to visit Cuba. 

Following the recent relaxation of the US embargo on Cuba, things are likely to change swiftly and part of its charm is its shabby decaying chaotic vibrant structure that is visible now.

The architecture

There is a big Unesco-led programme which is renovating the crumbling buildings of Cuba, and especially those in Havana.  These old apartment blocks, grand mansions and the cobbled back streets are very carefully and painstakingly slowly being returned to their former glory.  In its heyday Cuba must have been a cacophony of Colonial splendour.  The old city of Cartagena in Colombia gives a glimpse of how Havana must have once looked before the Cuban capital began to crumble to dust. (click here for pictures of the splendid Cartagena)

architecture: best time to visit Cuba

Vintage cars

Along with the falling down buildings, the vintage cars on the streets of Havana attract photographers in their thousands.  Beautiful to look at and a memory of times long gone, old Chevrolets, Buicks and Plymouths cruise around, offering rides as unofficial taxis or, more often than not, are propped up on bricks as spare parts are currently impossible to come by.

vintage cars; best time to visit Cuba

A peek into a pre-globalisation world

What is quite striking are the lack of signs attracting you to eat at the local Western style restaurants or hoardings advertising fast food or fizzy drinks.  Unlike other countries which have a homogomous mix of everything and many high streets all look alike, in Cuba you really feel that you are somewhere very different without the all-consuming consumerism and greed for materialism which is everywhere.

As the political situation changes then Cuba is almost bound to become like any other place in the world so the best time to visit Cuba has to be sooner rather than later.

best time to visit Cuba

Low crime levels

Crime levels are much lower than in other cities around the world, although this is not to say that crime is non-existent.  Heavy penalties and policing deter many, and there are eyes everywhere in the form of informers.  Another factor is that much of life is lived outside.  Because of the heat and humidity, overcrowded living conditions and simply a love to sit outside and natter to the neighbours, there are very few places that are unobserved and therefore people think twice before committing a crime

best time to visit Cuba

Higher happiness levels

People express their happiness through music, dance and socialising.  They promenade along the malecon, sit and chat in bars and parks and work together as  a community.  There is a Caribbean vibrancy to life – but let us not beat about the bush, it can be a tough life for many people.

best time to visit Cuba

I toured around Cuba in the spring of 2013.  I flew out to Havana and I joined a small adventure tour group, visiting a lot of the island.

  I trekked up into the mountain jungle region where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara holed up during the revolution and I slept outside on the verandas of haciendas.  I adored the picturesque towns of Trinidad, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba  and I drank my body weight in mojitos. 

After the tour ended, I stayed behind and I lived in a casa particular with a Cuban family in the suburbs for four more days.

mojitos: best time to visit Cuba

The best time to visit Cuba – before it changes

Cuba is a fascinating island with fascinating people BUT a lot of them live in substandard homes which are leaking or falling down around them.  Cars break down regularily and the roads are atrocious with massive potholes and a very poor public transport system.

  As tourists we want to see the vintage cars but be honest, if you had the choice between a rusty, unreliable heap of metal or a gleaming Chinese model (because of the US embargo the Chinese are in) – which would you choose to run your family around in?

best time to visit Cuba

Would you opt to take a donkey cart to the shops or jump on a bus or a tram?  Would you want to struggle with the ration system in very poorly stocked shops or take your children out to a burger bar for a hamburger, fries and a shake?

best time to visit Cuba

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