Kiev – Ancient Slavic Capital and Modern Gold-Domed Beauty

St. Sophia Cathedral (Собор Святой Софии) in Kiev (Киев,) Ukraine, with the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Богдан Хмельницкий) in the foreground

Kiev, the sprawling capital of Ukraine is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and dynamic cities in the world. It has history, architecture, great food, and a highly educated population, all traits of a world-class city. I have been fortunate to visit this great city four times, first in 1999, then more recently in the years 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Kiev has one of the oldest histories of any city in Eastern Europe, having previously served as the capital of Kievan Rus, the predecessor to the modern-day Eastern Slavic states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Legend holds that it was founded by the Varangian (Viking) siblings of Kyi, Shchek, Khoryv, and Lybid, with the eldest sibling Kyi being the inspiration for the city’s name.

For centuries Kiev was the capital and most important Slavic city, until the year 1240, when the Mongol invasion completely destroyed the city during the Siege of Kiev, an event that eventually resulted in the axis of Slavic power moving to Moscow, a city where it can be argued it still exists today. Despite this shift, however, Kiev remains a powerful cultural and industrial powerhouse in the region, much more so since Ukrainian independence in 1990.

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Istria – Roman Ruins on a Sun-drenched Coast in Croatia

Sunset in Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

I’ll be completely honest with you…until recently I wasn’t even aware that there was a place in the world called Istria. Even en route to the place, I mistakenly referred to it as part of Dalmatia, only to be corrected by my Croatian friends that this portion of the Adriatic coast of their country has been known by it’s Roman name Istria (Histria) for over 2000 years.

And what a place it is…city after beautiful sparkling seaside city sprinkled along the coast south of Trieste, Italy, each one heavily influenced by their past conquerors, Illyrians, Romans, Venetians, Hapsburgs, Italians, and Slavs.  This place is blessed with a sun-drenched coast, relatively low prices, and an easygoing multilingual population. Most people here speak English, not to mention Croatian, Italian, and German, making it a near-perfect vacation destination.  And did I mention the unbelievable well-preserved Roman ruins? More on that later, however.

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Venice – Visions of Ancient Grandeur and a Powerful Empire

Gondolas near Piazza San Marco in the early morning in Venice, Italy

It’s easy to dismiss the city of Venice as a giant tourist trap. After all, 50,000 tourists tramp through the city every day, stepping over the dwindling population of 60,000 local residents. The truth is, however, that the majority of the tourists stick to the popular sights such as St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and the Rialto Bridge.  One simply needs to wander down the alleyways and across the bridges of this amazing water-filled city to find the peace and quiet of quaint squares filled with elderly gentlemen sipping coffee and children playing football in the street.

The calmness of the city betrays the historical impact that this city had on the development of Europe and the world as a whole. This metropolis was the most powerful city in the world at one time, and some of the richest and most influential people of the time lived here. The vestiges of that storied past can be found everywhere, from the architecture to the monuments to the influence that the Venetian language has had on world vocabulary. Venice truly is a remarkable city, and regardless of the hordes of tourists, is well worth a visit.

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Breathtaking Balkans – Journey through Albania, Kosovo, FYRO Macedonia and Bulgaria

View of the Šar (Sharr) Mountains and a village mosque from a train traveling through the Kosovo countryside.

The Balkan peninsula is an area of remarkable beauty that also happens to lie at the crossroads of multiple civilizations. This provides for the distinct advantage of enriching the area with trade and knowledge, but also carries the disadvantage of the fact that the area is constantly used as invasion route for numerous armies over the years.  This fact may be one of the main reason why this area of the world does not see much in terms of organized tourism, as fresh memories of wars in the former Yugoslavia, pyramid scheme riots in Albania, and NATO bombings combined with longstanding misconceptions about the area work together to keep away most tourists.

After touring the area with my friends and fellow public speakers Joel Oleson and Paul Swider, I can most definitely say that this lack of interest in the area is a huge mistake…the region is filled with amazing sights, sounds, foods, and a friendly and resilient population.  Like the Northern areas of the Balkans that we visited as part of an earlier trip I covered in a prior blog post, the South Balkans are amazing, inspiring, and highly recommended.  But first, let me begin the story in the country in which it began…Albania.

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Melbourne – Magnificent, Cultured, and Uniquely Australian

The Melbourne CBD as seen from Treasury Gardens in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria is a city that, in theory, should have a chip on its shoulder. With a population almost as high as Sydney (4.1 million in Melbourne vs. 4.6 million for Sydney,) Australia’s second largest city struggles for attention in a world more acquainted with the major Sydney landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The citizens of Melbourne simply shrug this controversy off, however, and go on their way building an pleasant, architecturally magnificent, and diverse city near the southernmost point of the Australian continent.

My travels have taken me to Melbourne twice, which is significantly less than the 17 times I’ve been to Sydney, a city I covered in a recent blog post. Despite only having visited twice, I find myself impressed at this Victorian city, and made it a point to explore it as much as possible.

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Sydney: Cosmopolitan Jewel of Australia

Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour at dawn in beautiful Sydney, Australia

There are no two ways about it, Sydney, Australia qualifies as one of my favorite cities in the world. This city has everything…pleasant weather year round, mouth-watering international-inspired cuisine, culture and entertainment, white sand beaches, beautiful architecture, and a strong economic sector that provides for a happy and pleasant population.

Sydney also happens to be the city where I’ve personally spent more time in than any other city other than those I’ve lived in. Over the past four years, I have visited Sydney on more than a dozen occasions and have racked up a cumulative exposure of several months time in the city itself on various work related projects and to speak at events.  Despite all of the visits, I still earnestly look forward to any opportunity to visit this amazing city, and have even gone as far as to consider a move here.  This blog post touches upon some of my favorite sights, activities, and foods in Sydney, but I can honestly say that it really only scratches the surface of what this amazing city has to offer.

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour in Sydney, Australia showing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the Central Business District

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Cambodia: Part 2 – Distant Temples, Floating Villages, and a Country Recovering from War

Sunrise over the staircase leading up Phnom Krom, Cambodia

The country of Cambodia is a vast and mystical place, with literally thousands of historical sights and places to visit. A large concentration of these famous temples and ancient cities can be found in the Angkor region, near the city of Siem Reap.  I visited this area in January 2011 on a stopover immediately following a business trip to Vietnam and explored the area in as much depth as I could in the short time I had.

The sights I visited in Cambodia were so numerous and so picturesque that I made the decision to break this blog entry into two posts.  The first post detailed my visit to the temples in the Angkor region, including the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. This second post covers some of the temples further afield, as well as my visit to Tonlé Sap lake to visit a floating village.

As I discussed in my earlier post, these temples and city complexes were constructed around a thousand years ago during the Khmer Empire, and rivaled other famous architecture forms of the time in terms of beauty and balance. After visiting the temples in the Angkor region on the first part of my trip, I headed further east of Siem Reap to visit two particularly interesting temples, Banteay Srei and Beng Melea.

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