Imperial Vienna

Vienna was the imperial capital in Europe from the 15th to the early 20th century. Its historical splendour, importance and continuity easily diminish London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Vienna was the power base of the Holy Roman emperors of the Habsburg dynasty from 1440 to 1806, then imperial capital of Austria and Austria-Hungary until 1918. All this left a profound mark on the city and a complex imperial heritage.

The imperial city palace, the Hofburg, dates back to the 13th century and was the main residence of the Habsburg emperors. It’s an immense complex, still the seat of the Austrian chancellor, but like the newly reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss now mostly contain museums and other public institutions.

You cannot miss the Hofburg treasury with the profoundly interesting imperial regalia, including the 11th century Reichskrone used until 1806 and the spurious Holy Lance. The Imperial Armouries is an unbelievable collection of all things martial. There’s also the Spanish Riding School, an ethnographic museum, the Imperial library and an excellent garden café in the Palmenhaus.

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The old Imperial library in the Hofburg, now a representation venue of the National library

Imperial crypt
The Kaisergruft, or Imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633, is situated in the Capuchin monastery in Vienna, a few hundred meters from the Hofburg, and was used as late as 2011 for the burial of Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.

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Skull wearing the Reichskrone (Imperial crown) on the sarcophagus of emperor Charles VI in the Kaisergruft

The Kaisergruft is a large underground complex with 145 burials, most in impressive metal sarcophagi and including 12 emperors and 18 empresses. It’s a strange and truly spooky place to visit.

Imperial museums
The imperial complex of central Vienna includes two immense museums, the Naturhistorisches (natural history) and the Kunsthistorisches (art history), both inaugurated in the 1880s, though their collections date much further back.

They have everything to do with empire. The Naturhistorisches builds heavily on 19th century imperial expeditions to all parts of the globe, the Kunsthistorisches has its base in the imperial art collection. Furthermore, their architecture and in particular the painted interior decorations both mould and perform imperial culture through the persons, landscapes and perspectives chosen.

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Kunsthistorisches Museum
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In the Naturhistorisches Museum

The Naturhistorisches Museum contain everything imaginable from the natural world. Typical for its time of construction it also contains European prehistory since this was thought of as primitive/natural then, and it used to contain ethnographica from what was then seen as “primitive” peoples worldwide. The latter has been moved out and is now partly on exhibit in the Hofburg, though murals and plaster people still remain in the decorations.

The Kunsthistoriches, on the other hand, and except for later art, also contain collections from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, since this was thought of as the origins of culture.

Some of these imperial collections, and in particular all amazing things taken under more or less dubious expedition circumstances from peoples around the globe, provoke questions: what are all these things doing here today and how can the issues around their initial collection and the perspectives under which they were exhibited be handled today? There are several ways to address this; to academically historicize the collections and their information reframing context and perspective, to repatriate some of them and also to publicly discuss and exhibit the dark and complicated histories surrounding them. Some of this is being done in the ethnographical section of the Hofburg, more could be done in the old imperial museums.

There is more imperial heritage to be seen, most importantly the Schönbrunn palace complex just outside central Vienna, but that will be another journey.

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Ancient Egypt in the Kunsthistorisches Museum



Alchemy in Prague

Alchemy is a main theme for the Prague visitor and understandably so since it goes so very well with the twisted, bohemian mood of the city. There are alchemy bars, alchemy museums and all sorts of alchemic stories around, some of them even true, and as a visitor you can’t avoid it.

Alchemy was big among the learned in renaissance and early modern Europe, a sort of pre-scientific quest to understand nature and neither as crazy nor as underground as often portrayed, though an obvious field also for charlatans. Sure alchemists were trying to make gold, but how would they have known it wasn’t possible? In the process and among all failed experiments they managed to gain some new insights. Alchemy wasn’t generally done in secret labs but by the most high-ranking learned at royal courts.

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The Alchemist’s lair, as presented at the Speculum Alchemiae museum in Prague

The historical background to the present alchemy fuss in Prague revolves around the melancholic Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf was a great patron of occult learning. He moved the imperial court to Prague castle in 1583, where it remained for the rest of his life, and welcomed occult experts there such as John Dee and Edward Kelley. Astronomist Tycho Brahe was his court astronomer and astrologist, while sometimes active in the royal alchemy lab. Emperor Rudolf also met with the Jewish learned Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, dead 1609), legendary maker of the Prague Golem. You get the full story of Rudolf II and his magic circle in Prague in The Mercurial Emperor by Peter Marshall (Pimlico 2007).

There is a range of privately run museums in Prague focusing on alchemy. Most important the Speculum Alchemiae and the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of old Prague. In Prague castle there is an alchemist’s laboratory to be seen. All these places are reconstructions centered on good stories. I found the cellar of the Speculum Alchemiae most fascinating, where you can take an excellent guided tour. It left me puzzled concerning what was fact and what was good stories though. The range of alchemist’s bars offer more or less curious alchemy-themed drinks.

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What is completely true is that the Danish astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe spent the years before his death in 1601 at the court of Rudolf II, doing many things but also alchemy, and Tycho was buried in Prague in the Church of Our Lady before Týn where his grave can still be seen. Chemical analysis of his preserved beard has shown high levels of mercury, possible due to alchemical activities.

Walking the winding, cobbled streets of central Prague, the intense pre-modern feel of it tells you there could be a black magician’s lab around any corner. Though alchemy in Prague is based on a true story, most of what meets the tourist’s eye is made-up props which, of course, is fully consistent with the theme of alchemy.

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Great Game heritage

On my second day in Kashgar I discover, to my surprise, that behind the brutal concrete hotel in which I stay, the old British consulate is fully preserved though stripped of its famous garden.

The British interpreter, later diplomat George Macartney arrived in Kashgar on expedition in 1890 and soon became the first British consul here. He was to stay until 1918 as a major player in The Great Game – the struggle between empires for ultimate control of the roof of the world in Central Asia.

Macartney married Catherine Borland in 1898 and together they managed the British general consulate in Kashgar – the Qini bagh – which was a grand house with beautiful gardens famous for their views over the mountain ranges in the south.

The Qini bagh

Diplomats, spies, explorers and archaeologists investigating the ruins of the Taklamakan desert all stayed at Qini bagh and most famously archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, who often recuperated here after desert expeditions.

Russia, the main British counterpart in The Great Game, already had a consulate in Kashgar when Macartney arrived.

Though Kashgar was formally a Chinese city in the 1890s, the most powerful man there was the Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky who kept a military garrison on the consulate.

When the Swedish explorer (and rival of Aurel Stein) Sven Hedin arrived in Kashgar in 1894 he was greeted by Petrovsky with free vodka and Hedin stayed several times here, receiving all kinds of support from Petrovsky in his desert explorations.

Previous Russian consulate in Kashgar

I find that the cheapest rooms of the Seman hotel in Kashgar are actually inside what was previously the Russian consulate, so for my second night I reside there.

It’s not well kept but strolling around the house I manage to enter the dining hall, where Petrovsky held banquets for diplomats, explorers and Chinese dignitaries a hundred years ago.

The old consulate houses remain in Kashgar as memorials to the clash of empires on the roof of the world and to the strange age of imperial explorers stripping the amazing ruins of Silk Road cities in the Taklamakan of antiquities to bring home to European museums, which is another story.

Dining hall of the previous Russian consulate





Kashgar, Silk Road Oasis

Uggla finalWe are at the end of the Karakoram Highway, on the rim of the Taklamakan desert and in the great city of Kashgar, a regional center for the western part of the Chinese Xinjiang province, an oasis on the Silk Road and historically a small, independent kingdom of its own.

Few foreigners visit Kashgar today due to current tensions between official China and its Muslim Uyghur minority here which have been covered in international media and was commented on, for example, by Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post in February.

Current events are the latest phase of a long history of independence movements, repression and terrorism during the 20th century – though my own impressions going here 20 odd years ago were mostly of other things.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the previous ones here, here, here and here.

On the square outside the Id Kah Mosque (right) in Kashgar

Having left Tashkurgan on a bright summers morning I reached Kashgar by bus going through the eastern Pamir mountains and then by the rim of the Taklamakan desert.

Kashgar is an oasis city, surrounded by vast stretches of poplar trees and it’s been a crucial waypoint on the Silk Road forever. You either got here after a hard trip over the Himalayas or after the deadly journey across the Taklamakan.

The city is flat, with straight, wide boulevards lined with poplars and dusty with desert sand. There’s little left of old Kashgar since it has been bulldozed to make way for modernity. A few blocks of “old town” are seen within minutes. On my first day I walk up to the main historical landmark, the striking, yellow-tiled, AD 1442 Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, of great symbolic value and a site of major events in the past.

Uyghur “Doppa” hats on sale

The Tarim Basin, which is the largest part of present Xinjiang province and which mainly consist of the Taklamakan desert, is a true crossroads of history.

In the early centuries AD, there was a line of small, independent oasis kingdoms here along the Silk Road routes north and south of the desert. Kashgar in the far west was one of them. This is while direct Chinese control ended behind the Jade gate of the Great Wall, to the east of the Taklamakan.

Tang dynasty Chinese rulers tried to conquer the Tarim Basin with temporal success. Later on, the entire area fell to Muslim, Turkic peoples in the 11th century and the following 1 000 years was a complex tapestry of struggles between different powers. Xinjiang was set up as a regular Chinese province in the late 19th century.

The 1930s and 40s saw failed rebellions aimed at establishing an independent “eastern Turkestan” state. In 1933 the head of the executed Uyghur leader Timur Beg was put on a spike outside the Id Kah Mosque. 

I explore the city on a rented “Flying Pidgeon” bike and I soon get the idea to bicycle out to the edge of town to see the desert. Going for hours on an endless poplar-lined avenue seems to take me nowhere and I am forced to give up, hitching a truck ride back.

On the outskirts of Kashgar

So Kashgar is mainly a Muslim city, but Islam looks quite different here from in Pakistan and Afghanistan which I just came from. Women are seen everywhere and are seldom as veiled as further south. There is also nightlife here with bars selling liquor.

Another main difference is language. No one speak English and I don’t understand the signs in Chinese, which builds up a huge cultural barrier.

The Great Bazaar of Kashgar is one of the largest in Asia. It’s a maze of small stores and gives you a glimpse of past Silk Road glories.

On my second day, I suddenly discover the famous old British consulate building is actually preserved just behind the huge concrete block in which I stay. The Qini bagh was a major hub in the Great Game – the late 19th century powerplay of empires on the roof of the world, and I can’t wait to explore it.


The Stone Tower

Ancient sources about the Silk Road mention a mysterious place, “The Stone tower”, which was a midpoint between China and the far West and located in the most remote mountain areas of Central Asia.

The Stone tower was a crucial way-point and a place for caravans to rest and store provisions for the long journey, but where was it?

Geographers, historians and early explorers debated the true location of this Stone tower, which is an important historical place for sure. One of the best candidates is Tashkurgan in the west Xinjiang region of present China – a town high up in the Pamir and one of the most remote places on earth. I got there by crossing the Himalayas from the south on the Karakoram Highway.

This is the third in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the first and second one here and here.

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Arriving in Tashkurgan

After crossing the world’s highest border, between Pakistan and China in the Khunjerab pass, I change to a Chinese bus continuing on the Karakoram Highway. We soon enter the Tashkurgan valley, following the Tashkurgan River northwards and reach the regional capital city of Tashkurgan after just a few hours’ drive.

Tashkurgan valley, with the eastern Pamirs in the background

The name of the city literally means Stone tower. It is flat, earth-colored and full of poplar trees and signs in Chinese that I don’t understand. I am tired beyond belief and crash in the filthiest little cheap hostel you ever saw, the “Pamir”. Some of the floorboards are missing in my dormitory.

We are now in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of present China which is dominated by the great Taklamakan desert and historically a periphery with small kingdoms just outside the main Chinese sphere of power. One of its many minorities, the 40 000 or so strong Mountain Tajiks live here in an autonomous region with Tashkurgan as centre.

The Mountain Tajiks are generally Shia Muslims and speak an eastern Iranian language. Their religious practices are allowed but very restricted.


Tashkurgan has got its name from a large, old fortress sitting on a high hill at the outskirts of the present town. The ruins were off-limits at my visit, unfortunately, but images of it appear directly if you search the web for it. The river valley is otherwise flat and the lone, marked hill with the castle on it must have looked very much like a mighty “Stone tower” to caravans passing here in the old days. And it’s visible for miles.

The place is significant as way-point since this is a last outpost in many ways, At Tashkurgan the Silk Road caravans from China had to make a choice if they were headed south across the Karakoram for the subcontinent or west through the Wakhan corridor of Pamir to present north Afghanistan and the great Silk Road cities there.

Where the Stone tower of ancient sources was really located is probably an unsolvable historical mystery, but a number of factors clearly speak for Tashkurgan.

In Tashkurgan

I leave Tashkurgan on an early morning bus northwards to Kashgar, the oasis town on the rim of the great Taklamakan desert. The Tashkurgan valley is wide, fertile and with small villages and wandering camels and jaks. Here and there are a few Tajik yurts.

The air is supremely clear and the light very sharp. After about two hours on this comparably well kept and paved stretch of the Karakoram Highway we reach the delicately beautiful, blue-grey and perfectly still Kalakule Lake. But above the calm lake towers an untamed giant, notoriously unpredictable.

On the bus from Tashkurgan to Kashgar

Storks and cats of Marrakesh

Uggla final“They even have a hospital for storks”, my friend said knowingly on our way there in a row about the extraordinary nature of the place and I didn’t believe a word of it. 

I quickly realized one of the most striking things of the medina, or old town, in Marrakesh, are the large nests on top of virtually all major historical buildings and along the city walls. Storks roam the skies of the city and tend, unchallenged, to their ever-present, bulky nests. There are even nests right on the iconic Bab Agnaou city gate.

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Storks seem holy to Marrakech. There are numerous stories around to explain their elevated and protected status. It is also said that they are widely revered within Islam since they migrate to Mecca annually, which resembles a pilgrimage.

In the medina there’s a house, the Dar Bellarj, or house of the stork, which is actually said to be a previous stork hospital. It is currently an art center.

Cats are ever-present in the city too, strolling the streets, palaces and parks in splendid dignity, while I didn’t see a single stray-dog during four days there.

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The cat is a revered animal in all of Islam for its cleanliness and, of course, for being appreciated by Prophet Muhammad himself, and this should explain why they are so popular and common. Cats may enter homes and even Mosques, which seems to give them higher status than tourists.

So, in the end, storks and cats, though both numerous, in high esteem and characteristic to the city, would presumably be natural enemies and one may wonder how they get along. Perhaps they just do and it wouldn’t be the oddest thing about Marrakesh.

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Ultimate guide to historical Marrakesh

Marrakesh in Morocco is a fairytale sort of place with harsh social realities. It’s an orientalist dream on the surface, but turns out layered and complex. While historically exiting it has a bitter aftertaste of poverty and desperation.

The entire medina, or old-town, encircled by its well-preserved 12th century city walls, is UNESCO world heritage for its notable monuments and history and it’s here you want to stay and be, preferably in classical, riad-style accommodation – not in the modern, French-colonial new town just outside the walls.


The medina has a distinctly medieval feel about it. The mud brick houses look the part. The street plan is and lots of people even wear a monk-style, hooded robe known as a jallabah. If not for the endless mopeds thundering the alleys the illusion would be complete. Misfortune comes in many shapes in the streets: beggars of all kinds, Syrian refugees and disabled people trying to get by through selling trinkets. Then there is a lot of history to experience and here is my personal guide.

City walls and Bab Agnaou gate
The walls have been heavily restored and, as it seems, not too light-handed, but they are authentic to their basic, 12th century outline and certainly impressive. You won’t get up in them but they are well worth seeing and not the least the beautiful though battered Bab Agnaou gate leading to the royal kasbah.


Djemaa el-Fna
The grand, medieval market area Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh is like nothing else you ever saw. It’s a beating heart of the city and full of vendors, magicians, professional storytellers, pickpockets and masterful musicians. It’s UNESCO world heritage for good reasons. Read more about it in this post.

Koutoubia Mosque
The large Mosque on the western side of Djemaa el-Fna is closed to non Muslims just as all the mosques in the city, but the most interesting thing about it is the minaret anyway. This one was constructed at the same time in the 12th century as the Giralda in Seville and the Hassan tower in Rabat but the Marrakesh one is said to have been the original. It’s a symbol of the city, an architectural feat and a sort of sample sheet for details of medieval Islamic architecture.


Central souqs
To the north of Djemaa el-Fna is “the central souqs”, a labyrinth bazaar of narrow alleys full of small shops. This is an historical shopping area of amazing extent and strolling around you will get lost for sure.

Interestingly, there has been a Jewish quarter in the city since late medieval days – the Mellah. It was encircled by a separate wall and closely situated to the royal palace. Both things because of the importance of the Jewish community to Muslim rulers who at the same time wanted to keep it both protected and under control.

The city changes character in the Mellah and it’s interesting to see though its not really a Jewish quarter anymore.


Badi palace
The splendor of Badi palace was once of legendary proportions, having been built by 16th century sultan Ahmed al-Mansour eager to spend the ransom paid by the Portuguese after his late brothers victory in the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578. It was constructed using some of the most expensive materials of the time and by superior craftsmen. It was stripped of all its riches just shortly after construction, however, when a sultan from a new dynasty took it all away to his new capital city Meknes.

Today it’s a superb ruin, well worth a sunny walk trying to figure out which rooms are which and what the ruined pavilions might have looked like in full splendor.


Kasbah and the Saadian tombs
The Bab Agnaou gate of the city walls was the main gate to the Kasbah, the royal compound, or city within the city, and Badi palace was also inside it as well as the old royal palace in Marrakesh which is vast, now privately owned and not open to visitors.

The main thing to see in the Kasbah is the impressive and beautiful tombs of the Saadian royal dynasty and their retainers who resided in the city in the late 16th and early 17th century. The tile work is stunning and most of all so when combined with white Carrara marble and carved plaster in the Chamber of 12 pillars.


Bahia palace
This palace was begun by grand vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s and represents the full, modern splendor of 19th century Morocco. It was planned and decorated by the best artists of their time and is a full-blown dream of a palace with extravagant harem, a grand courtyard with marble-and-tile bonanza, Andalusian orange garden and all.

Ali ben Youssef Medersa
This 14th century medersa, or theological college, is a true treasure of Islamic art with most impressive decorations in Hispano-Moorish style. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of my visit, but there’s always a next time.

Musée de Marrakech
Finally the Marrakesh museum. It has been a palace, a school and then a museum for about 20 years. It’s interesting to see as a palace and mostly so the impressive inner courtyard with an immense bronze lamp hanging from the roof. The collections are less dazzling but worth a look.


The market at the end of the world

Uggla finalI have never seen a market like the unbelievable Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, Morocco. It’s like a wild, beating historical heart of the city and perhaps the soul of Morocco.

Imagine a vast and buzzling square filled to the brim with people looking at sneaky snake charmers, wonderful musicians, skilled magicians, daring acrobats and youths showing of chained apes. Then there are food stalls, true story tellers that came down from the mountains, street vendors selling junk, henna tattoo artist and pickpockets roaming the place in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the secret police.

Jemaa el Fna

On one side is a Mosque with a grand minaret without equal, on another side a great, labyrinthic bazaar where you could get just about anything.

Jemaa el-Fna is a crazy spectacle and an incredible drama that starts all-over again every day. In the morning is the calm before the storm when juice vendors and water sellers walk around. Later comes the snake charmers with their unmistakable pipes, the souvenir vendors, fortune tellers, acrobats and dance troupes. When the food stalls open at dusk there is an immense boost of smoke rising from the square and at sunset the wild show is on with musicians, cross-dressing belly dancers and professional story-tellers with crowds of listeners.

Jemaa el-Fna has probably been there since Marrakesh was founded in the 11th century. It’s the heart of the Medina, the old town, and a UNESCO world heritage.

What the name means is uncertain. It could mean “the gathering/congregation area” or, according to some, “The Mosque at the End of the World”. It’s public life at its most condensed and the world starts and ends at this market every day. It’s world heritage as a “masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” and it will take your breath away for sure.

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Historical New Orleans

Uggla finalThe alleged tomb of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau at eerie St. Louis cemetery no. 1 is a big white structure covered with triple-x-marks and soiled by offered food-stuffs and trinkets at its base.

It’s a strange grave in a strange city – flat, hot and obsessed with the dead – and I got to wander it feverishly at an odd time when death was even more present, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

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I got here for an anthropological conference in soft seats in big hotels, caught a cold just after clearing jet-lag and spent two post conference days wandering its sights with gruesome fever.

While knowing all its childish myths of Voodoo, vampires and touristy gothic eeriness beforehand, New Orleans still captured me profoundly. Its wide, empty boulevards, its ever-present city cemeteries with their houses of the dead, the over-worked gothic iron-railing of those balcony-houses and the all too present traces of Katrina creates a very odd vibe. Its tone is swampy, gothic and tainted aristocratic.

French Quater
New Orleans was originally built by the French in the early 18th century and within what is now known as the French quater, trying to establish French, catholic high culture in this swampland on the other side of the world. This attempt turned out comme ci comme ça and the city became a crossroads of cultures, peoples and religions, mixing things to a particular blend of its very own.


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The French quater is New Orleans oldtown and a great place to stroll around, visiting sites at random. Get down to Jackson square, have a look at Saint Louis cathedral and the Mississippi, pop in to some jazz joint, celebrating that it was in this city that jazz was actually born.

After an hour or two fever-walking its old centre in the hot sun you realise its trademark sights, views, odd houses, Voodoo paraphernalia and even the Mississippi river with a steamboat is all there. It’s like stepping into a postcard, but you can’t help liking it.

St. Louis cemetery no. 1
New Orleans is literally a city of the dead. It was built in an area below sea level so the dead can’t be interred but are kept in over ground cemeteries with lots of small tomb-houses. St. Louis cemetery no. 1 is one such place. It is beautiful and thought-provoking.

Surprisingly, given her legendary status, Marie Laveau (1801-1881) was really an historical person that once lived and a practitioner of Voodoo. Her status as high priestess seems thoroughly exaggerated by New Orleans mythology though, and very few actual facts about her life are known.

You’re supposed to draw a triple-x on the tomb, asking her to grant you a wish. This is forbidden, of course, risking to wear down the monument and I preferred an offering anyway, wishing for the end of fever.

Shrine of St Roch
You may have thought St. Louis cemetery no. 1 a bit odd, but wander a kilometre northeast to the shrine and cemetery of St Roch to be more baffled. The cemetery is like the former one, filled with little burial houses, but then there is the chapel of St Roch.

The catholic saint himself is a patron of good health and miraculous cures and, consequently, Catholics having recovered from all sorts of sickness and disorder leave their offerings and no longer needed prosthetics here, making up a somewhat wonderful collection.

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New Orleans is full of small museums and collections, some better than others. The National WWII museum is fairly new and full of professionally made, good but a bit lifeless exhibitions and, what struck me the most, also full of WWII veterans serving as volunteer guides. It was something of an experience being told about the Higgins boats from a guy who rode in one during the war.

Louisiana State Museum by Jackson square is also excellent. When I was there they had a very informative exhibition about Hurricane Katrina.

You have to see the New Orleans Jazz Museum. It has great collections but most important it’s an arena for jazz events and performances.

Getting back to stranger things, near the WWII-museum you will also find the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum. It contains some 5 000 more or less unique Civil war items including several C.S.A. regimental flags, generals’ uniforms and a range of personal belongings of Jefferson Davis. It is all exhibited old-style and much of it may not have changed too much since the 1890s.

At the time of my New Orleans visit, Hurricane traces were on the houses, in the city museums and in people’s faces. The death toll was terrible, the economic devastation vast. But that strange, odd spirit of New Orleans survives, as always.

Ultimate guide to historical Rome

Uggla finalRome is ruins, tourists and sleazy romance. It has amazing views, pizza slices and you really must go. This ultimate guide tells you why.

Rome had a million inhabitants already in antiquity. This is where Caesar was killed, Cicero held his speeches and Augustus built his monuments.

Here is my personal top ten for Rome, focusing classical antiquity.

1. Circus Maximus
Your historical visit to Rome starts with an early morning stroll at the amazing Circus Maximus, easily reached by excellent roman subway.


Looming over the ancient racing stadium, site of a thousand years of lavish games with gladiators and exotic beasts, of religious processions and chariot races, and possibly where the devastating AD 64 fire of Rome began, are the ruins of the Imperial palaces on Palatine hill. You should know that it’s from the name of this hill that the word “palace” actually derives.

Circus maximus is the best place to start since it gives you an instant idea of the scale and complexity of the historical remains of this very special city. It differs from most other Roman sites in that you are free to enter, exit and stroll around as you like.

2. Imperial palaces on Palatine hill
From Circus Maximus it’s a short walk to the Palatine. To get there pass east of the hill up to the arch of Constantine, the largest triumphal arch in Rome spanning what used to be the via triumphalis – a way for triumphs entering the city.

At the arch you turn to enter the via sacra, main street of ancient Rome leading through its centre. Previously for triumphs and religious festivals, it is now the main tourist track. If you possess a Roma pass, easily obtained at tourist spots and worth it’s cost, you skip the line at the checkpoint here, enter the centre of ancient Rome and soon turn left, walking up the northern slope of Palatine hill.

There is much to see on the Palatine, including the houses of Augustus and (possibly) his empress Livia, temples, a circus and – most important – the ruins of a series of imperial palaces which you can now walk through. I am most impressed with the view into the reception chamber of the Flavian emperors and their water gardens.

The Palatine offers a breath-taking view to the north, of the Forum Romanum and the Colosseum and that is the reason to go here first.



3. Forum Romanum
The centre of ancient Rome and its empire for a thousand years, an area of magnificent buildings and monuments and the site of numerous events of great historical impact such as the murder of Julius Caesar and the speeches of Cicero, the forum deserves a guide of its own. You could easily spend days here, going through its many sites.

You don’t miss the senate house and the triumphal arch of Titus, for the rest there is no right or wrong.

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4. Colosseum
The Colosseum is a wonder of the world, an awesome architectural feat and an ancient slaughterhouse for men and beasts alike. Gladiatorial fights to the death, regular executions and all sorts of crazy shows took place here. You will no doubt find it colossal, irritating for its discomfortable, crowded walking-paths and a feast for the historical eye.

5. Trajan’s Column
You have already seen this column if you ever visited the V&A in London since they keep a plaster copy on display. The original was completed in AD 113 and stands in the remains of Trajan’s forum just to the north of Forum Romanum. It is a victory column over the emperor’s victory over the Dacians. The interesting thing is that it’s covered in remarkably detailed images telling the story of the wars. These images have a wealth of information on contemporary dresses, equipment and the like, making it a treasure for historians and archaeologists.

6. Capitoline Museums
As traditional as you will ever find a row of museums, the Capitoline ones gets away with attracting visitors anyway through the renowned ancient masterpieces they keep on display. See the sculpture galleries and avoid the rest. Works such as The she-wolf of Rome, The dying Gaul, the pieces of the colossal statue of Constantine and the truly queer statue of cupid and psyche are just some of the world-famous things here.

7. Pantheon
After nearly 1900 years, the incredible dome of the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Looking up at the oculus, the round hole in the dome letting in daylight, it is hard not to be struck by awe. It’s a beautiful temple whose architecture have served as model for other buildings worldwide.


8. Castel Sant’Angelo
The central tower of the Castel is actually the immense tomb of emperor Hadrian having later been reconstructed as a castle. While all previously mentioned sites are in the area around Forum Romanum, the Castel lies a refreshing walk to the north, on the other side of river Tiber. There’s a good café at the top with great views. On your way out of the tower you will walk the exact steps of the funerary procession which put the emperor to rest here in AD 139.

castel 1

9. The Appian Way
A main road out of Rome to the south, the famous Appian Way was also a great necropolis, strewn with funeral monuments on both sides. To get here you transport yourself south-east from the Forum Romanum area to the Appia Antica regional park. Here you may walk the ancient highway and see some of the remarkable funerary monuments. Walk north, into the city and pass the great San Sebastiano gate in the second century walls of the city.

10. Vatican Museums
Disturbing from a museum professional point of view due to its poorly organized people flow leading to ques and crowding, this is still the 5th most visited museum in the world due to their incomparable stash of amazing world-class art. You might want to pop in to the Sistine chapel, but the collection of rightly famous sculptures from antiquity is what you really must see. Marvel here at the Laocoon group, the Augustus of Prima Porta and many more.

These ten historical spots are my classical antiquity favourites in Rome. You will find others, disagree on my choices and please do, knock yourself out, but just get there.