Saturday, 30 August 2014

Northern India...Off the Beaten Track (A Guest Post by MikeC)

My old friend and former South African park ranger, MikeC, was keen to contribute to The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet.  And, as a well travelled soul, I am pleased to have him on board for another of our guest posts.  Being a seasoned traveller means that MikeC likes to explore places less frequented by other travellers; something he wanted to share with you.  And, in this post, you get some great advice and insight into a particular part of our guest poster's current home country, as he guides us off the beaten track in Northern India.

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I thought for this guest author piece, it would be interesting to look at some alternative ideas for travel in Northern India.  Everyone knows you usually go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, Delhi to see the Red Fort abd so on, but what I decided instead, which I think will be much more fun, and more useful for those thinking of India, is having a look at some of the lesser-known places in Northern India.  I have decided to take you on a trip from Agra, west across India; an A to B, so to speak.  So, sit back, grab a cup of coffee and let me do what no Indian bus can do; get you from A to B comfortably, quickly and with a comprehensive understanding of what is going on!

Fatehpur Sikri

Of course, you are all going to go to Agra anyway, so it makes sense that we start our journey here.  We are going to start our journey here and continue west, until we run out of India!  The first place on our journey is Fatehpur Sikri which is a semi-restored fort city about an hour from Agra comparatively unknown to tourists and foreigners.  Contrary to what local tuk-tuk drivers out to make a quick buck will say, there is a very comprehensive bus service which will take you there in a lap of un-airconditioned luxury; in a bus which lacks everything from seat belts and working suspension, to a driver whose interpretation of brakes is using the horn instead!  If you’re really lucky, you might be able to share this bus ride with all manner of animal life, small children and anything else which wants to get out of Agra!

Fatehpur Sikri (source - MikeC)

The fort town of Fatehpur Sikri is small enough to get around in a couple of hours. It is a mix of religions with a large Mosque on one side around which the Imam will show you for a ‘donation’, to the old ruins on the other side.  The inside of these have been meticulously restored and are well worth a wander around.  There are of course more striking ruins and forts in India, indeed when arriving; I asked a Spanish man what he gave it.  He replied 7, when I responded with ‘out of?’ he laughed and walked off!  That said, I think well worth a visit!

The Keoladeo National Park

The Keoladeo National Park (source - jagdeeprajput.com)

On a slight detour from the road to Jaipur, is the Keoladeo National Park.  Far less touristy than Ranthambore National Park (probably because it doesn’t have any tigers) it is well worth the journey.  Buses will get you to Bharatpur which gets you close to the park and to a place where there is plenty of accommodation.  Tours in Keoladeo are either on foot or by cycle rickshaw.  Guides range, of course, from average up to very knowledgeable and many hotels will arrange for a guide (although I’m sure there are some business dealings between hotels and certain guides, so it is best to shop around first).  The majority of people who go to Keoladeo are birdwatchers, but don’t let this put the rest of you off.  There is some fantastic wildlife around, and it is great just to be somewhere so calm and quiet!

Chand Baori

Chand Baori Stepwell - between Jaipur and Agra (source - MikeC)

On leaving Keoladeo, you have a couple of travel options.  You can either take the train directly to Jaipur, or return to the Agra road.  The road continues and eventually ends up in Jaipur, more on that later.  However before getting to the Pink City (which is not actually pink) you can take a detour and seemingly go back in time to a place called Chand Baori.  Chand Baori made a very brief appearance in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ which again we will get back to later.  It is, in fact, the largest stepwell in Northern India.  The hassle of getting here is more than compensated for by the wonder of the place itself.  Unfortunately, India being India, there is little in the means of ease of transport here!  The local bus will drop you in a decidedly rundown and uninspiring roadside stop at the junction between highway 11 and 25 after which, you need to find yourself a tuk-tuk who will take you the rest of the way.  Don’t let the hassle of the journey put you off as the result is well worth it.  Anyway, the challenging journeys always make for better stories!  The stepwell is a unique place, made better by the distinct lack in tourists.  The visitors book will tell you that only a few foreigners a day make it, a stark contrast to much of the rest of India.  There are a couple of guides who will take you round, but honestly what you see is what you get and they aren’t really necessary.  That said, they can unlock some gates and get you to places you can’t otherwise go for some great photos. Nevertheless, this is such a photogenic place, taking a bad photo here is a challenge!  The site itself is pretty small and you will likely be done in an hour or so.  There are a couple of small temples around, and the scenery is great, but apart from that, there is little to keep you from the drive back and the wait by the side of the road for another local bus to complete your journey to Jaipur.

Galtaji Temple

Galtaji Monkey Temple, Jaipur (source - MikeC)

In keeping with the theme of the lesser-explored places of Northern India, I won’t dwell much on the common attractions of the Pink City.  Any guide book will give you pages of information on the Hawa Mahal, The City Palace, Jantar Mantar etc.  Some of the other highlights of Jaipur include Galtaji Temple, commonly known (although not always to tuk-tuk drivers) as the Monkey temple.  As the name suggests it is inhabited by dozens of (mostly) friendly monkeys!  Get there early before the heat makes the monkeys go and rest.  I’d also suggest taking some bananas to give to the monkeys.  Not only is this better for them that the ‘monkey food’ which you get hawked at the entrance to the temple, but they also make for some great photos as the monkeys will take the bananas from your hand!  As with most places in India, there is always someone around who wants to offer their services in exchange for your rupees!  On a previous trip I was approached by a young man offering to escort me up to the temple and protect me from the monkeys.  What exactly qualified him as a monkey protector remained to be seen, but he seemed confident in his own abilities, although decidedly disappointed when I told him I would take my chances! His parting words of ‘don’t blame me if you get bitten’ did little to discourage me.  Indeed, he made himself scarce when I returned monkey-bite free!

Pushkar

Moving further West through Rajasthan, you come to the equally touristy Pushkar, famous for camel safaris, shopping and people who want to charge you a lot of money to throw a flower in a lake!  A word of warning, don’t take the flowers! (don’t say I didn’t warn you!)  For such a touristy place, although not entirely unexpected for India, getting to Pushkar itself isn’t as easy as it should be!  There is no direct bus service, instead, you need to get a bus form Jaipur to Ajmer, then change and take another to Pushkar. There are no air-conditioned buses, so be ready to enjoy the local buses imagining what life must be like as a sardine in a microwave!

While camping in Pushkar, you will find some tents have superior build quality than others. Inspect your tent thoroughly for inferior building standards!

Carry On Camping...Indian Style (source - MikeC)

Jodphur

From Pushkar, you can continue your travels in a few directions.  Further West takes you to the blue city of Jodhpur, home of the prison and fort in ‘Dark Knight Rises’.  No before you ask, this isn’t a tour of places Christopher Nolan has shot scenes from films!  Despite recent fame, it is only really the fort which is what brings you to Jodhpur, as well as the blue buildings, which unlike the ‘pink’ of Jaipur, are actually blue!  The fort is a fantastically imposing structure, sitting high on the cliff-top over the town, it is one of the finer forts in Rajasthan.  That said though, Jodhpur is a one night trip at most.

Jodhpur, the Blue City (source - junctionholidays.com)

Jodhpur Fort (source - Transtech Packers & Movers)

Udaipur

Udaipur (source - MikeC)

Although not really ‘unknown’ and ‘untouristy’ Udaipur is worth a brief mention as we have a film-set theme going on here! Slightly older readers will probably recognise Udaipur as the setting for 'Octopussy' which is, I’m sure much to the frustration of local waiters, plays every evening in a number of roof-top restaurants.  The city itself is great for a weekend, aside from the lake which is the main attraction; there are a number of palaces which are well worth a visit as well as some good shopping and some excellent restaurants.  Udaipur is well connected with other cities and definitely not to be missed out!  The City palace in Udaipur is one of the main attractions.  It is well worth half a day to explore.  Boat tours are also a good way to see the city.

Finally, there are a couple of other places worth mentioning, perhaps for the more intrepid traveller, or the traveller who is happy spending the best part of a day on Indian trains or buses would enjoy!  From Jodhpur, you can continue your journey West towards Pakistan, just this side of the border, you find the town of Jaisalmer.  As with most cities in this area, the fort is often the focus and the main reason to visit.  The Maharaja Palace in Jailsamer is no exception, affording spectacular views of the city and surrounding desert. As with most of these cities, one night is really all you need.

That leaves one place left on the journey, one not for the faint hearted.  Karni Mata or 'Rat Temple' lies North East of Jailsamer and due north of Jodhpur.  Your best chance of getting to the 'Rat Temple' is getting to Baikaner, train or bus, and then getting a train from Baikaner to Nagaur, and getting off at the stop ‘Deshnok Junction’ which is right next to the temple.  Once in the temple, you are on your own!  Try and avoid stepping on the rats!  Also be on the lookout for a white rat, which are supposed to be lucky.  For the sake of those of you who are a bit more squeamish, I will avoid any photographs!  You can get around the temple quickly, and there is really little to see/do apart form that, so after the temple, probably time to head off.  Unless you have a Pakistani visa, then you are running out of Western India, so time I think to head North or South, whatever takes your fancy.  India is an enormous country that leaves the traveller with plenty more to see and do!

Our Man in India - MikeC (source - MikeC)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Budget Bliss!


Three Star Luxury in Mauritius! (source - MikeW)

Three stars!  That is all it takes to please me.  I write this blog post (in my Moleskine) as I lounge by the infinity pool in my three star hotel in Mauritius.  Up to this point, I have apologised four times already for a number of things I need not apologise for; namely the numerous attentive staff just doing their job.  As a regular user of hostels and other types of budget accommodation, this three star palace is the height of luxury for me.  To be fussed over with hot towels, served drinks at my sun lounger and to be treated with some degree of deference is something of a novelty.  And, to be honest with you, it is a little embarrassing!  I am eternally thankful to be blessed with with a cheap taste for travel; so to have an army of hotel staff tempting me with a host of foods and drinks, clearing away my litter and lifting heavy bags, all with a cheery smile, is completely unfamiliar to me.  I am no Diana Ross.  I have no diva-ish tendencies that might suggest I have delusions of grandeur when it comes to travel.  I am a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshireman who firmly believes that you should not make others do what you would not do yourself.  So, to have a retinue of staff to do your bidding just seems a bit silly!  But, I forget.  This holiday is a momentous one; where I am celebrating, with my family, a number of special occasions.  I am not backpacking through Eastern Europe on a budget of £10 per day or trying to negotiate the lowest price for a room in Croatia.  I am in this Indian Ocean paradise to relax.  I have certainly paid a fair whack for this and should certainly let the staff here take the load.  This is a treat!  I have a fairly stressful job where I think constantly about the welfare of others; so to have someone make my bed and clean my room for me each day, as well as bring me drinks and cook me sumptuous meals is an unadulterated joy...and, one I should savour!  Sure...I am only here for 10 days, but how lovely it feels to let those stresses ebb from your body as you sink into that sun lounger, pick up your book, dip into the pool, back to your book, dip into the coral filled tropical ocean, read more of that book...

MikeW 'Slumming It'! (source - MikeW)

So, you may feel out of your depth; a little above your financial station, but my advice to the budget conscious traveller out there - give it a try!  Throw yourself into the lap of luxury for a week or two!  Besides, you save so much on your other trips, why not live it up for a while; even if it does mean 'slumming it' in a three star!

Safe travels!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Hostel Virgin?

You're a virgin?!  You mean you have never experienced one before?!  A bit scared about it?  Well...let me help you; I've done it loads of times before!  With my advice, I guarantee you will have a pleasurable experience EVERY time!  Is this sexual nirvana, I'm referring to?  Nope...I'm talking about your first stay in a hostel.  These FIVE top tips will help you through your first hostel stay.

For the hostel averse out there, my advice is to give it a try.  As I have said before, hostels are an affordable, good value accommodation option for the budget-savvy traveller.  And for those that do not fancy the sights, sounds and smells of your average dorm room, staying in private rooms in hostels need not feel like you are 'slumming it' and can give you access to a host of activities and services you might miss out on if you were to stay in a hotel.

Par-tay! (source - hostelworld.com)

1. Choose Your Hostel Carefully...
- Selecting the hostel that most suits your personality and travel requirements is key.  Need a riotous party?  Make sure the hostel you choose offers free shots on arrival and bar crawls every night.  Need to chill out after a day's sightseeing?  Opt for the hostel that can hook you up with a local yoga class and 'knits' their own muesli for breakfast.  My main advice here would be to read the reviews on hostel booking websites such as Hostelbookers and Hostelworld; where travellers post frank reviews about their experiences and the quality of the accommodation on offer.

I just need to use my hair straighteners...and charge my iPad...and my camera battery! (source - open.edu)

2. Don't Be The Hostel Oddball...
- You are likely to be sharing a dorm room with several others.  It is therefore, paramount that you do not mark yourself out in a negative way in the microcosm of the hostel environment.  Taking up all the floor space, leaving your underwear strewn across the room or hogging all the plug points for your phone, iPad and hairdryer is not going to win you many fans.  The key to being a good 'roomie'?  Easy!  Treat others as you would expect to be treated.

Greet the travel massive! (source - mastersotu.com)

3. Press The Flesh!...
No, not that way!  Though, that will help you make friends very easily!  Hermits and hostels do not go together very well.  The recluse will find it difficult, in the sociable community you get in most hostels, to be completely alone.  This, for me, is one of the real advantages of a hostel stay.  You get to encounter and share experiences with fellow travellers.  These 'micro United Nations' allow you to meet people from different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds that, ultimately, help you understand yourself, your own country and its unique culture a lot better.

Breaking bread at the Lisbon Lounge Hostel (source - MikeW)

4. Get Active!...
Linked into the previous tip about the social nature of backpacker accommodation; hostels will often offer a range of formal and informal activities I would heartily encourage you to get involved in.  For example, the fantastic Budapest Bubble hostel runs an informal nightly bar crawl which allows even the most hardened wallflower the chance to join a group of like-minded travellers for a drink or two without the pressure to finish the night at 5am, staring up from Hungary's finest gutters and covered in vomit.  However, that option is there...if you want it!  The brilliant Lisbon Lounge Hostel is one of many excellent, top quality boutique backpacker pads in the Portuguese capital that offers a number of free and reasonably priced activities for their guests from free tours of the city (something I highly recommend in any city you visit - see 'The Glorious Free Tour') to tours of the Fado scene as well as fabulous in house dinners, cooked by Pedro the chef, for a reasonable price that would shame many of Lisbon's well-established and costlier eateries.  Remember...a good hostel and its staff will want to show off their city and country at its best and ensure you have a great time.  At the very least, make it a priority, once you have dropped your backpack, to ask a member of the hostel staff to sit down with you and map out the best places to visit, eat and drink.  This quick orientation can be a good way to get to know your hosts and offers an invaluable local insight into your destination.

Lock it up! (source - onestop-padlocks.co.uk)

5. Stay Safe!...
I am the first to admit, I am anally retentive when it comes to my safety and well being when I travel.  In addition to this, I am keen to ensure my belongings remain safe and secure.  When I stay in hostels I always take a good quality medium sized padlock with me to lock your backpack or to allow you to lock it or any belongings in the lockers many hostels provide in the rooms.  And, if there is a safe in the hostel...use it for your passport, at the very least.  I have stayed in hostels where people have left valuable electronic items within easy reach and in once case an iPad on their bed while completely unattended in a busy room of 9 other strangers, while the woman went for a shower.  This was despite having a locker in which she could have easily stored the tablet safely and securely.  It made no sense to me.  I do not mean to worry you and you should not be consumed by fear about hostel security as most hostels are filled with friendly like-minded folk who probably will have absolutely no interest in your treasures, but the way I see it is...the less hassle you can get into the more enjoyable your trip will be; saving you from laborious insurance claims, visits to the police and angst about the cost of replacing your stolen belongings.

So, there it is...five great tips to help you navigate your first stay in a hostel and make it go as swimmingly as possible.  Please let me know, in the comments box below, how your first stay went or if you have stayed in hostels before the tips you would offer the plucky hostel first timer.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Why I Blog About Travel...

MikeW checking out Ljubljana! (source - MikeW)

After two years of blogging about travel, I have realised I am writing in an overcrowded part of the Internet.  Blogs about travel, independent travel, budget travel and backpacking are numerous.  Many of those writing have established their space on the web longer than The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet and have reached further around the globe than I can possibly hope to do at this current moment in time.  So, why do I choose to write about travel when there are thousands of others doing very much the same?  The simple answer...I like it!  Travel and experiencing other places are a genuine passion of mine and I love to share this with others.  As I have written about before (The Art of Travel Blogging), I do not like to scribe trip reports for you as I find, on the whole, reading other peoples' similar blog posts dull and incredibly self-indulgent.  And, besides, so many people can write these types of posts better than I ever could.

Am I hoping for a press trip?  Are the 'Rough Guide', 'Lonely Planet' or a national newspaper going to beat down my door so they can fly me out to South Africa, tasked with a 2500 report on wine trips to the Stellenbosch?  Of course not!  I am utterly and completely realistic about the potential for this to happen.  It just isn't going to!  So many other bloggers out there have a larger following, a more regular readership and seemingly write more than I can on a more frequent basis.  Is the hope that I can make this a full time job?  If only!  A pipe dream at best.  Even those that write about travel full time report that pay is low and can often be disproportionate to the work and effort involved.

So, if I am not doing this for the 'free' trips or to earn a crust, my objective is clear.  I am here to inspire YOU!  To encourage you to travel.  To see the world.  To break free.  To explore.  To take that adventure.  To set sail.  Do it!  Then, one day you might decide to inspire others with your writing too!

Happy travels!

PS - If there are any rich benefactors or wealthy patrons out there with money to burn...you know where I live! ;)

Bizarre Bumps!

Do you know that moment when you go shopping or to a bar in your hometown and you bump into a member of your family or one of your friends?  It is a nice surprise, isn't it!  Exaggerate that feeling a hundred times and add a 'WOW' moment; because that is what it is like when you meet those people on your journeys around the world.  Over the course of my travels, I have had the strangely serendipitous pleasure of bumping into a variety of people that have connected me to some point in my past.

Only last year, I opened the gate to the apartment I was staying at, in the gorgeous Croatian town of Hvar,  to hear a woman's voice (tinged with a hint of shock) shout my name.  I turned round to find Heather; the person I used to sit next to in History lessons at sixth form college!  This is someone I had, probably, not seen for about fifteen years!  And, bear in mind the road on which the apartment was situated was a quiet one, a walk away from the centre of the town.  Both surprised, we had a quick catch up, swapped Croatia tips and went on our way open mouthed at what had just happened.  I then turned to my friend, who I was travelling with, and reminded him of the conversation we had the day before, as the ferry pulled into the dock, when I said that I had a strange feeling that I was going to meet someone I knew on the island!  Odd, eh?!

My Croatian 'bump' in Hvar - Heather from school! (source - MikeW)

This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened.  In Brisbane, Australia, I was checking out the leaflets in a backpacker travel agent, when I looked up on hearing a Yorkshire accent; spotting a guy I went to university with.  On that very same trip, I spent a couple of days travelling with a guy who had gone to agricultural college with a mutual friend and his younger brother, whom I attended primary school with.  And, a week previous to that encounter, I walked into the common room of a hostel in Port Macquarie in New South Wales where I got chatting to a girl from my home city, Hull; whom I later discovered when showing her mum photos of her year in Australia, instantly recognised me as the student who had worked with her as part of a work experience module for my degree course four years previously!

The strangest random meet, however, came when travelling with Irish friends I had met in New Zealand, around the south west of Ireland.  We were in a hotel in the Kerry town of Dingle, when I spotted a face I recognised.  I stopped the guy and, yup...he confirmed that he was indeed one of the Irish guys from the 3 day boat trip I took round the Whitsunday Islands, 3 years before.  So, whilst travelling to one country to meet friends I had met in another, I bumped into a random acquaintance, I had met in another country.  Weird, but I enjoy these meets.  These random encounters make me realise how small the world really is and, though probably in part down to my 'Terminator-like' ability for facial recognition, I am always surprised how often this happens.

So, keep your eyes peeled and listen out for your name.  You never know what old school friend, ex-partner or former travel buddy you may encounter as you make your way through life!

If you have already had some similar experiences to me why not share them in the comments box below.  I would love to hear about them!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Aim High! aka TRGTALP's Guide to Great Views!

In my last post, I wrote about, and included some pictures, of my climb to the top of Zadar's highest building, the Bell Tower at the Cathedral of St Anastasia.  I gushed about how the ascent to the top of this fine bell tower afforded some fantastic views over the Old Town and across the sea to the islands that lie off Zadar.  Even before I started the climb, I knew it was going to be good; views from atop a building almost always are.  And, it is this that I urge you to do whenever you travel...AIM HIGH!

I always enjoy taking in the view from hillsides to dizzying my high Ferris wheels to glorious edifying monuments of a Communist past and even the odd ancient religious building.  It must be in my nature as a Capricorn; the desire to want to be like the mountain goat and climb to the top of all that is high.  If there's a tall building with a viewing platform, I probably will want to be up it!  The funny thing is...when faced with these ginormous buildings, my foot on the first step of a 354 step spiral staircase climb, I often think, "Surely the Benedictine Monks installed a lift!"  But, despite my moans, both internal and to anyone who will listen, I always think it is worth the effort and have never regretted a hearty ascent and the view that comes with it.

I'm not going to lie to you. These climbs are not for the faint-hearted!  You will need to be of good health, risk life and limb when placing your foot on that ropey looking wooden step and happy to be pressed up against a whole host of travellers; in many cases, on both the ascent and descent!  On the whole, you'll  find that it is more than worth the hassle and a great way to get up close with your fellow traveller...whether you like it or not!

So, where can you grab a feast for your eyes from on high?  Below, I have listed a tiny amount of the world's best dizzying highs; splitting them into free highs and ascents you are going to have to pay for...

TOP 3 FREE VIEWS...

- Primrose Hill, London - This North London spot offers great views over this mighty fine city. Grab a picnic, get among the crowds on a summer's day and live the high life in this fantastic city!


(source - wikipedia.org)

- Griffith Park, Los Angeles - The City of Angels has its detractors, but who could argue with the stunning view from Griffith Park, looking over this sprawling US metropolis?

(source - drewrtw.blogspot.com)

- Printemps, Paris - Many will recommend a climb to Montmartre and the church of Sacre Coeur for an impressive free view of Paris.  Avoid the crowds of tourists and wind your way through the immaculately arranged departments of the Printemps store on Boulevard Haussman for a brilliant 360-ish view of the French capital, including a close up of La Madeleine and the gilded rooftop of the Paris Opera.  The rooftop terrace has a cafe where you can soak up the views over a cup of creme or sparkling fizz.


 (source - MikeW)

TOP 4 PAID VIEWS...

- Arc de Triomphe, Paris - The 'city of views' features twice on the list and what list of great views would leave out the Eiffel Tower?!  Well, this one, for a start!  Notoriously busy, a little pricey and filled with a constant stream of couples proposing to each other, I would rather recommend the triumphal arch at the end of the Champs Élysée anyday!  Though, not as high, this does not mean the view on offer is not as good. Far from it. Because you are not as high, you get to see more of the city close up, including the direct symmetry of I.M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid through the Arc, all the way to La Defensé, as well as enjoy the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest junctions in Western Europe!  Not only that, but time your visit right; getting there just before dusk and you will have the benefit of a daytime view of Paris coupled with a brilliant nighttime view, as all the cars drive in 8 different directions towards the Arc, the myriad of headlights a sign that Paris at night has come alive!

(source - commons.wikimedia.org)

- The Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, New York - Two impressive skyscrapers in one mind blowing city!  But which to ascend?  I am no authority on this, having only been to the top of the Empire State Building (which offers excellent views), but have been reliably informed that the Rockefeller Centre is a better experience as it allows you to see both the Empire State Building AND the magnificent Chrysler Building from the same rooftop.


(source - Aludon at flickr.com)

- The Academy of Sciences, Riga - If you ever visit Riga, I can highly recommend a trip to the top of 'Stalin's birthday cake'.  This ornate Communist block was built as centre of agricultural education.  Its two attractions are the fact that it really isn't visited in large numbers; leaving me and two giggling girls as the only people at the top of this monument the whole 30 mins I was there!  Also, by getting up that high, you can really appreciate what a green and pleasant land lies so close to this city.  The locals I met made such a great play on the fact that Latvians are proud to say that their country is their 'breadbasket', with much of their food coming directly from the countryside to the capital city.  Once you see the expanse of fields and forests so close to Riga, what the Latvians claim suddenly all becomes clear.


(source - MikeW)

- Castelo Sao Jorge, Lisbon - High over the Portuguese capital is an old castle with some fantastic views. On a clear summer's day, I was able to enjoy a superb view across this city of 7 hills!  Watching trams work their way through the maze of narrow streets and Lisboetas make their way around this wonderful capital city.  In addition to the views from the castle, I would certainly recommend catching the views and the sun's rays from the many miradouros across Lisbon, where people gather to socialise, drink beer and generally have fun as they watch the sun set.


(source - MikeW)

So, whenever you are in a place that has a tourist sight that towers over all others grab yourself a ticket and get to the top!

Oh...and, of course, please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comment box below!  I would love to hear where you think is worth a look.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Zadar - The Light and Sound City!

Zadar, the Croatian city located in northern Dalmatia; was a place that I knew very little about before I arrived in its industrial heartlands, but this was one I was keen to visit on my trip last summer, around this beautiful Balkan country.  I really had no idea what to expect from Zadar, but something about the place was just brilliant!  Granted...Zadar is not the most beautiful place I have ever visited, nor does it have many stellar attractions, but the city had a real positive impact on me.  This is not a rarefied, daintily preserved museum-filled city like Dubrovnik; more a living, breathing city filled with Croatians going about their daily business.  And, I think I enjoyed this place more for that.

Zadar's Old Town (source - croatia.hr)

Most of the action takes place in the Romanesque Old Town; and, here is where you will find, what I think are, Zadar's two best attractions: The Sea Organ and The Sun Salutation.  These two art installations both designed by local architect Nikola Basic, act as a popular focal point for tourists and lounging Zadranis.  Found to the north-west of the Old Town, the Sea Organ is a series of marble steps that lead into the sea, under which a series of 35 tubes have been installed to allow the motion of the waves to create an instrument that plays music all day long.  It is such a great concept and just like the adjacent Sun Salutation, difficult to tear yourself away from.  The Sun Salutation itself comes to life at night; after a day absorbing the bright Croatian sunlight into its photo-voltaic cells; what follows come darkness is what can only be described as a multi-coloured dance floor that would not look out of place in the movie 'Saturday Night Fever'!  It is just fantastic!

The Sea Organ (source - MikeW)

The Sun Salutation (source - connexdiving.cz)

The Sun Salutation up close (source - MikeW)

Other must sees are a peek inside St Donat's Church, an ancient Roman building with a distinctive high roof.  Next to which you will find the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, attached to which is a bell tower that rewards the hardy climber with some amazing views over the city and out to the islands of Ugljan and Pasman.

The Bell Tower at the Cathedral of St Anastasia.  Go climb it! (source - MikeW) 


The view from the top! (source - MikeW)

For beach lovers, you could take a trip to Kolovare, which though not the most glamorous place to take a dip, it does have a real local feel about it and has some lovely views from the cafes found above the pebbles.  My recommendation would be to throw caution to the wind and hurl yourself off the promenade near the Sun Salutation or down the steps of the Sea Organ for a much needed cooling dip in the beautiful clear waters of the Adriatic, followed by my favourite Croatian treat...sladoled (creamy Croatian ice cream).  Now, people will say, "you must try Italian gelato; it's the best in the world!"  Do not believe a word these people say.  They have clearly not tried sladoled and enjoyed the silky delights of a scoop of the finest ice cream the world truly has to offer.  If that is not enough to tempt you to Zadar, I do not know what is!  And, while we are on the subject of food.  Some of the best food I have eaten in Croatia...yup, you guessed it...was in Zadar!  The Trattoria Canzona restaurant (http://www.canzona.hr/canzona_zd/indexZD.html) was so good, I went back the following night!  And, from staring at the plates of diners as I chose where to eat, I can say with some authority, that this city has some mighty fine food on offer!  All this can be rounded off by spending time strolling the ancient squares, listening to the street performers and enjoying the chilled vibe on offer at what must be Zadar's most laid back bar - The Garden (http://www.watchthegardengrow.eu/the-garden-zadar).

 Jump in! (source - MikeW)

Sladoled! (source - MikeW)

The sunsets in Zadar deserve a post of their own!  British film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once wrote, "Zadar has the most beautiful sunsets in the world".  I will let my photos do the talking...




Sunset in Zadar (source - MikeW)

Aside from the wonders that Zadar itself has to offer; outside of the city, you have easy access by boat to the Kornati Islands National Park (http://www.kornati.hr/index.php/en).  The absolutely stunning lakes and waterfalls at Plitvice (http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/) are a 2 hour car journey north from Zadar.  Even closer (about an hour's drive) is the beautiful Krka National Park (http://www.npkrka.hr/) where you will find the incredible, thundering Skradinski Buk waterfall, which you can swim in front of...along with many hundreds of other visitors!  Nevertheless, it is an amazing place to be and a great experience!  And, finally for the party animals, the island of Pag with its internationally renowned dance/house music scene at Zrce Beach, are within a short distance of Zadar.

Plitvice (source - MikeW)

The Skradinski Buk waterfall at the Krka National Park (source - MikeW)

Zrce Beach - Home to Croatia's house music scene (source - MikeW)

All in all, Zadar is one of the places you might not have heard of, or if you have, one of those cities you really do not know much about.  I say now is the time to get there and enjoy this Dalmatian jewel and all of its historical, gourmet, musical and light-fantastic pleasures.

Hvala Puna!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Gallop into the Sunset on an Activity Holiday! (A Guest Post by MaryS)

With this new guest post, I bring you horses, Iceland and yoga!  Guest poster MaryS is a good friend of mine and passionate about travel.  She (and her husband) have often provided me with inspiration for destinations to visit and the list of places that she has been lucky enough to travel to makes me green with envy! ;)  Jokes aside, MaryS is a traveller on a mission; taking a different approach to the traditional two weeks in the sun or the winding backpacking trail many of us tend to opt for.  MaryS likes an activity adventure...

And, before you leave, please be kind enough to share this post and leave comments at the bottom of the page!

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The typical holiday may be about lazing on a beach or looking suave in the city, but some of the best trips I have been on involve getting up at 6am everyday and doing hours of exercise!  "Ahh!" I hear you say, "but you must enjoy skiing!"  And, although this is sometimes the case, my tastes are much broader than zipping down the slopes in a lurid coloured ski suit.  Dear readers, I am a fan of activity holidays!

At home I horse ride, practice Iyengar Yoga, walk and have been known to occasionally hurl myself down hills on a mountain bike (mostly thanks to my hubby's influence)!  Working full time and juggling a busy life means when I go on holidays I want to do more of the things I love and hopefully improve my skills at these things.  In addition to this, as a plus side, by taking these kinds of trips I have seen some fabulous bits of the world from a unique perspective.

My last big trip was a horse riding safari in Botswana.  Imagine cantering for kilometres across open scrubland, occasionally startling an antelope, dodging inch long acacia thorns or slowing down to pass elephants safely.  This coupled with the adrenalin rush of the guide 'shouting' in a whisper, "keep the horses in a walk", "don't panic" and "just to your right is a huge male leopard".  Gulp!  Faced with a predator, with me a sitting duck on a juicy piece of prey and trying to keep calm so as not to trigger a flight reaction!  As you may have gathered, it is not a trip for the fainthearted and a high level of riding competence is required (covering approximately 25 miles a day in 30c+ heat and with the aforementioned predators).  Despite these hardships, the sheer joy of riding in an open space, the wonderful people and animals you meet and the connection with the land is amazing!


The group at Solomon's Wall, Botswana (source - MaryS)


I booked my trip with Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris (www.limpopohorsesafaris.com) and chose a tour where you rode from camp to camp.  One of the things I love about activity trips is that you can confidently travel alone knowing that you will have something in common with the people you meet!  I met the group of women at Johannesburg Airport and a bond was quickly formed.

We were all blown away by the scenery on the drive to the base and by the friendliness of all the Motswana people we each met.  After a gorgeous meal we all changed into riding gear and set off for a riding assessment and to meet our steeds.  I wasn't disappointed and was given a fabulous Boeperd cross to ride.  He was small, surefooted, nifty and jumped like a gazelle!

Valiant! (source - MaryS)

Everyday had a pattern, up before Sunrise to eat, saddling up at first light to catch some of the nocturnal animals who were off to bed and riding until morning break (normally we had to stop earlier so I could pee, 2 cups of tea will do that to a girl, but there was no subtle slinking off. Oh no. A guide also had to dismount, check behind your desired hiding spot...)  More riding, spotting amazing animals in the wild.  I saw all the major game apart from rhino and cheetah.  Lunch.  More riding.  Arrive at camp.  The amazing support staff have everything set up, including an afternoon tea.  Bush shower.  Nap.  Picking a drink for sundowners!  Going somewhere gorgeous for a walk or evening safari drive.  Watching the sunset.  Back to camp for dinner, drinks and turning in early after chatting around the fire.  Repeat.  Absolute bliss!

Sleeping under the stars at Kgotla (source - MaryS) 

The view from the saddle! (source - MaryS)

Highlights were the animal spotting, the riding (cantering, crossing dried up rivers and tackling cross country jumps), the food and sleeping under the stars at the Kgotla.  It was an amazing trip and I came back a stronger rider with some amazing memories!

Activity trips are also a good way to learn a new skill; with skiing being the obvious choice, but continuing on the riding theme...Iceland is the place to go if you want  flavour of the above (well sans safari animals).  Tough, amazingly friendly horses and a lunar landscape.  Because of their small stature, good nature and their extra gait called Tolt, Icey's are a fab way for new riders to explore on horseback and day trips from the capital, Reykjavik are easily accessible!  I must warn you...this trip inspired me to buy my own Icey!


MaryS is ready to explore! (source - MaryS)

Whilst in Iceland the landscape calls to you, encouraging you to explore and the range of activities on offer is mind blowing!  We also sampled some fabulous Mountain Biking (with Iceland Activities - http://icelandactivities.wordpress.com/).  Precariously gliding down single track avoiding the sheer drops and bubbling mud!  We got to swim in a thermally heated river and boil eggs for snacks in a hot spring!  The scenery was simply jaw dropping.


Street art in Reykjavik (source - MaryS)

For those that are exhausted just from reading the above, a slower tempo of activity can also be enjoyed when you travel.  A week long yoga escape to Casperia in Italy (www.sunflowerretreats.com/casperia.htm) was the perfect way to recharge!  Twice daily yoga, Italian food, a car free village and fabulous like-minded folk made this an amazing trip.  Did I mention the massage treatments on offer?!  Whilst I used the trip to master headstands, we all worked at our own levels and felt energised by the therapeutic classes.  Other guests enjoyed cooking and painting classes, while I filled my free time sketching.

The perfect place for yoga - Casperia, Italy! (source - MaryS)

So my only advice is think about what you love doing.  Then find somewhere you can do it that will blow your mind!  You won't regret it :-)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Bicycling Through Berlin (A Guest Post by Calum)

The fourth of our guest posters, brings another slice of German life.  This time...the incredible city of Berlin.  Calum, a friend and former colleague of mine, is a well-travelled Scot, who is not only possessed with a great sense of humour, but a with a love of travel that has taken him to various destinations across Europe; along with recent adventurous trips to India and Vietnam.  With the help of his friend Silke, a local, Calum was able to take 'The Home Advantage'; utilising the knowledge of a native to show him the best that this magnificent city has to offer!  I hope you enjoy reading about Calum's trip and his thoughts on Berlin.  Remember to leave your comments below for the wee Scot!

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Berlin. Where all the tourists go. The Bundestag. Brandenburg Gate. And Alexanderplatz.
I've really loved Germany since some friends were kind enough to host a visit to Mainz Carnival, or Fassenacht, six years ago. I learned a lot about the country on that trip. I learned how to love ironic 80s rock, shoulder strap keyboards, singing 99 red balloons by Nena, and pubs where tables hung upside down from the ceiling (I'm sure I saw it more than once). Prior perceptions of Germany were influenced by old 'Monty Python' episodes and 'Fawlty Towers'. A stiff, serious bunch. But how wrong I was.


 Contrast expectations of Germany on the left, a la 'Fawlty Towers', with the real thing.

Earlier this year I had an opportunity to meet up with my friend Silke in Berlin. I expected a lot from the city. On my previous visit to Germany I'd found people were incredibly welcoming and on this occasion things were no different. I was first to experience this immediately after getting off the train from the airport at the Zoological Gardens, central Berlin, where a super-helpful taxi driver took time out to give me walking directions to my hotel. It might not sound much but in
London, or Paris, this sort of thing really doesn’t happen.

Different cities have different names for their underground systems - in London The Tube, Paris le Metro. In Glasgow it is the Subway but in Berlin we have the U-Bahn below ground and S-Bahn above. I’m normally pretty good at navigating metropolitan railway lines but I found Berlin tricky – lines look similar, numbered U1-U9 and the stations seem a maze of platforms and escalators to me. I did eventually seem to get to where I wanted – perhaps through luck more than anything else.


I’d arranged to meet up with Silke outside the Bundestag at 9am. There are a few activities that are mandatory on a first trip to Berlin: visiting the Bundestag is one, and another is to photograph the Brandenburg Gate. Luckily the Gate is just around the corner from the Bundestag.


Providing you book ahead, free tours of the Bundestag are available, allowing access to the walkway that winds up inside the glass dome with an audio guide (booking for visits to the Bundestag  http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/besgrupp/index.html). Views over the city are spectacular and a small museum provides information on the history of the building: the Reichstag fire that boosted the Nazi Party in 1933, the dome’s reconstruction and even the concert Michael Jackson gave outside in 1988 (http://concertsgalore.net/file/michael-jackson-at-platz-der-republik-berlingermany-on-jun-19-1988-concert-bootleg-download-37035.php).



The Bundestag on the left, essential Brandenburg Gate pic on the right.

Berlin to me seemed open and spacious in feel. Traffic is calm considering the size of the city and even the U-Bahn isn’t too cramped. A few people had recommended a cycling tour of the city. Rather than sign up to an organised group we decided to do it ourselves. Berlin is incredibly well suited to bikes, much more so than London in my view. We stopped at Museum

Island, passed by the Rotes Rathaus, Berlin City Hall, before crossing the city to find the Eastside Gallery, a good hour or so away. This is a 1.3km stretch of the old wall that still stands, with artists across Europe invited to paint sections. I’d recommend visiting this above all else I managed to do. There were some great little coffee spots on the way and later in the
evening we cycled through the Tiergarten Park alongside the river, passing through a small zoo on the way! This was a great way to see a quieter side of the city – a side of the city I may not have thought to visit without some local knowledge (thank you, Silke!).


The East Side Gallery running down the street. See Fernsehturm in the distance.

Another attraction we visited earlier in the day was the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz – a large TV tower originally constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and apparently modeled after Sputnik. The tower is visible throughout Berlin, with a revolving restaurant and gallery up top. I’m a sucker for tall buildings – if it’s there I have to climb it – so I couldn’t possibly pass up on this; despite the slightly expensive ticket price at €12.50. Parts of the tower seemed very dated, from the dull concrete walkways and walls outside to the slightly aged decor within, but the views of the city were truly stunning. With such a vantage point it’s still possible to see distinct differences between parts of the city - large wide roads and housing blocks to the east, and much more colourful and organic city planning to the west. Of course the differences are beginning to fade away.



On the left, cake - it really was as big as it looks. View from Fernsehturm on right.

Visiting a city is always a much richer experience in the company of someone who knows it well. I’m most grateful to Silke for showing me around. If you ever fancy a tour around Glasgow, my home town, get in touch!