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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Visit to Kazakhstan

For hundreds of years the nomads of Central Asia roamed over an enormous territory that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Tien Shen mountains and as far south as Afghanistan.
Fought over, at first by the three dzus or clans known in the West as the Great, Middle and Little Hordes, and then annexed by the Soviets, Kazakhstan remained an enigma, its vast size – roughly that of western Europe – and inaccessibility put it beyond the reach of all but the most adventurous of travellers.

The Xanadu of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem was a ‘savage and enchanted’ land of sacred rivers, caves of ice and ‘twice five miles of fertile ground’.  It is almost as if his words were written for Kazakhstan whose rivers and holy places were sacred to the pre-Islamic shamanistic society that once dwelt there.

And 200 years after Coleridge wrote the opening lines, the country is itself opening up.  Thousands of miles of plains, mountains and glaciers, stunning canyons and natural monuments shaped by the wind, ancient cave paintings and glyphs can still be seen – as can modern cities complete with entertainment centres and shopping malls, built from scratch in the middle of the steppe.

Astana

Astana, the new capital is President Nursultan Nazabayev’s Xanadu.  Once a quiet trading post on the fringes of the silk route, for the past ten years it has been the country’s new capital and the population has exploded as people move to the city to work and study. There’s something slightly surreal about watching a city take shape in front of your eyes, vast construction projects are everywhere and even at night one can hear the sound of building.

Last year, the President inaugurated the Palace of Peace, an enormous glass pyramid built by the British architect Norman Foster.  Surprisingly tardis-like it holds an opera house and on its upper floors, there are meeting rooms, office space and at the top, a curious, blindingly white conference suite with incredible panoramic views across the city.

In keeping with the feeling of other-worldliness that permeates the place, the glass has been tinted and giant doves, the size of cows have been printed onto the windows.  At least the sky is always blue for the lucky conference goers who have to walk up through a lush ‘sky garden’ to reach the eyrie. Only the president, says our guide, is allowed to use the lift all the way to the top.

From October to April, the ground is almost entirely covered with deep snow.  While this makes getting around Astana tricky enough – it is certainly not a city designed with pedestrians in mind – it is an excellent time of the year to visit.  The River Ishim which runs through the centre of the city is frozen solid and plays host to a number of skiers, walkers.  There are also ice fishermen who huddle under home made plastic windbreaks which cover the entire body while they wait to catch tiny fry for bait.

But the most fun with ice is surely that on offer at the free ice-sculpture park where adults and children alike take great pleasure in the massive sculptures, some of which are big enough to climb up and slide down.  Night-time, when the sculptures are illuminated (like everything else in this city where the lights are always on) is the most popular time for families.  It isn’t unusual to find groups of friends playing hide and seek among the exhibits and good naturedly helping each other on the slides.

Modern architecture buffs will find plenty of interest in Astana. A substantial part of the city is being rebuilt, at the president’s behest to provide space for a new capital worthy of a nation with a significant amount of oil reserves.  A vast new presidential office and the parliament have already been finished and new areas for civil servants, diplomats and businesses are planned.

French Towns Outside of Paris

1. Lille

Very visitor-friendly with a network of pedestrian shopping streets selling everything from high street fashion to haute couture, antiques to interior furnishings, rich chocolates to sumptuous patisseries.

Sit at a pavement cafe on the Place du General de Gaulle; stroll amongst the flower sellers and second-hand book stalls in the quadrangle of the Stock Exchange; and soak up the city’s past in the museum of the Hospice Comtesse. The Fine Art Museum housing France’s second most important art collection is far more manageable than the Louvre. And all just two hours from London by Eurostar.

2. Arras

Just 70 miles from Calais by motorway and famous for its two huge cobbled squares, laid out in the 13th century to house regional markets. The 155 gabled houses and stone arcades which lined the squares were completely destroyed during World War One and painstakingly rebuilt in the 1920s.

Take the lift up the belltower for a panoramic view of the city, then visit the 14th century underground passages beneath the squares which became British Army HQ during World War One. Watch the history film in the town hall, then follow the steel dots in the pavements for a walking tour.

3. Rouen

Narrow cobbled streets and timber frame houses give Joan of Arc’s city a real sense of living history. The young shepherdess was martyred here in 1431 and is commemorated by a modern church and a museum in the old market square.

At the opposite end of the pedestrianised Rue du Gros Horloge – named after the big clock which spans the street – lies the flamboyant Cathedral with its stained glass windows and Renaissance tombs. A busy port on the river Seine, Rouen has some great restaurants where you can try gastronomic specialities from Normandy.

4. Besançon

Surrounded by lush forests and seven green hills, Besançon in Franche-Comté has been voted France’s greenest urban centre. Vauban, Louis XIV’s architect, designed the huge hilltop citadel which dominates the town – great views from the ramparts over the river Doubs which loops round the old town below. The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation inside the castle walls is sobering but very moving.

Take a river cruise or just stroll along the quaysides and soak up those elegant stone buildings. Feeling lucky? Then try a night at the Casino.

5. Troyes

Step back in time through the narrow cobbled streets of St John’s district where Champagne fairs were held in the Middle Ages. Today it’s a mix of stunning timbered houses, interesting small shops and lively cafés. And don’t miss the Museum of Modern Art in the beautiful 16th century bishop’s palace next to the cathedral.

Troyes is also the factory shopping capital of France with designer outlet villages such as McArthur Glen and Marques Avenue, as well as budget brand factory shops. Be sure to take an empty suitcase!

6. Aix-les-Bains

A lively spa town on the eastern shore of Lac du Bourget, France’s largest natural lake. Fabulous mountain views from the tree-lined promenade and chic marinas. The town centre boasts thermal baths, open air tea dancing and an opulent Casino – step inside just to see the Art Deco ceilings. For sports enthusiasts, there’s a golf course, race course and sailing school.

Take a circular tour of the lake past historic Hautecombe Abbey or play ‘spot the beaver’ on a dinner cruise along the winding Canal de Savières which leads to the Haut-Rhône canal. Magic!

7. Lyons

France’s second largest city, founded 2000 years ago by the Romans at the point where the Rhône meets the Saône. Take in the view from the terrace of Notre Dame Basilica, then walk through the centuries from the two Roman theatres of Fouviere to the Renaissance old town with its Mediterranean colours, the 18th century boulevards to the 19th century silk weavers’ district.

Don’t miss the hidden courtyards and passageways – traboules – of the Old Town; the fountains of the Place des Terreaux; and the painted trompe l’oeil walls. Then sample some of the best gastronomic restaurants in France.

8. Romans-sur-Isère

An important tanning centre in the 19th century, this pretty town on the Isère river still leads the way in French luxury shoes. You can buy high fashion for feet at lower than retail prices from local manufacturers like Charles Jourdan, Robert Clergerie and Stephane Kelian. Bargains too in other clothes from the Marques Avenue outlet village.

The International Shoe Museum, housed in a 17th century convent, is a unique collection spanning Biblical times to the 21st century. Fascinating!

Places to see in Puglia Italy

Part of the charm of Puglia, Southern Italy’s rising star, is its slow approach to everyday life. Centuries old farmland are hemmed by a superb sun-bleached sandy coast and travellers looking for a little more authenticity, are spurning Tuscany’s frenetic vibe for the peaceful nature of this region.

1. Gargano

In the spur of Italy, Gargano is replete with beautiful fishing villages, dark and ancient forests inland, fine sandy beaches but also rugged cliffs, secret caves and picturesque coves. A perfect hub for eco-tourism and relax.

The most popular and fashionable town in Gargano is the medieval village of Vieste, with its narrow streets and white houses, dominated by a stunning 13th century castle.

Among the most beautiful beaches we recommend Mattinata beach, especially the coastal area of Baia delle Zagare, with its famous stacks a few metres from the shore.

If you like fresh fish you have to try a dinner at trabucco, a traditional wooden fishing platform on the coast where you can watch the fishing process, help out if you want, and dine leaving you with a very memorable experience.

2. Salento

The southernmost area of Puglia is defined by stony olive groves that extend between dry-stone walls bordered with oleander. It has a strong identity with its own cuisine, traditions and music, influenced by its Greek past.

Along with some of Italy’s best beaches such as Porto Cesareo with the Punta Prosciutto dunes, Pescoluse beach (also called Maldives of Salento) and Torre Lapillo beach there are some fascinating towns to explore such as Otranto, Specchia and Presicce (awarded as 3 of the most beautiful Italian villages).

Get there in the summer for a chance to witness a sagra di paese (a village festival) where you can eat traditional street food while listening to traditional music such as pizzica or tarantella.

3. Valle D’Itria

Valle d’Itria, also called “Trulli valley”, is an extended valley with a unique fairytale landscape composed by cylindrical peasant houses with beehive roofs known as Trulli.

These traditional apulian buildings served a very practical function: using up all the stones that peasants cleared from their difficult, rocky fields. They were easily made and easily knocked down again.

Today, the fanciful Trulli are restored holiday houses for tourists: silent and peaceful places that keep you warm in winter and cool in the summer months. For example, Trullo Due Ulivi in Valle d’Itria has been recently renovated following the traditional criteria preserving the authentic beauty:

Another authentic Trulli house in the heart of Valle D’Itria is Trullo Stefano, surrounded by dry-stone walls and centenary Olive trees and comes with a private pool.

4. Ostuni

The city of Ostuni is a beautiful maze-like white city on a hilltop just 8km from the Adriatic Sea packed with narrow streets you can spend ages getting lost in, climbing staircases and falling in love with the stunning views. 
Wandering through the old alleys of its historic center inside its ancient walls you can find traditional craftsmanship shops, cosy cafes and aperitivo spots, and lovely restaurants to experience a perfect Apulian dinner before a drink in one of the trendy bars where you can enjoy the lively Italian nightlife in a very international environment.

5. Brindisi

The port of Brindisi was recognised as a UNESCO heritage site for culture of Peace as it was always considered a safe harbour for travellers and a point of departure. The city today hosts the United Nations Logistics Base – the hub for peacekeeping operations.

For many years, the port has been a main stop of the Indian Mail from London to Bombay, and it hosted world-known names such as Virgil and Ghandi.

Its beautiful waterfront is packed with restaurants that serve local and fresh food. The old town has the charm of old-school traditional Italy that sometimes feels lost in the more touristic cities. People are friendly and welcoming and visitors like to call it “Brindeasy” for its slow and relaxed lifestyle.

6. Old town of Bari

Bari, the capital of the region is buzzing and busy which has a lovely old town. Bari Vecchia (the old town of Bari) is a walled city built on a peninsula jutting into the sea. While walking down the narrow alleyways you will feel like being in someone’s living room. The streets here are places to socialise, and in the mornings women sit at tables making orecchiette (little ears), the typical Apulian pasta made by rolling the dough into thin logs, cutting off a chunk and shaping it by hand at an impressively rapid pace.

TIP: Be sure to try the focaccia! It is a flat bread typical of this area with roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and glistening with local olive oil.

7. Polignano A Mare

Polignano a Mare is one of Puglia’s most picturesque seaside towns, and one of the most important ancient settlements in Puglia. Spectacularly positioned on the Adriatic coast, it is built on the edge of a craggy ravine pockmarked with caves.

TIP: For a once in a lifetime experience, visit Grotta Palazzese, a luxury restaurant with a view over a magnificent blue-green sea, carved out of magnificent limestone rocks that lies in an unparalleled location. It has been enchanting visitors for centuries.

At just one kilometre from Polignano a Mare you can stay at the luxury Villa Incanto a Mare. Divided into three independent houses, this exclusive villa can host parties for up to 12 people who want to enjoy a private pool, three relaxing areas and a common party area equipped with a professional kitchen, a barbecue and a pizza oven.

8. Alberobello

Alberobello is a fairytale UNESCO World Heritage town made of 1500 Trulli (typical Apulian conical stone huts). It is considered a unique and enchanting place, and despite the fact that you may find it a bit touristy, it is definitely worth a visit.

Most of the Trulli here have been transformed into souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, but some of them (in less crowded areas of the town) are real homes where people still live.

You can also stay in one of the authentic Trulli, such as Trullo Stella with private infinity pool, set amongst hundreds of mixed olive trees, almond, fig, cherry and peer trees, at just 2 km from Alberobello.

Ski Gear for Beginner Skiers

The first thing to consider is the cost. Until I was ready to become a regular skier and knew exactly what I needed, I opted for second-hand skis and most of the rest of the equipment I bought was entry-level.

The second thing to consider is where you will be skiing. Living on the French Riviera, I was most likely to be doing Alpine skiing (i.e. downhill skiing, as opposed to Nordic, or cross-country skiing) at altitudes between 1,500-1,800 meters with relatively mild temperatures between -5°C and 5°C.

Essentials (skis and boots)

Skis

My initial idea was to hire skis for the first few ski outings. But the last time I rented a pair of skis and boots from Skiset in Auron I paid €30 for the day. So when I saw a second-hand pair of skis at €70 I thought I would recuperate my investment by the end of the season.

The skis I bought were Atomic SX 9.2 (this model has been discontinued). I made an error as SX 9.2 are high performance skis, designed for speed and experienced skiers, not for comfort and learning. I guess I will appreciate them in the long term but in retrospect I should have got something more suitable for progressive learning.

I asked Atomic which skis they would recommend for beginner skiers and they advised the Vantage X range, with the cheapest model being Atomic Vantage X 75 C at £375. If you don’t want to spend as much for an advanced pair of skis, you may want to consider Wed’ze Archtec Boost 300 at £100 (see video below).

Skis come in different lengths and widths. Shorter skis are more manoeuvrable at slower speeds hence better for beginner skiers. But ideally you should be aiming for the ski length which is somewhere between your chin and the tip of your nose. Wider skis have more of an area in contact with snow hence are more stable. They may require more effort when turning but, as a beginner skier, you will find this to be an advantage.

Other things to take into account are rocker/camber and flex, but these are best discussed directly with the sales professional in your ski shop. As a general rule, look for skis with some tip and tail rocker (basically, they curve at both ends) and have a medium to medium/soft flex.

I also bought the entry-level ski bag (£8) to protect and carry the skis, as well as a basic pair of light-weight poles (£10) with adjustable wrist strap, both from Decathlon.

Boots

There are many technical aspects to consider when choosing your boots, such as rigidity for support, elasticity for reducing muscular effort when changing direction, flex, etc. But as a beginner skier I didn’t bother too much with the terminology and I concentrated on two things: comfort and price.

I started off by trying out the cheapest boot on the shelf and then picked the next model up, Salomon Quest Access 80. The difference in price between the two was only £30 but the Salomon boots felt so much more comfortable. It was very easy to put them on thanks to the slide-in liner and equally as easy to fasten thanks to three buckles which were simple to adjust.

I made the typical beginner error: when I put the boots on, my toes were touching the front of the boot and I thought the boots were too small. Actually, this is normal, since when you ski your knees bend and your foot moves backwards.

The “80” in Salomon Quest Access 80 refers to the flex rating. The higher the flex, the more rigid the boot is. Beginners will appreciate a softer, more comfortable boot while advanced skiers prefer a higher flex meaning more of the energy is transferred directly to the bindings and the skis. An ideal flex for beginners is between 60 and 80, so Quest 80 are edging between the beginner/intermediate level.

I bought my boots at Decathlon for £130. I also bought the very basic boots bag (£8 – more advanced models cost at least double and include adjustable shoulder straps and a clean mat for changing boots/shoes) and a pair of warm ski socks (£4), also from Decathlon.

Accessories (gloves, helmet, goggles)

By the time I got to choosing the accessories, I have already spent all of my budget on the skis and boots. So I just bought the most basic, cheapest, Wed’ze (Decathlon’s own brand) accessories. Apart from the gloves, I was actually pleasantly surprised with the quality and comfort of the helmet and the goggles, considering their low price.

Gloves

I went for the most basic model at £4 – Wed’ze Access Adult Ski Gloves. Considering the relatively mild temperature of the lower Alpine ski resorts (around 0°C), these gloves seemed ideal. However, when I first put them on my fingers were freezing and it wasn’t until about 30 minutes later, when my whole body warmed up due to physical exercise that the gloves felt comfortable.

They are also water repellent but not water resistant so constantly falling and finding myself with hands in the snow eventually meant that they were wet inside as well as outside. Also, the repellent wears off after 2-3 washes and I will need to buy a special product to replace the coating.

Considering warm fingers throughout the day add to the overall comfort of skiing, with hindsight I should have invested in a more advanced pair of gloves, with a waterproof Gore-Tex layer and better insulation – e.g. Reusch Modus GTX.

Another downside of cheap gloves is the lack of wrist cinches, meaning they are relatively loose around the wrist and snow can get in when you fall.

Helmet

On my first ski trip I noticed that the vast majority of adults did not wear a helmet. For me wearing a helmet is a no-brainer, not just as a beginner but in general. Not only am I guaranteed to fall but I am unlikely to know how to control my fall and may land on my head.

For an entry-level helmet, at £20 the Wed’ze H300 Adult Ski Helmet was perfect! It was light, hard on the outside and soft, comfortable and warm on the inside and it had good ventilation with 9 fixed and 4 adjustable air vents.

The inner liner is removable and machine washable.

In terms of accessories, I appreciated the goggle retainer clip at the back of the helmet but would have liked the action camera mount so I could fix my TomTom Bandit camera.

Goggles

Just like with regular sunglasses, the recent advancement in technology means there is a large choice of goggles, not just in terms of shape and colour but comfort and technical specifications.

Not knowing what I should be looking for in technical terms, I bought the cheapest model,Wed’ze Snow 300 Ski All Weather Goggles at £10. While not the most advanced goggles, they turned out to be adequate for a beginner skier like me.

Soft foam made them comfortable to wear, brown, anti-UV glass was efficient in protecting against sunshine and the glow reflecting off the snow, and double lens with ventilated frame prevented them from fogging on the inside.

Clothing (jacket, trousers, thermal layers)

Jacket

For my first ski trip I wore a quilted jacket that I bought years ago at Primark (the model I bought has since been discontinued). Although not specifically designed for ski, the warm, padded jacket was ideal to keep me warm and to protect me from the shock of falling. It is not waterproof but it is thick enough to protect from wind and moisture.

I have still not bought a specific ski jacket, although there are several reasons why I might consider investing in one:

  • The Primark jacket does not allow for transpiration to evaporate.
  • The zips are not designed for a high exertion activity so they often unzip in a middle of a descent.
  • There is no elastic lining around the waist meaning that when I fall the snow makes its way inside.

Trousers

As a beginner skier it is essential to invest in a good pair of ski trousers. Let’s face it, you will be spending a lot (!!) of time in the snow. Things to look out for is:

  • Impermeability. Look for waterproof trousers with a coating of at least 5000mm (ideally, 10000mm) and sealed main seams.
  • Warmth. Opt for a fleece inner lining with at least 60 grams of synthetic insulation per every square metre of fabric.
  • Breathability. Make sure your trousers have sufficient ventilation (zips or mesh) to allow you to release excess transpiration after a few hours of exercise, especially as you will most likely keep your trousers on as you stop for lunch.
  • Pockets. This is not essential as your jacket will probably have all the pockets you need but I found it useful to have a couple of zip-protected pockets on my trousers for things like my phone and nose tissue.
  • Comfort. The trousers should be both elastic and adjustable around the waist to allow for free movement but tight enough not to fall. As a beginner skier you will want trousers that are neither too tight nor too baggy. Walk around the ski shop a bit and do a few squats to see if you feel comfortable.

The model I bought is Wed’ze Free 300 Ski Trousers which I only found available in France.

Base- and Mid-layers

Currently, I am using a cotton long-sleeve T-shirt as my base-layer which is far from ideal as cotton retains moisture. The purpose of a base-layer is to pull moisture away from the body and regulate core temperature.

If you are concerned with body odours and want something which is both lightweight and effective in regulating body temperature, you should consider merino wool layers. The downside of merino is that it is expensive, so an alternative may be polyester layers. I might buy either Uniqlo’s HeatTech (£13) or Decathlon’s Wed’ze 2warm Men’s Top (£8).

Mid-layers, on the other hand, are built for insulation and which to buy depends on the weather conditions. Most of the time I will use the fleece I already have in my closet but I may also invest in Uniqlo’s ultra light down jacket (£60) for when I need extra warmth.

Technology

I used the TomTom Adventurer sports watch to monitor progress as I was practicing my ski runs. This is a very clever piece of technology automatically tracking heart rate, speed, gradient, descent and GPS track for each run.

The watch gave me instant report after each run, and at the end of the day, when I got home, I got an overview of my entire day with full statistics.