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Category Archives: Travel

Travel Agent

When working with a travel agent, travel planner or any other travel professional such as a knowledgeable destination specialist, keep in mind that a certain protocol will assure you will get not only the kind of travel arrangements you want in general but also you’ll gain a true partner that will always work in your best interest whether you’ll travel away from home on business or for pleasure.

1. First of all, when contacting a travel agent, whether in person or online, don’t hesitate to give them your name – don’t worry, most agents won’t spam you back. Without your name when you’re asking for a valuable travel advice most agents won’t take your request too seriously. Call if you wish but most agents prefer not to take notes, email is a way to go and for an agent to look up a fare often a time means he has to plug in a name, so might as well that name will be your real name. If you decide not to accept the booking the reservation will expire and no harm done. If you decide later to purchase the reservation the agent does not have to rekey it into the system all over again.

2. If you’re trying to be you own travel agent, even in part, say you plan to book your own hotels online, disclose it to the agent your are contacting for assistance, he/she may still be interested to help you with the rest of your travel arrangements. Don’t hide your intentions from the agent as agents don’t like to be used for information gathering purposes only.

3. If at all possible, always contact your travel agent or destination specialist as soon as you know when and where you wish to travel, not last minute before your intended departure. That is even more important when you’re planning a trip to a lesser frequented destination.

4. Don’t book your flights and hotels online and ask a travel agent to do the rest, namely the difficult parts, such as complex transportation connections, travel arrangements in remote locations or to book segments that you just feel are not safe for you to book online yourself. Give your agent to design and book your entire trip for you. The worst you can do is design your own vacation package, then copy and email the same request to dozen different agents to see who may be the lowest bidder. Yes, the internet is perfect for that kind of information gathering but look at this from a perspective of a travel agent. If he/she knows you are sending the same request to dozen agents many of them will not be too interested in dealing with you. Then again, telling them the truth they will appreciate knowing what you are doing and approach the whole thing quite differently and in the end they just might offer you a deal.

5. If you’re after booking shoe-string cost of travel, for example wishing to book the lowest type of accommodations, best be your own travel agent. Do realize that agents can’t book services that are simply too cheap to begin with, not to mention that that kind of suppliers do not pay agent s any kind of commission. The agent may still help you but keep in mind he will be doing you a favor and will be working for you at no charge. If so, appreciate it, email your thank you.

5 Berlin Museums

Berlin is big on museums, with hundreds dotted around the city. The city’s turbulent history is the focus of some of them, while others cover topics from around the world. There’s enough for weeks museum exploration, but when you are short of time go be sure to choose one (or more) of these.

1. Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon is one of the five museums that make up Museum Island, and is the most visited museum in Germany. It has relics and artefacts from around the ancient world, including parts of ancient cities, dug up and brought over to Berlin. The Pergamon Altar, which gives the museum its name, is probably the most famous artefact on show – an enormous 2,200-year old stone altar, with a detailed frieze depicting a battle between giants and gods. The Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon is also fascinating to see, as are the Mshatta Facade from today’s Jordan. The Pergamon also houses the Islamic Art Museum, as well as many smaller collections of ancient artefacts.

Entry: 12 euro (18 euro gets you in to all the museums on Museum Island). Free for children under 18. 10am – 6pm, closed on Mondays. Included with Berlin Pass.

2. Topography of Terror

Germany is fairly open about confronting its difficult past, and the Topography of Terror Museum, housed in a former Gestapo HQ, tries to put that past into words and exhibitions. The museum covers the period from the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, to the end of World War II and the division of Berlin. The exhibitions combine personal stories with Nazi propaganda and descriptions of their crimes. The museum also holds the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, and describes life in the city during that time. The museum isn’t pleasant, and isn’t meant to be: it shows the darkest parts of Berlin’s history, so that they won’t be forgotten.

Entry: The museum is free, and open from 10am to 10pm.

3. Jewish Museum

Berlin’s Jewish Museum tells the story of 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany. It focuses on the complex relationship between Jews and Germans over the centuries. The extensive exhibitions describe the pogroms, discrimination and expulsions, as well as Jewish involvement in the wider community and the German-Jewish Enlightenment movement, which started in Berlin and left its mark on Judaism ever since. The museum’s jagged modernist design gives a sense of discord and disorientation, with three underground tunnels, or ‘axes’, guiding visitors through different exhibitions, and an inaccessible void in between them. Menashe Kaddishman’s installation, ‘Falling Leaves’, is dedicated to all victims of war and violence.

Entry: 7 Euro. 10am – 8pm (until 10pm on Monday). Included with Berlin Pass.

4. DDR Museum

We often picture the Berlin Wall from the west, with the iconic images of Western leaders and artists speaking out against it, and its eventual fall in 1989. The DDR Museum is an interactive museum dedicated to recreating life in communist East Germany. For local children and visitors from the West, it’s a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life in East Berlin: queuing for food, spying on neighbors, prisoner interrogations and communist propaganda. A visit to the museum is a nice peek into the past, and raises as many questions as it answers.

Entry: 6 Euro. Daily, 10am – 8pm. Insider Tip: Check in to DDR Museum on Foursquare just before you enter and show them you checked in to get 30% off (pay €4 instead of €6)! Follow The Travel Magazine on Foursquare for more tips. Offer valid at time of publishing.

5. Bauhaus Archives

Architecture museums aren’t always on ‘top 5’ lists, but the Bauhaus movement has a unique story, which includes and goes beyond its effect on today’s architecture designs around the world. The archives chronicle the development of the movement, led by Walter Gropius, through the 1920s and 1930s, including the expulsion of several Jewish architects by the Nazis, and their influence on modernist design in every country they found refuge in. The museum shows Bauhaus’s attempt to be a ‘total’ artistic philosophy, encompassing everything from industrial design to typography. Currently, the museum’s collection is much larger than the exhibition space, and only 35% of the collection is on display. Nonetheless, a visit to the museum is informative and enjoyable.

Entry: 6-7 Euro. Wednesday to Monday 10am – 5pm, closed on Tuesday. Included with Berlin Pass.

The Cyclades Islands in Greece

1. Santorini

Some say the most beguiling and popular island of this Aegean archipelago is Santorini. Everyone will have seen that iconic image — you know, the one with the cliff-top blue-domed church standing out amid shimmering white architecture that looks dazzling against the blue skies and seas.

Cruise ships stop there, weddings take place there just for the scenic photography and holiday makers clamber over the ramparts of the 13th century castle in an almost cult-like fashion, to be sure of the best view of the sunset.

There are beaches, a pebbly one at Kamari and a black sand ones at Perissa and Karterados and these are overlooked by jagged cliffs and a brilliant light that seems peculiar to the cyclades — it can be mesmerising.

The hillside towns of Fira and Oia are quaint with sometimes steep steps and knotted alleyways and make for idyllic afternoon exploration. And in the evenings the roof terraces of restaurants are light and alive with diners enjoying libations and alfresco dinner in the warm night air.

This island is all about relaxing sophistication. Just ask Angelina Jolie did. She holed up here for a month after filming her second Tomb Raider film.

2. Mykonos

Bare hills, sandy beaches and a glitzy vibe makes up this 86 square kilometre island. There are barely 10,000 locals yet the island is set upon by tens of thousands of tourists looking to party. Nightclubs are two a penny, there are several pubs and shops stay open throughout the night.

This is a fun island and, naturally, its most famous beach, Paradise Beach, has its share of nightclubs, a campsite, and the odd restaurant. Nearby is Super Parade, a gay nudist beach which may not be to everyone’s taste. For a little peace and quiet, head to Agia Ana, though it may seem comparatively undeveloped.

Its main town, Hóra, is full of fashion shops but as tempting as it is to go shopping, stay away between 10am and 5pm when the cruise ships stop by.

3. Naxos

This is the largest of the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea and when you arrive by boat you will be met with its most famous archaelogical site — the Portara, the doorway to the ancient temple of Apollo built in 522 BC. The island is home to the highest mountain in the Cyclades — Mount Zeus — is the source of much mythology. They say that this was the nuptial isle of the Dionysus, the God of wine. That’s why there is a sanctuary dedicated to him. It’s coastline is a doily of sensational beaches, some secluded. Mikri and Vila in the west are beloved by windsurfers.

Inland its incredibly mountainous and villages seem to appear out of the fertile valleys and there are plenty of fields and olive groves. Its harbour is in the capital where several alleys lead steeply to the citadel, a landmark that can be seen for miles and elsewhere there are old churches, monasteries and Venetian castles and homes.

4. Paros

Paros, a ferry hub and a beautiful Venetian port, is considered as one of the most beautiful islands defined by its beaches and quaint villages. Parikia is the island’s main town and port. Yet its most popular town is Naoussa. It was once an old fishing village but who would know? Today it is a popular cosmopolitan holiday destination. For a little culture visit the blue domed Byzantine Museum.

5. Ios

There may be 365 churches on this island but for young people this is a party island. It offers an intense nightlife and beach parties that start early and last throughout the night on Mylopotas beach are not unusual. This kilometre stretch of beach is peppered with bars and restaurants and myriad of water sports but there are more sedate options at Valmas beach or Kolitsani beach.

The island also has the tranquil hillside village of Chora, probably the most picturesque in all the Cyclades. The views from its highest point are simply breathtaking.

Incidentally, they say that Homer’s mother was from Ios, and he himself was buried there.

6. Delos

You cannot stay the night on Delos but you should visit. This world heritage site, located in the centre of the archipelago, is the birth place of Apollo and Artemis and in ancient times was the religious centre for the whole of Greece. The remarkable monuments, such as the Minoan Fountain and Temple of the Delians, and the impressive mosaics are certainly worthy of the ferry ride.

Explore Peru On a Budget

For young whippersnappers and seasoned voyagers alike, Peru is fast becoming one of the most popular travel destinations in South America. Its success is reflected in the ever-increasing influx of tourists (growing annually at a rate of 25 per cent since 2008), eager to sample the delicious melting pot of different cultures, cuisine, landscapes, and archaeology.

Peru is most famous for its ancient civilisations, in particular the Inca. Few tourists would consider a trip to Cusco without wishing to visit the formidable Machu Picchu. There is also the inevitable flight over the Nasca Lines and even perhaps a voyage through the Amazon Rainforest.

However, these trips are usually planned well in advance, as tours can be booked from the comfort of your own home or through a travel agent. They may be a little costly, but are certainly worth spending on if you can afford it. Flights to Peru can also be painfully steep, particularly if you are coming from Europe.

With this in mind, by the time tours have been booked and flights paid for, travel budgets are often on the lower end of the scale. Fortunately, Peru is not an expensive country in terms of accommodation, coach travel, and for the most part, activities. Don’t fall into the trap of booking everything in advance online, as you will end up spending more than necessary. With just a little planning and a keen eye, there are some fantastic things to do and see in Peru that won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

To help give you some inspiration, we present eight of our favourite budget activities in Peru:

Barter at the markets in Lima

“Love at first sight” is not a phrase often associated with the capital city of Lima. The weather is often drab and the air polluted, making this concrete jungle seem rather grey. However, the city is a stopover for international flights, so it is likely you will have to spend some time here. Fortunately, there is plenty of colour to be found at the Inca Market in Miraflores, where you can do a spot of souvenir shopping and make the most of Peru’s bartering-culture.

Bartering in the markets can be quite the challenge, and there are few things more rewarding than striking a good deal. On top of this, it’s a great excuse to start up a rapport with some of the locals. There is always a temptation just to socialise with fellow hostel-goers, which is fine, but you will probably find your experience of Peru is much-enriched if you get to know some of the people who actually live there.

Have a giggle at the Larco Museum

Another popular attraction in Lima is the Larco Museum, which has an absolutely fabulous collection of pre-Columbian art. Located in the Pueblo Libre District of the city, the museum showcases over 4,000 years of Peruvian history. The collection is both vast and varied, with cases and cases of ceramic figurines partaking in huge range of ritual and domestic activities. There is even a ceramic vessel depicting a man picking his nose!

The most popular aspect of the museum is the gallery of Moche erotic art. The Moche produced some of the finest examples of pre-Columbian pottery, and also the sauciest. Phallus-shaped vessels, masturbating skeletons, and some truly unabashed sexual acts are all depicted in impressive detail. I challenge anyone to walk through the exhibition with the straight face.

Go horse riding in Arequipa

Arequipa, also known as the ‘White City’ is located in the southern region of Peru, and is a popular destination for travellers due to its vibrant culture and stunning countryside. Most of the hostels advertise horse riding trips on the outskirts of the city, providing the perfect excuse to partake in a little budget adventure.

Trips last a couple of hours, and previous experience with horses is not required. You will get the chance to ride across the stunning countryside in full view of Mount Misti, a volcano with a height of almost 20,000 feet. Paths tend to be a little off the beaten track, thus providing a sense of adventure while avoiding any real danger.

Chill out with the condors at Colca Canyon

If you are planning a visit to Arequipa, consider sparing an extra day to book a trip to the nearby(ish) Colca Canyon. The colourful Andean valley is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and boasts some of the most spectacular views in Southern Peru. It is also home to the magnificent Andean Condors, which are often sighted at close range from the canyon walls.

Morning trips to Colca Canyon can be booked from most hostels in Arequipa. You will have to get up very early in the morning to make the bus journey of 100 miles or to the canyon, but it will all be worth it when you turn up in virtual solitude to watch the condors glide through the air before your eyes. Once you have taken in some of the splendid views, you will be taken to on of the nearby villages where you can purchase souvenirs or have your picture taken hugging a llama. As silly as it sounds, it’s a rather fun way to top off the morning.

Go to Lake Titicaca for the ‘Disney’ experience

Lake Titicaca is on the border between Peru and Bolivia. By volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America, and is quite a sight to behold: a panorama of perfectly calm, deep blue water dotted with islands of all shapes and sizes. Among these are the Uros, a group of 44 artificial islands made of floating reeds. The reeds are used by the islands’ communities in everything from building houses and boats to cookery.

Several of the Uros are open to the public, and for a small fee – around 20 soles (£5/$8/€6) you can book a half-day tour from Puno that includes a 45-minute boat trip to the Uros, a tour through several of the islands, and an opportunity to interact with the communities who live there.

The experience is more of insight into times gone by than of the current way of life here: the majority of the Uros tribe have moved to the mainland in order to gain better access to schools and hospitals. Those who remain on the islands wear the traditional bright outfits during the day to please the tourists.

That being said, the native dress is visually stunning, and you may even be encouraged to don the traditional garb yourself for a fun photo or two. You can also pay extra for a trip on the traditional reed boats, which I thoroughly recommend. If you get the opportunity, sit down for a good old chat with community, as you will get a much more interesting and informative insight into their current way of life than you would through a camera lens.

Play football at high altitude in Cusco

Cusco is most famous for its historical attractions and spectacular architecture. However, it’s also a popular city for hostel-goers to let their hair down and party. There is a multitude of clubs, and cocktails can be purchased at a very low cost. Combine alcohol with high altitude, and a couple of drinks on a night out can leave you with quite a hangover.

If this is the case, force yourself out of bed and sign up for a morning of football at high altitude. Again, most of the hostels will organise daily activities such as this to keep you amused on your trip. A game of football provides the opportunity to get out of the hustle and bustle of the centre of Cusco and try something a bit different.

Be warned, even the most athletic individuals can massively under-perform at high-altitude. A couple of minutes running about will probably leave you panting on the ground. On the plus side, you will return to your hostel feeling fit, refreshed, and ready to explore the city.

Spend the day working on an Inca farm

If playing football is not your cup of tea, but you still want to get physical outdoors, sign up to spend a day working on an Inca farm on the outskirts of Cusco. You will spend the morning being taught about the crops that grow in the region, traditional forms of farming, and some of the medicinal qualities of local plants and herbs.

With hoe in hand, you will then be put to work turning the earth and making it fertile for the crops. After you have really broken a sweat, the farmer on hand serves up a delicious lunch on the edge of the field. Again this is a great opportunity to get a real insight into local traditions and culture, away from the tourist traps located in the centre of the city.

Eat Ceviche

Peru is a haven for lovers of international cuisine, offering a vast array of mouth-watering dishes including lomo saltado, anticuchos, and tender alpaca steak. One of the most popular dishes in Peru is ceviche: raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spiced with chilli, accompanied by a selection of side dishes including sweet potato, plantain, and avocado.

If you cannot bring yourself to try some of the more imaginative Peruvian delicacies (guinea pig, or cui, immediately comes to mind), at least sample a plate of ceviche, as the unique texture and flavours of this dish are truly a match made in heaven. Most restaurants in Lima will serve up ceviche for a moderate price, but if you head to the coastal areas in Northern Peru, you are sure to find restaurants serving it a fraction of the price.

Abergavenny Food Festival South Wales

My three year old son is in the back of the car patting his tummy and licking his lips and saying “Abergavenny, Abergavenny, Abergavenny” over and over again. He can he possibly remember our previous visit to this mecca of epicurean delights? He asks when we will be having lunch. “I want gnocchi” he demands.

Twelve months ago we were Food Festival virgins – which means we didn’t realise that trying to steer a buggy full of sleepy toddler through the impossibly crowded streets of this little town on a Saturday – let alone through the quirkily-decorated market hall which was packed to the gills with fellow foodies – was a pointless task. We ended up with one of us waiting outside in the mizzle with a cranky child while the other one waited for a gap in the throng before shimmying from stall to stall, from a dazzling display of sausages to handmade chocolates, to fruit leather and to the most delicious pasta from the makers who had travelled from Italy.

We wished we’d left the buggy in the car (parked on the other side of town as almost all the town centre car parks are commandeered for the duration of the festival) and brought a sling or a baby backpack to carry our little gourmet.

The Sunday was much better. We concentrated on the slightly less crowded family-focused events taking place a short walk away in the grounds of Abergavenny Castle.

Here there was space to run around – and grassy slopes and steps to climb up and down – not to mention live music and a generally more relaxed atmosphere. We gorged at the Persian grill and danced to the bands before I slipped away on my own to catch the highlight of the weekend – an audience with four of the finest chefs in the Principality, including my secret crush, Shaun Hill, whose cooking at the nearby The Walnut Tree Inn (which was awarded a Michelin star in 2010) had left us all – including Charlie who declared that the truffle tagliatelle was ‘very yummy’ – giddy with delight.

Just a few miles away from The Walnut Tree, the town of Abergavenny is home to several iconic foodie destinations including the acclaimed butcher HJ Edwards which is just a few steps away from the Angel Hotel where many of the talks and cookery demonstrations take place – and which has just won a Tea Guild award for its Afternoon Tea.

To the north of the town you’ll find the village of Crickhowell and to the south east, off the road to the wonderfully-named village of Llanvihangel Gobion, is another place well worth stopping off at – the hotel and restaurant at Llansantffraed Court owned and run by Mike Morgan who was one of the founders of the original food festival.

A short drive up an unpaved turnoff brings visitors to the fine 18th century building. There’s plenty of parking (the gravel underfoot can make the going challenging for anyone with mobility issues so best to drop them off at the entrance) and everywhere you look, you’ll see rolling countryside. We were blessed with a fine, sunny day and chose to have lunch in the shade on the delightful rear terrace while enjoying views down to the pond fountain and beyond to rolling hills while sharing a plate of home-cured venison (from nearby Blwch ) bresaola with soft, creamy mozzarella and a couple of hearty open sandwiches.

While Llansantffraed also has several well-appointed rooms, for our second visit to the area – this time travelling with Granny Mistryguest who needs a specially adapted room – we were staying at the Celtic Manor Resort, just outside Newport, about a 40 minute drive from Abergavenny.

Celtic Manor – one of the supporters of this year’s food festival – is perhaps best known for hosting last year’s Ryder Cup – one of the biggest golf tournaments in the world. The resort operates on a grand scale – there are three gold courses – and joy of joys, the bar stocks Thomas Watkins. But this isn’t any old bar for the Resort has cannily joined up with Michelin-starred chef James Sommerin of the Crown at Whitebrook to open an outpost – The Crown at Celtic Manor.

Sadly for Charlie, diners under 13 are not permitted – so he enjoys the hotel babysitting service (all staff work at the hotel’s childcare facility) and we enjoy a very pleasant child free dining experience.

Cooking at the Crown is overseen by Sommerin but the kitchen is run by head chef Tim McDougall who trained with Sommerin at the original Crown. There are a few nods to molecular cuisine (a smattering of foams and a consommé with a tiny square of tarragon jelly nestling at the bottom of the shot glass) but overall the food is precise rather than prissy.

The joy of staying somewhere like Celtic Manor when wrangling three generations is that there is something for everyone under one roof. While too young for the fine dining (or to venture out on the famous 2010 course), Charlie did have a shot at adventure golf and if the tennis courts had been open he’d have quite liked a go at that too. He was more than happy with the swimming pool which helpfully had lots of gear for kids – floats, armbands and for tiny ones, ‘floatie cushions’ that allow a child to float in an upright position – under parental supervision of course.

There are clearly designated swim times for children in the main pool – and they suited us – but if he’d been even keener we would have been able to use the smaller pool at Dylans – a health club a short walk or golf buggy ride away.

Granny was thrilled to find a sun-drenched terrace where she could read and which was also within a short wheel of the Olive Tree – the main restaurant where, the following evening, we settled for a light snack having sampled the lunch menu at the Newbridge on Usk, the newly refurbished gastro-pub which joined the Celtic Manor stable a few months ago.

There’s a very relaxed atmosphere at this restaurant with (very nice) rooms, including some at ground level, which will be launching its new menu at the Food Festival. Chef includes as much local produce as possible (my pouting was landed caught in Swansea Bay) and almost every table commands a decent view. Ours watched over a bend in the Usk which is a prime to watch for leaping salmon apparently. Not surprisingly the Newbridge offers special fishing breaks and the kitchen will even cook your catch to your specification if you bring it back during the catch and keep season.

There’s so much to see in this part of south Wales that a visit in any season (there is also a Christmas Food Festival in Abergavenny run by the same organisers in December) will satisfy every taste.

The Northern Lights in Iceland and Scotland

In a world full of man-made creations and a fast pace of life, sometimes we need to step back, slow down and marvel at some of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders.

The Northern Lights – also known as the Aurora Borealis – are the epitome of natural wonders and 2012 is one of the best years to witness this natural phenomenon as NASA predicts the strongest Northern Lights activity in 50 years.

So, what are the Northern Lights?

To put it as simply as possible, the lights occur when electrically-charged particles from the sun are blown towards the Earth in solar winds. These particles then collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a display of colourful lights that can be seen near the Earth’s magnetic poles. The colour of the light display depends on the gases and the distance above the Earth’s surface. Blue or purple lights: less than 120km, green or yellow lights: 120km-150km, and red lights: more than 150km.

Where can they be seen?

Like any other natural phenomenon, the exact place and time of sightings of the Northern Lights can be hard to predict, but the main places to see them are in the northern hemisphere in destinations such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Greenland, Alaska and north-western parts of Canada.

Iceland

In my hunt for the Northern Lights, my first stop was Iceland; a fascinating country with many beautiful natural sights such as the cascading Gullfoss Waterfalls, the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the spurting Great Geysir, Humpback, Minke and Blue whales in the bay of Reykjavik, and geothermal pools and spas such as the Blue Lagoon.

I was staying in Fosshotel Lind, a comfortable three-star hotel situated in the centre of Reykjavik just a few minutes’ walk from Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street.

Situated just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the best places to view the Northern Lights. Despite bad weather during most of my trip in Reykjavik, we perservered and on the last night a Reykjavik Excursions coach picked me up from my hotel and headed in convoy with twelve other coaches south of the city where it had been reported that the cloud was finally clearing. Northern Lights Tour starts from €33 per person.

I stood with the other hopefuls next to a beach on the south-east coast of Iceland staring up at the sky and willing the clouds to break and clear the path for the lights.

One hour later, the disheartened among us started heading back to the warmth of the coach when suddenly a man shouted “They’re coming!”.

Excitement rippled through the crowd and sure enough, the clouds had cleared to reveal a cluster of sparkling stars and a strip of vibrant green Northern Lights as they danced across the black sky.

If there is ever a time when a human can be made to feel like a tiny ant on this vast planet, it is while witnessing an impressive display of solar activity. They appeared to be putting on a show for their audience as they jumped and darted across the velvety sky before gradually fading into the atmosphere.

Scotland

Scotland was my other destination in my brief chase of the Aurora Borealis and though it might not have been regarded as one of the top spots for Northern Lights sightings in the past, recent images and media coverage have revealed some stunning displays that have already taken place this winter.

The Isle of Eriska is a beautiful private island in the Scottish highlands, close to Oban, that features a five-star Eriska Hotel, 3AA Rosettes restaurant and a golf course that is situated on the shores of the loch against a backdrop of majestic hills and snow-capped mountains.

The island’s isolated position enables it to be a fantastic viewing point for the Northern Lights and because it has no surrounding light pollution, guests will have a higher chance of seeing a spectacular light show within a tranquil and natural environment.

From West Scotland, I headed north-east on the train to the town of Wick after hearing that the lights had been spotted in a magnificent display the week before. This charming estuary town is home to cobbled streets dotted with cafes, bookshops and gift shops.

My accommodation was the Norseman Hotel located on the banks of the River Wick and was pictured in one of the breathtaking images that captured the Northern Lights at the end of January.

Despite not seeing the Northern Lights during my trip to Scotland, I was reassured when the receptionist of the Norseman showed me the recent photos that revealed a surreal crescent-shaped display of vivid green shades above Wick’s church and river.

The Northern Lights are one of the most magical examples of Mother Nature’s handiwork and a trip to encounter these beautiful mesmerising lights should be promptly added to your list of holiday destinations.

Top Tip

You will have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights if:

  • you are in an area away from light pollution;
  • avoid a full moon and cloudy skies;
  • use a digital camera with an ISO setting of 1600 and remember to turn the flash off;
  • and wrap up warm – it could be a long wait.

The Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight can best be described as Britain’s Own “sunshine island” with temperatures and sunshine not only amongst the best to be found in the UK but often warmer than places such as Corfu.

This was what I found at the end of May when the local radio station proudly announced on my third day that temperatures would be hotter than islands in the Med!

It was a nostalgic return visit for my wife and I having last visited the Isle of Wight 34 years ago.

What dramatic changes would we find?

Would the island be as “inviting” as we had found it way back in the 1970’s. The answer was simple. It was as nice. There had not been too many changes although admittedly there were a few more cars! But one of the joys of the Isle of Wight is that traffic is to some extent “regulated” by space on the three car ferry routes linking the island with the mainland.

The character of the charming small villages scattered throughout the island remained unspoilt. Traditional English tea gardens with cream teas, home made cakes and teapots with “proper” cups and saucers. None of your cheaper, plastic rubbish here!

Godshill with its thatched cottages, tastefully presented visitor shops and “village in miniature” attraction remained a firm favourite and required three separate visits during the week!

The coloured sands of Alum Bay and The Needles had to be a “must” for an all-day visit to the furthermost southerly tip of the Isle of Wight. To work off those “extra inches” added from the cream teas we decided to walk both down and up the 189 steps from the top car park to the beach. For those looking for easy access there is a fairly modern chair-lift which was good value at just £4.00 return. We found you could no longer collect your own coloured sands at beach level but instead had to go to the shop, purchase a container (of various shapes and sizes) and fill your own from tubs of the different colours. You can also purchase ready-filled shapes for little extra money.

One surprising change on the island, possibly due to climate “warming”, was two vineyards. We visited Rossiters on our return drive from Alum Bay as it was conveniently located between Freshwater and Newbridge and were offered a tasting before deciding which – if any – of the red and whites on offer.

From German Dornfelder Red to Madeleine Angevine (1859) there was a good choice to be found and although best described as “young” the wines were quite acceptable and we returned with a “few” bottles! I suppose finding wine on the Island should not have come as that much of a surprise as the Romans were here nearly 2,000 years ago. There is an extremely interesting Roman Villa to be found at Brading and as the Romans enjoyed their wine I could well understand why!

Families will not be disappointed if selecting the Island for their family holiday. With clear blue sea water; famous golden sands; two zoos and numerous attractions on the Piers at resorts such as Sandown and Shanklin, there is sufficient to keep the youngsters happy.

For steam railway buffs there is the enchanting steam railway and museum at Haven Street and its runs daily from mid-June until mid-September with special days before and after these dates. The track runs from Wootton to the mainline connection at Smallbrook Junction and is a memorable trip back in time.

For gardeners amongst you the island has plenty to see and a visit to the Garlic Farm at Newchurch is a “must”. No fewer than 40 different pickles and relishes all made from garlic produced on the farm and you can also take home your own garlic growing pack.

My wife and I stayed at Sandown at St. Catherine’s Hotel [Editor’s note 18 March 2016: this hotel is no longer trading]; just 10 minutes walk from the seafront but located in a quiet part of town with the advantage of having its own car park. Food was excellent and en suite accommodation could not be faulted. After a filling three course dinner it was nice to leave the car behind and walk down to the promenade for some refreshing evening air before retiring for an excellent night’s sleep.

A visit to the Isle of Wight would not be complete without a visit to Queen Victoria’s favourite summer retreat – Osborne House – just outside Cowes. From the car park we took a horse-drawn carriage ride (only 0.50p each) to the main residence and spent an intriguing three hours visiting the various rooms and gardens. It was quite an eye opener to catch up on the history of Queen Victoria, her large family, and how and where various “off-spring” had ended up.

We had chosen the ferry route between Southampton and East Cowes and it was a sad moment when it was time to depart on the Saturday. But the hour-long crossing of the Solent and up Southampton Water gave us plenty of time to reflect on the numerous fascinations the Island holds.

And guess what. As we came into Southampton (West Quay) it was RAINING! And we had just spent a glorious seven days in sunshine and temperatures in the upper 20’s!

Holiday in the Basque Country

The Basques are a mystical people of small numbers with obscure origins, a painful, bloody history and an ancient tongue (Euskera) which bears no relation to any other language on Earth.

For millennia they have made the hostile snow-capped peaks and grassy troughs of the French and Spanish Pyrenean Mountain sweep their home.

We had ventured high into the bracken-carpeted mountains near the Ugly Cliffs to the traditional shepherding and smuggler paths that skirted and crisscrossed la frontera (the border) between France and Spain.

Joining us on the hike was corn throwing champion, Maika, a mother-of-two and a farmer of 60 hectares of inherited land, Georgina, and our heart-warming guide Jexux Lizarribar, 55, who knew the area better than the back of his Basque hand.

We passed ancient dolmens (2,000 year-old stone markers) before slipping off the beaten path, following Jexux’ trusty footsteps: “If you like the mountains and you are used to walking, you will see there are too many markers here and those who aren’t used to the area follow the markers and get lost,” said Jexux, pointing to a red splodge of paint on a large pebble.

And soon enough we came across a group of French walkers who had lost one of their party. Being part of the Pyrenean Experience group and walking in the knowledge of Jexux and Maika was already proving to be invaluable.

We found a clearing on a precipice in Spain, overlooking France, and leisurely lunched on sheep’s cheese and quince jam before walking to gawk at the Griffon Vultures nesting in their natural habitat.

“I could live here,” said David, a fellow tourist and a Basque-ophile. They are some of the nicest people I have met in my life,” he said after a lunch of freshly ground corn talos and Basque cider, with a local miller.

Our evenings were spent on the pretty patio of Casa Latxaberria, discussing the days past and the days ahead over limitless wine, Patxarran and hearty fare whipped up by tiptop cook Delfina.

We visited Zugarramurdi, made famous for its witchcraft and heavily persecuted during the Inquisition of the early 1600’s when many women were taken away to be burnt at the stake. “A lot of Basque houses face East, and you may still find a sunflower on doors to frighten away the witches, as well as crosses of laurel leaves,” said Georgina, gesturing to two terraced cottages displaying both.

In the Witches Museum in the town, the names of those burnt are displayed in an eerie exhibition; ranging from Gracia Miguel, aged seven, from Uztarroz, to Juanes de Goizueta, 40, from Oyarzun – all killed for allegedly using herbal medicines, keeping toads as pets, and holding covens in the nearby caves.

On other days we walked to burial sites which date back to almost 3,000 BC, walked a small section of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, huddled in a shepherd’s log-store for lunch, laughed heartily with Basque locals as if they were close friends and listened to Basque ballads of how life passes us by.

And the week did fly by, as it tends to do when you’re having fun: “Come on Alfonso,” said Georgina, encouragingly, as she tapped the dashboard of her old brown van which was coughing as it tackled a hill en route back to the airport. The road levelled, we turned a bend and an expanse of mountain ranges opened up before us.

“I love this place, it is home,” said Georgina admiring the view, and it felt like it came from her heart.

We had journeyed to the ‘heart’ of Basque culture, both geographically and personally, through meetings with Maika and her family, Jexux, the miller and Delfina, Dambolin – all of whom had welcomed us with open arms, a kiss for each cheek, and a warm heart. It was their knowledge, wisdom and willingness to be friends, that ‘backdoor’ contact, which made the journey unique and memorable.

As we neared the airport I took in a last view of the Pyrenees, and blinked to halt a happy tear welling in my eye, and remembered the day in Ameztia, when the Joaldunak appeared over the mountain and the flurry of excitement among friends. This had been an unforgettable week: not only had I journeyed to the heart of this land and its people, they had also found a lasting place in mine.

Festival Joaldunak Basque

Trance like the Joaldunak (bell ringers), appeared over the brow of the mountain, like a fancy-dress clad military unit. As they neared, the dirge-like rumble of copper bells, strapped to their backs, grew louder, sending a wave of excitement down the lane to where the villagers were huddled against the rain to watch them pass their homes.

People gobbled down last mouthfuls of pinxos (snacks), grabbed their glasses of tinto (red wine) and hurriedly headed for the best vantage points.

Suddenly the Joaldunak were beside us, close enough to touch. The ringing of their bells was almost deafening; the bright colours and sheep-like shapes of their identical outfits offering a stark contrast to a grey sky.

I stood in awe to witness an annual festival recognised by UNESCO as an event of ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

This private Basque ceremony takes place in and around the village of Ituren on the penultimate Saturday in every September.

In traditional costumes which represent fertility, the 36-strong Joaldunak unison of men, boys, and one woman, aged 15 to 62; pulsated past small crowds, shaking whips of black horse-tail hair in their right hands.

They were led by one of their elders, Dambolin Nagusi, with a cow horn draped around his neck, ready to sound his troop in to line: “We march for our ancestors, as they did,” said Dambolin. “This festival is something very old, which was suppressed during Franco’s regime when they tried to get rid of Basque traditions,” he said, fervently, before grabbing his conical hat and sounding his deafening horn.

He had led the Joaldunak to Sumbillanea, the home of Sagrario and Ignacio in Ameztia, to bless their home and pay homage to Ignacio’s father, a late, great Joaldunak.

The poignant parade serves as an intimate warm-up to the spectacular three-day January carnivals in Ituren and neighbouring Zubieta where the Zanpantzar (a group of Joaldunak) reignite an ancient ritualistic din by marching through the towns, ringing bells to awaken the Earth, frightening away evil spirits and wild animals, and blessing the fields for a good harvest.

Few tourists have witnessed the event – I was among a handful of the first. I often found myself swallowing a gratitude induced lump in my throat, along with local sheep’s cheese washed down with the popular sloe-flavoured liqueur, Patxarran, which were frequently doing the rounds.

City break in Tunis

The country’s location has been a focus for civilizations that have left their indelible mark on a country strewn with relics from bygone eras. An overlapping of cultures, religions and history makes Tunis well worth a visit.

Tunis is recognizably Mediterranean in character, yet bound together by an Islamic thread and North African climate that hold a seductive charm and mysticism. A century of French colonial rule has created an alluring mix within this part of North Africa.

Meandering along Avenue de France, with its’ tree-lined boulevard and pavement café’s set in view of the art deco façade of the Theatre Municipal, one could be forgiven for thinking they were in the South of France. Tunisian men wearing their red Chechiya caps, dark glasses and smoking fruit scented tobacco from their water pipes soon remind you that one has arrived in North Africa.

At the far end of the Avenue beyond the Porte de France arch are the winding alleyways of the medina and craft-filled souks leading toward the Ez-Zitoune Mosque at the walled cities core.

Medina of Tunis – UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The medina, much talked and written about, is the heart of the old town. The origins of Tunis grew out from the warren of dark alleyways, markets, palaces and madrasas that along with the Ez-Zitoune Mosque, still remains the focal point of Tunis. And rightly so, as little has changed over the centuries within this UNESCO listed heritage.

Each twist or turn reveals another surprise; glimpses of tiled courtyards hidden behind weathered wood studded doors or one of the medina’s residences sympathetically transformed into a Dar hotel or romantic restaurant. If you can direct yourself out of the maze of winding paths of the medina, then the Tunis beyond has a diverse range of attractions that step even further back to the origins of Tunisia.

The Bardo Museum founded in 1882, has one of the world’s greatest collections of Roman Mosaics and is a great starting point to puzzle together many of the archaeological sites that can be visited across Tunisia. The museum was a former Beylical Palace, whose origins date to the 13th century, and the building alone is a masterpiece of Arabian style architecture with domed ceilings, cupolas and majestic galleries to peer over. From here the fashionable suburbs of Tunis are nearby and provide an elevated and alternative vision of the city.

Carthage

A solitary column stands upon a plinth of stonework, head and shoulders above the rest of the stone masonry, which is strewn across a site that used to be the Antonine Thermal Baths. The granite column topped by a white capital was one of eight such columns used to support the vaulted roof of the Frigidarium (cool pool). This historical site is part of the city’s Punic-Roman legacy dating back to 814BC in a suburb of Tunis called Carthage. Very few Punic remnants remain, giving a compelling insight into the great tussles for power between the Roman Empire and Carthaginians. The site once coveted by the Phoenicians & Romans is now overlooked by the Presidential Palace of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and close to the Roman amphitheatre used to this day for concerts.

Sidi Bou Said

Beyond the Presidential Palace further up the hill is the village of Sidi Bou Said, the Monmatre of North Africa, perched high above the city with a bohemian style and artistic soul. The white washed walls and signature blue studded doors resting under arabesque arches, are depicted on canvas within the many local galleries. Alongside Carthage are the chic resorts of Gammarth and La Marsa that boast some of the best fish restaurants in the city and views over the gulf of Tunis.

Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Turkish, French, and the native Berber people have all helped define the Tunis of today. The capital is not a dramatic culture shock for visitors, but just enough to feel you have stepped outside of Europe. Whilst many aspects of life is alien exotic and exciting, the French influence in language, architecture and society makes it easy for weekenders to assimilate quickly with the culture. Tunis has a very relaxed and open feel to it, almost unkempt in a refreshing and charming sense making a weekend date with this part of North Africa almost inevitable.

Where to Stay in Tunis

In the heart of the Medina and hidden behind an unassuming entrance is Dar El Medina, an elegantly appointed boutique hotel. Set around an inner courtyard, the rooms of this former residence are nicely furnished with period features and furnishings, reminders of its’ former life.