Posts Tagged With: travel

Twelve reasons to love Vietnam

  • There is no such thing as a load that is too big to be carried on the back of a bicycle or scooter. Pigs, patio chairs, lawnmowers; they can all fit on the back of a tiny Honda cub. It’s also not that uncommon to see entire families of five or six people on the one moped.
  • Standard traffic rules don’t seem to apply in Vietnam. When approaching a crossroads, you shouldn’t slow down, you should continue at exactly the same speed and honk your horn. It’s everyone else’s responsibility to get out of YOUR way.

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  • Being on the back of one those speeding motorcycles is simultaneously the most terrifying and most exhilarating moment of your life, up to that point.
  • Pavements are definitely not for walking on. They are where business is done. Entire shops and restaurants are situated on tiny patches of pavement. If you want to walk, you’re going to have to take your chances in the road.
  • Speaking of the street hawkers, there is literally no dish that the Vietnamese cannot prepare in a wok whilst crouched down on the street. Ask them politely enough and they’d probably be able to whip you up an entire Sunday roast.
  • Sticking with the food. It is SENSATIONAL. Easily some of the best that South East Asia has to offer and surely there’s no higher compliment than that. Any cuisine that can make both tofu and cucumber taste good must truly be one of the world’s finest.
  • The coffee is pretty bloody awesome as well. In Hanoi, don’t be alarmed if you get egg in your coffee. The Vietnamese are just so good at this kind of thing that they actually make egg coffee work.
  • If you happen to like a beer or two, than Vietnam is the place for you. It has absurdly low prices. In Hanoi, I got two pints for eighty-three pence. TWO PINTS FOR EIGHTY-THREE PENCE! It’s probably a good job I don’t live there.
  • The Vietnamese appear to be rather fond of a drink themselves. We went cycling in the countryside round Hoi An one Saturday morning and passed a couple of wedding parties. Everyone was leathered and the karaoke had already started. It wasn’t even midday.
  • We went on a Halong Bay cruise. Some of us jumped off the top deck of the boat into the water. The captain went absolutely mental. Five minutes later the other crew members were throwing beers down to us, that we drank in the bath like waters of one of the world’s most beautiful bays.092
  • Every hour is happy hour, not just in bars and restaurants, but also at market stalls. Happy hour can also be extended from a 10pm finish until a 3am finish if enough people are buying cocktails.
  • The real highlight of Vietnam though is the people themselves. They are friendly and innovative (especially when it comes to making money) and they have some of the best standards of customer service that I have encountered anywhere in the world. They’ll go out of their way to ensure that your stay in Vietnam is a memorable one. And they’ll succeed.

TRAVEL TIPS

Two places that we stayed at in Vietnam are worthy of the highest praise and recommendation. Finnegans, in Hanoi, was one of the best hotels that we’ve stayed at in Asia. It’s got a great location in the heart of the old town in Hanoi, and the staff are absolutely outstanding. When we took a taxi to the train station to take us to Hue, one of the hotel staff followed us on his motorbike just so he could show us to our beds on the train. http://hanoifinneganshotel.com/

Just as impressive was the Tea Gardens homestay in Hoi An. Thanh, the lady that runs the place (pictured above)is absolutely lovely. No favour was too much to ask and every question was met with a smile. Furthermore, for the price, the room was seriously luxurious. http://teagardenhomestay.com/

 

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Categories: 12 reasons to love Vietnam, Asia, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

The top 5 places to visit in Kyoto

It isn’t easy planning a trip to Japan. The land of the rising sun has an incredible range of options for tourists. You could go skiing in Hokkaido, shopping in Tokyo or scuba diving in Okinawa. Pretty much every city has a wealth of cultural options, outstanding local cuisine and lots of opportunities to party hard. With this much to choose from, how do you decide where to go? One city features on nearly every tourist’s itinerary though; the truly outstanding Kyoto.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in 1868. In many ways though, Kyoto is still the cultural capital. Whereas the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit soulless, Kyoto is everything you imagine Japan to be before you go there. From the geisha district of Gion, to smoky little izikaya bars, to the many temples and shrines that are dotted around the city, Kyoto has something to offer everyone. The fact that the city is absolutely beautiful doesn’t hurt either! We weren’t too bothered about spotting Geishas, so for us the main attractions were the temples and shrines and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here are what I think are the top 5 best places to visit in Kyoto.

5) Sanjusangen-do (the one with the 1001 Buddha statues)

Sanjusangen-do is a long wooden temple, located in the East of the city. It’s not that spectacular from the outside. The inside though is an incredible spectacle. 1001 Buddha statues stand to attention, guarded by some truly bad-ass looking warriors. It’s a really incredible sight and well worth the entrance fee, even though you’re not allowed to take photos inside.

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4) Kiyomizu-dera (the one that hangs over a valley)

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular attractions. The temple itself juts out over a valley, meaning that the best photos are actually taken from the hill opposite the temple. From the bus stop on the main road, you have to walk up a very steep hill, which is lined with shops and restaurants selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. Be warned though, we went on a Sunday afternoon and it was absolute bedlam! I’ve rarely seen so many tourists trying to crowd into one place. For this reason, Kiyomizu-dera is probably best visited early in the morning.

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3) Kinkakuji (the golden temple)

If Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, then Kinkakuji is one of the most famous in all of Japan. This is the mythical sounding golden temple. Even if you’ve never even thought of going to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen a picture of this place. The temple sits on the edge of a lake, and on a clear day the image of the temple is reflected in the water. It looks spectacular and is well worthy of its exalted reputation. On a slightly unrelated note, it also had one of the best badly written English signs I’ve ever seen!

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2) Fushimi-Inari (the one with all the orange pillars)

Unlike the other places on the list, Fushimi-Inari is a shrine rather than a temple. The reason for its fame and popularity is the four kilometre path, which leads to the shrine at the top of the hill. More than 10,000 “tori” gates line the pathways, giving the impression of being inside a tunnel. It’s really atmospheric and totally unique. The four kilometres up and then down are also great exercise and a good way of working off all the previous night’s excess sake and yakitori chicken consumption.

1) Ginkakuji (the silver temple)

It’s rare that silver is better than gold, but in Kyoto it is. Ginkakuji was built in the same style as its more famous relation. The builders didn’t just succeed in paying homage to Kinkakuji though. They went and made somewhere even better, and it’s undoubtedly my favourite place in to visit in Kyoto. The temple is approached by walking along the evocatively named “Philosophers Path,” which follows the side of a canal that skirts the hills on the eastern fringe of the city. The path is beautiful in its own right, but what lies at the end of it is absolutely stunning. The temple is surrounded by a perfectly maintained Zen garden. A circuitous path takes visitors all around the garden, and offers views of the temple from a variety of different angles. What’s great about Ginkakuji is it’s not nearly as crowded as any of the other temples, meaning that you can experience moments of pure solitude and tranquility. Believe me, that is extremely difficult to manage in Japan! I’ve lived in Asia for nearly two years. I also have a fiancée that could never get tired of visiting temples so I’ve visited an incredible number of them over that time. Ginkakuji was right up there with the very best.

TRAVEL TIPS

With the exception of Fushimi-Inari, you could fit all of these places into one long day if you wanted. To do so, you’ll need a one day bus pass which offers you unlimited travel on all city buses, and is excellent value at just 500 Yen. That’s about £2:60 or $4 USD.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Kyoto | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring the Ecuadorian Amazon

There are few places on earth that excite the imagination quite like the Amazon basin. The largest rainforest in the world covers more than two and a half million square miles and is spread across nine different countries. It also boasts an outstanding array of flora and fauna, a lot of which, including the mighty anaconda, is unique to the region. The vast jungle is also home to indigenous tribes who remain remarkably detached from the modern world. Put all of these elements together and it’s obvious why the Amazon is so beguiling for travellers and adventurers. Tours to the rainforest can easily be organised from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Cuyabeno National Park is located close to the Colombian border, and tourists can take four, five or six day trips into the Amazon there. Back in 2007, I took the five day tour into the jungle. Eight years on, it still remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

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Day 1

The overnight bus from Quito arrived in Lago Agrio at 7:30am. This gave us two and a half hours until our transport arrived, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes too long to spend in Lago Agrio. This is not a city you’d want to hang around in. When we departed, we endured a bone shaking three hour journey to El Puente, the starting point for the tour. These were some of the worst roads I experienced in all of South America. Finally though, we arrived and were herded straight onto a canoe. A two hour journey down the river took us to the Samona jungle lodge. This journey was rather more pleasurable. Chirpy and colourful macaws sang in the trees and we also spotted three different species of monkeys. That evening, after settling into the lodge, we were taken out to the Laguna Cuyabeno where we swam and watched the sunset. At first I was sceptical. Aren’t there piranhas in the Amazon?! Don’t they like eating people?! Not according to our guide Jairo. He told us that piranhas are like sharks and will only bite you if you’re already bleeding. Good enough for me! In we jumped and swam in a lagoon in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Truly amazing.

Day 2

The second day commenced in a rather challenging manner. After breakfast, we were taken out on the motor boat and deposited a considerable distance down the river. We were then placed in traditional dugout canoes and told that we were going to paddle back to the lodge. This was difficult, especially because of the fierce sun, but also massively rewarding. Along the way, we caught fleeting glimpses of pink freshwater dolphins and the rarely seen South American Coati. The giant anaconda remained elusive though. In the evening we watched a mesmerising lightning display over the lagoon before embarking on a night hike through the forest, which was teeming with tarantulas and scorpions. Quite how our immensely knowledgeable guide, Jairo, could navigate his way through the dense dark forest so easily continues to be a source of wonder.

Day 3

Day three was the highlight of the expedition. In the morning we travelled upriver and met a local tribe, called the Sione. There we were shown how they farmed and made a living for themselves in an incredibly unforgiving environment. From the Sione, we moved onto the Cofan tribe, where we were hugely privileged to meet a Shamen. Wearing his traditional dress he talked to us about the training that he had done to become a Shamen, and the hallucinogenic drinks that the Shamen use to induce a higher state of consciousness. This was followed by a demonstration of how he heals people on the cook from our lodge. It’s debatable whether or not he cured the cook’s bad back, but it was certainly intriguing to watch. In the evening we returned to the lagoon where we went piranha fishing! They may not have attacked me whilst I was swimming, but they certainly went for the bait. I was lucky enough to catch a massive one, but certainly not brave enough to hold it! Its razor sharp teeth looked like they could cut through human bone very easily. This was no problem for Jairo who held it with ease.  He was a proper man of the jungle!

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Day 4

Our final full day began with an exhilarating three hour trek into the jungle. It was hard work but immense fun. The route took us through creeks and swamps and on a number of occasions Jairo had to hack at the foliage with his machete to find us a path. I got to fulfil an ambition by swinging from a vine, and then later in the trek we also ate ants from the bark of a tree. Not for the faint hearted! The trek did also have educational value as well, as Jairo explained to us which plants had medicinal qualities and what they could be used for. For example, many of the indigenous people believe that the milk that can be obtained from the bark of the Quinina tree can cure malaria. That evening we paddled the dugout canoes in another sadly futile attempt to find an anaconda. Our efforts to see the great snake were not rewarded. However, we did see a Toucan, the symbol of the Amazon region. Most impressively of all we were treated to the magnificent sight of a solitary vulture circling low looking for carrion. Another unforgettable moment.

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Day 5

All great adventures have to come to an end, and so unfortunately did my mini adventure. I wasn’t even looking forward to getting back to Quito, let alone having to kill a few hours in Lago Agrio. In what seemed like a consolation prize, we were taken out on a final hike through the forest, before the boat journey back to El Puente. Sitting on the boat I mused on the memories of a wonderful five days. In that time I had met indigenous tribespeople, felt like an adventurer and seen an array of wildlife that, in Ecuador, could only be bettered in the Galapagos. The Amazon didn’t just meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

TRAVEL TIPS

This article was originally written eight years ago for a sadly now defunct newspaper called The Ecuador Reporter. Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information is still correct, I haven’t been able to find current prices. I’m happy to recommend Gulliver’s travels (http://www.gulliver.com.ec/) and Trans Esmeraldas, the bus company that I travelled from Quito to Lago Agrio with. (http://www.transportesesmeraldas.com/portal/) However, if you want specific prices you’ll have to find them for yourselves!

Categories: Ecuador, Exploring the Amazon, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mountain biking down an active volcano in Ecuador

At 5897 metres above sea level Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Visible from Quito on a clear day, the majestic monolith dominates the skyline from miles around. Its perfect cone and snow-capped peak make it the most stunningly beautiful of all Ecuador’s volcanoes. A popular challenge is to attempt to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. Beginning from the Refugio at the height of 4800 metres, the brave climbers trudge through deep snow drifts and fight against debilitating altitude in their battle to reach the top. Whilst it is obviously massively rewarding for those who do succeed, the combination of the altitude and the notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that surround Cotopaxi mean that success is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, many climbers return to Quito disappointed, having had their attempts thwarted. An interesting alternative for those who fancy a bit of adventure, but don’t want to go to the top of the mountain, is to mountain bike down it instead. Having already biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road” a couple of months previously, this was definitely a challenge that I wanted to undertake!

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The Biking Dutchman was established in 1991 and has been running day trips down Cotopaxi ever since. It is easy to see why the company’s success has endured; the ride is utterly exhilarating. The minibuses leave Quito at 7am and make their way to the national park, eventually stopping 4500 metres up the mountain. From here the views of the mountain are breathtaking and provide wonderful photo opportunities. After a safety briefing, we tentatively began our descent. The first 8 kilometres of the ride were all downhill, on a frightening gradient, and we achieved some truly phenomenal speeds. Whilst the ride is suitable for most ability levels, I wouldn’t really recommend it to complete beginners as the bikes were basic and only had front wheel suspension. This meant that maintaining balance was a tricky proposition. I think my knuckles were white from gripping the handlebars so hard! Thankfully, I made it through this stretch with only a couple of minor falls.

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When the descent has been completed the ride slows down and takes on a more sedate nature. After the rush of going downhill and holding on for dear life, it was pleasant to actually do some pedalling and take time to appreciate the bewitching lunar landscape. The massive boulders that have been spewed from the volcano in its moments of fury make for particularly compelling viewing.

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Once we had eaten a delicious, and much needed, home-made lunch, we embarked on the final section of the ride. This took us across barren grasslands before plunging through lush pine forests. Pedalling across the grasslands and having to continually change gears was torturous. However, once we headed into the forest, all the effort seemed worthwhile. Here it was possible to really put my foot down, and get some serious speed up, flying over rocks and through puddles in the process. The speeds were comparable to further up the mountain but without the same fear factor, making this my favourite section of the ride. Finally, after four hours of hard riding, we reached the end point. Many of us felt seriously battered and bruised. None of us said that we didn’t enjoy every single minute of it.

TRAVEL TIPS

The trip is competitively priced at $55 per person. This includes lunch and transport to and from the national park. It doesn’t include the $10 entrance fee to the national park. Check out the Biking Dutchman’s website at http://www.bikingdutchman.com/

Disclaimer: This is an old article which I wrote eight years ago for a sadly now defunct paper called “The Ecuador Reporter.” I’ve updated the article so all price information is current, but please don’t blame me if anything else is out of date!

Categories: Ecuador, Mountain biking down Cotopaxi, South America, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

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From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.

TRAVEL TIPS

The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Córdoba

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the South of Spain? The Costa Del Sol? Resorts like Marbella and Torremolinos? Not for me. In my opinion, the best three things about the Costa Del Sol are Malaga Airport, Malaga Train station, and the Autovía Del Sur, as long as it’s heading in a northbound direction. If you really want to experience southern Spain then you have to head inland. It’s there that you’ll find flamenco culture, an Arabic legacy, spectacular cities and gastronomic excellence. All of these things are present in abundance in Córdoba, the city that I called home for eighteen months. It’s not as big and stylish as Sevilla. Nor is it as enviably located as Granada. What it is though is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain, if not Europe.

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Where to go

Córdoba has been a significant city since Roman times. It’s therefore no surprise that most of its principal attractions are historical ones. First and foremost on most tourists list is the magnificent Mezquita-catedral. This stunning structure was built as a Mosque in the 8th century in the heyday of the Arabic kingdom of Al-Andalus. When Córdoba was re-conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, the building was adopted as a Catholic cathedral, which it is still used as today. Muslim style archways dominate the majority of the interior, whereas the Cathedral sits in the very centre, complete with an extremely elaborate altar. It’s an amazing juxtaposition and one that must be fairly unique in the world. As stunning as the interior of La Mezquita is, the building is at its best when viewed from outside. The views from the other side of the very dubiously named “Puente Romano” (Roman Bridge) are particularly spectacular.

The narrow winding streets around La Mezquita are known as La Juderia; a reference to a time when there was also a significant Jewish community in Cordoba. The streets of La Judería are home to plenty of tourist shops and some excellent restaurants. On the edge of these streets, about two hundred metres from La Mezquita, you’ll find Córdoba’s other main tourist attraction, El Alcazar. An Alcazar is a type of fortress and you will find one in most Spanish cities. Indeed, Sevilla’s Alcazar is currently being used as the Dornish Water Gardens on “Game of Thrones.” At Córdoba’s Alcazar the building itself isn’t that spectacular. What does take the breath away though is the gardens. If there’s a more spectacular set of gardens in Europe, then I’m yet to find them. I may be biased but I think that they even beat The Water Gardens! At the centre of the gardens, another hint of Córdoba’s auspicious past can be found; a statue of Christopher Columbus petitioning Los Reyes Cristianos (The Christian Monarchs) Ferdinand and Isabelle. It was from this building that he planned his voyage to Asia, when he accidentally “discovered” America and claimed it for the glory of Spain.

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Other than these two main attractions, the best thing to do in Córdoba is just to wander the streets for a while. It’s such a photogenic city that glorious photo opportunities pop up around most corners. One rainy day option worthy of mention though is the Archaeological Museum. This provides an interesting insight to Córdoba’s many historical places of interest.

Where to eat

Córdoba is packed full of fabulous little tavernas that serve the local favourites of salmorejo (a chilled tomato soup) and rabo de toro (stewed oxtail). There’s so many of these that to recommend just one or two would be futile. However, there is one place that every tourist in Cordoba should go to eat or drink. That place is the fabulous Plaza de la Corredera, which was recently voted as Spain’s favourite plaza. It’s easy to see why. On spring and autumn afternoons, and summer evenings it feels like the whole city is out on the Plaza. Many of my fondest memories of my time in Córdoba involve La Corredera, an ice cold beer and a few tapas. Simple yet wonderful. There’s a reason why people rave about the quality of life in Spain.

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When to go

If I said that Córdoba is a good year round destination, I’d be lying. Based on summer time temperatures alone, Córdoba is Europe’s hottest city. The mercury has been known to tip over fifty degrees on occasion. For this reason, many of the local population decamp to the beaches in July and August. This is not the time to visit! The best time of year to visit Córdoba, by a considerable distance is the month of May. It’s hot but not too hot. It’s also the time of the year when the city is in party mood. May starts with Las Cruces Mayo, a truly bizarre event when ornately decorated crosses spring up all over the city for three days. It’s officially a religious event, but for most people it just seems like an excuse to get pissed in the street. Next to all the crosses are bars selling beers and rebujitos, a cocktail made of sherry style fortified wine and sprite. Naturally.

As May continues, the Patios competition commences. Many houses take part in this competition to see who can have the most ornately decorated courtyard. Again, it sounds bizarre but it’s a beautiful spectacle, and tourists flock from all over Spain to see it.

Both of these events though are just the undercard. The main event of May is La Feria. This is when the Cordobés really let their hair down and party HARD for ten solid days. On a large patch of wasteland near the football stadium a fairground is erected. Alongside this, there are dozens of casetas, marquee style tents which serve food and booze and play flamenco or sevillanas. It can be a bit mind boggling at first and some casetas are more receptive to foreigners than others. However, unlike Sevilla’s feria, you don’t need an invitation to enter the casetas. Once you suss out which are the best ones, it’s impossible not to have a great time. One of the best things about Feria is people watching. The majority of the women, of all ages, wear ostentatious flamenco dresses. Some of the guys even dress up gaucho style and arrive on horseback. Truly this is Andalucía.

Córdoba is a pretty compact city. If you aren’t visiting at Feria time, you only really need a couple of days to see the main sights. This is a city that rewards a more leisurely pace though, so why not stay a little longer? Wander the streets. Find a little hidden plaza. Eat some tapas. Drink some red wine. You might just fall in love with the place. I know I did. Cordoba te echo de menos.

TRAVEL TIPS

For many more ideas of things to do and places to visit in Cordoba, including the sierra that surrounds the city go to http://english.turismodecordoba.org/que-visitar.cfm

Categories: Córdoba, Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing in Niseko

Ask most non-skiers where they think the best ski resorts in the world are, the chances are they’ll say Switzerland or France. Some might suggest the Canadian Rockies. Hardly any will mention Japan. However, surprisingly to many, the land of the rising sun is one of the world’s very best skiing and snowboarding destinations. Japan receives an incredible 5.5 metres (18 feet) of snow a year, nearly all of which is fresh powder. If you’re into winter sports, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. There are also over five hundred different ski resorts to choose from. One stands head and shoulders above the others though; Japan’s answer to Whistler, the truly majestic Niseko.

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Janey and I were lucky enough to spend four days in Niseko over Christmas, the centrepiece of our three week holiday to Japan. From the moment we arrived there, we fell in love with the place. That was despite having to endure a blizzard on the way from the bus station to our lodge. We later found out that we could have organised a pick up! The lodge itself was a large part of what made our stay in Niseko so memorable. Sat by a roaring log fire, with a cup of hot mulled wine, whilst the snowstorms raged outside, it felt like heaven on earth to me.

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Our first day of skiing, on Christmas Eve, was a frustrating one. It had been twenty months since our previous trip to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Where had all the progress gone? I couldn’t seem to even change direction without falling over! The only consolation was that falling into the powder snow, felt like falling into the softest pillow you could ever imagine. December 24th was spent in Gran Hirafu, the largest of the four connected resorts that make up Niseko United. On Christmas Day, we went to Annupuri, which was much quieter and far closer to our lodge. I started tentatively at first, but bit my bit my confidence started to grow. I was doing entire runs without falling over! Then, on about my fourth run, I just let it go. I was skiing with complete confidence and freedom. The feeling of liberation was incredible. On the final run before lunch, we then got an amazing surprise Christmas present. For the first time in three days, the clouds cleared, and were treated to some absolutely mesmerising views of Mount Niseko.

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When I woke up on Boxing Day, every muscle in my body ached. My lower back was stiff and walking downstairs was a bit of an ordeal. Even though it was our last day, I couldn’t find any motivation. That was until Alan, the lodge manager, told me “there’s not many times in your life when you’ll ski on sixty centimetres of fresh snow.” SIXTY CENTIMETRES?!?! Was that really how much had fallen overnight?! Apparently it was and remarkably all my aches and pains disappeared rather rapidly. Within half an hour we were back out on the slopes for one of the best days of my life so far. In the morning, we sessioned the green runs four times, to refine our techniques, in preparation for taking on a red run. This had been my aim at the start of the three days. Now it was time to make it happen. When we stepped out of the gondola, at the top of the red run, the conditions were atrocious. Visibility was about two metres, the temperature was about minus ten, and the winds meant business. Getting to the bottom in one piece was going to be a bit of a test! Amazingly, we proved to be up to the challenge. It took about half an hour as we had to frequently stop to check that we were going in the correct direction. However, in the end we made it to the bottom without falling once. This was utterly exhilarating and a proud achievement. So we did it again for good measure, this time in slightly more clement conditions.

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The only thing that could top that morning was what was to come later in the day; night skiing. If there is one problem with Niseko, it’s that the majority of time the visibility isn’t good. The Siberian winds and eighteen feet of snow might have something to do with that. However, once the afternoon light fades, the floodlights are switched on, and the effect is just magical. Visibility is perfect, and to make it even better, the slopes are practically empty. Skiing through thick powder, on an almost empty piste in what felt like the middle of the night, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We rounded off the day with a trip to the natural onsen (a volcanic hot spring) and some hot sake. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Leaving Niseko the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve caught the skiing bug badly. Our first trip to Sierra Nevada planted the seed. Niseko made it blossom into a true and burning love! I now think regularly about different places we could ski in around the planet. Mongolia, Serbia and Chile are some of the more random ones I’ve come up with. One thing is for certain though; wherever we go next, it will be almost impossible for it to match up with Niseko.

TRAVEL TIPS

Annupuri Oasis Lodge is one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in. I’d choose to stay there over any five star hotel. Visit their website at http://www.annupurioasislodge.com/

Categories: Asia, Japan, Skiing in Niseko | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to ski in Spain

Have you ever tried something for the first time and wondered why you’d never tried it before? For me, that something was skiing. Until a couple of years ago I’d never had the opportunity to ski, except on something that resembled a giant brillo pad in deepest darkest Lancashire. I never went on a school skiing holiday, and most of my travelling (despite my gingerness and near-albino skin) has been done in hot countries. One February weekend in 2013 I went to Sierra Nevada, in Spain, and it was an instant love affair. Snow – great, fresh air – great, travelling very fast downhill – great, and the possibility to get intoxicated afterwards – great! Why had it taken me so long to try this?!

Sierra Nevada is the highest ski resort in Spain, and the southernmost ski resort on Europe It is less than 100 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast, meaning that you could feasibly ski and swim on the same day! The resort is most easily accessed from the city of Granada. A bus from the central bus station there takes just 45 minutes to reach Sierra Nevada. The fact that it’s a relatively small resort makes it good for learning, as you’re not battling for piste space. We went on a puente (a Spanish public holiday weekend) and the slopes still weren’t too packed. Obviously, one does not just rock up and start skiing like a professional though. We had some basics to learn! We booked our tuition through the British ski center. Our instructor Giles was a veteran of about twenty ski seasons. He was extremely knowledgeable and had a calm demeanour. He was also very tolerant of my habit of crossing my feet and Janey’s confusion between her left and right. On the first morning we learnt the very basics; how to start, stop, change direction and how to do a snowplow. We considered ourselves very lucky that there had been a massive dump of snow the previous, so our many falls were adequately cushioned!

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The first day of the trip we made limited progress. It was the second day when the love affair really began. After proving ourselves on the nursery slopes, Giles took us on one of the lifts for the first time. Somehow we tentatively made our way to the bottom, with Giles looking uber cool, skiing backwards in front of us. After he left us, we went back for some more. I hit the deck again several times, Janey skied off onto a different piste. However, slowly, run by run it started to come together. Slaloming down the slopes with a crisp wind whistling past my ears, I felt truly alive. It was also just as exhilarating as any extreme sport that I’ve tried. After making it to the bottom unscathed several times, I felt like some sort of bossman, just for conquering a blue run. Then I realised that I couldn’t ski down to the town, as that run was too technical and I’d probably be looking at months of physio as a result. Still, there’s always next time for the red runs, then there’s the black runs. After that off-piste, then heliskiing in the Rockies, then who knows?! The Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018?! Ok, maybe I’m getting slightly carried away but the point is, I REALLY caught the skiing bug badly!

Janey and I both left Sierra Nevada determined to continue skiing. Since then fate got in the way, as our next job after leaving Spain, turned out to be in Malaysia, where I’m not sure if a snowflake has ever fallen. However, where there’s a will there’s a way. As soon as I arrived in the Orient, I was planning our next ski trip, to the world class slopes of Japan. It couldn’t come soon enough. I needed my next hit. 032

TRAVEL TIPS

I’d highly recommend the British ski center if, like me, your Spanish is only conversational. Check out their website at http://www.britishskicenter.co.uk/

Categories: Europe, Skiing in Sierra Nevada, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A week in Morocco

There aren’t many countries that can truly say that they offer everything to the tourist. Morocco though, most definitely can. From the soaring peaks of the high Atlas mountains, to windswept sandy beaches, and rolling sand dunes in the Sahara, the landscapes are stunning and varied. Throw in ancient cities, a distinct and delectable cuisine, and the fact that it’s a shopper’s paradise, you can see why it holds such an appeal for so many travellers. Morocco had captured my imagination for a long time before I went there. I sensed my chance to finally go when I got a job in southern Spain in 2011. As soon as I arrived in Andalusia, I was dreaming of what lay across the straits of Gibraltar. The opportunity arose when we had a week off work for Semana Santa, Spain’s Easter week holidays.

Our journey started in our home city of Cordoba. From there we took the train to Algeciras, and then a local bus to Tarifa, where we boarded our ferry to Tangier. There was something gloriously exciting and old-fashioned about travelling between continents by ship. Upon arrival, we checked in at the Hotel Continental, which overlooked the port. The hotel had an air of faded grandeur, which added to the feeling of old-fashioned travel. It was probably THE place to stay in Tangier in a bygone era. After a while, we braved the labyrinthine streets of Tangier’s medina and our senses were assaulted in every way. This was our first taste of North Africa, and the Arab world, and it probably showed. An old man who was dressed like Yoda approached us. Upon hearing that we were from Manchester, he proceeded to tell us that he was a personal friend of Bobby Charlton and had guided him round Tangier in the 1960s. It was almost certainly nonsense but it was highly amusing. After he had finished regaling us with his tales, and quibbling about the tip we gave him, he took us to a local restaurant, which in fairness to Yoda was absolutely outstanding. The subtly spiced Moroccan cuisine would continue to work its magic on us for the entire week.

The next day we left Tangier and headed to Chefchaouen, the blue city in the Rif Mountains. There we stayed at a hostel called Rif for anyone, or Dar Scotlandee to the locals, in reference to the Scottish couple that owned the place. Terry and Suzanne, and their son Liam, were superbly hospitable and had what could be best described as a relaxed and libertarian approach to life. Other than exploring the blue painted medina, the thing to do in Chefchaouen is hike. There are a number of superb trails in the Rif Mountains. Unfortunately for us, bad weather (which was to follow us round for our entire trip) scuppered these plans so three days in Chefchaouen was probably one too many.

Our next destination was Fez. I’ve done a lot of travelling and consequently taken a lot of bus journeys. This was up there with the very worst of them. Admittedly, I’ve never driven a bus. However, for my money, the best way to approach tight winding mountain roads that are covered in potholes, is to take it slowly and carefully. Our bus driver clearly didn’t agree. His approach was to drive like an absolute madman, tearing round each corner at terrifying speeds. All round the bus people were being sick. It was one of the longest five hours of my life!

Fez, when we finally arrived there, was worth all the tortures inflicted on the journey. Going into the medina was like stepping back in time several hundred years. While we were exploring, we were approached by a young man named Hassan, who offered his cousin’s services for a trip to Volubilis. Against every traveller’s instinct we said yes. It turned out to be the best decision we made in our time there. The day trip was the undoubted highlight of our holiday. Volubilis is a remarkably well preserved set of Roman ruins, located about 100 kilometres from Fez. Due to Janey’s archaeological background this was one of the things that she was most looking forward to in Morocco. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The weather conspired against us again though. When we arrived at the ruins, the skies were blue. Within a few minutes, they had turned to black and a thunderous downpour ensued. At times it felt more like we were in North Wales than North Africa! The other two destinations that we visited on our day trip provided an interesting contrast. The small town of Moulay Idriss is auspicious for Muslims. However, it didn’t feel very welcoming to tourists and we were glad to be back in the car after a few minutes. Meknes on the other hand was a delight. The buildings were charming and we ate some spectacular street food for an obscenely low price. Said, Hassan’s cousin, also proved to be an excellent driver and guide.

After the tour, we were left with one more day in Fez. Janey, who had been holding back until now, went in search of souvenirs. I normally hate shopping with a passion but in Fez it was awesome! In Morocco haggling is obligatory and I loved it. Every transaction gave me the chance to test my skills against a true expert of the art. Overall, I think I did quite well. My haggling skills probably saved us a total of about fifty euros which is not a bad result when battling with the best!

Before we arrived back in Spain, there was time for one more challenge. We needed to get an overnight train from Fez to Tangier, so as to get the morning ferry back to Tarifa. This was made particularly tricky by our Riad’s refusal to organise a taxi for us. Therefore, we had to venture out into the Fez night to find one for ourselves. Thankfully after a few minutes we were successful, and all I had to do was stay awake until we had to change trains at Sidi Kacem. Eighteen hours after leaving the Riad we arrived back at our flat in Cordoda. This journey seemed to encapsulate our entire trip to Morocco. It was hard work, absolutely exhausting but utterly exhilarating.

TRAVEL TIPS

In Fez we stayed at a Riad called Riad Lalla Fatima. Upon first glance it looked beautiful. However, it turned out to be a dreadful place to stay. Firstly, at no other hotel or hostel in the world have the staff told me that they can’t organise a taxi, no matter what time I was leaving. Furthermore, on our final night we ordered a home cooked meal. Janey has been vegetarian for nearly twenty years. She was therefore highly distressed, and violently sick, when she discovered that her vegetarian couscous had chicken in it. Instead of apologising for the mistake, the staff had the gall to deny the visibly obvious. If I gave this place a 1 out of 10 rating it would be generous. Don’t stay there.

Categories: A week in Morocco, Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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