Monthly Archives: August 2008

Madrid Airport

I’m not a big fan airports. They’re just a necessary obstacle that gets in the way of being where you want to go. British ones are generally especially bad on that score (and I haven’t even had the misfortune of using terminal 5 yet).

So it’s nice to travel occasionally through one that’s well-laid out and beautifully designed:

Madrid Airport

Madrid Airport

The flowing ceiling is so beautiful I really didn’t mind being there at all. I wish more airports showed that kind of imagination.

It’s not my favourite though – Dulles airport in Washington DC wins that hand down. Designed by Finnish Architect Eero Saarinen (who designed the nearly-as-lovely old TWA terminal at JFK), its roof is in one single swooping curve. It’s breathtaking.

Dulles Airport, Washington DC

Dulles Airport, Washington DC

(Picture by Feuillu)

Top 10 Favourite UNESCO World Heritage Sites

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temple I, Tikal

Temple I, Tikal

Probably the single best travel experience I’ve had. Vast temples, surrounded by thick jungle full of roaring howler monkeys (and shy panthers), hours and hours away from the nearest civilisation. Worth every bit of the struggle it was to get there.

2. Greater Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The day we arrived was not very promising: we walked down the hill from the station to the viewing point over the whole valley…and the fog was so thick we couldn’t see a single thing. Luckily the next day it cleared up, and the walk down to the valley floor was sensational. I want to go back and do a multi-day trek now, it’s the most incredible landscape.

3. Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada, Spain

The Alhmabra is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen, and I think I’d struggle to find any finer. On my visit, the atmosphere was incredibly sombre – it was the day after 9/11, and it felt like everyone was wandering around in near silence unable to comprehend how people could have used the religion that inspired such beauty to justify something so utterly evil.

4. Town of Luang Prabang, Laos

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Crumbling French colonial buildings, beautiful Buddhist temples, and a perfect location on a peninsular sandwiched between the Mekong and one of its tributaries. Tourism has taken over – and I hope we don’t end up ruining it. It seems that the UNESCO listing it helping though – two hotel building projects have just fallen through after UNESCO warned the government that the listing was in danger if they proceeded.

5. Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape, Laos

Wat Phou, Champasak

Wat Phou, Champasak

From the same period as the mighty Angkor Wat, this is like a mini version, perched on a hill looking out towards the Mekong. Probably not as impressive as its more famous contemporary, but it does mean it’s a hell of a lot quieter.

6. Historic Fortified City of Carcassone, France

I’m a sucker for a medieval walled city, especially when it’s perched on top of a hill flaunting its beauty to villages for miles around. And for £35 return on Ryanair, it was an obscenely cheap visit too.

7. Historic Centre of Mexico City & Xochimilco, Mexico

Trajineras in Xochimilco

Trajineras in Xochimilco

This is here for Xochimilco in particular – it’s such a contrast to the rest of the city, and is a great day out from the city. Xochimilco was built by a pre-hispanic tribe, who drained the lake for agriculture. The canals formed as part of this process are still there today, and you can travel round them on a trajinera (colourful punt).

8. Works of Antoni Gaudi

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Quite magical and definitely unique – each of Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings stands out by a mile. I’m not overly keen on the work they’re doing on the Sagrada Famila though – I think they should have left it as it was when he died.

9. Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey & St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, UK

The only one of these I’ve lived in – for 5 years I woke up every morning with a view over St Augustine’s abbey, and with the Cathedral outside my front door. I pretty much took it for granted back then; having visited lots more cathedrals since then I realise quite how lucky I was.

10. Cultural Landscape of Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace, Sintra

The train from Lisbon to Sintra is an absolute bargain – as far as I remember it’s less than €2, and the contrast is huge. The Palace is beautiful, with views out towards the Ocean and the beach resort of Estoril, while the Moorish castle is great fun, because you can clamber over and all around the walls.

And the most disappointing? None. I’ve loved every one I’ve been too. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system – there are plenty of equally cool places that haven’t been listed – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. And if listing helps to protect them, then surely that’s a good thing.

UPDATE: You can now see the full list of the 87 sites that I have now visited (many of which are new since writing this list) over at this page

Top 10 Favourite Cities

If this wasn’t a travel blog, then London would easily top the list (even if not everyone loves it like I do). But it is, so here are my favourites from the rest of the world…

1. Berlin

Siegessäule (Victory Column, Berlin)

Siegessäule (Victory Column, Berlin)

It’s certainly not the most beautiful city on this list, nor does it have as long a history as others (although it’s certainly packed more than its fair share in over the years). But I adore the place, and for a long time thought I’d end up living there for a second time. I still might. The three years I lived there really turned me on to travel, and each time I go back i discover a bit more to love. It’s a constant theme for me that the people are one of the most important things for me in terms of how much I like a place – and I love the Berliners.

2. New York

Empire State Building

Empire State Building

Berlin may be my favourite but New York is the most exciting. Every time I go I feel the same surge of adrenaline that I got when I first moved to London. Everywhere you go you feel like you’re starring in your own movie.

3. Lisbon

No. 28 Tram, Lisbon

No. 28 Tram, Lisbon

It may be crumbling and a little shabby in places, it may be covered in graffiti, but it’s still stunning. Its location, tumbling down hills towards the River Tagus and the ocean, is perfect, and the buildings look beautiful covered in Azulejos. And the Barrio Alto is my favourite place in Europe to have a drink – the atmosphere as everyone fills the narrow cobbled streets outside the bars is incredible.

4. Madrid

Somehow it feels less overrun by tourists than Barcelona (which I also love), and I’m not sure why, as it’s got just as much to offer. The Prado & Reina Sofia are two of my favourite museums in the world.

5. Bangkok

“You come from London? Very big, and very busy, yes?” said my taxi driver last time I arrived in Bangkok. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Bangkok beats London hands down on both counts. That was the first thing that hit me when I first visited – it almost overpowered me with the scale and sheer energy of the place. I can’t wait to spend more time there next year, as it’s likely to be my last stop on my trip.

6. Istanbul

The fortune-telling bunnies of Istanbul

The fortune-telling bunnies of Istanbul

I’ve written a fair amount about Istanbul recently. I’d recommend it to anyone.

7. Vientiane

Joys food stall on the banks of the Mekong - best food in Vientiane

Joy's food stall on the banks of the Mekong - best food in Vientiane

Not the most obvious choice – many of the travellers in Laos found it dull, and just used it as a necessary stop on the way to or from Thailand, or further south in Laos. Which is one of the things I liked most about it – it must be a contender for the most laidback capital city in the world, everything seems to move at a very slow pace (if it moves at all), and it doesn’t have the UNESCO World Heritage status or as many crumbling colonial buildings as the much more popular Luang Prabang. All of these are part of its charm – it’s lack of tourist appeal keeps it feeling more Lao than most of the other big tourist spots, where it feels like the whole economy revolves around tourism (which it almost certainly does). If I was going to be a diplomat, I can see a posting to Vientiane being just the sort of one I’d like.

8. Sydney

There are two things that would make London almost perfect: better weather, and a beach. Sydney has them both, and the city has a great quality of life. Although after spending a while there, I don’t think I could live there – it feels a bit small after London!

9. Tokyo

Geoff joins the Harajuku girls

Geoff joins the Harajuku girls

I was only there for 36 hours on the way home from Sydney, but it was everything I’d hoped for. I’m a bit of a modern architecture junkie, so I was in heaven. Add in the insane pop culture, some sightseeing, great sushi and a little shopping, and it was the perfect day and a half.

10. Paris

What did we do before Eurostar? My most memorable trip was taking advantage of their £42 nightclubber fare (travel after 4pm, return before 1030am the next day) to have a night of dinner and then dancing. Best of all was the chance to wander down the Champs Elysees down to the Louvre at 5am, with only a couple of early morning joggers for company – having such a stunning place to yourself is truly incredible (and you have the train journey home for a much-needed sleep!)

And the biggest disappointment? Milan. The Duomo was covered in scaffolding, the weather was rubbish, the hotel terrible, and the locals unfriendly.

Top 10 Favourite Countries

I have no plans to make lists a regular feature here (even if people do love them apparently), but I thought it’d be worthwhile to list my favourite places over the next few days, so that I can revisit them when I get back in 18 months’ time, to see how these have changed. So welcome to ‘top tens week’. And if you find lists boring, normal service will resume next week.

1. Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas

My trip to Mexico in 2007 first got me thinking seriously about taking a year off to see more of the world. I only saw a small portion of the country (the Yucatan Pensinsular, Chiapas, and Mexico City) but it was more than enough to make me fall in love with the place. Aside from the obvious bits – beautiful scenery, stunning beaches, Mayan temples – two things in particular help seal Mexico’s spot at the top of this list: the friendliest locals of anywhere I’ve ever visited, and best of all, the food. I don’t think I had a bad meal the whole time I was there. The only downside being that Mexican food in the UK now tastes like a very, very poor imitation (other than the terrific Mestizo). As I wrote in one of my earliest postshere, it’ll be the first stop on my trip, and I can’t wait.

2. Laos

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Only narrowly beaten by Mexico, it was in Laos at Christmas that I decided for certain that I was going to head round the world in 2009. Everyone I met whilst there agreed it was the surprise highlight of South East Asia. Easily the most laidback country I’ve been to, it’s another place I’m heading back to, but this time for longer, so I can enjoy the relaxed pace of life for a while longer without having to rush.

3. Spain

I’ve had more holidays in Spain than any other country, and it hasn’t let me down once, and (along with the next country on the list) is one the only countries in Europe I can imagine living in. The Spanish lifestyle seems so much more civilised than ours back home.

4. Germany

I’m a little biased here – six years living there have left a special place in my heart for Germany (and the Germans). It’s pretty sad that a combination of history and stereotypes dominate the British perception of the country (although I suppose it could be a blessing in disguise…Germany is unlikely to ever end of overrun by the types of British tourists who have ruined large chunks of meditteranean Europe)

5. France

Beaches, mountains, great cities, fantastic food…France has just about everything you could want out of a holiday destination. What’s not to love? (Well, apart from the French themselves…)

6. Portugal

It’s remarkable how few tourists you come across when you get away from the obvious bits (Lisbon, the Algarve). They’re missing out.

7. Australia

The country is so vast, and I’ve only scratched the surface so far. If & when I get to explore the interior more, I can see Australia working it’s way further up my list. Although that won’t be next year – other than a brief stop in Melbourne, I’ve decided not to spend too much time there, as it costs a a fair bit more than everywhere else I’m going.

8. USA

Very similar to the above, there’s so much I still want to do in the US. But what I’ve seen so far, I love. The strangest thing about visiting is that it all seems so instantly familiar, thanks to a million Hollywood movies and TV shows.

9. Georgia

The highlight of my school trip to the then-USSR back when I was 13, which makes recent events all the sadder for me. It’s a truly beautiful little country, and I long to go back to see how much it’s changed in the last 20 years.

10. Azerbaijan

When I visited back in 1988, the combination of modern, brutalist Soviet & older Islamic architecture with deserts full of oil wells, made Azerbaijan feel a world apart from the other Soviet republics I visited, and far more exotic than anywhere else I’d been.

And the biggest disappointment? Well, mentioning this to most people in the UK appears to be tantamount to sacrilege, however my two trips to Italy have not overly impressed me so far. I think I’ve been unlucky, and missed the best bits to be honest, but on both visits I’ve found the locals to be less than friendly, and the cities lacking atmosphere.

Bond in Beverley

Now that I’ve visited East Yorkshire I can quite see why they were so keen to take advantage of the last local government reorganisation to break free from Hull, ditch the name Humberside and reclaim their Yorkshire roots – I’ve never been to Hull, but the word that springs to mind as soon as I hear it is ‘grim’. And Beverley is anything but grim.

I popped up there for the weekend to get a break from London to visit a friend who’s just moved there, and it was just what I needed. Surrounded by open countryside, Beverley is a lovely old market town with one of the UK’s largest non-cathedral churches at its heart.

Beverley Minster (not taken by me - the weather was too rubbish)

Beverley Minster (not taken by me - the weather was too rubbish)

It’s a particularly impressive church, dating back to the 13th-14th centuries, and apparently its twin towers were the inspiration for those of Westminster Abbey. What I certainly didn’t expect to see (or rather hear) in such a place was an organist playing Bond Themes. First off we had the main theme, followed by Goldfinger, and then best (and most inappropriately of all)… Live & Let Die. Yes, Live & Let Die. In a church. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Live & Let Die echoing round the nave of a vast church played on an organ. It was truly awesome, and made the whole trip worthwhile on its own. (Apparently the organist was doing a recital of Bond Themes that evening…I suppose churches in a country as non-religious as England have to find some way of paying for their upkeep these days).

The other highlight (well, for a geek like me anyway), was finally getting to see East Yorkshire’s famous cream-coloured phone boxes – for some reason when British Telecom was created Hull & the surrounding area kept their own phone company, which is still separate today, and as a result it’s the only part of the UK not to have the famous red phone boxes, but has cream ones instead (they also lack the crown).

On the sunday we ended up in Hornsea, a little seaside resort overshadowed by its more famous (and prettier) rivals just up the coast, Scarborough, Bridlington & Whitby. I can quite see why – the beach isn’t all that great, and the town a little shabby. On the plus side though, we got a chance to see families exhibiting classic English summer seaside behaviour – After coming all this way to get to the bloody beach, I’ll be damned if you kids don’t get in the bloody sea, rain or no rain. You could have powered a small town off their shivers.

Ibiza keeps pulling me back…

I promised myself I wasn’t going to go this year. I’ve been eight times now, the last time being last September. There are so many other places in the world I want to visit, and anyway, I’m getting too old.

And then the hand of lady luck intervened. First of all I managed to wangle a free trip via work in early September for four days. And just now I’ve found out I’ve won another trip next week for a couple of days.

It’s a hard life…

Camping and Karaoke

I’ve always loathed Karaoke. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the only thing I hate more in the world is mushrooms. And maybe the Daily Mail. But in the great scheme of things it’s pretty loathsome. Why on earth anyone would want to spend an evening listening to people who think they can sing wail along to a selection of dull power ballads and 80s ‘classics’ is beyond me. Actually choosing to be one of those people is even more incomprehensible.

So I’ve managed to get away with doing it twice in my life so far, both times under duress, and when I found out that my friend had hired a karaoke booth for his birthday I was of course filled with horror and vowed not to join in. Until the beer intervened…

The international sign of rock

The international sign of rock

I’d like to point out that contrary to appearances I am not enjoying myself. Karaoke is the work of the devil.

Still, the weekend wasn’t all traumatic, and the unexpected choice of accommodation was a highlight.

The problem with Brighton being every Londoner’s favourite seaside escape is that it’s always impossible to get a hotel (well, if you’re me that is: other people are organised enough to actually plan these things a bit further in advance), and even if you do you have to book them for at least two nights. So I was left with two options: for out £300 for a posh hotel, or camp.

Now camping is something I always associate with the countryside, not cities. In fact, I’ve never even considered the idea of camping in a city, and only ended up doing it this time because I’d run out of options. Turned out to be a fantastic option – £18 for the pitch, in a quiet park in the East of the city, only a short walk from Kemptown (the nicest bit of Brighton, in my opinion). It was so nice waking up in the morning to fresh air and a beautiful view out over the sea (well, when it wasn’t raining that is), and so I definitely think I’ll do it again – I’ve spent a fortune on hotels in some cities in the past, and then end up spending no time in them as I’m out sightseeing and partying.

I must be getting old

I remember the time when London Pride was the highlight of my summer, especially the two years it came to Clapham. What better way to have fun than spending the day in the park with mates, getting drunk, going on the funfair, seeing bands on the stage, dancing like and idiot and generally marvelling at the diversity of 200,000 gays and lesbians partying together without a care in the world.

London has changed so much in that time, getting so much more liberal, to the extent that I just don’t feel the need to go to London Pride any more, it just feels a bit pointless now that no-one cares if you’re gay anymore, and the party itsself just feels a bit like a retreat back into the ghetto. Although I must admit I think it may be more that I’ve changed more, and it’s just the idea of several hours of unbridled hedonism in the streets of Soho surrounded by people half my age has for some reason lost its appeal.

But despite all that I’ve kept going to Brighton Pride – it’s nice to get out of the city and head down to the coast (even if that bit of the coast is just London-on-sea), the party is still in the park, and it just seems so much more friendly and laidback compared to the insanity of the London one. So as usual, I travelled down with mates for the weekend, and do you know what? I hated it. Far too many people, too much noise, too many queues for absolutely everything – and ended up leaving the park after an hour to head back into town and found myself a nice straight pub to settle down in for the evening to avoid the mayhem going on around me. As I sat there, it suddenly dawned on me that the problem was clearly not Pride, but me: I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

I have no idea how that crept up on me – it’s only a couple of months ago that I was enjoying myself in far bigger crowds at Glastonbury – but I discussed it with friends and they all agreed with me. And pointed out other symptoms I hadn’t considered. Drinking real ale instead of lager? Old. Choosing weekends walking in the countryside rather than getting pissed in London? Old. Finding myself agreeing with Tory politicians sometimes? Old (and scary).*

The whole thing made me want to go and do something crazy in attempt to fend off the ageing process. And then I realised I will be: I’m quitting my job to head round the world for a year, with nothing to come back to. Which made me feel a whole lot better.

*the alternative explanation for all of these symptoms would have been even scarier: I’m finally turning straight.

Photo of the day: Mayan weaving

I’ve blogged previously about how I love design work based on geometric patterns.

One of my favourite photos from my trip to Mexico last year was this piece of weaving I found in the town museum in San Lorenzo Zinacantan (a village just outside San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state).

Mayan weaving in San Lorenzo Zinacantan

Mayan weaving in San Lorenzo Zinacantan

It was a real shame that this pattern was so different from the others in the museum, and from what was on sale in local markets, so I couldn’t buy anything similar to take home. I’d also forgotten to charge my camera so this is a much lower-res picture from my mobile phone.

It also, bizarrely enough, reminds me of the seat covers on some of the Tube trains back home in London. Although clearly much nicer!

Istanbul round-up

It’s now nearly a month since I got back and it’s taken me this long to get round to blog about everything, I really need to get more organised (although I do have the excuse of work getting in the way).

There are a couple of other travel tips I didn’t get a chance to fit in elsewhere, so I just wanted to get them up her before I move onto other things:

  • If I was going again, I’d definitely stay in Beyoglu and not Sultanahmet – Sultanahment is the obvious choice, as it has a much wider selection of hotels as well as all the obvious historic sites. However Beyoglu has a much wider selection of good restaurants and bars, which makes it much easier to plan your evenings around. It’s also more convenient for getting to other places such as the Prince’s Islands or the Black Sea coast. And it’s easy enough to get to Sultanahment by the very efficient tram system during the day.
  • I’d also research ways of getting from Sabiha Gocken airport (where Easyjet and other budget airlines fly to) in advance. We just picked up a taxi, and clearly got ripped off by him taking a very circuitous route into town. Pre-booking a taxi or shared minibus would probably have been a much better option (and is how we returned to the airport)

Still, other than that I’d recommend Istanbul to anyone. It’s a fantastic city, definitely one of my favourites in Europe.

In case you missed any of the previous posts, here’s links to:
The historic sights of the city
Cruising down the Bosphorus
Why visiting in one of the hottest months of the year may not have been the best idea in the world
Fantastic islamic design
An unusual beer discovery
and finally why not all tourists are welcome