Monthly Archives: November 2008

Top 5 Favourite Islands

I’ve got no more travels planned for a few weeks, so time to return to a few more lists of my favourite places. This one’s a bit short – because I really haven’t been to that many islands*. This is therefore the one I expect to change most over next year, as I’m planning to visit the Bay Islands of Honduras, Easter Island, and lots of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines, and probably in mainland South-East Asia too.

1. Ibiza / Eivissa

Ibiza Town by night

Ibiza Town by night

First place will be no surprise to anyone who knows me, or even people who only know me through this blog. No other place I know has such a great mixture of natural beauty, fantastic beaches, insane nightlife, fascinating history and mouthwatering restaurants (actually, it’s almost worth its first place for the allioli alone). It’s one place I’ll never get bored of.

2. Formentera

Platja de ses Illetes, Formentera

Platja de ses Illetes, Formentera

It’s a straight one-two for the Illes Pitiüses (Pine Islands): I love Formentera nearly as much as it’s much more famous northern neighbour. Formentera scores so highly for two things: it has some of the finest beaches I’ve ever been to (and certainly the best in Europe), and it’s incredibly quiet and unspoilt, not to mention beuatiful. The perfect place to relax.

3. Don Det & Don Khon

Lao kids at a school on Don Khon

Lao kids at a school on Don Khon

Two of the (so-called) 4,000 islands in the Mekong, just before it crosses the border from Laos into Cambodia. They’re linked together by an old French railway bridge that was used to bypass the spectacular waterfalls on either side of the islands. Aside from the hostels and bars looking after travellers, the rest of the islands are taken up by paddy fields, forest and Lao villages. It’s an incredibly laid-back and peaceful way of life, and was the perfect spot to bring in 2008 for me.

4. Koh Samui

The only one of Thailand’s islands I’ve been to, and my first trip to Asia back in 1998. Staying in shack right on the beach was an awesome experience. I’ve heard Chaweng beach (where I stayed) has changed an awful lot since then, to the extent I’d barely recognise it. I’m happy to let it stay as it is in my memories.

5. Mykonos

Windmill in Mykonos

Windmill in Mykonos

The only one of the Greek islands I’ve been to so far – but it hopefully won’t be the last. The stereotype of white-walled villages was as beautiful as I could have hoped for, and the confusingly maze-like warren of streets that make up Mykonos town are charming, and full of fantastic little restaurants and bars.

*I’m not counting Hong Kong or Manhattan – because I think of them both more as cities than islands. And sadly, Thanet doesn’t really count. I may have many happy childhood memories of Birchington & Margate, but it’s not really an island any more.

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Martin Creed’s Work no. 850

The last thing you expect in an art gallery is to be nearly knocked off your feet by a man sprinting flat out down the main atrium, in full running gear. The look of shock on the faces of some of the visitors as they ducked out of the way was priceless (and infinitely better than the whole of the Turner Prize exhibition put together), so much so that it’s a shame I already knew what to expect, meaning I didn’t get to experience the shock myself. Martin Creed’s Work no. 850 consisted of a person running flat out through Tate Britain every thirty seconds, and is the most fun artwork I’ve seen in ages.

The work was inspired by the artist having to literally run through a museum to catch it all before closing time, prompting uncontrollable laughter:

I think it’s good to see museums at high speed. It leaves time for other things.

It’s a great philosophy I think. And one I might suggest the owners of the Wieliczka Salt Mines allow. It’d certainly liven the place up.

I’ve resigned!

That was nerve-racking. But a huge sense of relief now it’s out in the open. My boss was better than I expected (I reckon he was actually a bit jealous when I explained my plans). Now I’ve just got 75 days of work left until I finish on 20th March 2009.

It’s all starting to feel much more real and imminent now – as well as resigning, I started my spanish lessons last night, and I’m hoping to book my ticket this saturday.

I want to run around the office screaming with excitement now…

Trapped 200 metres underground with only a Salty Pope for company

Krakow is amazing itself, but if you are here you MUST go and see this wonder of the World. I can’t put into words any write up that can convey how awe inspiring this place is. A must see, once (or twice!) event in your life!”

I really should have known when I read this that I’d be in for a disappointment. I’m quite prepared to put my hands up and admit we made a few mistakes along the day – such as ignoring the guidebook’s exhortations to buy tickets in advance in Krakow, and taking a Polish-language tour rather than waiting for the next English one – but even if we hadn’t I still think our impressions wouldn’t have been all that different.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was first founded in the 13th century and continued as a working mine until 1996, and it’s huuuuge. It’s even apparently impressive enough that it made it onto the very first listing of World Heritage sites (the committee decided it was more of a priority listing than Auschwitz, which had to wait another year). The workings of the mines, and the sheer scale of it I have to admit is impressive, but the bit that it’s most famous for are the various underground chapels carved out of the salt, the biggest of which is the the enormous chapel of St. Kinga.

St Kingas chapel, Wieliczka Salt Mines

St Kinga's chapel, Wieliczka Salt Mines


It’s undeniably breathtaking: over 100m underground, 54m long and 12m high, and every single bit – altar, statues (including one of the old pope, obviously), chandeliers – are carved out of salt.

Unfortunately to see the chapel you have to endure a ridiculously overlong tour (about three hours) – after not very long, one salt chamber starts to look very much like another – including a particularly rubbish (and confusing) son et lumiere. So by the time you get to the chapel (about 2 hours in), you’ve started to lose the will to live; afterwards, the knowledge that you’ve seen the best bit and still have an hour to go, with no chance of escape, is pretty crushing. As if to annoy you even further, the tunnels force you to go through about six gift shops (I’m not exaggerating here) and two cafes before you even get to the lift; once there you face a further queue that took us another half hour. I must admit the lift is quite an experience – a tiny, 4-deck lift that has you sandwiched in like sardines – although probably not one I fancy repeating.

Should have gone with my original plan of exploring the model socialist city of Nowa Huta instead. Will have to do that next time instead (and there will definitely be a next time, there’s still lots more to explore both in the city, and in places like Auschwitz and the Tatras mountains nearby).

Kazimierz & Podgorze

While Krakow may not have been obviously physically damaged very much by World War 2, it was famously damaged in an equally serious way through the extermination of its Jewish population.

Before the war, there were around 70,000 Jews living in the city, largely in the suburb of Kazimierz, just outside the old town. The signs of the former population are obvious – several synagogues, two cemetaries (sadly closed when we there), and now lots of Jewish theme restaurants. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the latter – keeping the memory alive or tacky tourist traps? Sadly we didn’t have the time to stop off at the Galicia Jewish Museum to see more of the history, something I’ll definitely remedy when I return.

Buildings in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz

Buildings in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz


After the German annexation of Poland, the Jews were moved into a ghetto in Podgorze, just over the the River Vistulafrom Kazimierz. 15,000 were crammed into houses that had formerly housed 3,000 people, and they were walled in before eventually being moved to Auschwitz, a few hours away. The square where the trains left from is now called Ghetto Heroes’ Square. The square is now filled with a memorial, made up of oversized bronze chairs, symobilising the posessions that were abandoned in the square as the Jews were deported.
Ghetto Heroes Square

Ghetto Heroes' Square


Other than the memorial there is very little sign that the ghetto ever existed – one small fragment of wall (which we didn’t find) is all that’s left. On the other side of the railway line from the square is Oscar Schindler’s former factory, where he famously saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews. Apparently it’s due to be redeveloped as a museum; it’s in quite an out of the way location and nothing much seemed to be happening while we were though, so it remains to be seen what will happen to it.
Oscar Schindlers factory, Podgorze

Oscar Schindler's factory, Podgorze

These days Podgorze is very quiet and a bit off the tourist trail; Kazimierz on the other hand is thriving both with its Jewish theme restaurants but also with most of the coolest bars in Krakow, one of which is a reminder of yet another key part of the city’s past – it’s called Propaganda, and is a communist theme bar. Lenin would be spinning in his grave.

Congealed soup anyone?

After my third disappointing experience of Portuguese cuisine last month, I had slightly higher hopes for Polish food. Overall it wasn’t too bad – certainly not as bad as Portugal, but with none of the complexities of flavour that characterise my favourite cuisines either.

The bad

I’ll probably be offending millions of Poles (and Russians and Ukrainians too), but our experience of the national soup (Borscht) wasn’t exactly great. Sour (through fermentation) is not really my cup of tea at the best of times, but when the fat in the soup starts congealing in front of you in the cold November air, it’s really offputting.

The average

My main expectation before going was that the food would be pretty hearty and stodgy. Our experience with dumplings and Pierogy (stuffed ravioli-like dumplings) confirmed that. Nice enough, but I think we were unlucky with them, I think in the right place and the right sauce they’d be a lot nicer.

The tasty

The best thing about large-scale Polish immigration to London has been the availability of a wide range of Polish sausages in local shops. Food-wise there’s not much more I love than a bit of spicey cured pork, so getting to try the local varieties was always going to be a hit. Fresh Kabanosy were even nicer than back home. Just a shame we didn’t see more of them in the restaurants, and that I didn’t get time to try more.

Even better was discovering the Polish version of the one thing I love more than cured meat: Pizza. Called Zapiekanki, they’re basically a half baguette topped with cheese and other toppings. The perfect way to warm up and fill up after a cold day pounding the streets…or rather if it would have been if the one I ordered hadn’t had the devil’s food itself – mushrooms – sneakily hiding underneath the cheese and Polish salami. I could have cried.

Travel blogging inspiration

A large part of the planning process for my trip has been reading other travel blogs. They’ve been a great way to inspire me, as well as help me pass the time (and daydream) over the 15 month long planning process. Here are some great recent posts that have helped me along the way…

Latin American itineraries

Almost Fearless will be spending six months traveling through Latin America, starting, like me, in Mexico. Really looking forward to following how she goes, as I’ll be following a similar path in March.

One Giant Step will be spending three months in South America from June 2009 – meaning they’ll hit Peru just before I get there.

Colombia

Colombia was the last country to get added to my plan – and after reading these two reports on Bogota, it’s now one of the bits I’m most excited about:

Lollopoleeza on Bogota

On Our Own Path reckon Bogota is completely different to what you think

Hiking

Aside from Colombia, doing some serious hiking in the Andes is another thing I can’t wait for. Here’s where some of my inspiration comes from:

Best Hike blog on the Ausangate circuit in Peru

Sam and Will have just done the Torres del Paine circuit in Chile. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fit it in, but it sounds so great I might have to try and find a way.

Diving

I’m hoping to learn to dive in Honduras, which will enable me to dive in Indonesia & the Philippines. Globestompers have a great report on Sipadan in Indonesia.

Photography

I’ve mentioned him before ages ago, but Gallo Moa’s photography continues to amaze me. He’s really come into his own with his portraits of people in India, but the whole blog is worth a read, as he’s traveled through some more unusual destinations, including Armenia, Iran, and Georgia (unfortunately it all kicked off while he was there), taking great photos everywhere along the way. He’s also obsessed with photographing bicycles, which is pretty cool.

London

Last but by no means least my friend Adrian has been showing that you really don’t need to go away to be a traveller, especially when you live in London – firstly through the brilliant shop name geography, where he explores the visible influence of London’s immigrant communities by way of shop names, and enjoying football with Norwegian fans, the latest in a series of posts where he enjoys football matches with expat communities in the city.

Oh – and I’ve updated my blogroll too, so go check out any you haven’t yet, there’s so much good writing and photography there to be discovered —————>

Krakow

People have often described Krakow to me as being like Prague but not as overrun with tourists. Seeing as I’ve never been to Prague that wasn’t a lot of help in terms of imagining what it’d be like. It’s also a city I’m not very familiar with from telly or from mates’ experience either, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, which actually made the prospect of visiting more exciting.

Somehow central Krakow managed to largely avoid being physically scarred either by the Second World War or the excesses of communist town planning, making it both a historic and very handsome city to wander round. In fact, just wandering around was for me the best way to enjoy the city – actually going inside many of the sights was a little disappointing (notably the cathedral bell tower – lots of queueing, rubbish view).

Wawel Cathedral - lovely on the outside, disappointing within

Wawel Cathedral - lovely on the outside, disappointing within


Pretty much every street is worth exploring, with numerous baroque churches and crumbling town houses all over the place. Visiting in November means the whole city is shrouded in fog, making it even more atmospheric.

Aside from the general prettiness of the place, the most obvious highlight of the city is the huge market square (apparently the largest of its kind in Europe), dominated by the huge Basilica Mariacka.

Basilica Mariaka

Basilica Mariaka

All around the square are hundreds of bars and restaurants, many of which are in the medieval cellars of the buildings, which can make for a great setting for dinner – I say can, because of course it’s incredibly hit and miss, especially as you can’t really check them out from the outside, what with not being able to see in. Saturday night we hit lucky with an incredible Italian meal (with a genuine Polish celebrity at the next table. According to the waiter, anyway). Sunday was less so, with us having to abandon a meal to make it to the airport when forty-five minutes after ordering it turned out they hadn’t even put the food on. Not the best way to end a great birthday weekend, although certainly not enough to ruin it either: Krakow is definitely one of the best cities I’ve been to in Europe, and one I definitely plan to return to.

Fright Nights at Thorpe Park

Nothing brings out the big kid in me like a rollercoaster. The adrenaline rush from them is possibly my favourite feeling in the world, so I have no idea why it’s taken me a good 15 years to revisit Thorpe Park (London’s only decent theme park).

After yet another summer of promising to go and not getting round to it, we finally got round to going on Sunday, just before it closed for the season. And it was brilliant. Definite highlight was Colossus, which goes upside down 10 times (the most in the world). Nemesis Inferno, an inverted coaster was pretty great too. Detonator, a 35m vertical drop, was far better than it looked. I’m not sure going on Tidal Wave was a good idea though – the size of the wave it throws up is absolutely huge, and of course we got soaked, which is not exactly a great idea on a cold November day. Hilariosly we were in front of a group of teenage lads who’d decided the best way to tackle it was to do it topless – the water was so cold I’m quite glad I had a jacket on!

We didn’t get to go on quite as many rides as I’d have liked, as our visit coincided with the last day of their annual Fright Nights promotion, a series of Halloween-themed events.

Now Halloween has never been much of a big deal for me – it’s exactly a week before my birthday (which is obviously FAR more important), plus Bonfire night, a few days later, was always a much bigger deal when growing up (and still is at home in Clapham, where the fireworks on Wednesday night will probably attract around 100,000 people). So I hadn’t really registered quite how big a deal it’s become these days – the park was heaving.

Highlight of the event are the four themed mazes. The queues were huge – up to 90 minutes – so we just went for the one we’d read was the best, Asylum. Over the length of the queue we started to worry if it was worth the wait – but we really needn’t have. It’s basically a long, disorientating dark maze, and you go in groups of eight, in a line with your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. The whole time you’re in there, there is constant strobe lights, mirrors everywhere, sheets and netting hanging from the ceiling in various places, and the sound of screams echoing round the room. At various points actors dressed as various freaks leap out at you from all angles. Sounds a bit cheesy – but it was bloody brilliant.

I drew the short straw of going first, which was terrifying, especially when someone leapt in front of me with a chainsaw. This video, from 2006, gives you the gist of it:

Terrifying, but the best fun I’ve had in ages. I’ll definitely be heading back in 2010, after my trip.