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2008 Travel round up part 3: My Year in Photos

The final bit of my ’08 round-up is a quick photographic journey through the most memorable travel moments of the year. (In case you’re interested, you can see all my 2008 photos over at Flickr)

Wat Phou

January: Wat Phou

Wat Phou is an Angkor-era temple in southern Laos. It’s much less well-known than Laos’s other World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, and hence gets much fewer tourists. It can’t compete in terms of size with Angkor Wat, but its beautiful hillside setting overlooking the Mekong and lack of crowds make it worth a detour.
Coffee beans drying

February: Coffee beans drying

Another Lao highlight was a visit to the Bolaven Plateau, home to most of the country’s coffee production. Everywhere we went we saw piles of coffee beans drying in the sun.
Crispy Frog

January: Crispy Frog

Moments later, I ate this crispy, deep-fried Mekong Frog, which is not something I ever expected to do. Surprisingly lovely. And no, it didn’t taste of chicken.
Stowe House

February: Stowe House

A beautiful, crisp, cold winter day walking through the grounds of Stowe House, some of the finest landscaped grounds in England.
Alpine view

March: Alpine view

I’d resisted skiing for years. Why did no-one tell me one of the best bits of the experience would be the breathtaking beauty of the mountains?
Bobsleigh!

March: Bobsleigh!

1500 metres downhill on the 1994 Olympic track. Over 100kph, inches from the ice. The best 72 seconds of my life.
Bounce

April: Bounce

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bobsleigh run to have fun though: an afternoon bouncing on the trampoline at my sister’s house in Essex was nearly as fun.
Wet & windy Snowdon

June: Wet & windy Snowdon

Freezing rain and winds so strong you could barely stand up – but making it to the top of Wales’s highest mountain was worth it.
Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

June: Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Before I did it, I thought 26 miles of hiking up and down three hills would be a bit tough. I ended up running the last few miles. And I even got a certificate to prove I’d done it too (I’m like a child when it comes to external validation).
My new favourite building

June: My new favourite building

The restored De La Warr pavilion is absolutely stunning, and utterly incongruous to find in town like Bexhill.
View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

June: View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

Even more fun than usual, thanks to the absence of mud and flooding. I’ll miss the madness in 2009.
the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

July: the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

Recovering from festivals by going on holiday straight after is totally the way ahead.
24 hours in Ibiza

August: 24 hours in Ibiza

…except it wasn’t even that. We spent nearly as long in Madrid airport as we did on the island.
Boat envy in Formentera

September: Boat envy in Formentera

Still, I made up for it by having a fantastic four days there the following month, seeing how the other half live. Although it did give me boat envy.
Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

October: Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos, one of my favourite photos of the year. The town is pretty great too.
Faro - ghost town

October: Faro - ghost town

Unlike Faro, which was just plain weird. Also: I assumed Pigeon-racing was one of those weird eccentric English things. Turns out the Portuguese do it too.
Krakow market square

November: Krakow market square

We kept being told it was the largest square of its kind in Europe. We never did find out what that meant exactly. Lovely place to spend my birthday (although I think Uluru in 2009 may just top it). Just don’t mention the borscht.
View over Windermere

December: View over Windermere

If there’s been one thing that’s really stood out from my travels this year, it’s been falling in love with the mountains, and it’s certainly something I’ll be doing a lot more of in 2009.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2008. It’s been a bit of a dry run while I get the hang of writing (the only writing I’ve done for the last decade has been on Powerpoint slides, which is really quite different) and posting pictures. Hopefully 2009 and the start of my long-term travels will make this an even better read going forward!

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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.

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

Oil Wrestling

When I first booked the holiday to Istanbul, I had a look on the Turkish tourist board website to see if anything was going on while I was there, and found that my visit coincided with the annual Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival in Edirne, a couple of hours away from Istanbul.

Intrigued, I tried to find more info online, but there was very little available. I found this surprising – these days, you expect to be able to find anything on the internet. To find almost nothing about one of the oldest sporting events in the world was odd, to say the least. But ultimately I wasn’t all that bothered, so gave up.

One night while we were out in Istanbul, we got chatting to another group of tourists from Finland, who it had come over partly for the festival. It turned out one of them was an expat Turk, so I mentioned the difficulty I’d had in finding information, and he explained that the reason there was so little available in English was that in recent years the event had been attracting increasing numbers of western gay tourists. So the organisers apparently decided to stop promoting it to (English-speaking) tourists – which is quite a step when the event in question is apparently the oldest continuously held annual sporting event in the world (this year was the 647th).

I find it amazing – surely even without the presence of large numbers of drooling bears, the locals must have noticed the spectacle of large hairy men covering themselves in olive oil and shoving their hands down each others tight leather shorts as they grapple with each other on the ground was a tad homo-erotic?

I also find it sad – obviously Turkey is a more conservative country than the UK, and I understand that an influx of gay visitors may make some people uncomfortable – but the fact that they’ve now stopped publicising such a historic event means people are missing out.

Anyway, here’s a not-at-all gratuitous shot of this year’s tournament I snapped from this year’s TV coverage:

Any sport fans reading may be interested in these far better shots of this year’s festival, from Flickr.

Coffee + Beer

I love Coffee.

I love Beer.

But if someone had told me that combining the two could ever taste anything other than disgusting I’d have told them they were mad.

Until Istanbul, where I tasted Efes Dark Brown. I thought I was just going to get a European-style dark ale. What I got was a European-style dark ale, but with the taste of black coffee.

And you know what? It pretty much worked. Not the sort of drink I can imagine having all the time, but definitely better than a mere novelty. Now I just need to find someone selling it in London.

Istanbul Blue

One of the highlights of my trip was the cruise down the Bosphorus to the mouth of the Black Sea. As the ferry heads down the narrow strait, you get to see all the poshest bits of the city – the shore is littered with exclusive suburbs, Ottoman Palaces, beautiful villages backed by forested hills, and castles. It’s a fantastically relaxing way to spend a day, and we ended it up with a walk uphill to a ruined Byzantine castle overlooking the Black Sea.

As usual, I ended up taking hundreds of photos (I’m a rubbish photographer, so figure by the the law of averages I should get at least one or two decent snaps if I take loads), and one of the things I was most pleased with was the way the camera caught the real intensity of the blues, both of the sky and the sea.

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul


Mouth of the Bosphorus looking towards the Black Sea

Mouth of the Bosphorus looking towards the Black Sea

No swimming

When you’ve been wandering around sightseeing in a big city in 34 degree heat all day, it would be really nice to cool off in a pool. And that’s where you’re out of luck in Istanbul.

The only hotels with pools are the really posh, high-end ones, and they charge a fortune for day passes. If you take a cruise down the Bosphorus, you’ll see a fair few as well – but they are all in private members clubs, where the same applies. Being on the coast, you’d think beaches would be an option – but no, most of the city doesn’t have them, and anyway, the water is too polluted. The nearest mainland beach is about 60km away on the Black Sea coast, which is quite a trek on public transport when you’re just going for the day.

Best option is to head to the Princes’ Islands. The guide books play down (or fail to mention) that these have beaches, and it’s true, they’re not stunners. But when the city’s hot, they are the best option. Even these have a major downside – the ferry only goes once an hour, and being one of the few options of its type, it feels like half of Istanbul is on the ferry with you.

We got off at the first of the four islands, Kinaliada (or Kınalıada to spell it properly), which is just less than an hour’s journey. The town surrounding the port is very pretty, with lots of cafes along a tree-lined main street. The beaches nearest the port are free but get very, very crowded. Better bet is to walk or cycle round the coast road to the south side of the island, which takes about twenty minutes. There you’ll find a couple of beach clubs – you still have to pay to get in, but it’s nowhere near the price of the clubs on the mainland, and there you have the option of a pool as well. It was well worth the journey, and it’s a great way to escape the hustle of the city. There are a further three islands the ferry stops at, all of which I believe have at least one beach. One thing to note: our guidebook (Time Out) stated that the ferry went from Eminonu (nearest terminal to the Sultanahment hostels and hotels), whereas when we were there it only went from Kabatas, a short tram-ride away in Beyoglu.

Of course you may decide a better option is to combine a weekend in Istanbul with more time on Aegean or Mediterranean coast. Or go in Spring or Autumn where the heat is more bearable. Evenings are better though – most hotels and many bars & restaurants have fantastic roof terraces, where you can cool down with fantastic views out over the water.

Istanbul

I’m never going straight back to work after Glastonbury again.

Last year, after four days of non-stop rain, (at best) ankle-deep mud, far more beer than is strictly wise and not an awful lot of sleep, I struggled back into work the next day and spent the whole week trying not to fall asleep at work and snapping at colleagues and clients.

This year I arrived in Istanbul the next day and spent the first afternoon on the roof terrace of our hotel reading, relaxing, and marvelling at the views of the Sea of Marmara and the Blue Mosque. The rest of the week followed in a similarly chilled fashion. Infinitely preferable.

It was the first time I’ve been to a large Islamic city, and obviously the first thing that stands out compared to the other European cities I’ve been to is the sea of minarets and the regular calls to prayer ringing out across the city, often with multiple calls from different mosques overlapping. I thought I might find it annoying but it’s a beautiful sound, simultaneously very alien sounding but also strangely relaxing.

Most prominent of the mosques is the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque), sitting atop one of the highest points of the old town. It’s a really magnificent building, visible from across the city.

It was the first mosque I’ve ever been inside, and the thing that struck me compared to the many cathedrals I’ve been to, is the emptiness. Aside from the beautiful pattern work covering every part of the interior, and lights hanging from the ceiling, it’s an empty space just used for prayer, which surprised me, and certainly makes for a very different atmosphere to christian places of worship.

Istanbul has an awful lot of history, and it shows – there are fantastic sights from every era of the city’s history.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century, and was used to store water under the city. Aside from looking impressive, it’s a great place to cool off when it’s 34 degrees outside:

Nearby is the Hagia Sofia, also built in the 6th century, which was the biggest cathedral in the world for a thousand years (and was later turned into a mosque, and is now a museum):

Unfortunately the elegant interior, unspoilt by as many big supporting columns as its neighbour, the Blue Mosque, was largely taken up by one of the largest pieces of scaffolding I’ve ever seen:

Biggest disappointnment was the Grand Bazaar. TV travel shows and guide books had led me to believe the whole thing would be a full-on assault on the senses, and I’d be lucky to escape without buying something. Either we caught them on an off day, or they’ve really chilled out. I didn’t get hassled once despite wandering around for quite a while. Eventually, as we were heading out, a man did approach us, and we were all set for a prolonged spot of haggling, only to find he thought we were lost and was offering us directions on the way out. At that point, we gave up and left.

Islamic patternwork in Istanbul

One of the things I love most about Islamic art & architecture is their concept of decoration.

The repeating, tessellating patterns are used on tiles to cover walls, ceilings and doors, and similar patterns are used on carpets. My favourite are the intricate geometric patterns, although the floral based designs are beautiful too.

Topkapi Palace, the old home of the Ottoman Sultans, has some of the best examples I’ve seen (although noting will ever compare with the beauty of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain), especially in the Harem:



The other great spot was the interior of the Blue Mosque:

Patterned carpet in the Blue Mosque. Less decorative - my feet.

Patterned carpet in the Blue Mosque. Less decorative - my feet.



And that’s just the insides of places. The city is beautiful outside too…more of that to follow.

Camping it up

Woo! My new tent arrived today, and it’s even better than I hoped. I just hope it’s easy to put in the dark and rain…

Up until now I’ve been using a tent that I bought for £40 at Glastonbury in 2004. Great bargain, but boy is it heavy lugging it about (which is particularly painful after five days of partying).

Now I’m planning a long distance walking holiday this summer I knew I needed to get a proper lightweight one. I may be turning into more of a fitness nutter in my old age, but I’d have to be seriously masochistic to lug my old beast of a thing up and down the Pyrenees for a week. The new one fits two people comfortably and is just over 1.5kg, which is perfect. Just need to find a walking partner now – I’m normally happy travelling solo, but for my first long hiking trip I know I’ll appreciate the company.

In the meantime though, I’ll get to roadtest it this weekend in the Snowdonia national park. I’ve only ever been to South Wales before, so I’m really excited about it. Although sod’s law says it’ll piss it down with rain the entire time, especially after the last bank holiday was so nice.

AND if all that travel-related excitement wasn’t enough, Paul & I finally settled on Istanbul as our July holiday destination. There’s no better feeling than having trips to look forward to, and now I have Wales, Glastonbury, Istanbul, the Pyrenees and my big trip to look forward to.

This is going to be a good year.