Sunday, 19 October 2008

Moving site

The content on this site is due to be moved over to www.bizarreplaces.com. Once the site is up and running, it will be better organised, and a far more suitable format than the blog. This may take a couple of months, unfortunately, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Hiroshima Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Dome, Japan

Hiroshima in Japan - the site of the world’s first atomic bombing - isn’t exactly the first destination on a traveller’s list for a cheerful holiday. But it sure is moving.
The spot where the first atomic bomb used in warfare exploded is now known as the Hiroshima Peace Park, with the most striking sight being the Atomic Bomb Dome. This was a former exhibition hall, and it has been deliberately left as a ravaged shell to remind visitors of the destruction wreaked.
Also in the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which goes into depth about the horrors of the atomic bomb and the effect it had on the city.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Gold Souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The Gold Souk in Dubai is the world’s biggest gold market, and the greatest jewellery superstore a visitor could possibly wish for.

300 jewellery shops
With 300 jewellery shops, the Gold Souk in Dubai is the world’s biggest gold market and it’s pretty damned close to being the world’s biggest diamond market too.
At every turn is yet another window filled with enough sparkling chains and rings to weigh down even the most muscular rapper.

Not as plush as the rest of Dubai
Ironically, however, it’s one of the few places in Dubai that doesn’t strike as shiny, new and all that rich.
A few shops seem a little run down, while the touts attempting to sell fake watches detract from glitz.
That said, for the magpies amongst us, it’s heaven.

Getting to the Gold Souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Nearest International Airport: Dubai

Using public transport: The Gold Souk is in Deira – a short taxi ride from the airport, and walking distance from Dubai Creek. If in Bur Dubai, get an abra across the Creek.

More information: Dubai Gold Souk

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

San Marino – the oldest country in the world

Possibly because it’s too small and insignificant for anyone to worry about invading, the tiny Republic of San Marino has been in existence since AD301.
Surprisingly, this makes the 61 km² state, entirely landlocked by Italy, the oldest country in the world.
Whilst other nations have been busy invading each other, changing names and having revolutions, sleepy San Marino has stood by and watched, untroubled.
It doesn’t have an airport or railway station (try nearby Rimini in Italy for that), and shopping is the main attraction for the three million tourists that visit every year. This is largely because items are not subject to the 20% sales tax imposed by Italian law, but novelty collectables such as stamps and coin sets are also big earners.
However, it’s not all souvenirs and duty free shopping, with the three mountain fortresses overlooking the Adriatic coast providing views that far bigger nations would be insanely jealous of.

Getting to San Marino

Nearest International Airport: Rimini in Italy is the closest, although Bologna is not far away and that gets more flights.

Using public transport:
Buses go reasonably regularly from outside Rimini’s train station.

More information: San Marino tourism

Monday, 13 October 2008

World’s biggest cave – Sarawak Chamber, Malaysia

If size of cave was a status symbol, then only a Stone Age King would be able to claim the Sarawak Chamber in Malaysia.
Discovered only in 1981, this huge cavern on the island of Borneo is the biggest in the world, and is part of an extensive cave system.
To get some idea of scale, it takes an hour for even experienced cavers to get from end to end, and headlamps usually aren’t strong enough for them to see the walls.
In terms of what could fit in it, then think St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or a decent collection of jumbo jets.
To get there, you’ve got to make your way through a few tricky passageways, so the guides at Gunung Mulu National Park insist that anyone they take must have previous experience.
However, they do allow you to get that by doing a trip to other caves in the recently-declared World Heritage Area.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, New South Wales, Australia

Athletic koalas?
It’s always nice to have your illusions shattered. Given that koalas aren’t exactly renowned for their non-stop athleticism at the best of times, you’d hardly expect the unfortunate ones beset by blindness, permanent disabilities and venereal diseases to be little hubs of pure energy.
Well, try telling that to Paddy, who has discharged himself from hospital, and is haring up and down a tree in a bid for freedom.

Koala hospital for chlamydia sufferers
Paddy has chlamydia, an unfortunately common complaint for these sleepy little furballs, and he has been placed in isolation to stop him infecting others. However, the security at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, on the North Coast of New South Wales, Australia isn’t watertight, and he’s managed to make his break.

Volunteers give chase
The escapee has caused quite a commotion too, as a troupe of volunteers attempts to stop him running amok. Sending someone up the tree after him would be an obviously fruitless pursuit, so more cunning tactics have to be brought into play.
Apparently, koalas can’t stand things being wafted around their head, so Chris, the hospital’s habitat officer has attached a plastic bag to an extremely long pole.
As he waves it above Paddy’s head, the miscreant scarpers down the tree trunk with surprising speed, and this process continues until he’s near the bottom.
Waiting there to pounce are two volunteers with a sack, hoping to bundle him into it and take him back to the ward.

Benny Hill Show
Paddy is having none of it though, and as soon as he spots a brief respite from the plastic bag of unimaginable terror, he races back up the trunk to the highest branch he can find. The whole process, now beginning to look like something straight out of The Benny Hill Show, is repeated again – and again – until finally the prisoner is dragged kicking and screaming away, clawing his Hessian cage.

Australia’s koala capital
Port Macquarie is arguably Australia’s koala capital. It is surrounded by prime habitat, a gum tree heaven if you will, and the dozy marsupials still thrive here, even though the town is growing at a rapid rate.
The human expansion has been costly for the koala population. As more housing springs up, more trees are cut down, and many of the patients at the hospital are there for man-made reasons.

Mauling and drowning
According to Anne, the volunteer who guides us round, car accidents, maulings from pet dogs and drowning in swimming pools are just three problems the urban koala faces. They may have sharp claws, but they’re hardly likely to win a fight with a narky bull terrier or Holden Monaro. The swimming pools are a more eyebrow-raising problem as, although hardly the Ian Thorpes of the animal world, they can actually swim reasonably well.

Getting out of the swimming pool
The issue, says Anne, is that once in the pool, they can’t get out. The walls of the pool are too steep, and they can’t get a grip on the tiles at the top, so they just tread water and flounder about until they run out of energy and slowly drown.
It’s a pretty horrible way to go, and the hospital is encouraging local residents to put a small rope dangling in their pools so that the wayward adventurers can pull themselves up. Whether it will take on remains to be seen, but the staff at the hospital are determined to prove that not all human interaction with koalas has to be bad.

No Government funding
Set up in 1973 and run almost entirely by good-natured people donating their time, the hospital receives no Government funding. The $140,000 a year it takes to keep operations going comes entirely from donations, be it from visitors, generous benefactors or its adopt-a-koala scheme. Over 100 people volunteer their services in various roles, be it in conducting tours, running the shop or going out at dawn every morning to collect fallen branches from the bush to feed the koalas with.

Hand-reared like a newborn child
The most dedicated of all are those who take the youngest and most needy home with them. They are hand-reared as if a newborn child – including feeding sessions in the middle of the night – until they are of sufficient weight and health to be transferred to the hospital. It’s quite clear that these people care an awful lot about their eucalyptus-munching friends, and this shines through as you’re led through the pens in which the recovering koalas are housed.

Getting to Port Macquarie

Nearest International Airport: Port Macquarie has an airport, but international visitors will have to get a connecting flight from either Brisbane or Sydney

Using public transport: Port Macquarie is 510km south of Brisbane, approximately a seven hour drive, and 450km north of Sydney. It is connected to both by train and bus.

More information: The Koala Hospital can be found in the Macquarie Nature Reserve on Lord Street, a 15-20 minute walk from the city centre. It’s open every day, with feeding time tours conducted at 3pm. Entry and the tours are free, although donations are greatly appreciated.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

World's oldest restaurant - Casa Botin in Madrid, Spain

Those authoritarian chaps at Guinness World Records have attempted to silence the bickering over who gets the honour of being dubbed the world’s oldest restaurant, and have declared the Casa Botin in Madrid, Spain the winner.
Tucked away on Calle de Cuchilleros near the main square in the Spanish capital, this has become something of a tourist trap, but it has been open since 1725 for a very good reason.
Whilst most diners are visitors, it is not one of those places that the locals conspicuously avoid because the food isn’t up to scratch.
Quite the contrary, in fact, with the house speciality of roast suckling pig reputed to border on the divine and well worth the few extra Euros you’ll pay for location and gimmick factor.

More information: Casa Botin

Friday, 10 October 2008

Robert The Bruce’s Cave in Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfriesshire, Scotland

This is thought to be the place that inspired a legend. The story goes that Robert The Bruce, King of Scotland way back in the early 14th century, retreated to it after a series of crushing military defeats.
With the hated English well on top, Robert had considered giving in. It was then that he saw a spider repeatedly trying to spin a web over the entrance of the cave, and he realised that perseverance would bring rewards.
So he left the cave, probably breaking the poor spider’s web again on the way out, and began to wage a successful guerrilla war against the English.
Bruce’s Cave (or at least the one with the most plausible claim to being it) is now controlled by a nearby caravan site in Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
Visitors can enter, although arachnophobes would be well advised to steer clear – spiders still inhabit it.

More information: Bruce’s Cave

Thursday, 9 October 2008

World’s oldest hotel – Hoshi Ryokan in Awazu, Japan

Shrouded in ancient Japanese mysticism, the Hoshi Ryokan in the village of Awazu, Japan dates back to AD717. This makes it the world’s oldest hotel.
The story goes that Buddhist monk Taicho Daishi was ordered to the village on the foothills of Mt Hakusan, Honshu, to find a divine spring and show it to the locals.
Find it he did, and the hot spring baths are now the central point of this popular retreat.
The hotel has passed through 46 generations of hosts, amazingly from the same family. It’s the second oldest family business in the world.
Awazu is two-and-a-half hours on the train away from Osaka.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Stromatolites at Hamelin Pools in Shark Bay, Western Australia

Oldest living things on earth
Whilst they’re about as interesting to watch as a mime version of Dances With Wolves, stromatolites are fascinating.
Made up of single cell organisms called cyanobacteria, they have been around for 3.5 billion years. In fact, they are the oldest living things on earth, and without them, we probably wouldn’t be here.

Creating oxygen
Stromatolites have played a huge part in creating an atmosphere that we can survive in. They create oxygen as a waste product, and without that, we’d quite frankly be long gone.
Until 1956, scientists thought they no longer existed. Fossilised examples had been found in old rocks, but none still alive.

Hamelin Pools at Shark Bay
That was the year that millions of living stromatolites were found in the Hamelin Pools of Shark Bay in Western Australia. More have since been found in the Bahamas, but the extremely salty water of Hamelin Pools has allowed this ancient life to survive undetected.

World Heritage-listed
They are the main reason that Shark Bay is World Heritage-listed, and whilst they don’t exactly entertain, such history has an incredibly mesmerising quality.

Getting to Shark Bay
A viewing platform, board walk and information about the Hamelin Pools stromatolites can be found 105km from Denham in Shark Bay. Denham is 842km north of Perth, Australia and Hamelin Pools is on the way. Try the Shark Bay office of the Department of Conservation And Land Management to find out more.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Europe’s largest thermal lake – Heviz in Hungary

Nature-watching
For ardent nature watchers, it is a fine example of the species. The taut skin stretches over the substantial curve, as though it is finely packed in, not a spare inch to be filled out. Fetch the harpoons – we’ve got one.
Either side of the protruding bulge of this most excellent corpulent beast are a pair of miniscule Speedos and a fulsome silver moustache, partly covered in the third ice cream of the day. A stirring sight and, amongst those sprawled along the banks of Gyógy-tó, one that is most definitely not alone. As is often the case with this sort of thing, the biggest wellness retreats act like a magnet to those who would be better off doing some hard laps rather than lounging around in the bubbles.

Europe’s largest thermal lake
Gyógy-tó in Heviz, Hungary, is Europe’s largest thermal lake, and it’s an extraordinary sight. Eating five hectares into the surrounding woodland, it is fed by a deep (and very hyperactive) thermal spring that ensures that the water temperature never dips below 26 degrees. Theoretically, it still makes for a nice warm dip even in the heart of a fierce central European winter, but in the summer it is primed for laziness.

Large pavilion
Right in the middle there is a big pavilion, which is described by just about every guidebook as fin-de-siècle, almost as though the writers have just copied each other, not knowing what it means.
Octopus-like would be a far better phrase. From the central head, tentacles are sprawled all over the lake, leading to sun-bathing platforms, changing rooms and all manner of secretive rooms. These are where the portly tourists have their backs pummelled, their faces doused in gunk and their mountainous guts covered with crisp white towels. Shoes must be removed, showers taken and sun protection cream eschewed – the magical waters of the lake must be protected at all times.
At the centre of the octopus, there is a taster. Deep down below the platforms is a darkened pool, in which a gaggle of sectagenarians hang on to a metal bar, all moving on one position every two minutes. It’s almost as though they’re on a conveyor belt, being fed to the hungry Kraaken at the bottom of the lake that has a penchant for wrinkly Hungarians.

Bond villain lair
Once out of the Bond villain lair, however, the lake is an idyllic watery playground. The woodland provides a soothing backdrop to what essentially is a lot of people who should probably know better floating around in rubber rings.
The vague sulphuric smell isn’t enough to deter these hardy adventurers, splish-splashing away in the warm, enveloping cocoon and wishing violent sunburn upon their shoulders. Some even break into a swim, such as the couple wearing matching swimming caps, patriotically emblazoned with the German flag. Not for long mind – just as far as the next pontoon to cling onto.

Getting to Heviz

Nearest international airport: The nearest is the former military base near Keszthely, known as FlyBalaton airport and used by the occasional budget airline, such as Ryanair. Most will fly into Budapest, however.

Using public transport: Trains go direct to Keszthely from Budapest. From there, take a bus to Heviz – it’s approximately 7km away.

More information

Monday, 6 October 2008

Falconry lessons in Gloucestershire, England

Handle birds of prey
There is no CV that can’t be substantially beefed up with the addition of falconry in the skills section, and any sane employer has got to be impressed with a candidate that turns up with a tamed hawk on his or her arm. No?
Irrespective of how useful it is, the National Birds of Prey Centre’s five day course is certainly something different. Based in Gloucestershire, England the course trains participants how to handle, care for and hunt with winged predators, including owls and eagles.

More information: The course costs £450 per person and by the end, you should know how to train a bird from scratch.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Geysir in Iceland – the world’s original thermal spout

If the name Geysir seems familiar, it’s because all thermal water spouts across the world are named after it. But why visit the others when you can make the original your destination? Well, partly because it only works intermittently, but we’ll gloss over that.
One of the results of Iceland’s position just above the earth’s rumbling stomach is that there are many areas of high geothermal activity. So much so that most of the nation’s homes are heated by harnessing it.
At Geysir - which has now become a mini-settlement rather than just an intermittent giant fountain – this underground activity is rather obvious. There are a series of bubbling pools - some of which are shockingly hot, so don’t dip the fingers in – and occasionally the pressure gets too much.
Geysir itself has mellowed with age. It generally only starts emitting when there are earthquakes, but just next door is the most reliable geyser in the world.
Strokkur goes off every six or seven minutes, and the anticipation is almost as exciting as the main show. The water slops back and forth, rumbles with inner turmoil, starts to bulge and then... WOOSH! It’s a fearsome aquatic eruption, shooting 25-30m in the air, followed by a swarming cloud of vapour. All accompanied by the noise of a really fat person jumping into a swimming pool.

Getting to Geysir, Iceland

Nearest International Airport: Keflavik, near Reykjavik.

Using public transport: Good luck to you. Most visitors are either on a Reykjavik Excursions tour bus or have their own hire car.

More information: Geysir Centre

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Sorell Hotel Rutli in Zurich, Switzerland

At first glance, the Sorell Hotel Rutli in Zurich, Switzerland is just an ordinary three star hotel, catering for the business traveller and doing everything precisely as standard.
That is unless you’re in one of the ‘City Rooms’, which bear all the hallmarks of a savvy marketing department latching on to a trend for art/ design hotels.
The idea was to let a couple of local graffiti artists loose on the rooms, and see what they came out with. A lot of it is reasonably standard (but stylish) tagging and motifs, but on occasions Drim and Rast have been inspired.
Counting the Sheep is devoted to the storytelling of sleep, with lambs on the wall, ‘Good Night’ sprayed opposite the bed and, er, a green goblin in a pixie hat. The odds of having sweet dreams appear to be entirely dependent on where you look…

Getting to the Sorell Hotel Rutli in Zurich, Switzerland

Using public transport: Sorell Hotel Rutli is at 43 Zahringerstrasse. It’s within walking distance of Zurich’s main train station.

More information: Sorell Hotel Rutli

Friday, 3 October 2008

World’s Greatest Pub – Delirium Café in Brussels, Belgium

To the beer drinker, Delirium Café in Brussels is as close an approximation to paradise as they will ever find.
The reason for this can be found in the large catalogue, weighing the wooden panelling of the table down like it’s a housebrick, or more promptly, by looking at the certificate behind the unhurried barmaid.
It’s from Guinness World Records, and it proudly proclaims that the Delirium has more beers available than any other establishment in the whole world. And that would be a gigantic 2,004 beers at any time. In other words, it’s the world’s greatest pub.
As the English chap plonked on the barside stool is keen to point out, this is a minimum of 2,004. On the list there are another 500, some of which may be out of stock at times due to transport hiccups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the likes.
A flick through the catalogue is all it takes to realise that this is not your standard Belgian Beer Café. Whilst Belgium is represented in fine style, with every strength, brewing technique and fruit flavouring imaginable, the round-the-world trip is astonishing. Benin, Armenia, Bolivia, Guadaloupe, The Faroe Islands, Namibia, Mongolia, Tahiti… Every corner of the globe is covered, and the temptation to drink your way round it is only dulled by the prices of those obscure brews from Nepal.

Getting to the Delirium Café in Brussels, Belgium

Nearest International Airport: Brussels

Walking: The Delirium is the sort of place you’ll only find if you’re specifically looking for it, or are completely and utterly lost. It’s tucked away on a little cul-de-sac alley (Impasse de la Fidélité) near Grand Place, almost imperceptible as you walk past, off a maze of narrow, restaurant-lined streets, where there is barely room for people to walk two abreast (Rue de Bouchers).

More information: Delirium Café

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Crime Museum in Vienna, Austria

Those with a squeamish disposition are adised to skip the Crime Museum in Vienna, Austria (known as KriminalMuseum in German). Tucked away in what seems like a relatively small old building, this place is a veritable TARDIS of gore.
All the text is in German, and the stories of Vienna’s ancient crimes are going to get lost in translation for the non-linguists, but much of the utterly sinister collection is visual. And visceral, for that matter.
The Crime Museum is clearly aimed at the sort of demographic that enjoys walking through extensive cellars, looking at picture after picture of murder victims.
Yes, there are some bits on the sterling work of the police force, but the emphasis is certainly skewed towards rusty torture instruments, brutal weapons and photos of de-limbed torsos being dug up.
But sometimes it’s a refreshing change to settle in for a couple of hours of witch-burnings, violent confession extractions, lynch mobs and mummified heads in jars.
The whole thing is an engaging, morally ambiguous romp through Vienna’s criminal past. Much is ordered chronologically, with illustrated year-by-year and blow-by-blow accounts about the most newsworthy murders complimented by extensive profiles of the crooks. Lovely stuff.

Getting to the Crime Museum in Vienna, Austria

Nearest international airport: Vienna

Using public transport: Get bus number 5A or tram N. The museum is at Große Sperlgasse 24.

More information: Kriminalmuseum

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum – Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

The return of the freak show
In this day and age, a few fine old entertainments of the past border on taboo. The travelling freak show has long since been consigned to history; we’re encouraged to display sympathy towards the excessively tall, fat or hairy rather than point and coo. The bearded ladies of the 21st century will just shave it off, while the money-spinning grotesques can simply go under the surgeon’s knife.
However, there are a few last outposts of this bygone era still hanging on in there which haven’t been overrun by people pointing out that gawking at giants is a bit wrong, and, surprisingly, one of them can be found in the main shopping mall in Surfers Paradise, Australia.

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum
The Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum in Cavill Mall is packed with the weird, wonderful and downright bizarre. It’s got shrunken heads found in Ecuador, pictures of a woman who could insert a hubcap in her lip and a scale model of the tallest man who ever lived, complete with his size 37AA shoes.
Unfortunately, these discoveries were those of a rampant egomaniac. Robert Ripley was the man behind the antiquated newspaper column which the museum is based on, and you’re not allowed to forget it.
Despite him being a complete irrelevance to 99% of the people looking round, a disturbing percentage of the museum is dedicated to photos of him and his life story, complete with some truly clunky, nasty Americanised branding.
It’s a shame, because once beyond the ridiculous self-indulgence, there are some quite fascinating things to take in.

Napoleon’s signatures
Whilst full of seemingly random artefacts, the cabinets also have some intriguing bits of information. For example, amongst a selection of Napoleon’s signatures (all completely different, which no doubt caused havoc at the bank) is the titbit that the French battle fanatic invented the modern house numbering system. Never knew that…
And, while we’re on it, did you know that the human tongue doesn’t age? Well, that’s the sort of useless, but brilliant, information to expect.

17 inch dwarf
But it’s not facts that you come for; it’s freaks, and there are plenty of them. A Cyclops goat, a headless hen, a man with a wooden rail through his chest, and a 17 inch dwarf imprisoned in a parrot cage for treason. Ah, just like the good old days…

Getting to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum on the Gold Coast, Queensland

Nearest international airport: A close run thing between Brisbane International Airport and the Gold Coast airport at Coolangatta. Budget Airlines are beginning to run cheap international flights from there.

Using public transport: Take any bus going into the centre of Surfers Paradise.

More information: Ripley’s

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Bognor International Birdman Contest - Bognor Regis, England

Men (and women) were not born to fly, and should any further evidence of this be needed, then the annual Bognor International Birdman competition in Sussex, England is ample proof.
Held on the first weekend of September every year, this is a contest between eccentrics, fancy dress enthusiasts and wannabe aviation pioneers to see who can fly the furthest after running off Bognor's pier.
Some take it rather seriously, spending a small fortune adapting their hang-gliders into fancy flying machines. Alas, these noble inventors rarely get much further than the comedy entrants dressed as fairies, pirates, library books and cowering donkeys.
Any competitor that manages to fly 100m off the pier under their own power wins a GBP25,000 prize.
However, the contest has been going since 1971, and no-one has yet managed to conquer that distance.
So, while there is a vague element of serious competition, the whole event is largely about giving the general public a chance to watch a lot of people in silly costumes making an exhibition of themselves.
And getting very wet.

Getting to Bognor Regis, England

Nearest international airport: London Gatwick is the closest, although Bournemouth and London Heathrow are fairly accessible from Bognor Regis.

Using public transport: Bognor Regis is in Sussex, on the the south coast of England. The nearest major city is Brighton, from which there are regular buses and trains. However, there are also regular trains from Central London and Clapham Junction station, from where the journey should take just over an hour.

More details: Bognor Internationial Birdman Official Site

Monday, 29 September 2008

Water-jousting in Languedoc, France

At some point in the distant past, the French decided that you don’t need a horse to be a knight in shining armour, and the truly bizarre sport of water jousting was born.
Practiced increasingly across France, it involves two groups of eight rowers powering their champion down the river.
Perched on a heightened platform, the two jousters are armed with a lance and a shield and expected to prod, swing and defend until one of them is knocked off, preferably into the river.
For some reason, the boats also contain a drummer and someone playing a modified oboe, but given that the rest of it makes little sense, who cares? Oh yes, and they’re all singing too.
Languedoc is regarded as the home of water jousting, and while it also happens elsewhere, this is often with ultra-safe lances, and a lot of the pageantry taken out.
The most prestigious tournament is held in Sète on August 25th every year, but events can be stumbled across throughout the summer.

More information: Rules and dates can be found at the Fédération Française de Joutes et Sauvetage Nautique’s website.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The world's craziest vanity projects

The world’s craziest vanity projects

One of the great privileges of power is that you get to splash the cash on whatever you like. However, some rulers are more responsible than others, and for every one that will spend it on public services, there’s another that will build a giant golden palace. Whilst they may not be great for the long-suffering subjects, these massive vanity projects certainly have a wow factor that should impress even the most cynical visitor.

The Basilica of of Our Lady of Peace: The world’s biggest Christian place of worship in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire.

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania: Dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s grand folly, for which he destroyed up to a fifth of his capital city.

Rungnado May Day Stadium, Pyongyang, North Korea: The biggest sporting arena in the world

Palace of Versailles in France: Louis XIV’s extravagant seat of government.

The Neutrality Arch in Ashgabat: A giant monument to Turkmenistan’s President For Life, Saparmurat Niyazov, complete with rotating gold statue.

Mafra National Palace, Portugal: The lavish palace, built with Brazilian gold, that almost bankrupted a nation.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Great Gorilla Run in London, England

There’s nothing better to send traffic veering into bollards than the sight of a thousand gorillas rampaging through the streets of London, brandishing bananas as weapons.
Ostensibly run to raise funding for the protection of gorillas in Africa, most of the Great Gorilla Run’s participants are clearly there for the chance to get dressed up in a ridiculous costume and monkey about for the cameras.
The costumes don’t stop at the gorilla outfit either – most taking on the 7km run adapt their outfit to add an extra dimension; hence the gladiator gorillas, Baywatch gorillas and ballet dancing gorillas pouring over Tower Bridge. The Great Gorilla Run takes place in September each year.
Check the official site for more information.

Getting there to the Great Gorilla Run in London, England

Nearest international airport: The event takes place in the City of London, so London Heathrow and London City are nearest airports, although London Luton, London Gatwick and London Stansted aren’t far away.

Using public transport: The event takes place in the City of London, so London Heathrow and London City are nearest airports, although London Luton, London Gatwick and London Stansted aren’t far away.

More details: Great Gorilla Run Official Site

Friday, 26 September 2008

Daly Waters Pub in Australia’s Northern Territory

Remember to stop at the traffic lights

The Northern Territory town of Daly Waters, miles from anywhere, has a big history, an iconic pub and a very irritating set of traffic lights.
We’ve all been there. Trapped at a red light for seemingly decades for no apparent reason, tapping on the steering wheel in an increasing frenzy of impatience and silently berating the idiot who is in charge of traffic flow.
Well, if the whole waiting at the lights thing winds you up, then it’s probably best to avoid the Northern Territory town of Daly Waters. Outside the local pub is what the residents proudly boast is the world’s most remote set of traffic lights. You’ve got to give them that – there probably isn’t another one for at least 500km in any direction, and the chances of there being enough traffic to cause a nasty snarl up at the crossroads is even more remote. No, congestion control and accident prevention aren’t the priorities in this little backwater; it’s all about entertainment. Much to the howling amusement of those who set it up, the lights are permanently set to red in an attempt to trick as many visitors as possible as they foolishly slow down and wait for green. It is, quite literally, a tourist trap.

World famous pub

The town is most famous for its pub, and quite rightly so. It is truly something special, and is covered in what can only be described as tat from across the world. Business cards, postcards, foreign currency, passport photographs, driving licences… By the looks of it, most that have visited have left something behind, and it has been put up on the walls, crammed between bus tickets, train passes and rather unpleasant-looking underwear. Well, you wouldn’t leave your best pair behind, would you? Even so, it’s so dusty, shapeless and discoloured that you’d struggle to believe anyone would wear in the first place.

Visitors from Chile to Berlin

That so much from around the world has come together in such a remote place is staggering. Student cards from Chile mix with Berlin underground tickets and scenic photos of Galway countryside sit alongside rather less scenic pictures of maple leaf tattoos on a Canadian bottom. You could spend hours strolling around, reading everything, and notching up the nationalities. If you ever fancy a quick round-the-world trip, or a spot of identity fraud, then this is the place to come. During the day, the tour buses stop by, and another set of visitors from around the world gets to leave their mark. The locals look on somewhat bemused but they’ve long since got used to the strange procession of litterbug foreigners. It’s almost as entertaining as watching the people at the lights

Big barbecue and fresh barramundi

The evening is when the Daly Waters pub really comes into its own, though. That’s when the big barbie comes out and new-fangled things such as vegetarianism are mercilessly shunned. Salad is what food eats in this neck of the woods, although there will be a sprinkling of it available. Frankly you don’t need lettuce leaves when the steaks are top quality and the barramundi is fresh out of the river. Once you’ve tasted it, you won’t really care too much about the traffic anyway.

Getting to The Daly Waters pub

Nearest International Airport: Darwin, but that’s a fair trek.
Using public transport: Forget it – either rent a car or join a tour between Darwin and Alice Springs. Daly Waters is 7km off the Stuart Highway, 275km south of Katherine.

More information: Daly Waters Pub

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Play or watch Pétanque in France

For a stereotypical image of France, aside from a man in a stripy shirt with onions round his neck underneath the Eiffel tower, you cannot beat a game of boules.
Ah... old men - preferably wearing berets and smoking pipes - leisurely lobbing metal balls into a sandpit in the afternoon sunshine.
The idea is fairly simple, and is closely related to the British version of bowling. The closer you get to the small jack, the better.
Pétanque is the more simplified version of boules, and originated in the south of the country, where it is more prevalent. Ostensibly, it is played for fun, although it doesn’t take much watching to realise that this isn’t the case. At even the lowest level, it is regarded as a game of precision and technique, and this has a tendency to fuel male pride.
It’s important to bear this in mind if you fancy a game. A complete stranger is unlikely to offer you the chance to play, while if you buy your own set of boules, consider the serious looks on the faces around you before treating it as a raucous lark in the local Boulodrome.
Should you wish to watch, then Grenoble is something of a hotspot. The city at the foot of the Alps has held three of the last five World Championships in the sport, hosting competitors from 52 nations.
However, for a dip into history, try the small village of La Ciotat. Just outside Marseille, this is where the game originated.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Beatles tour in Liverpool, England

Few cities play on their musical heritage as much as Liverpool does, but it has good reason to boast. Amongst many other bands ancient and modern, Liverpool was the birthplace of The Beatles, and there are plenty of sights linked to the Fab Four within the city.
Many of these are covered by the Magical Mystery Tour, which visits the houses that John, Paul, George and Ringo grew up in, as well as famous landmarks from their songs. It stops outside the most famous Salvation Army prayer centre in the world – Strawberry Field was formerly a children’s home near John’s childhood home - as well as Penny Lane.
It also visits St Peter’s Church, which hosted the festival where John and Paul met for the first time. Eleanor Rigby’s tombstone can be found in the graveyard.
The tour finishes off at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. This is a reconstruction on the site of the original venue, but with its basement archways and cramped stage it’s brilliantly atmospheric. It’s not difficult to imagine what it would be like in the early 1960s when the Beatles played one of their 275 gigs.
Spare a thought, though, for the poor souls that live next to the childhood houses of the Fab Four. They must get sick of the visitors prowling around with cameras.

Getting to Liverpool, England

Nearest international airport: Many budget airline and domestic UK flights go Liverpool John Lennon airport, but from further afield, the most convenient major airport is just over an hour away in Manchester.

More information: The Magical Mystery Tour leaves daily from the Albert Dock.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Berry, New South Wales – Australia’s Novelty Shop Town

Pity the poor resident of Berry, Australia who wants a loaf of bread and bottle of milk. For such a small town, it has the most bewildering array of shopping. However, the amount of things that are actually useful can be counted on one hand. A disfigured hand, at that.
For some unknown reason, any Australian that has every dreamed of selling something of such narrow interest that there isn’t possibly a market for it has descended on Berry, and they are thriving.
A ramble down Queen Street in the New South Wales town is truly enthralling. You can buy sundials, cuckoo clocks, lizards made out of recycled metal and a ceramic biscuit jar in the shape of an elephant in high heels, sitting on an armchair. Are people actually buying this stuff?
If not, they are certainly not buying the fountain with two pigs playing tongue tennis inside it, the big furry owl in the castle turret, the acres of fake fruit and jester outfits.
It is all quite, quite surreal. Berry is the epitome of quaint, from the ye olde buildings to the bales of hay on the pavement of the high street. It’s undeniably gripping too, especially for those fond of people watching.
The British tourists are easy to spot – they’re the ones raiding the sweet shop and taking out the entire supply of biscuits thought long extinct. Then there’s those browsing the shops. Is anyone going to buy the granny nighties that everyone seems to have on prominent display? And perhaps more intriguingly, is anyone going to be fooled by an antiques shop that contains a glass model of the Sydney Opera House (opened in the ancient year of 1973)?

Getting to Berry, New South Wales, Australia

Nearest International Airport: Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

Using Public Transport: Berry is about 2 ½ hours drive south of Sydney. It is also on the South Coast train line from Sydney Central.

More information: Berry Website

Monday, 22 September 2008

Hotel Kafi Schnaps in Zurich, Switzerland. The Schnapps-themed hotel

The Hotel Kafi Schnaps in Zurich is essentially a coffee shop/ schnapps bar with a few rooms tacked on. In a building owned by a university fencing club (which still practices in the basement), it’s delightfully sketchy and laissez-faire. Go in and ask to see the accommodation, and there’s a high chance that the staff have even forgotten the rooms are there.
But they are, and they’re themed to a ludicrous degree. Each one is based on a different flavour of schnapps. This means that the plum room has little purple cushions bulging randomly out of the wall, while the kirsch (black cherry) one has a carpet designed to look like wood chippings and has pink-rimmed trees painted all over the shop. This is, it seems, regarded as being perfectly normal.
A word of warning – Kafi Schnaps is very much budget accommodation, one step above a hostel. That means a shared bathroom, alas, but who cares when you’re in the only room in the world designed with the Williams Pear as inspiration?

Getting to Kafi Schaps in Zurich, Switzerland

Nearest international airport: That’d be Zurich International Airport then.

Using public transport: Get the regular train in from the airport, then the tram from near the main station. Kafi Schnaps is just north of Zurich city centre.

More details: Kafi Schnaps website

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Visit Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee

Of all the world’s musical pilgrimage sites, Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion has to be the best known shrine. Hundreds of thousands flock to the rather impressive complex in Memphis, Tennessee to pay homage to The King every year, and while there are vague pretences at keeping it dignified, this is Elvis we’re talking about – subtlety doesn’t really factor in.
There’s a hell of a lot to see at Graceland, and the basic package gets you a tour of the gardens and rooms where old snakehips lived.
However, go for the full works and you can get as much Elvis as you can possibly handle. On top of the usual tour, you can visit his own private automobile museum and have a mooch around two of his planes.
Even more bizarrely, you can also check out 56 of his OTT stage outfits in a special area devoted to Elvis’ Jumpsuits. Perhaps the highlight of the VIP tour is getting the chance to look at many items that were personal to Elvis. These include gifts he gave to his parents and the deeds to Graceland.

More information at Elvis.com

Saturday, 20 September 2008

World’s Oldest Museums – Musei Capitolini in Rome, Italy

Unsurprisingly, the prestige of being the oldest building containing old things is fought over quite vigorously by people who should perhaps know better.
Anyway, just about every place housing a dusty old relic will claim to be the oldest museum by inserting some kind of sub-clause, but the most convincing argument comes from the Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums) in Rome, Italy.
They go back to 1471, although they would have been admittedly a pretty poor effort back then, containing only some bronze statues donated by Pope Sixtus IV.
It was 1734 before the museums opened to the public, and is now home to a wealth of artefacts from the Roman Empire, as well as various impressive sculptures.

More information: Musei Capitolini

Clog Barn and Little Holland in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia

In a country with such an obvious European heritage, it is only natural that some things will have come over from that continent with the settlers. Some of these are obvious – everyone speaks English, whilst just about every town in Australia will have an Irish pub, Italian restaurant and Greek kebab house.
However, every now and then you come across a glorious little pocket that has not tried to blend into the multi-cultural surroundings, and is absolute determined to retain the characteristics of the motherland.
For no discernable reason, completely at odds with the surrounding towns, you will stumble upon oompah bands in German villages in the Adelaide Hills (Hahndorf), or Spanish monastic communities an hour’s drive away from Perth (New Norcia).

Little Holland
Deserving a special mention for sheer bloody-mindedness, however, is Little Holland near Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. Clearly unable to persuade the rest of the area that they should build cannabis cafes, stick their fingers in dykes and revel in red light districts, proud Dutchman Tom Hartsuyker has cornered off his own piece of (flat) land, and has filled it with every other national stereotype he can think of.
The result is a 1/20 scale model village built over five tedious years, and it is a work of truly breathtaking pointlessness. Still, if making miniature windmills keeps him out of trouble and off the streets, then fair play to him.
Just in case that’s not quite Dutch enough, it is attached to a clog barn. Happily ignoring the fact that no-one, even in Holland, has worn clogs for roughly 200 years, they are on sale here.
At 11am and 4pm every day, there are clog-making demonstrations. Again, they are strangely endearing, even if everyone is looking at each other, sniggering under their hands and scratching their foreheads.

Getting to the Clog Barn and Little Holland, Coffs Harbour

Nearest International Airport: Coffs Harbour has its own airport, but it only receives domestic flights. Coffs itself is roughly half way between Sydney and Brisbane, and thus a long drive from either. The best option is to fly into Sydney Kingsford Smith and then get a connecting flight.

Within Coffs Harbour: The Clog Barn and Little Holland is on the north side of Coffs Harbour, on the highway out of town – on the way to The Big Banana. Entry to the Clog Barn and the demonstrations are free, but you’ll have to fork out to see the model village and railway.

More information: The Clog Barn

Friday, 19 September 2008

Hotel Otter – theme hotel in Zurich, Switzerland

The fantastically barking Hotel Otter in Zurich, Switzerland deserves showering with awards for its name alone.
Entry is through the downstairs bar. It has a cow bone for a door handle and a plastic snake in a ‘desert oasis’ near the air vent.
There are 22 rooms in the hotel, and two of them are completely overhauled every year. Sometimes they let artists and designers do them, sometimes DJs. And then sometimes they just let the staff loose with silly ideas they dreamt up over a few too many stiff drinks in the pub. The results are brilliantly bonkers rooms such as Number 501, which has ‘1001 Nights’ scrawled on the door and a full-on Arabian Nights décor inside. Star-spangled blue minarets adorn the gold-painted walls, while liberal lashings of Arabic script, distinctly Middle Eastern furniture and a four-poster bed that screams Scheherezade top things off nicely.
Other rooms include Heaven and Hell (where peaceful blue walls decorated with angels are offset by a blood red bed and flames made of wood), Pop, Monroe and Japan. A word of warning for anyone booking into Carmen, however: you had better really like pink…

Getting to Hotel Otter, Zurich, Switzerland

Nearest international airport: Zurich International Airport, Switzerland.

Using public transport: Either take a 15-20 minute walk from Zurich’s main station or hop on a train or tram down to Bellevue.

More details: Hotel website

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Royal Winery in Vaduz, Liechtenstein

There is wine-tasting, and then there is wine-tasting in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. The tiny Alpine principality has the world’s smallest wine industry. There’s just the one winery, and that’s owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein.
According to United Nations figures, Liechtenstein produces just 80 tonnes of wine per year. For a sense of perspective, compare that to the five million churned out by France. Or, even better, the 77,000 and 45,000 produced by Algeria and Uzbekistan respectively.
Turn up any time outside of the summer, and it seems a ridiculous proposition. The vineyard is overrun by goats, and is in the foothills of some terribly large snow-covered mountains. Hardly the perfect terroir for viticulture...
But rock up at the Hofkellerei (the winery of the Princely Court) in Vaduz and you get to sample one of the most exclusive wines in the world for free. The pinot noir is sold only in Vaduz. And, believe it or not, it’s absolutely sensational.

Getting to Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Nearest international airport: Liechtenstein doesn’t have an airport, so the nearest is in Zurich, Switzerland.
Using public transport: Get the train from Zurich’s main railway station to Sargans or Buchs on the border. From there, a lime green post bus goes to Vaduz and stops near the Hofkellerei.

More details: Hofkellerei

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Anglesea Golf Club in Anglesea, Victoria, Australia: Golf with kangaroos

There is an exceptionally good reason why no mega-money golf tournament will ever be played at Anglesea Golf Club at the start of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
The course, about 115km south west of Melbourne, is absolutely teeming with kangaroos. They are as much a hazard of playing there as sand traps, water hazards and sadistically placed pins.
In the early morning and late afternoon in particular, there can be up to 100 of them on the course, hopping across fairways and stopping for a chat on the greens. To the members and locals, they’re an accepted extra dimension to the game.
Many have been hit on the head after not paying attention to the cry of “fore”, and club legend has it that a drive once landed in a pouch, with the lucky recipient nonchalantly bouncing away. Whether it was decided that this warranted a penalty shot is not quite clear.
Green fees at the club are quite cheap, so visitors wanting to try and dodge Skippy are welcome to have a go.

Getting to Anglesea Golf Club, Australia

Nearest international airport: Melbourne International Airport at Tullamarine, Melbourne, Victoria. That said, Avalon Airport near Geelong is closer for domestic flights within Australia.
Using public transport: Get the train (or bus) from Melbourne to Geelong, and then the V-Line train to Anglesea.

More details: Anglesea Golf Club Website

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Republique du Saugeais in France

The not-so-grand République du Saugeais is perhaps the only ‘country’ in the world that started as a joke.
In Eastern France, near the Swiss border, Saugeais started on its road to independence when a local hotelier jokingly asked the visiting regional prefect if he had a passport to enter.
The prefect then went and researched the area’s history and decided it should indeed be independent. He declared the hotelier to be the president.
And so a proud micronation was born, although there’s not really all that much to see.
Two retired farmers in fancy uniform man the border, while highlights for visitors include Montbenoît Abbey, lots of rolling countryside and plenty of cheese makers churning out the national cheese. Just don’t forget your passport

Monday, 15 September 2008

Mouth of Truth in Rome, Italy

Made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, La Bocca della Verità is perhaps the only former manhole cover in the world that acts as a polygraph test.
Standing outside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin near the Ponte Palatino in Rome, Italy, it supposedly catches out liars.
The old manhole cover takes the form of a human face carved into stone, and it has a small stone hole in which the brave can put their hand, and then make a statement. Should your words be the truth, you will be able to pull your hand out with no effect.
Should you tell a dastardly, wicked lie – and now is probably not the time to continue your line about how the hamster died or how much that bargain pair of shoes cost – the mouth will snap shut and bite your hand off. There must be a lot of honest people around, as there is no pile of amputated fingers to be seen on the floor beneath.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle near Cork, Ireland

Thousands of people every year throw hygiene to the wind in order to kiss Ireland’s famous Blarney Stone, which is supposed to bestow the gift of the gab on anyone who puckers up to it.
The origins of the stone, which can be found at Blarney Castle near Cork, are shrouded in mystery and even the owners of the castle can’t give a definitive explanation.
Some say it was the stone Moses struck to produce water for the Israelites as they fled Egypt, some say it was part of the old king’s throne, which had magical powers. Add another few hundred explanations into the mix, and the stone itself becomes a great storyteller. Whether you will be after smooching it is open to debate.
What many don’t realise is that managing to kiss the stone requires a bit of a contortion act – it’s not in a particularly convenient location, so expect to stretch and twist.

Getting to Blarney Castle, Ireland
Nearest international airport: Cork has a small airport which takes some international flights (usually with budget airlines). Most visitors will probably fly into Dublin, however.
Using public transport: From the bus station on Parnell Place in Cork, take the 224 bus. The journey takes around twenty minutes.

More information: Blarney Castle website

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Hutt River Principality, Australia

Being the leader of a nation has got to be a tough job. No matter what you do, everyone seems to think you’re screwing them over, and you’ve got all those nasty vital decisions that affect the future of the world to make. Then again, you can have a bit of fun raiding the state coffers and imposing laws that suit you. No more short people holding umbrellas at eye poking-out height, the Black Eyed Peas outlawed, and all trustafarians with dreadlocks who bang on about Thailand could be jailed without trial.
It’s all just ponderings and contemplation though. Most of us will never be in that position anyway unless we take the lead of Leonard Casley.
You’ve probably not heard of him, but he is otherwise known as Prince Leonard, and he rules a micronation called The Hutt River Principality, which is about the size of Hong Kong. Not exactly a major player on the world scene, this self-declared state is nestled within the confines of Western Australia, and its story is pretty damn cool.

History of the Hutt River Principality
Back in 1969, Casley was merely a disgruntled wheat farmer who was pissed off about harsh quotas being imposed upon him. Whilst most farmers would have written letters to their MP, Casley took a more drastic course of action, and declared his land an independent nation. After searching through obscure British laws, he decided that it was perfectly legal to do this, and neither the Western Australian Government nor the Australian Federal Government has sent in the troops to take the land back. It remains the only bloodless secession in history, although the arguments still rumble on. In 1997, Hutt River Principality actually declared war on Australia after another petty squabble, but Canberra couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

Hutt River Principality today
What started as a reproach for the people in charge has now snowballed into something very strange. There are over 13,000 citizens of Hutt River Principality worldwide (although very few actually live there), and the breakaway principality has issued currency, stamps and passports. Companies can be registered there, in a similar fashion to those who register iffy businesses in the Cayman Islands to avoid people finding anything out about them. It’s also become a bit of a tourist curiosity.


Getting to Hutt River Principality, Western Australia
About 90km up the main road from Geraldton is where you’ll find the turn off, and you’ll not meet with any border controls. You can, however, get your passport stamped, and buy tacky souvenirs from a shop, where you’ll more than likely be served by Princess Shirley, the wife of the self-proclaimed Prince. Now, how often have you been sold a postcard by a member of a Royal Family?

More information on the Hutt River Province and acquiring dual citizenship.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Serial Killer Museum in Florence, Italy

Saying hi to Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy looks like such a pleasant young man. He’s well dressed, has a lovely car and sports a suitably sensible haircut. Just a shame he had to kill all those people, really.
Standing next to Ted’s waxwork model is just the tip of the iceberg, however. As his story is recounted in frighteningly specific detail through the headphones, a quick scan of the room confirms that bigger horrors await. Such as Aileen Wournos and Jeffrey Dahmer
The Serial Killer Museum in Florence, Italy does exactly what it says on the tin; lots of gore, blood, weaponry and vile misdeeds. And, as such, it is by far the most entertaining thing in the city.
The level of research is commendable. Mass murderers from around the world have been collated, and their stories told. Occasionally it comes across as a rather sick game of Top Trumps, with signs comparing factors such as Number of Victims and Modus Operandi.

John Wayne Gacy’s bedroom
It’s hard to work out whether the visuals or the audio is more disturbing. There are electric chairs, model psychopaths locked in cages and a painstaking recreation of John Wayne Gacy’s bedroom (complete with him in a clown outfit). All jolly pleasant, especially when added to the commentary. It’s no exaggeration to say that you could sit there listening to it for hours, and it goes into the mindset of the killers, what it would have been like for their victims and the methods that police used to track them down. With shameless sensationalism, it regularly uses phrases like “beastly fury”, “signature from hell” and “the assassin can appear from nowhere... AT ANY TIME!”

History of serial killing
It’s not a cheap, morally dubious cash-in, though – it is genuinely well done. There’s a sense of context and history – French slaughterers and Hungarian vampiresses from as far back as the 15th century also get covered – whilst there is also a big emphasis put on how such crimes are solved and dealt with. This includes methods of punishment, with the tales of lethal injection tables and electric chairs gone wrong accompanied by real-life (decommissioned) dispatch mechanisms to gawp at.
And, for these reasons, a bizarre serenity envelopes the museum, completely at odds with the subject matter. It’s quite clear that most of the visitors are frazzled and harried from a day of hardcore tourism in a fairly unrelenting city. The opportunity to sit down in a nice chair and listen to the theories about Jack The Ripper while Charles Manson stares at you is, oddly, a very welcome one.
Who’d have thought the Butcher of Rostov would make better company than Michaelangelo’s David?

Getting to the Serial Killer Museum in Florence
The Serial Killer Museum is part of the Museo Criminale on Via Cavour in Florence. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk away from the Duomo.

Nearest international airport: Florence.

The world’s oldest pub – Sean’s Bar in Athlone, Republic of Ireland

It’s a fairly time-honoured tradition that any pub with a cobweb and peeling paint will make spurious claims about its age in a bit to show just how authentic it is. Therefore, judging the world’s oldest pub is a nigh-on impossible task.
However, that establishment is largely thought to be within the British Isles, and Guinness World Records rates Sean’s Bar in Athlone, County Westmeath, Republic of Ireland as the most ancient.
The establishment claims to date back to AD900, and has remnants of bygone days scattered around the place to prove it. Just make sure you take a pinch of salt with your pint of stout.
Sean’s Bar can be found on Main Street, Athlone.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Whangamomona – New Zealand’s breakaway republic

The tiny hamlet of Whangamomona on New Zealand’s North Island is independent in more than just spirit.
Whangamomona’s feisty inhabitants weren’t having any of it when local council boundaries were shifted in 1988. The settlement was due to move from the Taranaki region to Manawutu, but the locals realised that this would mean playing rugby for the detested rivals.
This was clearly not going to happen, so they decided to declare the village an independent republic.
Despite having an outdoor toilet as a border guard, the ‘republic’ boasts its own president and even has its own national beer. That said, two of the previous presidents have been a goat and a poodle.
Every second January Whangamomona holds independence celebrations, and of the many events, it’s apparently the sheep races that generate the most enthusiasm. They’re not independent enough from New Zealand to not get excited about sheep, after all.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Dog Collar Museum in Leeds Castle, Kent, England

Within the walls of one of England’s most popular tourist attractions – Leeds Castle in Kent this collection of canine neckwear is proudly billed as the only one of its kind in Great Britain.
It’s difficult to imagine there being a frantic clamour to create some serious competition on this score, but it’s an undeniably impressive collection. If you’re into that sort of thing.
There are over 100 intricately engraved and sculpted dog collars in the museum, be they for hunting hounds or domestic pooches. All seem specifically designed to make that scraggy bit of leather around Fido’s neck look tatty and common.
Rumours that the only visitors are vicars and fetish club owners are consistently denied, although it is difficult to see what sort of travellers such an odd museum is trying to attract.
Entry to the Dog Collar Museum is included in the entrance fee to Leeds Castle.

More information: Leeds Castle

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Muzeum Miniatur in Prague, Czech Republic

Consisting of little more than a room with a series of microscopes to look through, there can be few more impressively pointless museums than this celebration of the tiny in the Czech capital.
In some respects, however, the art on display in Prague’s Muzeum Miniatur is far more of an achievement than anything displayed in the great galleries. Who needs the Mona Lisa in the Louvre when you can get a picture of Jesus on a poppy seed? Why would anyone choose to vast collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, when they can upgrade to a portrait of Beethoven on an apple pip?
There are other such ludicrous masterpieces, featuring trains on a single hair, being passed through the eye of a needle or John Lennon.
But perhaps the most bizarre thing of all about this museum of frankly pointless art is that it is so understated. It’s essentially a medium-sized room with a sign outside, containing a few microscopes and magnifying glasses to look through.
There’s no fuss, no wild promotion, just a polite invitation to come in and have a look if you happen to be in the vicinity.

Getting to the Muzeum Miniatur in Prague

Nearest international airport: Prague’s international airport acts as the main entrance for foreign visitors into the Czech Republic.
By public transport: The Muzeum Miniatur is near Prague Castle – walkable from the city centre. The nearest metro station is Malastranska

More information: Muzeum Miniatur website

Monday, 8 September 2008

National Piping Centre in Glasgow, Scotland: Learn to play the bagpipes

Celebrating possibly the world’s most melodic instrument, the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, Scotland contains a small museum devoted to bagpipes.
And, boy does it go into detail about the Scottish aural torture weapon of choice. Whether it’s the origin of bagpipes, different playing styles or differences between Scottish and European pipes, the museum has all the information anyone could possibly wish for.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is just how old bagpiping is as a highly dubious ‘musical’ art form. Whether it’s the Celts or the Balkans, for centuries it has been the favoured noise-producer for peasants, shepherds and other people clearly not talented enough to get a record contract.
Those wishing to get a bit more into the caterwauling can book themselves in for bagpiping lessons.
And then, once enough lessons have been taken and your bagpiping skills are up there with the best, expect divorce proceedings to start quickly.

Getting to the National Piping Centre

Nearest international airport: Glasgow International Airport. Or, if you enjoy the famously pleasant service offered by Ryanair and its army of growling underpaid stewardesses, Glasgow Prestwick.
Using public transport: The National Piping Centre is within easy walking distance of both Glasgow Central and Queen Street railway stations. The same applies to the Buchanan bus station.

More information: National Piping Centre

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Hobbit House bar in Manila, Philippines

Anyone who says they don’t fancy a jar or two in this bar is a complete liar... the Hobbit House in Manila is staffed entirely by midgets.
Just in case your conscience is twanging at the thought of this, don’t fret, it’s not some kind of exploitative venture cruelly targeted at diminutive Filipinos.
The Hobbit House was set up by the little people themselves in order to give themselves work, and it’s proved incredibly popular.
It has a reputation of being a somewhat smoky drinking den, and also has regular live music performances which see it turn into a somewhat sweaty, smoky drinking den. Previous acts include Little Richard and Heather Small. OK, so that last bit is a lie.
The Hobbit House can be found at 1801 A. Manibi Street, Manila, The Philippines.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Teddy Bear Museum in Wimbledon, London, England

Quite why the bear has gained this soft image is inexplicable. Try cuddling up to one in the wild, and it’s one big clawfest. Blood, tattered clothes, internal haemorrhaging and probably being consumed alive await if you try and take a grizzly to bed with you.
Still, the less damaging versions have been regarded as the perfect bedside companions for decades, and many have been saved from a lonely fate in adult attics by England’s Teddy Bear Museum.
Originally in Stratford-upon-Avon, the museum moved its 700-strong collection to the Polka Theatre on Wimbledon Broadway, London in 2007. They missed a trick – they could have taken Paddington back to his rightful home.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating collection, dating back centuries. And the old tatty fellas have considerably more charm then the bright pink concoctions with movable parts that children choke on today.

Getting to the Teddy Bear Museum
Nearest International Airport:
London Heathrow.
Using public transport: On the London Underground, take the District Line to Wimbledon, or use the Overground service to the same station. Turn left as you get out of the station and walk for about ten minutes to the Polka Theatre.

More information: Teddy Bear Museum website

Friday, 5 September 2008

Clinic Bar, Clarke Quay, Singapore: Hospital theme bar

Sometimes wildly expensive drinks are worth it, purely for the comedy value. And nowhere is this more true than at Clinic in Singapore.
Inside an extremely extravagant indoor shopping and entertainment precinct at Clarke Quay, Clinic is Singapore’s premier (and only) hospital theme bar. And it takes things to almost tasteless extremes.
The cocktails are presented in various innovative manners — whether it's in a blood bag attached to a drip that you suck through a straw or test tubes, but they taste darn good. Shame they cost the GDP of a developing nation, really.
The most fun to be had, however, is with the seats. Instead of a boring old bar stool, you get hospital wheelchairs to whizz about on.
Now in a real hospital, this would the sort of behaviour that would invite some severe tutting and castigation from matronly nursing harridans, but here the staff just roll their eyes until a whole tableful of beers goes crashing over.
Just mind you don't bump into other patients, and you’ll be alright though.

Getting to Clinic Bar in Singapore

Nearest international airport: Singapore Changi.
Using public transport: Clinic is a short walk from Clarke Quay Station.

More information: Clinic bar

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Alchemy Museum in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Turning base metals into gold is something that has occupied the minds and wallets of the rich and powerful for centuries, and it appears as though not everyone has given up on this pursuit entirely.
The Alchemy Museum, perched above the tourist information office in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic is quite clearly run by one of them. Dressed in garments more suited to a raving hippy than a serious scientist, he has put together a little darkened dungeon that explores the history and aims of alchemy. And it all looks a little bit like a mad scientist's laboratory.
We may mock now, but in times past it was held in as high regard as physics or chemistry. Visitors can learn about kings, dukes and princes that were obsessed with discovering the Elixir of Youth, as well as the meanings of Da Vinci Code-esque mumbo-jumbo like the Philosopher's Stone and Emerald Tablet.
Most of it is predictably unfathomable. After all, if richly-funded alchemists don't know what they're looking for, how are we supposed to know? However, it's a strangely fascinating jaunt through something most people thought died out a long time ago.
Better still, if visitors turn up when it's quiet (which is probably most days - the joint is hardly a major tourist draw), the curator will wander round the museum with them and spin all manner of unlikely stories.

Getting to Kutna Hora

Nearest international airport: Prague, Czech Republic.
Using public transport: It's around an hour on the bus from Prague. The Kutná Hora bus station is just to the north-east of the town's main square. That square is where visitors can find the Tourist Information Centre and Alchemy Museum.

More details: Kutna Horá Alchemy Museum Official Website

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Pencil Museum in Cumbria, England

The Lake District in Cumbria, Northern England is one of the most beautiful places on earth, perfect for walking through marvellous scenery.
But if it’s raining – and it drizzles/ hammers down almost permanently in the Lake District - indoor attractions are needed. Cleverly, the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick has exploited this gap in the market, pitching itself to frustrated walkers and utter dullards.
Billing itself as the “Perfect All-Weather Attraction”, the museum celebrates 350 years of pencil-making in the area. It include a reconstruction of the mine where the graphite for the pencils is dug out, as well as packaging from yesteryear and the true highlight – the longest coloured pencil in the world.
It’s yellow, by the way.
Alas, its future is not looking too promising. Derwent, the pencil-making company that runs the museum as an add-on, has moved elsewhere in Cumbria to Lillyhall. It’s not known whether it will continue to be viable to have a pencil museum in Keswick. If, of course, it was ever viable in the first place.

Getting to Keswick
Nearest international airport:
Liverpool John Lennon, Manchester, Newcastle, Durham Tees-Valley and Glasgow Prestwick are all within a couple of hours’ drive.
Using public transport: Get to Penrith or Workington by train, then take the X4 or X5 bus to Keswick.

More information: Cumberland Pencil Museum

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Fingerhut Museum in Creglingen, Germany

It is forgivable to think that there isn’t much demand for thimbles any more – after all, not many people need to protect their fingers whilst darning their own clothes these days – but in this small corner of Germany, they’re regarded as an art form.
The Fingerhut Museum has hundreds of them, some 850-year old relics and some elaborately painted and jewelled fashion pieces. For real fans, there are also plenty available for sale in the shop.
The ideal Christmas present for a hyperactive teenager, one would have thought.

More information: Fingerhut Museum

Monday, 1 September 2008

Green Hills Cafe in Chisinau, Moldova

It’s all very well having a couple of plants in the corner of the bar to add a natural feel, but Green Hills Café in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, takes things to excess. There are billowing pot plants all over the place and the entire outside of the building is painted bright green.
Oh yes, and there are four trees growing in the middle of the cafe, reaching up through a fabric roof, which looks to all intents and purposes as though a giant’s mattress has been flopped on top of the walls.
Aside from this rather Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque setting, the food’s pretty good (and reasonably cheap compared to some of the places clearly aimed at Russian oil oligarchs). More to the point, it’s one of the best places to hang out at, people-watching, on Moldova’s most upmarket street.

Getting to the Green Hills Cafe in Chisinau, Moldova
Nearest international Airport: Chisinau International Airport.
Address: 77 Stefan cel Mare si Sfint street – Look for Green Hills Nistru. It’s smack bang in the centre of the city, so walking distance for travellers staying in a relatively central location.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Padlocked bridges in Keila-Joa, Estonia

Keila-Joa in Estonia is an utterly charming little place. It’s essentially no more than a country pub next to a waterfall separated from deserted Baltic Sea beaches by a forest full of walking trails.
By the pub and waterfall, however, are a couple of rather unusual bridges.
Traversing the river, they are absolutely covered in padlocks of all shapes and sizes. A closer inspection of the padlocks reveals that they all have two names written on them (often in Cyrillic script, admittedly) and a date.
It’s a custom of the area’s Russian community – and one that is seemingly recreated across the former Soviet Union.
Newly-wed couples engrave their names on the lock, and then throw the key into the river. It’s supposed to symbolise that their bond will never be broken, and it’s rather touching to see how many people have come to the bridges to seal their union over the years. It’s all rather simple, but very romantic.

Getting to Keila-Joa, Estonia
Nearest International Airport:
Tallinn International Airport, Estonia
Using public transport: Mini-buses leave from Estonia Pst fairly regularly, although it’s best to ask at tourism information, as these things change regularly and Tallinn’s bus system is somewhat bewildering. It takes just under an hour to get to Keila-Joa.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Saddle Ranch in Los Angeles, California

The Saddle Ranch Chop House is a hugely popular but completely incongruous hotspot on LA's hottest stretch of road – Sunset Strip. It may be surrounded by iconic clubs like the Chateau Marmont and Whiskey-A-Go-Go, as well as the joints where the Hollywood set and their beautiful companions hang out, but Saddle Ranch is unquestionably the most fun.
It has a Wild West theme, which has been done before and isn't all that wacky, but it has one important addition.
The highlight is the bucking bronco in the corner of the bar, and it chucks off emboldened drunks throughout the night, surrounded by raucous fans and ill-wishers. Everyone thinks it's a bad idea to start with, but after a couple of beers, can't wait to take it on. And doing so almost inevitably ends with complete loss of dignity.

Getting to Saddle Ranch Chop House in Los Angeles, California
Nearest International Airport: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
Using public transport: The bar is at 8371 Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Buses number 2, 302 and 305 go past. But given that this is Los Angeles, it’s probably going to be far less painful to get a cab.

More information: Saddle Ranch website

Elvis Bar at Glasgow Prestwick Airport, Scotland

The King was popular across the world, and it doesn’t take much for cheeseburger-munching aficionados to set up something on an Elvis theme.
But the Elvis Bar at Glasgow Prestwick is odd purely because of its location. Memphis or Las Vegas would make sense, but the departure lounge of a minor Scottish airport?
But no, there it is, decked out in King paraphernalia and driving the poor bar staff crazy by playing a non-stop Best Of. One thing’s for certain, the poor souls staffing the bar won’t have Suspicious Minds as their karaoke song of choice.
Bemused passengers sit there, waiting for their flight and wondering what the hell is going on. That is unless they take the time to read the small notice which explains that Prestwick Airport was the only place in the UK that Presley set foot in. Nothing tenuous about that, huh?
Still, it’s better than the ubiquitous Wetherspoons outlets found in most UK airports, so it can be saluted for that alone.

Getting there:

Nearest international airport: Um, no, we don’t really need this bit, do we?

More information: History of Glasgow Prestwick Airport

Friday, 29 August 2008

Hard Day’s Night Hotel review – Beatles themed hotel in Liverpool, England

The Hard Day’s Night Hotel is a new luxury hotel in Liverpool, Merseyside, England. It opened in 2008 as part of the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations.

A dirty weekend with Ringo Starr?
“I’ve brought a scarf,” said The Good Lady, clearly pleased with her innovative solution to what had become a distressing potential problem.
“Why?”
“Just in case it’s Ringo,” she responded, with an air of conspiratorial wisdom. “The others I can cope with, but I’m not doing anything with Ringo looking down on me.”
Similar thoughts had gone through my mind, although a blindfold for Ringo was probably a little excessive. We were going for a dirty weekend in the world’s first Beatles-themed hotel, and weren’t really sure what to expect. The Hard Day’s Night Hotel has only just opened in Liverpool, and all we had to go on were a few rumours.

Beatles theme
Just how Beatles-themed would it be? The odd signed album cover in the lobby, or full-on regalia in each room? I was plagued by the image of looking up mid-flow to see Paul McCartney grinning, with his thumbs aloft. That sort of thing could scar for life.
And there were other hideous thoughts too. What if the TV suddenly burst to life with “A Little Help From My Friends” the moment that a few saucy extras were pulled out of the suitcase? Would there be Sgt Pepper dressing gowns? Or John and Yoko dolls in the bed on arrival?

Grade II listed building
Mercifully, it appears as though the taste police have largely held sway throughout the whole operation. The Hard Day’s Night is in a Grade II-listed building with marble columns and staircases, and gives off the air of a grand old hotel that has been given a modern twist.
The Beatles-theme is relatively prominent but unobtrusive. It’s feasible that the perpetually unobservant simply wouldn’t notice if they didn’t know in advance.

Statues of the Fab Four
The classic example of this is on the outside. There are four statues (no prizes for guessing who) adorning the building’s imposing facade, but they seem like they’re supposed to be there. A passing glance, and you probably wouldn’t twig it was the Fab Four, despite the guitars they’re holding.
Inside, it’s in the same vein. The staircase is lined by a stream of limited edition photos taken throughout the Beatles’ career, but that’s probably the most in-your-face aspect.

Modern-looking lobby
A modern look is in place for the lobby – a circumspect reception desk and some bold, stylish furniture. The rounded orange chairs would ordinarily not fit well in a building like this, but as everything from the lift to the rooms has been moulded to the contours of the building, everything looks just natural enough to pull off some of the odder quirks.
Throughout the lobby are cabinets containing memorabilia, such as the musical score for Yesterday, and there’s the odd totally incongruous artefact placed for a bit of fun. That’ll be the Yellow Submarine Jukebox then.

Blake’s restaurant in Liverpool
The restaurant – Blake’s - has a sleek modern-classic look to it, with the occasional maverick touch, such as the massive lights with seemingly hundreds of bulbs in. It’s named after Sir Peter Blake, the designer of the Sgt Pepper Album cover, and there’s a hanging wall of his photographs. All of them feature people who were on the world’s most famous record sleeve, and again it’s surprising that they seem to slip into the background.
The bar is a little more heart on sleeve, but the big splashy-paint pictures of the boys are pretty cool, and work nicely amongst the wavy chocolate carpet and settees melded into the wood panelling.

Expensive cocktails
However, it does strike the hotel’s first bum note. It’s trying to appear a lot classier than it is – there’s a £750 (AU$1,635) cocktail on the menu, and even the normal ones cost £8.95 (AU$19.50). That could work if they didn’t have tacky names like Honey Can’t Buy Me Love, Strawberry Fields With Pepper and Yellow Matter Custard. The latter isn’t even yellow.
Bar Four leans a little bit towards what a footballer’s wife would regard as classy. And, sad to say it, it’s impossible to get delusions of grandeur when the cocktail waitresses have broad Scouse accents.

What are the rooms like?
But let’s face it, no-one goes for a dirty weekend to spend their time looking at furnishings downstairs. It’s the rooms that count, and that’s where the true horrors potentially await.
We opened the door nervously, half expecting a movement sensor-triggered blast of “All You Need Is Love” as we crossed the threshold.

Facilities including wireless internet
Such fears were – unfortunately, for those of a more childish disposition - unfounded. The rooms are rather stylish, and mercifully subdued. All the mod cons are there – wireless internet, flat screen TV built into the wall, rain showers and heated towel rails in the bathroom – as well as a few neat extras. You can’t go wrong with a free fruit bowl, complimentary chocs and some posh biscuits near the coffee-making facilities.

Temperature control
There’s a computerised panel by the bed for light dimming/ turning off and temperature control. However, unless you’re made entirely of ice, you’ll probably need to open a window. Who in their right mind thinks that 22 to 28 degrees is a reasonable range of temperatures to sleep in? They may as well park a radiator under the bed.
In fact, we could only find two Beatles-themed touches. The first was on the bathtub’s showerhead – it’s shaped like a microphone, which is unquestionably dead cool.

Picture over the bed
The second, of course, was the picture over the bed.
“Praise George Harrison’s Sweet Lord... it’s not Ringo.”
It was Paul, but mercifully not the Frog’s Chorus and Mull Of Kintyre wacky thumbs version. A young, beardy incarnation, wearing something of the granddad cardigan, his gaze is averted from the bed. Good job there’s an alternative use for scarves...

Getting to the Hard Day’s Night Hotel in Liverpool, Merseyside, England
The Hard Day’s Night Hotel (Central Buildings, North John Street) is just around the corner from the famous Cavern Club in central Liverpool. It’s within easy walking distance of Liverpool Lime Street Station.

More information: Hard Day’s Night Hotel website

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