Thursday, 31 July 2008

Gibraltar - remnant of the British Empire

Gibraltar is one of the few remaining remnants of the British Empire, and very odd it is too. It is essentially a big rock tacked on to the bottom of Spain, but because it is at the narrow mouth of the Mediterranean, it has been a prized strategic base for centuries.
It is still a major British military base, although progressively more land is being released by the chaps in uniform.
Tourism is becoming increasingly big business, and Gibraltar has enough crammed in – caves, monkeys, diving, tunnel tours – to be a great weekend break destination.
The tiny territory became British in 1713, when the War of the Spanish Succession was ended by the Treaty of Utrecht. Gibraltar was ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity.
It’s fair to say that the Spanish aren’t too happy about this. The border between Gibraltar and Spain was shut off between 1969 and 1982, and it’s only very recently that planes heading for Gibraltar have been allowed to fly over Spanish airspace.
But the locals wish to remain British – 99% voted against proposals of joint Spanish-British sovereignty in 2002 – and a very British feel permeates. In a hot, Latin corner of the Mediterranean, there are still red phone boxes, policemen with helmets and fish and chip shops.
Perhaps most odd of all is the language visitors may catch being spoken on the streets. Called Llanito, it appears to switch at random between English and Spanish, although in truth there are also elements of Maltese and Genoese thrown in.
Amongst the bizarre places in Gibraltar that are worth seeing, there are the World War II tunnels, the airport and the monkeys on The Rock.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Walk across Gibraltar Airport's runway

The British Territory of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain is absolutely tiny. And when you’ve got less than seven square kilometres to play with, you have to be a little creative when it comes to placing an airport.
A lot of the land for the runway has been reclaimed from the sea, but the interesting bit runs along the border with Spain.
Across the runway runs Winston Churchill Boulevard, the territory’s main road. When the planes aren’t landing, traffic streams across the runway but the barriers come down when an incoming flight is hovering above waiting to land. It’s a little like a level crossing, but with massive jet planes.
Pedestrians wanting to get across the Spanish border into La Linea De La Conceptión have to run the same gauntlet. The pavements also stretch across the runway.
And if anyone’s a little slow, they’ll know about it – loud warnings are blasted out from above if a plane is about to land and the barriers are going to close.
Unfortunately, the airport is due to undergo a major upgrade soon. This will see a dual carriageway being built under the airport terminal so that cars don’t have to cross the runway.
Pedestrians are in luck, though – they’ll still have to walk over when planes aren’t landing.

Nearest international airport: Go on, have a rough guess.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, England

For those masochists that just can’t get enough of the crammed commute into work, there is the opportunity to see even more Tube carriages at the newly revamped London Transport Museum.
The museum was re-opened in November 2007 after a major makeover. Perhaps they realised that a few old tube carriage decorations didn’t constitute much of a collection. And there was clearly a demand for a bizarre museum about England’s most unpleasant mode of transport, wasn’t there?
£21m was spent on beefing the museum up, and now flashy interactive stuff sits alongside the ancient trains.
London Underground geeks will be delighted to hear that there’s the chance to see the original Tube map and have a go on a train driving simulator.

Getting to the London Transport Museum

Nearest international airport: A close run thing between London Heathrow and London City, though it’s just as inconvenient getting to Covent Garden from them as it is from London Gatwick, London Luton and London Stansted. Never was a city blessed with so many airports in so many ill-thought out positions.
Using public transport: The museum is at 39 Wellington Street. The nearest tube station is Covent Garden although Leicester Square, Temple, Holborn, Charing Cross and Embankment are also within a kilometre’s walk.

More information: London Transport Museum

Famagusta look-out in Deryneia, Cyprus

One of the tragedies of Cyprus’ division in 1974 was that so many people had to abandon their homes.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Famagusta, on the Turkish-controlled northern side of the island.
Before the Greek-sponsored coup and Turkish invasion in 1974, Famagusta was the tourism capital of Cyprus. This can still be seen from the big, run-down hotels around the beaches.
But when the island became divided, most of the Greek Cypriots abandoned their homes. Much of Famagusta was abandoned, and a lot of it – particularly the Varosia area – is now in the UN buffer zone.
It’s still possible to visit what was once a vibrant city, but it’s just as chilling to look out over it from Deryneia on the southern side of the UN’s Atilla Line.
The best viewpoint is in the self-styled ‘Last House in Deryneia’. It’s owned by Annita Georgiou, who has a small shop full of newspaper clippings about the Cyprus Problem.
It’s not difficult to see which side of the fence she falls on – words on the walls refer to a ‘Hitlerite regime’, ‘cultural destruction’ and ‘Turkish terrorists’.
Annita is happy to hand out a pair of binoculars so that visitors can go up to the viewing platform on the roof and look out into the dead zone. Famagusta is an eerie, sorry sight.
Down below, just before the watchtowers and barbed wire, is a slogan painted onto concrete. It says: “If your house was in walking distance, but armed troops restricted your access, would you accept it?”

Getting to Deryneia, Cyprus

Nearest international airport: The main airport on Cyprus is at Larnaca, to the south-west of Deryneia.
Using public transport: A taxi or a hire car is needed, unfortunately.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Eat puffin in Reykjavik, Iceland - Laekjarbrekka restaurant

Puffins are possibly the cutest birds on the planet, with their multi-coloured beaks and sad, doleful eyes. But in Iceland, they eat them, and any visitor with a heart of stone can savour the local favourite.
A lovely – if tear-jerkingly expensive – restaurant in which to dine on puffin is Laekjarbrekka on Bankastraeti in Reykjavik. It’s a classy joint, complete with pianist playing through the meal, and its housed in one of Reykjavik’s oldest buildings.
More importantly, however, one of its special menus is the Puffin Feast - as seen on Gordon Ramsay's 'The F Word' on July 29th, 2008.
For this, the starter is a fresh salad with smoked and marinated puffin, which is followed up by a main of puffin with brennivín sauce.
Bizarrely, they meat tastes rather different in each one. In the starter it’s cold, and has a texture like calf liver mixed with a fairly strong, salty aftertaste.
The brennivín is a special Icelandic drink –it means burnt wine and tastes foul as a shot, but works really well in the sauce. It has the effect of masking the taste of the puffin a little bit, but in the main course the aftertaste is a little stronger. And, according to some, not particularly nice.
Be warned though – Laekjarbrekka is an expensive restaurant, and visitors that suddenly decide they don’t enjoy the taste of puffin are likely to be left crying into their wallet.

Getting to Laekjarbrekka Restaurant in Reykjavik
Nearest international airport:
Reykjavik has its own central airport for domestic flights, but nearly all international flights land at Keflavik, about 45 minutes drive or bus transfer away.
Using public transport: If staying in central Reykjavik, Laekjarbrekka is in walking distance.
More information: Laekjarbrekka restaurant

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Tour Chernobyl from Kiev, Ukraine

Holiday destinations don’t get any more unusual than the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. But it is possible to go on a deeply disturbing day trip to the scene of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster.
The day trip starts from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and takes visitors within 100m of Reactor Number Four. This was the one that exploded in the early hours of April 26th 1986, spreading a cloud of radiation as far as Scandinavia.
There are many disturbing things about the tour. Sights on the way to the world’s most notorious nuclear power plant include trees turned red by the radiation, giant catfish swimming in the cooling ponds and houses buried underground in order to contain the contamination.
At all times, the tour guide has a Geiger counter to monitor the levels of radiation the group is being exposed to, while safety precautions include not standing on the moss and not picking up stones or debris.
Reactor Four at Chernobyl is a truly frightening sight. No-one really knows what is going on underneath the cement ‘sarcophagus’, and – most alarmingly – it is clearly crumbling.
It was originally a makeshift containment solution, and a new multi-billion dollar shelter is planned, but for now it’s quite clear that the prospect of a second Chernobyl disaster is not exactly in the realms of fantasy.

Getting to Chernobyl, Ukraine

Nearest international airport: Kiev Borispol
Using public transport: It’s not going to happen. Special permission is needed to enter the 30km-radius exclusion zone around Chernobyl, and the only way to get it is joining a tour group. Solo East Travel is the best bet. The zone is approximately two to two-and-a-half hours drive north of Kiev.

BonBon Land theme park in Næstved, Denmark

Need a theme for a theme park? Can’t decide between sweets and poo? Why not have both!
That’s what one Danish theme park appears to have done.
Quite why anyone thought confectionary and scatological humour made for a great combo is a mystery, but nevertheless they are merged at BonBon Land near Næstved. According to BonBon Land’s website, it was originally designed as somewhere for children to see how sweets are made. But the park has morphed into a fully-fledged, rollercoaster-packed fun factory.
The obsession with naming the sweets after animal pellets has transferred to the rides, many of which are proudly fronted by cartoonish fibreglass creatures, ahem, going about their business. Visitors, for example, can try out the Dog Fart Switchback, the Gull Dropping Cycle, the Rubbish Dump and the Horse Dropping.
The obvious cheap gag would be to mention that the rides are so scary, you’ll sh... But I’m above that. Honest.

More information: BonBon Land

Friday, 25 July 2008

Eat whale burger in Reykjavik, Iceland - Geysir Bistro and Bar

Iceland is one of the few countries in the world that thinks chasing down whales with big harpoons is perfectly OK – not a popular viewpoint in the rest of the world.
Therefore, there’s something a little bit wrong about seeking your teeth into a whale burger. But some of us are going to hell anyway, so why not give it a go if you’re in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital?
The Geysir Bistro and Bar is one of the few places in Reykjavik where the ordinary mortal can afford to eat without taking out a bank loan, and it’s rather nice. It’s a laid back, modern-style bar, with cute touches in the lighting and wooden pillars.
But for the bad people, the most important thing is that it serves a whale burger with lobster mayonnaise.
Obviously, it’s not a whole whale, but the meat looks rather like a steak. More horse-meat than prime rump cow, though.
And it’s what some would call an “acquired taste”. The burger is very chewy and packs a hefty meaty bang. The problem comes with the aftertaste – it’s overly salty and bordering on pungent. To be honest, it’s a battle to get through it, even for someone who loves trying out new meat.
The campaign to keep the whaling ban starts here...

Getting to the Geysir Bistro and Bar in Reykjavik
Nearest international airport: Keflavik International Airport is approximately 45 minutes away from Reykjavik by car or bus transfer.
Using public transport: For those staying in central Reykjavik, none is necessary – it’s in walking distance. The address is 2 Adalstraeti – it’s in the same building as the Tourist Information Centre.

More information: Geysir Bistro Bar

Benny from ABBA's Rival Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden

A few days ago, I was puzzled by a friend of mine’s Facebook status update. It said “Steve would like to thank Benny from ABBA for being such a gracious host.”
I enquired, and it turns out that hairy songsmith Benny Andersson runs a stylish city hotel in Stockholm, Sweden.
Alas, for those wanting some kitsch novelty joint full of disco balls, glitter and blaring video screens of the Fab Four, there’s no real ABBA theme to it.
However, my man says the Rival Hotel is a pretty neat place. There are a few quirky little touches – like a choice of pillows and magnifying mirrors in every bathroom – that raise it above the ordinary.
And guests also get a selection of CDs to choose from. So don’t forget to say Thank You For The Music...

Rival Hotel

British Sovereign Base areas in Cyprus - Akrotiri and Dhekelia

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is unusual in that it is divided not two, but three ways. Many people know about the division between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-controlled northern sector of the island, but two significant chunks of Cyprus are still under the control of the British military. These are the British Sovereign Base Areas.
Akrotiri and Dhekelia were kept by Britain when Cyprus became independent in 1960, partly because of their key strategic location near the Middle East.
Neither is particularly a tourist attraction – army types aren’t renowned for their love of visitors looking for sun loungers – but it is possible to drive through these geographical oddities.
Akrotiri, near Limassol, is hardly on anyone’s way to anywhere, but most tourists will end up going through Dhekelia. The Sovereign Base Area lies between the airport at Larnaca and the major tourist areas of Paralimni, Protaras and Agia Napa.
Aside from the odd bit of barbed wire and sinister-looking building, there’s very little to see, but the fishing villages on the eastern outskirts are quite cute.
Interestingly, Dhekelia contains two Cypriot villages – Xylotombou and Ormidhia – that are completely cut off from the rest of the country.

Getting to the British Sovereign Base Areas
Nearest International Airport:
Larnaca (or Larnaka as it is now officially known).
Using public transport: Public buses go through Dhekelia on their way to Paralimni and Agia Napa from Larnaca.

The British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, England

The best bizarre museums are the ones with such a narrow speciality that they cannot possibly be commercially viable. And the utterly ridiculous British Lawnmower Museum in Southport is a classic case in point.
It forms the upper floor of a lawnmower shop in this traditional British seaside town, and it’s an exercise in slavish devotion.
The carpet is green (of course), and it seems as though they have tried to cram in as many lawnmowers as is humanly possible.
As visitors go up the stairs, a tape is played, and it explains the history of lawnmowers in such microscopic detail that it borders on scary.
Amongst all the creaky old models are some racing lawnmowers. Formula One it ain’t.
But most bizarre of all are the items that have been donated by celebrities. Most of them are ‘celebrities’ in the loosest sense of the word, but comedian Joe Pasquale’s strimmer is on show, as are Fred The Weatherman (from This Morning)’s shears and Paul O’Grady’s pink-and-fluffy lawnmower.
Brian May’s donation was unfortunately in for repair when Bizarre Places visited, but the star of the collection was there. Taking up one corner is the large ride-on mower given to Prince Charles and Princess Diana as a wedding present in 1981. A framed picture of them adorns it. How sweet.

Getting to Southport, England:
Nearest international airport: Liverpool John Lennon International Airport is nearest for UK domestic flights and some European flights. However, for most international flights – certainly ones from the US and other intercontinental destinations – Manchester International Airport is the best bet.
Using public transport: There are regular trains to Southport from Liverpool Lime Street station. The journey takes less than an hour.
More information: British Lawnmower Museum

Blue Lagoon in Iceland - Spa and Thermal Pools

Natural spa resorts are always a little surreal, but Iceland’s Blue Lagoon takes things to a whole new level.
Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction is a thermally heated pool in the middle of a space-like volcanic landscape. The water has a disturbing luminous sky blue colour to it, and frankly looks like it should be in a test tube in a mad scientist’s laboratory.
The effect is topped off by the trails of water vapour blowing across the surface and the staff members in what appear to be full-body radiation suits.
The water is, of course, lovely and warm – in places almost too hot. But the air most certainly isn’t (the difference in temperature accounts for the vapour trails). The quicker you can get into the water and swim around, the better.
Massage and other spa treatments are, naturally, available, and there are pots of silica sand gloop to put on your face at the edge of the pool. The real fun, however, is in mooching about on what may as well be the moon.

Getting to the Blue Lagoon
Nearest international airport: Iceland’s main airport is at Keflavik, in the south-west.
Using public transport: If coming from Reykjavik, the best way of getting to the Blue Lagoon is with Reykjavik Excursions. Some of their airport shuttles pick up at Reykjavik hotels, then drop passengers off at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours before heading to Keflavik International Airport.
More information: Reykjavik Excursions; The Blue Lagoon

Black Taxi Tour - Falls Road and Shankhill Road in West Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast is something of a rejuvenated city. Once regarded as a virtual no-go area by tourists, the violence and bombings have now largely stopped. Indeed, it is becoming something of a fashionable city break destination.
But it would be wrong to think that the city’s Protestant and Catholic populations now live together in perfect hand-holding harmony. There is still a dividing wall between the two communities in West Belfast, and on either side there are housing estates decorated in a series of astonishing murals.
These brightly-coloured paintings often take up the entire side of a house, and are artistically fantastic (if usually morally dubious).
On the Shankhill Road (Protestant side) and the Falls Road (Catholic side), the murals depict guns and balaclava-clad men or glorify murderers. They are a sign that people aren’t prepared to forget the past just yet.
It is possible to venture around these mural-laden streets independently, but by far the best option is to take a tour in one of the Ulster capital’s famous black taxis.
The drivers are locals, and can take passengers through the history of the areas and Troubles with first-hand knowledge, and often dark, wry humour.
The tours go past Red Hands, Irish and Union flags, the Sinn Fein headquarters and assorted spots where buildings were bombed and people were killed. It’s ugly, but it’s fascinating, and totally unique.

Getting to West Belfast
Nearest international airport:
Belfast has two airports – the tiny George Best Belfast City Airport is nearest to the city centre, but most flights arrive at Belfast International Airport slightly further out.
The Black Taxi Tour: There are numerous taxi companies that give tours of West Belfast, picking up from the city centre or hotels. Hotel receptions will happily recommend one, but options include Cora Tours and Belfast City Taxi Tours.

Monday, 7 July 2008

International Esperanto Museum in Vienna, Austria

The National Library in Vienna is home to one for the purists: a museum devoted to a language that hardly anyone speaks and no nation recognises as an official mother tongue.
And what could possibly be better than learning Esperanto by playing Pacman? The computer game is the unquestioned highlight of the International Esperanto Museum. A word comes up on the screen, and visitors have to pick the right suffix by eating the correct ghost.
This isn’t quite as implausibly difficult as it sounds. It was designed as an auxiliary language – something the whole world could speak as a second language in order to communicate with each other better – and is structured to be as simple as possible. It also steals heavily from the Latin languages, so anyone with vague Spanish or French is in with a chance. Rapida means fast, urbo means town, sana means healthy – all fairly logical, and the ghosts take a pounding.
The rest of the exhibition charts the history of the language, created in 1887 by well-meaning Pole L. L. Zamenhof, and much of it is brilliantly pointless. There are photos of people meeting at Esperanto congresses (with a predictably high concentration of beards), translations of famous books and headphones where you can listen to people reading in the doomed language. It’s almost enough to make you want to learn out of solidarity.
But it also manages to make the point that the idea of an invented language isn’t quite as silly as many may think. After all, we speak one ourselves. The exhibition runs through everyday English words that have been made up on the spot by someone (usually Shakespeare). Bedroom, amazement, serendipity, fashionable, worthless... even God.
It’s bizarrely gripping, and makes skipping all those spectacular Hapsburg palaces and art galleries seem inherently worthwhile.

Getting to the International Esperanto Museum in Vienna

Nearest international airport: Vienna’s airport is served by a wide range of airlines, and is well connected to the rest of the globe.
Using public transport: The International Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library can be found in the Palais Mollard, near the Herrengasse U-Bahn station.