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.
“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

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Depeche Mode Theme Bar in Tallinn, Estonia

Devoting a bar to a favourite band might be a cracking idea for a really, really popular artist. Perhaps a U2-themed bar in Dublin, or a Red Hot Chili Peppers pub in California? Heck, even an AC/DC pub in Sydney would probably go down a treat. But a bar entirely devoted to Depeche Mode in the Baltics? Erm...
Never let it be said that the owners of Tallinn’s DM Baar haven't gone the whole hog though. For the undoubted millions of Estonians who just love, um, whatever great songs Depeche Mode happened to do, there is a whole host of memorabilia strung up along the walls. This includes a picture of a distinctly non-plussed member of the band in the bar, probably more frightened than he's ever been in his entire life.
Oh yes, and you'll not need two guesses to work out the music policy. Non-stop Mode hits until closing time...
The clientele tends to be an odd mix of raving, foaming-at-the-mouth Depeche Mode fans, curious tourists and locals who appear to be completely oblivious to what it’s all about.

Getting to the DM Baar in Tallinn, Estonia

Nearest international airport: Tallinn
Using public transport: The DM Baar is in the Old Town, and thus it’s probably going to be easier to walk if staying centrally.

More information: DM Baar website (for the fluent Estonian speakers amongst us)

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Love spoons in Llangollen, Wales

It is, of course, vitally important for any father to know that a prospective son-in-law is able to sustain himself and his family. So what better way to prove it than getting him to carve a spoon?
That’s Welsh logic for you, and this is allegedly how the tradition of love spoons came about.
The basic premise is that an amorous young buck would give the spoon to the apple of his eye, with the delicacy of the carving an indication both of his craftsmanship skills and degree of devotion. If she accepted the spoon, they were officially courting. Well, it’s better than “get your coat darl, you’ve pulled”, isn’t it?
Nowadays, young Welshmen generally prefer flowers, chocolates or alcohol for the same purpose, but a small cottage industry has built up selling kitsch love spoon souvenirs to tourists. Picturesque Llangollen is the capital of this – you can hardly move for them.

Getting to Llangollen, Wales
Nearest International Airport:
Liverpool John Lennon is the closest, but still not exactly convenient. Manchester and Birmingham airports are also within a couple of hours’ drive.
Using public transport: Get a train to Wrexham, then a bus to Llangollen.

More information: Llangollen and Dee Valley website

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Hounen Matsuri Penis Festival in Komaki, Japan

Forget February 14th and try March 15th if you prefer the romantic sight of twelve foot penis being carried through the streets to flowers and chocolates.
Hounen Matsuri is an ancient Japanese fertility rite, which involves a group of 42-year-old men (42 is thought to be an unlucky age in Japan) carrying a comically oversized phallus towards a shrine.
They are backed up by a group of ladies carrying smaller versions of the big bruiser, and it is considered lucky for members of the crowd to touch the traditional todgers as they make their way through the streets.
Those who can’t quite get close enough to gain the immeasurable benefits of handling the goods can settle for second best with all manner of genitalia regalia that is sold in shops and souvenir stalls on the day. Maybe a lollipop? Or a keyring? Either way, there are plenty of phallic presents that will make an excellent present for grandma.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Mulhouse’s Wallpaper Museum - Musée de Papier Peint in Rixheim, France

There can be few people in the world who love bizarre museums as much as I do. If it’s focused on a disturbingly specific subject matter and cannot possibly be financially viable to run, then I’m all for it.
But sometimes one of these museums can seem a little bit too dull even to me. Step forward France’s finest (and only) museum of wallpaper
Since 1797, the small municipality of Rixheim (near Mulhouse and the Swiss border) has been based on the manufacture of wallpaper. The craft still continues today and, to celebrate, the Musée de Papier Peint can tell you everything you could possibly wish to know about changing tastes in wallpaper over the centuries. Yawn.
If this somehow strikes as being slightly less than exciting, then true purists will be delighted to hear that the machinery on which the wallpaper is made can also be gazed upon.
Oh yes, and demonstrations take place at 3.30pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during the hectic summer tourist season.
Don’t all rush at once to book a holiday in Mulhouse now, will you?

More information: Musée de Papier Peint

Europe in a day – Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium

Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium is the perfect cheat’s tour of the greatest buildings on the European continent. And a very bizarre theme park.

The Parthenon... but not in Athens?
So, at the end of an exhausting trek through the entire continent, comes that great symbol of civilisation: The Parthenon. Perched on top of the Acropolis, its impact is somewhat dulled by the giant water slide in the background, gleeful child screaming down it.
Mercifully, this is not a case of a near-sacred site being desecrated by thoughtless development; the average toddler could probably trample this version of the Greek masterpiece into the ground given a free rein.

Houses of Parliament, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Brandenburg Gate
That is because, although frighteningly detailed, it’s a bit smaller than the real deal - one 25th of the size, to be precise – and it is in good company.
Close by are the diminutive Houses of Parliament, the fun-sized Leaning Tower of Pisa and the pocket Brandenburg Gate. In fact, most of Europe’s iconic buildings can be reached within a short stroll.

Vanity project
This, you may correctly surmise, is one of those fabulous vanity projects akin to the owner of an English stately home building an ornate tower in his garden largely because he can.
It’s just that in this case, the self-indulgent mad old fool is the European Union.
Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium is a bizarre combination of art showcase, theme park and propaganda stunt.

Europe at waist-height
Europe is sprawled before you, largely at waist height. That some of it is not is an astonishing indication of how incredibly large some of the continent’s oldest, largest buildings are.
For a rough approximation of scale, bear in mind that the average suburban semi would probably come to just below the knee of a medium height adult male if built to these proportions.
In Mini-Europe, that standard man will reach the first floor of the Eiffel Tower if stood on tiptoe and perched on the hill next to it. The miniature model is still 13 metres high.

Expansion of the European Union
As you wander round, the buildings are arranged by country, an arrangement that has clearly not been thought through properly. The expansion of the European Union has caused all sorts of problems here, as suddenly another ten countries have had to be squeezed in to a park that was already as good as full.
So, whilst the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain receive wee approximations of just about every building in the land, others have a token building each and are crammed into a tiny space.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been thoughtfully re-united again, whilst Hungary and Slovenia clearly haven’t got any tourist attractions worth recreating. They have to make do with a signpost in a bush.

Cost of models
Then there’s the issue of splashing out for yet more models. They don’t come cheap, that’s for sure, and given the level of detail, that comes as no great surprise.
According to the park guide, each model cost an average of EUR75,000 to make, using advanced moulding techniques. Workshops from across the Union were called in to shape the tiny wall decorations and statue bumps required, and it didn’t get done quickly.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, for example, took 24,000 man hours to complete. The real thing probably didn’t take that long.
Being terribly official, there is a certain pomp to the place. By every country’s models, there is a big button to press, which is very satisfying until you get utterly sick of hearing national anthems.
When 25 of them are piping away at a time, the novelty value quickly fades, but it can’t detract from the impressiveness of the work that has gone on here. For example, with Dover, you don’t just get the castle, but the white cliffs and the row of terraced houses at the bottom.

Getting to Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium

Nearest international airport: Brussels

Using public transport: If coming to Brussels by train, get off at Brussels Central, then take the 1A Metro service and disembark at Heysel.

More information: Mini-Europe

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, Austria

A short walk from Vienna’s Westbahnhof is a heavy wooden door, almost specifically designed to make people go away. To get through it, you need to press a buzzer, and once finally upstairs you’re ushered into what looks disturbingly like the waiting room of a family planning clinic.
This is the Museum of Contraception and Abortion (though the tourist board literature prefers to leave that last bit out), and it is a bizarre combination of the serious and the frivolous.
Cases are filled with pills and applicators from through the years, while on the walls pie charts and statistics about illegal abortions are opposite cartoons of Victorian types blowing up condoms in some kind of hilarious parlour game.
It covers the whole gamut – diaphragms to sterilisation, via anti-baby lipstick and bidets designed specifically for a post-coital wash. And then there are some implements where it’s probably best to have a limited understanding of German.

Getting to Vienna

Nearest International Airport: Vienna’s airport is well connected to the rest of the world, although budget airline fans can fly into Bratislava just across the border with Slovakia, and take the short train ride in.
Using public transport: The Museum of Abortion and Contraception is just over the busy main road from Vienna Westbahnhof, which is the city’s major train station. It doesn’t really look like a museum, but the address is 37/1 Mariahilfer Gürtel.

More information: Museum website

The abras of Dubai Creek, United Arab Emirates

The cheapest form of travel in Dubai is also the most fun. The abras – miniature wooden ferries on the Dubai Creek – are a holiday experience in themselves.

A trading hub
Dubai Creek is positively chaotic. The city grew up as a trading hub – surprisingly little of Dubai’s modern-day prosperity is due to oil revenue - and it was this waterway where the merchant ships came in. This is not the case today – huge port facilities have been built to take the big ships – but you wouldn’t know it at first glance.

Dhow Wharfage
The Dhow Wharfage, on the Deira side of the Creek near the Souks, is where the defiantly old-school shipping happens. Lined up the water’s edge is box after box of goodies, be they spices or production-line vacuum cleaners.
All are waiting to be loaded onto the dhows, then taken elsewhere in the Gulf. Quite how they’ll get there is another matter – these big wooden boats look one extra dose of rot away from an ignominious end on the seabed.

The abra ride – one dirham per person
Weaving around the dhows, crunching into the jetties and shunting each other unceremoniously are the abras.
There are seemingly hundreds of these miniature ferries darting across the Creek at any one time, and how there’s not a serious accident every ten minutes is difficult to fathom.
Each one departs when it has enough passengers, taking a dodgem approach until it gets to open water.
The driver collects the one dirham (approx AU$0.30) fare then smashes into the wharf on the other side a few minutes later.

Getting off the ferry
Passengers have to leap off while the abra is vaguely close to the decking, hoping it’s not going to bounce away again before they get the chance. You don’t get that sort of thrill ride in a taxi, that’s for sure.

Getting to Dubai Creek, United Arab Emirates

Nearest international airport:

Using public transport: It all depends where you’re staying. If in Deira or Bur Dubai, it’s easily walkable, but buses or taxis are needed from other locations. A taxi is the only viable option from the airport.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Woodlyn Park in Waitomo, New Zealand - Stay in a 1950s plane

You really have to give top marks to this one. A clearly barking New Zealander has got hold of an old plane and made excellent use of it, converting it into accommodation.
Despite once being the proud supply line to American troops in Vietnam, there’s not much use for the Bristol Freighter these days. Except, of course, as a substitute hotel near Waitomo on New Zealand’s North Island.
The plane still has the camouflage livery, and by the looks of it, much of the original gear and furnishings.
A nice little touch is that it costs slightly extra to stay in the cockpit rather than in the tail of the plane. The riff-raff in cattle class should know their place, after all.
Just in case the warplane rooms are not wacky enough, Woodlyn Park also offers accommodation in a ‘train motel’, a ship that the owner is trying to compare to the Titanic and hobbit houses.
Take a look at the pics on the website – the whole place looks somewhat surreal.
It’s also pretty close to the Waitomo Caves – a bizarre attraction in themselves, particularly if you take on the blackwater rafting through the caves, lit by glow worms.

More information: Woodlyn Park

Climbing trees in Western Australia's South West

The three major ‘climbing trees’ around Pemberton in the South West of Western Australia are the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, the Gloucester Tree and the Diamond Tree. And they’re terrifying, as I discovered when I tried climbing the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree.

Childlike dream
It is many a man’s dream to be a child again. The constant diet of icecream and fishfingers, the ability to get away with saying and doing bad things because adults think it’s cute, work being a particularly tough sum in maths… it’s enough to make anyone go nostalgic.
Arguably, though, the best thing about being a child again would be regaining that complete lack of fear. Cars can’t run you over, you’ll never fall off anything, and playing with matches won’t hurt a bit. You can also gleefully scamper up precarious-looking trees whilst adults look on and wince.

Tree climbing in the Pemberton Forest
Nowadays, tree climbing is a bit more risk-packed. It takes a considerable amount of alcohol to feel infallible these days, and the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree in the Pemberton Forest of South West WA is a thing of stomach-tightening fear rather than glorious opportunity.

Warren National Park
In the Warren National Park, 10km south of Pemberton, this karri tree soars 69m in the air, and someone has thoughtfully built a flimsy looking staircase around it. As protection, you have a mesh that is little better than chicken wire, and you are treading on thin strips of wire. One misplaced foot, therefore, and you’re going to be in an awful lot of trouble.

Fear of heights – not ideal for the task in hand
Hate heights. Hate them, hate them, hate them with knobs on. Climbing something so high and blatantly dangerous is not my idea of fun, but with the rest of the group chickening out (Boo! Hiss!), someone has to restore some honour.
Gingerly stepping onto the first rung, it mercifully doesn’t give way under my elephant weight, but my legs start to turn to jelly as soon as an unsafe jump-off distance is reached.

Viewing platform
Roughly a third of the way up is a viewing/ recovery from impending asthma attack platform. Great view, lovely trees, but after you’ve just clambered up the equivalent of a two story building, any pictures you attempt to take are liable to be shakier than a blancmange on a particularly vigorous washing machine. Especially when there’s the best part of the climb to go, and then the getting down part…

Getting to the top of the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree
After about twenty minutes of self-flagellation about being a coward to back out now, it’s time to start the baby steps again. Taking on every rung is a triumph of willpower, knowing that coming down is going to be even more terrifying.
‘Aided’ by shouts from the ground of “Look out for the missing rung” and “If you fall, you’ll probably die instantly – no pain,” somehow the top section is conquered. Once there it’s easy to imagine how Sir Edmund Hillary felt. The biggest kid, up the biggest tree of all, the king of the playground.
Then, of course, there is the matter of getting back down. Any chance of a helicopter ride chaps?

Getting to the Pemberton climbing trees in Australia

Nearest International Airport: Perth

Using public transport: The trees themselves – all of which are around Pemberton – are not easy to get to by public transport, but are within a short enough taxi ride. To get to Pemberton from Perth, use the direct TransWA bus.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Globe Museum in Vienna, Austria

It’s hard to get anything more wholesome than globes, and there are absolutely hundreds of them in the Austrian National Library. Once a private collection, it has now ballooned across an entire floor, and walking in is quite surreal. It’s almost as if someone has gone to the drawing room of every fictional Victorian detective commandeering their globes, then bundled them all willy-nilly into massive glass cabinets. There are 420 of them in total, and just when you think it’s all over, there’s another room with an even higher concentration.
As all good bizarre museums should be, it is ludicrously over-detailed and answers questions you’d never even thought of asking. Has anyone ever seriously thought about how globes are made? Well here you can find out as interactive screens painstakingly go through the process, step by step.
The whole place gives a peek of a whole new world that most of us never knew existed. Making globes is part art, part craft, part science, and old, highly-styled ones are worth a fortune. They date back to 360BC, and a few makers are revered as artists (despite getting countries in the wrong place and covering up parts they didn’t know all that much about with pictures of lions).
One from 1541 is fabulously inaccurate, and we know because an actual map has been superimposed on top of it. Half of Africa is in the Indian Ocean, Jerusalem is in Sudan, New Delhi is where Arabia should be and Tokyo has been transported to Mongolia. Australia, of course, hadn’t been discovered by that time, and is conveniently replaced by a few sea monsters.

Getting to the Globe Museum in Vienna

Nearest international airport: Vienna International Airport.
Using public transport: The Globe Museum at the Austrian National Library can be found in the Palais Mollard, near the Herrengasse U-Bahn station.

World’s oldest show cave - Postojna, Slovenia

In proof positive that vandalism has its uses, the Postojna Cave in Slovenia has utilised careless graffiti artists to get itself into the record books.
Incredibly, it has been a tourist attraction since 1213, which is the earliest date identifiable from visitors’ etchings on the walls. This makes it the world’s first show cave.
Whilst an unfortunate amount has been destroyed by candles, torches and thoughtless scribbling, a huge system still remains, and due to lashings and lashings of calcium carbonate, there are some incredible features. These include a giant ‘diamond’ column.
The highly popular tours are available year-round.

More information: Postojna Cave

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Gibraltar's World War II tunnels - the secret city in The Rock

During the Second World War, Gibraltar was thought to be a key military target. The British Government assumed that Germany would want to get hold of its small territory in order to get control of the Mediterranean.
It was a major strategic base for the Allies too – both in terms of being the headquarters for the North Africa campaign and refuelling ships.
As part of all this activity, over 50km of tunnels were drilled into the Rock, with stores, command and communications centres, electricity generators and sleeping quarters all included. It took just three years to dig out this secret city, and somehow the Germans never found out about it.
A small section of this mindblowing underground network is open to visitors on guided tours.
An ex-army guide leads visitors through the accessible parts - the rest is still used by the military to train Afghanistan-bound troops in tunnel warfare – and the adventure is packed with tales of conditions, mischief and mind-blowing logistics.
Allied leaders were frequent visitors during the war, and it is possible to see the rooms in which they made key plans. The dank underground barracks where soldiers would be cooped up for six days a week are also on display.
Intriguing graffiti, carefully fortified lookouts and the equipment used to sustain life in the Rock are also part of the tour. For anyone with even a passing interest in history, engineering or tales of derring-do and plotting, it’s a brilliant experience.

Getting to the World War II tunnels in Gibraltar
Nearest international airport: Gibraltar has its own international airport, although in practice
By public transport: It’s possible to trudge up the Rock to get to the innocuous entrance where the tour starts, but a cheap cab ride is a much better bet.

More information

Snake charmers at Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco

Djemaa el-Fna is the central square of Marrakech's Medina - but the snake charmers mean there's a lot more to it than eating Moroccan tagines and admiring the architecture.

Marrakech’s glorious central square
All I wanted was a photo, but it’s rather hard to stroll through Marrakech’s glorious central square without being molested by snakes.
There are snake charmers everywhere in Djemaa el-Fna, all itching to grab as much tourist dollar as possible.
Step back from a Moroccan who’s waving a python at you with scarcely concealed menace, and you’re liable to bump into another wielding something more deadly.

Covered in snakes
Don’t make the mistake of giving in and nervously posing for the photo, though, as you’ll be absolutely covered in them.
One round the neck, one on the head, a few cobras round the feet that have just been woken up and antagonised with a tambourine... that sort of thing. And the cheeky buggers who’ve just commandeered your camera expect you to smile.
The problems, of course, start when the snakes are removed.
The charmers appear to believe that such a terrifying ordeal is worth hundreds of dirhams, and seem mighty put out when you just hand over a small note as ‘thanks’.

Getting to Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech

Nearest International Airport: Marrakech Menara Airport is a short drive south-west of the city centre.

Using public transport: The main bus station is roughly a 20 minute walk north-east of Djemaa el-Fna. But that timing is rather dependent on not getting lost in the maze of souqs.

The Plymouth- Banjul Challenge – from England to the Gambia

Not got the money for the Paris to Dakar Rally? Well why not try the low budget alternative race between Plymouth in England and Banjul in the Gambia?

An alternative to the Paris to Dakar Rally
A novel take on the more established (and infinitely better-funded) Paris to Dakar Rally, the Plymouth - Banjul is about willpower overcoming rusty engineering. And the fact that it doesn’t even go to Dakar is irrelevant, despite also calling itself the Plymouth to Dakar rally in order to get attention.

Banger run through the Sahara Desert
The idea is that the route has to be covered, completely unsupported by back-up crews and the like, in a vehicle that costs under £100. Essentially is a great banger run over two continents, risking all manner of trauma in the harsh, isolated conditions of the Sahara Desert.
Just to make things a little more interesting, the organisers have no specialised arrangements with the governments of the countries that are raced through (unlike the Paris – Dakar).

Travelling as a tourist, not a sportsman
Everyone travels as a tourist, having to detail with little problems like Senegal not letting in cars older than five years old (unless customs officers escort them all the way to the Gambian border) and a Gambian ban on right-hand drive vehicles.
The challenge is almost as much about keeping sane with bribe-hungry officials as keeping sand out of the engine.

More details: Plymouth to Banjul Rally

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

World's biggest wine collection

The biggest wine collection in the world can be found in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Just remember to bring some cash if you decide to go.

I had a bit of a disaster on my trip to Moldova in April 2008. I lost my Visa bank card in Lithuania beforehand, and couldn’t withdraw any cash on my credit card from the ATMs in Chisinau for some reason.
This meant I was down to approximately EUR100 for three days, including accommodation, train and taxi fares.
After a bit of shouting down the phone at my bank and a fair amount of despair in one of the grimmest Soviet-era hotels imaginable, I realised that I had absolutely no chance of getting to the one place I wanted to get to.
Milestii Mici is the world’s biggest winery. And that’s not just the promotional blurb from the people that run it – it’s recognised by Guinness World Records. Apparently, over 1.5 million (conservative estimate) bottles of wine are stored there in a 200km network of ‘streets’.
Unlike other wine tours where you are driven around a series of wineries, you need a car to get round just the one winery.
Alas, I was foiled, so if anyone has been to Milestii Mici, I’d be interested to hear from you. Apparently it’s not just quantity either – the wines are reportedly amongst the best in the old Soviet Union.

More information: Milestii Mici website

The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland

A tour to the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, involves stunning coastal scenery, honeycomb rocks and a tall tale about the giant, Finn McCool.

Walk along the County Antrim coastline
The walk to the Giant’s Causeway on the County Antrim coast in Northern Ireland is fabulous, with cliffs and bluffs jutting out into the angry sea. There’s a wealth of colours in the rocks, grass and trees, but it’s the huge collection of hexagonal stepping stones that make this a World Heritage site.
While the coastline is pretty cool from afar, it’s really only up close that the magic of the Giant’s Causeway reveals itself. There are thousands and thousands of these rock columns, all tessellated together as if in a sprawling honeycomb.

Hexagonal columns
Clambering over, and hopping from hexagon to hexagon is tremendous fun – a little like a giant version of an odd Japanese board game. There are around 40,000 of these columns. Not all are six-sided – some are five or eight – but it’s the sheer scale and setting that makes it. And, of course, yet another unlikely story – this time about the giant that made it.

How was the Giant’s Causeway made?
If you ask scientists, the Giant’s Causeway was formed during a period of intense volcanic activity. They claim that the molten basalt poured out through a bed of chalk, forming a lava plateau. When it cooled, it did so at varying rates, and thus the unusual column structure was created.
This, of course, is utter nonsense, and the real story goes as the locals tell it. A local giant called Finn McCool made the Causeway in order to make it over to Scotland, where he was spoiling for a fight with a rival giant.
Upon getting to Scotland, he noticed that his foe was much bigger so ran away back home. However, the Scottish giant got wind of this, and followed him over the Causeway to Ireland.

Fear of the giant baby
Luckily, McCool’s wife was considerably cleverer than he was, and dressed Finn up as a baby. After seeing the size of the baby, the Scottish giant was terrified. How big must the dad be? So he turned and fled, destroying the Causeway on the way so that he couldn’t be followed. And that’s true, that is.

Getting to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland

Nearest International Airport: Belfast City and Belfast International Airport are closest.

Using public transport: This isn’t really practical. It’s best to hire a car in Belfast, or join a tour. Allen’s Tours offers a relatively cheap daily coach trip up the Antrim Coast Road that includes the Giant’s Causeway, along with the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Carrickfergus Castle.

More information: Allen’s Tours

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Prypyat: The Chernobyl ghost town, Ukraine

Before April 26th, 1986, Prypyat was a model Soviet town. It was the place where dignitaries were taken to see how well the system was working, and was full of young families and high-tech workers.
And then came the Chernobyl disaster. Everything changed.
Prypyat was the town built to service the massive Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, and when the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred, it was rapidly evacuated.
The town’s 35,000 – 50,000 residents (as with everything about Chernobyl, numbers are disputed) were rushed out of the city within two days.
Their belongings remained behind, as it was thought they would return.
They never did – the radiation levels from the Chernobyl reactor just 2km away still remain too high. And now the model city is overgrowing with plants, weeds and radioactive moss.
On a tour of the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone, one of the ‘highlights’ is visiting Prypyat.
The visit takes in a fairground that was scheduled to open shortly after the Chernobyl explosion – the iconic big wheel and rusting dodgems are still there.
It also takes in a derelict hotel and swimming pool.
But most heart-wrenching of all is walking around the school. Like the other buildings it is overgrown, crumbling and vandalised. But some clear remnants remain.
Library books are spilled over the floor, other books with rudimentary drawings in remain on tables, while the sports hall is still full of rotting basketballs and footballs.
It’s an altogether eerie experience, and the over-riding impression is that humans will never return to Prypyat on a full time basis.

Getting to Prypyat

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 north of Kiev.

The World’s Scariest Beach – Sint Maarten, Caribbean

Extreme bronzing on Sint Maarten
Maho Beach on the Caribbean island of Sint Maartin has to be the least relaxing stretch of sand in the world. In fact, it manages to turn sunbaking into something of an adrenalin sport.
Most people who attempt to catch some rays on the beach place their towels on the far left or far right hand side. Don’t be tempted to opt for the spare spot in the middle though – that’s where the planes fly over.

Juliana International Airport
The beach is a very narrow strip. This is followed by a very narrow road. And that is followed by a great big runway. Yup, what makes Maho Beach so ‘interesting’ is that every few minutes, a plane lands at Juliana International Airport. It’s one of the biggest and busiest hubs in the Caribbean, and the planes fly so low over the beach that any minor misjudgement could see the landing gear dragging through the sand.

Jet blast warning signs
Maho is probably the only beach in the world with such a dire warning sign. Forget sharks and strong currents - the notices have a simple, stark message. “Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death.” Nice.
As the locals say, a pebble caught by that jet blast may as well be a bullet.

Sunset Beach Bar
It’s undeniably cool, though, especially when the huge Air France jumbo comes into land. Luckily you don’t have to be on the beach itself. Right next to it is the Sunset Beach Bar, which is something of an institution. It has top burgers, cheap-ish drinks and a party vibe.
More importantly, though, it makes an excellent viewing platform. The sunsets here are awesome, but watching the planes come in is even better. They look like they’re coming straight at you – especially at night when you can only see the lights – before diverting away at the very last second.
And that requires a stiff drink or eight...

Walk around the Monaco Grand Prix Circuit

In the tiny principality of Monaco, it is possible to emulate the likes of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton by walking around the famous Formula One Grand Prix circuit.

Tricky navigation is something of enduring theme in Monaco, as can be seen from a stroll round the famous Grand Prix circuit.
When the Formula One circus isn’t in town, the racetrack reverts back to being ordinary streets. Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet once compared the Monaco GP to “riding a bicycle around your living room,” and it’s easy to see his point.
The streets used have helpful red and white markings on the kerbs, so it’s easy to plot your own course around, making screechy engine noises in your head. Dear lord, there’s little room for error on foot, let alone screaming round at full pelt in a Ferrari.
And as for the poor bus driver trying to get round the hairpin by the Fairmont Hotel... his nerves must as frayed as the crotch on a pair of fifteen year old jeans.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Tokyo's giant tapeworm - Meguro Parasitological Museum

While other museums would regard Egyptian sarcophagi or priceless artworks as their main highlight, the Meguro Parasitological Museum’s major draw card appears to be a 10 metre tapeworm that was pulled out of some unfortunate soul in Yokohama.
This Tokyo oddity is primarily a privately-funded medical research facility, but still finds space to exhibit over 300 specimens of parasites.
By all accounts, the curators seem genuinely disappointed that their lovable little creatures have had to be preserved – apparently they couldn’t get away with displaying them inside a live animal or human.
It’s difficult to know whether this one is best visited before or after lunch, however.

More information: Meguro Parasitological Museum

The Pub With No Beer in Taylor’s Arm, New South Wales, Australia

Made famous by legendary Australian singer Slim Dusty, this hostelry no longer lives up to its name.
The Pub With No Beer, near Kempsey, New South Wales, now has plenty of beer. It even has its own brewery.
Local songwriter Gordon Parsons immortalised what used to be known as the Cosmopolitan Hotel when it allegedly went dry back in the 1950s. The song was recorded by Slim Dusty, and the rest is history. And, boy, have the owners cashed in on the good PR.
The Pub With No Beer now has accommodation, live entertainment and the sort of fancy bistro menu that doesn’t really fit the Dusty image.
But before the trades descriptions people come a-knocking, where better to toast Australia Day with a cold one in hand, a band playing classics in the background and good old-fashioned Aussie tucker on the menu?

More information: Pub With No Beer

Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, England

In the courtroom
The door of the dock is closed and the judge stares with a piercing gaze. He seems remarkably young for the job, but there isn’t really time to concentrate on this, as the prosecution lawyer is already launching into me.
In his eyes, I am scum, the lowest of the low, and there is a dreadful sense that this is a show trial. I’m going down, no matter how good my defence is.
For the purposes of this reconstruction, I am George Beck, a bit of a trouble-maker who has finally been collared for burning down a silk mill.

Freedom fighter in a kangaroo court
I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a freedom fighter, a martyr to the cause of getting the vote for the poor and disenfranchised, but this kangaroo court in front of me doesn’t seem to agree.
A public execution on the courthouse steps awaits, as I’m led down the stairs to the cells.

Mock trial in Nottingham, England
This mock trial is all part of the tourist experience at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, England.
We’re greeted by an actor in his full Victorian lawyer’s garb, then taken through the history of the courtroom by throwing us all straight into it.
Everyone’s a witness, defendant, officer or member of the press, and we play out a miniature version of Beck’s excuse for a trial.
Beck was just one in a long line of rabble-rousers that has shaped this city’s attitude over the years.

The Reform Act of 1832
His particular bugbear was the House of Lords refusing to pass the Reform Act in 1832, which would have made Britain’s laughable excuse for a democracy of the time a whole lot fairer.
The gentry, of course, didn’t particularly like the idea of giving those ghastly middle classes a say in how the country was run, and blocked it.
Understandably, the bulk of the population wasn’t happy about this and started rioting.
Nottingham took a particularly nasty hit in the melee, with various buildings being set upon by the mob, and the city’s castle being burnt down.
Beck was thought to be behind that torching too.

Prisoners’ quarters
Following the trial in the old courtroom, we get a look at the conditions in the prisoners’ quarters.
We’re greeted by the gaoler, another actor in character. He makes no secret of the fact that if we want decent treatment, we’re going to have to continually grease his palms.
He walks us past all manner of nasty instruments of torture. There are stocks, in which people were put all day, having things thrown at them. There are whips, used to flay backs raw. There are scold’s bridles, which literally hold the tongue, and prevent speech.

The horror of the cells
That’s bad, but then comes the room. Three people share it, and there is room for nothing but the three hammocks.
The prisoners would be expected to live, sleep and eat in this room, and all waste products would stay with them, ready to be cleared out with the bare hands the next morning.
The only natural light is covered by bars, ensuring that it’s unbearably stifling in summer, and intolerably icy in winter.
“And that’s the good room,” the gaoler says, as he takes us further down into the dungeons.

The pit of hell
With no bribes, it seems, you get consigned to hell. It’s a pit, with no light, in which 30-odd men are expected to sleep in a cramped circle, elbow to elbow.
Disease-ridden, sleeping in their own filth, these men had no life at all. True, some of them may have been murderers, but we’re all given a convict number so that we can check what we’ve been sent to this hideous place for.
I stole some linen, and that’s enough to consign me to this fate.

Getting to the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, England

Nearest International Airport: East Midlands International Airport is the closest, but Birmingham International Airport is a better bet for intercontinental flights.

Using public transport: The Galleries of Justice are on High Pavement, within easy walking distance of both Nottingham train station and the Broadmarsh bus station.

More information: Galleries of Justice

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Train journey from Bucharest, Romania to Chisinau, Moldova

For the rail journey fan of a more masochistic bent, the Prietenia train from Bucharest in Romania to Chisinau in Moldova is a real treat.
For the rest of us, it’s a hideous trial of endurance on a slightly dirty train where the windows don’t open and the air conditioning doesn’t work. For approximately twelve-and-a-half hours.
Nearly half of that time is spent travelling the 100km-or-so from Iasi near the Romania-Moldova border to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
This is partly due to passport checks and customs officers overturning the train in the hunt for drugs and illegal immigrants, but it’s largely due to having to change the entire undercarriage of the train.
Popular myth has it that the old Soviet Union adopted a broad gauge system under Stalin in order to slow down any potential invasion from the west. This isn’t true – the Russians decided to go with the wider gap between the rails well before the Soviet Union existed.
Nonetheless, there is a slight problem when entering one of the former Soviet Socialist Republics (including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and the Ukraine) from the rest of Europe. Sometimes this is solved by getting off the train and getting on a new one, but going into Moldova, it’s the train that gets switched over.
So, in the middle of the night, while passengers are trying to sleep in their dirty sweatbox, all manner of clanking and lifting and shunting goes on outside. It’s a bit like a rubbish rollercoaster, only far more disturbing.

Getting on the Prietenia train

Nearest international airports: For Bucharest, it’s either Otopeni or Baneasa airport – the budget airlines tend to use Bucharest Baneasa, which is a filthy little hellhole. Visitors landing in Moldova will land at Chisinau’s airport, which is a short distance from the city centre.
By public transport: The train leaves from Bucharest’s Gara du Nord and arrives at Chisinau’s relatively modern (by Moldovan standards) station.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Peak District Cave Boat - Speedwell Cavern in Castleton, England

Castleton, a pretty little village in the heart of Europe’s most visited National Park, isn’t exactly short on caves. The whole landscape of this part of the Peak District is dotted with underground caverns.
Of these, the Blue John and Treak Cliff Caverns are well worth a visit, as is the amusingly-named Devil’s Arse. But for sheer novelty factor, Speedwell Cavern wins hands down.
Entrance is via over 100 rather steep steps, so it’s not suited for visitors of limited mobility. Or, for that matter, anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.
What makes the Speedwell Cavern tour unique is that once down those steps, visitors leap aboard a small boat, which then ploughs its way through a flooded mining tunnel.
There’s not much room for manoeuvre in this tunnel. Tall people need to bend over a little, while any fingers dangling over the side of the boat are liable to get crushed against the sides of the walls.
The tunnel took four years to build, and the boat chugs through, the tour guide tells horrific tales of the life of a lead miner.
They would spend eight hours a day in these dark, dingy conditions, blowing up the rock and getting all manner of poisonous dust into their lungs.
The boat goes past the tiny holes that three or four miners would cram into to escape the blasts, and it’s easy to see why life expectancy didn’t even hit 30.
The cavern at the end of the boat ride is actually something of a disappointment, but this is one instance where it’s the journey that counts.

Getting to Speedwell Cavern in Castleton

Nearest international airport: Manchester International Airport
By public transport: Castleton is on the Hope Valley train line between Manchester and Sheffield. Buses also go reasonably regularly from both cities.

More information: Speedwell Cavern

World’s biggest ice cave – Eisriesenwelt near Salzburg, Austria

Whilst caverns made of rock are all well and good, sometimes you want something a little more spectacular. That’s what ice is for, and this complex near Salzburg, Austria is home to the world’s largest ice cave.
Over the years, the flow of air has ensured that walls, stalagmites and stalactites have formed, and some of the frozen formations are up to 20 metres thick.
The result is something that looks like a science-fiction film set, and a walk through the surreal crystalline world is fascinating, if a little on the cold side.
The Eisriesenwelt is open from the end of April to the end of October, and you’ve got a choice of getting there on foot or by cable car.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark

The Oresund Bridge is one of those things best viewed from the air. If flying over the coast of Southern Sweden, suddenly this incredible structure appears in the water, snaking all the way across the channel to Denmark.
The bridge, which was completed in 1999, is one of the most spectacular border crossings in the world. It’s one of the longest bridges on the planet – nearly 8km long - and it links the Swedish city of Malmo with the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
The toll to cross in a car is fairly hefty, but it’s worth it for the views. Coming from Copenhagen, you emerge from a tunnel onto an artificial island. The road then runs alongside the train track before climbing on top of it, and taking on the main span.
Should renting a car just to go over a bridge seem a little unnecessary, then it’s possible to go over on the train. There are still great views from the sides, but alas you can’t see what’s ahead of you and that’s half of the wow factor.

Getting there

Nearest international airport: Copenhagen
Using public transport: The train from Copenhagen central stops at Copenhagen Airport before crossing the Oresund Bridge and ending up in Malmo, Sweden.
More information: Oresund Bridge

Tazmazia near Sheffield, Tasmania, Australia

Getting lost on holiday
For many of us, getting lost whilst on holiday is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Even from a young age, we are programmed to shudder at the thought of dad driving faster, refusing to ask for directions, whilst mum makes pitiful attempts to read a map.
However, there are clearly some out there who get a big kick out of wandering around aimlessly, barking up dead ends in a bid to find something.

World’s largest maze?
For these people, the predictably-named Tasmazia, near Sheffield in the north of Tasmania, Australia, is the stuff of dreams. It purports to be have the world’s largest maze, plus six others with varying themes.
The polite phrase for it would be ‘eccentric’, and the impolite one ‘mad as snakes’. It is the brainchild of a lavender farmer who, perhaps quite accurately, prefers to go under the name of Laird Crackpot of Lower Crackpot.
Brian Inder (as he was known to his mum), and his wife Laura, are the sort of people that have longed so much for their own little world, that they have simply created one themselves.

Inspired by Hampton Court Palace
The inspiration has clearly come from far and wide. One of the mazes is an exact replica of the famous one at Hampton Court Palace in England, another has a Wizard Of Oz theme, whilst there is a memorial to the inventor of the toilet at the end of the utterly infuriating Cage maze.
But it goes well beyond the painstakingly sculpted hedgerows and walls. The Crackpots have also created themselves a village. Admittedly, even Hobbits, Munchkins and Oompah-Loompahs would struggle to fit into it, but the 20% scale models are frighteningly detailed.

From churches to banks
Not prepared to settle for just a couple of identikit houses, they have created churches, pubs, radio stations and banks, plus the cheap gag of a ‘GST house’ – one tenth is missing.
There is also a decidedly seedy side to Lower Crackpot. The more adult end of town has less-than-salubrious joints such as Wild Jo’s Disco and the Dirty Shame. The less said about what the Little Lilliputian types are getting up to in there, the better.

For all the family
While ostensibly aimed at children, who will always attack a maze with obdurate gusto, it is probably adults who will get more out of it. The level of effort and intricacy put in is genuinely applaudable, even if you’d never dream of going to such lengths yourself. And the clever little touches make it far preferable to arguing over whether you should be reading a map upside down or stopping a passer-by to ask where the hell you are.

Getting to Tazmazia
Tasmazia is in the Cradle Mountain and Lakes District, by Lake Barrington and a short drive South West of Sheffield.

World's oldest golf course – Musselburgh Links near Edinburgh, Scotland.

It may not be the most challenging of adversaries, but golfers have been fluffing their putts on the Musselburgh Links in Scotland for longer than anywhere else in the world.
It’s only nine holes long, and par 34, but the club has documentary evidence showing that people have been spoiling good walks here since 1672.
Hoary old legends suggest that Mary Queen of Scots turned up on the course for a quick round on the world's oldest golf course in 1567, but this may well be wishful thinking.
Being a short course, and not that prestigious, green fees are very reasonable, should you wish to swing your way through history.
Musselburgh is in East Lothian, a short drive (that's as in car, not golf shot) from Edinburgh.

More information: Musselburgh Links

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Saga Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland - bloodthirsty Viking history

Iceland has a thoroughly odd history. Much of it is known through sagas, which are longwinded and often exaggerated stories passed down through the generations.
It is mostly from these sagas that we know how Iceland was settled by Scandinavians running away from persecution in their homeland, that the country formed the world’s oldest parliament and that its people all elected to convert to Christianity simultaneously on one day.
This unique form of record-keeping is celebrated in one of Reykjavik’s best museums. The Saga Museum is in a strange building – the Perlan has been made out of huge water tanks, and stands on a hill above the city skyline.
Inside, it is crammed full of waxworks, all of which have been modelled on Reykjavik residents who volunteered to be immortalised as characters from the sagas.
Icelandic history is covered in a reasonable depth – enough to be interesting, and not enough to bore the pants off someone with only a passing interest.
More importantly, it’s all blood and guts. Models have been whacked with axes and riddled with the black death, while just about every character seems up for a fight.
Freakiest of the lot is the scary-eyed woman who is holding a sword to her bare breast, threatening to cut it off.

Getting to the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland
Nearest international airport: The Saga Museum is very near Reykjavik airport, but that’s only really used for domestic flights. All the major international carriers fly to Keflavik International Airport, around 45 minutes away by bus transfer or taxi.
Using public transport: Perlan and the Saga Museum are walkable from the main street, but it’s probably easier to take bus number 18 from Laekjartorg.

More information: Saga Museum

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Icelandic Phallological Museum in Husavik

My biggest regret when I went to Iceland for three days in May 2008 was that I didn’t take the twelve hour round journey from Reykjavik to Husavik.
I was supposedly on a romantic weekend, and explaining such a journey in order to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum was a tough task.
The northern Icelandic town hosts possibly the most bizarre museum of them all – the Phallological Museum is devoted to the penis. And it has over 240 specimens for the avid todger fan to observe.
This includes every animal from Iceland and Icelandic waters, and details are given of where every reindeer rod, polar bear protrudence and walrus wanger was obtained from.
There’s also a overseas section for foreign phalluses. So those desperate to look at the genitalia of a German badger, New Zealand wallaby or Alaskan ermine are in luck.
One key Icelandic mammal is missing, unfortunately. But never fear – four humans have generously agreed to donate their penises to the museum when they die.
For an even more childish giggle, why not check out the list of ‘Honorary Members’ on the museum’s website?

Getting there:
Nearest international airport: Akureyri is the nearest international airport, but hardly any flights go there. Most visitors are likely to arrive at Keflavik International Airport near the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.
By public transport: Buses from Reykjavik to Husavik take around six hours and aren’t overly regular. Hiring a car is the best bet.

More information: Icelandic Phallological Museum

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Barbary Apes of Gibraltar

The tiny British territory of Gibraltar is essentially one big rock, and for a long time it was under control of the British military.
If there’s any uncertainty about who’s in charge now, head on up there with a plastic bag full of food.
The Barbary apes are at the same time the best loved and most cursed inhabitants of Gibraltar. Technically, they’re Barbary macaques, but almost no-one calls them that – and they roam free across the Upper Rock.
Aside from a colony that was taken from Gibraltar to Germany, they are the only wild apes in Europe. Superstition has it that if the popular primates ever leave, the British will lose Gibraltar. In World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that the numbers should be topped up – just in case.
They’re incredibly entertaining. Some just sit staring out over the Mediterranean Sea to Spain and Morocco, but others are far more active. And that can mean jumping on top of buses, trying to steal any food going, or running away with camera straps.
Signs warn tourists about their monkey business, but visitors still get jumped out, robbed and – if they’re really stupid – bitten or scratched.
But for those who take care, and don’t take food, the Barbary apes (or macaques) are totally adorable.

Getting there:
Nearest International Airport: Gibraltar has its own airport, though flights only tend to go there from Spain and the UK. Otherwise, Malaga and Jerez are nearby. The ferry from Tangier in Morocco is another alternative.
By public transport: The best way of getting up to the Upper Rock, and where the monkeys are is either on a tour or in the spectacular cable car that goes from ground level.

Loughborough, England – the world’s oldest package holiday destination

People have been leaving their home town to have an explore somewhere else for centuries, but the first time it was done in an organised manner was 1841, when Thomas Cook arranged the first package holiday. Yep, that’s the same Thomas Cook that the major holiday firm is named after.
Ironically, given the hard-drinking reputation of today’s packaged trips, the tourists were all temperance campaigners, going from Leicester in the English Midlands to nearby Loughborough for a rally against the perils of alcohol.
The 11 mile journey can still be done in the same way today, by steam train on the Great Central Railway.
Once in Loughborough, you’ll find an archetypal market town, the main claim to fame of which is the world’s largest bell foundry. The John Taylor Bellfoundry Museum has a small museum on site, and can arrange tours.
Loughborough’s other claim to fame is that it’s home to the largest indoor cricket centre in the world – it’s where the England and Wales Cricket Board trains cricketers in its National Cricket Academy.
And, on a less important note, it’s also the home town of the creator of Bizarre Places. And he can well understand why no-one organises package holidays there now.

Getting to Loughborough

Nearest international airport: Nottingham East Midlands airport is a short bus ride away, and a train connection is in the planning process.

Using public transport: Loughborough is well connected to London, Sheffield, Leicester and Nottingham by direct trains.

Monday, 11 August 2008

World's smallest book in Kiev's Micro Miniatures Museum

If there was any justice in this world, Mykola Syadistry would be regarded as one of the greatest artists in history. Granted, the Ukrainian-born genius is hardly the best painter or sculptor the world has ever seen, but his achievements are huge.
Or, rather, they’re small. Very small. And that’s what makes them so unique.
In Kiev’s World Heritage-listed caves monastery (Kiev-Pechersk Lavra), there is a room given over to an exhibition of Syadistry’s ‘micro-miniature’ art. It’s essentially a museum packed with powerful microscopes and some very tiny (and very odd) masterpieces.
‘Long Live Peace’ (in Ukrainian), is engraved on a human hair. There are miniscule portraits of Ernest Hemingway and Yuri Gagarin, and Kobzar – claimed to be the world’s smallest book.
The latter has twelve pages, including some of Syadistry’s verse and a portrait of himself. It comes in at just 0.6 square millimetres.
Most impressive, however, are the golden chess set on a pin head and the picture of Russian composer V V Andreev. He is etched onto glass and fitted into one half of a poppy seed, while his balalaika fills the other half. For a sense of scale, information plaques tell the visitor that the strings of the balalaika in this picture are 40 times thinner than a man’s hair.

Getting to the Micro Miniature Museum in Kiev, Ukraine
Nearest international airport:
Kiev Borispol.
Using public transport: Get the Metro to Dnipro or Pecherska – it’s about a fifteen minute walk from both.
More information: Go to the Kiev caves monastery website.

St Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland

For someone so universally popular, St Patrick’s grave isn’t all that impressive. It’s covered by a modest, unsculpted slab of stone with his name carved on. Well, part of the name is anyway – there’s a great chunk missing that has taken the C, K and half the I with it.
The grave is outside Down Cathedral, which is perched on a hillside above the small town of Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. It’s the sort of place that is invariably buffeted by huge winds, and you feel heartfelt sympathy for any old ladies trying to get up.
According to legend (and most of what we know about St Patrick should be taken with large pinches of salt), St Patrick died in nearby Saul. From there, angels descended and told those in charge of the body to put it on a cart and bury it in the first spot that the oxen stopped. Well, after lugging him up that hill, it’s no wonder they stopped there.

Getting to St Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland

Nearest International Airport: Belfast International Airport or Belfast City Airport, depending on which airline you’re travelling with.

Using public transport: Take bus 15 or 15A from Belfast’s Europa bus station. The journey takes around an hour. Then prepare for an uphill walk.

More information: Down Cathedral

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Mendel Museum in Brno, Czech Republic

For a place with such huge significance, the Abbey of St Thomas in Brno, Czech Republic, is remarkably understated. It's arguably the birthplace of modern science.
The patch of grass outside once played host to the world’s most important greenhouse, while a small flower bed of red and white begonias demonstrates the scientific laws that were discovered there.
The man who put this loveable Augustinian abbey on the map was Gregor Mendel, the former abbot.
He was the monk who discovered the laws of genetic inheritance. So much has come as a result of this discovery – confirmation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, many medical treatments, cloned sheep, the human genome project – that his name should be far better known.
The small museum by the begonia bed explores the importance of Mendel’s work, and tries to explain in layman’s terms how dominant and recessive alleles work.
It also goes into his life, and tells the extraordinary story of a monk from a European backwater who revolutionised the way we think about ourselves. His work was 99% drudgery – meticulously growing peas and logging their characteristics.
But from those humble garden peas came so much – and the Mendel Museum is a fascinating little diversion for any traveller visiting this part of Central Europe.

Getting to the Mendel Museum in Brno, Czech Republic

Nearest International Airport: Brno Turany airport receives a few international flights (usually the budget airlines such as Ryanair and Smart Wings), but most international visitors will fly into Prague then get the train. That said, Vienna (Austria) and Bratislava (Slovakia) are actually closer to Brno than Prague.
Using public transport: There are good train links to Brno from Prague, Bratislava and Vienna. Take tram number 1 from the central train station.

More information: Mendel Museum

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Hotel Fox in Copenhagen, Denmark - design hotel

Design hotels are now cropping up all over Europe, but one of the oddest can be found in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Welcome to the Hotel Fox.
Travellers staying in this unique accommodation can expect to find hugely individual rooms, all of which have been created by a team of artists from around the world.
Room 202 is a classic example. Dreamt up by German artist Boris Hoppek, it is called “You Are A Baby”. It’s done in bright red, blue and white, and has octopuses and fish made from terry-towelling hanging from the ceiling. It also has a topless lady dominating one wall, and she looks suspiciously like Ariel, Disney's (and Hans Christian Andersen’s) Little Mermaid. Well, there’s the Denmark link anyway.
Other strange places for visitors to rest their heads include Room 309, designed by London collective Container. It somehow manages to straddle themes of royalty, nightclubs and cards.
Perhaps most amusing of all is the ultra-kitsch Heidi room. Knocked up by a Swiss artist, the walls are covered in goats (one of which looks positively satanic), wrinkled shepherds and other mountain stereotypes. And the carpet is green for good measure.
The Hotel Fox is a trendy kind of place, but not too cool for school – it’s rather loveable too.

Getting to the Hotel Fox in Copenhagen, Denmark
Nearest international airport: Copenhagen
Using public transport: The hotel is approximately 10 – 15 minutes walk away from Copenhagen Central Station, which has a direct train connection to the airport.
More information: Hotel Fox

Friday, 8 August 2008

Marzipan Museum in Keszthely, Hungary

To the rest of the world, marzipan is only useful for making the ultra-sickly layer on a wedding cake, but try telling that to the Hungarians. Astonishingly, there are two museums devoted to marzipan in the country (the other being at Szentendre), and it appears as though there is much more that can be made out of the almond-based treat.
Keszthely’s Marzipan Museum features staggering displays of sculpture, with shields, faces and miniature palaces all made out of… you guessed it.
The scaled-down model of the Festetic’s Palace just down the road is particularly impressive, although the cake made from marzipan most definitely isn’t. That’s a bit like putting a Mars Bar in a museum of chocolate, or paddling pool in a museum of water.
Essentially, it’s a marzipan shop with a darkened room in the back. They don’t seem to get all that many visitors, and those that do come tend just to go in to stock up on sickly treats.
It’s worth going in though, if only for the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness of it. And once you’ve done that, enjoy Keszthely – it’s a lovely little town on the shore of Lake Balaton. Which we’re reliably informed is the biggest lake in Europe outside of Scandinavia.

Getting to the Marzipan Museum in Keszthely
Nearest international airport: Budget airlines such as Ryanair fly into the nearby Balaton airport. It’s essentially a cattle shed/ old military base in a field though. Otherwise, fly into Budapest or Zagreb (Croatia) and get the train.
Using public transport: Keszthely is a pretty small town, largely existing for the benefit of fat Germans and Austrians on their holidays. Everything is within easy walking distance of each other, and buses go somewhat infrequently to and from the airport. A taxi is probably a better bet.

More information: Marzipan Museum

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Sweden's Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna

One place I have always wanted to stay in is Sweden’s famous Ice Hotel. It’s a stunning architectural achievement, not least because it’s made from scratch every year.
Well inside the Arctic Circle, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi (near Kiruna) is constructed from ice taken from the nearby river. And just about everything is made of ice – glasses in the bar, the bar itself and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre amongst them.
Best of all are, reportedly, the rooms. No prizes for guessing what they’re made of – even the beds. And in order to make things comfortable, the beds are covered with reindeer skins and industrial strength sleeping bags.
The hotel tends to be open from December until it melts (usually mid-to-late April). And, unsurprisingly, it’s not cheap. But then again, you wouldn’t expect the world’s most luxurious igloo to be easy on the wallet.

More information: Ice Hotel Website

Boomerang-throwing in Charleville-Mézières, France

Despite being more popularly associated with Crocodile Dundee and the Australian outback, France has taken the boomerang to heart, and is at the forefront of turning into an international sport.
It all kicked off properly in Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes, where a sketchily-organised world championship was held in 2004.
From that point, the world’s boomerang-throwing federations got together in order to make the rules agreed upon internationally. It’s never going to overtake football, but the sport is growing at a phenomenal rate, and there are now 21 clubs across France who regular travel huge distances to compete against each other.
There are various events in these contests, some specialising in accuracy, some in endurance, and some in showing off with fancy catches. France currently has one world record-holder too, with Arnaud Tribillon managing to keep one of the old Aboriginal Australian hunting devices airborne for 190.2 seconds in Dijon last year.
Tournaments are held throughout the year, and given the small attendances, there’s a real feeling of discovery when you turn up to watch. Charleville-Mézières is still a major staging post, but a list of tournaments can be found at the French Boomerang Federation’s online arm.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Leksakland Toy Museum in Malmo, Sweden

Quite a lot of us collect things when we’re children. But there’s taking things to extremes, and that’s clearly what the geniuses/ mentalists between the Malmo Toy Museum have done.
Leksakland, as it is also known, has amassed huge collections of some of the most popular years from the last 100 years, and arranged them in displays. Anything that can whirr, whirrs. Anything that can make move or makes noises, moves and makes noises. The monthly battery bill must be enormous
So model trains go through miniature Wild West villages, Scalextrics are set up with every imaginable add-on, and scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean are replicated with little Johnny Depps and Keira Knightleys.
The displays are utterly charming in their dedication and sheer pointlessness, but it’s the scale of the collections that are really impressive/ scary.
There are:
- Over 1,000 McDonalds Happy Meal toys from 1987 to 2002.
- 350+ Disney merchandising dolls and toys
- 400+ Star Wars figurines
And that’s before we even start with the cabinets full of Lord of the Rings, Action Man, Barbie, Lego, Tintin and Harry Potter figures.

Getting to Leksakland Toy Museum in Malmo, Sweden

Nearest international airport: Malmo has a small international airport, but it’s actually easier to get to the city centre from Copenhagen International Airport in Denmark – just get the train over the Oresund Bridge.
Using public transport: Leksakland is a short walk away from Malmo Central Station.
More information: Leksakland

Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, Austria

Museum of the future?
The Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria is something quite unlike anywhere else on earth. Billing itself as the Museum of the Future, a taste of what’s to come is available at the entrance.
To the left of the ticket desk, a little girl is flying.
She’s strapped into a contraption called Humphrey II, suspended from the ceiling with wires and harness, and fixing her gaze on the screen in front.
According to the display, she’s flying through the streets of a digitally-rendered Linz, and the whole shebang is operating like a Jetsons-era hang-glider.
Movements of the hands steer left and right, as well as allow her to plunge up and down. And, when she does the latter, she goes straight into the Danube.
Little did we know that the mighty river contains an Atlantis-like civilization, huh?

Year 3000 guitar fretboard
The building is absolutely crammed with such gadgets, games and simulations. One acts as a giant Year 3000 guitar fretboard. A beam of light passes along a bench (you can control the speed at which it does so), and you can place bits of felt and plastic along it. Depending on where you place them, it makes a different sound as the beam hits. It’s difficult to make anything more than a tuneless racket though.

Bizarre table
Then there’s the bizarre table with what appears to be a kids cartoon village on it. However, the images change depending on what you put on top of it. Stick down a coffee cup, and a few buildings emerge. Put a bit of rope in a circle, and it suddenly grows into a pond, full of ducks. Break the loop and the ducks fly away in formation.
In truth, many of these whizz-bang outpourings of inventiveness are utterly bewildering. They’re all undoubtedly very clever, but often it’s impossible to work out what something’s meant to do or how to make it do it. Sometimes it’s obvious that the fish move when you hit the drums, but in others it’s just an intimidating mess of screens and largely pointless interactivity.

Virtual Cave
One of the star attractions is a ‘Virtual Cave’ and it’s a crushing disappointment – 12 people huddle into a small alcove wearing silly glasses and are guided around virtual worlds by a staff member with a controller. It’d be fantastic if you could explore yourself in your own private booth, but travelling through a cyber-Renaissance city behind a crowd isn’t all that gripping.

Visitor photos
Amongst the weird flappy arm-y things and digital marionettes, it’s actually the simpler things that enchant the most. Pictures emerging when you pour sand through a funnel, merging your photo with that of previous visitors... that sort of hi-jinks is pure gold every time.

Getting to the Ars Electronica Centre

Nearest International Airport: A few budget airline flights go direct to Linz’s small airport, but many will fly into Vienna. Linz is approximately 90 minutes by train from Vienna’s Westbahnhof.

Using public transport: The trickiest thing about the Ars Electronica Center is finding it. The tourist board maps say it’s just over the Danube from the main town square. Go there, however, and you find a giant building site with nary a magical flower or computer-animated dragon in sight. The workmen don’t look too interested in that sort of thing either.
It turns out that the Center WILL be there, but not until next year. The new home will be a mammoth, ultra-sleek, beautifully designed centrepiece for the Capital of Culture 2009 festivities. Until then, it’s at Graben 15. Get tram number 3 from the train station.

More information: Ars Electronica Centre

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Kiev Caves Monastery, Ukraine and its mummified monks

Kiev’s astonishing monastery complex, which is full of cave churches and golden domes, is well worth its place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Caves Monastery (or Pechersk Lavra) is the size of a small village, and is crammed with museums, churches, treasures and bizarre passageways. It sits on the hills above the Dnipro River, and supposedly dates back to 1051.
This was when the Greek Saint Antoniy and his lackey Feodosiy started digging caves out of the rock for their fellow monks to worship and study in.
It’s still regarded as the holiest place in the Ukraine and the lower Lavra (as the part with the caves is known) is still run by the church. Bearded monks can be seen sweltering in their long black robes as they work the gardens.
But the monks everyone comes to see are dead. They lie in glass tombs underground, and can be visited via a series of dark, claustrophobic passageways. Travellers can just buy their candle at the gate, then head down the steps.
Silence, respectful dress and “no blackguarding” are expected, as the Caves Monastery is a pilgrimage site.
For non-believers, however, the sight of women in headscarves frantically crossing themselves every few seconds, then attempting to kiss the feet of the long-dead holy men is rather unusual.

Getting to Pechersk Lavra
Nearest international airport:
Kiev Borispol is a fair trek out of the city, but only domestic flights tend to go to the smaller (but closer) Zhulyany airport.
Using public transport: Get the Metro to Dnipro or Pecherska – it’s about a fifteen minute walk from both. Taxi drivers will happily take tourists there as well, but may impose special nationality and gullibility surcharges.
More information: Go to the Kiev caves monastery website.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cuddle a koala
As I gently stroke her neck, ruffling her hair, Elise moves closer. I can feel the pounding of her heart, her warmth against my chest. Moving my hand down her back, she reaches for me, sliding her delicate wrist and hand further up my shoulder.
If Elise wasn’t a koala, this would be a truly romantic moment. As it is, she’s rather hairy and definitely not my type, but despite attempts to pretend I am being gruff and manly, I can’t help going “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwww cuuuuute!” inside.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia is one of the few places in the country, let alone the world, where you can get this up close and personal with a koala. The cuddling is strictly not allowed south of the Queensland border, and Lone Pine, being rather big, has a crack squad of koalas that can hug ever the sternest soul into submission.
There are strict rules that govern the man to beast bonding. The little furry things can only be handled for half an hour at a time, and must get every fourth day off. This ensures that they get plenty of time to eat and sleep, and aren’t just passed around like the salt pot at a High Cholesterol Anonymous dinner party.

Koalas? Dull?
I have to confess that, before this point, I have never been the greatest fan of koalas. From previous experience, they are really dull creatures, constantly sleeping and about as liable to do entertaining tricks as the world’s worst magician. However, here there must be something extra-special in the eucalyptus leaves. They actually do things, and two little cubs steal the show by clambering on each other, scurrying across the floor and leapfrogging their parents. I’m sorry koalas – I was completely wrong about you in the past.

Getting to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

Nearest International Airport: Brisbane

Using public transport: Get bus number 430 from George Street.

More information: Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

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