Sunday, 19 October 2008

Moving site

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

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Hiroshima Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Dome, Japan

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

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Gold Souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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

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

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

Getting to the Gold Souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Nearest International Airport: Dubai

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

More information: Dubai Gold Souk

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

San Marino – the oldest country in the world

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

Getting to San Marino

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

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

More information: San Marino tourism

Monday, 13 October 2008

World’s biggest cave – Sarawak Chamber, Malaysia

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

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, New South Wales, Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Port Macquarie

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 October 2008

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

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

More information: Casa Botin

Friday, 10 October 2008

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

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

More information: Bruce’s Cave

Thursday, 9 October 2008

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

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Stromatolites at Hamelin Pools in Shark Bay, Western Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Europe’s largest thermal lake – Heviz in Hungary

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

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

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

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

Getting to Heviz

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

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

More information

Monday, 6 October 2008

Falconry lessons in Gloucestershire, England

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

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

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Geysir in Iceland – the world’s original thermal spout

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

Getting to Geysir, Iceland

Nearest International Airport: Keflavik, near Reykjavik.

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

More information: Geysir Centre

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Sorell Hotel Rutli in Zurich, Switzerland

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

Getting to the Sorell Hotel Rutli in Zurich, Switzerland

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

More information: Sorell Hotel Rutli

Friday, 3 October 2008

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

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

Getting to the Delirium Café in Brussels, Belgium

Nearest International Airport: Brussels

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

More information: Delirium Café

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Crime Museum in Vienna, Austria

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

Getting to the Crime Museum in Vienna, Austria

Nearest international airport: Vienna

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

More information: Kriminalmuseum

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information: Ripley’s