Sunday, 4 December 2011

Right there in front of you

Like many travel fanatics, my wishlist of destinations grows ever longer. Perhaps not everyone is nerdy enough to put it in Google Doc form, but I love browsing it whenever I get the travel itch. (And while I don't condone nagging, this format makes it easy to forward the list to my boyfriend Normal Matt, as a gentle reminder that it's time we took a trip.)

I've noticed that northern France has been lingering on my list for a while - Amiens, the Somme battlefields, rain and carafes of wine in France's grittier and jollier towns. The silly part is, I spent a year living in that region and never ventured to see these places!

I taught English in a school near Lille in France in 2004, and I had the time of my life travelling around on my spare weekends and holidays. Amsterdam and Haarlem in The Netherlands, the sun-dappled fields of Provence, chilly Belgian mini-breaks (see left), day trips to Paris... I went absolutely anywhere except the attractions of that region, the Nord-Pas de Calais. I was keen to escape from my everyday life as it was then, so I didn't bother hunting out the gems on my doorstep.

A classic case of being blind to what's in front of you. But unfortunately I didn't learn from the experience: years later, I spent a period living in Brighton, England, and didn't step out to admire what was around me in East Sussex. I studied (like a madwoman), jogged by the waterfront, pronounced the pebble beaches a bit too damp to sit on, and took the train back to London at the weekends to visit my friends.

And of course, hindsight reveals this as another missed opportunity. Recently, the urge to visit East Sussex crept up on me: the dizzy views of the sea from Beachy Head, the site of the history-altering Battle of Hastings, miles of untouched countryside and some damn fine local ciders. So off I went on an East Sussex jaunt, staying at a place less than 40 minutes' drive from where I used to live. I panted my way up the Sussex downs (see left), glued an audioguide to my ear in the local museums and posed on the ramparts of the castles.

Maybe it's inevitable that routine blinds us to beauty, but it's worth fighting the grind. Be a tourist in your own city, visit somewhere a few minutes away, take a walk in that geeky museum you always pass by. Travel is a mindset and there's plenty to discover exactly where you are.

But this doesn't mean my travel wishlist is getting any shorter...

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Headless nun: why Catherine of Siena deserves a big thumbs up

It’s a bit of a shock to walk into a church and find yourself meeting the dead stare of a severed head.

The Catholic church isn’t known for shying away from dark imagery, but a mummified head from 650 years ago is an exceedingly strange contrast against the stately backdrop of an Italian brick church. The city of Siena, nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany, is widely considered to be a jewel of the region: more manageable than Florence, less touristed than Pisa, and rightly famous for its incredible Duomo. But the surprise star attraction of this city is its icon, Saint Catherine of Siena, whose preserved head adorns the central altar of the Basilica of San Domenico.

One of the Catholic church’s leading ladies, St Catherine was a philosopher, altruist, activist and reformer. The young Catherine shunned the marriage she was destined for, depriving herself of food and shearing off her own hair in protest. When finally free to pursue her own path as a nun, Catherine took to Siena’s hospitals and poorhouses, attracting male and female devotees who supported her quest to reform the clergy. Despite spreading a message of total love for God, Catherine was hauled up in front of the religious orthodoxy at the time, who were suspicious that she might not be toeing the official line. Catherine was undeterred: she wrote a huge volume of correspondence with the church’s leading figures, acted as an ambassador to the Pope, and influenced politics far beyond any other woman of her time.

No wonder a squabble ensued for the mortal form of St Catherine. Following more periods of intense fasting in Rome, St Catherine finally expired, and her head was removed from her body and smuggled back to Siena. And there it stays: displayed behind a criss-cross of protective bars, offset by dazzling gold, jewels and frescoes, the head is there for anyone to see. While devotees praise the serene expression and apparent incorruptibility of these remains, non-religious bystanders consider it a macabre display. Whatever your reaction, it’s very moving to stand in front of this relic (certifiably authentic, as the many signs surrounding the altar sternly assure us).

So what happened to the rest of St Catherine's body? The headless cadaver stayed in Rome, but Siena’s Basilica also has her mummified thumb, displayed proudly upright in a gilt goblet-shaped display. If St Catherine’s formidable life story isn’t enough inspiration, you can be cheered on by a literal thumbs-up from the lady herself. An inspirational sight for the dark at heart, if ever there was one.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Wheat-free in Tuscany: pears, pecorino and porcini

Italian food is unthinkable without pizza and pasta, but Tuscany's cuisine has far subtler delights than an overdose on carbs. Dodging the dough is a necessity for me, as I eat gluten-free, but Tuscany's autumn flavours -- porcini mushrooms, smoked garlic and fragrant truffle honey -- would persuade anyone to surrender the pizza cutter. Here are the flavoursome highlights of this sunny Italian region, without a margherita in sight.

Porcini risotto. With the first cooling breeze, Italian gourmets are quick to rustle through the heaps of autumn leaves to sniff out the season's crop of porcini. These meaty mushrooms are such a national treasure that regulations are being tightened to ensure they aren't harvested away entirely. Porcini mushrooms, in fresh, dried or pickled form, lend an earthy, nutty flavour to countless dishes, but are best served up in a creamy risotto, showered with parmesan shavings.

Garlic-marinated beef. With the summer sun disappearing, Italians are quick to choose a nourishing meaty dish to prepare for the cold. Tender matured beef, dressed in virgin olive oil, smoked garlic, oregano and cracked black peppercorns, is a Tuscan classic. A bed of rocket leaves and potatoes soak up the fragrant juices (see left). A continental twist on the British Sunday roast.

Truffles galore. The pheromonal scent of truffles abounds in everything from oil infusions to aromatic truffle honey. The gnarly gourmet fungus, celebrated in festivals through Tuscany every autumn, adds a heady kick to savoury and sweet dishes. A Tuscan speciality is pecorino studded with black truffles. Some locals even swear that a tiny amount of white truffle can add panache to cake and ice cream. It seems there's nothing this Italian superfood can't do.

Cheese and honey.
The gelato season may continue a while longer in such a mild climate, but savoury desserts are the sophisticated choice for this time of year. The soft cheese marzolino, christened with a drizzle of olive oil, is often served as a treat, but it's the hard, mature cheeses that are in their prime during October and November, such as seasoned ewe's cheese pecorino. After a meal this may be served with pears, nuts and honey to cut through the salty, musky flavour of the cheese.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Travel icons vs. local gems: the gloves are off

PR-driven buzzwords like "staycation" may be irritating, but there's no denying that the trend for flight-free UK holidays is here to stay. Whether you're holidaying close to home through penury, environmental concerns, or sincere appreciation of this sceptered isle, here's how three less-known UK attractions measure up to Europe's iconic destinations...

1. Leaning tower of Pisa vs. Leaning tower of Caerphilly
Tuscany exudes a powerful charm, and Pisa's architectural oddity has become a staple of tourist photos. But why battle the amateur snappers, all crowding to get that perfect picture of themselves holding up the leaning tower? You can get the same smugshot (modelled on the left by my long-suffering travel companion, Normal Matt) at the stunning castle in Caerphilly, Wales, which has a gravity-defying south tower. Instead of weaving through crowds, you'll share the castle's enormous grounds with a handful of tourists, and the shop across the moat sells delicious local cheese for a turret-side picnic. A victory for the Valleys.

2. Alhambra Palace, Grenada vs. Alhambra Palace, Bradford
It would take colossal artistic licence to compare the grand Moorish palace to a shabby theatre in Bradford. Nonetheless, forgoing Espana in favour of a great northern weekend definitely has its pros. Catching a show at Bradford's Alhambra is cheaper than London's west end, and the nearby curry houses famously serve Britain's best balti. (Try Omar's, proud home of the "Giant Naan" challenge.) The ghostly skeletons of some of Bradford's grander buildings, gradually being reclaimed by creeping ivy (pictured, left) make for an evocative walk around the town centre, but I think even the most hedonistic weekend doesn't compare to tales of sultans and lovers: ole.

3. The London Eye vs. The Manchester Wheel
Even those who love London ardently, as I do, wince at the prices. A skylark's view of the capital weighs in at a painful £18.60 if you don't book ahead, but spending that at Manchester's giant ferris wheel will get you close to three tickets.

And there's none of that branding nonsense: it's not an "Eye", it's not "EDF-sponsored" -- it's "The Wheel", plain and simple. It may have a no-frills moniker, but The Wheel boasts soaring views of Manchester's cathedral and shopping district, and you'll be able to afford a few pints afterwards. Sinclair's Oyster Bar is in nearby Cathedral Gardens for cheap ales: this rustic boozer has outdoor seating cosy enough to eavesdrop on the locals under the late-summer sun. A definite win for our friends up north.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Extreme eating: top four daredevil cuisines

Enthusiastic travellers love a bite of local cuisine, but for the full experience it's likely you'll be served up something altogether less appetising than a paella. Here's a menu of four of the most challenging dishes around the globe...

1. Rotten shark meat, Iceland. Raw shark is best not eaten, because of the strong ammonia smell and uric acid content. But Icelanders have masterminded a curious way to make it more palatable: dicing it, leaving it under gravel for several weeks, and retrieving it only when it's good and putrid. (Why didn't I think of that?) The delicacy, known as hakarl, is known to shock uninitiated tastebuds, so keep a strong chaser at hand, preferably local liqueur brennivin or the next item...

2. Diesel drink, Latvia. The offer of a shot of Black Balsam might seem like a welcome mouthful compared to rotten shark, but don't be fooled. The taste of Latvia's national drink is a fusion of raw lemons and battery acid, and this treacly liquid packs a punch that will leave you reeling (and set a flock of Baltic barmaids smiling wickedly, as you gurn and cough). This beverage sorts the men from the boys, or rather, the locals from the tourists. This is surely Latvia's most powerful weapon against the assault of stag parties on Riga.

3. Maggot cheese, Sardinia. Dinner party guests might jest that a slightly whiffy brie is so ripe it could wander right off your plate. But what about a cheese so alive it attacks you as you eat? Connoisseurs of casu marzu are known to cover their eyes as they eat this maggot-infested cheese, as the leaping larvae can strike snackers in the face. The reward for being assailed by the critters? A deep, rich flavour, like a very strong Gorgonzola, and the infinite respect (and revulsion) of your friends.

4. Duck embryo, Philippines. If you still haven't put down your fork, the final course of balut could well make you wince. The alien apparition of a whole duck foetus floating in vinegar is certainly challenging to the western palate. If etiquette demands you choke one down, take heart in its high protein content and aphrodisiac qualities. Personally, I'd prefer roses and chocolates...

Monday, 18 July 2011

Budget flights: the secret joys of airport towns

Picture the scene: your feet, already in holiday sandals, are nearly frozen by the plane's air-conditioning and your skin is scented with factor 35. You have a busy trip ahead of you, all the major landmarks, every cafe recommended by Lonely Planet, and some well-deserved R&R on the beach. When the plane hits the tarmac, and you step out onto the runway into the blissfully warm air, your heart leaps because you've finally arrived!

Or have you? A quick scan of the airport reveals a shuttle bus that takes you to the city centre, but what's this? A 90-minute journey? There's nothing quite like a lengthy roadtrip in an overcrowded coach to ruin the exciting momentum of a holiday, or chip away precious hours from a mini-break. You blame yourself for trusting that budget airline with its nonchalant parentheses: Paris (Beauvais), Barcelona (Girona)... or rather, Your Destination (Somewhere Hundreds of Miles Away).

One of Ryanair's most irritating features (for the uninitiated) is that it takes you to a smaller airport often quite far from your intended destination. It's not Paris, but nearly-Paris. (Like ordering a steak in a restaurant and having the waiter point out a field of cows, advising that "it's nearly-steak".) After more than an hour on a sweaty coach, having coughed up another ten euro for the privilege, and you might start wondering how great a saving you actually made with those low, low flight prices.

There's one simple solution to "Ryanair Regret", and that is, don't get on that coach. Bid goodbye to the rest of the rabble from your flight, as they crowd towards the shuttle bus to Milan, the crown jewel of Italian chic. You, my friend, are not rushing onwards to the overpriced, fashion-forward cultural mecca, but remaining in the smaller medieval town of Bergamo, where Ryanair so gracelessly left you. Bergamo, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, with a beautiful old town and a ruined castle, is a gem of the Lombardy region. Overlooking it for its more snobbish neighbour would be a great shame.

One of my happiest discoveries was through a Ryanair flight to "Hamburg (Lubeck)". I had booked this with the intention of seeing Hamburg's beautiful main square, Christmas markets (and, by sobering contrast, the terribly sad rose garden memorial for children who died in medical experiments during World War II). I made it to Hamburg, but only after a lengthy detour in stunning Lubeck, famous for its city walls, waterside views, marzipan and mulled wine. Years later, Lubeck has opened up as an international tourist destination, presumably with tonnes of marzipan hearts being created for the influx of visitors.

Love it or hate it, Ryanair has done some interesting things for travel. It has prompted hundreds of budget-conscious holidaymakers to pore over the Ryanair destinations map and say, "Fancy Szczecin, dear?" or "How about having the stag-do in Bydgoszcz?" Michael O'Leary may not be an ambassador for tourism off the beaten track, but his out-of-the-way airports have certainly broadend my horizons.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Gone fission: the giant catfish of Chernobyl

I was half-expecting to see the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons when we approached the River Prypiat flowing through Chernobyl, Ukraine. You could hardly be blamed for imagining that wildlife in the shadow of the sarcophagus, the huge concrete structure enclosing the nuclear waste of the 1986 disaster, might have suffered some graphic mutations. But the only unusual thing about the catfish was their enormous size. Watching them thrash around in the water, in the spring sunshine, felt like being on a day trip to the zoo rather than the world’s most famous fall-out zone.

Abandoned bumper car in the Chernobyl fallout zone.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Many column inches have been spent debating “disaster tourism”, the practice of visiting the sites of terrible past events, like Chernobyl. There is an uncomfortable line between sincere respects paid to a dark moment in history, and clumsily clicking a camera at infamous sights like the Auschwitz museum’s room full of hair. The pull to confront the sites of man’s greatest inhumanity is usually coupled with the dilemma of visitor etiquette. Does it cheapen the victims’ memory to photograph the Nazi gas chambers? Is treading the bone-studded soil of Choeung Ek a step too far? Sometimes the atrocities are so geographically removed from your own experience that you wonder uneasily whether commemorating these events falls under the important banner of “Never forget”, or is sheer indulgence in a sorrow not your own.

Gigantic thrashing Chernobyl catfish.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The Chernobyl fall-out zone, the area evacuated and largely left fallow after the nuclear accident, has largely been preserved from rubber-necking. Fenced off from the public since the area was evacuated, the town of Prypiat and the surrounding countryside have been left to grow wild. The Ukrainian government announced late last year that they were opening up the area to tourism, but guides have been taking curious travellers on fiercely controlled tours through the fall-out zone for years, usually arranged through hostels like this one in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The strange beauty of overgrown buildings in the fallout zone.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The surprise to me was that Prypiat wasn't a dead town, but a living museum surrounded by greenery, flowers and fish. While the countryside has remained undisturbed since the accident, claims that this area’s freedom from human influence has created a wildlife sanctuary have been strongly contested. We may not get a full picture of the effect on local wildlife for many years to come, but it's certain that tour guides will praise it as a nature reserve, while encouraging you to feed the fish.
Peopled by grafitti, if not by real people.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Which brings us to why the catfish are so big. Much as we'd like to imagine they've gained superpowers from the reactor, the prosaic explanation is overfeeding by visitors, and by the workers who commute into the highly guarded zone to work on fully decommissioning the plant. Workers on their lunchbreaks throwing crumbs to catfish on a sunlit riverbank is hardly the image we get from the word "Chernobyl" but perhaps it's time to strip away the gothic menace and see both light and dark, tragic and flourishing, concrete and catfish.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Gnome and Away: the fairy folk of Iceland

“Nearly all Icelanders believe in the hidden folk,” teased our tour guide, driving us smoothly around the Golden Circle’s geysirs and waterfalls. Wandering through Iceland’s martian landscape (the land of fire and ice, symbolised by the country’s flag), I almost want to believe in them myself. But despite surveys confirming the belief prevails, I’m straining to imagine that it’s widespread among glacially intellectual Icelanders. It’s like discovering that a sardonic friend believes sincerely in the power of crystals: you wonder if the joke is on you, some higher irony you haven’t grasped.

Since Iceland’s economic meltdown, more travellers have been tempted to test whether the stratospheric prices still exist, but bad press from volcanic ash clouds and failing banks have deterred many. The draw of Iceland’s natural wonders will bring the tourists back, and the rich folklore itself – Icelandic School of Elves, anyone? – will ensure a steady stream of curious visitors. The isolation is enticing too, as the sparse population and empty acres of land give an otherworldly feeling to the countryside. And being at the cutting-edge of technology and communications hasn’t eroded Iceland’s connection to the old Icelandic sagas, still read by schoolchildren today. The ancient and the modern, the internet and the elves, all cohabit happily on the island.

Certainly, if there’s any place you can imagine dotted with elves, it’s surely Iceland, with its waterfalls, stunning rocky outcrops and spitting hot pools. But I have to wonder where the fairy folk are hiding, in a landscape devoid of forest shelter. (Riffing on Iceland’s alcoholic nightlife and the bare horizons, our guide jokes: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Put down the vodka and stand up.) It seems hidden folk are only revealed to the knowledgeable eye: the lichen spatters on the rocks are the dashed brains of a fallen elven hero, we are told. The coast shelters shoals of mermen. And the rocks themselves must not be moved, for fear of offending a hidden stranger underneath.

“Iceland receives packages every year from tourists returning the rocks they took as souvenirs,” the guide warns. “Nothing but bad luck comes from disturbing the rocks of the hidden folk.” And this delightful disincentive seems to work: the members of our group eyeing the parched volcanic rock fragments pocket nothing. Perhaps generations of Icelandic children have been similarly deterred, and what could be a more colourful way to encourage preservation of the natural environment? For Iceland’s untouched geological wonders, perhaps we should thank the vengeful gnomes.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Bathing and nothingness: Druskininkai, Lithuania

The great joy of thumbing through travel guides is reading about the places tourists avoid. I'm not talking about off-the-beaten-track islands with pristine sands, but those perfectly ordinary places without a gallery or landmark between them. You can practically see the travel writer's sweat beading on their brow as they muster up phrases like "hidden charm", "busy transport hub" or "shaking off old perceptions" to justify including these humdrum towns between pages on glamorous capital cities and remote ecotourist yurt sites. You'll spot these destinations by the sparse "Things to do" section, which will be padded out with galleries that are really carpet shops, and a good long paragraph on that charming rusty fountain in the main square (cameras out, quick!).

But look past the strained prose kindly advising that the town "needs no more than a day to do it justice". (That's writer-speak for "there's one cafe, one bus stop, and a museum of postage stamps that opens every first Tuesday of the month. And you'll need to knock on a crabby old babushka's shutters to gain access.") When there's nothing touristy to do, you can't help but find what the locals get up to and get a glimpse into their world.

My favourite unsung gem this year is Druskininkai, Lithuania. Lonely Planet opines cheerfully that the city is "shedding its fusty old grey-haired image". The grand total of two readers who have clicked "like" on that destination page must be thrilled by this endorsement. But while grey hairs, and grey buildings, were in plentiful supply during my visit, the waterside views of this nondescript city are stunning, and its long-standing status as a spa town has given it a luxuriant life beneath the shabby skyline. While it is seldom on the travel wishlist of non-Lithuanians, Druskininkai's mighty waterpark is a neon palace of waterslides, saunas and whirlpools. That hearty practice of sauna birch flagellation is meted out with gusto, and the poolside bar seems to be a mecca for lovers and gossips. And I can vouch for the buoyancy of the floating cocktail cups -- easy to let them slip after a gin or two (hic), so the innovation was appreciated.

The fewer the must-sees, the better the people-watching. And while we all pretend that eight hours admiring classical sculptures in the Louvre is the very reason we jet overseas, who doesn't enjoy a free pass to rekindle the childhood pleasures of an entire day of waterslides? Don't obey the guidebook top ten, just dive in!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Welcome, readers!

"We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfilment," said writer-historian Hillaire Belloc, and as I add to this blog, I hope you'll find plenty of both.

Travel is my one great enduring love, from last-minute jaunts to Paris, to long-haul journeys with military-style planning. I'm partial to the odd long weekend of chain-drinking sangria, but far more eager to learn something about a new place and, dare I say it, about myself.

Dear readers, I'm in no danger of spilling over into a high tax bracket any time soon, but determination, saving and internet savvy have taken me to some beautiful places (and to some godforsaken hotels in those beautiful places). Give me a choice between forgoing Wispa bars for months and a bottom-rung Ryanair flight, and all the obnoxious Michael O'Leary quotes in the world couldn't dissuade me from the latter. It's the reason I work, it's the reason I wake up, it's the reason I lose so many hours trawling Skyscanner and Travelzoo.

So come along with me as I share the frustration of knee-grazing economy seats, hotels that turn out to be hospitals, and last-minute overweight luggage scares. And share equally as I describe the joys of an authentically musty Moroccan cafe, where I sip a freshly blended orangeflower milkshake...that inevitably gives me food poisoning. Arm-chair tourism and Schadenfreude make excellent bedfellows, I promise!