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...