Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: top 10 sights from my year in travel

It won't be long until the countdown to midnight begins, so let's take stock of the rip-roaring ride that has been 2013. These are my ten most memorable sights from the year.

10. Fighting gales in England's Lake District

Blustery winter's day in Tarn Hows near Keswick, England.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
You don't have to jump on a plane for a breathtaking view. The Lake District is only 90 minutes' drive from where I grew up in northwest England and hiking its dozens of trails, like this one near Keswick, is a fab way to explore my home island at its rugged (and oh-so-windy!) best.

9. Blue skies over Chateau de Chambord in France's Loire Valley

The decadent splendour of Chateau de Chambord in France.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Francois I, who ordered the construction of this impressive castle in France's Loire Valley, barely spent any time there at all. More fool him - I could spend days admiring its ornate turrets and walking the expansive grounds.

8. Looking down from Hong Kong's peak

Dying daylight over Hong Kong's skyscrapers.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Seeing this forest of skyscrapers at sunset was one of the highlights of my first trip to Hong Kong in 2013. That and the temples, the food, the shopping, the museums... seems like a second visit is in order.

7. A bird's-eye view over London from The Shard 

London's Tower Bridge from the top floor of the Shard.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
For all the time I've lived in London, I've never used the word 'tiny' to describe it. But from floor 72 of The Shard, I could see my city in miniature.

6. Walking an Icelandic glacier

The dramatic moonscape of Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I wanted to pack in as many adventures to my Iceland trip as possible, and one of my favourites was strapping on some crampons to scale the ash-streaked Sólheimajökull glacier.

5. Falling head over heels with Plovdiv, Bulgaria

A lazy late-afternoon view from one of Plovdiv's seven hills.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I had been aching to visit Bulgaria for years, and finally did some backpacking there in 2013. Rila Monastery and the capital Sofia were memorable, but it's the spirited city of Plovdiv that captured my heart.

4. Trekking in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain National Park

The mighty Cradle Mountain, in calmer weather than the days I hiked.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Don't mess with the mountain. Even one of the easier treks around Cradle Mountain subjected me to rolling mists, battering gales and eight different kinds of weather within the space of a few hours.

3. Epic snow in Austria

Nothing but big powder and bright blue skies in Zauchensee, Austria.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Ever felt like you were flying? The spectacular late-season snow in Europe meant abundant snow, and gliding around the silky fresh powder was the most thrilling ski experience I've ever had.

2. Descending into a volcano in Iceland

Inside the magma chamber of Thrihnukagigur.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I'd been fascinated with volcanoes for a long time, but the vividly coloured chamber of Thrihnukagigur was a subterranean wonderland unlike anything I'd ever seen. (Read more about my Icelandic adventures in my article for Lonely Planet.)

1. Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time

Hopefully the first of many visits to India. My first visit to the Taj Mahal.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
It'll be no surprise to anyone who has heard me banging on about making it to India that my number 1 most treasured travel experience of 2013 was finally standing in front of the Taj Mahal. It's been a truly wild year in travel, so what's in store in 2014? Let's pop open the bubbly and start this one off in style...

Monday, 30 December 2013

My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal

Few sights exhaust superlatives quite as quickly as Taj Mahal. I finally made it to Agra this year and my first glimpses of the world's most famous building lived up to the hype.

The pearly Taj Mahal dome peeking over the exterior fence.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Your first view of the Taj Mahal will be a tease. As you walk towards the main gate, the Taj's enormous dome peers over the wall like a watchful ghost. Although it wasn't yet fully in sight, this perfectly symmetrical building looked so unreal I shivered seeing it for the first time.

Silhouetted hands in front of the Taj as the photographic frenzy begins.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Unless you turn up at dawn, you can expect a crowd of travellers fumbling for their cameras to be your next view. Tourists clog the entryway, eager for that first snapshot of the Taj, and who can blame them? It's not only the Taj's beauty that draws visitors, but the story of its inspiration - Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's boundless love for his favourite wife Mumtaz.

There's an initial scrum at the first entryway to the grounds.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Expect to be jostled through the entryway by sharp elbows and camera lenses longer than your forearm, but once past the threshold you're in the dramatically wide open space of the Taj Mahal grounds. The white marble dome looks like a mirage on the horizon, mesmerising enough to allow you to ignore the sea of tourists.

After the crowd thins, the view opens out. And it's as amazing as you've heard.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Now you're free to wander the charbagh (traditional Persian-style gardens) and contemplate the splendid symmetry of the world's most famous mausoleum. The finely manicured grounds are divided up by sunken baths and fountains, to evoke the lush Paradise of the Quran.

Four minarets surround the principal dome of the Taj Mahal.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Lift your jaw from the floor for long enough to ponder on what you're seeing. The Taj is an intriguing blend of different architectural styles: the chief mosaic maker was from Delhi, the dome is a Turkish design, the Taj's calligraphy was perfected in the Syrian style and gems were inlaid by South Indian artists.

Quranic script inlaid gemstones in the pure white marble.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Quranic verses wind their way above the gateway and in a stroke of design virtuosity, the size of the inlaid characters increases the further up the wall you go, so they can be read from a distance.

Definitely a site that benefits from slow exploration.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Each of the four towers on each corner of the Taj is 40m tall. These gigantic constructions are working minarets, from which a muezzin can chant the Islamic call to prayer.

The gemstones on every wall are so perfectly inlaid that the wall feels smooth.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
It took 20,000 pairs of hands to design and create the Taj Mahal, with no detail left unpolished. Gemstones are set so smoothly into the white marble that surfaces feel perfectly smooth.

Floral carvings on every corner.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Expert artists, marble workers and designers were summoned not only from across India, but from Persia, Syria and Uzbekistan to complete this master work. It took 21 years to complete, by which time a different political landscape was evolving. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj in memory of Mumtaz, would find his regent defeated in battle by his own son, Aurangzeb, who declared his father unfit to rule. Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort, where he was able to live out his days gazing out at his beloved Taj.

A final glimpse of the Taj (in my friend Nidhika's sunglasses) before leaving...
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
And it's a sight that leaves visitors spellbound to this day. I was overwhelmed imagining the number of stoneworkers, artists and logicians who lent their craft to the creation of this world wonder. If you are lucky enough to visit, do their toil justice by taking your time to explore the grounds and drink in the Taj's beauty and complexity at your own pace. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Myvatn Nature Baths: the whiffier cousin of Iceland's Blue Lagoon

If you're lucky enough to travel to Iceland, it's likely that the Blue Lagoon is on your wishlist. A short hop from Reykjavik and even closer to Keflavik airport, the silky waters of this outdoor bathing spot are considered one of Iceland's unmissable experiences.

 Preparing to jump into the Blue Lagoon. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Iceland teems with watery wonders. Soaking in mineral-rich thermally-heated pools is a beloved pastime, with the Blue Lagoon affectionately thought of as a tourist trap. It's one of many hot-pots to hop around on your Icelandic adventures. Each is unique, but not always for reasons you'd expect.

 The ever-so-slightly grey and grim exterior of Myvatn Nature Baths.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Many travellers to Iceland are struck by the sulphurous tang to the tap water. Airport hotels echo with disbelieving sniffing sounds, as wide-nostrilled travellers take their first showers in Iceland. But believe your nose: the sulphur smell is real, and very prominent in the steamy air above pools like the Blue Lagoon.

 Normal Matt reacts. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
But nothing could have prepared me for the nasal assault at Myvatn Nature Baths in the north of Iceland. My travel partner Normal Matt and I drove up to the baths and flung open the car doors... only to immediately start gagging at the smell. The odour was incredible, overpowering, and slightly sickening to our unacclimatised nostrils. We looked disbelievingly at the locals merrily wandering in, and winced in sympathy at a pair of Italian tourists who had leapt back into their hire car and zipped their windows shut.

 Soaking in the geothermally heated, if smelly, waters. Ahhh...
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
"Seems just like a small Blue Lagoon," said Normal Matt, nose wrinkled. "Except really eggy."

We made our way through the puffs of steam, paid our entry fee (wallet-friendly, compared to the Blue Lagoon) and showered before stepping into the milky waters. The pong invaded our senses with every lungful of air. Bobbing around in the warm water, gritty black sand between our toes, it was hard to ignore the olfactory impact. It gradually became a little less noticeable after enough time soothing our muscles in the warm water. Relaxing as it was, there was a constant waft of overripe egg mayo sandwich.
 Bathers relax in the milky waters of Myvatn Nature Baths.
© Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I heard repeatedly on the trip that you know you're a true Icelander when you barely notice the sulphurous scent. Even as I sniffed the distinctive eggy odour on my drying hair, I knew that if bathing in volcanic springs was a regular treat, I could definitely get used to this.

Read more about my travels in Iceland in my article for Lonely Planet, 'Fire and ice: adventures in Iceland'

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The day I plunged into an Icelandic volcano

Volcanoes. At their gentlest, they're grumbling, ash-puffing menaces. At their worst, they can rain fiery destruction and bury cities. And yet when I heard you could descend right into the belly of a volcano in Iceland, I couldn't slap on a helmet quickly enough.

Trekking over the rocky plains at Bláfjöll to the volcano. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Ok, I admit it. This was no daredevil feat. Thrihnukagigur volcano is dormant and has been for thousands of years. The highest risk factor is probably the humiliation of trying to pronounce 'Thrihnukagigur' (which sounds so much softer, and more sarcastic, when uttered by an Icelander).

Descending into a magma chamber would usually be impossible as hardened lava closes off the chamber to the surface. But with Thrihnukagigur the magma drained away into the bowels of the Earth, allowing travellers to explore its interior.

Amazing lava-rippled rock formations in Bláfjöll. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Tours leave directly out of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, carrying foolhardy volcano fans to Bláfjöll lava fields, about 30km south of the city. About 50 minutes of boot-shredding hiking leads up to a temporary lodge, the departure point of the descent. Guides told me the lodge is helicoptered in, piece by piece, for the summer volcano tour season, and dissembled at the end of August.
Kitting us out with helmets at lamps at the volcano lodge. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Despite all assertions about the safety of the descent, it was hard not to feel a flutter of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Wow, it's a volcano, marvelled my inner child. Yes, it's an effing volcano, replied my inner claustrophobe. Imagine the obituary, wondered my inner pessimist.

But there was little time for my life to flash before my eyes. The first small group of explorers was gathering for the final climb to the top of the volcano, where a creaky platform leading across to an open cable lift was waiting.

Don't look down... travellers gingerly step across to the open lift. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
We were each strapped with carabiners to the metal railings as we made our way across the gently trembling platform to the open lift. Once we were hooked onto the lift, with a steep drop yawning beneath us, the technician activated the lift into its shuddering descent. The contours of the mouth of the volcano meant the lift slid beneath the lip of the cave and plunged us quickly into darkness, with droplets raining down on us from the damp walls.

Travellers' headlamps illuminate the stunning interior of the volcano. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
When we finally came to a stop, more than 120m down (twice the height of Reykjavik's famous Hallgrímskirkja), our surroundings looked otherworldly. Far from being a dark pit hidden from light, the walls danced with different colours: every shade of ochre and red, flashes of blue-black where rock had chipped away from the walls, and tinges of yellow and gold. I had expected journeying to the centre of the Earth to be thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, but I didn't realise it would be this beautiful.

Surprisingly rich colours in the magma chamber's interior. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
We carefully scrambled around the volcano, steering clear of the areas cordoned off (something about a 100m drop straight down? I won't be wandering far). The opening of the volcano, that we'd stood above minutes earlier, was a tiny pin-prick of light far above us. It belonged to another world. When it was finally time for the lift to crank us back up to the surface, the chatter in our little group had hushed. We'd seen something too mind-blowing to make small-talk as we rose slowly towards the daylight.

Well-deserved Icelandic lamb broth. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Back at the lodge, steaming bowlfuls of soup awaited us. We slurped them down eagerly while chatting about what we'd seen. Back under glaring daylight, our subterranean experience felt dreamlike and unreal. Trekking back to our drop-off point, and climbing aboard the bus back to Reykjavik, felt numbingly mundane after exploring an underground kingdom.

But as was so often the case during my Iceland travels, magic and mishap came hand in hand: I snapped quickly out of my reverie when our bus skidded to a halt and broke down on the gravelly road. With the wait that followed, I had plenty of time for dreamy reverie...

Read more about my travels in Iceland in my article for Lonely Planet, 'Fire and ice: adventures in Iceland'

Monday, 26 August 2013

Fowl misdeeds on Iceland's Ring Road

Splendid fjord views, geological marvels and in-car snacking on salted cod. I'm just back from driving Iceland's Ring Road, and it lived up to the hype.

A fjord-side stop-off in southern Iceland. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The conversation in our rented VW was reduced to a series of appreciative murmurs as each new wonder came into view: the forbidding Vatnajökull glacier, the navy-blue waters of the eastern fjords, and Martian deserts that stretched off into the distance.

Following the Ring Road (Route 1) is also a lazy driver's dream. No risk of the sat-nav interrupting your reverie. You'll coast for scores of kilometres without a turnoff.

Colourful canoes in Seyðisfjörður, eastern Iceland. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

I had taken to Iceland's roads nervously. Unused to driving on the right and flummoxed by Icelandic road signs, I had an iron grip on the wheel. No pothole would go undodged, no speed limit would be exceeded. Rustbuckets might overtake me, but I planned to explore Iceland without incident.

Unfortunately, then came the bird.

The previous day, I had been exploring the magical Mývatn region in eastern Iceland. This geologically wild area of the country doesn't just hiss with volcanic steam, it teems with birdlife in its enormous lake and wetlands. Spotter's guides to the local wildfowl were everywhere in Mývatn, so when a plump bird emerged from the roadside shrubbery, I knew at once it was a snipe.

A snipe in safer surrounds. Image by Axel Kristinsson. CC BY 2.0
He was safely tucked in among the tall grasses on a roadside verge, and as I trundled along at the speed limit of 90km/h I had plenty of time to admire the speckled plumage and graceful beak from afar.

What I didn't know was that the bird was cursed with unfortunate timing. Or perhaps he harboured a darkness in his avian brain, the prospect of endless days foraging for worms stretching out pointlessly in his mind. Maybe he could take no more, after another unsuccessful snipe mating season. We may never know.

Deadly driving machine. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
In any case, a mere moment before my car could zoom safely past, the snipe launched himself into the air - and thunked directly into my windscreen with a queasy splatter. After the collision, the bird ricocheted over my car. All that remained after that split-second was a dark trickle on the wind shield. 

I whimpered queasily as the windscreen wipers slicked the gory evidence across the glass. 

Later, Icelanders reassured me that Iceland's thickets and lakelands overflow with these chubby, unobservant creatures. Uncomforted, I mused darkly on how northern Europe's higher suicide rate extends to its waterfowl. And I took a break from driving.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Amphi Festival, Cologne: an epic gothic gathering in Germany

There's a lot to say about Cologne in Germany - the famous fragrance comes to mind, as does the iconic twin-towered cathedral dominating the city's skyline. The next thing I think of is the easy-living riverside drinking, and perhaps the famous locks of love affixed to Hohenzollern Bridge.

What you might not know is that for nearly a decade Cologne has been hosting a huge gathering of alternative music fans, bringing together punks, goths and dark techno addicts in an explosion of neon hair, black lace and flamboyant parasols.

Hohenzollern bridge and the Dom in Cologne at twilight - and an array of incredible
costumes at 2013's Amphi Festival. Images © Anita Isalska.
Amphi Festival, held at Cologne's Tanzbrunnen Open Air arena, saw a whopping 16,000 music lovers make a pilgrimage to the city in 2013. Despite being a music festival regular, my jaw was on the floor when I saw the level of love (and lacework) that had gone into the outfits.

More of Amphi's best-dressed, from parasols to wings to fake blood -
and leather, whatever the weather. Images © Anita Isalska.

Full Victorian ball gowns, leather kilts, elaborately stitched corsets and buckets of fake blood - it was like wandering around a macabre pantomime. Don't get me wrong, Normal Matt and I had put in some effort, but hats and feathers and fishnet is really nothing when you are facing off with a horned fairy princess in a pink corset and wings. Amazing.

Gross St Martin Church in Cologne, and the colourful taverns
of Fischmarkt. Image © Anita Isalska.

Cologne is the perfect city to host a parade of darkly fantastical characters. The Dom (cathedral) is among the more awe-inspiring in Europe, and is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. It's hard not to gasp when you see its intricately carved facade - the largest in the world - right in front of you as you leave Cologne's main train station.

Panorama of Amphi Festival in Cologne. Image © Anita Isalska.
Outside the festival grounds, mojitos were being muddled into the early hours at the cocktail bars in the Alter Markt, at the kind of prices that make a (now) London girl reluctant to return home.

Bridge over the Rhine in Cologne, Germany. Image © Anita Isalska.
As many times as I visit Cologne, I always feel certain I'll go back. One thing is for sure, though - I'm coming back next year with a better costume.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Pivotal times in Sofia, Bulgaria

When I arrived in Sofia a couple of weeks ago, I was given two pieces of advice from the lady renting me the apartment.

The first thing she said was, 'Be careful of gypsies.' After a quick double-take, I wondered if I'd wandered into a horror movie where the naive heroine is warned (usually about something wince-inducingly politically incorrect) by a well-meaning but menacing crone. 'Beware the curse of the full moon...'

The second thing she said was, 'Don't worry about protest. Is like big beer party.'

Tsar Osvoboditel by twilight. Image © Anita Isalska
I knew in the run-up to my travels in Bulgaria that protests were in full swing, demanding the resignation of the Socialist Party government and pushing for reforms (and they're continuing to protest as I write) but there didn't seem to be any cause for concern.

Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Image © Anita Isalska
Protests take on a different sheen in other countries. I'd happily march for a cause on home turf, but distance naturally muddies our ability to take the political temperature. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether I should avoid Sofia centre after dark, or steer clear of the protests.

Saint Sofia gazes down over bul Todor Alexandrov. Image © Anita Isalska
When I first heard the protest approaching, it was a loud musical hum, accompanied by the cheering you'd expect at a football match. When crowds of people marched to the crossroads at Serdika in the city centre, late in the evening, they were waving flags, holding hands with sweethearts, bouncing toddlers on their shoulders. The 'beer party' comparison from the apartment owner suddenly made sense. And it felt like the change had already happened; the mood of the crowd was triumphant, as if change would inevitably come.

The splendid Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Image © Anita Isalska
But aside from a few blurry pictures of crowds walking calmly at twilight, there isn't a single snap of unrest on my camera. In fact the most unruly mob I came across in the Bulgarian capital was probably this lot. You know what travellers are like at the prospect of a freebie:

I'd highly recommend this free walking tour if you're in the city. Image © Anita Isalska 
It felt like a privilege to see part of a turning of the tide in Bulgaria. Everyone I met, in Sofia and beyond, was eager that international reporting of the protests didn't drive away visitors - I found it a fascinating time to explore the city and speak with locals (although of course, always check your government's travel advice before planning a trip).

Glorious wide boulevards and blue skies in Sofia. Image  Image © Anita Isalska
Barring any huge escalation of the situation in Bulgaria, which currently looks unlikely, the protests are no reason to avoid a visit.

Now, the curse of the full moon, on the other hand...

Read more about Eastern Europe in my article for Lonely Planet, Seven startling sights of Eastern Europe.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Best wildlife encounters in Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania

Wildlife-spotting can require patience and a good pair of binoculars. Hoping for fabulous fauna to drop from every branch, or alight on your shoulders Snow White-style, is a recipe for disappointment.

Unless you're in Cradle Mountain National Park. This most famous reserve in Australia's island state, Tasmania, is known for its distinctive summit but also for the eye-popping wildlife. I'm rarely the kind of traveller to lie in wait in swamps, hideouts or dawn safari vans to steal a glimpse of a coveted creature, but I didn't have to look far to be amazed. Here are a few of the best animal encounters on my trip to Cradle Mountain.

Skittish pademelons

Don't run away, little guy! Image © Anita Isalska 

This cuter cousin of the wallaby has a rabbit-like face and a daintier gait than a kangaroo. In Cradle Mountain National Park, it's almost difficult to get away from them. It's like being a rock star with dozens of adorable furry fans. In the early morning and at dusk especially, it seems you can barely open a car door, unzip your tent or take a stroll without seeing pairs of dark pademelon eyes blinking anxiously at you before they bounce off into the brush.

Exhibitionist echidna

A snuffling echidna, one of many on our trip. Image © Anita Isalska
I thought these guys were meant to be shy? Several echidnas graced us with their presence on this trip, from shuffling along the roads to ambling around the national park at dusk. The fella above stayed in full view, sniffing out ants, for a good 20 minutes before becoming bored of our camera. Aside from the noble platypus, the echnidna is the only mammal to lay eggs, but the conception is the weird part. Apparently male echnidnas will form queues of up to ten animals, following around a fertile female - sounds like comedy gold, or a really awkward date.

Bone-crunching Tasmanian devils

Adorable, yes - but this little fella can bite through your bones. Image © Anita Isalska
Ok, so these weren't a chance sighting. Your best chances of a Tassie devil experience - if you aren't satisfied with overhearing their harrowing nocturnal screams - is a trip to a sanctuary like Devils@Cradle (or closer to state capital Hobart, Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary). Seeing these shy marsupials scamper around and you could be excused for finding them adorable and puppy-like, until someone throws them a piece of carrion. There's nothing quite like this animal's guttural screams, and the sight of it crunching straight through a wallaby's skull, to put you off your lunch. Devils deliver one of the strongest bites (per unit body mass) in the animal world. Luckily for us, they are scavengers who prefer a juicy bit of roadkill.

Furious wombats

Don't be fooled by that cuddly exterior. Image © Anita Isalska
Little furry tanks. That's the best way to describe these stocky Aussie natives. Their teddy-bear looks don't prepare you for how fast these critters can move. I was creeping up on one of these fellas around the national park when a Japanese tourist screamed at me to turn around. When I spun round, I saw a second wombat barrelling past me into the trees.

These creatures are much-feared by motorists. When threatened, they present a muscular posterior armoured with tough cartilage that can tear through a car. If this creature won't survive a car strike, it plans to take you down with it.

Almost too many pademelons at Cradle Mountain Lodge. Image © Anita Isalska