Monthly Archives: June 2016

WHERE TO STAY IN VENICE AND GET THE CHEAP ONE OF HOTEL

Venice has been depicted and described so often that on arriving in the city you might have the slightly anticlimactic feeling that everything looks exactly as expected.

Any sense of familiarity quickly fades, however, as you start to look around: seeing a stack of furniture being hoisted from a barge up to a top-floor window, or someone fishing knee-deep in the lagoon a hundred metres from dry land, you understand that life here is not like life anywhere else. And the more closely you look, the more fascinating Venice becomes.

But where should you base yourself? Insatiable demand makes Venice’s hotels the most expensive in western Europe, and high season here is longer than anywhere else in Italy. But whatever kind of trip you’re planning, there’s somewhere for everyone. Here is our expert’s guide on where to stay in Venice.

BEST FOR LUXURY: SAN MARCO

The sestiere of San Marco has been the nucleus of Venice for more than a millennium. Many of Venice’s visitors make a beeline for this spot, spend a few hours here, then head for home without staying for even one night. But if you’re looking for luxury, stay around here to make the most of the city’s plushest hotels, the most elegant cafés and the swankiest shops.

Five star views: Europa e Regina. Commanding stunning views from the mouth of the Canal Grande; its terraces are among the most spectacular viewpoints in the city.
Super-luxe: Gritti Palace. Once the home of the doge, this hotel now offers every hi-tech facility you’d expect of a super-luxe hotel, but has lost none of its famous old-regime opulence.

BEST FOR ARCHITECTURE AND ART: DORSODURO

Some of the finest minor domestic architecture in Venice is concentrated here and the area’s superb collection of galleries makes it the perfect base for art lovers. The Gallerie dell’Accademia is the highlight, but there’s also Scuola Grande dei Carmini and the Guggenheim Collection.

Impeccable cool: DD 724. In a city awash with nostalgia, the cool high-grade modernist style of this locanda, right by the Guggenheim, comes as a welcome change.
Atmospheric rooms: Ca’ Maria Adele. Five of the twelve rooms in this very upmarket locanda are so-called “theme rooms”, with every item designed to enhance a particular atmosphere.

BEST FOR DAILY VENETIAN LIFE: SAN POLO AND SANTA CROCE

The focal points of daily life in San Polo and Santa Croce are the sociable open space of Campo San Polo and the Rialto area, once the commercial heart of the Republic and still the home of a market that’s famous far beyond the city’s boundaries. The bustle of the stalls and the unspoilt bars are a good antidote to cultural overload.

Traditional meets modern: Ca’ Arco Antico. Some of the best budget accommodation in the city, this locanda has big rooms and a great location.
Gothic getaway: Ca’ San Giorgio. Exposed timber beams and walls of raw brick advertise the age of the Gothic palazzo that’s occupied by this fine little locanda.

BEST FOR BACKWATERS: CANNAREGIO

The pleasures of this sestiere are generally more a matter of atmosphere than of specific sights, but you shouldn’t leave Venice without seeing the Ghetto, the first area in the world to bear that name and one of Venice’s most evocative quarters.

A monastic retreat: Abbazia. One of Cannaregio’s most restful hotels, the light-filled Abbazia occupies a former Carmelite monastery.
A restored palace: Palazzo Abadessa. All 15 bedrooms (some of them huge) are nicely furnished with genuine antiques, and there’s a lovely secluded garden.

ARE YOU NEED TO GO TO ROMANIA

A vast, remarkably diverse country, Romania packs in an outstanding synthesis of natural and cultural heritage, from majestic mountain ranges and Europe’s most extensive wetlands to startlingly pretty medieval towns and timeless villages.

Add to the mix some of the continent’s most impressive ecclesiastical monuments, invigorating treks and an abundance of spectacular wildlife, and you’ve got yourself one endlessly fascinating destination. Here are seven reasons to visit Romania now.

1. FOR BRASH BUCHAREST

On the surface, the Romanian capital is not one of the country’s most obvious destinations, thanks mainly to its monstrous – though oddly compelling – Socialist-era architecture. But patience is a virtue in this noisy, chaotic city, so seek and you’ll find: much-loved ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and a clutch of top draw museums.

Gastronomically, Bucharest has upped its game big-time recently, manifest in a flourish of sublime new restaurants, such as The Artist and Beca’s Kitchen, as well as a coterie of hip artisan coffee shops serving up the finest caffeine fixes this side of the former Iron Curtain – for starters, check out Origo or Steam. The city’s nightlife, too, pulses with an energy unrivalled anywhere else in the Balkans.

2. FOR WONDERFUL WILDLIFE

From bears to birds, Romania rates some of the continent’s most memorable wildlife. Thousands of brown bears roam the Carpathians, and while it’s not inconceivable that you’ll chance upon one if out hiking (not the ideal scenario), you’re better off joining an organised bear-watching trip.

There are both lynx and wolves, too, but good luck trying to spot these notoriously elusive creatures, though you will see red deer and chamois.

Meanwhile, the wonderfully remote Danube Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers up an array of winged fauna unmatched anywhere else in Europe; expect egrets, herons, red-breasted geese and white-tailed eagles, but best of all, the superb great white and Dalmatian pelicans. Even if you’re not here to twitch, these stunning wetlands merit several days’ exploration.

3. FOR MARVELLOUS MUSIC

If gypsy music is currently one of the hottest sounds on the planet, then the Romanians have a lot to answer for; from the mesmerising polyphonic grooves of the Taraf de Haidouks, to the blistering brass beats of the Mahala Rai Banda, this is one sonic experience that you don’t want to miss.

Try and catch a concert or, better still, visit a music village, such as Clejani, where, for a few leu and a couple of beers, you should be able to find a group of musicians willing to bash out a few tunes.

4. TO SEEK OUT ECCLESIASTICAL TREASURES

First port of call for most visitors are the gorgeous painted monasteries of southern Bucovina, in particular Suceviţa, Moldoviţa and Voronet, all of which look utterly resplendent with their imposing, fortified walls and dazzling medieval wall frescoes.

The outstanding, eighteenth-century wooden churches of Maramureş, meanwhile, are flamboyant, Gothic-inspired works of art, distinguished by steeply-pitched shingled roofs and fairy-tale spires; those at Bârsana and Surdeşti are perhaps the finest examples.

Then there are the fortified Saxon churches of southern Transylvania; usually set atop a hillock and quartered within a ring or two of walls, these erstwhile strongholds are occasionally austere but always impressive; the churches at Hărman, Prejmer and Mălâncrav are particularly fine specimens.

5. FOR TOP TREKKING

The beguiling Romanian landscape affords marvellous hiking opportunities, and, better still, the chances are that you’ll have them all to yourself. The two most celebrated mountain ranges are the Făgăraş and Retezat. The former boasts most of the country’s highest peaks, including Moldoveanu, which tops out at a very respectable 2544m, while the latter offers up more demanding, and scenically more rewarding, hikes.

Also corralled into this stunning corner of the Carpathian redoubt is the awesome Piatra Craiului ridge and the Bucegi massif. For something a little gentler, head to the glorious, beech and fir-cloaked Bucovina hills.

THE BEST ROUTES TRIP IN AUTRALIA

Pack your stuff, throw it in camper van along with a surfboard and don’t look back… This might be an old cliché but it’s one for good reason: Australia really is one of the best places on Earth for a road trip.

Whether you’re living the dream in your camper van, or making do with a less romantic form of transport, Australia’s well-kept, open roads beckon and will lead you through astonishing landscapes. There are many great road trips in Australia, but here are our favourites.

1. COASTAL VIEWS ON THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD

Staggering ocean views and easy access from Melbourne make this one of Australia’s best-loved road trips. Pack an overnight bag and follow the dramatic coastline, stopping to view a series of coastal rock formations, holding their ground in the surf.

The magnificent Twelve Apostles – eight giant sea stacks – appear otherworldly at sunset, guarding the limestone cliffs. Among the other rocky highlights include London Bridge arch, the Bay of Islands and Loch Ard Gorge.

At Bells Beach, grab a wetsuit and do your best Keanu Reeves’ impression. This was the famous surf setting for his film Point Break, but it was actually filmed in California.

If you’re not a surfer you can hike in Great Otway National Park, say hello to the koalas at Kennett River or kayak out into Apollo Bay to observe a seal colony. Otherwise, take it easy at a beach restaurant in the seaside town of Lorne.

Best for: Weekenders seeking surf and sea stacks.
How long: 2 days.
Need to know: Starts at Torquay, a 1.5-hour drive from Melbourne, and ends at Warrnambool.

 

2. ADVENTURE ALONG THE WAY FROM PERTH TO EXMOUTH

Driving north from Perth, you may expect nothing of the Outback landscape but scorched earth and straight roads all the way up the west coast. While these certainly exist, a road trip here is also punctuated with remarkable geological features, some of the world’s best (yet empty) beaches and kangaroos hopping alongside your camper van.

First, a bit of fun at Lancelin where you can go sand boarding in the dunes or off-roading in a truck-sized 4×4. Then on to the Pinnacles Desert where bizarre pillars protrude from the desert like ancient monoliths.

In Kalbarri National Park, see Nature’s Window and the Z-Bend Lookout, abseil Murchison Gorge and ride on horseback around the scenic estuary at Big River Ranch.

A five-hour drive north brings you to Shark Bay, home of weird stromatolites – the oldest fossils on Earth – and the brilliant-white Shell Beach. Stop at Monkey Mia to meet the dolphins before heading on to Coral Bay, where another pristine white beach greets you. From here you can wade out 50m to the Ningaloo Reef – the second-largest reef in Australia – to snorkel with dazzling fish, turtles, reef sharks and whale sharks.

Best for: Desert adventurers.
How long: 5 days.
Need to know: To extend the trip, keep going all the way to Broome, via Karijini National Park.

3. THE HOME STRAIT ON THE NULLARBOR PLAIN

The Nullabor is not for the faint-hearted. The mesmerising Eyre Highway runs through a vast, treeless plain, from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman in Western Australia.

With an almost 150km stretch that’s the world’s longest straight road, it’s no surprise that it’s known as “Nullaboring”. But many travellers love it for the beauty of the desert and the on-the-road camaraderie. There’s a strong sense of community at the roadhouses, which appear roughly every 200km – with nothing in between.

Venture away from the main road to see some of South Australia’s geological highlights, including Pildappa Rock – a 100m-long wave of red sandstone – or the peculiar rocks at Ucontitchie Hill and Murphy’s Hay Stacks.

From Denial Bay, the Eyre Highway clings to the coast all the way to Western Australia. At the Head of Bight, you’ve a good chance of spotting Southern Right Whales between June and October. Then there are the empty beaches, towering cliffs, the magnificent blow-holes – and the oddities… Eucla features the ghostly remains of a telegraph station protruding from the encroaching dunes, while Balladonia (population: 9) commemorates the spot where the Skylab space station fell to Earth in 1979.

Best for: Adventurers up for trying anything, loners and Nullarbor addicts.
How long: 7–10 days.
Need to know: Be prepared with a serviced car, and enough food and water to last between roadhouses. Daytime temperatures can reach 50°C and nights can be freezing. Be careful of wildlife and passing road-trains.

YOU COULD DO IN ALBANIA

Albania often doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. The country still suffers from the echoes of its Communist past: few people travelled in or out for decades during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial rule, and as travel in Europe developed, Albania got left behind.

It’s now somewhat overlooked by tourists, who would rather opt for Greece’s famously pretty islands, Italy’s gorgeous countryside or the romance of Croatia. But Albania’s low visitor numbers are no reflection on its offering for travellers. Here are a few things you probably didn’t know you could do in Albania.

1. HAVE THE BEACH TO YOURSELF

Think of Albania and you probably don’t think of the beach – but you should. The country has around 476km of coastline lapped by the warm Mediterranean sea. There are lively resort towns like Durrës in the north and Saranda in the south, but it’s the almost-untouched parts that will impress the most.

Hire a car and drive the coastal road from Durrës to Saranda stopping off in any of the remote fishing villages and towns along the way – the likelihood is, you’ll find a stretch of sand all to yourself somewhere.

2. EAT SUPERB SEAFOOD

Albanian food takes its flavours from a variety influences: the Ottomans, the Greeks, the Italians… But it’s the ocean that gives the country some of its best dishes. All along that gorgeous coastline you’ll find fish and seafood fresh off the boat.

For a perfect antidote to the meaty cuisine further inland, try a shellfish pasta or risotto, or have the catch of the day grilled with the ubiquitous white cheese dip Albania does so well.

3. HIKE THROUGH ALPINE COUNTRYSIDE

In the far north, only accessible by boat across Lake Koman or via the motorway that runs through neighbouring Kosovo, the valley of Valbona is a picture-perfect wilderness. Thanks to its remote location, tourist numbers here are pretty low, but those that do come are greatly rewarded with panoramic views of the looming mountains and superb hiking in one of the most biodiverse places in the country.

There are hikes of varying lengths for all abilities, but they’ve all got one thing in common: each offers an insight into the seriously rural lifestyle of the locals in Valbona. You’ll walk through orchards, forests and farmsteads that defy gravity on the steep slopes of the Dinaric Alps, and can stop off in one of the valley’s stans (shepherd’s huts) for lunch with a local family.

There’s ample camping and a few excellent lodges along the one road through the valley, but most of the activity centres around Hotel Rilindja, where Alfred and his American wife Catherine have been marking up trails and making their own maps for visitors for years.

4. EXPLORE UNDERGROUND NUCLEAR BUNKERS

Albania is often defined by its relatively recent affair with communism: specifically the reign of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. From 1944–85 he ruled the country with a heavy hand and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of politicians, academics and civilians who were persecuted as “enemies of the people” due to their political beliefs.

While Albania is very much moving on from some of its hardest times, small concrete bunkers all over the country serve as a reminder of that dark past, and a few larger structures remain.

Bunk’Art, in the capital Tirana, is a 106-room nuclear bunker turned museum and art gallery. Built by the military to house the dictator and his highest ranking officials in the event of an attack, today there’s a permanent exhibition on the Communist period, plus changing art exhibitions and a theatre showing films.

A similar but far more eerie bunker lies beneath the picturesque city of Gjirokastra – untouched for decades, it’s now just a damp warren of rooms suitable only for the brave.

5. SEE A LIVING CITADEL

Stroll around the hilltop kalasa (citadel) in Berat after dark and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d travelled back in time. During the day, Berat’s old city is a labyrinthine network of cobbled alleyways and confused tourists in search of an Ottoman church or a pretty viewpoint.

But at night, when the visitors retreat to their hotels, this fourteenth-century town falls quiet save the few residents that still inhabit its ancient structures.

With no street-lighting, you’re left to walk around near-darkness, the warm glow of the houses your only guiding light. If it weren’t for the occasional hubbub of a television, you might think you were in medieval Albania.

6. DRINK HOMEGROWN WINES

Once described as the third best wine in Europe by Ancient Roman writer Pliny, today Albanian wine doesn’t have much of a reputation – apart from that much of it can be likened to vinegar and might give you a stonking hangover.

But there are a few grapes native to Albania and its geographic elevation means the climate is just right for a spot of viticulture. Made right, the wines can be a perfect pairing for your meal.

The most common varieties are Shesh i bardhe and Shesh i zi, which are used for most traditional Albanian wines and are grown all over the country. The former is a floral white that pairs nicely with the soft cheese common in Albanian cuisine, and the latter makes for a solid accompaniment to the meaty main courses.

If you’re keen to learn (and drink) more, make a stop at the Çobo Winery, conveniently located along the main tourist route between the pretty inland towns of Gjirokaster and Berat.

The Çobo family have been making wines since the early twentieth century using only Albanian grapes. You can take a tour of the winery, have a tasting and then make off with some of their best bottles. There’s even a campsite next door if you find you can’t tear yourself away at the end of the day.