Travel

I’ve written two travel-related books, the Amazon No.1 bestseller Palestiniana (see photos from Palestiniana here) and FREE Days Out in Lancashire* (*and the surrounding areas), this book has it’s own blog covering days out in the North of England here.

Commission me to write travel articles/days out by messaging me on Instagram or Twitter @gazcook

My travel writing has appeared in several national newspapers and magazines, including Express Newspapers titles and magazines in Europe. Here is a list of articles (the articles themselves are republished on this page below this list):

Disneyland Paris
Ribble Valley, Lancashire – Journey to the Centre of Britain
Jordan – Wadi place to be
India – Roads to hell
West Bank, Israel – Jealousy zealousy
Tobago – And all that jazz
Tunisia – Welcome to the Dar side
Austria – Being in Wien
French Alps – Plagne crazy
Istanbul – Turkish delight
French Alps – Summer Plagne
Antwerp – MAS Observation
ROME – Vatican, Colosseum, pick-pockets
Kiev – Conquered
Highlands of Scotland – Where eagles dare
Ribble Valley, Lancashire – Biking bliss
Italy – Summer in the Dolomites
Malvern – Boot camp!


Ribble Valley, UK – Journey to the Centre of Britain

by Garry Cook

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The centre of Britain is an elusive place. Depending on your highly scientific and hugely mathematical method of calculation, the actual midpoint could be any one of a number locations.

Haltwhistle, a picturesque town near Hexham in Northumberland has made the strongest claim to the title simply by stating the fact on all the road signs leading to it.

Others believe the actual centre is in a field out the back of the old Calderstones Hospital in Whalley, near Clitheroe.

If you believe the people with the biggest calculators and most expensive GPS location equipment – Ordnance Survey – the real centre is a piece of grass near Whitendale Hanging Stones high up on an inaccessible hill a few miles north of Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. OS worked this out by including Britain’s 400 islands in their calculations.

But did you know that hardly anybody else knows about this? Apart from us now, obviously. The reason for this is simple: The exact centre of Britain is so remote, so exposed and so difficult to reach that nobody goes there.

You can’t have a tourist destination where no tourists can get to.

But that does not mean that claiming the Centre of Britain – for Lancashire – is any less important. And so, one blustery Sunday morning, my eight-year-old son and I set off for Britain’s mysterious centrepoint, flag in hand.

Preparation was difficult. Hardly anything has been published about Whitendale Hanging Stones and how to get to them. The advice available on the internet is difficult to follow.

But, after six weeks of intensive research, note talking and provisions packing, I formulated a plan. And this was it:

  • Drive to Dunsop Bridge. Leave the car at Puddleducks Cafe.
  • Cycle 2.5 miles alongside the River Dunsop, past Middle Knoll and then on to a farmhouse a further mile away.
  • Dump the bikes.
  • Follow the stream for two miles on foot.
  • Scramble up the steep hillside, then trudge across the heavy peat bogs until we can find an old shooters cabin (Grouse shooting is big round here – but thankfully not on Sundays).
  • Hike further up the hill until we find the centre of Britain, Whitendale Hanging Stones.

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Believe me, it wasn’t easy. The cycle ride, particularly up Middle Knoll was hard enough.

“When are we leaving the bikes?” my son repeatedly asked during the one hour and fifteen minutes cycle ride. After almost an hour of this we had to have one of those inspirational dad chats in order to stamp out any further signs of moaning which could have jeopardised the mission.

The walking was fine until the point where we had to cross the stream, which was heavily swollen.

But once we had successfully achieved that (thanks to a convenient iron bridge installed by the local water board) we had a daunting hill to ascend. This hill, one of those which always has another summit you can only see when you reach what you thought was the summit, was steep enough to make little boys weep. But not this rejuvenated explorer who had been fully-refocused with the promise of a Mars Bar and some pop at the end of the journey.

The views as we approached the stones were stunning and felt more special because we knew that so few people have actually experienced them.

It was with huge smiles on our faces that we reached the stones – not just the centre of Britain but which also, for us, felt like the top of the world for fifteen minutes.

And now the secret is out, Lancashire can add the title of Centre of Britain to the long list of things it can be proud of.

It only took two hours and twenty minutes to find the stones and claim them for Lancashire but our memories will last a lifetime.

NOTE: Ordnance Survey centre of Britain grid reference SD 64188.3 56541.43

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Jordan – Wadi place to be

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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Historical charm and modern-day splendour, Historical charm and modern-day splendour, IT WAS definitely an out-of-this-world experience – a bit like being on Mars.

Climbing a steep sand dune to see the sunset from the top of a craggy rock, the only indication I was not on the Red Planet was that instead of wearing a spacesuit I was barefoot as I struggled up the dark red sand.

The sunset came at the end of a perfect day in Wadi Rum, one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.

Like a darker, redder Grand Canyon, only more remote and with the added attraction of being inhabited by Bedouin tribes, Wadi Rum is like somewhere you only see in the movies. The fact it has been used as a backdrop for several films indicates how extraordinary it is. David Lean’s Oscar-winning Lawrence Of Arabia was filmed here.

Hidden down a long, lonely road, just 30 miles from Aqaba, it is one of several stunning vistas in Jordan.

Like any journey around Jordan, it takes a while to get to Wadi Rum. Miles from the main motorway, the mountains of Rum are home to ancient rock drawings.

I’m a sucker for a bit of history but these bits of graffiti pale into insignificance when compared to the natural land formations, especially the weathered rock path that cuts deep into the Jebel Khazali mountain.

The local Bedouins have embraced tourism, which now includes jeep rides across the desert floor and traditional tents where tired Western explorers can rest.

But the fun didn’t end at sunset. We took a trip to a Bedouin party at Jabal Rum Camp complete with a traditional feast, which included lamb cooked in a hole in the ground – an amazing end to an unforgettable day.

Jordan’s only coastal resort is Aqaba, the perfect base for wannabe explorers. I stayed at the exquisite beachfront Blu Radisson Tala Bay resort where the levels of luxury are in contrast to the life of a Bedouin.

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With sweeping views of Israel and Egypt across the Gulf of Aqaba, the resort is an oasis in a desert land.

The hotel boasts five outdoor swimming pools and three restaurants. And there is no better way to relax than gazing at the sea view from your room.

The day after my Wadi Rum trip I was back on the road with our driver Yousef taking us to a genuine wonder of the world – Petra.

The majestic city, where buildings are carved out of sheer rock faces, was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. It was the home of the Nabateans, early Jordanian settlers, in the 6th century BC and was later ruled by the Roman Empire. It also featured in the final scene from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. The steep rock valley walkway to the city, called the Siq, is an entrance like no other as you near the magnificent 40 metre-high Treasury.

My sense of wonder was broken only by the horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists to and from the temple.

Round the corner from the Treasury, the valley widens to reveal dozens of equally amazing buildings carved into the rock face.

For the serious history junkie the Monastery is a 45-minute walk up 800 steps to a remote mountain top where the views are unbelievable.

They even call the vista looking out towards Israel in the west The End of The World. Of course, adventure does not have to be a two-hour drive away. Just half a mile up the road from the hotel is a quad bike trail.

And what better way to experience the dusty landscape than in the dirt trails on an off-road buggy? Quad biking is brilliant and surprisingly easy. Even the more timid of travellers can give the throttle some welly.

I still find it hard to believe I’ve been to Petra and followed in the footsteps of Nabateans, famous explorers – and Harrison Ford.

Great history coupled with modern hotel comforts, Jordan offers something totally different in a holiday.

JORDAN FACTS
FLY to Amman from Heathrow with BMI from £486 return. See ba.com. Fly with easyJet from Gatwick from £257 return. See easyjet.com. Or fly with Royal Jordanian from Heathrow from £495 return. Book via rj.com

ROOMS at the Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort, Aqaba, cost from £75. See radissonblu.com/resort-aqaba

Thrifty offers return transfers in a private car to Wadi Rum from £75 and to Petra from £85. See thrifty.com/jo

Entrance to Petra is £45. For more details see visitjordan.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook

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India – Roads to hell

by Garry Cook

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I visited India for ten days. I went to a lovely wedding, explored Ludhiana, walked round the Golden Temple at Amritsar and visited Chandigarh. To top it all off I spent two nights in the fabulous Himalayan mountain town of Nainital.

It was quite and amazing experience. So why do I keep questioning if I should be enjoying myself in this exceptional multi-cultural country?

The answer is poverty. Deprivation is not exclusive to India but this country holds a sizeable chunk of the world’s homeless, hungry and humiliated.

India has a fast-growing economy built on industry, particularly manufacturing. But still it harbours huge misery and desperation.

You see it immediately from the train when you leave New Delhi Station heading north. Amongst the litter-strewn wage ground between the track and slums squat dozens of human beings in what acts as their open-air toilets. They shit on the ground.

The stench of the slums, even from 50 metres away in Agra is unbearable. So unbearable I didn’t dare go near.

And the beggars at every street junction and corner, who traipse up and down the trains (first-class excluded) or, like these two girls pictured (above), who relentlessly smile into carriages in the desperate hope of a few rupees.

I gave them a (large) packet of crisps and some biscuits. Does that justify taking the photograph?

Possibly not. But at least writing about it and showing this photo is better than ignoring it. Do I sound like Bono?

I remember Alan Whicker. I’ve seen Clive James. I watch Michael Palin. I knew what to expect in India. So I reckoned anyway. Nothing can prepare you for the stress of the roads.

It’s not so much the hustle and bustle and bump of traffic in the congested cities, it’s the torturous journies between towns that leave your brain battered and bruised.

Imagine travelling from Manchester to Newcastle or London to Leeds on a country road which regularly descends into a dirt track and which is littered with cows, horses and carts, huge trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws and cars all travelling on both sides of the road, often four abreast at 90mph, while oncoming traffic whizzes towards you.

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For someone who prides himself on not getting stressed-out this was too stressful to bear.

Ludhiana to Chandigarh. Three hours each way. Nightmare. The booting and braking of my friend Hemant on dusty tracks left me scared of Ford Fusion’s for life. I decided to shut my eyes for almost the entire journey back to Ludhiana.

Ludhiana to Amritsar. Four hours each way. Absolutely horrendous. The Ayrton Senna-style drive to Amritsar was bad enough- we were late for the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony at Wagah. But coming back in the dark was emotionally devastating. Parts of this journey on the famous Grand Trunk Road were on dual carriageways. Unfortunately, dual carriageways do not stop some trucks from driving the wrong way down them. And then there was the Holy Cow! moment when Hemant blackspotted his Fusion’s tyres when Daisy the cow meandered into our 80mph path on a typically unlit piece of carriageway.

Ludhiana to Corbett National park. Fifteen hours in a mini bus. Along some of the bumpiest roads ever misconstructed. This was a nightmare from start to finish. So traumatised I was by this that my final journey, intended to be from Nainital to Delhi in this very same minibus was dumped in favour of the train. A decision I did not live to regret.

India has a huge amount to offer. Temples, mountains, culture by the bucketloads and enough diahorrea to keep everyone busy. But the roads, the speed and the fearless head-on driving give this monumental country it’s own unique selling point.


West Bank, Israel – Jealousy zealousy

by Garry Cook

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If I was about to write the answer to the frustrating, horrendous, unjust and simmering feud between Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine, my place in history would be assured.

Sadly there is no answer to this hugely complex problem. You would have a job on your hands solving the problem if it was created by a single factor. But when it’s a bitter mix of politics, history and religion even the conciliatory service ACAS would be out of its death.

There are and have been so many atrocities in this conflict on both sides that finding deciding the cause, never mind the solution, is hardly possible.

Just to begin to comprehend the problem requires knowledge of the various groups involved and their correct labeling. Is Hamas a group of freedom fighters or terrorists? Do you recognise Palestine as an independent state with a leader (Mahmoud Abbas)?

You also need to know geographical facts such as: the huge West Bank area is entirely inland and separate from the tiny sliver of coastal land that is Gaza.

Having been to Israel and the West Bank, having talked to Palestinians and Jews, having interviewed people from both sides, having photographed inside the homes of people from Israel and the West Bank, having walked beneath the fortified concrete towers where the Israel Army (or Israel Defence Forces) watch over the Palestinians, having walked alongside the huge concrete wall which wraps round Bethlehem, having walked the streets of Jerusalem, having heard stories of immense hardship from both sides… having done all this I can’t offer any inspirational insight into the conflict within Israel and what it would take to find peace.

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I have seen with my own eyes streets and houses in the West Bank. While the perception of the Palestinians is of a people ‘living in shit’, as one Israeli said to me, the reality is different. They have a well-developed infrastructure.

Shops and businesses thrive in Bethlehem. Homes in Beit Ummar are bigger and more decadent than my own, more like the Spanish villas I stayed in when I was a kid rather than the dirty dusty shacks one might have assumed most Palestinian people live in.

This is not to say the Palestinian people are not oppressed. I have heard horrifying accounts of the impact the Israeli army has had on people’s lives: fatal shootings of loved ones, fathers and sons imprisoned for decades without trial, families petrified with fear during midnight raids on their homes by the Israeli army.

The Palestinians are oppressed. I’d hope even the most dismissive Israeli would admit that. But you then you’ve got factions of Palestinians – Hamas in Gaza – firing potshots into Israeli occupied areas.

And you can’t deny that Palestinian suicide bombers strike fear into the hearts of all Israeli Jews.

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I’ve not even touched on the arguments over land, forcible removal of Palestinians for new Israeli settlements and a thousand other flashpoints and clashes.

All I know is that I’d love the hostilities to stop. And I know the people in these photographs would too.

But one thing I do know is that Jerusalem is an amazing city where Judaism, Christianity and Islam meet in a melting pot of staggering historical significance.

NOTE: Images on the streets of Bethlehem, the road to Beit Ummar and inside homes at Beit Ummar. Taken in 2008.

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Tobago

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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I’m not saying the pace of life is slower in Tobago, but when the projector at the island’s only cinema broke down more than two decades ago, they never got round to fixing it.
But when you’re living in paradise, what’s the point of being cooped up indoors?

Sparkling shores, milky white beaches, exotic wildlife and reams of reefs to explore… I’m still racking my brain trying to decide why I came home.

Tobago might be smaller than the Isle of Man but it has a totally tropical taste. Just one-sixteenth the size of neighbour Trinidad, this pint-sized Caribbean island used to be seen as the lesser relation in the partnership.

But while Trinidad exploited its resources and became increasingly industrialised, Tobago took it easy.

Now the island is reaping the rewards of its laid-back attitude.

The natural beauty of its lush green mountains and chilled-out beaches are its greatest selling point. And just to make you feel better, almost the entire tourism industry is built on an ecofriendly masterplan.

Take my hotel, The Blue Haven. After 25 years of decay it was renovated in 2000 to incorporate enough energy-saving tricks to ensure it consumes less than half the electricity of a conventional hotel.

But it has kept its colonial feel of 50 years ago when stars like Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and Jack Lemmon were guests. Even the Queen held a cocktail party there in 1962 to mark Trinidad & Tobago’s independence.

It’s the perfect blend of history and conservation.

And, despite its name, it’s actually pink. It’s for purely cosmetic reasons that I’ll never forget this place.

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Built on a rocky outcrop, it has a perfect panoramic view of the Atlantic.
One side of the island enjoys the pond-like Caribbean, but I preferred the crashing Atlantic waves on the south side.

Bacolet Bay, the hotel’s private palm tree beach, ticks all the paradise boxes.

Breakfast never tasted so good after an early morning swim across the bay.

Blue Haven’s owner, an Austrian called Karl, was kind enough to give me and my friends a lift home after we bumped into him late one night on the other side of the island.
He even joined in the singsong. When you’re in the hotel owner’s white sports car, he’s driving at 60mph and singing Roxanne at the top of his voice, you know you’re as close to perfection as you’ll ever get on holiday.

Tobago is steeped in history, having changed hands down the centuries 31 times as Britain fought the French and Dutch for control.

Its slave-trading history is as fascinating as it is abhorrent. The Fort King George museum overlooking capital Scarborough documents the island’s bloody past.

But there are other historical gems like James Bond author Ian Fleming’s hideaway island a mile off the coast from Batteaux Bay on the east side.

You can sit and watch it from high up in Jemma’s Tree House restaurant or the Blue Waters Inn.

The British influence has left the place with a pleasantly reassuring feel.
Thankfully, the cost of a bottle of the local Carib lager, at little more than £1 a go, is very un-British.

If you prefer birds to beer, you will have to be up early to see some of the 220 gloriously-feathered species which inhabit the island.

Fascinating as the rainforest walk was, the highlight of my trip was a tour of the cocoa plantation.

This are one of the ecologically-sound initiatives Tobago has reintroduced in an effort to maintain the island’s natural beauty.

Other must-dos include taking a ride on a glass-bottom boat to the Buccoo Reef where there are 44 species of coral, go swimming in the Nylon pool, watch turtles crawl up the beach; dive into the Argyle waterfall, and eat a traditional meal of crab and dumplings. The island might be laidback, but the fun is nonstop.

TOBAGO FACTS
Tobago Jazz Experience – gotrinidadandtobago.com Harris Jungle Tours: harris-jungle-tours.com Rum & chocolate: tobagococoa.com or rumchocolate.com. For information on tours to Duane’s estate, email infoattobagococoa.com or call 868 390 2021.
R&Sea Divers Company, Toucan Inn, Crown Point: Call 868 639 8120, see rseadivers.com or email rsdiversattstt.net.tt
Where to stay
SEVEN nights in Tobago with Virgin Holidays, including direct scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, starts from £1,599*, with accommodation at the award-winning, four-star Blue Haven on an all-inclusive basis with transfers included. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room. To book visit virginholidays.co.uk or call 0844 557 3859. (*prices as of early 2011)

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All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Tunisia – Welcome to the Dar side

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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I thought only my obsession with Star Wars and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, both filmed in Tunisia, would bring me to this North African country.

But even hardliners like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Judean’s People’s Front would be easily seduced by Tunisia’s Dar side of the Force.

Everybody likes to try something different on holiday and waking up in a Tunisian Dar hotel is brilliantly leftfield.

A Dar – which is a converted family home – offers an experience you simply can’t get anywhere in Europe.

From the bustling street these buildings look unremarkable but step inside and there’s a unique world of boutique luxury, serenity and service that will leave you totally de-stressed.

Using typical North African design features – think big rugs, tiles, whitewashed stone walls – Dars mix Tunisian culture with European comfort.
The high standard in design of a Tunisian boutique hotel is matched by the personal touch as many are family-owned.

Dar hotels typically have under a dozen rooms – some with as few as four – and offer the choice of cooking your own meals or having them served to you.

A weekend break at the multi-level Dar Om El Khair in Nabeul, with its stunning fi rst-floor pool and mini cinema, or the traditional Dar Said in picturesque Sidi Bou Said, feels a world away from home but is only a two-and-a-half hour flight from the UK.

And while the warmth – even in December – plus the miles of blue sky and beaches are a big pull, it’s the markets that are the mustdo attraction.

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Found in the walled medina areas of towns, they are full of atmosphere, while bigger stores in Tunis offer branded goods at amazingly low prices. Jewellery and big-name clothes are shockingly cheap. Levi jeans are just £25.

You can ramble around the narrow souks for hours. Tunisia is particularly good for pottery. A large, beautifully decorated bowl will cost you under six dinars (less than £3) if you know how to haggle, while a packet of saffron costs just one dinar, or 50p. And when you need a rest the shisha cafés (a glimpse of how coffee shops used to be before Starbucks) offer a place to drink mint tea and smoke a hubbly bubbly, if that’s your thing.
The half hour I spent discussing a deal for two camel-shaped plates and a scarf was the most fun I’ve had in ages.

Having seen a fixed-price stall earlier in the day (which is perfect for nonhagglers) I strode in to the medina within the walls of the seaside castle in one of Tunisia’s main tourist resorts, Hammamet, with supreme confidence.

I knew exactly what I should be paying so when the stall owner and I began our business transaction, his over-pricing tactics were brushed aside with such ease I began to wonder if my great-grandad had been a Tunisian market trader.

“I cannot go below 40 dinars, or I will be paying to give you the plate, ” the trader protested.

“Yes you can, ” I told him. I’d previously seen the same plate for six dinars. We settled on six dinars. Result.

When I questioned whether a 50 dinar silk scarf was actually silk, he looked offended. “Are you calling me a liar, Mr Englishman?” he asked.

When his boss took over the bargaining, I asked about the same scarf and he confessed: “This is polyester, ” before adding, “but this one is pure silk – 80 dinars for you.” Yeah right!

The Tunisian food is excellent. I’ve never tasted couscous as light as in the Der Belhadji restaurant in Tunis. The seafood was even better. The squid and octopus are particularly enjoyable, as was the sea bream. And it’s all so cheap.

I particularly liked the hilly streets of Sidi Bou Said, just half an hour north of Tunis, where you can get sweeping views across the Mediterranean bay.

But for a dip in the lush blue ocean and a visit to the seafront fish restaurant El Mansoura – once visited by Madonna – it’s worth travelling an hour east, past the flamingos, to Kelibia.

From the restaurant vantage point you can watch brave souls step on to the seafront platform which takes the full force of the crashing waves.

It’s rude not to try different cultures so once I’d eaten my fish platter, my mate Carl and I took the walk of fear. Gripping the railing for dear life, a huge wave engulfed us.

After the water drained away I was a little surprised to find Carl had gone but relieved to see him curled up like a baby, clinging to the railings at the other side of the platform. You just can’t pay for memories like this. Different? Tunisia is brilliantly different.

TUNISIA FACTS
Tunisair operate four flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £170 (inc taxes). For reservations call 020 7734 7644 or visit www.tunisair.com
Rooms at Dar Said start from 335 Tunisian dinars (£158).  All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.darsaid.com.tn
Rooms at Dar Om El Khair start from 60 Euro (£55) per night, based on two people sharing. All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.daromelkhair.net
For further information on Tunisa visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk

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Austria – Being in Wien

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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With forests, lakes and winding streets, Austria is a readymade backdrop for the new James Bond flick Quantum Of Solace, released next month.

Its hairy mountain roads are ideal for Daniel Craig to dice with death in an edgeof-your-seat car chase.

And the peaks are perfect for skiing or dangling from a cable car.

The 22nd Bond film features Lake Constance in Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost state, and Bregenz – a small town sandwiched between the lake and the foothills of the Alps.
Up in the old town there is a striking city wall and cobbled streets to explore.

And in the park on the shores of the lake, oompah bands play to holidaymakers lounging in deckchairs.

Come nightfall, screens are put up on the bandstand and old black-and-white movies are shown. No doubt Solace will be up there in the playlist come autumn.

Austria is a picture-postcard country and, like 007, it is always perfectly turned out.
If you spot a piece of litter on the ground you’ve probably wandered across the border into Italy.

While the Bond locations will surely attract film fans, there are plenty more towns in Austria with scenery worthy of a movie set.

I visited Vienna and Klagenfurt, in the south of the country.
Everyone knows about Vienna. But it’s those lesserknown places where the beauty of Austria overwhelms you.

Klagenfurt, an 800-year-old city, sits on the edge of Lake Worthersee in the Carinthia region. This area is known as the Alpine Riviera and you can hop on a leisurely cruise across the lake and take in its natural beauty.

Lake Worthersee often freezes in the winter but in the summer it can reach 26 degrees – perfect for swimming – with clear blue water clean enough to drink.
And the crisp air doesn’t so much take your breath away as cleanse it with Alpine freshness.

There are 1,270 lakes in the mountainous region, perfect for walking, hiking, swimming and sailing.

And if you like golf, you won’t ever play on more scenic courses than the 11 dotted around.

Klagenfurt is exceptionally pleasing on the eye, with rows of pretty pastel-coloured buildings and immaculate public gardens.

It’s big enough to give you that city buzz when you walk out of your hotel but it’s not so big that you can’t escape to the countryside within five minutes.

Just a boat ride down Lake Worthersee is Velden, where there are fabulous bars and a glitzy casino you can lose your money in – which I did.

The casino is a great night out and you don’t have to dress too smartly to get in (jeans are acceptable).

Back in Klagenfurt, there’s lots for kids to do, including adventure parks and the brilliant Minimundus, the miniature monument world.

There’s also a reptile zoo and a dinosaur park.

If you’re into football, the new 32,000-seater Worthersee Stadium is flawless and has been designed to get the fans as close to the pitch as possible.

You won’t have to sneak into the toilets for a crafty fag either. You can smoke and drink in your seats – a privilege long since lost to fans in Britain.

But the highlight of my trip was an afternoon bike ride around Klagenfurt.
You know you’re experiencing a different culture when you see bikes unchained and lined up by the roadside ready to go.

They wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of Britain.

All you do is pay a small fee at the tourist office and you’re off.

There’s a similar, better system in Vienna – and a bike is definitely the best way to get around this massive city.

If you fancy a change you can always take a hydrofoil down the Danube to Bratislava. It only costs about a tenner and takes less than two hours. But you’ll never get bored in Vienna.

Every major European city has one or two flagship must-see buildings – Vienna has dozens.

And you can’t go wrong with 6,500 restaurants, 2,700 cafés and 111 drinking taverns.
Most nightclubs don’t charge to get in and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the cost of a round.

The locals like to drink the night away in small bars and you’re a lightweight if you go home before 5am.

But you’ll struggle to pick up a hangover – and believe me I tried.

The refreshing Austrian beer is as crisp and clean as the Alpine air.
And I’ll drink to that.

AUSTRIA FACTS
KLAGENFURT: Fly with Ryanair to Klagenfurt from Stansted three days a week from £10 each way. Stay at the Arcotel Moser Verdino from £60 per night single, £78 per night double. See Arcotel.cc for details.
VIENNA: easyJet flies daily to Vienna from Luton from £70 each way.

Alternately, fly to Bratislava with Sky Europe from Manchester or with Ryanair from Bristol and East Midlands, then on to Vienna by Terravision bus, which takes an hour. Buses can be booked through airline websites or terravision.eu
Stay at the InterContinental Vienna, which has rooms from £160 per night. See ichotelsgroup.com


French Alps – Plagne crazy

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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I went to France a novice skier and came back Plagne crazy.

And it’s not just because this huge French Alpine resort has seven villages called Plagne – Plagne Centre, Aime La Plagne, Plagne Village, Plagne Soleil, Plagne 1800, Plagne Bellecote, Belle Plagne.

No, it’s the slopes, the views and the delicious raclette.

They call this area Paradiski and it’s not hard to see why.

La Plagne has the lot – from gentle nursery slopes for novices like me to tough black runs.
The ten different resorts that make up the La Plagne area also cater for the more adventurous, from ice climbing and ice baths to mogul fields and the Olympic bobsleigh run.

I was a bit worried that La Plagne would be one huge, characterless, commercial resort – it was anything but.

Its collection of villages were every bit as cosy and Alpine as I had imagined.
And with each linked by ski runs, chairlifts and cable cars, you can explore them and the surrounding mountains to your heart’s content.

I stayed in an apartment at Le Chalet d’Anaite in Montchavin, a few miles east of the Plagne villages. It was immaculate and surprisingly roomy with two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and lounge area.

My stay at the resort coincided with the Telemark World Cup in January.
But even during the three-day event, the slopes were surprisingly empty and locals say it’s the best time of year to go if you want them to yourself.

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I’d never heard of Telemark skiing before – but that didn’t stop me enjoying the spectacle of skiers speeding down the mountain, pulling off dazzling jumps and whizzing around 360-degree banked snow curves before sprinting across the finish line The night-time celebrations complete with torchlight procession to mark the sport’s 140th birthday were pretty cool too.

My own skiing career started under the guidance of Frederique, a delightful French woman who had me turning my ankles outwards while keeping my skis flat in no time (that’s how to brake, if you didn’t know).

In little more than an hour I was ploughing to a halt at ease and turning in satisfyingly big arcs. It was only the baby slopes – but I still impressed myself.

Even when I took a tumble it felt good to look up at the blue skies and jagged mountains.
A few hours later a serene ride up a chairlift took us to the Restaurant Le Saujet in Montchavin les Coches, the snuggest Alpine lodge you’ve ever seen.

The traditional food – I had pork, raisins and winter vegetables – was as good as the raclette I devoured at Le Petit Chaperon Rouge in Plagne 1800 the previous evening.
Even if you don’t like cheese, you’ve got to try raclette – where a huge slab of the stuff is slowly melted by a table-top heater on to your plate.

And what better way to celebrate a successful morning’s skiing and a big lunch than a 60mph jaunt down a 1500m bobsleigh run?

After being strapped in and saying our last goodbyes we were pushed off.
The bob was supposed to turn itself, though that didn’t stop it slamming into the sides with such force the four of us all thought we were going to flip over and die.
That apart, it was great fun.

We watched those more adventurous than ourselves strap themselves into the horrendous-looking mono-bob, a scary, one-man, selfsteering contraption. The victims (I mean riders) lie feet first and let gravity do the rest.

Later, we enjoyed another meal in one of the lodge restaurants. And the way the French do meals – slowly and with loads of drinking – there was no need to head to a bar.
By the time we got back to the chalet and my head hit the pillow, I was already dreaming of my return to La Plagne.

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LA PLAGNE FACTS
WHERE TO STAY: It costs £530 per apartment per week or £188 per person per week based on three sharing, including breakfast at Le Chalet d’Anaite. To book visit anaite.com
FLIGHTS: Fly with easyJet from £54 return to Geneva from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. Visit easyjet.com
SKI & BOB HIRE: All the villages have hire shops. The bobsleigh holds four and costs £27 each.
SKI PASSES: If all you want to do is ski, six-day passes cost less than £150. A pass for a single afternoon starts from £15.
There are plenty of family offers, plus accomodation and ski pass inclusive deals available. For example, an apartment and six-day pass costs £112 in April. For details, see la-plagne.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Istanbul – Turkish delight

by Garry Cook

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Some fantastic facts about Istanbul.*

*WARNING: Not your typical fun-filled happy facts.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the Yanks.

Turkey has the third fastest growth rate of Gross Domestic Product in the world (2004 to 2008), after China and India. In 2017 it is set to surpass India.

Turkey economy is the sixth largest in Europe.

Turkey is Europe’s second largest supplier of textiles and second largest supplier of automtive goods.

One out of every two household appliances in Europe are made in Turkey.

Turkey is the world’s leading exporter of the chemical element boron.

Turkey is the seventh most popular tourist destination in the world.

Three of the world’s eight gene centres are in Turkey.

There is so much traffic in Istanbul it seemed like the entire 12.5million population were trying to get to the same restaurant as me on Friday night.
But the negative points about this city stop there. Tourists are treated with respect. No areas are no-go to tourists and the history, culture, shopping and leisure trades were fantastic. That’s not to mention the tremendous food. It is an exceptional destination for all of these reasons.
From the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia to a Bosphorus boat trip and the Istanbul Modern, this place is fantastic destination.
It’s like experiencing the grand scale Cairo without fear for your safety and without pestering from locals.

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Travel photography competition

by Garry Cook

A cruel lesson in budget flying. Thank you Ryanair.

It was noon on Wednesday when I booked my flight to Treviso, the Italian airport one hour and 10 minutes from Venice.

I was a little bit peeved that the ticket price had risen £10 for the return journey from when I checked the night before. I have a feeling it would have gone up again had I went through the booking process a third time. Ditto the tax for each flight for which the outbound journey differed vastly from the inbound journey, though I am sure it is exactly the same distance involved.

Both flights were cost £25 – before Slyanair’s creative additions. The total price came to a saddening £92, not quite what it said on the tin. It’s what you expect from these type of airlines. No price is upfront, a caseful of hidden extras.

As soon as the flights were booked, I arranged insurance (a snip at under £2.50), car parking place (£19 with online discount) and a hotel (45 euros). And then I went off to change my GB pounds into European Euros. On Wednesday night I packed my bag.

And when I say bag, I use the term specifically. I decided to use just one bag for my clothes, documents, toiletries and rather substantial camera equipment. Yes, it was heavy but it’ll save lumping two bags around Venice and even help out Ryanair as they’ll have no big bag to put in the plane’s hold. Only thing to worry about is my tripod, which thankfully comes wrapped in its own bag. Big mistake.

It’s not by choice that most people visit Liverpool, Speke, or travel through Knowsley. But I found myself hurtling down the M62 at 9.30am on Thursday morning towards John Lennon Airport (I had know idea he was as famous for being an aviator as he was for being Paul McCartney’s straight man). My credit card entrance to the single-lane, barriered car park didn’t work. And with reversing not an option due to the queue behind me I pressed for a new ticket, something the online booking website said not to do. I’ll worry about that when I come home.

After standing in a long check-in queue I handed over my Ryanair print-out sheet and passport. ‘No luggage?” She asks. ‘Just this’, I say, holding up my tripod. ‘You need to go to the Ryanair desk and pay a £10 oversize luggage charge’, she says. I’m not best pleases. This is the same bloody tripod that I usually ft into my non-oversize bag when I go abroad. And if I had done that, I wouldn’t be charged any ridiculous extra fee, even though I’d be taking up more room in the plane’s hold. Honestly, you try and do someone a favour by being resourceful, less wasteful, reduce your carbon footprint. Total bollocks.

I paid the £10 fee. Right, I want some water for the flight. I’ll pay for an over-the-odds litre bottle.

This was mistake No.2. When I go upstairs to passport control I am told that my unopened bottle of water must go straight in the bin. You can’t take liquids through security, even if they are unopened. The bucket bin outside the security gate is three-quarters full with unopened Ribenas, Cokes and Fantas. Water bloody waste. Did a terrorist ever hide explosives inside his Coke bottle?
Unfortunately, it got worse when I actually went through security. My hair gel and deodorant was also confiscated for being above 100ml. My toothpaste, thankfully, escaped the bin. I’m fuming. I reasoned that my gel is only half full, making it only 70ml. The security guard says and insincere apology.

Before booking my flights, people told me that Venice stank because of all the stagnant water in the canals. This is in correct. Venice stank because I sweated like a pig for two days but had no deodorant to rescue my armpits. Even if I could have found a shop to buy some Italian Lynx, it would only have been confiscated on the way back. Incidentally, coming back, it was an extra 12 euros for my tripod – payment by cash card only (I’m yet to discover the real cost of that).

The moral of the story is… whatever Ryanair claim the cost of flights are, double it and then add some more. This clarity pricing issue still has some way to go before it is consumer friendly. And don’t try and do Ryanair a favour by bringing less luggage – they’ll hammer you for it (as will passport security).

It’s fair to say I didn’t have a clue where I was when I got off the bus in Venice. Thanks to a very good website aimed at visitors to Venice (veniceforvisitors.com), I knew there was a bus service from Treviso airport, costing under 10 euros for a return, which was timed to coincide with Ryanair flights, so there would be no worry in getting to the city of lovers.

After an hour on the ATVO bus I could see Venice. When I got off the bus I could see a canal. This was going to be easy.

I walked over to the canal. There are over half a dozen bus ferries in front of me. No point in getting on one because I don’t know where they go, nor indeed where I’m going. My only hope was a small, poorly defined map I had printed off which showed where my hotel was. However, it only showed the part of Venice specific to its location and, as I noticed on the long road bridge in, this place is bloody massive.

One hour later.

It’s very hot. My heavy bag is digging into my heavy shoulder. I’m sweating. It’s 4pm and this holiday has started. Over a bridge. Over another bridge. And another. No sign of a Tourist Information bureau. Still, I can tell I’m going the right way by the exponential increase of people and cheap tat souvenir stalls.

Eventually I find a shop which sells maps. After ten minutes comparing my slightly inaccurate google print-out with my new purchase I think I know where I should be heading.

Seven bridges later – or was it seventy? – and I’m walking down Dorsoduro High Street towards my quaint little hotel, the Tivoli. Okay, there’s no High Streets in Venice, just narrow alleyways, but you get the idea.

After checking in, I was directed up a short flight of stars, down a short flight of stairs (that’s another bridge in my book) through a charming sun-trapping courtyard, up some more stairs and voila – or the Italian equivalent – there was my little haven, my box room. Single bed, tiny sink. Clean and comfortable. Just like it said in the online review (rating 8.2).

After dumping my stuff I end up going right around the full length of the Grand Canal, over the Rialto bridge and down to Academia bridge. I hadn’t planned to walk that far down, but I passed my hotel without realising.

Still, photography-wise I got some street scenes, some of the Rialto Bridge, seemingly the most famous in Venice, and some alleys (though I intended to get most of those after dark). It only took two pints of beer with my scallop and mushroom meal to knock me out. I had to go to bed for two hours. When I get up darkness is already falling. I race up to the Rialto bridge again.

I do the night shots thing with my tripod. Then it’s straight to bed, early to rise. St Mark’s Square and more photographs. Back at the hotel the continental breakfast is a little bit ropey but beggars can’t be choosers and I eat as much as I can. I have to be out of the hotel by 10.30am, so I have another lie down, then a shower.

The shower is further up the stairs, a tiny cubicle next to a tiny toilet in a tiny room. Really, it was tiny. There is no soap in the shower, as I realise once I have stripped off. And, as I packed lightly, I do not have any soap either. Bit of a problem that. Still, there is a tiny  complimentary bars of soap lying next to the sink in my room. Do I risk streaking down twelve stairs to my room to get the soap? Nah, this isn’t a Carry On film and I’m not Sid James. Get dressed, get soap, come back.

The remainder of my day – until my bus at 2pm – consists of visiting churches and museums, including the Guggenheim art house (too abstract for me, especially the three Jackson Bollocks).

By the time I got near the bus station I had an hour left to kill. I bought myself a can of something and found a place to rest. Time to sit on a wall and watch fat Americans pile on to gondolas. My back is saturated with sweat. Pity the poor bugger who has to sit next to me on the plane.

Still I managed to snatch a load of photographs in a tourist-style way and that is what this project was about. My only worry is the £200 budget. I’m close to the tipping point and I know I’ll have to pay for my tripod again. And I need some food at some point. I get an awful chicken sandwich at the airport, certainly not Italian food at its best. But at least it’s cheap.

The cost:
Return flights: £94.21
Oversize luggage charge: £10
Car park: £19
Insurance: £2.50
Water: £1.20
Return bus to Venice: 9 euros
Map: 3 euros
Meal + two beers: 25 euros
Tip: 5 euros
Water: 0.90 euros
Hotel: 45 euros
Drink: 0.90 euros

Total: £197.21

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


French Alps – Summer Plagne

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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“ALLEZ!” shouted Bruno as we skidded down the terrifying forest trail.
“Allez!” shouted Bruno as we bounced our bikes through a craggy boulderstrewn alpine stream.

It had all started with the same “allez!” six hours earlier when Bruno, our French mountain bike guide, launched his machine through the snow to begin our 2,000-metre mountain descent.

Welcome to La Plagne, in the French Alps, in the middle of summer!
And, yes, I did mention snow.

There was no sign of the white stuff at the bottom of the valley as we stood in the baking heat watching children play under a huge fountain while others sunbathed by the edge of the lake at Plan d’eau de Macot. It was as if we’d arrived on a different continent!
Going from snow to sweltering in a few hours after a white-knuckle ride down through the high-altitude villages is a great way to experience the Alps.

From a barren, rocky, lunar landscape, through rolling grasslands to thick forests – plus amazing views of Mont Blanc across the valley – La Plagne makes the Lake District look like your next-door neighbour’s garden.

I’d never even been on a mountain bike until that morning. But Bruno was there to turn us into pros. He took us by telecabin (the cable car which Bruno called “the bubble”) to the peak of Roche de Mio, 2,739metres above sea level.

The air is so thin up there that pedalling up even small slopes leaves you gasping.
But the beauty of mountain biking in La Plagne is that most of the ups are by cable car. After that it’s downhill all the way.

What with slippery rock paths, narrow grass trails and bumpy forest routes, it could have been holiday hell – so thank goodness we had Bruno to give us confidence.
At 41, our guide was a glowing example of what mountain life can do for you. He charges around `35 for a half-day of unforgettable fun on two wheels.

Fitter than a man half his age, he even inspired me – a half-fit thirty-something – to aspire to becoming a mountain biking hero. At least that’s how it felt.

Mountain biking is all about balance and braking. Your fingers are permanently glued to the brakes, while you stand on the pedals and lean back to negotiate drops as Bruno encourages you with another “allez!”.

If you’re going to try something new and out of your comfort zone, you might as well try it against the backdrop of the stunning Alps.

La Plagne, only a 90-minute drive from Grenoble and just over two hours from Lyon and Geneva airports, is best known as a winter ski resort. It is made up of several picturesque villages linked by cable car, ski lift and mountain trail.

And the lush alpine mountains are stunning in the summer months when the slopes lend themselves to a multitude of activities.

For every hardcore sporting event, there are a dozen less challenging activities. As well as adventure sports like kayaking, white-water rafting, climbing and quad-biking, there is also archery, paintballing, paragliding, trampolining and pony riding.

Plus there are adventure parks, festivals, wildlife walks, spa treatments, a walk inside a glacier and even circus training.

The resort has even made a big effort to make the summer activities cheaper. Some of the lifts are free while other services, like the daily shuttle bus up from the valley, have been reduced in price.

Look out for the Pass’Plagne (or Pass’Bike for cyclists), a card that offers big reductions on activities, entertainments and meals.

You can see – or attempt – some impressive tricks at the skate park in Plagne Bellecote and there are loads of smaller mountain bike trails with jumps and see-saws dotted around the villages.

We tried them out on day two, when Bruno took us across the mountain from our base in Belle Plagne to Montchavin via some stunning woodland trails, used both as crosscountry ski routes in the winter and for the gruelling 6000D – a 70-mile running race that goes up the mountain and back down again every July. Competitors are encouraged to finish within 25 hours, so mountain biking is definitely the easy option!
The highlight of the forest trail was ploughing our way down through a field of 2ft-tall grass and wildflowers and not falling off.

After the exertions of a downhill run, French cuisine on a mountainside terrace restaurant is heaven.

I can definitely recommend a meal at Le Matafan in Belle Plagne and Les Carons in Les Coches.

We stayed at the impressive Chalet Hotel des Deux Domaines in Belle Plagne, which has stunning views across the valley.

The trained staff – all British – run plenty of activities for kids and you can choose when they are looked after.

That leaves you free to tackle some of the delights the mountain has to offer. Baby listening and child patrol services also allow evening relaxation in the hotel hot tub, sauna, pool or bar.

Loads of extras are included if you book your break early in the year – including free wine, free food and soft drinks for the kids.

There are even free holidays for children and infants on offer.

Yes, there is no better place for kids, teenagers or even first-timers like me to learn a new skill or try something adventurous for the first time. So come on, allez!

LA PLAGNE FACTS
Package deals stopping at the Chalet Hotel Des Deux Domaines are available through Esprit Family Adventures, with prices starting at £75 a week per person, full board. Visit EspritFamilyAdventures.com or call Esprit on 01252 618 300.
For mountain bike guide Bruno Chavard of Evolution 2, Montchavin, 73210 Bellentre, call 04 79 07 81 85. Visit evolution2.com or e-mail Bruno.chavard@wanadoo.fr For more information about la Plagne visit la-plagne.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook

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Antwerp – MAS Observation

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

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Beer, chips and chocolate – what more could you possibly want from a city break?

In Antwerp you get the best food and drink in the world – in addition to the triple-fried chips – and it all comes wrapped in a diamond-encrusted blanket of art, culture and history.

Just two hours from London on the Eurostar, plus a short hop from Brussels, means this Belgian port has never been so easy to get to.

Effortlessly stepping on to Eurostar at St Pancras’ station in London makes you feel like you’re sticking two fingers up to air travel and the stresses of check-in, security queues and cramped aeroplanes.

From when you arrive at Antwerp’s ornate Central Station it’s obvious this place is special. And just across the square is the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, the perfect place to launch your adventure.

Antwerp is the city where, legend has it, a giant would chop your hands off and throw them in the river if you didn’t pay him for being carried across it. Antwerp literally means throwing of hands.

The city oozes history, from its typically Belgian zig-zag roofs to the busy cobbled streets and squares. But it is through the new MAS Museum that it is intent on making its mark on the rest of Europe.

The MAS – Museum aan de Stroom or “museum by the river” – is not just a museum. Labelled a love mark rather than a landmark, it is more iconic than any of the masterpieces it holds.

Built from several shades of red sand- stone and adorned with 3,185 aluminium hands cast from a Moroccan immigrant worker who mixed cement for the construction, it looks like a fantastical Legoland creation, housing 470,000 artworks.

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It has ten floors, all with amazing views across the city through a huge spiral of wavy glass. One of its neatest quirks is the storage room, housing all the artefacts not currently on display but which are part of the exhibition tour.

Entrance to the building and its rooftop, which is open until midnight every night, is free. The idea is to turn the interior walkways and lifts into an extension of the city streets.

To visit the exhibitions across eight floors costs just a tenner – and you can download a free app for your mobile phone to get all the information you need on the exhibits in English.

Part of the remit of the MAS museum is to attract young people and that shouldn’t be hard. Antwerp is already well-known to its European neighbours as a party city.

Right now the docks area around the MAS is undergoing a cutting-edge transformation, so that night culture is set to thrive. Antwerp’s port was a trade frontier in the 19th Century and its importance has attracted no fewer than 169 nationalities to the multi-cultural city.

Add wealth to the mix – this is the diamond capital of the world – and you end up with great places to stay, superb shops and restaurants but without the sky-high prices of cities like Paris and London. At the MAS’ ’t Zilte restaurant, run by famous Belgian chef Viki Geunes, tables are booked up months in advance but there are dozens of exquisite smaller eateries nearby.

Restaurant Marcel has popped up in the shadow of the MAS. It’s a great place to try delicious dishes. Or, for a sunset view down the river, the Zuiderterras restaurant, on the edge of the docks, is a fabulous setting to enjoy dinner.

One of Antwerp’s big cultural attractions is artist Peter Paul Rubens, the city’s most famous former resident. His baroque paintings can be seen around the world but it is in Antwerp where his city-centre Rubens House has been faithfully preserved and his best works can be seen.

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Fortunately, if you can’t tell your baroque from a barcode, there is a chocolate shop just round the corner. And not just any chocolate shop. The Chocolate Line, run by Dominique Persoone, is one of only three Michelin-starred chocolate shops in the world.

Cocoa cooking reaches a new level in taste sensations with Dominique, who was on hand to describe the intricate flavours of his amazing chocolates during my visit.

He served up – among other delights – a caramel of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and pine nuts! Believe it or not this was good, though I did find the soy-sauce creation a little too much for my Mars bar-loving palette.

Perhaps the only thing better than stuffing your face full of chocolate on holiday is a belly-full of ale. And you can’t go wrong with Belgian beer.

The number of bars, cafés and restaurants in Antwerp is staggering – it has more bars per person than any other city in the world.

The Antwerp beer tour, on a road tram, takes in Den Engel, the most famous bar in the city, Bier Central – which sells over 300 brews – and the brewery of ’t Pakhuis. The home brewery in the Zuid region of the city produces three fantastic beers which are sold only on its premises. Its Antwerp Blond is as good as it gets.

What makes Belgian chips, served in conical cartons with lashings of mayonnaise, so special is they are triple fried. They provide the ideal end to a boozy afternoon.

In fact, the magic triangle of beer, chocolate and chips makes Antwerp a dream destination for us British.

It’s all the things we love, plus your holiday quota of history and culture.

ANTWERP FACTS
A THREE-NIGHT package at Radisson Blu Hotel, return standard class Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International or Ebbsfleet International to Brussels and onward train journey to Antwerp plus daily breakfast costs £299pp. Offer is valid until October 31. Call 0203 327 3569 or visit railbookers.com
For more information call Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 or visit visitflanders.co.uk


ROME – Vatican, Colosseum, pick-pockets

by Garry Cook

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All the architecture, all the history, and it comes down to this: Rome is the place where you get your pocket picked.

Sad fact as it is, wherever in the world you visit, be it a restaurant, country, hotel or airline, your experience is defined by the worst thing that happened. It’s the poor service, rude hoteliers or delayed flight that sticks in the memory like a neon signing flashing the words: DO NOT COME HERE AGAIN AND DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS PLACE TO ANYONE.

And so we come to Rome, a city of gigantic splendour, with architecture so grandiose that magnificent churches become merely ordinary as they clamber for attention against such iconic pieces as St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vittoriano.

There was fear before arriving in Rome – fear of having my camera equipment or wallet stolen. Muggings are not a major problem in the Italian capital but pick-pocketing is rife.

When, on Sunday morning, I realised my wallet was no longer in my sealed pocket as I stood on the No.60 bus en route to the Colosseum a wave of resignation swept over me. I knew I’d been done over good and proper.

By the end of the day I’d ticked all the boxes of a full-on Rome adventure: Sistene Chapel, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, wallet stolen. If I ever go there again perhaps I’ll take an empty wallet especially for the pick-pocket experience.

Still, as my 250 euros, 50 British pounds and book of 12 second-class stamps feeds an Italian family for a week, let me recount what actually makes Rome a great European city.

The buildings. Aside from the must-sees like St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the ancient Colosseum, the majestic Vittoriano, a white monument built in honour of Italy’s first king at Piazza Venezia and the AD126 Pantheon, there are hundreds of other monuments, statues, fountains and churches to marvel at. There’s the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and Campidoglio.

The streets. You can try and take in as many buildings as possible but the true pleasure of Rome comes from that surprise discovery round the corner of the street you just walked down just after you got lost. In Rome, losing your bearings is never a bad thing. Wandering down the tight cobbled streets somewhere between Piazza Novona and Piazza del Popolo is how you discover the city.

Rome has an excellent bus service. Your hotel will be able to tell you which service you need depending on where you are heading. A day ticket only costs four euros. You can’t get tickets on the buses – only some stops have ticket machines.

The food. Pasta and pizza is the Italian way of life. As in any major city there are restaurants for the tourists and restaurants for the locals which the more savvy traveller seeks out. In Italy, the trattoria’s are the venues to enjoy.

Cheaper than restaurants, and often run by locals rather than big chains, they offer the sort of uniqueness that make dining in a foreign city a magical experience. At seven euros a pizza, trattorias can be half the price of a nearby restaurant.

We enjoyed a meal for two costing 20 euros at a trattoria while also paying nearly 60 euros for two meals in a restaurant near the Pantheon.

But as good as the food is, let’s get back to the historical stuff. In the Vatican Museum there are so many hugely significant works of art you will never be able to see them all. The Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum are a treasure your eyes must gaze upon. I’m no fan of painting but Raphael’s Transfiguration is the most stunning my 36-year-old eyes have witnessed.

The Sistine Chapel and the remarkable work of Michelangelo is what every single visitor to Rome goes to see. But you can’t take in the true breadth of the 12,000sq ft of work without learning about its history.

To do that, you need to book a tour – and as a tour booking helps you jump past mile-long queues which hug the outside of the Vatican walls from 9am every day, this is the best piece of advice I can give you. Book a tour – it’ll save you hours and hours of needless waiting around.

Exactly the same advice goes for the Colosseum – book in advance and avoid the queues. We didn’t actually take a Colosseum guided tour but waving our pre-booked home-printed tickets got us straight into the impressive arena without any waiting.

For the Vatican, I actually arrived 15 minutes late for my tour. But having the ticket allowed me to get straight into the Vatican Museum where I was able to book onto a later tour at no extra cost.

At the Colosseum, my ticket got me through the huge queues outside the arena, and again past further queues inside. A Colosseum ticket also gives access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day and also the following day. One point worth noting is that you must specify your visiting time when you book for the Colosseum but (and this is the confusing bit) if you book your ticket for 9am you can turn up any time of the day after then.

Taking advice on where to go always brings up new curiosities and the one recurring recommendation I got before arriving in Rome was: go to Trastevere.

Situated on the west side of the River Tiber, Trastevere is out of the way of the main tourist arteries. We waited until the final day of my three-day visit to go – but I’m so glad we made the effort.

Trastevere, where Julius Cesar built his garden villa, is a series of criss-crossing cobbled streets that meet at what was the most picturesque square (piazza) I encountered. The compactness of the square, lined with restaurants and with a fountain as its centrepiece, is complimented by the Santa Maria Church, one of the most ancient in the city.

There are so many stunning pieces of sculpture and architecture in Rome your head would be spinning if I named them all. But standing head and shoulders above all others is the Fontana di Trevi, a tight piazza split in half, one part monolithic sculptured fountain and one part surf of people swilling over the steps and pavement to gawp at the fountain’s brilliance.

The Trevi is one of those architectural freaks, too big and overpowering for the piazza that houses it – yet the high constraining walls that envelope the fountain make the piece such an awesome experience.

From early morning until late at night, people swarm around the Trevi Fountain to take in the magic. Resplendent with marble tritons and lifesize leaping horses, the Trevi is a true masterpiece in a city where masterpieces can be found on every corner.

The fountain, designed by Nicola Savi, was completed in 1762, 30 years after work first began – and eleven years after the artist himself passed away. But his legacy undoubtedly lives on through his creation which gives Rome one of the most unique pieces of public art in the world.

Discovering stunning artworks is what you do in Rome. So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do (this does not mean picking people’s pockets).

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ROME FACTS
Flights
Edinburgh to Rome Ciampino with Ryanair – £97.89 (plus extra £30 for a suitcase, with a maximum weight of 15kg). Carry-on hand luggage has maximum weight of 10kg, though in reality this is rarely checked – however luggage size is checked (55cm x 40cm x 20cm). I used a Utility Warehouse pre-paid credit card to avoid a surcharge of £5 per flight (=£10 per person for return tickets).

Bus from Ciampino Airport
Eight euros return with Terravision (link here. Do not book bus through Ryanair as the cost is over 30 euros for a return ticket. This is a Ryanair rip-off. There is also a bus service for four euros (each way). You can buy these tickets at Ciampino Airport.

Buses around the city
No.60 and No.62 go around or near most major attractions. No.62 for the Vatican, No.60 particularly good for pick-pockets. The buses get very busy and may be too packed to actually get on but they run frequently.

Hotel Turner
Three nights cost £85.88 (based on two people sharing and includes breakfast).

Vatican Tour
Three-hour tour (Museum, Sistene Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica) 36 euros, booked directly through the Vatican here www.vatican.va

This seemed to be the cheapest option, there are hundreds of operators offering Vatican tours.

Colosseum tickets
We booked with Omniticket though, as with Vatican tours, there are many. Cost 13.5 euros each (entrance only – no tour, but includes Roman Forum and Palatine Museum). The guided tour costs 17.5 euros.


Kiev – Conquered

by Garry Cook

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I went to Kiev to interview a rock band. Forty per cent of the band were from Leeds. It’s a long story (but I have this one great memory of Death Valley Screamers rehearsing with a performance of The Vapors’ 1980 hit Turning Japanese).

You don’t go to Kiev for on a last-minute cheap deal. The landing fees charged by the Ukraine government to airlines are high. So no Ryanair, Easyjet and BMIbaby flying into the capital city.

The flights that do arrive at Kiev Borispol cost cash so the cheapest way to get there from Britain is via another country. I went London Stansted to Riga with Easyjet and then hopped on a airBaltic flight. It cost me around 300 quid though you may have to make a different journey (for a similar price, cheaper of your lucky).

Prices could go up in the summer of 2012 when the football European Championships visit* – but so will the inventiveness of the travellers seeking the cheapest way to get out there and support their team.

I do have anecdotal evidence of travelling across the country by road and, while it does not reach Indian levels of torment, it doesn’t sound great. But perhaps that is part of the beauty of Ukraine – visiting a country that is yet to be touristified. When you arrive in Kiev you feel like your witnessing one of the last remaining remnants of how the Eastern Bloc was. Like looking back through a snapshot in time of Soviet Union communism.

That’s not to say the impressive city of Kiev is in any way deprived, sunk in poverty or poorly developed.  The first (and only) Jennifer Lopez J.Lo retail store I ever saw was in Kiev. There are plenty of retail chain type bars and restaurants, even if I had never heard of the brand. Apparently there’s a TGI Fridays there (I actually ate in my first TGI at Riga Airport).

But it’s the foreboding megalithic architecture of the city that makes Kiev worth the effort**. It’s not a city that is built-up height-wise but the five and six storey buildings are impressive, particularly in Independence Square which displays all the symmetry and opulence if an imagined Soviet geography. Key government buildings around the hilly city are similar in the statement they make. While there are far more impressive designs in other parts of Europe in Kiev they represent the dominant Eastern Bloc Utopia which communism always tried to project to the outside world.

Now for the bad bit. Kiev is a pig to get around. There are virtually no signs for public transport in the city. For a first-time Ukrainian visitor this makes things hard. For a non-speaking Western tourist it is a nightmare.

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It took me over half an hour to find the metro system after getting off my bus outside the rail station. There were no signs anywhere. I was looking for a giant ‘M’ or something similar. Nothing.

When I did eventually find the Metro station I had actually been standing outside for 10 minutes. The relief at finding the station was replaced by the horror of trying to use it. Again, no signs. No signs for which way to go, no signs for where you want to go, no signs on how to pay for your metro token.

The only written words I could find were hidden on the inside windows of the trains themselves and as these are written in Cyrillic, a language with no meaningful resemblance to the English alphabet, finding my destination station was incredible tough.

I actually thought I was never going to make it to my accommodation, which was hidden in an apartment block some distance on the other side of the Dnieper river. Various disaster scenarios flashed through my mind.

Even the bus journies are unusual. Small, frequent buses are routinely jam-packed with cash fares passed between passengers from one end of the bus to the other. The driver sorts out your change while driving and it comes back to you in the same way. Passed from passenger to passenger.

You get used to it but it’s a system I’ve never witnessed before or since. The buses cost 25UAH for each journey. Like the metro that’s very cheap.

And signage apart, my own country of Britain could learn a lot form Kiev’s transport system. Frequent, fast and cheap – any journey on the Metro costs just five pence. Interesting point:

Few people in this city speak English. Cyrillic is such a tough language I guess the locals give up on learning anything else. They’ve got enough on their plate.

So what can you see? Well, in no particular order (and all in very easy walking distance) are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the National Opera House, Golden Gate and the Presidential Administration building, which is up on the hill and next to the animal-adorned Art Noveau House of Chimaeras.

Then there is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and St Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in the city and are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra. These are all quite close to each other. Look out for Bohdan Khmelnytsky square, and you’re there.

The huge Dnieper river is an attraction on its own, with natural beaches and an amusement park on Venetsianskyi island, sometimes known as Hidropark.

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Get yourself along to those and you’ll see plenty more along the way, including a stack of statues, war memorials and parks.

Away from the city centre is a more bustling, less polished Kiev. Visit the east bank of the Dnieper around Levoberejna to see the queue for buses, fast-food shops, second-hand markets and the communist era housing which are reminiscent of the 1960s blocks that Britain has tried so hard to eradicate.

It is these areas that make Kiev such an experience, a destination not made for tourists but that is so much better because of it.

I stopped in this area, a place called Kristina’s Flat which was, quite literally, Kristina’s flat. Her mum also lived in the ground floor apartment in a very Eastern Bloc feeling building in the Perova area of Kiev. It’s near the Park of Victory (which I didn’t see).

Kristina was in her 20s spoke decent English and rents out her spare double room to travellers like me for £13.52 per night. As I was on my own there was a possibility that someone else might have been sleeping in the other bed but this was not the case during my stay.

I only spent three days in Kiev and it was the hardest city and country I’ve ever visited (and that’s no mean feat when I’ve been to Egypt, India and the Palestinian Territories). But Kiev and Ukraine is one of the few places I would return to. I think the place has got a lot more to experience.

*NOTE: The 2012 European Championships are being co-hosted with Poland. You can read my travel essay from Warsaw here.
**NOTE: You might also notice an abundance of attractive women in Kiev.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Highlands of Scotland – Where eagles dare

by Garry Cook

You want eagles? He’s got them. It’s a brave man who promises you a sighting of one of the rarest and most graceful of birds in the world. But Jim Michie delivers at his word.

Signposted by the stunning Glenfinnan tower, Loch Shiel is one of the most outstanding stretches of water in Scotland, situated along the Road To The Isles in Inverness-shire.

This long and twisting road takes you some 50-odd miles from Fort William to Mallaig, the port which acts as a gateway to Skye, Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck.

And halfway along is Glenfinnan, the historical meeting place of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1745. Now it is home to Sileas, Jim’s 66-year-old boat which is able to take the traveller on a magical journey in search of the Golden Eagle.

Sileas was a rusting wreck when Jim got his hands on it a decade ago. A painstaking restoration has transformed the vessel into a delightful cruiser.

Despite the stunning panorama of Shiel, Jim soon realised that visitors were more interested in the Golden Eagles nesting high on the loch’s mountainside.

I thought I had enjoyed my quota of wildlife for the day as I had lunch in the nearby Glenfinnan House Hotel. While devouring my delicious butter beans on toast I gazed out of the huge bay window only to have my view blocked by two wandering deer who had decided to use the hotel grounds as a snack stop.

But it was the eagles I’d come for and as I was handed a pair of binoculars I was nervous. I expected the law of averages to leave me eagle-eyed-less.

The weather was warm during my Scottish saute, but on the loch it was freezing. Jim warned me that the cloud, which was clinging to the top of the mountains, would make a sighting more difficult. But he had seen three eagles the day before.

I held my breath as we approached Eagle Cliff. Jim slowed the boat. There, he said, was an eagle sitting on the rock. “I think I can see it,” I said. I re-focused the binoculars. Turns out I was looking at a rock. I was the only one who didn’t see the eagle. I was gutted.

We carried on down the loch. Jim pointed out areas of interest as we motored along. Over an hour and a coffee later we were heading back towards Glenfinnan. Second time lucky? You bet.

My first sighting was of a pair of huge soaring feathered wings gliding out over the moutainside, slowly floating out of view within seconds. It was a heart-stopping moment.

Then, to my joy, the majestic creature came back for more. It swirled above us and then settled on craggy rock edge. As we drifted to a halt, the eagle looked down as if waiting for us to move on. But we weren’t going to budge, not for an opportunity like this. It was a five-minute stand-off. It was amazing.

Then, effortlessly, away he flew. Soaring again, curving off over the mountain. Jim was as delighted as we were. We floated back to Glenfinnan. Literally.

Nature can be stunning, but just 24 hours later I was reminded that the work of humans can be equally breathtaking.

At the end of the Road To The Isles is the fishing port of Mallaig, gateway to the Small Isles. And it is to remote Rum, via the CalMac ferry, that my interest has been drawn.

Rum is a sizeable, largely unspoiled island, a walkers paradise and a wildlife haven of puffins, deer, otters and seals. There is no tarmac on the island, just some bumpy tracks and a handful of houses – only one a Bed and Breakfast. Rum’s population is 20.

However there is a very good reason to visit Rum – Kinloch Castle. The story behind this 100-year-old marvel is surpassed only by its splendour.

I have never seen a castle so complete, so extravagant and so perfect.

Built by playboy George Burrough in 1901, the castle’s interior remains almost entirely unchanged since its 1920s heyday.

Burrough, who’s father made his money in the Lancashire cotton mills, built the castle from scratch, sparing no expense. He would hold parties – some say orgies – on the island. The ‘wow’ factor you get upon entering the main hall is exactly how past guests would have seen it in the 20th century.

The working Imhof & Mukle Orchestrion organ was built for Queen Victoria. Burrough bought it instead. He had electricity via hydro-electric machinery installed at a time when just one city in the world – Glasgow – had electricity. The decoration is stunning, the huge ornaments collected from around the world, many from Japan are jaw-dropping.

It is the best castle I have ever visited, the Golden Eagle of castles.


Ribble Valley cycling – Biking bliss

by Garry Cook

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Cycling in a dreamland of undulating hills, strolling through a picturesque village and then dining in some of the country’s best restaurants.

I’m in the Ribble Valley. I won’t be too surprised if you’ve never heard of it.

Lancashire’s wealthiest borough is also it’s most rural and as a destination for cyclists few places can compare.

A criss-crossing of fabulous country roads and Quiet Lanes, the staggeringly beautiful scenery make the area a honeypot for day-tripping cyclists and touring families.

Unlike the Lake District just an hour further north, there are no major single site destinations in the Ribble Valley like Windermere, Levens Hall or Grizedale Forest.

Instead there are miles and miles of glorious countryside, punctuated by postcard villages like Dunsop Bridge, Chipping, Slaidburn and Waddington.

Those who should know rate the area highly. The Queen famously stated in her autobiography that she wanted to retire to the area while Olympics cycling gold medal hero Bradley Wiggins regularly trains here. And it’s easy to see why.

Cycling is undoubtedly the best way to experience the area. A mixture of flat touring roads and spectacular hilly climbs means the Ribble Valley rider is spoilt for choice.

Many cyclists use visiting for the day use Whalley as a base. An hour from Manchester and situated conveniently off the A59, the road which links northern Lancashire to the M6, this busy village has ample free parking and some delightful cafes to refuel after a day in the saddle.

Heading north past the Station on Mitton Road (B6246) you are soon onto the country roads which make cycling so enjoyable

For an easy day round Longridge Fell and Jeffrey Hill through Chaigley to Chipping or keep going north to the Inn At Whitewell, where The Queen has lunch when she is in the area, and onto Dunsop Bridge.

For the more adventurous keep heading north past the Red Pump Inn at Bashall Eaves and beyond Browsholme Hall before taking a sharp right just after going over the bridge. You’ll recognise where to turn because the sign post points to Whitewell in both directions!

Up a short hill and turn right again, signposted three miles to Newton, and a long, steep hill is rewarded with views good enough to knock you off your bike. It’s here you will realise what the Ribble Valley is all about.

Lush green hills as far as the eye can see, the Trough of Bowland looming in the distance and the sort of up and down roads ahead of you which make cycling such a joy.

For those of you who want the perfect round trip heading to the Trough, as it is known locally, with a stop at cycle-friendly The Priory in Scorton, is the perfect five-hour ride

But the hilly loop from Newton to Slaidburn, or the steep climb from Newton over Waddington Fell to the village of Waddington offers a shorter-distance test.

A favourite stop-off for cyclists is Puddleducks Café at Dunsop Bridge. Here you can enjoy a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in a village which claims to be at the geographic centre of Great Britain.

The steep climb from the Inn At Whitewell is not for the faint-hearted but for those who want a real test, the climb from Hodder Bridge, near Chaigley, up Jeffrey Hill is as difficult as it gets.

Whalley itself has a smattering of high-end clothes boutiques and cafes, a fabulous abbey and a sandwich shop – CJ’s – famous for its generously huge butties.

Ten minutes up the road, the market town of Clitheroe offers non-cyclists a relaxing day out which includes the castle and its picturesque grounds, plenty of hot drink stop-offs – the highlights being Emporium and Callooh! Callay tea shop (both on Moor Lane) and Exchange Coffee Co. (Wellgate Street) offers some of the best hot drinks in the county.

Further into the countryside lunch is exquisite at Bashall Barn, a former farm which has diversified into food to great success. The site also boasts Bowland Brewery and a farm shop.

Fine dining is one of the highlights of the Ribble Valley with some of the best restaurants in the country.

The Michelin stared Northcote at Langho near Whalley is a leading light but there are several superb alternatives which are wallet friendly.

Perhaps the best, and fairly unknown, is the Freemasons at Wizwell.

A recent addition to the restaurant scene, the Freemasons menu is perfection. Hidden in the secluded village of Wizwell, locals would prefer it if the Freemasons remained their secret. If you don’t book ahead you won’t get a table – and that is all you need to know about how good the venue is.

But further up the A59, in the charming village of Sawley, is the Spread Eagle Inn which served me the best game meat I have ever tasted.

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But there are other gems dotted around the Valley, some of which can be spotted on the Ribble Valley Food Trail (though the website, launched in 2008, is not up to date).

NOTE: What cyclists need after a four-hour bike ride (above).

NOTE TWO: This cycling journey inlcudes the Forest of Bowland.


 

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