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Monthly Archives: November 2016

6 Great Places to Visit by Train in Europe

There are few better ways to see Europe than by rail. Budget flights might abound, but nothing can match the experience of travelling by train. Forget about tedious airport transfers and unsociable departure times, by rail you’ll get glorious views, spacious seats and – best of all – the ability to hop off a train right in the centre of a new city.

Whether you’re planning an epic rail tour or just looking for a weekend break, this is our pick of the best places to visit by train in Europe.

For foodies: Lyon

France’s gourmet capital has never been more accessible, with a direct Eurostar link toLondon and TGV connections that will whisk you to Paris or Marseille in under two hours.

Compact and instantly likeable, the city is perfect for getting to grips with in a weekend. Stroll the old streets of Vieux Lyon, test your adventurous palate with local specialties such as tablier de sapeur (breaded tripe), then hit up the hip Croix-Rousse district for super-cool coffee bars and cocktails.

For nightlife: Budapest

Looking to get ruined? No, we’re not condoning bachelor party excesses, but embracing one of Budapest’s most famous attractions, the ruin bar.

These rambling bars have taken over abandoned buildings in the city’s seventh district, filling their dilapidated interiors with quirky decor, murals, art installations and more. You won’t find another night out in Europe quite like it.

As for getting there, direct rail links put you in easy reach of Vienna’s more sedate charms or the chilled-out Croatian coast via Zagreb.

For the journey: the Scottish Highlands

For more than 140 years, the Caledonian Sleeper Highland Route has run from London to Scotland’s far north, calling in at Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

It’s undeniably one of the most spectacular journeys in Europe, passing through some of the Highlands’ most glorious landscapes, be they carpeted with snow in winter or dotted with wildflowers come spring.

For sun and sightseeing: Seville

Approaching Spain by train, most travellers make a beeline for Barcelona or Madrid. But those who venture further south are handsomely rewarded.

It’s just a two-and-a-half hour journey from Madrid to the Andalucían capital, one of the country’s most enchanting cities. With its Moorish architecture, majestic cathedral and narrow, atmospheric streets, Seville is a joy to wander – especially in June and July when there’s an average of 12 hours sunshine a day.

For romance: Venice

Picture Venice and a train is probably the last image that comes to mind. Yet with direct links to Florence, Milan, Munich and more, rail is both a convenient and quick way to reach the city.

The station sits right on the Grand Canal, mere meters from the vaporetti and water taxis that will take you anywhere in the city. There no better way to crank up the romance than cruising beneath the Rialto Bridge, past some of the city’s finest palazzo and on to the famous landing stage at San Marco.

For an autumn or winter break: Munich

The Bavarian capital comes alive once temperatures begin to fall. First there’s the legendary Oktoberfest, which actually takes place at the end of September, and sees funfairs, beer tents and unbridled merriment overtake the city.

A few months on, as November draws to a close, the first signs of Christmas start to appear. Munich’s Weihnachtsmärkte is one the best in Germany, with hundreds of stalls radiating out from Marienplatz.

Most Beautiful Mosques in The World

1. Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco

Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca sees relatively few foreign visitors despite its absorbing array of sights ranging from medieval souks to Art Nouveau mansions, strung out along an attractively windswept expanse of Atlantic coastline.

Few who visit, however, pass up the chance to explore the city’s landmark Hassan II Mosque. Completed in 1993, the mosque stands on an oceanfront promontory, its enormous minaret (the world’s tallest, at 210m) soaring above the coast like an enormous Islamic lighthouse, while the cavernous interior glows with the magical colours of blue marble mosaics, lustrous tilework and enormous pendant chandeliers.

2. Aqsunqur Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

Old Cairo is a virtual museum of mosques, with dozens of historic shrines dotted around the twisting, time-warped alleyways of the medieval centre. Amongst the finest is the stately Aqsunqur Mosque, completed in 1347. Rising above Bab al-Wazir Street, the building’s fortress-like walls are capped with minarets and intricately carved domes, while inside stands the mosque’s magnificent Mecca-facing eastern wall, entirely covered in a luminous array of azure tiles.

3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Soaring high above the heart of Istanbul at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (completed in 1616, also known as the Blue Mosque) is generally reckoned the crowning example of Ottoman architecture, with a quartet of needle-thin minarets pointing dramatically skywards and a sumptuously red-carpeted interior smothered in delicate tilework blossoming with thousands of stylized blue tulips.

 

4. Masjed-e Jameh, Isfahan, Iran

If it were almost anywhere else in the world, Isfahan’s great Naghsh-e Jahan Square would be teeming with tourists. Present-day political and practical realities mean that those who make it to Iran can enjoy an authentically foreigner-free taste of the world’s most perfectly preserved Islamic architectural set-piece.

The square is home to not one but two of the planet’s most stunning mosques, the Shah and the Jameh (Masjed-e Jameh) mosques. The Jameh Mosque is the larger and the older of the two, dating back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian times and has been rebuilt continuously over the centuries to produce the stunning complex you see today, with three stupendously huge, blue-tiled porticoes rising around a vast courtyard, and mirror-perfect reflections in the ablutions pool between.

5. Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

One of the world’s oldest and most revered Islamic shrines, Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque dates back to 715, less than a century after the Muslim faith first burst spectacularly into the world. The monumental building itself reflects the changing times in which it was built, adorned with Classical Roman-style Corinthian columns and Byzantine-style mosaics alongside the first of the great congregational courtyards which subsequently became the norm throughout the Islamic world.

6. Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Looming above the approach roads to Abu Dhabi like a vast wedding cake – with minarets – the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (completed 2007) offers a gigantic monument to the Muslim faith in a region now better known for its seven-star hotels, record-breaking skyscrapers and palm-shaped artificial islands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Abu Dhabi’s shiny new mega-mosque boasts its own string of record-breaking attractions: the world’s largest carpet lives here, along with the planet’s largest marble mosaic. Although it’s the serene beauty of the overall conception, with vast expanses of lustrous marble and myriad dazzling domes shining snowy white in the fierce Gulf sunlight, which really lingers in the memory.

7. Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

A majestic monument to India’s great Mughal rulers, rising in stately splendour above the tangled labyrinth of hectic streets at the very heart of Old Delhi. Commissioned by Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid remains an unequalled symbol of Islamic architecture in a largely Hindu country, with soaring minarets, delicate marble domes and a vast prayer hall – as well as peerless views across the teeming melée of the old city from its vast courtyard, raised high above the streets below.

8. Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq

Some sixty miles north of Baghdad, the Great Mosque of Samarra is one of the oldest and most unusual in the Islamic world (although currently off limits to casual visitors, for obvious reasons). The world’s biggest mosque when it was completed in 851, the building was largely destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1278 save for its outer walls and unique minaret, the so-called Malwiya Tower, a remarkable conical structure 52m high wrapped in a spiral staircase, like a gigantic upended telescope rising surreally from the desert sands.

The 7 Best Road Trips in Europe

1. From the glamour and glitz of Paris to the glorious grit of Berlin

Leaving Paris, cruise through the gentle hills of Champagne and Reims to the quaint capital of Luxembourg City, and explore the country’s plethora of fairy-tale castles.

Trier, Germany’s oldest city, is less than an hour’s drive further north-east, where ancient Roman baths and basilicas stand marvellously intact.

Spend a night in the medieval village of Bacharach in Riesling wine country, before wandering the riverside streets of Heidelberg. Onward to Nuremberg, and then to Leipzigfor a strong dose of hot caffeine with your Cold War history, classical music and cake.

Best for: Culture vultures looking for bragging rights.
How long: 1–2 weeks.
Insider tip: If you’re driving in France, you’ll legally need to keep safety equipment (a reflective vest and hazard signal). Additionally, keep spare Euros in your wallet to pay the occasional French road toll on the way.

2. Surf and sun in the Basque and beyond

 

The Basque roads beg a convertible – or better yet, a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof.

Begin in Bilbao, where the nearby villages boast some of the world’s best surf, and drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Ascend onwards to the Roncesvalles Pass before looping back to the coast. Or continue along the Bay of Biscay to the attractive seaside resort of St-Jean-de-Luz.

Travellers with a little extra money lining their pockets will be happy to spend days lingering on boho beaches in Biarritz, while those looking for gargantuan swell can do no better than the surfer hangouts in Hossegor.

Finish the trip northward in Bordeaux, “the Pearl of the Aquitaine”, where café-strewn boulevards and world-class wines are your trophies at the finish line.

Best for: Sun-seeking surfers and foodies.
How long: 1 week.
Insider tip: Check seasonal surf forecasts before you go, and look into coastal campsites if you’re on a budget.

3. The Arctic fjords from Bergen to Trondheim

Kick off in the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwest coast, and make way past mighty fjords to Voss and the colossal Tvindefossen waterfall. Then check the world’s longest road tunnel off your to-do list, a cavernous 24.5km route under the mountains.

Catch a quick ferry across the Sognefjord and carry on to the Fjaler valleys, a land of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, to the waterside towns of Stryn or the mountain village Videster.

Work your way northward to the well-touristed towns of Geiranger, down the death-defying hairpin turns of Trollstigen (literally “The Troll Path”).

After the descent, ferry across the Eresfjord to Molde and Kristiansund. For the final stretch, drive the iconic Atlantic Road with its rollercoaster style bridges, and conclude with some well-deserved downtime upon the still waters and stilted homes of Trondheim.

Best for: Thrill seekers and landscape junkies.
How long:
3–7 days.
Insider tip:
If you plan on road tripping during Norway’s winter months, be sure to check online ahead of time for road closures.

4. The unexplored east: Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna

Embark from Bucharest, travelling northward through the Carpathian mountains toTransylvania, and make a mandatory stop at Bran Castle (claimed to be the old stomping grounds of Dracula himself).

Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most incredibly beautiful routes in the world, towards the age-old cities and countless castles of Sibu, Brasovand Sighisoara. Then set course to the unexplored architectural gems of Timisoara.

Carry on towards the tranquil baths and hip ruin pubs of bustling Budapest, and be prepared to stay at least a few days. Depart for Bratislava – a capital full of surprises – from where it’s only an hour further to the coffeehouses and eclectic architecture ofVienna.

Best for: Anyone looking for a break from the conventional tourism of western Europe.
How long: 7–12 days.
Insider tip: Exercise caution when driving through tunnels. Though the weather outside may be fine, tunnels are often slippery.

5. To Portugal and beyond

Start in Braga, before driving south to the medieval town of Guimarães, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then it’s onward to the breathtaking “second-city” of Porto, though it’s nothing less than first-rate.

Drive east to the vineyards and steep valleys of Penafiel and Amarante before hitting the coastal road to the vast white beaches of Figueira da Foz. From here it’s on to Peniche,Ericeira and then Lisbon: the country’s vibrant capital that’s on course to beat out Berlin for Europe’s coolest city.

Drive south to Sagres, Arrifana and Carrapateira. After soaking up the sun on the picturesque shores of the Algarve, wrap this road trip up in the Mediterranean dreamland otherwise known as Faro.

But if you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Morocco. Imagine the satisfaction of parking your ride in the desert village of Merzouga, before exploring the Sahara – that’s right, it would feel awesome.

Best for: Beach bums and winos.
How long: At least 10–14 days.
Insider tip: As Portugal is among the more affordable destinations in Western Europe, this can be an especially great trip for travellers on a budget.

6. High-altitude adventure on Germany’s Alpine Road

The Alpenstrasse, or Alpine Road, is your ticket to a bonafide Bavarian odyssey: a safe route through the unforgettable vistas of Germany’s high-altitude meadows, mountains, crystal-clear lakes and cosy village restaurants. Start lakeside at Lindau and head to Oberstaufen if you fancy a therapeutic beauty treatment in the country’s “capital of wellness”.

Venture eastwards to the Breitachklamm gorge, where the river Breitach cuts through verdant cliffs and colossal boulders. Carry on to the town of Füssen – famous for its unparalleled violin makers – stopping along the way at any quaint Alpine villages you please. The iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, the same structure that inspired Walt Disney to build his own version for Cinderella, isn’t far off either.

Hit the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if the season’s right. Stop at Benediktbeuern on your way to the medieval town of Bad Tölz, then up through the stunning wilderness scenes of the Chiemgau Alps before ending in the regional capital of Munich. If you’re missing the mountain roads already, carry on to Salzburg and stop in the ice caves of Werfen on the way.

Best for: Outdoorsy lederhosen aficionados.
How long: 3–8 days.

7. Godly beaches and ancient highways in Greece

Start in Athens and take the coastal roads south through the Athenian Riviera to Sounion, situated at the tip the Attic peninsula. Watch a sunset at the Temple of Posseidon, then drive northward through mythic mountains to the fortress of Kórinthos before posting up in the legendary city of Mycenae (home of Homeric heroes).

If you’re craving a luxurious seaside stay, look no further than the resort town of Náfplio. If not, carry onwards through the unforgiving landscapes to Mystra, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium.

Feet still itching? Then it’s on to Olympia, sporting grounds of the ancients, and the mystic ruins of Delphi. Loop back towards Athens, approaching the city from the north.

Best for: Sun-worshipers, and anyone who’s ever read Homer or watched overly action-packed flicks like Troy and 300.
How long: 5–10 days, though it’s easy to trim a version of this road trip down to a long weekend.

Best 7 Backpacks For Travellers

Buying the wrong bag is one of the easiest travel mistakes to make – and one of the hardest to put up with. To save you from packing pain while on the road we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Here’s our pick of the best backpacks currently on the market for travellers.

1. The all-rounder: Osprey Sojourn 80

There’s no need to sacrifice flexibility for capacity, Osprey’s Sojourn 80 has a massive 80 litres of space for your stuff but can still be carried as a backpack as well as wheeled along as a trolley. The wheels are sturdy enough to withstand being bashed up and down steps or slung around by baggage handlers, and the straps are adjustable and made with a trampoline-style mesh for comfort. We also like the multiple zipped internal compartments and the robust handles both top and side for grabbing the bag quickly. A great all-rounder that would suit longer trips.

2. The ultimate cabin bag: North Face Rolling Thunder Roller 19

Looking for a cabin bag? The Rolling Thunder Roller 19 is designed to meet all European hand luggage requirements and is light on materials to leave your weight allowance for what you put inside it. There’s 19 litres of room here, with two external zipped compartments for easier organisation, and the handles on all sides make it easy to grab from overhead compartments or under-the-bus luggage holds. A solid, dependable bag for shorter adventures.

3. For the organised: Antler Urbanite Trolley Backpack

The numerous separate zipped pockets both external and internal on Antler’s Urbanite Trolley Backpack will keep the organised traveller happy – it feels like there’s a place for everything. Although designed to be pulled along by telescopic handle too, this bag looks more like a backpack than most trolley bags, and it’s both light and small enough to be worn comfortably most of the time. You still get 32 litres of packable space though, making this bag ideal for trips that last a week or two and take in multiple stops.

4. For the photographer: Manfrotto off road hiker 30L

Taking that bulky DSLR camera out and about can be a nightmare when you’re travelling. Manfrotto have the answer in the shape of their off road hiker camera backpack, which has a separate easy-access camera compartment as well as a camera strap across the chest. The modular dividers make carrying up to three extra lenses easy, while the water-repellent material and fold-out rain protector keep your gear safe and dry. There’s also an external tripod connection, and the bag is small enough to meet hand-luggage requirements yet still has 30 litres of space. Photographers, look no further.

5. For the hiker: Deuter Act Trail 24

Hiking backpacks should, above all else, be comfortable. The Deuter Act Trail 24 is one of the most comfortable bags we’ve seen: super lightweight and with fully adjustable straps, including mesh hip fins that keep it stable even when scrambling. The two-way zip on the main pocket means you can open the pack from the bottom to retrieve buried waterproofs or snacks, while the opening at its top makes it compatible with hydration systems. There are plenty of pockets too, including both outside and inside the lid and on the front.

 

6. The day bag: Knomo Cromwell

In some destinations security is a bigger concern, especially when you’re carrying a bag on your back. That’s why the Knomo Cromwell has a roll-top – wandering hands have no chance against this tough cookie. It’s weather resistant too, and has a 27.5-litre capacity with a padded internal pocket for laptops up to 14 inches, plus a chest harness and waist strap to spread the weight. A great carry-on and day bag option.

7. For the ultimate adventure: Evoc Patrol 40L Touring Backpack

Going off piste? Few backpacks can keep up with serious adventurers, unless you’ve got an Evoc. Their protective sports backpacks are built for professionals, with both ski and snowboard attachment systems, a reinforced fixation loop in the hip belt for climbing gear, and a quick-access avalanche equipment pocket complete with emergency plan information. Although this bag is perfect for the most adventurous trips, its 40 litres of packing space, rugged build and focus on ergonomic weight distribution make it a good choice for all backpackers.