Stand in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square and in a 360-degree turn, the turbulent past and present of Russia is encapsulated in one fell swoop: flagships of Orthodox Christianity, Tsarist autocracy, communist dictatorship and rampant consumerism confront each other before your eyes.

Red Square, is, well, red-ish, but its name actually derives from an old Russian word for “beautiful”. It might no longer be undeniably so – its sometimes bloody history has put paid to that – but it continues to be Moscow’s main draw. In summer, postcard sellers jostle with photographers, keen to capture your image in front of one of the many iconic buildings; but in winter, you step back in time a few decades as Muscovites, in their ubiquitous shapki fur hats, negotiate their way through piles of snow, while the factory chimneys behind St Basil’s Cathedral churn out copious amounts of
smoke.

It’s hard to avoid being drawn immediately to St Basil’s, its magnificent Mr Whippy domes the fitting final resting place of the eponymous holy fool. Should retail, rather than spiritual, therapy, be more your bag, try GUM, the elegant nineteenth-century shopping arcade, which now houses mainly western boutiques, way out of the pocket of the average Russian, but very decent for a spot of window-shopping or a coffee, or just to shelter from the elements outside. If you think that the presence of Versace and other beacons of capitalism would have Lenin spinning in his grave, you can check for yourself at the mausoleum opposite, where his wax-like torso still lies in state. Despite the overthrow of communism, surly guards are on hand to ensure proper respect is shown: no cameras or bags, no hands in pockets and certainly no laughing. Putin’s police officers are never far away, casting a wary eye over it all – perhaps having learned a thing or two from Lenin’s bedfellows and disciples (including Uncle Joe), who are lined up behind the mausoleum under the imposing walls of the Kremlin.

Red Square can be reached from Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Aleksandrovskiy Sad, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and Borovitskaya metros.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

For a taste of all the Soviet Union once promised and an illustration of what it has come to, there’s nowhere better than the all-Russian Exhibition Centre, known by its acronym VDNKh. This enormous park in northeast Moscow is a glorious illustration of Soviet hubris, an exuberant cultural mix ’n’ match vision of a world where sixteen republics join hand in socialist hand to present a cornucopia of human achievement, ranging from agricultural tools and farm animals to atomic energy.

Opened in 1939 as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, the grounds were extended in the 1950s to include culture, science and technology, and continued to expand until 1989. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere is of prewar optimism, when all progress was good and man was master of the world, living in a kind of mechanized agricultural paradise where even the streetlights were shaped like ears of corn.

Set around the gaudy gold fountain of the Friendship of Nations, pavilions for the former Soviet socialist republics and areas of economic achievement make a gesture towards national building styles while remaining unmistakably Stalinist. Particularly striking are the Ukraine Pavilion, a sparkling mosaic and majolica jewelbox; the Uzbekistan Pavilion, patterned with interlocking geometric designs; and the stylish, Art-Deco-influenced Grain Pavilion. Beyond, a copy of the rocket which took Yuri Gagarin into space points skywards in front of the Aerospace Pavilion. Built in 1966, the pavilion’s railway-station-like hangar and glass dome are still breathtaking in their vastness.

It’s a little disappointing to find the working models of hydroelectric power stations and the herds of prize cattle long gone, and even the famous Soviet worker and collective farm girl monument vanished recently amid rumours that it’s been melted down for scrap metal. But the casual traders and cheap beer stands that now fill VDNKh lend the place a certain raffish charm. Perhaps it’s fitting that the monumental worker and farm girl have been replaced by a succinct image of today’s Russia: rows of salesmen from the Caucasus selling everything from Belarusian bras to cheap Chinese trainers under the Aerospace Pavilion’s unlit light bulbs.

For a virtual excursion of the park in English, see www.vvcentre.ru/eng/about_us/excursion.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

The Beira Baixa is a land of burning plains and granite visions, isolated in one of the most remote corners of Western Europe, where the Spanish border blurs under a broiling sun. Here, if you search hard enough, you’ll find at least two of the most startling medieval villages in Europe: Monsanto – Mon Sanctus in Latin – is truly a sacred hill; you can feel it in the air, in the very fabric of its ancient houses and the long life of its inhabitants. Even as you drive past the cork trees below its flanks, their valuable bark sliced away to reveal an ochre core, this mini-citadel grips the imagination and quickens the blood.

It is a village built into the earth, not on it: the famous Casa de Uma Só Telha – the house with only one tile – boasts a roof consisting of a single slab of granite. No surprise that its flower-buttoned facades once won it the title “most Portuguese village”, or that mystery and superstition permeate the draughts of warm air rising from the rocks in the relative cool of evening.

A few octogenarian villagers still sell marafonas, rag dolls traditionally hung over doorways to “scare thunder storms, sorcery and the fox”. While you’re unlikely to come across many foxes, far less sorcery, you might just hear the high, ululating strangeness of one of these old women accompanying herself on the adufe, a square, tambourine-like percussion instrument of Moorish origin, once common in Alentejo and Trás-os-Montes yet now largely confined to the Beira Baixa; or be regaled by toothless men old enough to remember their fathers holding off Vatua hordes in Mozambique.

Had the “most Portuguese village” competition not been scrapped after envious howls of protest, it would surely, sooner or later, have been scooped by Sortelha, some 35km to the north. A walled horseshoe of ancient history on a 45-degree angle, it’s the kind of place that sends your brain spinning: silent, sleeping streets and Vesuvian hulks of stone piling down upon garden, upon pantiled roof, upon carved stairwell; a film set waiting to happen. At its apex sits Bar Campanario, a tiny stone hostelry hiding one of the world’s most atmospheric terraces, its infinite views wheeling endlessly across the primordial plain-scape beyond, and only ghosts for company.

The Beira Baixa region lies more or less equidistant between Coimbra and the Spanish town of Cáceres. Monsanto is accessible via (infrequent) bus from the regional hub of Castelo Branco, Sortelha via a €12–15 taxi ride from nearby Sabugal.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth


Kiki Deere takes a stroll around George Town to explore the Penang street art scene and sample the city’s amazingly multicultural street food.

I awake early and take a stroll around the city’s quaint alleyways. At this time of the morning, a peaceful silence envelops the streets. The musical song of the 5am call to prayer still resonates along the town’s lanes. A lean Malay fellow lifts a rusty shutter, ready to commence another day’s work. Rows of fading, pastel-coloured houses line old world streets – these were former townhouses and shophouses, many with intricately-painted enclosed courtyards.

I am in George Town, the capital of Penang, a sizeable island off the west coast of Malaysia that is connected to the mainland by bridge. The colonial district was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, as a living testimony to the country’s multicultural past. Today, Penang’s multi-ethnic society is mainly formed of three communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian. These three groups have long co-existed side-by-side, and to this day each of the city’s neighbourhoods retains a powerful individual cultural and religious identity. George Town is renowned as the food capital of Malaysia, thanks to its rich heritage and diverse culinary traditions. Recently a new craze has taken the town by storm: street art, which attracts scores of Malaysians and Westerners alike who scour the city in search of the quirkiest mural.

As I venture towards Little India, a potent smell of spicy curry permeates the colourful streets, lined with garish jewellery shops and sari vendors. A hawker stall has set up shop at a street junction; a metal ladle rests inside a large pot of saffron-coloured curry, ready to scoop up breakfast for George Town’s hungry early-birds. Bollywood posters are precariously stuck to the roughly painted walls, alongside mannequins in glittering saris and beaded necklaces. A young CD vendor suddenly blasts up the volume on his obsolete sound system, letting out a wave of melodic Indian songs which echo through the streets.

Photograph by Kiki Deere

As I stroll along the crumbling pavements, caricatures jump out at me from the lively street art, mimicking former life in the city. A wrought iron caricature depicts the origins of Penang’s famous nasi kandar dish, which I soon learn originated from Tamil Muslims who peddled the streets selling homemade curry and rice from large containers that rested on either side of a kandar, a wooden stick.

The Indians of Penang originated from different parts of the Subcontinent, although the dominant group here are the Tamils from the south. It was the quest for spices that led the Europeans to establish Penang in 1786. The ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah, leased Penang to the British East India Company, which brought in labourers from southern India to develop the colony. Early Indians also settled here as merchants, moneylenders and traders, while others worked in sugar plantations or in the civil service. With them, they brought age-old traditions and customs, as well as a tantalising food flavoured by rich spices. Little India is dotted with mamak, south Indian Muslim restaurants, where mouth-watering banana leaf curries, colourful biryanis and succulent tandoori chicken are served, along with freshly baked naanroti canai and thosai. Malaysia is home to all manner of curries, not just Indian, which is thicker and spicier than the sweet Malay flavours, while the Chinese curry is similar in texture to gravy with its watery consistency and is just as delicious as the rest.

Photograph by Kiki Deere

I stroll towards the nearby streets of Chinatown, lined with pre-war shophouses, and now filled with antique traders, artisans, lantern makers and shops displaying traditional Chinese medicines and herbs. Every few metres, the overpowering smell of incense and the sight of flickering candles within brightly coloured temples invite passers-by to explore their interior. The sweet smell of hokkien mee wafts down the street: noodles drenched in a thick spicy broth served with beansprouts and water spinach.

The Chinese used Penang as a base for their commercial activities in nearby Siam (now Thailand), Myanmar (Burma), and the northern and western states of Malaya, as well as northern Sumatra. Chinese families intermarried with Malays, giving birth to Baba Nyonya communities, who still exert a large influence today. Nyonya cuisine uses traditional Chinese ingredients and wok frying methods, along with Malay spices. The result is a unique taste that combines spicy, sweet and sour flavours. Among the most popular dishes are otak-otak, fish paste marinated with spices, and ayam buah keula, chicken stew with black nuts. In Penang, Nyonya cuisine also embraces Thai elements, by incorporating tamarind and other sour ingredients.

Photograph by Kiki Deere

I soon come across a steel-rod caricature that reveals where the world famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo, a native of George Town, started his apprenticeship. Another depicts a large Chinese man, the “Cheating Husband”, on Love Lane, which was allegedly where the rich kept their mistresses – hence the street name. I get lost in a series of alleyways, where I soon discover a new art world of pastel-coloured paintings that decorate the city’s ancient walls. One of the artists behind these is Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, whose interactive urban murals, mostly of children, have become the town’s latest trend, with eager tourists queuing to take their much awaited snapshot as they pose by each design.

I saunter along the streets for hours, munching here and there on all manner of culinary delights, taking in the varicoloured sights and penetrating smells that engulf the beating heart of the city – a mélange of diverse ancient cultures that sit side by side, tainted with a streak of modern art that has been welcomingly incorporated by this medley of peoples.

You can explore more of Malaysia with the Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, and see this varied region using our Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

On the drive up through the Imlil Valley into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, you have a sense that you’re going somewhere special. The road passes rose-coloured adobe villages and fields terraced with ancient irrigation channels that nourish apple, cherry and walnut orchards. Mules trot along the road carrying children, women return from the fields with sacks of wheat, and men congregate in small groups by the roadside. As you swing around steep-sided bends, you get glimpses of the looming massif at the head of the valley, and by the time you reach the mountain village of Imlil – just 65km from Marrakesh – you know you’re in another world. The light is brighter, the air thinner, the streets empty and the jagged peaks resplendent against the sky.

No wonder Martin Scorsese chose this setting for Kundun, his film about the life of the Dalai Lama. The grandeur and remoteness of the Atlas Mountains is every bit as magnificent as the Himalayas. Here, the Kasbah du Toubkal, the former summer home of local ruler Caid Souktani, is perched at 1800m in the shadow of Morocco’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal.

Run and staffed by Berbers, the Kasbah calls itself a “hospitality centre”, so expect pots of mint tea on your arrival, and jellabahs (long-sleeved robes) and leather babouches (traditional leather slippers) to slip into. The rooms have been furnished by Berber craftsmen using local materials and range from basic communal salons (often used by school groups) to comfortable private double rooms and one lavish, three-bedroom apartment.

Guests come on day-trips from the capital to dine on tagines on the large rooftop terrace, from where there are sweeping views of the valley. But you’ll need to stay here for a few days to make the most of the spectacular setting. You can hire a guide and climb Mount Toubkal in a day, then return to the hammam (steam bath) and dine in the Kasbah’s restaurant. Or try a four-hour trek to Toubkal Lodge in the Berber village of Idissa. Its three double rooms are similar in style to the plush apartment at the Kasbah, and are designed for just a handful of guests to use as a base for day-hikes in the mountains or as part of an overnight circular walking route from the Kasbah du Toubkal. And if you don’t fancy the four-hour trek over the mountain pass from the Kasbah to the village, you can ride in on horseback or go by mountain bike.

Take a shared taxi or local bus from Marrakesh to Asni then a local taxi from Asni to Imli (about 2hr in total). Alternatively, book a 90min transfer with the Kasbah (€85 per car). From Imlil it’s a steep 15min walk (a mule will carry your bags). The Kasbah does not stock alcohol, though you can bring your own. For prices, room reservations and booking transfers at both the Kasbah and Toubkal Lodge see www.kasbahdutoubkal.com; +33 (0) 545 715 204. A five percent tax on hotel invoices goes to the Imlilillage Association, which funds local community projects.

 

For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, grab a copy of Great Escapes.

The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

After three hours trudging along steep forest paths, you come to a surreal sight. Hundreds of megalithic stone jars, large enough for someone to a crouch inside, are strewn all around. This group of 416 jars is the largest at the aptly named Plain of Jars, whose current tally stands at 1900 jars in 52 clusters, plus fifteen jar-making sites. They were made by a vanished civilization and their presence indicates that the mountains were prosperously settled at the time. Today the Xieng Khoung province is on the rise again, this time as a tourist hub.

Little is known about the jar-makers, except that the plateau was a strategic and prosperous centre for trade routes extending from India to China. Nearly 2000 years ago, possibly earlier according to new evidence, these jars functioned as mortuary vessels: a corpse would be placed inside the jar until it decomposed down to its essence, then cremated and buried in a second urn with personal possessions. Now all that remains here are the empty jars, set in clusters on the crests of hills, an imposing and eerie legacy.

At Phukeng, you can see where the jars were made. Dozens of incomplete jars lie on the mountainside where they were abandoned after cracking during construction. It’s a sight that evokes the magnitude of the effort: after many weeks spent gouging a jar from a boulder with hammer and chisel, the creators then had to haul the load of several tons (the largest jar weighs six tons) across the undulating, grassy, pine-studded landscape to the “cemetery” 8km away. How the jars were transported is another puzzle that serves to deepen the enigma that pervades the Plain of Jars.

Daily public buses connect Luang Prabang and Vientiane with Phonsovan. Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres ([email protected]) is the province’s best hotel, with private wooden bungalows.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Tucked away between parallel rocky ranges in southern Jordan, Petra is awe-inspiring. Popular but rarely crowded, this fabled site could keep you occupied for half a day or half a year: you can roam its dusty tracks and byways for miles in every direction.

Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, a tribe originally from Arabia who traded with, and were eventually taken over by, the Romans. Grand temples and even Christian-era church mosaics survive, but Petra is best known for the hundreds of ornate classical-style facades carved into its red sandstone cliffs, the grandest of which mark the tombs of the Nabatean kings.

As you approach, modern urban civilization falls away and you are enveloped by the arid desert hills; the texture and colouring of the sandstone, along with the stillness, heat and clarity of light bombard your senses. But it’s the lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock that leaves the greatest impression.

As in antiquity, the Siq, meaning “gorge”, is still the main entrance into Petra – and its most dramatic natural feature. The Siq path twists and turns between bizarrely eroded cliffs for over a kilometre, sometimes widening to form sunlit piazzas in the echoing heart of the mountain; in other places, the looming walls (150m high) close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.

When you think the gorge can’t go on any longer, you enter a dark, narrow defile, opening at its end onto a strip of extraordinary classical architecture. As you step out into the sunlight, the famous facade of Petra’s Treasury looms before you. Carved directly into the cliff face and standing forty metres tall, it’s no wonder this edifice starred in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the repository of the Holy Grail – the magnificent portico is nothing short of divine.

Petra (daily 6am–sunset) is 240km south of the Jordanian capital, Amman. The adjacent town of Wadi Musa has restaurants and hotels. Check out petranationaltrust.org.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Shinjuku isn’t for the faint-hearted. But if you’re new to Tokyo and want a crash course in crazy, it’s the first place you should come to. Sure, Asakusa has more history and Roppongi has better nightlife, but neither can compete when it comes to dealing out high-voltage culture shocks.

On the west side of Shinjuku station, which heaves with commuters and the smell of strong espressos, things are typically well-ordered. This shimmering business district is home to some of Japan’s tallest skyscrapers (as well as more than 13,000 bureaucrats) and there are enough high-rise megastores to have you craning your neck in disbelief. It’s a hardworking part of the city, where success is measured by the number of hours you spend at the office, and exploring it for the first time feels like stumbling through an ultra-efficient city of the future. But cross to the other side of the train tracks, and things couldn’t be more different.

Here, chaos rules. Under the hot neon lights of Kabukichō, in the eastern part of Shinjuku, you’ll find stand-up noodle bars snuggled next to strip joints and love hotels. Huge video screens pump noisy adverts into roadside bars, Blade Runner-style, and street hawkers skulk in the shadows by jazz clubs and theatres. To escape these guys, who’ll try anything to get at your yen, head to an all-night karaoke bar where you can croon until your sake-soaked vocal chords feel like they’re on fire. Or squeeze down the oddball alleyways of the Golden Gai district, which attracts artists, musicians and filmmakers with a ramshackle heap of more than 250 bars – each with its own unique theme. Chances are, you’ll still end up singing the night away.

When the morning sunlight starts to extinguish Shinjuku’s nocturnal glow, you can take a stroll through the cherry blossom trees of Shinjuku Gyoen – Tokyo’s finest park – and give yourself a well-earned pat on the back. Consider yourself initiated.

Shinjuku’s railway station is served by the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, and several inter-city lines.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Next year sees the World Cup gracing Rio De Janeiro‘s various stadiums, and it is expected that 600,000 foreigners will flock to the country to support their favourite teams and players in football’s biggest tournament. But there is so much more to Brazil than its status as host to the World Cup 2014. There are beautiful beaches, crashing waterfalls and of course, the world’s largest waterway: the Amazon. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, don’t miss some of these incredible sights.

Music taken from the Rough Guide to Psychedelic Brazil, by Siba (Cantando cirana na beira do mar) with thanks to worldmusic.net.

Get inspiration for your trip to Brazil here, and explore the entire country using our Rough Guide to Brazil. Book hostels for your trip here, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month