Pity the poor folk picking through the rubble of the Forum in Rome. To make the most of the ruins there you have to use your imagination. In the ancient Roman resort town of Pompeii, however, it’s a little easier. Pompeii was famously buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD, and the result is perhaps the best-preserved Roman town anywhere, with a street plan that is easy to discern – not to mention wander – and a number of palatial villas that are still largely intact. It’s crowded, not surprisingly, but is a large site, and it’s quite possible to escape the hordes and experience the strangely still quality of Pompeii, sitting around ancient swimming pools, peering at frescoes and mosaics still standing behind the counters of ancient shops.

Finish up your visit at the incredible Villa of Mysteries, a suburban dwelling just outside the ancient city. Its layout is much the same as the other villas of the city, but its walls are decorated with a cycle of frescoes that give a unique insight into the ancient world – and most importantly they are viewable in situ, unlike most of the rest of Pompeii’s mosaics and frescoes, which have found their way to Naples’ archeological museum. No one can be sure what these pictures represent, but it’s thought that they show the initiation rites of a young woman preparing for marriage. Set against deep ruby-red backgrounds, and full of marvellously preserved detail, they are dramatic and universal works, showing the initiate’s progress from naïve young girl to eligible young woman. But above all they tell a story – one that speaks to us loud and clear from 79 AD.

Pompeii can be reached easily by train from Naples. See www.pompeiisites.org for more information.

 

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From Kinross to Kent, Britain is home to all manner of beautiful gardens, ranging from wild and sprawling estates to compact, tidy arrangements. Here’s a few of our favourites, taken from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Aberglasney Gardens

Once a grand Carmarthenshire estate, Aberglasney fell on hard times during the twentieth century and by the mid-1990s the house was totally derelict: its windows empty sockets, its masonry crumbling and its gardens choked with weeds. Just when it seemed doomed to collapse, a Restoration Trust stepped in, led by a team of experts who were determined to patch up the damage and perhaps reveal some of the glories of the past. The gardens (pictured above) were the main focus of their interest: they were known to date back well over 500 years, making them a perfect candidate for research. Their hunch has already paid off: little by little they have made some astonishing discoveries.

One of the earliest revelations was a real breakthrough. Carefully, the team excavated the stone-walled cloisters immediately west of the mansion, digging down through the centuries to discover a formal garden dating back to late Tudor or early Stuart times. Even more astonishingly, coins dating back to 1288 were found among the debris. Now that a re-creation of the early seventeenth-century layout is in place, you can wander the raised stone path that tops the cloister walls to admire its geometric lawns and think yourself back to the grandeur of the era.

On the south side of the house is another superb development: the ruined masonry of an ancient courtyard has been shrouded in glass, creating a subtropical hothouse. Named the Ninfarium after the glorious Italian gardens of Ninfa, there’s a Zen-like calm to its shady, orderly pathways.

Aberglasney Gardens, Llangathen, Carmarthenshire, www.aberglasney.org

Drummond Castle Gardens

Scotland, Perthshire, gardens of Drummond Castle

The long beech-enclosed drive that leads to Drummond Castle has a sense of drama, but gives no inkling of the exotic vision ahead. The castle itself is a bluff medieval keep surrounded by turreted domestic buildings, all heavily restored in the nineteenth century. You pass through a courtyard to access a wide stone terrace, and the garden is suddenly revealed: a symmetrical and stately Italianate vision in the shape of Scotland’s flag, a St Andrew’s Cross. The lines of the cross are punctuated by urns and Classical statues, and at their centre is a seventeenth-century obelisk sundial. It’s an artful garden in every sense: steep steps lead down to the sundial, and beyond the topiary and the neat flower beds a wide avenue cuts though dense woodland, continuing the line of the parterre’s central path but making a visual connection between the formal garden and wider, wilder estate.

The first Lord Drummond began building the castle in the late fifteenth century, and in 1508 there is evidence that the estate supplied cherries to James IV when he was on a hunting trip. The sundial created by Charles I’s master mason was put in place in 1630; in the following century the family was more preoccupied with assisting the Jacobite uprising than pruning the roses, but in calmer times in 1842 Queen Victoria planted two copper beeches here, and enjoyed walks in the garden with Albert.

It remains in feel very much a courtly garden. The paths seem tailor-made for stately strolling, giving you the space and time to admire the marble statuary, snooty peacocks and neatly clipped foliage. And when you’ve explored the parterre, don’t miss the abundant blooms in the glasshouses, and the impressive kitchen garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens, near Muthill in Crieff, Perth & Kinross, www.drummondcastlegardens.co.uk

Mottisfont Abbey

Before you even get to the roses at Mottisfont Abbey – which is, after all, the point of the visit – you encounter some sensuous temptations. First you cross the River Test, arguably the finest chalk stream in England, which runs clear and shallow through gentle meadows fringed by grassy downland. This is the place for walks (the Test Way passes by here), or quiet sitting – or trout fishing, if you can afford it.

You then walk through Mottisfont’s lovely grounds, a grassy haven bordered by chalk streams and studded with old oaks, sweet chestnuts and the improbably massive great plane. Then there’s the Abbey itself, a mellow pile with Tudor wings and Georgian frontages and a stately drawing room whose eccentric trompe l’oeil decor – all painted swags and smoking stoves sketched in grisaille – was created by the English prewar artist, Rex Whistler.

But beyond the river and the house and the grounds lies Mottisfont’s heart: its twin walled rose gardens. They are fabulous, harbouring one of the finest collections of old roses in the world. Among the six-hundred-odd varieties you’ll find names that hint at exotic beauty, such as Reine de Violette, Tuscany Superb and Ispahan, and names that suggest a more blushing Englishness, such as Eglantine and the Common Moss Rose. Climbers, noisettes and ramblers trace glorious patterns on the high brick walls, cross pergolas or spill up into apple and pear trees. The shrub roses, meanwhile, crowd noisily between the box hedges and lawns and lavender pathways, jostling among the hosts of bulbs and perennials. There is something to see, then, right through spring and summer.

Mottisfont, five miles north of Romsey, Hampshire www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Alnwick Garden

The sign on the gates to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens, Northumberland, UK

It makes sense to lock up dangerous criminals and wild animals, perhaps – but plants? Well, yes, when we’re talking about these plants. Within the 40-acre Alnwick Garden, the botanical annexe to Alwnick Castle, lies a sullen little plot of deadly flowers and bushes deemed so dangerous that they too are kept behind bars. Visitors to this cultivated collection of botanical death should be wary. Don’t sniff too hard, perhaps… Though one suspects their deadly pollen and spores could permeate even the ominous wrought-iron gates, fronted with skull and bone signs, that declare: “These plants can kill”.

Unlike the rest of Alnwick Garden, the poison garden can only be visited on a guided tour. The heavy iron gates are locked behind you. This is serious stuff. Flame-shaped beds are planted with tobacco, mandrake, hemlock – and innocent-looking rhubarb, the stalks of which make lovely crumble, but whose lush green leaves can kill. Maximum security is applied to coca (for cocaine), cannabis plants and poppies, the heads of which contain all that’s required to make opium, heroin and morphine.

Weaving through the garden, guides debunk myths, tell old wives’ tales and impart ancient wisdom. Learn here about Old Man’s Beard, rubbed by professional beggars into sores to make them weep piteously. Or the hallucinogenic properties of Deadly Nightshade. Chewing a humble laburnum leaf, you are told, will lead you to froth at the mouth and wildly convulse.

Alnwick Garden, Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland www.alnwickgarden.com

RHS Garden Wisley

The Manor House at RHS Wisley Garden, Surrey, UK. Water lillies growing in the canal pond at Wisley.

As you walk through the brick entrance arch at Wisley, you’re hit by scented air wafting through from the flourishing acres beyond. And there really are acres and acres here – 240 of them, to be exact, all lovingly, scrupulously, passionately tended. Ahead lies the serene canal and walled garden; beyond, secretive paths lead through the Wild Garden’s woodlands to the staggering new glasshouse, which rises out of an entire lake. The preternaturally heated interior heaves with tropical ferns and palms and creepers, all fighting their way towards the glass. There’s even an indoor waterfall.

But why go straight on? A left turn takes you up a breathtaking avenue of lawn, between 20ft-deep mixed borders from which English cottage garden flowers dance and nod in coloured ranks. Beyond, there’s the elegant rose garden, and beyond again what seems like an entire ecosystem of rhododendrons and magnolias on Battleston Hill. And beyond that, the Jubilee Arboretum rises back up towards the Fruit Field, which is really an entire hillside combed with 450 types of apple, plum and pear, many of them rare and rich varieties. It’s not exactly encouraged, but on an early autumn day you could even quietly taste a windfall pear or two – or buy them in the shop later.

Wisley isn’t all about loveliness, though, or even drama. Instead, it’s alive with passion and energy. The Royal Horticultural Society is dedicated to research and education, so you’ll see guided tours pausing to consider a fine clematis, enthusiasts gleaning tips from the model allotment, or maybe volunteers weeding through a host of experimental pumpkins.

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey www.rhs.org.uk/wisley

Highgrove Gardens

It’s amazing what a few words of encouragement can do. When the Prince of Wales bought Highgrove House, his family home near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, the estate didn’t even have a lawn. Some thirty years later, what was once an empty landscape is now one of the most innovative gardens in Britain. Clearly, Charles has spent a lot of time talking to these plants.

Tours start at Highgrove House itself, surrounded by scented plants such as wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine, holboellia and thyme, and meander for two miles through a series of interlinked gardens, from the immaculate Sundial Garden, fronting the house, to the Arboretum. Most eye-catching in its marriage of form and function is the Prince’s Islamic-style Carpet Garden, a medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, whose colour and appearance – which includes fountains decked in elaborate zelij tiling – were based on the patterns of Persian carpets within the house.

Arguably the most interesting sections, though, are the Wildflower Meadow and the Walled Kitchen Garden. The former was co-designed with one of the UK’s leading biodiversity experts, and – as an organically sustained initiative that also helps preserve the country’s native flora and fauna – is a living example of the philosophy that underlines much of Highgrove and the Prince’s nearby Duchy Home Farm. The meadow features more than thirty varieties of British wildflowers – ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and ragged robin among them – and is home to some of the National Collection of Beech Trees, part of a conservation programme that safeguards the diversity of the country’s plant heritage.

Highgrove House, Doughton, Tetbury, Gloucestershire www.highgrovegardens.com

Swiss bridge

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Edinburgh’s famous Botanic Garden may get the royal seal and most of the press, yet a mere 45-minute drive south stands what is arguably the world’s most exquisite arboretum. Sequestered in one of the most scenic corners of the Scottish Borders, Dawyck is a veritable masterpiece of horticultural passion and creativity, matured over three centuries into a stunning sixty acres of botanic forest.

The secret of this place lies in its range of species from climatically similar corners of the globe. One of the best times to visit is in spring, when you’re welcomed by the Himalayan feast that is the Azalea Walk in full bloom. Over the brow of the hill, 300-year-old giant redwoods tower next to a rustling brook. Incredibly, these are actually infant trees, just a tenth of the way through their lives, and mere striplings compared to their 300ft-tall Californian forebears.

Just beyond the upward curve of the burn another giant hoves into view: the rhubarb-like gunnera plant feels truly exotic, even tropical, a South American specimen with foliage as big as a golf umbrella.

Atmospheric features like the old chapel, the stone humpback bridge or Dawyck House, relics of the garden’s heritage as part of the Dawyck estate, give purpose to those panoramic shots, or you could zoom in to the striking snakeskin bark of the Manchurian striped maple, possibly an evolutionary disguise to protect saplings. Even if you forget your camera, Dawyck will imprint itself on your grey matter anyway, a humbling lesson in the glorious potential of landscape.

Dawyck Botanic Garden, Stobo, near Peebles, Borders www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/dawyck

Sissinghurst Castle

Sissinghurst Gardens Cottage, Sissinghurst, Kent, England

The famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle is equally fascinating both at a distance and close up. There are several angles from which to admire it – framed by a shady arch, for example, or backed by the weathered walls of the Priest’s House – and there’s fresh beauty in every white iris, lupin and sunny-centred daisy.

It’s one of a series of room-like areas of planting with which the poet Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, a diplomat-turned-politician, adorned the grounds of Sissinghurst. When they arrived in 1930, the site was derelict, but Vita, who had an ancestral connection with the castle, saw in it an opportunity to shake off some of the sadness she felt at being shut out of the inheritance of her childhood home, Knole, simply because she was a woman.

The couple had different approaches to gardening: Harold enjoyed the discipline of orderly spaces separated by brick walls, yew trees and box hedges, while Vita was a romantic who enjoyed creating mysteries and surprises. In 1938, they opened the garden for an entrance fee of a shilling. The romantic-looking Elizabethan Tower that dominates the estate was originally a lookout; for the Nicolsons, it was the perfect vantage from which to survey their leafy domain. Climb up to its highest windows and you can see how beautifully the gardens, orchards and vegetable plots nestle within the Wealden countryside, complementing it just as they intended.

The garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

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You’ve seen them a thousand times before you even get there. Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are perhaps the most recognizable pieces of art in the world, reproduced so much that they’ve become part of the visual furniture of our lives. Getting to this enormous work isn’t easy; indeed, it’s almost an act of penance in itself, waiting in endless queues and battling flag-following tour groups. But none of that, nor the simple entrance to the chapel, can prepare you for the magnificence of what lies beyond.

Despite the crowds, the noise and the periodic chiding of the guards, seeing these luminous paintings in the flesh for the first time is a moving experience. The ceiling frescoes get the most attention, although staring at them for long in the high, barrel-vaulted chapel isn’t great for the neck muscles. Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, they depict scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation of Light at the altar end to the Drunkenness of Noah at the other, interspersed with pagan sybils and biblical prophets, who peer out spookily from between the vivid main scenes. Look out for the hag-like Cumean sybil, and the prophet Jeremiah, a self-portrait of an exhausted-looking Michelangelo. Or just gaze in wonder at the whole decorative scheme – not bad for someone who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.

Once you’ve feasted on the ceiling, turn your attention to the altar wall, which was decorated by an elderly Michelangelo over twenty years later, depicting in graphic and vivid detail the Last Judgement. The painting took him five years, a single-handed effort that is probably the most inspired large-scale work you’re ever likely to see. Its depiction of Christ, turning angrily as he condemns the damned to hell while the blessed levitate to heaven, might strike you as familiar. But standing in front of it, even surrounded by crocodiles of people, still feels like an enormous privilege.

 

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Tel Aviv is a city with chutzpah, a loud, gesticulating expression of urban Jewish culture. Revelling in a Mediterranean-style café culture, it has dozens of bars and clubs, all aimed squarely at the under-30s. It doesn’t seem likely to have much in the way of architectural interest – it was only founded in 1909 – or so you’d think. Take a closer look and Tel Aviv reveals a wealth of buildings constructed in the International Style, inspired by the German Bauhaus school. Not as grandiose as its predecessor, Art Deco – indeed, deliberately understated in contrast – the style has its own charm, and abounds in Tel Aviv as nowhere else in the world.

Wandering the streets, you don’t at first see the architecture, but then you start to notice it, and suddenly you’ll see it everywhere – it really is a signature of the city. The International Style’s beauty lies not in ornamentation or grand gestures, but in its no-nonsense crispness: lines are clean, with lots of right angles; decoration is minimal, consisting only of protruding balconies and occasionally flanged edges, designed to cast sharp shadows in the harsh Mediterranean sunlight. It wears whitewash especially well, giving the whole of Tel Aviv an almost Hockneyesque feel with its straight white lines and hard edges, as if someone had turned up the contrast button just a mite too high.

Check it out on Rehov Bialik, a small residential street in the very centre of town. Take a stroll on Sederot Rothschild, a fine 1930s avenue with some very classic Bauhaus buildings. A further wander around the streets in between Bialik and Rothschild yields still more examples of the genre, as does a visit to the more workaday district of Florentin. As cool and stylish as its cafés, Tel Aviv’s architecture reflects the city itself – young, brash and straight to the point. It may not impress at first, but it definitely grows on you.

Even when Israel and Palestine are consumed by conflict, Tel Aviv can seem a world away from trouble, but it’s best to check the situation before you travel.

 

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There are some places in the world that you may not immediately think of visiting. Among all the favourite churches, museums and galleries lurk some more disturbing locations with morbid histories, places that represent the darker side of humanity. They may not be top of your itineraries, but they’re equally – if not more – thought-provoking, and are well worth a detour. Here, with some from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some key places to remember the past.

Auschwitz, Poland

One thing that will stick in your mind is the hair. Mousy, dark clumps of it and even a child’s pigtail still wound like a piece of rope, all piled together like the relics from an ancient crypt. But there are no bones here. The hair in this room was deliberately, carefully, shaved from the heads of men, women and children, ready for transportation to factories where it would be turned into haircloth and socks. This is Auschwitz, the most notorious complex of extermination camps operated by the Nazis.

No one knows how many people died here: estimates range from 1.1 million to 1.6 million, mostly Jews. They starved to death, died of dysentery, were shot or beaten. And then from 1941, the Final Solution, death by cyanide gas (“Zyklon-B”): twenty thousand people could be gassed and cremated each day. Auschwitz is a terrible place, full of terrible, haunting memories. But everyone should go – so that no one will forget.

Auschwitz is named after the Polish town of Oświęcim, around 50km west of Kraków. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum & Memorial is free; see en.auschwitz.org.

Brest fortress, Belarus

Guards of honor near the eternal flame in memorial complex of the Fortress of Brest, Belarus

For the Belarusians, World War II was a catastrophe. In all, during the brutal three-year Nazi occupation of the then Soviet republic, almost a quarter of the population died – a tragedy that has left a profound imprint on succeeding generations. Nowhere does the nation’s sense of grief retain a greater rawness than at the colossal war memorial, constructed with typical Soviet bombast, at Brest Fortress, close to the Polish border.

It’s a sombre half-hour trudge along a broad, empty boulevard out to the fortress complex on the edge of town, the eye drawn towards the monumental concrete slab carved with a giant Communist star that serves as the entrance. As you pass through, radio broadcasts, Soviet songs and the deafening thunder of artillery ring through the tunnel. Once inside, remains of the original fortress – much if it shelled to oblivion – are sparse. Instead it’s a massive icon of Socialist Realist art that dominates the tableau: carved into another gigantic concrete block is the head of a huge, grim-faced soldier, jutting muscular jaw set in defiance. It’s a staggeringly powerful piece of work, lent added poignancy by the eternal flame that burns beneath, and the neat tiers of memorials that lead up to it, many garlanded in beautiful wreaths.

Brest is 4hr by train from either Minsk or Warsaw (change in Terespol from the latter); the fortress is open daily 8am–midnight (free).

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

A row of cannons at Cape Coast Castle, a former slave fort. Cape Coast, Ghana

In 1471, Portuguese merchant seamen arrived on the palm-lined shore of the Gold Coast and bought a fort at Elmina. Over the next four hundred years they were followed by British, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and adventurers from the Baltic. Gold was their first desire, but the slave trade soon became the dominant activity, and more than three dozen forts were established here, largely to run the exchange of human cargo for cloth, liquor and guns. Today, thirty forts still stand, several in dramatic locations and offering atmospheric tours and accommodation.

One of the biggest is the seventeenth-century Cape Coast Castle, which dominates the lively town of the same name. Just walking through its claustrophobic dungeons, where slaves were held before being shipped across the Atlantic, moves some visitors to tears – the scale of the cruelties that took place here is near-incomprehensible

Bus services (around 4hr) run along the main coastal highway from Accra.

The Kigali genocide museum, Rwanda

Rwanda Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum stain glass window

In 1994, while the world looked the other way, around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists. The attempted genocide left a scar on the Rwandan nation which will be felt for generations, but the immediate wounds of that terrible three-month period have healed faster than most outsiders could have imagined. While leading genocidaires have faced UN trials, those who murdered their own neighbours under orders have undergone a process of reconciliation with survivors in local gacaca courts. The country itself has been transformed by its pragmatic government and is rapidly modernizing.

Tourism is an important part of development and it engages remarkably with recent events in Rwanda’s genocide museum, the Kigali Memorial Centre, where you’re likely to spend at least two very worthwhile but emotionally draining hours. On this hillside site, north of the city centre, eleven huge crypts have been constructed, the resting place for nearly a quarter of a million of the country’s victims. The semi-subterranean exhibition itself implicitly lays the blame for what happened on decades of colonial oppression, divide-and-rule policies, under-development and ultimately deliberate planning, while placing the slaughter in the context of humanity’s history of genocide. The memorial to the children who died is unbearably moving, focusing not on the huge numbers, but on fourteen individual lives, on little things like their favourite meals, and on how they were killed.

The Kigali Memorial Centre is open daily 10am–6pm (donations accepted) and is a partner of the UK-based Aegis Trust (aegistrust.org), which works to prevent crimes against humanity.

The Camp of Special Significance, Russia

St Petersburg’s White Nights festival is an established tourist draw, but more adventurous travellers can head north towards the Arctic Circle and the remote Solovetsky Archipelago in the Karelia region. Situated on the White Sea, in the uppermost part of the world’s biggest country, these islands seem close to the tipping-point of the world.

From the Middle Ages till the Bolsheviks seized power, monks sought out this place for solitary contemplation; when communism fell, they returned, and today the exquisite monastery on the main island, pure white with silver onion domes, is again a site of active worship. But there were darker times in the interim. The Soviet authorities saw the potential of the islands’ remote location, and in 1923 created a Camp of Special Significance, where political opponents could be subjected to the near-constant winter darkness, isolation and bitter cold. Solovetsky became, as the great dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “the mother of the gulag”.

Today, the camp is remembered in a museum inside the Kremlin on the main island. On top of Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”) you can also see the Church of the Ascension, which was used for solitary confinement – an incongruously picturesque spot a pleasant 12km walk from the monastery. But perhaps most striking is the prison dating from the late 1930s, today abandoned and neglected, where visitors can wander at will. The two-tone walls, door numbers and scrawled graffiti heave history out of the untouchable past and into vivid Technicolor.

Take the overnight train from St Petersburg to Kem, then the boat to the main island, Solovki (2hr 30min). Regional information is at www.pomorland.info.

Toul Sleng genocide museum, Phnom Penh. Cambodia.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

Everyone over 30 in Cambodia has lived through the genocidal Khmer Rouge era. The woman who runs your guesthouse in downtown Phnom Penh; the moto driver who tried to rip you off on the ride down from the Thai border; your Angkor temples tour guide; the waiter at the seaside café in Sihanoukville. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you’ll learn something of what that means.

A former school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, code-named S-21, was used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate perceived enemies of their demented Marxist-Leninist regime. During the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, some fourteen thousand Cambodians were tortured and killed here, often for the crime of being educated: for being a teacher, a monk, or a member of the elite; for wearing glasses; for being a discredited cadre.

The interior of the prison has in part been left almost as it was found. Tiled floors, classrooms crudely partitioned into tiny cells, shackles, iron bedsteads and meshed balconies. Elsewhere, graphic paintings by another survivor, Vann Nath, depict the torture methods used to extract confessions; some of these confessions are also reproduced here. Once they’d been coerced into admitting guilt, prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and murdered. Choeung Ek, 12km southwest, is now the site of another memorial. Both provide graphic evidence of these recent horrors.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (daily 7.30–11.30am & 2–5pm) is off Street 13 on the southern fringes of Phnom Penh.

Dachau, Germany

This former camp for political prisoners of WWII once served as the model for all concentration camps of the war, and later became a “school of violence” for the SS men who commanded it. Until the 1960s it was used as a refugee camp for Germans coming from Czechoslovakia, and now it contains a memorial, established in 1965 by the surviving prisoners. There are exhibitions where you can pay respects to and remember the important prisoners in the camp, a visitor’s centre, and a display takes visitors through the path of new arrivals to Dachau all those years ago.

The Dachau camp is open daily (9am-5pm) and is located a 30 minute drive from Munich.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

There is always something eerie about walking through a cemetery, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. In the colourful Jewish Quarter of Prague, this centuries-old cemetery is perhaps the most crowded in the world. The number of people buried here has not been determined but the grounds contain some 12,000 tombstones and it is assumed there are several “burial layers” placed on top of one another.

The cemetery (Mondays & Wednesdays 11am-3pm, and Fridays from 9am-1pm) is located on Fibichova Street in the Old Jewish Quarter.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

These underground tunnels are steeped in incredible but sinister history, as Viet Cong guerrilla fighters used them as supply routes, living quarters and hospitals during the American-Vietnam war. Although the tunnels have been widened and made taller for Western tourists to explore, you can still feel the claustrophobic and cramped conditions that so many Vietnamese lived in. The whole site is a stark reminder of the bloody battles that took place between the Americans and Viet Cong and there are interested exhibitions throughout.

The tunnels are open daily from 9am-5pm and good tours run from most travel agents in Ho Chi Minh (Siagon) City.

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

This ghost town in central France is a permanent museum and memorial to the families that were killed during a 1944 German massacre. The village was left bare after 642 of its inhabitants were killed, and today the houses lay in ruins and cars decompose in their parking spaces as visitors are allowed to wander through the empty streets and remember the victims’ plight.

 

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Secreted away in the souk quarter behind the Basilica of the Annunciation, in a maze of streets too narrow for cars, lies the Fauzi Azar Inn – a 200-year-old mansion that has been converted into the most welcoming place to stay in Nazareth. Centred on an arched courtyard, its ten adjoining rooms are decked out with heavy drapes and cushions that soften the heavy sandstone walls and high painted ceilings, making this an oasis of calm beside the daily hubbub of the markets.

But the Inn’s owner, Maoz Inon, has bigger dreams for Fauzi Azar, and has designed it to be more than just a relaxing hideaway. He has developed a “Jesus Trail” – a 65km walking route that traces a path between some of the most significant points in the story of the Gospels, from the fields and forests that surround Nazareth, along the Sea of Galilee to the place where Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount. With the help of volunteers (who get free lodging in Fauzi Azar for four weeks or more in return) he has worked with various other guesthouses to mark out the route with accommodation stops along the way. So rather fittingly, the Jesus Trail ensures that in one of the world’s most divided countries, there is always a welcome at the inn.

For directions, rates, reservations and volunteering info see www.fauziazarinn.com; +972 4602 0469. Further info on the Jesus Trail is at www.jesustrail.com.

 

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It’s mid-afternoon and you’re sitting in an outdoor café when suddenly the street is closed to traffic and a procession of villagers comes streaming by. Women with delicate frangipani blossoms woven into their hair balance lavish offerings of food, fruit and flowers on their heads and walk with grace and poise, while men march by playing musical instruments or sporting ceremonial swords. All are making their way to one of the village temples to honour its gods and celebrate the anniversary of its dedication.

Bali is home to over 10,000 temples of varying sizes, each one of which has a dedication ceremony at least once during the course of the Balinese year of 210 days. Each anniversary celebration, known as an odalan, is carried out on an auspicious date set by a local priest and usually lasts three days. In preparation the temple is cleaned, blessed and decorated with flowers, silk sarongs and colourful umbrellas. Women spend hours weaving elaborate headpieces and decorations from palm leaves while men carve ornate objects from wood. Streets leading to the temple are lined with vivid flags, banners and long, decorated bamboo poles (penjors) that arch overhead with woven garlands of dried flowers and ornaments fashioned from young palm leaves. Worshippers from around the island arrive en masse to celebrate with prayer, ceremonial dance, drama, musical performances and food to entice the gods and spirits.

Celebrations take place inside the temple walls: fragrant hair oils and smoke from sandalwood incense fill the air as the chimes of bells and the shimmering sounds of the gamelan orchestra electrify the atmosphere. In one corner worshippers kneel before an altar filled with offerings to recite prayers and be blessed with holy water and rice, while in another spectators are treated to an elegant dance of girls in golden costumes. Shadow-puppet performances recount ancient tales while barong dances ward off evil sprits. All this activity competes with the sizzling smells of saté being grilled over coconut husks and the laughter of lads gambling with cards.

Foreigners are invited to attend temple cere-monies, however you must respect local customs and ensure you are appropriately dressed with a sarong, headpiece and footwear.

 

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With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Asakusa, Tokyo

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Sumo Wrestling Tournament in Tokyo

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

View from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

When it comes to viewing the Taj Mahal, there isn’t really an unflattering angle or wrong kind of weather. Even the Dickensian smog that can roll off the Jamuna River in midwinter only serves to heighten the mystique of the mausoleum’s familiar contours. The monsoon rains and grey skies of August also cast their spell; glistening after a storm, the white marble, subtly carved and inlaid with semi-precious stones and Koranic calligraphy, seems to radiate light.

The world’s most beautiful building was originally commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 1630s as a memorial to his beloved wife, the legendary beauty Arjumand Bann Begum, or Mumtaz Mahal (“Elect of the Palace”), who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It is said that Shah Jahan was inconsolable after her death and spent the last years of his life staring wistfully through his cusp-arched window in Agra Fort at her mausoleum downriver.

The love and longing embodied by the Taj are never more palpable than during the full-moon phase of each month, when the Archeological Survey of India opens the complex at night. For once, the streams of visitors flowing through the Persian-style Char Bagh Gardens leading to the tomb are hushed into silence by the building’s ethereal form, rising melancholically from the river bank.

Shah Jahan’s quadrangular water courses, flanking the approaches, are specially filled for full-moon visits, as they would have been in Mughal times. The reflections of the luminous walls in their mirror-like surfaces seem to positively shimmer with life, like the aura of an Urdu devotional poem or piece of sublime sitar music. At such moments, it’s easy to see why the Bengali mystic-poet Rabindranath Tagore likened the Taj Mahal to “… a teardrop on the face of Eternity”.

The Taj Mahal is open from 6am to 7pm daily, except Friday. Over the 4 days of a full moon (except on Fridays and during Ramadan), you can also visit between 8pm and midnight; tickets must be booked a day in advance at the Archeological Survey of India office, 22 Mall Rd (www.asi.nic.in).

 

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Most US travel itineraries skip the “middle bit” – often stereotyped as a boring, endless and pancake-flat swathe of corn that makes up the Great Plains. But while the region lacks showstoppers – no Grand Canyon, no New York – the Great Plains are crammed with surprisingly intriguing attractions and great tracts are, well, quite hilly actually. Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to the USA, picks out ten highlights.

1) Route 66, OK

Though it was long ago superseded by the interstate highway system, Route 66 remains a prime target for all US road-trippers – if they can find it. Created in the 1920s to link Chicago and Los Angeles and “more than two thousand miles all the way”, much of the original route has been overlaid by newer highways. Not in Oklahoma: here there is a 644km plus section of raw Route 66, rich in Americana, from classic diners like Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami and the iconic Round Barn in Arcadia, to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the iconic Blue Whale at Catoosa.

2) Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, NE

Soaring above the plains like a fantastical Byzantine skyscraper, the Nebraska State Capitol is a genuine Art Deco wonder. Like all US state capitols, it’s open to the public and free to tour, but here the standard Neoclassical grandeur– South Dakota, Kansas and Iowa all have incredible state capitols – is ditched for something far more ambitious. Completed in 1932, the 122m tower is topped by a golden dome, but the interior is just as awe-inspiring, with a mural-smothered main hall and rotunda as grand as any Renaissance cathedral.

 

3) Kansas City BBQ, KS

Famous all over the US, Kansas-style barbecue is less well-known overseas, despite a decent claim to being the best in the nation. Here, meats are slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak wood, and no-frills, lowbrow joints flourish on word-of-mouth popularity (85 at the last count). “Burnt ends” is a particular Kansas specialty – tasty pieces of meat cut from the charred end of a smoked beef brisket, smothered with sauce. Each BBQ joint offers subtle differences in flavours, smokes and especially secret ‘special’ sauces. Oklahoma Joe’s and Gates Bar-B-Q are local favourites, but even the most famous place – Arthur Bryant’s – rarely feels touristy.

4) Dead Presidents: Eisenhower, Hoover and Truman

Aficionados of presidential history will find some big hitters on the Great Plains: Dwight D Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander in World War II and 34th President (1953–1961) grew up in little old Abilene, Kansas; his predecessor Harry Truman (1945–1952) was a proud Missourian from Independence; and the much-maligned Herbert Hoover (31st President, 1929–1933) grew up in similarly small-town West Branch, Iowa. All three places celebrate their favourite sons with preserved childhood homes, presidential libraries and some of the best museums in the nation, covering everything from the 1929 Wall Street Crash (blamed on Hoover) to the Cold War (partly blamed on Truman).

5) Tallgrass Prairie: Flint Hills Scenic Byway, KS

Forget those flatland stereotypes; the Flint Hills of Kansas are rolling, wild hills that seem as bleak as Yorkshire moors in winter, then erupt with colourful blooms and bright green grasses in the spring. This is the prairies as they were five hundred years ago. Get oriented at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in the college town of Manhattan, a futuristic building crammed with hands-on exhibits and superb displays. From here, drive south on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (aka Hwy-177), which cuts along the hills and through gorgeous rural villages that seem a million miles from anywhere; at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, just north of Strong City, there’s a small visitor centre and hiking trails.

 

6) Price Tower, OK

Surprise: the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ever built is not in New York or Chicago, but Oklahoma – in tiny old Bartlesville, 72km north of Tulsa. Completed in 1956, this 67m-tall, incongruous copper pinnacle doesn’t disappoint, its verdigris-stained walls, triangular spaces and cubicle-like elevators retaining Lloyd’s distinctive, ornamental style. Stay the night (it’s a hotel), and the fantasy is complete; luxurious rooms decked out like a Mad Men set, with copper work, sleek Venetian blinds and stylish 50’s showers. You can also grab a drink at the Copper Bar on its top floors.

7) Indie, Red Dirt & Woody Guthrie, NE and OK

Live music is alive and well on the Great Plains, where Omaha, Nebraska sports a dynamic indie music scene featuring the likes of local bands Bright Eyes, Cursive, Neva Dinova and The Faint. Modest Stillwater, Oklahoma, is the home of Red Dirt Music, a blend of folk, country, blues and rock styles, with hometown bands the All-American Rejects, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, No Justice, the Jason Savory Band and the godfather of the genre, Bob Childers.

Tulsa, Oklahoma has its own musical legacy, a mix of rockabilly, country, rock and blues that emerged as the Tulsa Sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s (JJ Cale and The Gap Band were part of the movement). Today Tulsa is the home of the spanking new Woody Guthrie Center – crammed with videos and listening posts, fans of the Oklahoma-born folk hero should plan to spend several happy hours here.

8) Oklahoma National Stockyards and Cattlemen’s, OK

Surrounded by a vast sea of cattle pens, crammed with black angus and Hereford bulls, the Oklahoma National Stockyards auction house jerks into life every Monday and Tuesday morning, when frenetic auctions – free and open to the public – facilitate the sale of thousands of dollars worth of cattle between Stetson-wearing ranchers. You won’t understand a word the quick-fire auctioneer says, but you won’t need to. Vegetarians and animal-lovers should obviously steer clear, but everyone else should visit nearby Cattlemen’s afterwards, for some of the most juicy, buttery steak in the country.

9) Ozark National Scenic Riverways, MO

Deep inside the Ozarks, the forest-smothered hills that separate the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, this is the first national park to protect a river system; indulge in kayaking, fishing or that time-honoured tradition of tubing down the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. There’s nothing like floating down a crystal-clear river slouched inside a giant tyre on a hot summer afternoon, but the park is also home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, trails and historic sites.

10) The Cherokee and the Five Tribes, OK

Most Native Americans actually live in the ‘middle bit’, from the Great Sioux Nation of South Dakota to the 39 sovereign tribes of Oklahoma. It pays to remember there’s really no such thing as ‘Native American culture’; every tribe and nation is unique, with their own traditions, languages and customs. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, OK is especially illuminating, with a replica ancient village and display on the Trail of Tears; the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, highlights the art, history and culture of not just the Cherokee, but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes.

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