If you like your Mayan ruins a little less grandiose than Tikal but all to yourself, then try those in and around Lago de Petexbatún, a spectacular expanse of water ringed by dense forest to the south of Sayaxché. The region is home to several ruins, including Dos Pilas, Ceibal and Yaxchilán, though the most impressive is the partially restored Aguateca – a fortified city perched on a high escarpment overlooking the lake.

The best base for checking out these atmospheric ruins is Chiminos Island Lodge on Punta de Chiminos, a peninsula that juts into the lake. It was here that the last of the Petexbatún Maya sought refuge as the region descended into warfare at the beginning of the ninth century. Although little of their citadel remains today, the lodge was set up by two archeologists who wanted to preserve the site and also protect the surrounding wildlife and jungle.

The lodge’s six thatched jungle bungalows (all set well apart from each other) are built on stilts from fallen hardwood. Each can sleep up to five people and has a bathroom and its own water-treatment system. The closest archeological attractions can all be reached from the lodge by boat, walking and on horseback in a day. While the crowds are bustling around the more well-known Maya sites in Guatemala, you’ll have had a day’s unhurried adventure in the jungle, enjoying these ancient sites in splendid isolation.

Aguateca is a short boat ride from the lodge then 20min walk, while Dos Pilas involves a short boat cruise then a 2.5hr walk. The lodge also organizes three-day trips to Yaxchilán, staying overnight in a jungle lodge. Buses go from Guatemala City to the town of Sayaxché (8hr); alternatively you can drive from Flores to Sayaxché, from where there’s a river cruise (1.5hr) to Lake Petexbatún. For prices, reservations and links to archeological articles related to the Petexbatún area see www.chiminosisland.com.

 

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If you could only visit one castle in the world, then Schloss Neuschwanstein must be it. Boldly perched on a rocky outcrop high above the Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau, the schloss lords it over some of the most spectacular countryside in the country. It looks every bit the storybook castle, a forest of capped grey granite turrets rising from a monumental edifice. And the all-important intriguing background? Built in 1869 as a refuge from reality by King Ludwig II, a crazed monarch who compared himself to the mythical medieval “Grail King” Parzival, Neuschwanstein ticks that box, too.

The castle is a 20min walk from Hohenschwangau, in south Bavaria. See www.neuschwanstein.de.

 

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There’s an indefinable scent that, in an instant, brings the Greek islands vividly to mind. A mixture, perhaps, of thyme-covered slopes cooling overnight and the more prosaic smells of the port, of fish and octopus, overlaid with the diesel exhaust of the ferry that’s carrying you there. A moment at night when you can sense approaching land but not yet see it, just moonlight reflecting off the black Aegean and sparkling in the churning wake.

Travelling between the islands by boat, it feels like little has changed in hundreds of years. Dolphins really do still leap around the prow, days are stiflingly hot, nights starlit and glassy. The ferries on the Aegean may be modern but the old adventure stubbornly refuses to die.

There are well over a thousand Greek islands, perhaps a tenth of them inhabited. Almost all of those have some kind of ferry connection, and no two are the same. From party islands like Íos or Mýkonos to the sober, monastic atmosphere of Pátmos, from tiny rocks to the vastness of Crete, there’s an island for every mood. And there’s a visceral thrill in travelling by sea that no plane or coach or car can ever match. Sleeping on deck under the stars; arriving in a rock-girt island port at dawn; chaos as cars and trucks and human cargo spill off the ship; black-clad old ladies competing to extol the virtues of their rooms. Clichéd images perhaps, but clichés for a reason – this is still one of the essentials of world travel, uniquely Greek, hopelessly romantic.

The starting point for almost all Greek island travels is Athens’ port at Pireás. Timetables change constantly and are subject to the weather. www.gtp.gr is a good starting point, but the only truly accurate information is at the port, on the day: simply turn up and buy a ticket.

 

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For almost twenty years at the end of the last century, Britain’s most famous spa town had no thermal baths. The opening of the new Thermae Bath Spa in 2006, at the centre of this World Heritage City, was therefore a watershed in Bath’s history. Once the haunt of the Roman elite who founded the city 2000 years ago, and later frequented by British Royalty like Elizabeth I and Charles II, Britain’s only natural thermal spa boasts a uniquely soothing atmosphere with gentle lighting and curative vapours, the surrounding grandeur testament to the importance given to these therapeutic waters.

The spa’s centrepiece is its rooftop pool, where on cold winter evenings the Twilight bathing package allows you to enjoy majestic views of Bath’s Abbey and its genteel Georgian architecture through wisps of rising steam from the pool’s 33.5°C water. The Celts thought that the goddess Sul was the force behind the spring, but we now know that the waters probably fell as rain in the nearby Mendip Hills some 10,000 years ago, before being pushed 2km upwards through bedrock and limestone to arrive at the pools enriched with minerals and hot enough to treat respiratory, muscular and skin problems.

The new spa’s remarkable design contrasts existing listed Georgian buildings and colonnades with contemporary glass curves and fountains, employing local Bath stone to impressive effect. The covered Minerva Bath provides thermal water jets for shoulder massage, while you can indulge in an astonishing variety of massages and treatments like reiki, shiatsu, body wraps and flotation in the classical Hot Bath, built in 1778 and restored with twelve treatment rooms and a striking glass ceiling. Elsewhere, four steam rooms offer eucalyptus, mint and lavender scents, and there is a giant thermal shower to reinvigorate the soul. When you’ve had your fill of relaxation, the old Roman Baths nearby are well worth a visit, too – they offer one of the world’s best-preserved insights into Roman culture, complete with authentic Latin graffiti.

Prices start at £24 for a two-hour spa session in the New Royal Bath (including access to the rooftop pool, Minerva Bath, steam rooms and restaurant). The smaller, historic Cross Bath lies opposite the main complex with its own facilities; a one-and-a-half hour sesssion here costs £14. See www.thermaebathspa.com for more details.

 

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Outside the progressive town of Taormina, Sicily, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere finds phallic fun at a penis-themed café.

My long hair brushes against an erect penis as my hand firmly grips onto a dark phallus that protrudes from the bannister. Rows of excited male members line the windowsill, while others seemingly pop out of each corner of the room. I even spot a rather large one on the balcony. As my eyes adjust from the scorching sun outside, a thinner, smaller one suddenly pops into my field of vision.

At first glance I could be in the setting of a kinky porn film, or even a female brothel. Yet, I am in neither. I am in an Italian café called Turrisi.

The menu is in the shape of a penis and, feeling rather peckish, I eagerly open it. I am immediately confronted with an image of a courgette and two tomatoes, which happily sit side by side in the shape of the male organ. This could nearly be an Italian version of The Sun’s Page 3, I think to myself.

A group of middle-aged ladies giggle at a very large penis which royally sits in the middle of their wooden table, while their husbands uncomfortably shift in their seats, not knowing where to look.

At first glance this café – where wooden penis statuettes, stone male members and all manner of phallic memorabilia dot the premises – may seem vulgar. However, there’s a lot more to this laid-back spot in Castelmola, a small village perched on a hill just above Taormina.

Massimo, the café’s third generation owner, tells me more about the establishment’s curious history. “The bar was opened in 1947 by my grandfather” he tells me. “At the time, it wasn’t exactly a bar as it is now, it was more of a post-war bazaar, a souvenir shop-cum-cafe, where customers were served almond wine, traditional to this part of Sicily. This area was historically a winery for the Greeks, where wine was sweetened to be transported.”

I sip on my alcoholic almond drink, which nowadays is mostly produced using white wine. Massimo goes on: “In the mid-19th century, Taormina, and in general this area of Sicily, was far more progressive than many other parts of the country and even Europe”.

Indeed, poets, writers, painters and actors were attracted to the area for its natural beauty: the glistening warm waters of the Mediterranean; the Greek ruins; Mount Etna gracefully sloping in the distance, at times lit up by bright rivers of lava that gently snake its sides. In the mid 19th century, Taormina and the surrounding area became a magnet for artists wanting to retreat to a calm and peaceful location which would provide inspiration for their work.

“Painters looked back back to the Hellenistic period, depicting nudes, many of which were carried out here in Castelmola” he continues. “The German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, for example, chose this area as the setting for many of his nudes of young boys. The lax liberal ways of bohemian artists and openness to sexual trends were a manner of life here, and my grandfather wanted to show this through the bar’s decor.”

The area certainly must have been a liberal corner of the peninsula. I couldn’t quite imagine my Italian grandmother sipping a coffee here in the 50’s, among a select collection of phalli pointing in all directions.

The furniture and objects displayed were all commissioned by the family and carried out exclusively by Sicilian carpenters and blacksmiths. Massimo reveals that an even larger collection remains behind closed doors. “Certain valuable objects are best not displayed. You’d be surprised to hear how many people try and steal objects here. I even had to install cameras last year”.

I soon learn that in the 1990’s, a regular client saw a group of men fleeing the bar with a rather large member – so large it was clearly not their own – and stuffing it into the car before quickly driving off. The witness took down the number plate and the police were soon called to the scene. The car was tracked down and the thief – a lawyer from Catania – soon returned the stolen object saying that he and his friends had been “taken over by the moment”. I chuckled at the thought of a Sicilian lawyer fleeing with a large penis in hand.

Indeed, the bar and the eclectic collection of phalli has gained such popularity that many have tried to recreate this atmosphere in other locations. However, removing the café from its historic context is impossible. “The café, with its decor, is rooted in a well-defined historical, social and cultural context. It was born here not by chance, but because there were certain factors which led to its creation, right here, and right then, in 1947.”

Behind me, a statue of the town’s patron Saint seems out of place, innocently standing out among a collection of erotic memorabilia. “This is Sicily, this is our history”, Massimo tells me, indicating above to an age-old wooden cart decorated with intricate arabesques which hangs from the ceiling.

A visitors’ book, a large tome, lies open on a stand. Intrigued, I flick through and read some comments. Most appear to be drawings. Customers, some more artistically skilled than others, express their delight with infantile drawings of the full package, some enriched with stringy hairs sprouting out of cartoon testicles. Clients and regulars have become such prolific artists since the first book was displayed in 1952 that Massimo now has over one hundred tomes stacked away.

Although Massimo despairs at where to place the next volume, he is grateful for his clientele’s comments and drawings. In fact, the café’s logo and menu cover were both inspired by clients’ art. Each little detail here seems to have been thought through. As I later wash my hands in the bathroom upstairs, my reflection looks back at me in a penis shaped mirror. Even the tap has been carefully chosen – the two round handles are testicles, while the water sprout is a perfectly designed phallus, which automatically spurts water in an accurate replica of bladder-emptying delight.

Massimo later presents me with a folded business card, which I slip into my pocket and forget about until a few hours later, when I reach for my hotel key. I flip it open and a small paper penis flings out towards me – it is, naturally, erect, and serves as a gentle reminder of Castelmola’s exciting history.

You can explore more of Sicily and Italy with the Rough Guide to Italy and more.

A hallmark of modern architecture, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a superb addition to Alexandria’s cityscape. A stunning work of stone and metal, the central library features a huge, tilted glass roof reminiscent of a sundial, and the walls are carved with text from over 120 languages, ancient and modern. Its location beside the Mediterranean only emphasizes its sophisticated lines of construction. Everything is created to inspire admiration and to remind the visitor of the importance of the library’s past role.

The Bibliotheca, which opened in 2003, harks back to Alexandria’s role as a prominent seat of learning in ancient times. Ptolemy II of Egypt opened the original Library of Alexandria in the third century BC, from which point it grew into the largest library in the world. While the modern incarnation does not have such high aspirations – it is still relatively small when compared with other international libraries – it is well on its way to establishing itself on the academic circuit.

But this is much more than a library. In addition to the central collection there are museums of antiquities, manuscripts and the history of science; galleries for temporary art displays; a planetarium; special sections for children; and rare books available nowhere else in the world. You can wander around the permanent collection of Egyptian film-maker, writer and artist Shadi Abdel Salam. Or take a seat in front of a cultural film relating the history of Egypt. And once you’ve done all that, it’s not a bad place to find a quiet corner and settle down with a good book or two.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is at El Shatby 21526. See www.bibalex.org for more.

 

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From the white, snowy tops of the Himalayas, to the greenery of Kerala and then the sands of Goa, India is a hugely diverse, intense but addictive country. It has deserts, rainforests, rural settlements and big cosmopolitan cities – some will love it, and a few will hate it, but with such variety there is pretty much something for everyone.

Here’s a selection of photos from our Things Not to Miss gallery for India, with music by Aruna Sairam, taken from the Rough Guide to the Music of India.

Music: Sarahanabhava, Aruna Sairam – Rough Guide to the Music of India
Available from worldmusic.net >

First-time visitors to Havana can feel they are in a dream, coasting through a fantastic cityscape of colonial fortifications, Art Deco towers and Fifties hotels, uncluttered by advertising but punctuated by the bold colours and lines of painted propaganda. Part of their character comes from their decay, from the peeling layers of lemon-yellow and sea-green paint, chipped tiles and tumbling plaster.

Yet not everything is run down. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its architecture, the historic district of La Havana Vieja has in parts been well restored and forms a wonderful walkable grid of narrow streets, graceful squares and wide avenues lined with pastel mansions. Check out the Catedral de San Cristóbal, its wide facade decorated with the restrained swirls and classical columns of the Cuban Baroque style, and the Art Deco Bacardí building, which looms over the district’s west side like a wild Gotham City creation, its trademark bat adorning everything from the brass door handles and cracked light fittings to the Gothic sculpture that crowns the roof.

West from the La Havana Vieja lies Vedado, bounded to the north by the long line of the sea wall (malecón), the city’s promenade and the focus of its nightlife. Here you’ll find the bulky Hotel Nacional with its twin arched towers and the
shell-like form of concrete Coppelia, the city’s enduringly (and endearingly) popular ice-cream parlour – in this impoverished city an ice cream is the closest most people get to a treat. In contrast, Havana’s lavish pre-Revolutionary decadent era is recalled in the Fifties Riviera building, built by the mob as a casino hotel and still with its original sculptures, furniture and fittings miraculously intact.

Like the Italian cities which survived unblemished only because of centuries of poverty and neglect, Havana is a time capsule, one that makes life hard for locals who can’t afford repairs each time hurricanes batter their homes. The limited conservation work shows how Havana could be restored to its proper place as the most glamorous city in the Caribbean – for now, it remains a fascinating hotpotch.

You won’t need any transport to get you around Old Havana, and it’s possible to walk to Vedado along the malecón. Otherwise, look for a metered taxi near one of the large hotels. You can visit the bar in the Bacardí building for a drink, and ask at reception to be taken up the tower for the views.

 

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The Pyramids at Giza were built at the very beginning of recorded human history, and for nearly five millennia they have stood on the edge of the desert plateau in magnificent communion with the sky.

Today they sit on the edge of the city, and it must be a strange experience indeed to look out of the windows of the nearby tower blocks to a view like this. The closest, the Great Pyramid, contains the tomb of Cheops, the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh who ruled Egypt during the Old Kingdom. This is the oldest of the group, built around 2570 BC, and the largest – in fact it’s the most massive single monument on the face of the Earth today. The others, built by Cheops’ son Chephren and his grandson Mycerinus, stand in descending order of age and size along a southwest axis; when built they were probably aligned precisely with the North Star, with their entrance corridors pointing straight at it.

You enter the Great Pyramid through a hole hacked into its north face in the ninth century AD by the caliph Mamun who was hunting for buried treasure. Crouching along narrow passages you arrive at the Great Gallery, which ascends through the heart of the pyramid to Chephren’s burial chamber. Chances are you’ll have the chamber to yourself, as claustrophobia and inadequate oxygen mean that few people venture this far. Occasionally visitors are accidentally locked in overnight.

The overwhelming impression made by the pyramids is due not only to the magnitude of their age and size but also to their elemental form, their simple but compelling triangular silhouettes against the sky. The best way to enjoy this is to hire a horse or camel and ride about the desert, observing them from different angles, close up and looming, or far off and standing lonely but defiantly on the open sands. Seen at prime times – dawn, sunset and night – they form as much a part of the natural order as the sun, the moon and the stars.

The Pyramids are 11km west of Cairo and can be reached by bus or taxi. The site is open daily: summer 6.30am–midnight; winter 7am–8pm.

 

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Gaze at Shanghai’s avant-garde architecture, tangled flyovers and massive new shopping and housing districts, all of which seem to have sprung up with magical haste, like mushrooms after rain, and you can see the city of the twenty-first century emerging. The best place to see all this is from above – from very high above, on the observation deck at the top of the World Financial Building, to be precise. This blunt, tapering tower with a hole near the roof – locals nickname it “the bottle opener” – is, at 492m, the tallest building in China, its 100th-floor observation deck the second highest in the world.

Though Shanghai is often compared to Blade Runner’s dystopian city, the journey up the tower is more reminiscent of the space station in 2001, as greeters usher you along hushed corridors to the pod-like lift. Emerging a minute later, with your ears well and truly popped, you are confronted with a 360-degree view of the urban sublime. Space is at a premium in Shanghai, so the city has built up rather than out – by population it’s four times denser than New York. Those claustrophobic streets and jostling showcase buildings make for an astonishing cityscape.

To the south is Pudong: twenty years ago this was mostly paddy fields, but today it’s new-build as far as the eye can see, with the unreal sheen of an architectural model. Right next to you you’re looking down on one of the most beautiful modern buildings in Asia, the pagoda-like Jinmao Tower. Below, barges ply the Huangpu River, an example of the trade that is the source of the city’s wealth. Across the water are the fusty colonial-era buildings of the Bund, where Art Deco classics such as the Peace Hotel show why the city was once nicknamed the Paris of the East.

One caveat, though – this is not a place for the nervous. Hardened glass tiles in the floor allow you to look right down beneath your feet and, rather disconcertingly, a sign asks you not to jump on them.

The World Financial Building is in Pudong, not far from the Lujiazui subway stop. The entrance to the observation deck (daily 8am–10pm) is in the southwest side of the building.

 

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