Longstanding author of the Rough Guide to India, Nick Edwards explains why Tamil Nadu encapsulates the essence of South India and is a worthy alternative to more touristic Kerala.

Despite having a long meandering border with Kerala that threads its way along the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu has never seen the same number of foreign visitors that frequent its more lauded neighbour, skillfully marketed as “God’s own country” and now teeming with swanky boutique hotels and expensive yoga retreats. There’s no doubt, however, that Tamil Nadu offers the quintessential South Indian experience on many levels. This is India’s unadulterated Hindu heartland, home to powerful dynasties such as the Cholas, the Pallavas and the Pandyas, but never under Muslim sway.

Although it also offers coastal and mountain delights, the abiding impression of travelling around the state is of endless vivid-green rice paddies filling the gaps between alluring temple towns, the approaches to which are invariably announced by soaring gopuras (temple gateways) coming gradually into focus. On closer inspection, these mighty towers are usually a riot of colourful figures dancing into the sky above the entrances to the holy precincts within. The surrounding dusty streets are crowded with stalls bedecked with garlands and religious paraphernalia, tiny restaurants serving heaps of spicy veg on banana leaves, women selling fruit, and trundling ox carts piled high with sacks of rice and carefully negotiating their way through hordes of bell-ringing cyclists.

Image by Nick Edwards

Where to start the Tamil Nadu temple trail

Most visitors skip the hot and polluted state capital, Chennai (or Madras as it was once know) and head straight for Mamallapuram, just 60km down the coast. Famed for the simple but exquisite twin Shore Temple and its more elaborate rock-carved bas-reliefs such as Arjuna’s Penance, this delightful village is still a major centre for the art of stone carving and a great place to pick up unique – if rather weighty – souvenirs. It is also the state’s only real beach hangout, with a plethora of inexpensive, super-friendly guesthouses and chilled restaurants.

Dining possibilities take a decidedly Gallic twist a couple of hours further down the fast East Coast Road at Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Its former colonial rulers, the French, have also left a noticeable architectural mark here as well, at least in the quaint bougainvillea-splashed streets of white houses wedged between the canal and seafront. The town is also home to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, and you can visit the sprawling New Age community of Auroville a short way north.

Next stop: immersive puja ceremonies

A good place to get your first taste of Tamil Nadu‘s many spectacular temples is at Kanchipuram, easily accessible from Mamallapuram and home to four major places of worship, most notably the massive Ekambareshvara Temple, whose whitewashed gopuras reach 60m in height. Inside, you can make your way through the atmospheric courtyards and join a puja (worship) ceremony at the inner sanctum, open to non-Hindus – as is the custom throughout the state.

Around 75km west of Puducherry, Tiruvannamalai is renowned for the Arunachaleshvara Temple, named after the red mountain of Arunachala, which sits proudly behind the town and is a pilgrimage site in its own right. Halfway up is a cave where the twentieth-century saint Sri Ramana Maharishi meditated for 23 years. A couple of hours south of Puducherry, Chidambaram is home to the star Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple, whose central deity is the famous bronze image of Shiva Nataraj dancing in the cosmic wheel of fire. Come during the evening puja (from 6pm) and receive a fire blessing amid clashing cymbals, rasping horns and the cries of devotees.

Chidambaram temple by Nick Edwards

Rock forts and palaces

Further south, the great temple towns come thick and fast. Pick from the splendidly rural temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, with its massive statue of Nandi the Bull, the exquisite carving of the Nageshwara Swami Shiva Temple at Kumbakonam or the dark stone contours and manicured grounds of the imposing Brihadishwarar Temple in Thanjavur, which also boasts an impressive royal palace. A short way west is Tiruchirapalli, better known as Trichy, with its lofty Rock Fort and the massive Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Its four outer walls measure a kilometre each and enclose a veritable town full of vehicles and shops built around the sacred inner enclosures, dedicated to Vishnu

Several hours further south, bustling Madurai is the best known of the holy Tamil cities, with its magnificent Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, whose half dozen psychedelically decorated gopuras surround a maze of inter-connected courtyards, bathing tanks and buzzing shrines. The smell of jasmine and marigold blends with incense and burning oil to produce a heady mixture, matched by the palette of colours created by the melee of sarees and the competing sounds of chanting, crying babies and the occasional gong.

Brihadeshwarar temple by Nick Edwards

From Western Ghats to bathing ghats

When you fancy a literal breath of fresh air away from the temple trail, Tamil Nadu offers a couple of major hill stations in the eastern side of the Western Ghats, as well as two nature reserves. Kodaikanal is a far more laidback and relaxing hill station than more popular Ooty (officially Udhagamandalam), although the latter does have its cute miniature railway. Set around a peaceful lake, Kodaikanal affords splendid views across the plains from Coaker’s Walk and treks of varying lengths in the hinterland behind. Further north, you can get right into the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, perhaps best enjoyed at the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. Expect to see various birds and species of deer, lion-tailed macaques and perhaps a sloth bear, but catching a glimpse of one of the few tigers is akin to winning the lottery.

No tour of Tamil Nadu is quite complete without reaching India’s southern tip at Kanyakumari. As a holy sangam where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet, this is a major pilgrimage centre and a fine place to see contemporary Hinduism at work. The temples are brash and more modern than the rest of the state, but the two offshore rock memorials to Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar are worth visiting by boat. Best of all, just head for the ghats (steps) by the southernmost beach and join the worshippers. Sunset during the full moon is the optimum time, when the sun and moon hang on opposite sides of the horizon in perfect balance.

A taxi from Chennai airport to Mamallapuram costs little over £10, while subsequent journeys can easily be accomplished by bus and/or train. Accommodation costs are low, with rooms in simple lodges starting around £5 per night. Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: “BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP” goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is “jetblasting” whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury “salt palace” or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The “windy” of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s “blackout” option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the “Blue Lagoon” in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

“I couldn’t survive without my phone.” If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word “survive” – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: “Antarctica Broadband” is on the horizon, promising “fast internet from the bottom of the earth”. At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, “Ultima Thule” harks back to the early, “here be dragons” days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Christchurch Priory, UK

It’s said that the tortured souls of long-dead monks wander the grounds of Christchurch Priory, a grand parish church on the south coast of England. Nearby streets are stalked by the ghosts of ‘grey ladies’ and on paranormal tours of the old Saxon town tourists can visit a shop that locals abandoned, spooked by the frequent ghostly happenings.

Château de Brissac, France

Set amid serene Loire Valley scenery, Château de Brissac’s turreted façade hides some gruesome tales. Like the story of fifteenth-century nobleman Jacques de Brézé, who found his wife entangled with another man and murdered them both with a sword. Since then, visitors have heard frightful cries echoing through the castle.

Kloster Unterzell, Germany

The Bavarian nun Maria Renata von Mossau was one of the last people in Germany to be tried for witchcraft. After admitting to a string of crimes including Satanism and sorcery, she was decapitated and her body was cremated. More than 260 years later, people still report seeing her spirit traipsing through corridors at Kloster Unterzell, the convent she attended.

Lawang Sewu, Indonesia

Dutch colonialists built Lawang Sewu and the Japanese turned it into a brutal detention camp, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Some were even killed. These days, tourists come to hunt for ghosts among its decaying towers and arches, which, in 2007, provided the backdrop for an Indonesian horror film.

Mount Everest, Nepal

Climbers tackling Everest have apparently been egged on by the well-meaning ghost of Andrew Irvine, who disappeared while trying to climb the mountain in 1924. He and fellow mountaineer George Mallory, whose body was found in 1999, were less than a thousand feet from becoming the first men to reach the top. Irvine’s body has still never been found.

Akershus Festning, Norway

Oslo’s fortress, known to locals as Akershus Festning, has been in use since the thirteenth century, serving time as a castle, a prison, and even a base for the Nazis during their occupation of Norway. Resident ghouls include the ghost of a dog, which was buried alive in the Middle Ages to scare away intruders.

The Myrtles Plantation, USA

Now open as a bed and breakfast, this plantation in Louisiana bills itself as one of America’s most haunted places. Local legend says that in the 1800s, a slave poisoned the plantation owner’s family and was hanged for her crime. Since then, she and the dead children have been spotted wandering through the grounds.

Highgate Cemetery, London

With paths lined by mossy Victorian stonework, Highgate Cemetery is the final resting place of around 170,000 people, including the philosopher Karl Marx. The usually sleepy burial ground hit headlines in the 1970s, when reports of a blood-sucking, ghost-like figure started doing the rounds and occultists desecrated old tombs, apparently in a bid to track down the mysterious ‘vampire’.

Castle of Good Hope, South Africa

South Africa’s oldest building is also its most haunted. Built by the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century, the star-shaped Castle of Good Hope was long used as a prison, where inmates would be chained up, tortured and executed. Today, soldiers guarding the fort after dark are still troubled by the victims’ blood-curdling calls for mercy.

Tao Dan Park, Vietnam

With 10 hectares of gardens shaded by tall trees, Tao Dan Park gives residents of Ho Chi Minh City a chance to escape from the frenetic traffic. But when the sun goes down, some locals have a hard time relaxing. It’s said the ghost of a young man who was killed in a vicious attack still prowls the park, looking for his lost lover.

Convent of St Agnes, Prague

Few places are better suited to ghost stories than Prague, a city with strong ties to alchemy, mysticism and the occult. The Convent of St Agnes, the city’s first gothic building, is one of the creepier spots. People say a murdered nun still haunts the place, and can appear in front of visitors. Sometimes she smiles softly but often she’s crying and covered in blood.

Corvin Castle, Transylvania

Vlad the Impaler – the bloodthirsty ruler named after his favourite method of execution – was kept prisoner at Corvin Castle, in the hills of Transylvania. Many think this explains the strange sightings at the castle, which include vampire-like figures appearing in the candlelit corridors.

St Augustine Lighthouse, USA

Striped like a barber’s pole, the St Augustine Lighthouse in Florida acts like a beacon for ghost hunters, who come to explore the tower and the keeper’s house after dark, using glow sticks to light the way. They also get the chance to hear spooky stories about the lighthouse, and the family that died during its construction. Supposedly a man and his daughters all drowned when the lighthouse slipped loose and tumbled into the bay. Locals insist the girls can be heard laughing in the tower, and one has occasionally been sighted wearing the same velvet blue dress and hair bow she died in.

Eastern State Penitentiary, USA

Abandoned in 1971, this Philadelphia jail quickly fell into disrepair. Then the weather worn building opened as a museum, and began attracting the attention of ghost-chasing TV crews. The museum’s audio tour describes numerous ghoulish sightings and a locksmith reported overwhelming paranormal feelings. Each year around Halloween, a haunted house opens for business, with actors paid to give visitors a fright.

Gettysburg Battlefield, USA

One of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War left bodies strewn across this battlefield in the state of Pennsylvania. Visitors claim to have seen and photographed the ghosts of soldiers wandering across the fields and, not surprisingly, the local ghost-tour industry is booming.

RMS Queen Mary, USA

Before docking permanently in California, the ocean liner Queen Mary carried some famous passengers, including Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo. These days it’s better known for its uninvited guests, like the ghost of a young child who is said to have drowned in the luxury liner’s swimming pool.

London Underground, UK

The world’s oldest underground railway has had more than 150 years to accumulate its juicy collection of ghost stories. Among the stations with a reputation for paranormal activity is Bethnal Green. During the Second World War, 173 civilians were crushed to death when rumours of an air raid triggered panic. Years on, people working at the station report hearing their screams.

The Alamo, USA

The first time that ghosts appeared at this former Roman Catholic mission in San Antonio was 1836, shortly after the Battle of the Alamo. Later, when the mission was converted into a prison, inmates began complaining of unusual shadows and sounds, and terrified watchmen apparently refused to work the night shift.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, UK

In 1999, a homeless person broke into a coffin at this Edinburgh graveyard, hoping for a good night’s sleep. Soon after, people wandering through the graveyard began emerging with strange injuries, like scratched skin and broken fingers. Over the next few years, 140 people collapsed on tours of the cemetery, and the city council decided to seal the grave up again for good.

Nidaros Cathedral, Norway

Lurking inside Trondheim’s majestic soapstone cathedral is the grisly ghost of a monk. Described as a tall figure with a dark habit, he reveals himself to churchgoers with blood dripping from a wound on his neck, and is apparently able to walk right through members of the congregation without them feeling a thing.

Forbidden City, China

Thanks to its location in the centre of modern Beijing, the Forbidden City lacks some of the cobwebby spookiness usually associated with haunted places. But today’s well-scrubbed, tourist-friendly exterior hides a bloody history, and the ghosts of murdered concubines have been spotted in the city after dark.

Port Arthur, Australia

Lantern-lit ghost tours give visitors the chance to hear stories about this Tasmanian town’s troubled past as a convict settlement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those who want to maximise their chances of a meeting a ghost can join a special paranormal investigation, armed to the teeth with ghoul-tracking gizmos.

Mohatta Palace, Pakistan

Ghosts of the British Raj are said to haunt this regal Pakistani palace, pieced together from pink and yellow stone. Palace employees claim to have felt the presence of spirits inside the palace at night, and some have even seen objects moving of their own accord.

Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

Although many expected him to be struck down by a pharaoh’s curse, Howard Carter, the English archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, lived until the age of 63. Though some believe his spirit lives on at the Great Pyramid in Giza – around 400 miles north of King Tut’s tomb – in the form of a frightening ghost.

Achill Island, Ireland

Almost 100 stone cottages sit abandoned at the foot of a mountain on Achill Island, County Mayo. The buildings are at least 800 years old, but have not been lived in since the early twentieth century, when farmers used them as summer accommodation. More than one party has reported paranormal activity around the stones, and the local tourist board warns scaredy cats against camping in the area, hinting at the prospect of “ghostly encounters”.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

This remote Namibian outpost is a real ghost town. Built on a diamond rush, it became extremely wealthy but began declining during the 1950s when the precious stones ran dry. Now it’s been given over to the desert and, if you believe the rumours, ghosts are beginning to reclaim the abandoned buildings.

Bodie State Historical Park, USA

The story of Bodie, California, begins with the discovery of gold. Prospecting miners rushed to the area and the town quickly grew into a Wild West boomtown, complete with murders and hold ups. Today it’s uninhabited, but some believe the ghosts of Bodie patrol the ruins to protect their crumbling town from thieves, and according to legend, anyone who removes an object from the town will be plagued by the curse of Bodie, which promises a string of bad luck.

From ancient ruins to beautiful beaches, Cyprus has a multitude of incredible things to see and do. Whether you’re after a challenging hike, fancy some wildlife spotting or want to go diving, this sun-kissed country will deliver. Here are our top things not to miss in Cyprus.

Motorbiking around Sulawesi in search of one of the island’s famed funerals, Anthon Jackson attends an intense and bloody ceremony to bid farewell to the deceased.

Leashed to a stake in the ground, the buffalo’s entire body squirmed as its broad throat was slit, its knees buckling and its huge torso collapsing onto the grass. With its last breath, it raised its head high into the air, the gash across its neck stretched wide open and gushing. Finally the bull’s head lowered to rest against the wet ground. It was at this point that the old animists of Toraja, an ethnic group in south Suluwesi, believed the deceased had finally passed on, headed at last towards Puya, the land of souls.

One of Toraja’s famous funerals was underway. Earlier that morning in Rantepao – capital of the North Toraja Regency on the island of Sulawesi – my wife Joanna and I had hired a motorbike for £4 and sped off through the hills in search of one such ceremony, said to be getting started somewhere to the southeast.

Even outside the peak funeral months of June to September, there seems to be a funeral almost every day in Toraja; you just need to know where and when. Today it was the village of La’bo, and after just twenty minutes through the rice paddies we were unmistakably there.

pyjama via Compfight cc

In the wet fields along the drive were only a handful of farmers and buffalos mired in mud, but here were over a hundred guests: family, friends and a smattering of foreigners led by guides hired in Rantepao. Encircled by towering tongkonan – traditional houses each intricately carved with curved, sweeping roofs of split bamboo – was the casket. All were waiting for the funeral to begin.

Since the arrival of the Dutch in the misty highlands of Tana Toraja, the animistic “Way of the Ancestors” (Aluk To Dolo) has been largely supplanted by Christianity, now the region’s majority religion. Nevertheless, the old funeral rites have survived intact.

Funerals remain by far the most expensive and ceremonious occasions in Torajan life and death, and at their heart remains animal sacrifice. Torajans save up for years to throw a funeral, as the more buffaloes and pigs amassed for the feast, the greater the honour to the deceased.

pyjama via Compfight cc

In my broken Bahasa I asked for the head of the household and was pointed towards a tiny old woman in black. When our turn came to approach her, we handed off our gift with two hands: a carton of kreteks, clove cigarettes. She accepted the present with a smile, offered a frail handshake and ushered us to our seats. Stepping around a dozen or so tied, squealing pigs laid out in the grass to await their slaughter, we made our way into one of the bamboo huts surrounding the grassy field where the casket lay. The women chewed on sweets while the men chain-smoked and sipped palm wine. We chatted with extended family members until the first wave of food arrived.

We spent the following several hours in the hut, stepping out only briefly when the ceremony turned raucous. First came the shaking of the coffin. A dozen men surrounded the coffin, lifted it up and carried it in a wandering circle around the patch of grass. They shook the carved box wildly enough to send the lingering spirit on its way – and possibly break a few of the corpse’s bones. In a procession that was anything but solemn, the smiling widow, trailed by a handful of elderly, black-clad peers, led the haphazard cortege under a long piece of red cloth tied to the coffin.

Next came the eulogies, then more food, and finally, one of the buffaloes was dragged onto the patch of grass. It wasn’t long after the first bit of bloodletting that Joanna was ready to get moving again.

After a round of goodbyes in the smoky hut, we headed out the back way towards the road from where we could hear the shrieks of bound and paralyzed pigs, louder than ever. We glimpsed several of the poor beasts strewn across the hill in various stages of butchery. Our friends at the funeral would have plenty of meat for the feast.

Image by Anthon Jackon

The final resting place for this deceased would be in one of the limestone caves that dotted the surrounding hills, while some Torajans are buried in stone graves and others high on the cliffs in hanging coffins, the latter taking years to rot and then break onto the rocks below.

Before leaving Rantepao, we rode to a couple of nearby cliff sites, finding piles of skulls at the mouths of deep caves. The wreckage of fallen coffins was strewn around them. At Londa, a few meters up the cliff face from the burial site, was a shelf crammed with wooden tau tau, effigies of the deceased. From their crudely carved faces, painted eyes stared blankly across the rice paddies below, somewhat eerie embodiments of the special bond between the living and the dead of Tana Toraja.

The launching point for attending a funeral in Tana Toraja is Rantepao, (8hr by bus from Makassar), where you’ll find plenty of knowledgeable guides to escort you to a funeral. Explore more of Indonesia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Planning a trip to Croatia and wondering which 17 things you shouldn’t miss? Always thought about Croatia for a holiday but never knew what it had to offer?

Allow us to present our favourite things to see and do in this beautiful European country.

Yorkshire boasts a wealth of big-hitting tourist attractions, but hidden away there are a few entertaining oddities which would be a shame to miss. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the best.

The Teapottery

Housed on an industrial estate just outside Leyburn, the Teapottery calls itself, with justification, the “home of eccentric teapots”. Though the main reason for visiting is to buy teapots in the shape of guitars, police helmets, valve radios, toasters and wheelbarrows, you can also tour the workshops and see each carefully explained step in the production line.

The Mart Theatre

With echoes of Shakespearean inns, Skipton’s animal auction mart doubles as a theatre. On certain nights, the main show ring becomes an auditorium, mounting plays, opera, folk music and stand-up comedy. Barriers are removed, the concrete apron is scrubbed down and the exhibition hall becomes a theatre bar. How do thesps and Dales farmers get on, you might wonder? Like a house (or barn) on fire. Farmers love the animal-enhancing lights while the theatre company gets quirky accommodation. It’s win-win all the way.

Spurn Head

East Yorkshire’s Spurn Head is an amalgam of wild nature, nautical significance and military history. As you drive along its windblown single-track road, the Humber Estuary to your right, the ships riding at anchor in the North Sea to your left, and three generations of light-house, the pilot’s control tower and a jetty ahead, it really does feel like the end of the world.

Ampleforth College

Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire is, unlike most ruined English monasteries, in surprisingly good health. It’s not only a working monastery, but also the country’s premier Roman Catholic public school, whose alumni include Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, actor Richard Everett and sculptor Antony Gormley. In addition to viewing its Roman Catholic worship and tradition, visitors can also walk in the grounds, use the Sports Centre, or attend spiritual classes.

The Cold War Bunker

To those who lived through the Cold War, this bunker, west of York’s city centre conjures up mushroom-clouded Armageddon. To younger visitors, it’s just a jumble of risible old technology set in echoing reinforced concrete. Commissioned in 1961, and one of twenty-nine such facilities, it was manned 24/7 by the Royal Observer Corps, tasked with monitoring nuclear explosions. Here’s a chilling thought: had it ever been used, most of us would have been dead!


Nellies (officially the White Horse), in Beverley, reminds us how much the British pub has changed. A seventeenth century coaching inn, its warren of small rooms glory in stone, tile and wood floors, have open coal fires, gas lighting, and a hotchpotch of scuttles, fire-irons, brasses and old pictures. There’s not a carpet, fruit-machine or jukebox in sight.

Eden Camp

Eden Camp in North Yorkshire started life as a Prisoner of War facility during World War II. Having become a derelict eyesore, it was acquired during the 1980s by local visionary Stan Johnson, who converted it into a fascinating museum. A perfect fusion of form and content, its original huts are devoted to different aspects of the war – the rise of Hitler (Hut 1) for example, or the Home Front (Hut 2). Displays are graphic, and even vibrant.

Image courtesy of Eden Camp

The Forbidden Corner

A huge puzzle of spirits and giants, with monsters and myths strung out along labyrinthine paths and tunnels, The Forbidden Corner near Middleham has follies and riddles and mysterious voices galore. Built in the grounds of Tupgill Park, by its owner C. R. Armstrong, to amuse his children, and subsequently opened briefly to the public to raise money for charity, The Forbidden Corner was so popular with visitors that it has now become a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s easier to enjoy than describe – so check it out.

Fort Paull

The pentagonal Fort Paull, just outside Hull, is a ‘Palmerston’ Fort built in the 1860s and named after the then Prime Minister. After its 1960 decommissioning it seemed destined to subside into brambled dereliction. Then a local group took it in hand, and, in 2000, opened it as a military museum. Don’t look here for a coherent recreation of the World War II. Enjoy instead a ragbag of wartime memorabilia, tanks, guns, planes and exhibitions on the Women’s Land Army, child evacuees and the use of carrier pigeons. It’s chaotic, but oddly charming.

The Peace Museum

The only British representative of an international movement, Bradford’s Peace Museum is tucked away at the top of a steep staircase in an old bank in the centre of the city. Its collections include books, cuttings, works of art, posters, banners, photographs, letters and film, all relating to the Peace movement – there’s even a piece of Greenham Common’s perimeter fence. But its greatest resource are its development officers – if you visit, pick their brains.

Explore more of this northern area with the Rough Guide to Yorkshire. Teapot photograph courtesy of the Teapottery.

In search of the spiritual side of Greece – and perhaps himself – Marc Perry discovers the trials and tranquility of the lives of Mount Athos’s monks.

The ferry to Mount Athos is a serene, sedate affair. Women are left behind, as black-clad, bearded monks and priests finger rosary beads and contemplate the steep rise of pine-covered foothills to the jagged mountain pinnacle. Peppered amongst the black gowns, pilgrims chatter on mobile phones. Here the 21st century meets ancient tradition head on. Although Athos is a peninsula, there is a feeling of cutting away from the modern world to an island set back in time.

Fortuitously unplanned, my arrival comes at an auspicious time. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration. I meet a new friend on the boat, and at the administrative centre Karyes, we are guided to our first overnight stay: Koutloumousiou monastery, where a kindly German monk takes us to our clean and simple twin room. After prayers we are sat at long tables laden with silver-edged plates and bountiful supplies of fish, pasta, fruit, water and wine. Chanting reverberates around the room, incense swirls into my nostrils and the seated congregation signs the cross to readings from the gospels. This is not a place for the rowdy, but one that welcomes everyone – sinners and saints. “We get them all here,” says one monk, including murderers, drug addicts, millionaires, and princes.

A trip to stay with the monks of Athos is not one to be taken lightly. Visitors must adhere to a dignified dress code and rules that include not smoking or playing music. The only forms of music allowed are Byzantine chants and the ringing calls to prayer.

On one glorious evening I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a performance. As golden light filled the western room of the Dionysius monastery, the melodious sound of a flute floated over chanting bass and tenor voices. Along a wall five Patriarchs (fathers of the church) sat on thrones – one wept. In Orthodox Christianity sensitivity is exalted; “the gift of tears” is believed to signify both closeness to god and separation from him. As the sun turned from gold to red, one of the priests discerned I was English and shouted: “Beautiful! Celtico!”

The serenity of life on Athos is an otherworldly experience. One night I woke around 5am. The monks were still in prayer, so I went to the bathroom to wash. As I looked into the mirror on the wall, the porcelain sink below me crashed to the floor and smashed into a thousand pieces. A Greek standing by solemnly continued shaving;  another signed the cross. When I told one of the brothers the tale, he said “Don’t worry, you are happy!”

The following day, as I sat in a garden cemetery beneath cypress trees swaying in the breeze, I spoke with Father Modestos, an Englishman who became a monk sixteen years ago. He showed me the skulls of his forefathers, which had just been dug up to make space for the next monk who “falls asleep with the Lord”. Strangely, there seemed nothing macabre in this uprooting of resting souls. If the monks turn out to be saints, their skulls might one day make their way into a silver box to be venerated (kissed and crossed) by thousands of Athos pilgrims.

The highlight of any visit to Athos is to climb the mountain itself. I was unprepared and had little food for the day-long climb, but took to the foothills anyway. My journey was supported by random acts of kindness fitting for this holy place. At a base camp a Russian man came down the opposite way and silently dropped a bag of nuts into my hands. Later a Greek man pulled bread, cheese and tomatoes from his sack and offered to share the feast.

Towards the top of the mountain – Greece’s second highest at 2033m – spectacular views begin to unfold. Theo, the man who shared his food with me, started to chant as we hit the summit. Slowly the sun began to set, and as we sat outside a little bunkhouse, squealing swallows dive-bombed into the merging blue of sea and sky.

As the stars came out, I pondered my experiences of the last few days. No matter how relaxing and serene life was in this truly beautiful place, I realised the path of a celibate monk was not the one for me.

 Explore more of this country and its islands with the Rough Guide to Greece. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

This is the second in a two part series where Georgie Pope, founder of Sound Travels tours, goes in search of the people and places that will make up her Great Rajasthani Adventure. You can read part one, where she meets the gypsies of Jaipur and a musical family in the village of Shimla, here. This time, Georgie journeys through the final stages of her adventure to find the characters that make Rajasthani music what it is.

One July evening in 2011 I found in my inbox the best email I’d ever received. It was an invitation for me to bring my Sound Travels guests to India’s holiest and most popular of Sufi shrines – the Ajmer Sharif, the burial site of revered saint Moinuddin Chisti – to witness qawwali (a sacred form of Sufi music performed in Sufi shrines across India).

The email was from Salman, the young director of the Chisty Foundation, which oversees the spiritual and administrative wellbeing of the shrine and its pilgrims. A holy man (or ‘Syed’) who has inherited the mantle from his late father, he had heard of my musical journeys from a mutual friend.

“If you would like to experience the Ajmer Sharif in an intense manner, we can offer help to organize a special evening Sufi concert by traditional qawwāls and a detailed ziyarrat (tour) of the Ajmer Sharif. It would be a wonderful way for us to connect with musafirs (travellers of the worlds) among which we are one. Peace, Prayers and Blessings from the Ajmer Sharif.”

What a glorious proposition – and Ajmer was only two hours’ drive from Jaipur. This would be our next stop!

Just after I’d been to stay with Roshani in Shimla, I took a night coach to Jaipur, and then got an early bus to Ajmer the following morning. There had been a light rainfall the night before, so the road was clean and smelt good. The windows were wide open, the sun was golden and we stopped for chai half way. Excited about what I was about to discover, I felt that enormous rush of travel glee.

At the bus station I tried the number Salman had sent me, but got no answer. A moment later a slim young man in a white lace skullcap caught my eye. “Salman?” he said. “Um, yes.” I replied, and he ushered me into an autorickshaw.

Spluttering and juddering along the cobbles, we plunged into one of Ajmer’s jam-packed streets, lined with vendors,  crowded by shoppers and rendered even narrower thanks to the merrily flowing sewers cut into either side of the road. The young man sat in front, practically on the driver’s lap, and directed him uphill into ever-tighter streets until we reached a small square where a butcher had laid out his choicest halaal cuts. Leaving me without a moment to register delight or disgust at the oozing scarlet wares, the slim young man ducked into a side lane. I had no choice by to follow him through the maze of tiny passageways.

I had seen photographs of the Ajmer Sharif, domed and majestic and thronged by thousands of pilgrims. Totally disorientated amongst these winding streets, I couldn’t imagine where on earth it would fit around here. Was I following the right guy?

Setting eyes upon the magnificent Ajmer Sharif

“Sister!” The young man was beckoning me, a little impatiently now, through a doorway to my right. He led me down a corridor to a small room with two thin mattresses on the floor. “Salman?” I queried, hopefully. “Wait.” My guide flung open the shutters on the single window, marched from the room, and left me to do as I was told.

I was slightly awed. My happy travel rush had become a little diluted with apprehension. Was this where I was to meet Salman? In this little room with the mattresses? I wasn’t sure I liked it. I wasn’t quite sure my guests would either.

I wandered over to the window, and leant out to try and get my bearings. The sight was awesome. Below me, in its full glory, was the Ajmer Sharif – sparkling in the sunshine, surrounded by marble flooring and thronged with pilgrims. I realized that the city streets must tightly encircle this huge expanse of communal worship, and that I was in a room set into one of its great walls. I watched people chatting and praying, making offerings and herding their children, buying floral garlands, entering the holy inner sanctum or just sitting and – like me – observing everyone else.

“Come.” Forty minutes later and my guide reappeared to summon me from my vantage point. He led me from the room, down a flight of steps and into a book-lined study with no furniture except a beautiful Persian carpet. Cross-legged on the floor, in a white kurta and embroidered velvet kufi, was Salman. His voice calm and melodious, he was describing to two transfixed students the mystery and power of Sufism. Unacknowledged, I sat down next to them, and listened to the end of the lesson.

He finally turned and smiled at me in welcome. We would eat lunch, he said, and then he would show me the Sharif.

We dropped off our shoes at a side entrance, and as we entered the holy shrine, bits of rose petal got wedged between my toes. My head was covered by now with my scarf, so very little of my whiteness was apparent. Of the tens of thousands of pilgrims there, I was the only foreigner. Salman handed me a piece of cloth and a huge basket of rose petals, and then led me to the inner sanctum, where the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti lay under a hundredweight of flowers, surrounded by more holy men of the temple, and an intense crush of people. Salman helped me squeeze through the dangerously tightly packed bodies, and towards the wooden railing encircling the tomb. Himself a Syed, Salman was able to stand on the other side of the railing, from where he could help me offer my prayers to the great saint and receive blessings in return.

A great velvet cloth was thrown over my head and I felt the crowd heave me against the railing. As I fought the claustrophobia I heard Salman’s reassuring voice murmuring in Urdu. He blessed me and my family, the success of Sound Travels, and the safe arrival of my guests. In the dark, under the heavy velvet, I was extremely moved.

As evening descended on the Durgah, the ceremony of the lights began. The shrine was set aflame with lamps and fairy lights, and the Syeds lit candles in the inner sanctum. I sat outside with hundreds of others as the place lit up around us, and finally the qawwali musicians gathered to sing their love to the saint.

For the next hour I listened, enraptured by the masculine chorus of praises and watched as as the musicians gathered handfuls of money from a euphoric crowd. They never took their eyes off the entrance to the sanctum, and waved angrily at listeners who blocked their line of vision to the resting place of their beloved saint. The crowd thickened and then gradually dwindled, and I was shown back to my room with the mattresses. I lay down to read a book on Sufism and the salat al-isha, an evening call to prayer, floated over me, as I dreamt happily of the trips I would organize to this magical place.

Nathoo Lal Solanki, the most charismatic percussionist in Pushkar

I’ve known Nathoo for some years now. He plays the nagara drums – like kettle drums but smaller and louder – with an awesome skill and wit. He is no unsung hero, having toured over fifty countries (his passport consists of three passports stuck together, stuffed with valid visas for most countries in the world) and known to nearly every performing artist in Rajasthan.

We were sitting in the uninspiring setting of the VFS office in Delhi, sorting out a visa for him to travel to the UK for yet another show. It irritates him to have my help with these things, because he’s applied successfully for more visas than I’ve had hot rice and dal. But I am better at the online systems than him, so he has to put up with me.

As I was telling Nathoo about my plans for bringing tourists on musical adventures in India, he immediately perked up. If there’s one thing that rivals Nathoo’s musical ability, it’s his entrepreneurial zeal, and I am never afraid of exploiting his skills – I’m generally convinced he’s fleecing me.

“You bring your guests to Pushkar. I’ll teach them to play nagara and make a beautiful concert by the lake. You don’t have to worry. I’ll organize everything.”

I wasn’t worried, but I still thought I would visit Pushkar to look at hotels and work out details of the trip, so in the afternoon following my inspiring visit to Ajmer, I took a taxi over the Aravalli hills to Pushkar – less than an hour’s drive away.

I had barely had time to put down my bags in the hotel, when a porter knocked at my door and informed me that my friend was waiting for me at the reception. Nathoo was not going to let me enter his city without a proper welcome.

“Why are you staying here? You could have stayed at my house! Or a much better hotel. Don’t worry. Next time I will organize everything.” He told me as he gave me a huge barrel-sized hug.

I squeezed onto his motorbike between him and his son and we whizzed across the wonderful, tourist-tat filled, spiritual, hippy-incense smelling town that is Pushkar.

I’d been wondering about Nathoo’s home life. What must it be like to be married to a man who travels the world, sometimes accompanied by one of his sons (all three accomplished musicians), who hangs out with all sorts of foreigners, musicians, hoteliers and wheeler-dealers high and low, while you remain behind in a simple concrete house in Pushkar?

His wife, a solid, smiling woman, took me in her arms in a hearty embrace, the moment I stepped over the threshold. Taking me firmly by the arm, she sat me down on a bed in a small room full of women and children. There was a pregnant woman lying behind me and two ladies with babies sitting on the floor tucked under a blanket with three older women, who grinned at me broadly. This, then, was what life was like at home: full of women.

I was handed babies and asked about my marital status and the like, until Nathoo – who had disappeared for some time – emerged in the doorway with a bottle of whisky. In the yard outside, I could hear someone playing a nagara rather weakly.

Image by Georgie Pope

“Time for a concert, no Georgie-ji?” Nathoo offered.

I disengaged myself from the ladies room with the familiar but uncomfortable feeling that I was being treated as an honourary man and accepted the attractive offer of a drink: three parts whisky to no parts water.

The hesitant drummer was Nathoo’s youngest grandson, sitting in his father’s lap and being shown – at two years old – how to hold the sticks. Upon my arrival, Narsi – Nathoo’s second son – seized the little hands around the sticks, and started to play a funky groove. The other women appeared and, sitting close to the duo, started to sway and move their wrists, gesturing for me to join them in their seated dance.

Nathoo poured another stiff shot which I refused with a laugh – but it wasn’t for me. His wife took the glass and raised it to an image of Kali, painted in bright colours behind me on the whitewashed wall.

“It’s Kali’s day” Nathoo told me, which didn’t surprise me too much; given the size of the Hindi pantheon you can expect to worship at least one god on any day of the year. What did take me aback was Nathoo’s wife’s next gesture: she held the glass against the wall and drizzled whisky over the goddess.

“First drink for Kali”, Nathoo explained.

Without touching the glass to her lips, Nathoo’s wife then drained the remainder of the liquid. She refilled the glass and everyone did the same.

Image by Georgie Pope

The men of the family then gathered to play a stunning and impossibly loud series of pieces, changing pace and toying with our expectations by rattling off impressive solos before settling back into the groove again. The whisky glass circulated some more, and then the women took over discarding the sticks and playing with their hands and singing in the most uproarious manner I had ever heard. It wasn’t a beautiful sound, but it was certainly a wonderful thing.

I was not allowed to remain seated, so I danced and danced until my bare feet blistered against the blankets, and my head reeled from the whisky. Encouraged to respond in ‘Rajasthani style’ by the ever-ready Nathoo, I pushed banknotes into the hands of the singers who stuffed them in their bras between slugs of whisky.

At around midnight, someone produced dinner, and then I was delivered back to my hotel by one of the sons. The following morning I woke up with a terrible hangover and almost missed my bus back to Jaipur. I hadn’t done much of the research I’d planned and was going to have to leave the arrangements for my tour completely up to Nathoo – as he had intended. I did come away with one vital piece of information though: at least I knew he could throw one hell of a party.

Georgie Pope worked at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur, India – a celebration of music from the north-western desert state of Rajasthan. In 2011, Georgie created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off these cultural riches. Head to her website to find out more. The Rajasthani Musical Adventure takes place every October in the lead up to the Rajasthan International Folk Festival. For details and enquiries about joining this trip or other musical adventures in India, please visit www.soundtravelsltd.com.

Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

There may be no better way to unwind than staying at the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery: a convent of Catholic nuns who have pledged a vow of silence. In the midst of the stress of a university dissertation, Lottie Gross escaped from the world and learned what it’s like to live the quiet life – literally.

The only sounds as I enter the chapel are that of my boots, clip-clopping along the stone floor and up the stairs to sit opposite the habit-clad women who have welcomed me to their convent for the night. I’m late for mass and a little embarrassed but no one else seems to care. In fact silence descends once I’m seated.

The nuns at the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery, in the depths of the Norfolk countryside, have dedicated themselves to a life of silent prayer. They don’t speak, except during short work periods, recreation time in the evening and during mass, when they sing and pray aloud. Their hymns sound sweet as twenty-odd women – ages ranging from 33 to upwards of 80 – sing in harmony, and their prayer is deep and heartfelt.

Set in an old walled community in the tiny village of Quidenham, next to a children’s hospice and a small farm, the surroundings are as quiet as the nuns that live here. Only birds can be heard singing during the day, and the occasional visitor to the hospice or chapel come and go with quiet respect. The silence is peaceful, serene and tranquil – it’s not as eerie as I expected. Not even at night.

I had arrived in glorious sunshine that morning, my car tyres on the gravel drive probably the first man-made noise to break the day’s stillness, to be greeted by the Guest Sister, who is allowed to talk to visitors for the purposes of hospitality. I was shown around the chapel, a humble but modern place of worship with clean concrete pillars, beautiful stained glass windows depicting the Rule of Carmel, and a gated off section for the nuns to occupy at mass. I was given strict instructions not to cross the wall between public ground and that of the very private cloisters – these are sacred areas where the nuns live and the public is not allowed.

My home for the night was a small bungalow next door to the chapel, and in the tiny kitchen I found everything provided – even a loaf of freshly baked bread from the nuns. Later that evening after mass, Sister Shelagh and Sister Stephanie broke their vows of silence in a rare exchange on what it’s like to live in utter quietude.

Photo: Lottie Gross

“I had done various different jobs before I entered,” explained Sister Shelagh. “Whatever I did never felt as though it was quite enough. I was constantly searching for more.” Her soft and enchanting voice had me in a trance as she talked about her past life as a married woman with a career.

“In the end I found that when I came here, that deep hunger was satisfied and I had a contentment which I had never managed to achieve before. There is a deep bond of unity between us all here, and it’s very supportive living in a community. I know I couldn’t live this life on my own so I am grateful for the support.”

Sister Stephanie’s composure was very different. At 34 years old she had smooth, young skin, bright eyes and an excitement in her voice. I wondered how she managed to stay so quiet.

“I think a hard part about a community like ours, where so much of our time is actually lived in silence apart from necessary work talk, is that if you know you’ve really made a boob, you’ve really mucked something up, even your opportunities to apologise and say ‘I’m so sorry’ are limited.” She explains that there is a unique level of trust between them all.

Photo: Lottie Gross

“Having chosen to live in a religious community, you don’t choose who you live with. They are chosen for you. God has chosen your sisters for you, they are all you’ve got and they are your best way to heaven – love ‘em or hate ‘em.” These sisters love each other because God has chosen them to, and they trust that this love is reciprocated by every single one of them.

After almost two hours of conversation – perhaps a welcome break for my hosts – the sisters retreated to the cloisters for an evening of silent prayer before bed, and I made my way into the village to find dinner.

Sitting in the charming Red Lion pub in neighbouring Kenninghall, I nursed my half cider while perusing the traditionally English menu and warming my hands by the open fire. I had a sudden pang of guilt as I realised how the nuns of Quidenham Carmel would never have this small pleasure in life again without leaving the order, and I realised how admirable their lives are inside the cold but peaceful walls of the convent.

I woke early the following morning with time to explore the surrounding patchwork of fields and forest surrounding the convent. As I strolled in the warmth of the morning sunshine I noticed something: I am not a religious person in any capacity, but I found the purity and tranquility of the nun’s life infectious. I found myself totally and completely relaxed, contented and happy, ready to face the perils of the real world once again.

Quidenham Carmel has three cottages for rent for single or double occupancy and the nuns welcome visitors on retreats for as long as they wish. They do not charge for staying at the convent, but instead ask only for a donation that you feel is appropriate upon departure. Quidenham is just 20 miles from the city of Norwich or 45 miles from Cambridge and is best reached by car (although buses run from Norwich twice daily Mon-Sat, they won’t drop you directly outside the convent). The nuns will happily provide all meals, however there are a few local pubs (try the Red Lion or the White Horse Inn in neighbouring Kenninghall) for lunch and dinner.

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