Are you a cartographic clever-clogs or due a geography refresher course? We’ve compiled the outlines of ten different countries – large and small – without any rivers, seas, mountains or cities to help you. Can you deduce the country from its shape alone? Take the quiz to find out…

Do you love to take to the open road with nothing but a backpack and your best walking shoes? Or perhaps you’re more of an extreme-adventurer, seeking steep mountain slopes to climb and harsh climates to traverse? Hundreds of great explorers have travelled the world in pursuit of new lands and new discoveries, or to inspire others with their writing. There’s no better way to find travel inspiration than by looking at their adventures, so take our quiz to discover whose footsteps you should follow in…

Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.

I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.

To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.

Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.

“Tourist Thailand seems far behind”

I began this journey four days earlier in current capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Wanting to find an older Thailand I decided to take the twelve-hour slow train north to Chiang Mai. Most travellers take the overnight train and sleep right through, choosing not to visit the country’s former capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, at all. But I chose to go by day, staying overnight to explore these overlooked destinations.

Leaving Bangkok, I was glad of the peace and calm of the train to my next stop, Ayutthaya. Most tourists squeeze into minivans. But I was one of a handful of foreign faces with a compartment all to myself. Feet up, camera at the ready, I watched the heat and highways of central Bangkok fade into crane-spiked concrete hinterland and then lush green paddy fields, dotted with tractors, workers in conical hats and the occasional languid water buffalo.

I woke with a start as the train jolted into Ayutthaya. This city was once so covered in glittering mosaics that it was said to dazzle visitors from kilometres away. Sadly it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767; temples were smashed, the houseboats and houses, where almost a million Thais lived, were burnt to husks and thousands were forcibly repatriated across the border.

Off the train, I took to two wheels, cycling past Ayutthaya’s network of canals, which was once bustling with boat trade. I could almost hear the vegetable sellers haggle as they yelled for trade from tiny canoes; now the canals are coloured pink with flowering lotuses. When I reached the city itself – a graveyard of crumbling brick palaces, mould-stippled stupas and Buddhas – I found a statue at Wat Phra Mahathat engulfed by a strangler fig, only its serene face remaining exposed among a swirl of roots.

Image by Alex Robinson

“With so few foreigners on the train, I was a curiosity”

There were so few foreigners on the evening train to Phitsanulok that I was a curiosity. Thai people stopped to ask where I was from. The family opposite shared their rice and curry. As night thickened a guard turned my seat into a couchette, covered it with a crisp white sheet and I slept soundly all the way, and when I arrived in the 600-year-old city I was met by my smiling guide, Poj.

The next day we visited Sukhothai, Thailand’s capital in the early thirteenth century just 60km from Phitsanulok. Ransacked Ayutthaya was a forlorn ruin, but the long erosion of time has turned Sukhothai into an eternal monument – a Thai version of Angkor Wat.

In Ayutthaya, Buddhas sat in serried ranks – soldiers against samsara (the material world) – but in Sukhothai, they were veiled by temple walls, serene and as tall as tower blocks, gazing across 800 years of history to a point beyond time. Brightly-coloured tropical birds played among the ornate stupas and perched on the stucco, and nuns and monks meditated at the feet of centuries-old effigies lost at the end of sweeping colonnades.

Image by Alex Robinson

“Instead of tourist crowds, there was the bustle of everyday life”

Before Poj and I embarked on the final leg of our journey and caught the night train to Chiang Mai we visited Mahathat Woramahawihan – a stroll from Phitsanulok railway station. Hidden inside the temple is Thailand’s second most venerated Buddha: a magnificent, three-metre-tall gold statue, crowned with a lotus-flower halo and shimmering in the light.

Instead of the crowds you find at the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there was the bustle of everyday life. Expectant mums with bags of groceries, school kids, and monks in robes shuffled in through the temple doors and prostrated themselves at the Buddha’s feet. They chanted, prayed, then went on their way, and aside from me – one lone awkward intruder – there wasn’t a European in sight.

But I saw them when I reached Chiang Mai the next day, stuck in tuk tuks in the traffic-choked streets around the city’s old royal moat, clustering around the ancient temples and crowding the tiny bars around the night market. It was fun to join the throng for a while, before slipping off for an early night. To see Chiang Mai as it used to you need to awake for the golden dawn, when monks fill the streets and tourism sleeps.

Alex Robinson travelled with Audley Travel who organise bespoke trips around Thailand, including by rail. Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to ThailandCompare flights, book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Iceland might not be the first place that springs to mind when you’re planning a weekend away. The obvious cities like Paris, Berlin or Budapest would probably occur to you well before Reykjavík becomes an option. But after a four-night jaunt across some of Iceland’s impressive landscapes, including the Golden Circle and Reykjanes Peninsula, Lottie Gross discovers why Iceland’s capital is the perfect weekend break destination.

Why go for just a weekend?

Because it’s cheap to get there, and expensive to stay. Iceland is a notoriously expensive destination due to its small population and dependency on imports. It’s hard to stay in the country for a long time without breaking the bank, so a short trip is the most economical option for most travellers.

There are two different sides to Iceland – the capital and the countryside. Staying in Reykjavík makes it possible to enjoy the highlights of both the city and scenery in a short amount of time by taking day trips with tour companies to your chosen areas of interest. Reykjavík has charm and nightlife to rival cities even twice its size, while the surrounding countryside is too ethereal to miss.

Flights with WOW Air run from London Gatwick ten times a week and can set you back as little as £49 each way. Plus, new flights launching between London and the US (Washington DC and Boston) via Reykjavík this year, make Iceland the perfect place for a small adventure before reaching your final destination.

Image © Lottie Gross 2015

What should I see in Reykjavík?

On first impression Reykjavík – the country’s largest city with a population of just 120,000 people – is like a life-size model village. There are no skyscrapers, but instead a network of small, tin can-style houses with multicoloured corrugated iron walls and roofs. Thanks to this, the whole city has a somewhat temporary feel to it, as if each building could be taken down and reassembled as something else entirely next week – although in reality, the corrugated iron really protects against the relentless year-round winds.

Because of its small scale, Reykjavík can be explored on foot in a single day. A walk along the seafront past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture gives breathtaking views to the mountains on the tiny island of Viðey across the bay; a stroll along the main street, Laugavegur, introduces you to an independent shopping heaven; and a wander up Lækjargata past the pond, where locals feed ducks, swans and geese, takes you to Hallgrímskirkja – the famously sci-fi-looking church with a towering concrete steeple that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

For history you can visit the National Museum or the Saga Museum, while for an understanding of the country’s landscape – before you get out there yourself – see the huge relief map in City Hall. Finally, Perhaps for a bit of irreverent fun, have a giggle in the Reykjavík Phallological Museum where over 200 penises from a variety of animals (including humans) are preserved in jars.

What should I eat?

With an economy that depends heavily on the fishing industry – fish is Iceland’s biggest export – it comes as no surprise that seafood in Iceland is sublime. Head to Icelandic Fish & Chips on Tryggvagata for a deliciously fresh, healthy dinner, or to the weekend flea market by the harbour where you can buy a variety of fish almost straight from the boats.

For those with a sweet tooth in pursuit of authentic Icelandic treats, Café Loki, sitting on a corner opposite Hallgrímskirkja, is perfect for a spot of afternoon tea. Try the ‘bow’, a knot of donut dough, deep-fried and served with cream, and the skyr cake, a cheesecake-style sweet layered with yoghurt, rhubarb sauce and a sweet biscuit base.

Kex Hostel, Reykjavík

Where’s the party?

Reykjavík by night is a very different place. It’s famous for its Friday rúntur, or ‘round tour’, when hundreds of young Icelanders tank themselves up on vodka at home before hitting the streets around midnight to embark on an almost orgiastic pub crawl.

Start your evening in style at The Ten Drops, a tiny, basement-level speakeasy that feels like someone’s living room rather than a pub. There’s live acoustic guitar and a good selection of Icelandic beers (Einstok is the most popular choice, but the Myrkvi Porter is a great winter warmer if it’s cold out) to get you going before moving onto the more serious party at Reykjavík institution, Kaffibarrin. For up-to-date listings on what’s on in town, see the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Any budget-friendly accommodation?

Yes. Kex Hostel, set in an old biscuit factory on the seafront in downtown Reykjavík, has dorm rooms from £30 or private rooms from £40 per person per night. There’s a kitchen for self-caterers and a rather dark but very cool (read: hipster) gastropub serving everything from rich, juicy beef burgers to braised reindeer shank in batter.

Images © Lottie Gross

How do I get into the wild?

A number of day-tours (pick-up from your hotel) on offer from Reykjavík Excursions take in the highlights of the surrounding countryside and dramatic coastline – the most popular of which is the Golden Circle. This takes you through the beautiful Þingvellir National Park and across the Assembly Plains (where the country’s first parliament, the oldest in the world, was founded in 930 AD). From here you reach the Geysir geothermal area, where the spectacular geyser that gave its name to all others thrusts hot water from underground up to 30 metres in the air every few minutes. The visitor centre’s free exhibition shows just how temperamental Iceland’s environment can be, detailing the science behind these geothermal surges, the frequent volcanic eruptions and showing, with a simulator, what it feels like to experience an earthquake.

Before heading back to Reykjavík, the tour visits Gullfoss (Golden Falls): an enormous waterfall viewed from above, which plummets thunderously into a 32 metre-deep rift created by the Hvítá river. A number of tours can be combined with a visit to the Blue Lagoon – the man-made geothermal pool and spa that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Explore more of Iceland’s natural beauty with the Rough Guide to Iceland. Compare flightsbook hostels, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Taken from the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe.

Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; and Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, whether for their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.

If you’re backpacking in Europe for the first time, bear in mind that the best trips combine practicality with stick-a-pin-in-the-map impulsiveness. Here’s our advice:

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

3. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an InterRail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun, Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure, and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either, as if you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, there are plenty of gastronomic experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain, relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t be tempted to skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.

8. Allow yourself the odd splurge

One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.

9. Stay up late

Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.

10. Hit the beach

Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.

11. Go under the radar

If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.

12. Stay safe

Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.

 

For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

It’s not just temples and tuk tuks, Cambodia has so much to offer travellers. From the delicious cuisine to floating villages, here are the top things not to miss on your trip to Cambodia.

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Billed as the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe, Bulgaria’s second city of Plovdiv is also one of the continent’s brightest upcoming stars. As well as offering archeological treasures by the barrow-load, it is one of the most culturally vibrant places in southeastern Europe, with enough cultural festivals, arty neighbourhoods and cool bars to keep today’s urban explorers more than happy. Here are ten reasons why you should visit Plovdiv.

To explore the charming Old Town

Plovdiv’s hilltop Old Town offers arguably the best preserved collection of traditional architecture anywhere in southeastern Europe. If you want to know what Balkan towns looked like before the twentieth-century, then this is the place to find out. It was here that Plovdiv’s rich Bulgarian, Greek and Armenian merchants built large walled and gated houses, their overhanging upper storeys jutting out above narrow cobbled streets. Furnished in an opulent mixture of eastern and western styles, many are now open to the public as museum houses. If you only have time for one of them, visit the ornate Kuyumdzhiev House, now home to the Ethnographic Museum.

To seek out alternative Plovdiv

A great way to delve into other sides of the city is to follow the suggestions provided by the Alternative Map of Plovdiv, a fascinating exercise in cultural tourism that tells you where to find Bauhaus-influenced architecture, industrial heritage, and communist-era street mosaics – along with all manner of overlooked architectural gems.

To visit Roman remains

Not every city has a Roman stadium bang in the middle of its main shopping street, and while only one end of Plovdiv’s stadium is actually visible (the rest is still underground), it’s still a pretty dramatic sight, with its curve of terraced seating sitting in a hollow beneath a busy pedestrian precinct. Recently re-landscaped to form an attractive archeological park, it’s the perfect place to start your stroll of discovery through Roman Plovdiv. A little way uphill, on the fringes of the Old Town, is a beautifully-preserved Roman theatre that is still in use as a spectacular open-air performance venue. Roman streets and mosaics can still be seen in situ thanks to ongoing excavations around the forum, next to today’s Central Post Office.

To see the old and new in Kapana

Right next to the centre but very much a self-contained world of its own, the Kapana district is where the old and new Plovdiv come so fruitfully together. Formerly the bazaar quarter, this tight web of cobbled streets still contains the kind of artisan studios and craft shops that characterize the Balkans of yore – alongside a thoroughly contemporary breed of café-bars, discos and clubs. With raucous nightlife venues standing next door to snug bohemian drinking haunts, there’s something here for everyone – live music pub Petnoto and legendary boho bar Nylon are just two long-standing Rough Guides favourites.

To marvel at mosques and baths

Five centuries of Ottoman rule left a legacy of fine architecture, with the minarets of Plovdiv’s mosques attesting to the city’s diverse nature. One of the most striking buildings is the sixteenth-century Chifte Banya, a multi-domed former bath-house that nowadays serves as atmospheric location for contemporary art exhibitions.

To enjoy a Capital of Culture

Plovdiv’s stint as Europe’s Capital of Culture (scheduled for 2019) might seem like a long way off, but don’t be afraid of travelling too early – the city already has a discernable cultural buzz. The city’s new-found status as the nation’s arts capital seemed to be confirmed in 2014 when the much vaunted, internationally recognised Sofia Design Week (now renamed One Design Week) relocated to Plovdiv instead – along with sister events One Dance Week (October) and One Architecture Week (September/October).

For creativity at the Art News Café

Many of the cultural energies shaping today’s Plovdiv emanate from a single address on Otets Paisiy Street, site of both the Art News Café and its sister organization, the Sariev Contemporary art gallery. As well as being everything a good café-bar should be (selling everything from great coffee to craft beers and homemade cookies), Art News Café also serves as the artistic community’s social centre, hosting talks, film shows and art-parties. The next-door gallery may be small in size but it has had a inversely proportional impact on the Bulgarian art scene – all the leading contemporary artists have exhibited here, and for many of them Sariev has proved to be a launching pad for their most significant work.

To enjoy September celebrations in the city

High summer in Plovdiv can be stiflingly hot and relatively quiet, with many of its inhabitants leaving town for the seaside. September is when the fun kicks off again, with a string of theatre, arts and music festivals injecting extra energy into the autumnal social round. The one September event to make a date for is the Night of Museums and Galleries, which transforms the city centre into a huge art-party zone. All of the city’s cultural institutions organise something special – moving from one venue to another quite literally takes all night.

For a day trip Bachkovo Monastery

Most popular day trip from Plovdiv is to Bachkovo Monastery, a medieval foundation tucked into a wooded valley 30km south of the city. A walled complex with two arcaded courtyards and a pair of extravagantly decorated churches, it’s the ideal place to get to grips with the vibrant spirituality of Bulgarian Orthodoxy. The setting is magnificent too, with wooded slopes on all sides and plenty of nearby nature walks.

To experience icons and incense at church

Central Plovdiv contains a generous sprinkling of atmospheric old churches, most of which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although their origins are usually much older. Filled with icons, carved wooden fittings and candle smoke they convey a raw, intimate mysticism. Many are painted with frescoes both inside and out and constitute complete works of art: the Church of Saints Constantine and Helena in the Old Town is one of the best examples. The next-door icon gallery contains a thorough overview of the whole genre.

Explore more of Bulgaria with the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetCompare flightsbook hostels and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

On a weekend jaunt to Spain’s capital, Madrid, Rough Guides editors Andy Turner, Olivia Rawes, Greg Dickinson and Lottie Gross set themselves the challenge of staying up for 24 hours to discover what the city has to offer day and night. Here’s how they got on…

9am: a cycle tour of the city

With just 24 hours in Madrid, you risk missing out on some pretty major sights. Not wanting to overlook any of the city’s intimidating number of parks, royal buildings and plazas, we kicked off our hectic day in the Spanish capital with a whistle-stop bicycle tour.

Starting with a lap around the second-century BC Temple of Debod, our peloton rode past the Palacio Real and through Plaza Mayor before heading across town to Parque del Retiro. After a brief stop for a late morning espresso (or beer, for those of us that way inclined), we were back where we started, just off Plaza de España, with our bearings now firmly in place.

Bravo Bike’s leading guide, Sebastien, has only lived in Madrid for a couple of years, but you wouldn’t guess it with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s history and cool navigation of its back streets.

12pm: Shopping at El Rastro

Sundays in Madrid mean one thing: hitting the streets of La Latina for a wander through the sprawling El Rastro, the city’s oldest flea market.

Some people come for a bargain; some just for the buzzing atmosphere. As we arrived, the heart of El Rastro, Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, was in full-swing. We squeezed ourselves through the jovial crowd and inched between vendors selling barquillos (crispy scrolls of sweet thin wafer) and stalls packed with everything from vinyl records and second-hand clothes to antiques and fake designer handbags.

2pm: discovering Madrid’s counterculture

Next we made our way to La Tabacalera in Lavapiés. Once a tobacco factory, this enormous, now decrepit building – occupying an entire city block – now serves as a community-led canvas for Madrid’s most talented urban artists and a venue for aspiring musicians.

A warren of heavily graffitied corridors linking countless studios and workshops, it has a similar post-apocalyptic ambience to the now-closed Kunsthaus Tacheles arts squat in Berlin (although in reality it is supported by the state), and offers a glimpse into Madrid’s deep-rooted counterculture.

Most people were there to watch the grunge band in the high-ceilinged entrance hall, but we picked up some €1 cans of beer and went to explore further, poking our heads into rooms occupied by the likes of bike mechanics, print artists and a lone practising drummer.

4pm: gorging on tapas at Mercado de San Miguel

Having worked up an appetite we headed to Mercado de San Miguel for a late lunch. Set in a stunning early-twentieth-century structure of glass and wrought iron, the mercado is a stylish, albeit pricey, place to grab a quick bite – although you’ll probably want to linger much longer.

Set among stalls selling fresh juice, vegetables, meat and cheese are bars dishing up an array of tempting morsels that range from paper cones stuffed with wafer-thin slithers of jamón to pinchos, bite-sized sushi and a huge serving of oysters accompanied by champagne.

5pm: a Spanish siesta

Sufficiently satiated, we took a slow stroll back to our apartment on Calle Toledo, passing a number of independent boutiques selling homewares, fashion and vinyls, for another inherently Spanish tradition: a siesta.

Equipped with a few bottles of Spanish wine and already heavy eyes, we settled into the sofa by the balcony and watched locals go about their business on the street below.

9pm: jamón and history, a Madrid food tour

Refreshed, rejuvenated and ready for the long night ahead, it was time to explore Madrid by night. With the sun dipping behind Plaza de la Ópera we head to a rendezvous with local gourmet Kelly Maslow of Madrid Food Tour. Having broken the ice over some revitalizing vermouth at Taberna Real (lesson number 1: Madrileños don’t drink sangria), Kelly tells we’re about to sample five of the best tapas bars in town. We make approving noises, our mouths stuffed with premium acorn-fed jamón that retails at €1000 a leg.

Next up were some amazingly fresh anchovies at Bodegas Ricla (lesson number 2: Madrileños adore seafood despite living nowhere near the sea), mushrooms filled with chorizo, parsley and vampire-strength garlic at Méson del Champiñon, followed by sizzling shrimps at the beautifully tiled La Casa del Abuelo. Along the way we’re given a primer on everything from the latest royal gossip to the capital’s literary history (apparently the skeleton of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes may have just been dug up nearby).

Things came to a calorific climax at Casa Toni, a stripped-down local’s joint where we’re confronted by a table laden with cañas y orejas “beers and pig’s ears” (lesson number 3: go easy on the pig’s ears). Stomachs suitably lined we were up for a proper Madrid night out.

12am: a night out in the 90s

Our first port of call was Bodega de la Ardosa, a tiny, dimly-lit bar on Calle Colón with black and white framed photographs and dust-laden bottled beers lining its walls. Despite its size, it was packed out: Sunday night in Madrid was in full swing, fuelled by €2 Rioja.

A few hours, and a few cervezas, later it was time to get our dancing shoes on. On arrival at La Vía Láctea, which translates to “the Milky Way”, 90s Nirvana tunes were blaring from the speakers and a queue of Madrileños was forming at the door. The neon-lit bar stretched to the back of the club, giving way to a pulsating dancefloor where psychedelic space-themed murals decorated the walls. It was here that we danced the night away, learning that the Spanish way of serving gin and tonic involves no measurements – except for the top of the glass.

4am: roadside revelry

Around 4am the time came to leave and we spilled out onto the streets of Madrid. For many it seemed the party was set to continue, despite the sun rising slowly in the sky.

Madrid’s hardest partiers had floored us, and as they moved on to their next port of call, we took the slow amble home. After a stop at Chocolatería San Ginés – a 24-hour institution where Madrileños get their end-of-night churros con chocolate fix – of course.

Explore more of Spain with the Rough Guide to Spain. Compare flights, book hostels and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. The Rough Guides editors were hosted by the Spanish holiday rental specialist Spain-holiday.com (020 3384 7066; www.spain-holiday.com). A three-night stay in their centrally-located apartment in low season costs from £210 total or £105 pp (two sharing – up to four additional guests pay £12 pp per night).

Singapore has many sides. You can take in Little India, Arab Street and Chinatown before heading for a cosmopolitan night out hosted by some of the world’s top DJs, or delve into the wild at a rainforest nature reserve and search for inner peace at holy temples. These are the top things not to miss in Singapore

Longstanding author of the Rough Guide to India, Nick Edwards, explains how the remote Andaman Islands have been slowly increasing their tourist profile but still reward the adventurous traveller with natural splendour unlike anywhere on the mainland. 

The long emerald necklace of the Andaman Islands – an archipelago lying over a thousand kilometres out in the Bay of Bengal – is unlike anywhere else in India. Here you’ll find some of India’s most stunning beaches, invariably fringed by thick forest, and the only substantial coral reefs in the country, a magnet for scuba divers worldwide. These colourful underwater networks teem with brilliant fish, reef sharks, manta rays and Olive Ridley and loggerhead turtles. Add plenty of exotic bird life, crocodiles lurking in lagoons and the odd feral elephant into the mix, and it’s not hard to see the attractions of a visit.

The archipelago is actually closer and more similar in appearance to the western coasts of Myanmar and Thailand. Indeed, India only really inherited the island chain by default, along with the off-limits Nicobar Islands, on independence from the British, who had used the islands as a useful marine staging post and grim penal colony. In doing so they partly displaced the half dozen distinct indigenous tribal groups who had previously been the only inhabitants. This process has continued since the islands were further colonised by mostly Tamil and Bengali settlers, although certain areas are still set aside for tribal people.

Today, while firmly on the tourist trail in India, the Andaman Islands still receive realtively few visitors and this stunning archipelago is a highlight on any itinerary.

Your first port of call: Port Blair

The only point of entry is the capital, Port Blair, named after an eighteenth-century English lieutenant. Most people fly in from Chennai or Kolkata but it is also possible to make the rather arduous three- to five-day boat crossing from those same two mainland ports. Upon arrival by either means, the requisite free special permit is granted, which delineates the areas and islands you are allowed to visit. The first thing you are liable to notice is a much fresher, greener aroma instead of the unmistakable smell associated with urban India.

The town is a bit of an anomaly, however, with a mish-mash of concrete and corrugated iron buildings draped over verdant hills that dip down to the surrounding water. It says a lot about the Port Blair that its main tourist attraction is the Cellular Jail, a sombre reminder of its punitive past. A boat tour of the small islets in the bay, namely Viper and Ross, is also worthwhile, or perhaps a trip further afield in South Andaman to the Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park at Wandoor, but most people head for more rewarding destinations after a night or two.

The honeypots: Havelock and Neil

Some visitors forego the dubious pleasures of Port Blair altogether and make a beeline on the first available vessel to Havelock, the Andamans’ prime tourist destination. This 12km-long mixture of hilly forestation, verdant farmland and golden white sandy beaches is the largest of Ritchie’s Archipelago and only a couple of hours from the capital on a fast catamaran. It has grown exponentially in twenty years from a complete backwater with a smattering of backpacker beach huts to a fairly busy place that is home to over sixty accommodations, several of them top notch resorts. These mainly service the growing number of wealthy Indian vacationers and honeymooners from the mainland.

Although some would say Havelock is on the verge of becoming spoilt, it remains the only island to offer a wide range of accommodation and eating options – try the Red Snapper restaurant at Wild Orchid – plus it has the majority of diving operations. It also boasts the splendid arc of Radhnagar (aka #7), backed by towering mowhar trees and still home to Rajan, the legendary but now retired swimming elephant, who can be visited at Barefoot Resort. Havelock’s diminutive neighbour, Neil, has started to take some of the overspill from its big sister and is preferred by many for a longer stay.

The long road north: the Andaman Trunk road

Many make the mistake of confining their visit solely to Havelock and maybe Neil, but there are a lot more places to be explored that will give you a real sense of being off the beaten track. The controversial (because it bisects the Jarawa tribal lands and is technically illegal) Andaman Trunk Road runs up from Port Blair through the three largest islands of South, Middle and North Andaman. Although the main settlements along the road are rather forlorn, ugly places, they are the access points for more splendid and much quieter beaches, most noticeably Kalipur in the far north, which can also be reached by taking a boat to Arial Bay. Ferries also stop at Rangat Bay and Mayabunder, home to many Karen people. From the latter, you can arrange a visit to pristine Interview Island, a wonderful nature sanctuary.

The isolated escape: Long Island

For those who fancy a more relaxed and relatively isolated refuge, one of the best options is Long Island. On the boat route from Havelock north to Rangat, it contains a low-key little bazaar, just one or two accommodations, principally the convivial Blue Planet, and the possibility of a fine hike across to the island’s best beach, which you are likely to have entirely to yourself.

The laidback option: Little Andaman

Best of all is Little Andaman, the southernmost island in the group and paradoxically quite large. Reminiscent of Havelock in the nineties, it is just establishing itself on the traveller trail. Much of the island is reserved for the Onge tribe and thus off-limits, but a sizeable chunk of the northeast is included on your permit. There are now around half a dozen small guesthouses and extremely laidback, inexpensive beach hut operations strung along the coast between Hut Bay and Netaji Nagar, behind a magnificent 8km strand. You can also admire the tranquil White Surf Waterfalls, whose name gives away the fact that Little Andaman boasts excellent surfing conditions.

Return flights to Port Blair from Chennai or Kolkata can cost well over £200 during the peak winter season. Boat crossings from the mainland cost as little as £20. Road and sea transportation between the islands is very inexpensive, while the cheaper accommodations only cost £5–10 per night. Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Compare flights, book hostels and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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