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.

From the faded colonial grandeur of Havana to the lush, green tobacco plantations of the countryside, Cuba is a destination that exceeds all expectations. This small island off the coast of Central America is an endlessly fascinating place, and has  plenty to keep a traveller busy. Here are 20 of our favourite things to do in Cuba.

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.

Incredible scenery – from coast to mountain-top – amazing art and world-adored cuisine, Italy really does have it all. No matter how many times you return to Italy you’ll never be short of things to see and do. But for your first trip, here is our list of the top things not to miss in this boot-shaped country:

Explore more of the world with the Rough Guides YouTube Channel. 

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

There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the Galápagos. Chitra Ramaswamy went on her own voyage of discovery to find the best things to do in Ecuador, beyond Darwin’s famous islands.

The alarm on my mobile phone goes off at 4am. Deep in the heart of Ecuador’s Mindo cloud forest, a fragile wilderness that cloaks the steep slopes of the Andes, its beep-beep echoes out from my snug eco-lodge like a warning to nature. I’m in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet: an ancient forest that appears to hover in the sky like a miracle, a land where new species continue to be discovered daily, orchids spring up like daisies and more than 330 species of birds have been recorded. Anything manmade feels like an intrusion here. A mobile phone becomes an absurdity.

Mind you, it does make a reliable clock, and unlike Mindo’s birds, I need one. I get dressed and wander outside to watch a thin mist ascending with the dawn. Tanager finches, giant antpittas, nightjars – many more birds than I can identify – flutter past or land on the branches overhead to preen primary-coloured feathers. This is bird spotting without the spotting. All you need to do is stop, look and gasp. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous hummingbirds zoom and squabble around the reserve like naughty schoolchildren, pausing only to dip their beaks into feeders filled with sugared water. The air is thick with the buzz of their neon wings, a drone that becomes a soundtrack to my time in Mindo, as though someone were playing Flight of the Bumblebee on repeat.

It took just two hours to drive here from Quito, Ecuador’s remarkable capital and the first city in the world to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. Oh, and the only capital to be directly menaced by an active volcano. Which is long overdue an eruption. Gulp.

Still, there’s only so long I can spend contemplating my mortality in Ecuador. There just isn’t time. The equatorial middle of the world, it turns out, is like the centre of a really good party. It’s where all the great stuff happens. Travel two hours in any direction from Quito and you will find pretty much everything the planet has to offer. In ten dizzying days (literally: altitude sickness in Ecuador is so common that many restaurants and hotels offer a side order of oxygen with your ceviche), I see the Amazon Basin, the Andes, the Pacific coast, one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys and more active volcanoes than my travel insurance company needs to know about.

And yet all this tends to be neglected by your average visitor to Ecuador. The drill is still to touch down in Quito then head six hundred miles west to the Galápagos Islands, home of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a bunch of extremely elderly tortoises, some of the most beautiful and rare flora and fauna found on earth, and, tragically, more and more human waste and pollution, as 160,000 tourists continue to pitch up every year in search of the last great wilderness. So I’ve decided to do something weird. I’ve come to Ecuador to stay on the mainland.

More images of things to do in Ecuador:

And frankly, why would you want to leave? A hike at dawn in Ecuadorian cloud forest is like sleepwalking in the sky. Everywhere is mist, moisture, the earth’s breath. Outlines of trees emerge like spectres through giant banks of cloud. Cottony wisps get caught in king-sized bromeliads. I frequently find myself walking through cloud and not realising until I look back and see it drifting behind me. And all the time there is water: dripping, burbling and collecting somewhere unseen, with a persistence that only nature can truly boast.

Two days later, I’m on horseback in the foothills of the Andes, 2800m above sea level. It’s a brisk morning and the air smells of pasture and woodsmoke from our nearby hacienda, a colonial farm dating back to 1691 that contains the country’s history of Spanish colonisation, pre-Columbian and Ecuadorian tradition in its weathered wooden walls. I travelled here along a spectacular 300km stretch of road known as the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, where mountains take the place of houses and active volcanoes stand in for lamp-posts. My Andalusian horse knows she has a novice on her back and keeps wandering off-path to tug at the grass. Now and then, a local in traditional dress passes by, nodding solemnly from atop his steed.

A few blissful miles later, we arrive at our destination. A great green valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, sloping native forest, and vast shifting skies. The hacienda‘s owner, as dapper a farmer as they come, points up. A mile high, circling first and then soaring on the thinnest of air, is an Andean condor. Everyone who comes to Ecuador hopes to see one of these rare giants of the sky who, when fully grown, has a wingspan of up to five metres. And here at Hacienda Zuleta, where the family runs a rehabilitation programme, there are eight condors. If I saw all of them today – though one is quite enough – I would have seen a fifth of all the population in Ecuador. We watch in silence as this exquisite young male lands bumptiously on top of a high fence and fans his enormous wings in the breeze. It’s a perfect Ecuadorian moment, and the Galápagos never seemed so far away.

Need To Know

For more information about Ecuador’s Mindo cloud forest and the Bellavista reserve and eco-lodges, visit www.bellavista.com. For more on Hacienda Zuleta, the Andes and the Condor Huasi Project, visit www.zuleta.com. See www.quito.com.ec/en to find out more about Quito. Explore more of Ecuador with the Rough Guide to Ecuador. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rough Guides writer John Malathronas remembers his experience crossing Checkpoint Charlie.

It was in August 1989 when I presented myself to Checkpoint Charlie – a bit scared, very curious, but mostly excited – and crossed to what was then East Berlin.

Life in West Berlin, an island surrounded by East Germany, was what it must have been like in medieval castles during a siege. The claustrophobia started from the approach: I took the train from Hannover to Bahnhof Zoo, then the West Berlin terminus. Once through the border, it slowed down to a crawl: the track was badly maintained and the train could not attain full speed. As I looked out of the window, funny little Trabant cars raced in the streets and storks were nesting on wooden pylons along the route. There were no stops.

The first thing I did was rush to see the Wall which, at twelve feet, seemed terribly insignificant. I was surprised how close I could get to it. In fact, from the West you could touch it – in order to spray it with graffiti, it seems. But when I climbed on the lookout points I saw a no-man’s-land with barbed wire, foxholes and guns peeking from bunkers aiming at me.

Photograph by John Malathronas

So, at Checkpoint Charlie I was slightly nervous as I walked interminably through zigzag corridors, overlooked by grim-faced guards. After I crossed, I entered a different world. Posters, posters, and more posters; Lenin and Marx statues; flags and garlands for the 40th anniversary of the GDR; hammers and sickles. Yes, there was advertising beyond the Iron Curtain, but not for consumer products.

I only had a one-day visa that expired at midnight and, as a condition, I had to change 25DM at the rate of 1:1 with East German Deutschmarks that were worthless outside the country. But hey, 25DM was not enough to buy you lunch in West Berlin. Surely, it couldn’t be enough for a whole day in the East? How wrong I was…

I cautiously scrimped on my money by going to a fast food joint on Alexanderplatz that proved an excellent introduction to a centrally planned economy. I paid in advance, got three tokens and stood in three different queues: one for the burger, one for the chips and one for the cola. Some smartass bureaucrat had calculated that this was the optimum way to distribute fast food. The convenience of consumers, of course, was never part of the equation.

Photograph by Hans Peter Merten

I walked over to the start of Unter den Linden to see the Wall from the other side, but you couldn’t get to within 200 metres of it: a small white barrier – totally graffiti-free – demarcated the limit of approach. I wondered if the East Germans even knew about the existence of those bunkers and foxholes. They couldn’t see them, after all.

East Berlin had the top museums in Germany and it was there that I spent much of my time. The “museum island” in today’s Berlin lay entirely in the East and its Pergamon Museum is still one of Europe’s best as it was then. As the evening fell, I ventured further in and ended up in Treptower Park where the Soviet memorial still looms large. In 1987 Barclay James Harvest played the first open-air rock concert in the GDR there, but on that day I was alone.

I had a quick sit-down bite at a café, because I couldn’t find a restaurant that would let me in; with my Levis and Raybans I exuded Westernness and the risk of ideological infection must have seemed too great a risk. I still had fifteen Deutschmarks to spend, and it was 9pm already. Then it hit me.

Photograph by Jacob Bøtter

I walked towards Friedrichstrasse – along with Checkpoint Charlie the only exit point to the West – found a bar, got in and did what I’ve always wanted to do. I went to the barman and said: “I’m going to buy everyone a drink.”

I speak German, which is just as well, because everyone’s tongue became loose. My West German friends were all called Andy, Tim or Mike, but here I met people called Siegfried, Ewald and Heinrich. Yes, everyone was watching West German TV. Everyone was dreaming of Coca Cola and blue jeans. Everyone wanted to know about me and my life. And no one supported the regime.

I left at 11:30pm and reached the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint drunk but Deutschmark-free. I crossed with fifteen minutes to spare, drawing suspicious looks from passport controllers. I took the S-Bahn, passed above the Wall and was immediately blinded by the light of a thousand neon signs. I was back home.

Explore Berlin today with the Rough Guide to Berlin or the Pocket Rough Guide to BerlinBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The second largest country in the world, Canada  has some of the most varied landscapes on earth, from desert to temperate rainforest to lush orchards. And then there are the great beaches , enormous glaciers and buzzing cities to explore. These are our top things not to miss in Canada.

Winter is coming. No, not an episode of Game of Thrones, just the perfect time to get excited about the white stuff. Of course, you could ski or snowboard… but why limit yourself? Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills heads to Paradiski in the French Alps to check out the top five winter activities off the slopes.

Ice climbing

Ice climbing is a hugely physically demanding activity, and hanging hundreds of feet in the air requires nerves (and legs) of steel. The 22-metre-high artificial ice tower in the Paradiski resort is a great place to learn; they’ve got initiation sessions for beginners a couple of times a week. Specialist equipment (including boots, crampons, harness, ice axes and a helmet) is provided and there are several routes to scale, including the one used by competitors in the annual Ice Climbing World Cup. The tower is reconstructed and re-iced – complete with 45-degree overhangs – each year as temperatures in the valley plummet at the start of winter.

Image courtesy of Paradiski

Hiking and snowshoeing

Admiring the scenery when you’re whooshing down the mountainside can be tricky, so there are plenty of marked trails where you can take it a little slower on a winter walk. Some routes are circular, but for others you can catch a bus or ski-lift home (free maps are available at the tourist office). Even better for a walk on the wild side is donning snowshoes and going cross-country in deep snow through the alpine forests and clearings of the Vanoise National Park. Along with beautiful panoramas, there’s a good chance of spotting wildlife such as mountain ibex, golden eagles and bearded vultures. You can hire snowshoes or join a guided tour.

Bobsleighing

Last winter 12,401 people hurtled down the Olympic bobsleigh track at La Plagne, including one very apprehensive Rough Guides editor. One of only seven European tracks, it was built for the Winter Games in 1992 and is still in demand for competitions (World Championship trials will take place here at the end of January 2015). Thrill-seeking tourists also come here in their droves to jump aboard a four-man bob raft, a self-driving, self-braking bob that descends the bone-shaking 1500m track in about one and a half minutes  – that’s around 80km/hr. Even bigger daredevils can choose bob racing, which is even closer to a real competition experience (with speeds of up to 130km/hr).

Image courtesy of Paradiski

Dog sledding

It’s difficult to deny the romance of gliding across the snow behind a pack of extraordinarily cute huskies. The part-dog, part-wolf breed has been used for centuries to pull sleds across inaccessible snowy landscapes, but that doesn’t mean that ‘mushing’ is easy. Sit back, wrap up warm and leave it to the professionals, or hang onto the handlebar (and your hat) and try steering yourself. Before you get going, the dogs are overexcited, yapping and jumping; the brakes are under your feet, and relaxing enough to get started is tough. Controlling the speed and trying not to tip over proves exhausting, especially as you know that if you fall out, you have to hang on tight or risk losing the huskies. Soon enough, though, the dogs begin to settle and after taking a few corners you slowly loosen up and start to enjoy the peace that comes with forging your own route across the wilderness.

Tobogganing

Although you’re advised to keep your hands and feet in the toboggan at all times, it’s hard to resist the urge to slow your rapid descent of Plagne Centre’s “Colorado Park” run. Panic and you’ll end up whooshing off course, with the added problem of kicking up a fog of ice. You’re then temporarily blinded, plummeting downhill, skidding on the hard, icy surface. There’s a night run you can take on the longer, 2.9km “Eldorado Park” in Plagne-Bellecôte, where you get a headlamp to go with the obligatory helmet. You’ll arrive at the bottom of the course battered and bruised, with an inexplicable desire to do it all over again.

Explore more of the French Alps with the Rough Guides Snapshot for the Alps and Franche-Comté. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Street art has exploded in popularity over the last few years, relying on a strong aesthetic impact to make you think, or at least raise a smile. Andy Turner takes a look at the Shoreditch scene and learns to distinguish a Banksy from a Borondo

A curious thing happens when you walk south across Bishopsgate, leaving behind the corporate gleam of the City. First, indecipherable stickers begin to decorate lamp posts; then road signs appear with witty additions (for example, a love heart pierced by the arrow of a one-way sign); finally, the pavement, walls and even windows come alive in a riot of paint, ink and stencilled creativity. Welcome to Shoreditch, world capital of street art.

London street art: the early years

While your classic train-trashing graffiti can be traced back to 1970s Harlem and the beginnings of hip-hop, London’s street art has always had a more cerebral flavour. Inspired by the Paris student riots, anarchist slogans such as “Eat the Rich” were appearing in (then) gritty Notting Hill as early as 1968, as well as existential ponderings on the banality of life (the scene is documented in the excellent The Writing’s on the Wall by Roger Perry). By the 1980s, though, this more philosophical style had largely been replaced by anti-Thatcher invective and “wildstyle” (ie illegible) tagging on the Underground network, the latter aimed solely at impressing other graffiti writers.

Banksy, D*Face and the backlash

Fast forward to the new millennium and a young Bristolian scallywag was busy applying a pair of jump leads to the capital’s street-art scene. Relying on lightning-fast “throw-up” stencils, Banksy’s subversive rats, chimps and flower-throwing rioters reintroduced a dose of satire to the street-art world and soon wound up gracing the covers of pop albums or the subject of money-spinning gallery shows.

Over the next few years a group of street artists coalesced in Shoreditch, sharing a punk-based ideal to reclaim public space for artistic expression. Genre-defining work began to appear including the pop-art inspired imaginings of D*Face, the “circus font” typographical murals of Ben Eine and the “nightmare” drip paintings of Pure Evil. Street art also became more visible to East Londoners when cash-strapped Tower Hamlets Council gave up removing it with high-pressure jets.

Hardcore graffiti writers collectively winced at this new wave of interlopers they dismissed as “toys” (know-nothing amateurs in graffiti speak), underground legend Robbo going as far to dub Banksy “the Tesco of the art world”. The idea that someone might profit from their work was anathema – especially when Banksy’s art was being prised off the walls and flogged before the paint had even dried; the pair engaged in a tit-for-tat “graffiti war”, overpainting each other’s work until Robbo’s untimely death in July, 2014.

Shoreditch goes global

The artistic ripples from East London quickly radiated across the world and artists including Shephard Fairy (of Obama “Hope” poster fame), Australian Peter Drew and Frenchman Clet Abraham (he of the witty road signs) arrived to hit Shoreditch, announcing their “residence” with logo stickers on lamp posts. Today, artists from Seoul to Sao Paulo can be seen working in broad daylight, often licensed to cover vast areas – look out for the giant animal murals by Belgian artist ROA, the beautiful multilayered stencils of Parisian C215 and the expressionistic brushwork of Spanish artist Borondo.

Featured image: paste ups on Fashion Street including a charcoal by Portuguese artist Furia ACK; above: a C215 window in a barber’s shop, Brick Lane

London’s outdoor gallery

Despite the artists and their hipster hangers-on being priced out of E1, Shoreditch remains ground zero for street creativity. Clandestine work continues to appear overnight (check out the video below by A.CE for an artist’s eye view) and the art has become steadily more complex, incorporating sculpture, metalwork and multimedia. The scene has also shrugged off its macho “hoodie with an attitude” vibe with female artists such as Zina, Roo and Bambi attracting a strong following.

Banksy’s vision of a place where “every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring.” (Wall and Peace, 2005) now seems all the more prescient.

Need to know

For an entertaining, insightful look at the scene take a tour with Shoreditch Street Art Tours led by acknowledged expert and prolific blogger Dave (AKA nolionsinengland). For a suitably artistic place to stay on Shoreditch’s doorstep try the chic QBIC hotel in Whitechapel (rooms from £69).

All photos © Andy Turner except “Let’s Endure and Adore Each Other” by ESPO and  “Cheese” by Borondo © nolionsinengland; “Hitchcock” paste up © walkalondon

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