In a four-day endeavour to master Indian cooking with her mother in south India, Lottie Gross learns so much more than just how to serve up the best masala…

“You know why I call this a cooking holiday? Cooking for you, holiday for me!” Jacob laughs as he watches me squeeze out rice noodles through a brass press. We’re sweating through the last cooking session of our four day residency at Pimenta Spice Farms, and by no means has it been a holiday.

Sprawled on the slopes of the Maniyanthadam hills in Kerala, about 55km inland from Kochi, Pimenta (or Haritha Farms as it’s also known), is a haven away from the touristic hub of Fort Cochin and the chaos of Ernakulam city. The nearest town to the farm, Kadalikad, isn’t exactly on the backpacker trail but is just as – if not more – fascinating than anywhere you might explore in this green and humid region of southern India.

Pimenta © Lottie Gross 2014Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

We arrived on Thursday to a delicious egg masala lunch in the communal living/dining room at Pimenta, and a tour of the local supermarket to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients we’d be sautéing, toasting and boiling over the next few days. We picked up some veg from a roadside stall with a rather impressive array of greens, and headed back to the kitchen to start our first lesson in Indian cooking.

Without his assistant – who had left to get married just days before we arrived – to help with the prep, at first Jacob seemed unorganised; chopping onions wasn’t exactly his forté and he didn’t appear to know where anything was kept. But it later became clear that he is actually an incredibly methodical man, and he enforces some strict rules in his well-equipped kitchen.

Jacob taught us how to treat the different seeds and spices, what each one is used for and what to do when it all goes wrong. Even for a seasoned cook (my mother of course, not me), there were new lessons to be learned and hurdles (much like these pesky rice noodles) to overcome.

Collectively we’ve spent about fifteen hours in the kitchen, chopping, frying and stirring hard to serve ourselves the most flavoursome and rewarding dishes, the leftovers of which were later passed onto Jacob’s mother for further scrutiny – and apparently they weren’t all bad!

Pimenta © Lottie Gross 2014Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

But this homestay hasn’t all been about the food. While Pimenta markets itself as a cooking holiday, there is so much more to it than slaving away over a hot stove. For starters, the farm is actually an eco-haven – from the solar-heated water which comes from Pimenta’s own natural spring, to the home-grown coffee and bananas we had at breakfast. Jacob has a passion for all things sustainable; he buys pineapples directly from the local farmers and even has the bathroom towels for his exquisite guest bungalows made to order by one of the few remaining cotton factories in the area, where men in a small warehouse sweat all day over hand-operated looms.

Having lived in the area for most of his life – the farm was his family home which he inherited from his father at a young age – Jacob is well connected, so he showed us a side of Indian life we’d never even thought to question. We saw rubber being tapped from the trees on plantations, and visited a small production plant where thousands of colourful elastic bands lay drying on the floor, ready for packing and distribution. We met the people that made our favourite Indian snacks, from banana chips to Bombay mix, and spent an entire morning chatting to the men who paint those famously colourful vehicles that honk along all Indian roads: cargo lorries.

Each state has its own truck-painting design, and Kadalikad is the birthplace of Kerala’s intricate, colourful style. Started by accident in the 1960s, when the owner of this paintshop was late to deliver a truck and wanted to impress his client, this garish design can now be seen on most trucks in the region.

“This has to be done every year,” explained Jacob. “As with the law it’s mandatory to paint the truck. But it’s also a pride thing. Like to have an elephant is a pride thing, to have a big, beautiful and bright truck in your household is also a pride thing.” The trucks come into the shop as a blank canvas, and two weeks later will be driven away by proud owners – eager to show off their new colours to other drivers on the highways.

Pimenta © Lottie Gross 2014Photography by Lottie Gross © 2014

Back in Jacob’s kitchen, I finally turn out the last of the rice noodles, exhausted and aching, and we steam them for 20 minutes before serving. Jacob kicks us into action, setting the table for our final meal together, before we have to make the drive back to Fort Cochin, which now just seems like a tourist town sporting a false exterior compared to the everyday life we’ve experienced here.

As I tuck into my hard-earned lunch of steamed rice noodles with coconut, dal and sauteéd cabbage I realise how much we’ve learned in the last four days. While it hasn’t exactly been a relaxing break, I’ve come away with what most other people have after a holiday: new friends, fond memories and a couple of extra inches on the waist.

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. 

In the late 1920s, automobile tycoon Henry Ford transplanted a little piece of the United States to the middle of Brazil‘s Amazon jungle. Complete with whitewashed American-style houses set on impeccably manicured lawns, shaded patios, and tree-lined streets dotted with pretty churches, he called it Fordlândia and it was to become the world’s largest rubber production centre. While much of the housing and machinery is deserted, it’s still a functional town and makes a fascinating detour.

My guide José, a tall thickset man, introduces me to Waldemar Gomes Aguiar, the Mayor of Fordlândia’s assistant. Waldemar warmly greets us at his office, ushering us in. He is eager for me to learn more about the history of this unusual town. “Latex was the gold of the Amazon”, he tells me. “It was expensive at the time so Ford found the ideal place to grow rubber trees.”

“Here, along the Tapajós River, Ford acquired a large tract of land. He called it Fordlândia. Let’s remember that at that time, in the early 1930’s, WWII was looming; people knew war was coming. Large supplies of rubber were needed not just for car tires, but also for war machines.” Brazilian tappers were brought in from the region to extract sap, and were provided with housing in the newly founded city.

José leads me to a rickety old building – one of the many structures that are decaying here in Fordlândia’s abandoned city – its colourful paint long faded, leaving only traces of mellow hues. The long narrow structure formerly housed single male workers, while those with families were accommodated in larger residences. The houses were built using local wood, and the rest of the materials used to construct the city were entirely imported from the United States, including the large iron structure used to build the latex factory and riverside warehouse.

Photography copyright belongs to Kiki Deere.

While Brazilian workers lived in the town centre, American dignitaries were housed on a hillside on the outskirts, their grandiose mansions sitting side by side along a pretty mango shaded boulevard. José and I hop on his motorbike to investigate. There were only a handful of houses here at the time and most are still standing, but one of the structures lies in complete disrepair, only its cemented skeleton in place. On the right flank of the hillside, hidden behind overgrown grasses, is a large empty swimming pool that has long lain forgotten.

Brazilian workers were not permitted to enter this part of town. Today, rumours abound in Fordlândia that the Americans had other hidden motives. “Maybe a metal business, or maybe they were searching for gold”, Waldemar whispers to me during our interview. But my guide José is not convinced: “I don’t think the Americans had other motives. They just lived apart from their workers and didn’t want them to come here – that’s all.”

José accompanies me to the former rubber production plant. It now lies in ruin, its panes no more than fragments of glass precariously lodged into window spaces; shrubs push through the building’s concrete, branches are upflung in disarray. Under my feet, I hear the crackle of broken glass and tinkling metal. Inside, age-old machinery lies forgotten, the American names still very much legible: Brown & Sharpe, reads one of the panels. José’s voice echoes in the vacant surrounds: “There are some elderly people in town who worked here during Ford’s era; they’re very old but they still remember how to operate the machinery after all these years.”

An abandoned white car and a truck are parked inside the plant, cobwebs wrapping themselves around the steering wheels. Further along, bed frames sit, one on top of the other, like a messy puzzle. “These were brought over from the hospital; it was abandoned too,” José informs me, a slight hint of sorrow in his voice.

He leads me upstairs to a large attic room with scattered metal tools. Cobalt boxes and crates long sit on shelves laden with tools eaten by rust. The morning light gently penetrates the splintered windowpanes and fills the room, dancing unequally on the dusty surfaces. The factory lies neglected, yet I can picture it full of life; I imagine the hundreds of workers processing latex at full speed, ready for export to the United States.

The Americans certainly imposed order and rigorous discipline among their workforce, with strict routine, stringent timetables and number tags. By the main entrance, layers of dust have accumulated on rows of pigeonholes that neatly sit side by side. I can’t get any closer to them as this area is fenced off, but I can see the metal number tags hooked above each slot used to identify the rubber tappers. They even hired nutritionists to devise canteen menus of a balanced diet that would provide each worker with enough calories to toil in the plantations.

“The workers were provided with everything they needed: schools for their children, electricity, food, and so on. But there wasn’t much freedom”, Waldemar reveals. The suffocating environment eventually led the labourers to rebel, demanding better treatment and work conditions. But the demise of Fordlândia had long been near: the rubber trees were struck with a fungus that stumped their growth; the blight stricken plants never grew; and Ford’s project was ultimately a complete failure.

Unwilling to give up, Ford established Belterra, literally ‘pretty land’, a tract of land downstream that he deemed more suitable for the rubber trees. Here, too, Ford built rows of pretty neat houses, schools, sports centres and even South America’s best equipped hospital for the project’s thousands of administrators and workers. Schooling was compulsory and free afternoon workshops gave all the opportunity to learn new trades.

Yet, Ford’s dream here was short lived too. About ten years after the new town was established, just as the rubber plants started to grow and produce latex, scientists created synthetic rubber, leading the price of latex to collapse and Ford’s utopian dream of an Amazonian rubber powerhouse – that he would never even set foot in -­ to crumble once again.

The hub of this region is Santarém, located about mid way between Belém (at the mouth of the Amazon River) and Manaus, further upstream. There are regular flights to Santarém from Belém and Manaus. To get to Fordlândia from Santarém, there are slow boats (10-12hr) as well as fast boats (4hr30min). The best (and pretty much only) place to stay in Fordlândia is Pousada Americana, a family-run guesthouse with spic and span a/c rooms and tasty home cooked meals.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Thought Czech food was only good for soaking up beer? Think again. A recent culinary revival has put the country firmly on the European foodie trail. Andy Turner volunteers his taste buds to investigate what and where to eat in Prague. 

The wind howls down Wenceslas Square as I walk past the giant equestrian statue of Bohemia’s patron saint. I’m on my way to meet food-tourism pioneers Taste of Prague for a crash course in Czech cuisine. My guide, Karolina, soon spots me and the other participants (two Danes and an American) loitering outside a busy McDonald’s. Producing a bottle of home-made slivovice (plum brandy) and half a dozen shot glasses, she quickly breaks the ice and explains that there’s a great deal more to Prague eating than the Golden Arches or mushy dumplings.

Once a favourite with Austro-Hungarian royalty, Prague’s restaurants were considered on a par with Paris and Vienna right up until World War II. Communist rule then heralded a gastronomic deep freeze: official cookbooks stifled creativity, supermarkets shelves grew bare and bizarre television ads encouraged people to eat cabbage and drink milk. Today, almost 25 years since the Velvet Revolution, a new upheaval is taking place: celebrity chefs are promoting Modern Czech cooking, food blogs are multiplying like wild mushrooms and microbreweries, organic restaurants and hip cafés are springing up across the capital.

Carnivore desires

Stomachs rumbling we head to Čestr steak house. This stylish canteen-style restaurant dishes up a carnigasm of marinated ribs, slow-cooked ox cheek, smoked Přeštice ham and truffle-stuffed chicken accompanied by creamy mash and perfectly poured Pilsner Urquell. A trip to the loos takes me past a row of Čestr carcasses (a special Czech breed of cow) being prepared for the kitchen. Back at our table Karolina is mid anecdote, revealing how she used to share a bath with a live carp at Christmas time (all the better to keep it fresh for the big day). The meal is rounded of with (what else in Prague?) beer ice cream.

Snacks and sugar highs

I start to fret that Čestr has butchered my appetite on the way to Prague’s favourite snack stop Světozor deli. But I’m soon tucking into their chlebicke, or “little breads” layered with hard-boiled eggs, mayonaisse and poppy seeds and served in quaint boxes. My new Danish chums look skeptical but eventually agree that the Czechs have mastered the art of the open sandwich. Between mouthfuls Karolina raises the divisive national issue of potato salad recipes: “If my boyfriend made it the wrong way we could never get married”. I’m starting to like Karolina.

Next stop is patisserie St Tropez. Here we’re welcomed with shots of a medicinal-tasting digestif called Becherovka and platefuls of traditional Czech desserts. Each is a creation of glycaemic genius, blending nougat, caramel and vanilla cream in delicate laurel wreaths of pastry. Perhaps it’s all the sugar and alcohol but I begin to hallucinate. An upside-down horse and rider appear strung up from the ceiling outside; fortunately it’s not my mind playing tricks but a creation by David Cerny, enfant terrible of Czech art.

Beers, wines and hangovers


As darkness falls, we jump on a vintage tram and cross the River Vltava to Malá Strana, Prague’s “Little Quarter”. The chill grips my bones as we pass yet more surreal imaginings of Mr Cerny: this time giant babies crawling along the riverbank (they can also be seen scaling the Žižkov Television Tower like humanoid ants). A stiff drink is needed and we head to Vinograph, a candle-lit bar showcasing Czech wine. Neglected for decades under Communist rule, the country’s vineyards are now knocking out some perfectly decent Riesling and sweet Moravian Muscat, here served with a zesty pickled cheese.

One thing that did survive the Iron Curtain unscathed is Czech beer and I am now getting thirsty for a cold one. Karolina recommends a trip to microbrewery/restaurant Nota Bene. With trendy exposed brick and blackboard menus it’s about as far from a dimly lit beer hall as you can get. The tap list includes a fruity American Pale Ale from craft beer darlings Matuška. There’s more traditional hoppy magnificence on offer at monastic brewery U Tří růží, “At three roses”, in the Old Town, though by now my note taking is becoming patchy and I navigate my way back to the hotel in a series of blurry tram rides.

Next morning I’m sipping a latte at Můj šálek kávy, “My cup of tea”, in Karlín, another Taste of Prague favourite. Grinding the best beans in town, its staff have also nailed the “Shoreditch barista” look of black t-shirt and carefully crafted facial hair. I find myself agreeing with Patrick Leigh Fermor who suggested Prague appeared even more lustrous with a slight hangover. The city looks amazing in the glowing wintry sun and I can’t wait to sample more examples of its culinary revolution.

Need to know

EasyJet fly to Prague from five UK cities: Bristol, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester. Andy Turner stayed at andel’s Hotel Prague as a guest of Vienna International Hotels & Resorts who offer six hotels across the city. Taste of Prague tours last around four hours and cost CZK 2550 (£75) per person inclusive of all food and drink (maximum group size 4). To sample some of capital’s finest food visit during the Prague Food Festival held in May.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Temple of Debod in Parque de la Montana

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Flamenco Dancers in Madrid

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

Drifting up the Niger, Mali

Boats have been ferrying people up and down the River Niger since 1964 and, although these days you are likely to see more goats than people on board, there is no better way to get close to Malian life as you slip past villages clinging to the cliff side and sand dunes reaching down to the water’s edge. It takes six days to drift from Koulikoro to Gao, a total of 1300km, but the benefit of taking a boat is the time spent with locals, sharing stories and exchanging views.

Drifting up the Niger, Mali

Exploring the Thar desert by camel, India

In defiance of its old name, Marusthali (Land of Death), the Thar is the most densely populated of the world’s great deserts. Yet the only way to reach the more isolated settlements is by camel: riding out into the scrub, two metres off the ground, the last citadel town behind, you enter another kind of India – one of shimmering vistas, blue skies and profound stillness.

Exploring the Thar desert by camel, India

Explore Dubai on a Dhow, United Arab Emirates

A cruise up Dubai’s historic Creek can reveal the history underneath the Vegas-style attractions of the modern city. In the past Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlements sprang up on both sides of the river, followed by the famous mud and palm-frond huts of the early pearl divers. Now, amid the towering buildings of the oil-boom, are the low-rise sprawls with their temples, markets and teahouses. Drifting past the sights, smells and sounds you can explore real Dubai.

Explore Dubai on a Dhow, United Arab Emirates

Taking the train across Australia

Flying is the quickest and cheapest way to get between the major cities of Australia, but take the train and you’ll see the wheat fields of Victoria, the dusty outback towns and kilometres of endless white-sand beaches. The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth, is one of the world’s longest train journeys. It’s a three-day, 4352km trip, stopping along the way for you to spend an evening in the gold-rush town of Kalgoorlie and visit the remote outpost community of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain.

Taking the train across Australia

Joining a boat up the Mekong, laos

The boat journey between Luang Prabang and the Thai border passes through some of the most unspoilt passages of the Mekong River. Evidence of civilisation is scarce amid the endless jungle that lines the steep, cloud-topped hills, and you’ll probably see little more than rice paddies, small teak plantations or isolated wooden fishing villages. Certainly speedboat or bus will get you to your destination faster but travelling on the Luangsuay, a 34m river barge, is a more peaceful, leisurely way to appreciate life on the river.

Joining a boat up the Mekong, laos

Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

As your poler guides the traditional dugout canoe through the maze of islands and rivers, lilies and reeds, he’s also watching out for crocodiles and hippos. His vigilance means you can keep your binoculars trained on the bathing elephants and herds of antelope which seek sanctuary here, away from the barren Kalahari desert. Trips with the community-run Okavango Polers’ Trust last about three days, camping on islands and ensuring you leave no trace of your visit behind.

Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Pony trekking, Lesotho

The four-day horse-riding trip offered by Drakensberg Adventures begins with the Sani Pass in eastern Kwazulu Natal, a rubble strewn track and the highest pass in Southern Africa. Crossing the border at the top you reach The Sani Top Chalet where a sign lets you know that, at 3482m, you are sitting in the highest bar in Africa. Here the real journey begins: two days’ riding to reach Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, where you can stop for a well-earned lunch.

Pony trekking, Lesotho

Rafting on Klaralven River, Sweden

Build your own timber raft from a dozen ropes and logs and float down the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river. You can take your raft out for just one afternoon, but to get the most from your DIY achievement it’s best to go on a five – or eight – day trip to fully explore the river. There are periods of intense activity (rapids and whirlpools) but most of the journey is a slow meander so you can keep an eye out for beaver and moose, and bask in the success of your handmade raft.

Rafting on Klaralven River, Sweden

Drifting down the Canal du Midi, France

Take a barge down the seventeenth century Canal du Midi and drift through Languedoc. The long hours of sunshine in this part of France power the boat’s hot water and electric motor, so the only complication you face is negotiating a “ladder” of seven lock gates before the final stretch of the 75km journey to Pont Neuf in Béziers. Your seven days begins in the medieval town of Carcassonne, and there’s plenty to do en route, or you could simply take it slow.

Drifting down the Canal du Midi, France

Taking the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

Board the Caledonian sleeper train one evening and the following morning you’ll wake up in the heart of the Scottish Highlands – a slow, subconscious teleport out of the urban grit and grind into the mountainous fresh and wild. The train leaves Euston at 9:15, reaching Crewe around midnight from where it trundles up to Scotland. It arrives mid-morning at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, but if you wake early you can always take a peek out your window at the Central Highlands.

Taking the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

Going further, slower on a Keralan houseboat

In 1991 Tour India launched the first tourist houseboat, converted from an old kettuvallam barge. Today the company has six boats and offer long charters that allow you to explore more remote areas: little-visited waterways and genuine, workaday villages. For an even slower journey there’s Coco Houseboats. You don’t cover as much ground, but your journey is more peaceful, with time to enjoy the passing scenery.

Going further, slower on a Keralan houseboat

Taking a trip on a Dhow, Mozambique

Just hoisting the sail of a dhow is hard work, but as soon as it catches a breeze they sail across the ocean as gracefully as any yacht. A plank of wood nailed across the hull is where you sit, while the captain tills the wooden rudder. There are organised trips, but by asking around you should be able to arrange a ride with a local fishermen.

Taking a trip on a Dhow, Mozambique

Once a month, on the eve of the full moon, downtown Hoi An turns off all its street lights and basks in the mellow glow of silk lanterns. Shopkeepers don traditional outfits; parades, folk opera and martial arts demonstrations flood the cobbled streets; and the riverside fills with stalls selling crabmeat parcels, beanpaste cakes and noodle soup. It’s all done for tourists of course – and some find it cloyingly self-conscious – but nevertheless this historic little central Vietnam town oozes charm, with the monthly Full Moon Festival just part of its appeal.

Much of the town’s charisma derives from its downtown architecture. Until the Thu Bon river silted up in the late eighteenth century, Hoi An was an important port, attracting traders from China and beyond, many of whom settled and built wooden-fronted homes, ornate shrines and exuberantly tiled Assembly Halls that are still used by their descendants today. Several of these atmospheric buildings are now open to the public, offering intriguing glimpses into cool, dark interiors filled with imposing furniture, lavishly decorated altars and family memorabilia that have barely been touched since the 1800s. Together with the peeling pastel facades, colonnaded balconies and waterside market, it’s all such a well-preserved blast from the past that UNESCO has designated central Hoi An a World Heritage Site.

The merchant spirit needs no such protection, however: there are now so many shops in this small town that the authorities have imposed a ban on any new openings. Art galleries and antique shops are plentiful, but silk and tailoring are the biggest draws. Hoi An tailors are the best in the country, and for $200 you can walk away with an entire custom-made wardrobe, complete with Armani-inspired suit, silk shirt, hand-crafted leather boots and personalized handbag. And if you’ve really fallen under Hoi An’s spell, you might find yourself also ordering an ao dai, the tunic and trouser combo worn so elegantly by Vietnamese women.

Hoi An is around 700km south of Hanoi. The nearest airport and train station are in Da Nang, a 30km taxi ride away.

 

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Getting friendly (and inebriated) with the only locals around, Lynsey Wolstenholme realises what self-sustainability really means on a Mongolian yurt homestay.

After a six hour journey, along the bumpy, unpaved roads of Mongolia, I arrived at my base for the next 24 hours: a homestay nestled in the shadow of the Khogno Khan mountain. I was in the Khogno Khan nature reserve, home to wild animals, sand dunes, forests and grasslands, and I was instantly struck by the remoteness of the place. There were just two gers (yurts, the traditional Mongolian nomad tent) in an expanse of grasslands as far as the eye can see.  It was incredibly peaceful yet I struggled to imagine how people could live in such solitude. It’s hardly surprising though – Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and due to increasing urbanisation, 45% of the population now live in the capital. This is a place where isolation is the norm.

I was warmly greeted by my hostess and invited into the family ger. Inside, it was warmly alluring; this was nothing like the sparsely furnished gers of the tourist camps but instead it was a real home. The circular room was dominated by a stove in the middle, surrounded by beautifully decorated hand-carved timber cabinets, woven yak-hair wall hangings and handmade throws on the beds, which doubled as seating in the daytime. The family took a break from their work to share a traditional welcome snack with me; a plate of goat’s meat – including the skin and tail, which I tactfully managed to avoid – and a bowl of fermented mare’s milk commonly known as airag. Having read about this drink I was excited to try it – this didn’t last long though, as I politely polished off a bowl and realised that the sour tasting milk was not for my palette. They eagerly served me another bowl, and with an alcohol content of 2.5% I began to feel a little tipsy.

P1050047

It was soon time to sober up and explore my surroundings. My driver, Mr Shiri, gave me some brief directions and off I went for a gentle hike. With the mountain in one direction and the sand dunes and grasslands in the other, my eyes were spoilt for choice. After three hours hiking in complete blissful solitude, I returned for a delicious dinner of rice with more goat, thankfully with no tail this time.

After dinner my hosts were back to work; all the animals must be herded, the horses secured for the night and the cows milked. Watching the work brought home the true meaning of self-sufficient living. The nomads rear cows and goats for meat and milk, horses for transport and milk, and even the dung is collected and dried for fuel.  It felt like going back in time to a world before mass food production, supermarkets and central heating.

After the work was done my hosts and Mr Shiri joined me in the ger. We cracked open a bottle of Chinggis vodka, patriotically named after the most legendary Mongolian Genghis Khan, and settled down to play Khutser, a popular Mongolian card game. Unsurprisingly, I lost every time. Slightly inebriated it was time to pack away the cards and head to bed, but not before a last glimpse outside to gaze at the beautiful glittering starry sky, free from any light pollution – a sight I could have happily stared at for hours on end.

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Perfectly rested I awoke in the morning to the sound of lowing cows, and opened the door to be greeted by several of the herd, looking curiously into my room.  A delicious breakfast of pastries and fresh orum (clotted cream) was then devoured whilst I watched the animals graze. This high calorie diet suits the nomad’s traditional labour intensive lifestyle and the long winters, but I could feel my waistband tightening.

I was, however, about to get some exercise – Mongolian style. No sooner than I had swallowed my last bite of omul, I spotted a horse being saddled for me. After gesturing frantically that I was a beginner, I was off on a gentle trot to the sand dunes, which felt like a mini Gobi desert – I was once again left marvelling at the beauty of my surroundings. After just one hour riding, the grasslands slowly began to disappear and I was surrounded by sand.

After I’d trotted back it was time to move on. I departed feeling grateful for the opportunity to participate in and witness the nomads lives, albeit briefly, and hoping that their nomadic traditions are not eradicated by the increasing urbanisation of the Mongolian population.

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The logistics

Almost all guesthouses in the capital Ulan Bataar will offer to organise your trip (from transport to accommodation) as most people come to Mongolia to explore the rich countryside. If you prefer to plan ahead, you can email your guesthouse in advance and ask them to arrange an itinerary for you, otherwise you can discuss plans when you arrive. You can either sleep in tourist camps, do a homestay, or a mix of the two. In the countryside, you must be realistic with your time frames; the roads in Mongolia are not good and covering even short distances can take far longer than expected. If you want to visit the Gobi by road, for example, you need to allow at least 10 days (including return time to Ulan Bataar).

Explore more of Asia and get inspiration on the Rough Guides Asia destination page.

Ask a Rough Guides author

Twitter chat #RGtalk with Max Grinnell, @theurbanologist

4 to 4:30 p.m. EST

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wondering what to do this winter? Head to the Windy City and the Great Lakes region for world-class architecture, compelling cuisine, great museums, and more!

Join our Twitter chat #RGtalk! One lucky participant will win a set of guidebooks: The Rough Guide Snapshot to the Great Lakes eBook guide and The Rough Guide to the USA.

Use #RGtalk to join in–and use the hashtag to tweet your questions about the Chicago area in advance, too!

Whether you are planning a high-energy sightseeing tour of Chicago, a night of fine dining, or a weekend getaway beyond the city limits, Rough Guides writer Max Grinnell can help. He’s got the inside scoop on where to go, what to do, and how to plan the Chicago-area vacation that is right for you.

Connect with fellow travelers and chime in with your own answers and advice. Retweet a recommendation or idea you think others will like. Just remember to always include #RGtalk so that your comment or question is included in the thread.

What is a Twitter chat, you ask? A Twitter chat is a group conversation on Twitter held at a designated time, about a designated topic, and threaded together by a common hashtag.

About author Max Grinnell

Max Grinnell has been wandering around Chicago since his first trip to the Windy City in 1983 at age 8. He saw Mr. T march in the Thanksgiving Day parade during that visit and was immediately sold on the city’s charms. Since then he has written about the city for the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and the Guardian, and appeared on numerous radio and television programs to talk about the city’s architecture, history, art, and culture. Over the past fifteen years he’s found time to explore Door County, wander through Indiana’s Amish Country, and also make several pilgrimages to the Motor City.

Max is the author of the Great Lakes region for The Rough Guide to the USA. You can follow his travel adventures on Twitter @theurbanologist and on his website,theurbanologist.com.

Plan your trip with The Rough Guide Snapshot to the Great Lakes eBook guide, and join our Twitter chat for a chance to win!

  

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During World War II, Dutch Resistance fighters exposed infiltrators by asking them to pronounce Scheveningen; with its two subtly different gutturals, it was a trick only native speakers could pull off. The stakes of course aren’t so high when you’re on holiday in a new place, but there is some satisfaction in not immediately revealing yourself as a tourist when you ask for directions. From the obscure English pronunciation rules to odd Irish spelling, learn these common tricks, and you’ll stay under the radar.

Britain

Pity the poor visitor. One little island has so many tripwires! Place names can look unwieldy, but they can usually stand to lose a syllable: Leicester is LES-ter, and Gloucester is GLOS-ter. Consonants can get squished: Chiswick is CHIZ-zick. And don’t take vowels at face value: anything ending in –shire is said “sher” or “sheer”, and when asking directions in central London, say “BARK-lee Square” for Berkeley Square.

Ireland

Much worse than Britain, on the surface, but you just need to learn some quirky spelling: “bh” makes a “v” sound, as in the town of Cobh (“Cove”), and a “gh” is just “h”, as in Armagh (are-MA). Then again, somehow Dún Laoghaire becomes Dun Leery, so maybe all bets are off in Ireland.

The Blasket Islands, Ireland - Remote Places Gallery

USA

Cultured travellers, forget what you know about Romance languages: it’s Dez Planes (Des Plaines) in Illinois, To-LEE-do (Toledo) in Ohio, and Ama-RILL-o (Amarillo) in Texas. There’s even a little town in New Mexico called MAD-rid, and Milan, Michigan, is pronounced my-LEN. Things get weirder the farther south you go; locals pronounce New Orleans NOR-lenz and then there’s NAK-e-tesh (Natchitoches). Plus there’s HEW-sten, or Houston, in Texas). (Note: Does not apply in New York, where Houston is HOW-ston, and New Yorkers will make sure you know it.)

Peru

That fantastic ancient city at the top of the mountain? Say it “MA-choo PEEK-chew.” There’s a reason for that extra “c” in Machu Picchu.

Canada

Perhaps the world’s most easygoing people when it comes to pronunciation, Canadians can handle the same word with a French or an English spin. But to get to the inner circle, say sas-kat-che-WAN (Saskatchewan) and Newfound-LAND. And don’t bother making any jokes about Moosejaw – they’ve heard them all.

Hunt for icebergs, Newfoundland, Travel bucket list

The Pacific

You may never make it to the island nation of Kiribati, but its pronunciation makes a great party game: who would ever guess KEE-re-bus? New Zealand is a more likely destination, but visitors need to know Maori (MOW-ree, by the way) words are pronounced quite differently from their spelling. Whakatane turns to fa-ka-TA-ne, and Whangarei is fa-nga-RAY, with a rolled r. We’ll leave it to you to figure out Whakapapa.

China

Maybe it’s hopeless in China, with all the tones, but at least start out knowing the “j” in Beijing is a real “j” sound, not a soft “zh”: bay-JING. Extra credit: put a high tone on the second syllable.

Try out the range of Rough Guide Phrasebooks, books hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

It happens to most newcomers: noses flare, eyes widen and pulses quicken upon entering La Boqueria, Barcelona’s cathedral to comida fresca (fresh food). Pass through the handsome Modernista cast-iron gateway and you’re rapidly sucked in by the raw, noisy energy of the cavernous hall, the air dense with the salty tang of the sea and freshly spilled blood. As they say in these parts, if you can’t find it in La Boqueria, you can’t find it anywhere: pyramids of downy peaches face whole cow heads – their eyes rolled back – and hairy curls of rabo de toro (bulls’ tails). Pale-pink piglets are strung up by their hind legs, snouts pointing south, while dorada (sea bream) twitch on beds of ice next to a tangle of black eels.

The Mercat de Sant Josep, as it’s officially called, was built in 1836 on the site of a former convent, though records show that there had been a market here since the thirteenth century. Its devotees are as diverse as the offerings: bargain-hunting grandmas rooting through dusty bins; gran cocineros (master chefs) from around Europe palming eggplants and holding persimmons up to the light; and droves of wide-eyed visitors weaving through the hubbub. At its core, though, La Boqueria is a family affair. Ask for directions and you might be told to turn right at Pili’s place, then left at the Oliveros brothers. More than half of the stalls – and attendant professions – have been passed down through generations for over a century.

When it comes time to eat, do it here. The small bar-restaurants tucked away in La Boqueria may be low on frills, but they serve some of the finest market-fresh Catalan fare in the city. Flames lick over the dozens of orders crammed onto the tiny grill at Pinotxo, a bustling bar that has been around since 1940. Pull up a stool, and choose from the day’s specials that are rattled off by various members of the extended family, like the affable, seventy-something Juanito. Tuck into bubbling samfaina, a Catalan ratatouille, or try cap i pota, stewed head and hoof of pig. As the afternoon meal winds down, Juanito walks the bar, topping up glasses from a jug of red wine. There’s a toast – “Salud!” – and then everyone takes long, warming swallows, as all around the shuttered market sighs to a close.

La Boqueria has a website – www.boqueria.info – and is open Monday–Saturday 8am–8.30pm.

 

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