Though a drive through the electrically green countryside that surrounds Hay-on-Wye makes for a perfectly lovely afternoon, a more potent draw is the sleepy Welsh town’s mouthwatering amount of printed matter: with over a million books crammed into its aging stores, quaint, cobblestoned Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli, in Welsh) is a bibliophilic Mecca to be reckoned with. Dusty volumes are packed in like sardines, some of them in shops tucked away down alleyways verdant with moss and mildew. Mouldering British cookbooks fight for shelf space with plant-taxonomy guides, romance novels and pricey but lavishly produced first editions.

To unearth these treasures the intrepid bookhunter need only meander into one of the many bookshops that liberally dot the town. And with a human-to-bookshop ratio of around 40:1, there’s a lot of choice. Mystery aficionados should check out Murder & Mayhem, while a visit to The Poetry Bookshop is de rigueur for fans of verse. One of the largest and most diverse collections can be found at the Hay Cinema Bookshop – rickety mini staircases, two sprawling floors and a labyrinthine series of rooms loosely divided by subject matter, creates a unique book-browsing space that seems to exist outside of the space-time continuum for the way in which it can so wholly consume an afternoon. Stay long enough and your faith that there’s an underlying logic to the bookshelves’ progression from “Fifteenth-century Russian History” to “British Water Fowl” to “Erotica” will grow wonderfully, psychotically strong.

Topic-driven pilgrimages aside, a visit to the two outdoor secondhand bookshops in front of crumbling Hay Castle is unmissable. Ringed by stone ramparts, the castle – nearly 1000 years old – provides a striking backdrop as you rifle through scads of books eclectic in appearance as much as theme.

Hay-on-Wye straddles the English–Welsh border, twenty miles from Hereford. Murder & Mayhem, 5 Lion Street; The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street; Hay Cinema Bookshop, Castle Street.

 

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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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America’s most over-the-top and hedonistic spectacle, Mardi Gras (the night before Ash Wednesday) in New Orleans reflects as much a medieval, European carnival as it does a drunken Spring Break ritual. Behind the scenes, the official celebration revolves around exclusive, invitation-only balls; for such an astonishingly big event, it can seem put on more for locals than the raucous crowds who descend on the town, but you’ll hardly be wanting for entertainment or feeling left out.

Following routes of up to seven miles long, more than sixty parades wind their way through the city’s historic French Quarter. Multi-tiered floats snake along the cobblestone streets, flanked by masked horsemen, stilt-walking curiosities and, of course, second liners – dancers and passersby who informally join the procession. There’s equal fun in participating as there is in looking on.

Whichever way you choose to see it, you’ll probably vie at some point to catch one of the famous “throws” (strings of beads, knickers, fluffy toys – whatever is hurled by the towering float-riders into the crowd); the competition can be fierce. Float-riders, milking it for all it’s worth, taunt and jeer the crowd endlessly, while along Bourbon Street, women bare their breasts and men drop their trousers in return for some baubles and beads.

As accompaniment, the whole celebration is set to one of the greatest soundtracks in the world: strains of funk, R&B, New Orleans Dixie and more stream out of every bar and blare off rooftops – no surprise, of course, considering the city’s status as the birthplace of jazz.

You might have thought that all of this madness would have been curtailed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but like New Orleans, the party carries on in the face of long odds; indeed, the year following, many of the weird and wonderful costumes were made from the bright blue tarps that have swathed so much of the city since the storm.

See www.mardigrasneworleans.com for more info.

 

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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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It’s a hot summer’s evening; overhead is a soft, purple-black and star-strewn sky. The incessant chirrup of cicadas mingles with the murmur of thousands of voices – Turkish, German, English, Russian – and the popping of corks, as the 15,000-strong audience settles down, passes round wine and olives and eagerly awaits the entertainment ahead. All are perched on hard, solid marble, still warm from the heat of the day, but the discomfort is a small price to pay to experience what a Roman citizen would have 1800 years ago, when this theatre, the largest and best preserved in Asia Minor, was built.

The views from the semicircular auditorium, its forty tiers cut into the hillside, are magnificent. At sunset, the fading light on the remains of this once wealthy and powerful city and the Pamphylian plain beyond shows it at its best. There’s a faint taste of the nearby Mediterranean on the breeze and the Taurus mountain range stands in splendid silhouette to the north.

The stage lights play across the facade of the multilevel stage building, ornamented with Ionic and Corinthian columns, niches that once sported marble statues and elaborate friezes and pediments. The lights dim and the massed ranks of spectators fall silent. Slowly the intensity of the lights increases and the show begins. Maybe it’s Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt, whose pomp and splendour match the setting perfectly.

Afterwards, close to midnight, throngs of people – having suspended disbelief for a few memorable hours – disgorge into the night, scrambling not for their chariots but for cars and buses as reality sets in and the ancient entertainments are left behind.

The Aspendos Festival takes place for three to four weeks, starting in mid-June. Try www.dobgm.gov.tr/opera2009 or www.aspendosfestival.gov.tr

 

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In the days leading up to Thailand’s annual Loy Krathong Festival of Light, pretty little baskets fashioned from banana leaves and filled with orchids and marigolds begin to appear at market stalls across the country. On festival night everyone gathers at the nearest body of water – beside the riverbank or neighbourhood canal, on the seashore, even at the village fishpond. Crouching down beside the water, you light the candle and incense sticks poking out of your floral basket, say a prayer of thanks to the water goddess, in whose honour this festival is held, and set your offering afloat. As the bobbing lights of hundreds of miniature basket-boats drift away on the breeze, taking with them any bad luck accrued over the past year, the Loy Krathong song rings out over the sound system, contestants for the Miss Loy Krathong beauty pageant take to the stage and Chang beer begins to flow.

One of the best places to experience Loy Krathong is in Sukhothai, the first Thai capital, 400km north of Bangkok, where the ruins of the ancient capital are lit up by fireworks.

 

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The Thai people are predominately Buddhist, and through much of their country Siddhartha’s spirit is palpable. Even in the noisy and overcrowded capital city, hard-faced nationals will soften their features and treat visitors with a respect given all living creatures. The exception that proves the rule is the brutal national sport of muay thai or Thai boxing – where knees batter ribs while gamblers wager their salaries on who will fall, and when.

Vendors surround Bangkok’s Lumphini Stadium three nights out of seven, peddling wares and heated snacks to patrons streaming into a theatre of controlled violence. Past the ticket booth is a mere hint of a lobby, its walls pierced with numbered archways too small for the seating areas behind them. A rhythmic thudding from deeper inside triggers a bottleneck at the edges of the arena, the narrow entryways imparting a final suggestion of order before releasing spectators into the clamour beyond. In the ring the pre-fight display has already begun. Like many of the martial arts, muay thai has its roots in national defence, and the fighters perform awkward dances before the bell in honour of a kingdom which was never at any point conquered by foreign invaders.

Drums pulse behind tense woodwind sounds as the early rounds get under way, each fighter cautiously feeling for weakness in his opponent’s defence. The crowd is equally patient, watching carefully for an advantage they can use against the bookmakers. At the end of the second round all hell breaks loose. In the stands men are waving and shouting, signalling with contorted hands the amounts they’re willing to lose. Within two minutes the fighters must retake the ring, and when they meet there are no more feints or dodges. Each attack is without pause. The music quickens. Blows are harder now, exchanged at a furious rate. The crowd raises its voice at every strike. Against the shin, into the ribs. Ferociously. Relentlessly. And then a step backward and to the left reveals enough space to slip an instep up to the loser’s jaw. Patrons make good on their markers while a stretcher carries away the unconscious also-ran. With ten fights a night, there’s simply no time for compassion.

Lumphini Stadium, on Thanon Rama IV, stages fights on Tues, Fri and Sat eves. Take the subway to Lumphini station or the Skytrain to Sala Daeng and then a taxi.

 

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January 2014 sees the start of Riga’s year-long stint as European Capital of Culture, an honour it shares with the Swedish town of Umeå. The occasion provides the Latvian capital with a golden opportunity to shrug off its reputation as a cheap destination for boozy breaks, and focus instead on the more creative aspects of its character. Here are just ten reasons why Riga is such an individual, rewarding and memorable place to visit – all of which will still be here long after the culture-capital carnival has moved on elsewhere.

Art Nouveau architecture

Some of the best-preserved Art Nouveau architecture in Europe is to be found in Riga, thanks to the wealthy mercantile culture that flourished here in the years before World War I. Largely the work of locally-based architects like Mikhail Eisenstein (father of film director Sergei), Riga’s Art Nouveau apartment blocks feature a phantasmagoria of nymphs, gargoyles, sphinxes and the odd winged dragon. A string of recently renovated examples line Alberta iela, where the Art Nouveau Museum allows a peek inside a typical interior of the period.

Big-hair and eighties pop music – in Latvian

One way to immerse yourself in local culture is to spend a night at Četri Balti Krekli or “Four White Shirts”, the club that eschews the global mainstream in favour of a Latvian-only music policy. The briefest of shimmies across Četri’s cellar floor will be enough to convince you that Latvian pop music is uncommonly melodic, well crafted and classy. It is also extraordinarily literate: during the communist era, pop music was enormously important in nurturing the Latvian language, frequently employing anti-regime metaphors that official censors could not understand. Should you wish to astound your new Latvian friends with a bit of foreknowledge then mention legendary rock band Perkons (“Thunder”). Their anthemic prog-pop provided the rapidly changing Latvia of the 1980s with a rousing soundtrack – and they were frequently banned as a result.

The National Romantic style: Art Nouveau noir?

Many of the grey, turreted apartment blocks looming above central Riga’s streets look like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale or a particularly ominous episode of Lord of the Rings. These arresting buildings are products of the National Romantic school of architecture, a local extension of Art Nouveau in which Baltic folk elements – steep pointed gables, shingle roofs and arched window frames – were grafted on to modern construction styles. Prime exponent of the genre was architect Eižens Laube – the Niedra House (at Alberta iela 11) and the A. Keninš School (at Terbatas 15/17) are among his best designs.

Ghosts of forgotten zeppelins

So which European capital can boast a bona-fide Zeppelodrome bang in the centre of the city? Well Riga can – almost. The city’s central market is housed in five enormous hangars that were originally built to accommodate the 500-foot airships towards the end of World War I. These barrel-roofed buildings are all that’s left of a projected Zeppelin air terminal, which was planned during Riga’s brief German occupation but never put into operation. Adapted for use as the city’s main market in the 1920s, they are now crammed full of produce from the Latvian countryside.

Sun worship

Latvia was at the centre of a flourishing pagan culture before being put to the sword by twelfth-century crusaders from Western Europe. Judging by their tendency to gaze soulfully at their plentiful lakes and forests, the Latvians remain very much a nation of nature worshippers. Many of the old ways are remembered at the Sun Museum, a private collection that explores the spiritual and cultural importance of the fiery globe with a display of sun symbols from Latvia and around the world. For a more sober ethnographic take on the same subject, head for the History Museum.

Underground comics

Founded in 2007, independent publisher kuš! has grown into something of a pillar of the European graphic-arts scene, producing a regular stream of small-format books that showcase alternative illustrators and comic-strip talent from across the continent. A lot of kuš!’s output is international (and in the English language), although regular Latvian contributors like Ingrida Pičukane, Dace Sietina and Ernests Klavinš help provide the series with a discernable flavour. Kuš! comics can be found in the Luka Buka arts-and-architecture bookshop or the Istaba design store, two more cool locations that should be added to your Riga must-visit list.

Fashionable neighbourhoods

Rents are high in Riga’s tourist-thronged Old Town and it’s no surprise that many of the most characterful places to shop or sip a brew are located a brisk walk beyond. The predominantly pre-World War-I street of Miera iela plays host to an up-and-coming cluster of design shops, vintage clothing stores, snug cafes and tea houses. Alternatively head west across the River Daugava to the island of Kipsala, where the Kalnciema Quarter offers well-preserved timber houses and a hugely popular Saturday food-and-craft market.

Dogs in space

The Pauls Stradins Museum for the History of Medicine is at first glance a rather forbidding place full of dentists’ chairs and fiendish-looking surgical instruments. Persevere to the top floor however and you’ll be greeted by an engrossing display devoted to the Soviet space programme. Alongside models, spacesuits and squidgy pouches full of space food, there is also the original capsule occupied by four-legged space pioneer Veterok (“Breeze”), rocketed into space together with Ugolyok (“Glowing Ember”) in February 1966. Both beasts arrived safely back on earth 22 days later, and despite being considerably shaken up by the experience, swiftly recovered to live happily ever after at Moscow’s Institute for Cosmic Medicine.

Revolutionary art

The one big Latvian modern-art name you ought to have heard of but probably haven’t is Gustavs Klucis (1895-1938), the Riga-born avant-gardist who went to Moscow after World War I to become the genre-defining master of constructivist art, agit-prop and photomontage. The Latvian National Art Gallery owns a modest handful of his works. Otherwise, this year’s Klucis retrospective at the Arsenal Exhibition Centre (August 22–October 26) offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to catch up with his entire oeuvre.

The Palace of Light

The opening of Latvia’s new National Library – known locally as Gaismaspils or “Palace of Light” – looks set to be the single most important event of 2014, providing the city with a skyline-defining architectural icon as well as a high-prestige cultural institution. Designed by Latvian-American architect Gunars Birkerts, it’s certainly unlike anything else in the city, rising above the west bank of the River Daugava like a haughty concrete-and-glass iceberg.

Riga is one of the Rough Guides’ top cities to visit in 2014 – you can see the full Rough Guide to 2014 here.
Full details of what’s going on in Riga throughout the coming year can be found on the official Riga 2014 website (riga2014.org).
You can explore Latvia using the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget – look out for the new update coming in March 2014. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Whether you fancy an Aussie music festival, a literary break in England or sake and sakura in Japan, March is an excellent month to travel. Spring breathes new life into the northern hemisphere, while riotous festivals take place everywhere from Ireland to Brazil. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in March.

See the start of the cherry blossom season on Honshu, Japan

Japan blushes at the start of each year when its cherry trees blossom. The subtropical province of Okinawa takes the lead, turning pinkish-white like candyfloss at some point in early January. But it usually takes until the end of March for cities like Tokyo and Kyoto to follow suit. Take your camera with you for some seriously kawaii (“cute”) photos, and make the most of the sweet-smelling air; within a few short weeks, the blossoms will have disappeared altogether.

Learn the ropes on quiet slopes in Åre, Sweden

For downhill thrills, there’s nowhere in Europe that can compete with the Alps. But if you’re just getting to grips with skiing or snowboarding and want to avoid the crowds, why not try SwedenÅre, a top-class resort tucked away near Norway on the edge of an ice-white lake, has had a chance to warm up slightly by March – and there’s a good mix of short runs to get you progressing quickly. Even if you end up too bruised to keep skiing after the first few days, there are off-piste activities like ice fishing and dogsledding to keep you entertained.

Meet the Pacific in Auckland, New Zealand

Each March, in a flurry of hula skirts and floral garlands, islanders from across the Pacific converge on Auckland for Pasifika Festival. At the huge two-day cultural extravaganza, held in Western Springs, you can wander through markets full of intricate carvings, watch live bands, or eat pork that’s been roasted over hot rocks, Samoan style. Islanders wanting a lasting reminder of the event aren’t disappointed, either; traditional Polynesian tattoos are also available.

Beat the rush in Recife, Brazil

Everyone knows about Rio, but Recife, more than 1,000 miles to the northeast, remains a relative unknown – for now, at least. This coastal city, once controlled by Dutch sugar traders, will be one of the places hosting games during the 2014 World Cup, attracting international attention to its sweeping tropical beaches and gleaming glass towers. Our tip is to go before the rush. Early March is the perfect time of year to visit; it’s the tail end of the region’s dry season and the city’s carnival – a sweaty four-day cacophony of dancing, drums and whistles – will just be kicking off.

Bathe yourself in books in Bath, England

Writers have long been drawn to the city of Bath. Jane Austen needed no persuasion to set a couple of her books in the spa city, and Charles Dickens picked it for parts of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The Bath Literature Festival, which began in 1995, marks a new chapter in the city’s bookish history. Held annually at the beginning of March, the event has attracted some of modern Britain’s most successful poets and authors, including JK Rowling, Andrew Motion and Terry Pratchett. Join them for a couple of live debates and readings, and then hear stories from days gone by on a literary tour of the city.

Head south (by southwest) to Austin, USA

If you’ve never been to the Texan capital then SXSW – a ten-day celebration of music, film and interactive arts – provides the perfect excuse to give it a try. Buying a pass for the mid-March festival won’t leave you with much money for beer and tacos (even the cheapest music pass costs more than $600). But there are literally hundreds of unofficial events taking part on the festival’s periphery, from impromptu gigs in bars to free parties run by rebellious local record labels. The only difficult part is choosing which ones to go to.

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland

New York does St Patrick’s Day bigger, but Dublin will always be the festival’s spiritual home. And apart from swilling Guinness and wearing silly leprechaun hats (both considered noble pursuits in these parts), there’s plenty to get involved with. On guided walking tours of the city you can learn more about the life and legacy of the fifth-century bishop called Patrick who, legend has it, banished all of the serpents from Ireland. Dozens of historic landmarks are bathed in green light for the party that’s held in his honour, and as with New York, a musical parade snakes its way through the city.

For more ideas on where to go, check out the Inspire Me page. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

On the last Wednesday of every August, 130,000 kilos of over-ripe tomatoes are hurled around the alleyways of Buñol until the tiny town’s streets are ankle deep in squelching fruit. What started in the 1940s as an impromptu food fight between friends has turned into one of the most bizarre and downright infantile fiestas on earth, a world-famous summer spectacular in which thirty thousand or so finger-twitching participants try to dispose of the entire EU tomato mountain by way of a massive hour-long food fight.

Locals, young and old, spend the morning attaching protective plastic sheeting to their house fronts, draping them over the balconies and bolting closed the shutters. By midday, the town’s plaza and surrounding streets are brimming to the edges with a mass of overheated humans, and the chant of “To-ma-te, To-ma-te” begins to ring out across the town.

As the church clock chimes noon, dozens of trucks rumble into the plaza, disgorging their messy ammunition onto the dusty streets. And then all hell breaks. There are no allies, no protection, nowhere to hide; everyone – man or woman, young or old – is out for themselves. The first five minutes is tough going: the tomatoes are surprisingly hard and they actually hurt until they have been thrown a few times. Some are fired head-on at point-blank range, others sneakily aimed from behind, and the skilled lobber might get one to splat straight onto the top of your head. After what seems like an eternity, the battle dies down as the tomatoes disintegrate into an unthrowable mush. The combatants slump exhausted into a dazed ecstasy, grinning inanely at one another and basking in the glory of the battle. But the armistice is short-lived as another truck rumbles into the square to deposit its load. Battle commences once more, until the next load of ammunition is exhausted. Six trucks come and go before the final ceasefire. All in all, it only lasts about an hour, but it’s probably the most stupidly childish hour you’ll ever enjoy as an adult.

See www.latomatina.com for info on Tomatina tours and plenty of photos and videos of the event.

 

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