John Oates has just returned from a research trip to the Philippines. While he was there he fell in love with the island of Siquijor, a place of pristine beaches, great diving, and a healthy dollop of black magic mystery.

Tell a Filipino that you plan to visit Siquijor and there is a fair chance that they will warn you to stay well away. If you really must take the short ferry ride from nearby Negros, they say, don’t even think about going out at night on an island famously inhabited by mangkukulam (magicians).

Local authorities insist that the only magic practised is used for healing, and on Good Friday each year the magicians do indeed get together to mix up a huge potion. Yet the rumours of black magic continue, and in 2007 the Tagalog film Siquijor: Mystic Island portrayed a TV crew who were cursed after faking an exorcism on the island.

In reality Siquijor feels far from threatening, although watching the film just might lead to an early demise through sheer boredom. The island is actually a perfect place to include in a Philippines itinerary: a manageable size, friendly and with some great but largely undeveloped beaches. It also has ferry connections to Cebu and Bohol, as well as nearby Negros.

Little is known about the island prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1565, but they seem to have been enchanted by its fireflies and dubbed it the Isla del Fuego (Island of Fire). Today Siquijor attracts a steady trickle of foreign visitors, including the inevitable scuba divers. The highlight of the handful of dives which I took there was to a 60m-long Japanese ship, which was sunk by American forces in 1945.

Back on land, a 72km ring road – unusually well-surfaced for the provincial Philippines – makes for an excellent day trip if you hire a motorcycle, or a motor rickshaw with driver.

Heading clockwise from Sandugan Beach, which has a collection of low-budget resorts, the first stop is likely to be Salagdoong Beach which is frequented by Filipino families who come to eat and sing karaoke. It’s also a favourite spot for daredevils to test their mettle by flinging themselves off the rocks into the sea. The karaoke and the watery death wishes may or may not be related.

Further along the coast, the southern port town of Lazi has a coral-built church and provides access to the Cambugahay Falls. The falls are a good place for a cooling dip, as long as you don’t mind attracting some attention as a foreigner.

So far, so non-mystical. Indeed, unless you arrive in Holy Week or make specific enquiries you are unlikely to encounter much in the way of witchcraft beyond a couple of resorts offering massage by traditional healers. The nearest you’re likely to get to spooky, then, is a stop at a 400-year old balete (ficus) tree close to Lazi. Locals believe that these trees are inhabited by spirits, and looking at its gnarly bark and hair-like tangles of vines you can see where the idea came from.

The road continues through the town of San Juan, where you can swim in a sulphurous lake, and there’s a turning for the lovely Paliton Beach. Whatever stops you make, try to be on the west coast as the sun goes down – when I took the trip the vivid orange and golden sunset was the best that I have ever seen. As night fell and the fireflies came out, I had already been bewitched by Siquijor.

Bar those with a fair knowledge of Korean history, few have ever heard of the kingdom of Baekje. Though long swallowed up by the sands of time, this ancient dynasty was one of East Asia’s cultural high-water marks, and its influence can still be felt today: their rulers introduced Buddhism to both Korea and Japan, while Japan’s own emperors have Baekje lineage. In addition, Baekje artisans produced jewellery of incredible beauty, as well as pottery of a quality unmatchable to this day.

Together with Silla and Goguryeo, Baekje was one of Korea’s fabled Three Kingdoms. It came about in 18BC after some family in-fighting: the nascent kingdom of Goguryeo passed from founder to first son, ticking off the third son, Onjo, who chose to establish his own kingdom. Nothing remains of his first capital – Wiryeseong, in present-day Seoul – so to explore this forgotten piece of history we need to head further south to Gongju.

Just over an hour’s bus-ride from Seoul, it’s a small, initally unassuming city that functioned as the Baekje capital from 475-538 AD. It’s incredibly user-friendly – all notable sights are within easy walking distance. I choose to head straight for the royal tombs, a clutch of grassy hillocks inside which the kings of Baekje were interred. All tombs were looted over the centuries, bar that of King Muryeong (r. 501-523), which was found intact in 1971, yielding thousands of pieces of Baekje jewellery, as well as the skeletons of the king and his wife. The fruits of this astonishing discovery now fill a nearby museum, which is one of the best in the land. The highlight is, without doubt, an elaborate golden diadem once worn like rabbit ears atop the regal scalp.


A short walk back towards the city centre is Gongsanseong, a Baekje-era fortress. Dotted with fluttering, faux-imperial flags, its bulky walls provide a spectacular view of the city – and, if you choose to walk their occasionally steep circumference, a strenuous work-out. The tree-filled interior has its own delightful walking trails, connecting a series of sumptuously-painted pavilions. Standing next to one is a plaque commemorating a pair of trees which once gave a Baekje king shelter while his fortress was attacked. In an early demonstration of regal folly, he then made the trees State Ministers.

Now for my own personal highlight of a trip to Gongju: eating. Opposite the fortress entrance is Gomanaru, one of my favourite restaurants in the whole country. The food here is appropriately traditional, with most diners opting for the full banquet meals. These see the table covered with two dozen side dishes offering all manner of delights. After sampling some fern bracken, acorn jelly, soybean broth, shellfish, river fish, spicy tofu and at least six kinds of kimchi, it’s quite possible to get full without touching the main course (which is usually barbequed duck). For a few dollars more, it’s possible to have the whole thing covered with edible flowers.

And then to bed. On my visit I chose to sleep by the royal tombs in a traditional wooden house known as a hanok. With sliding doors, paper-covered walls, tiled roofs and a floor heated from beneath with tickling flames, this is present day Korea’s closest approximation to Baekje’s own domiciles. To further the spirit of tradition, I purchase a bottle of makgeolli, a creamy rice-wine enjoyed by Koreans for centuries – Gongju is famed for its chestnuts, and its own makgeolli is flavoured as such. After enjoying my drink under the stars, the warmth and smell of the wood fire means that I’m alseep in seconds, dreaming about Korea’s days of dynasty.

 

Bestselling author, TV presenter and insatiable traveller, Simon Reeve has visited more than 110 countries in his time. Drawn to far-flung, mysterious and often troubled places, he is an expert at chronicling the lives of the people he encounters along the way. He is best known for the BBC series Tropic of Capricorn, Tropic of Cancer, Indian Ocean and, most recently, the hour-long documentary, Cuba with Simon Reeve. Here, Simon gives us some fascinating insights into living a life perpetually on the move:

What’s your favourite travel book and why?

Anything by Bill Bryson. I like his humour and the information he packs into his books while appearing to offer a self-deprecating comic tale.

Which one travel experience should every reader add to their bucket list, and why?

One thing that still lingers in my memory is swimming with manatees, or dugongs, in Crystal Springs River in Florida. You go out at dawn and lower yourself into a misty river, then suddenly these manatees the size of a car nuzzle up next to you and take an interest – and, in my case, they gave me a hug and rolled around with me. It’s one of the best interactions I’ve had with the natural world, and though it’s a touristy thing, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re doing it.

Read the full Rough Guides travel bucket list

Where’s the most overrated place you’ve visited?

I don’t see the attraction of Dubai. I’m particularly saddened by the way they’ve treated many of their guest workers from places like India and Bangladesh, having seen, first hand, the appalling living conditions and heard stories of virtual slavery. And I struggle to see why anyone thought building a city on the edge of a sweltering desert was a good idea. You can’t survive without air conditioning on maximum – why not just go to Westfield or the Trafford Centre on a sunny day?

Which one thing do you always pack when you embark on a journey?

I have a long packing list, as I like my creature comforts. Flapjacks are among them, partly for me and partly for the team when they have a sugar crash after carrying a 16kg camera around under the baking sun.

Where you have been travelling recently?

I went to Greece with family and friends, to an island off Rhodes called Sými. And I’ve just been in Cuba filming a one-hour documentary for the BBC, focusing on the notion that it’s the last chance to see Cuba as a revolutionary Communist state.

What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new destination, and why?

First of all I get out. I’m not one for sitting around going through the TV channels in the hotel. I still think of travelling as an enormous privilege and don’t take it for granted, so I try to use my time wisely.

What was your most memorable meal on your travels?

Zebu penis soup in Madagascar. They don’t have the luxury of just taking the prime cuts; if they’re going to kill a creature then they eat all of it, and that’s life in the developing world.

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met on your travels, and why?

We had a guide in Mauritania called Hamdi, a magnificently eccentric and fantastically well-educated character in flowing Tuareg-style robes. He would quote great chunks of Shakespeare at us in his lilting accent.

Where on your travels have you felt most in danger and where have you felt most welcome?

It’s strange how the two can be in very close proximity. Mogadishu in Somalia is perhaps the most dangerous place I’ve been to, and when I was last there a war was underway. People were incredibly receptive, hospitable, welcoming and desperate for the outside world to know what was going on.

Where was the place that most changed you, and how?

The Horn of Africa. I’ve seen some desperately upsetting sights there, which have kept me awake at night, but have also helped me to put my own life into perspective. At the same time I’ve seen the very best that mankind has to offer in Somaliland, where the people have built a country from the ashes of war with very little help from the outside world.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your travels?

That all of us want, beyond food and security, pretty much the same thing – some purpose and meaning in our lives. Really, though, I’ve learnt innumerable lessons. I never went to university and wasn’t much good at school, but I’ve learnt what I have from keeping my eyes open and not sitting around with headphones on.

Is it harder to find truly new and exciting ideas for books or series now?

Since Roman times people have been complaining that there are only so many stories, and I think it’s the same with journeys. But the world often changes quickly and dramatically, you can go back to the same country and have a very different experience. The challenge in my world is coming up with an exotic-sounding adventure that hasn’t been done by Michael Palin.

Should air travel be made more expensive?

I travel a lot and I have no right to tell people who work harder – and at much more difficult jobs – that their holidays are causing problems for the poor in countries that are environmentally on the edge. Yet I do think we need leaders who are willing to take the punch bowl away at the party when everyone is really sloshed. We’ve been partying for a while now and the planet is really suffering.

Where in the world is still on your must-visit list, and why?

I’ve been to almost all of the former Soviet states, but I haven’t been to Russia. The Cold War mentality intrigues me – the cold shell of your ex-Soviet type which, when stripped away, reveals a lovely warm hospitable core. I’d love to go.

Timbuktu has long been a mythical and compelling place, a punchline for many who never knew it really existed, and its recent problems are just the latest in a long line of ups and downs for the Malian city. Richard Trillo recounts the place’s fascinating history and reflects on his own experiences there before asking what’s next for this troubled and mesmerising spot.

“Is that it?” was Bob Geldof’s remark, after looking around one of Africa’s most fabled cities at the time of the Live Aid campaign in the 1980s. Mali’s Minister of Art and Culture, meanwhile, was suitably opaque when asked why the city was known as Timbuktu the Mysterious. “If I told you why it was mysterious then it would not be mysterious”, he told a mystified journalist.

It’s the town where young dudes really do sell T-shirts declaring “I have been to Timbuktu and back”. Or did, until violence and conflict caused the tiny expat community (a handful of NGOs and adventure-hoteliers married to Malians) to flee while even the most fearless of overland travellers struck it off their itineraries [and the FCO advised against all travel].

Mali’s history

Tuareg camel herders founded Timbuktu in the eleventh century. For hundreds of years they controlled and taxed it, but rarely lived there. By 1330, when the city’s famous and beautiful mud-brick and wood Djinguereber Mosque was built, Timbuktu had become part of the Mali Empire, and a major seat of trade and Islamic scholarship. As the Mali Empire declined, Timbuktu came under the protection of the Songhai empire of Gao (the next city east along the river). But then the Moroccans invaded in 1591 with their firearms – and an army that included Spaniards, Scots and Irish – and Timbuktu was ransacked, its wealth caravanned north and its scholars executed or exiled. For more than 200 years “Timbuctoo” languished in the sands, and it was only in the nineteenth century that conclusive reports of the city’s continued existence emerged from the explorers’ tales of René Caillé, Gordon Laing and Heinrich Barth.

After Mali’s independence from France in 1960 (following seventy years of occupation), there was a trickle of tourism to Timbuktu as overland adventurers sought out its striking mosques, the old explorers’ houses, and one or two museums. The entire city has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988. In the 1990s, with some foreign funding, the manuscript libraries were established. There was a brief heyday over the turn of the century when the Festival au Désert was founded, Tuareg music reached international ears and thousands of visitors came to the city to walk its dusty streets and bargain in the crafts markets.

Modern Mali

When Mali first broke into the world’s news at the end of 2011, with the kidnap of three western tourists in the town centre, and the murder of a fourth by ransom-seekers claiming links with Al-Qaeda, the name Timbuktu was suddenly everywhere. As Tuaregs who had served in the Libyan armed forces returned, post-Gaddafi, with their weapons after years away from home, reports from Timbuktu were contradictory: the Tuareg were either planning a new rebellion in Mali (they had rebelled twice before, but had signed a comprehensive peace accord), or they were being given a – literally – disarming welcome and were reintegrating into their communities. Most commentators recognised that the majority of the Tuareg were religious moderates: others saw darker shadows moving among them.

In March 2012, Mali’s army, furious at being under-resourced by the capital city Bamako as a new rebellion did indeed start to brew, overthrew the government. The Tuareg militias in the northern half of the country took advantage of the power vacuum to declare independence – the long-stated aim of many of the Sahara’s Tuareg people, who were once half-promised their own country, Azawad, by the French.

Tuareg autonomy in the north in 2012 was brief. The Tuareg separatists were soon overrun by three different self-declared bands of religious zealot bandits (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). Alliances shift quickly, but AQIM came to dominate, and clamped the moderate Muslims of the northern towns into a violent interpretation of sharia law, banning most forms of popular and traditional culture, whether Islamic or international in origin. Smoking: banned. Music: banned. Unveiled women: banned. There were amputations and stonings.

Timbuktu’s 333 saints were mocked and their graves and memorials desecrated. And Timbuktu’s old Arabic manuscripts, that had been gathered in the libraries and scholars’ houses of the city since it first became a university town in the fourteenth century and covering subjects as wide-ranging as mathematics, optometry and astronomy, were treated as deeply suspicious at best, and at worst as fit only for burning.

As Mali’s status tumbled from something of a bastion of liberty and democracy in the West African region to a shredded carcass of a country, it was the name of its most famous town that trended (well, a little) on Twitter. But for every terrorism geek sharing information about the different jihadist players around Timbuktu and claiming – or denying – the involvement of the Algerian security service in acts of “false flag terrorism”, there was another tweet saying something along the lines of: “Just found out Timbuktu’s for real!! No way. My gran’s always talking about going to Timbuktu LOL!”

The French came out of the blue in January, when it looked as if the jihadists might threaten towns close to Bamako and quickly expelled them from key urban centres, including Timbuktu. As I write, there have been suicide attacks and outbreaks of street fighting in Gao, but Timbuktu is calm, although most Tuareg and Arabic-speaking residents have fled, fearing reprisals. [The FCO still advises avoiding travel to the whole country.]

Personal reflections

I have a trivial connection with Timbuktu: it was where a friend and I were going in 1977 when we first used the hitchhiking techniques we had practised in Hampshire to explore the world. Our thumbs took us to Dover (“Where are you two off to then?”), through France and Spain, across the void of the Sahara with French truckers, and into a different world on the banks of the Niger. We tasted our first mangoes, sampled malaria, sweated it out with the dictator’s men in their foul police stations, and spent four days on a wooden pinasse, squatting among slabs of rock salt, poling up the Niger River towards our goal. It was 17 years after independence, and even longhairs like us were still being called “patron” (“boss”). Timbuktu was wretchedly poor; we found the city was miles north of the river; and we ate one meal a day at Chez Baba, a squalid restaurant run by a wizened old spider of a man who kept drinking water in a clay jar and threw rocks at the rats scuttling beneath his dining tables.

I returned 26 years later, with my ten-year old son. No more “patron”. Libraries had been built for Timbuktu’s manuscripts; the city was twinned with another bookish town, Hay-on-Wye; there was a choice of hotels; an annual music festival, like Womad in the desert; you could get cold beer, check emails in the cybercafé and watch Eurosport. Timbuktu was still very hard to get to, six hours in a Land Rover from the nearest road, but the buses along that road kept schedules, and sold tickets for seats. Mali had changed with democracy, and the barefoot, dust-faced poverty of the 1970s had been replaced by the anxiety of looking for work, the mobile call to the family in the village and the knowledge that Europeans coming for tourism and Tuareg music brought money.

In 2011, a month before the kidnaps, I went back again, in a group of journalists and travel agents. We were guided around the country by Mali’s Ministry of Tourism, to demonstrate how safe it was. From Bamako to Ségou, and from Mopti to Djenné, we were welcomed with delight by people fed up with terrorism warnings deterring tourists, their potential customers. We trekked along the cliffs of the bewitchingly beautiful Dogon country and we flew into Timbuktu, where our posse of 4x4s clunked through the city between the mosques and explorers’ houses and eventually out into the dunes for Tuareg dancing at sunset and a méchoui feast of roast mutton. That night, most of us went out again from our hotel to one of Timbuktu’s few nightclubs, and spent several hours knocking back beers and throwing a few dubious moves among a crowd of fashionably shrink-wrapped Tombouctiens – all to a soundtrack in Mali indistinguishable from the one we’d have heard in Malia.

Textbook rescue

In the days before the jihadists fled Timbuktu, they visited the libraries, intending to destroy their contents. They scattered what they found and burned hundreds of old volumes. The first journalists on the scene drew the obvious conclusion. Tucked behind the headlines, however, was an uplifting story that has probably already been optioned by Steven Spielberg: most of Timbuktu’s trove of manuscripts was saved. During the course of 2012, under the noses of the jihadist occupiers, several tens of thousands of priceless texts had been quietly spirited away, wrapped in old sacks, transported on donkey carts and mopeds down to Timbuktu’s port of Korioumé, and then ferried by dugouts and riverboats up the Niger to Bamako. Others were stashed in tin chests and distributed in private homes around the town. The ones left behind to be torched were decoys, mostly those manuscripts that had already been digitalised. Devotion, patience and technology had fought the jihadists and won.

Timbuktu’s future

As in the sixteenth century, Timbuktu’s name is once again associated with destruction and bloodshed. Can it ever retrieve its status as the cool, mysterious, remote city on the edge of the Sahara, where people go to be entranced by desert  music, to gaze on the most beautiful colour combination in the world – mud brick against a blue sky – and to get that inimitable passport stamp from the tourist office? Well, quite possibly yes. Until the extremist threat shrinks, the city will always feel a little edgy and vulnerable, but the story of the manuscripts has unexpectedly put Timbuktu on the map in a way that its architectural treasures, in the shape of its mosques and madrassas, hasn’t been able to. A town this culturally important, and physically vulnerable, wouldn’t ever again be left out in the sands. Would it?

The hotels and guesthouses will reopen and the tourists will return – in time. Mali will consolidate and strengthen again, once the Tuareg and other northern peoples are assured they have a stake in the region. (Most of those fighting under “jihadist” banners – and their families – would happily turn in their weapons in exchange for a paying job and a place to live.) When the Festival au Désert – currently in exile in Burkina Faso – returns for its annual three days in January, Timbuktu will know that it’s back on track.

 

Thinking of visiting Mexico for the first time? Watch a few films before you go. Like great works of fiction, movies often provide an illuminating insight into the culture of a country, its landscape and its peoples. Mexico has always been a rich source of movie material, with its own prodigious film industry and plenty of Hollywood blockbusters set in the country. Here are a few cinematic gems to whet your appetite:

Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

Any shortlist of Mexican films must include this historical drama, based on the novel by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel. The hype really is justified: it’s about as powerful and beautiful an evocation of middle-class Mexican culture in the early twentieth century you could hope for, featuring doomed love, superstition, eroticism, suffocating tradition, Revolutionary skirmishes and, of course, mouth-watering Mexican food. The backdrop is the dry scrub and copper-coloured deserts of northern Mexico, near the border towns of Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras.

Amores Perros (2000)

While calling it “Mexico’s Pulp Fiction” is a bit of stretch, “Love’s a Bitch” is certainly one of the most creative and thought-provoking movies from south of the border, and comprises three distinct stories linked by a single car accident in Mexico City. There are disturbing dogfight scenes, scary neighbourhoods, disloyalty and infidelity – it’s pretty grim stuff, but compulsive viewing nonetheless, offering a journey into the darker side of modern urban Mexico. Filming locations include the trendy boho district of Colonia Condesa.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Super-horny slacker duo Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna represent the affluent, slang-spouting youth of Mexico City in this sexy, bleak but humorous Mexican road trip movie. Whilst their relationship with the alluring Maribel Verdú (including the notorious threesome at the end) anchors the story, the extremes of Mexican rural and urban poverty are never far from view – the contrast is artfully achieved, with scenes shot in the mountains of Oaxaca and on the beaches of Huatulco (mainly Playa Cacaluta) and Playa Zipolite.

Frida (2002)

Salma Hayek’s unforgettable portrayal of ground-breaking artist Frida Kahlo is essential viewing; unless you make a special effort to avoid art completely during your stay in Mexico, you will almost certainly encounter the work of Frida or Diego Rivera (her unfaithful husband, played by Alfred Molina). Much of the film was shot in Kahlo’s former home, the Casa Azul (now the Museo Frida Kahlo) in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City.

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)

Antonio Banderas stars as Pancho Villa in one of the strangest episodes of the Mexican Revolution – the filming of Hollywood production The Life of General Villa in 1914, when battle scenes involving Villa’s troops were actually re-enacted hours after the fact for the cameras. It’s a fabulously entertaining introduction to the Mexican bandito legend, the brutality of Revolution itself and the reactions to it north of the border. Much of the movie was filmed in and around Guanajuato, Pozos, San Luis Potosí and San Miguel de Allende.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi Trilogy” plays shamelessly on numerous Mexican stereotypes, but it’s hard not to enjoy the antics of Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek and Eva Mendes in this all-action finale. The gorgeous locations are expertly captured on film and while you are unlikely to meet wandering guitar players with machine guns, the dusty, winding streets, colonial churches and old-fashioned bars of Guanajuato, Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende are all very real.

Alamar (2009)

Filmed off the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, this slow-moving movie about a father and son is a bit like a documentary (the actors are real people), lavishly shot in a tiny community of fishermen and one-storey stilt cabins. The entire movie was filmed on atolls on the Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral reef in Mexico – what it lacks in action it makes up for in staggering beauty, with almost every frame an enticing advert for unspoiled sands and aquamarine seas.

Miss Bala (2011)

It’s hard to ignore the lurid reports of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, even though as a tourist you’ll rarely see any sign of it. This movie provides an insight into how drug trafficking and organised crime works in modern Mexico, through the story of an aspiring Miss Baja California in Tijuana who gets sucked into the crime-world. Ironically, much of the film was shot in Aguascalientes, since it was deemed too dangerous on location in Tijuana.

Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to Mexico.

Perhaps the most striking thing about American music is not its inventiveness or diversity, but how each and every city or region across the vast country has such a distinct sound. New Orleans seems to breed funk while Seattle fosters grunge and indie rock and most visitors head to Nashville for country. Of course a lot of American cities have evolved musically over the last five decades – Chicago for example has pumped out blues, jazz, soul, house, rock and hip hop – but they can usually can earmarked by one or two key genres.

Click on the dots on the map below to bring up Spotify playlists for each city, and scroll through the tracks to hear a vaguely chronological representation of that area’s sound. Share your own favourite sounds of the cities below and join us on Spotify for more travel-related playlists. We’ll build on the map using your suggestions.

From cricket at Lords to darts in Lakeside and boxing in London, here’s ten of our favourite British sporting breaks. Share your own below.

Visiting the home of cricket at Lord’s

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard once said that he considered Lord’s “the cathedral of cricket”. Nestled into your seat at a Test match among other worshippers of the game, waiting in reverential hush for the emergence of the teams at the start of a game, his pronouncement has a ring of truth.

Undoubtedly the best way to appreciate Lord’s is to see a match here (preferably a Test, and most preferably an Ashes game, when the atmosphere is at fever pitch). But as a fallback, the tours are excellent. You’ll get to see the Long Room, where the MCC members sit, and the Committee Room, from where the Queen watches when in attendance.

But the real highlight lies in the museum, where in a glass case lies the original Ashes urn, a gift presented to England captain the Hon. Ivo Bligh, possibly containing either a burnt ball or stump. He received it having beaten the Australians, following a defeat in 1882 that led one hack to write an obituary of English cricket, whose “body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. That little six-inch-high jar is like the shrine within the cathedral; people come halfway across the world to see it. It’s a daft game.

Lord’s Cricket Ground (www.lords.org) is a ten-minute walk from St John’s Wood tube station.

Tossing the caber at the Braemar Gathering

No rain-lashed, midgie-ridden Scottish summer would be complete without the cornucopia of arcane sports that comprise a Highland Games. Held all over Scotland, not just in the Highlands, these are very much rural affairs, with rosetted ponies, curly-horned sheep and shaggy Highland cattle to the fore. But they’re also devised as entertainment, with a comically competitive edge – kilted burly men toss the caber (that’s a trimmed tree trunk to the uninitiated), drunken locals vie with each other in the tug-of-war, little girls high-step over crossed swords in country dances, and there might also be dressage, field races and even haggis hurling.

Highland Games range from almost literally one-horse village affairs to the famous Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, which has existed in one form or another for around 900 years. As well as the usual shenanigans, the show in its current incarnation features the dramatic and deafening spectacle of massed pipe bands, and there’s a military element too, with the armed forces competing in races and the tug-of-war, plus a punishing race up the nearby hill of Morrone. All this and all the sporrans you could toss a caber at.

The Braemar Gathering (www.braemargathering.org) is held on the first Saturday in September.

Watching darts at Lakeside

The doubters say that darts, whose practitioners never break out of a walk but often break sweat, isn’t a sport. Yet even these killjoys might enjoy themselves at the BDO World Darts Championship, a competition that is as much about boozy good cheer as it is about the actual result. Hosted at a vast hotel-cum-pub complex in deepest Surrey, the competition packs over a thousand spectators onto a phalanx of long tables and gives them every opportunity to shout themselves stupid during all-day weekend sessions and weekday nights. Their voices join in a splendid cacophony with the thud of arrow into cork, the bellowed scores and blue jokes of a flamboyant umpire and the gulp of countless throats.

Don’t look for too much sophistication here: the glasses are plastic, the food runs the full gamut from battered fish to burgers and the crowd perform for the cameras with gleeful enthusiasm, inching their way into TV footage and waving punning placards. But the vibe is supremely friendly. Being thrust onto a table with strangers makes it almost impossible not to socialize, especially when you might be sat alongside fanatical Dutch fans, fancy-dressed twenty-somethings and elderly couples who’ve been coming since the year dot.

The Lakeside BDO World Professional Darts Championships (www.lakesideworlddarts.co.uk) take place every January.

Celebrating Cowes Week

Each year, some eight thousand sailors from all over the world descend on Cowes for the world’s largest – and oldest – sailing regatta. Vast crowds of up to 100,000 cram into the narrow streets each morning to watch a spectacular array of sailing vessels gather in the Solent. There are up to forty high-octane races daily, competed by all sorts of sailors from amateurs to Olympians and Americas Cup veterans: with up to a thousand yachts taking part, you’ll need to get used to the sporadic gunfire that marks the start of each class if you make the Royal Yacht Squadron, the official starting line, your vantage point.

With so many to entertain, there’s plenty more to Cowes Week than just sailing, and the regatta is a key part of the social calendar for yachties, celebs and the occasional splash of royalty alike: champagne and oysters are guzzled at balls, dinners and parties by the truckload. The waterfront Parade and Shepards Wharf Marina are packed with stalls and live entertainment by day, while after dark the action shifts to Cowes Yacht Haven (open to amateurs, professionals and ticketed spectators), where there are live bands and DJ sets until the small hours.

Cowes Week (www.cowesweek.co.uk) takes place in July/August, starting on the first Saturday after the last Tuesday in July.

Watching boxing at York Hall

Boxing’s biggest bouts, with their pay-per-view screenings, pantomime press conferences and seats that stretch from celebs at the front to dots at the back, are all very well. But it’s surprisingly hard, given boxing’s current popularity as an activity among everyone from estate kids to office workers, to get close to the action. Most of Britain’s smaller venues have died, the victims of redevelopment and a changing entertainment scene. York Hall, recently voted the sixth best place to watch boxing in the world, almost went the same way but, saved from closure by a cost-conscious local council in 2003, the iconic East London venue now hosts fifty fight nights a year.

York Hall hosts it all, from kick boxing and occasional theatre to amateur white-collar events, friends and family yelling and pogoing in one corner of the venue. There are big fights too – David Haye, Joe Calzaghe and countless other names have walked these boards. But while there’s hype aplenty here, this historic venue’s rowdy embrace makes you feel a vital part of the action.

York Hall, 5-15 Old Ford Rd, London E2 (www.gll.org/centre/york-hall-leisure-centre.asp) is a few minutes’ walk from Bethnal Green tube station in East London.

Witnessing medieval football in Derbyshire

Played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, “Shrovie” is a relic of the rough-and-tumble sports of the Middle Ages – one theory states that the original “ball” was a severed head thrown to the crowd after an execution – and there have been moves to ban it since at least 1340, when Edward III complained that its noise disturbed his archery practice. You could see parallels with both football and rugby: there are two teams – the Up’ards and the Down’ards, formed of townsfolk from either side of Hemore Brook – and two goals. That, however, is where the similarity ends: discover that the game lasts for eight hours, that each team is a hundred or so strong, and that the goals are three miles apart on either side of the town centre, and you’ll realize this is no mere kickabout. Nor do the rules leave much room for niceties: the ball can’t be hidden or travel in a motorized vehicle, and murder and manslaughter are prohibited – but that’s about it.

The next events will take place on February 12 & 13, 2013. For more information. see www.ashbourne-town.com.

Watching Wales at the Millennium Stadium

Watching Wales at the Millennium Stadium can be a mixture of ecstasy and pain for a Welsh supporter, but is more akin to an exotic cultural experience for everyone else. The singing, the sobbing, the angry curses and cries of unabashed joy create an unforgettable experience. You’ve never heard a national anthem sung like this before, 70,000 passionate voices united in Celtic pride. After the singing, the playing – a wall of red-shirts being urged on by near-hysterical fans. When Wales scores (and the team is pretty good these days), expect more songs, chants and roars.

Whatever the result, expect a long and detailed autopsy in the pub afterwards, where pints of locally brewed Brains cask ales are sure to flow freely.

Wales’s home games in the Rugby Union Six Nations (Feb-March) take place at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium (www.millenniumstadium.com).

Having a flutter at the world’s greatest horse race

The Grand National is an event of superlatives: it’s a dead cert as the world’s most famous horse race; the prize money (nearly £1m for the winner of the main race) is the highest in Europe; and more is bet on it than any other event in the domestic racing calendar (upwards of £100 million in Britain alone).

But what makes the race, which dates back to 1839, unique is the atmosphere. The Grand National, perhaps more than any other British sporting event, attracts a real cross section of society – from royals in the VIP grandstands to locals in the budget enclosures – giving it an inclusive feel and a festive air. This helps to make the contest, the focal point of a three-day meeting held each April at Aintree Racecourse, uniquely popular with both racing enthusiasts and once-a-year punters alike. As does its unpredictability – the favourite rarely wins and 100/1 shots have triumphed on several occasions.

The Grand National takes place at Aintree Racecourse, Ormskirk Rd, Aintree, Liverpool (www.aintree.co.uk).

Reaching tennis nirvana in SW19

The first thing to remember about Wimbledon is that it’s not a tennis tournament, it’s a religious experience. For two weeks in high summer the faithful arrive with their tents and wet wipes, each harbouring a blind hope that they will enter the promised land and a British player will be crowned champion. The good news is that the promised land is within reach of anyone prepared to assemble at dawn at a golf club in SW19. As for the British champion, well, what’s a faith without it being tested?

The ideal time to arrive is early in the opening week before the hype reaches boiling point. Week one also provides a smorgasbord of talent from all corners of the globe and some of the tournament’s greatest surprises, all on the cheaper ground courts. In 2010, for example, the longest match in history was ground out on lowly Court 18, a bloody-minded three-day epic finally won by 70 games to 68 in the final set.

Around 6000 Ground Admission tickets are available each day at Wimbledon, plus 500 show court tickets. If you can’t face the queue try the public ballot for tickets (apply online at www.wimbledon.org).

Burning rubber at the Isle of Man TT

For fifty weeks of the year, the Isle of Man is a sleepy little place. But for two weeks in summer, everything changes, as forty thousand visitors – with twelve thousand motorcycles – cross the Irish Sea and turn this quiet island into a rubber-burning, beer-swilling, eardrum-bursting maelstrom of a motorcycle festival.

The TT (Tourist Trophy) has been screeching round the Isle of Man for a hundred years, although the race they devised in 1907 would be impossible to initiate today. It’s the kind of event that drives health and safety officers to drink: the 37-mile Mountain Course, which competitors lap several times, is no carefully cambered track – it’s an ordinary road that winds its way through historic towns, screams along country roads, climbs up hills and takes in two hundred bends, many of which are not lined by grass or pavement but by bone-mashing, brain-spilling brick walls. And the fastest riders complete the course at an average speed of 120mph.

Sad to say, they don’t all reach the finish line. Around two hundred riders have taken their final tumble on the roads of the TT, and islanders will delight in describing the details to you over a pint of local Bushey’s beer. They’ll also tell you that, while many of their fellow Manx folk love the adrenaline, the triumph and the tragedy of those two weeks in summer, others are less enthusiastic. The combination of road closures and roistering bikers drives these malcontents to blow the dust from their door keys, to lock up their homes and seek refuge elsewhere – taking their daughters with them.

TT race week is the first week of June; for more information, see www.iomtt.com.

 

Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain includes 500 great British experiences – find out more.

By Shafik Meghji

In 1865, 153 Welsh men, women and children boarded a tea-clipper, the Mimosa, in Liverpool and set out on an 8,000-mile journey to what they hoped would be their Promised Land. Fleeing cultural and religious persecution in the UK, the pioneers wanted to create a “little Wales beyond Wales” – a place where they could retain their national identity.

After two months at sea the Mimosa landed in the Golfo Nuevo in northeastern Patagonia, an isolated, inhospitable and – at the time – largely unpopulated land. The pioneers faced serious hardships including brutally cold winters, flash floods, crop failures and food shortages. Some of them returned home, others died. Yet despite these unpromising beginnings the community survived and subsequently flourished. In doing so the Welsh helped to cement Argentine claims on the western section of Patagonia and opened up the region to foreign settlers from around the world.

Today, almost 150 years later, this corner of Patagonia retains a distinctive Welsh flavour, especially in the cities of Puerto Madryn and Trelew and the town of Gaiman. More than 50,000 people in the region claim Welsh descent, and significant numbers speak the language.

At Punta Cuevas in Puerto Madryn, it is still possible to see the foundations of the first Welsh houses in Patagonia. A commanding statue – the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche – marks both the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh and pays homage to the Tehuelche, an indigenous group who provided invaluable help to the pioneers during the early days.

Nearby a fascinating little museum tells the story of the settlers, while outside, a trio of flags fly. Alongside the Welsh and Argentine flags is another, featuring a red dragon on a white background topped and tailed by thin blue strips – the symbol of Welsh Patagonia.

An hour’s drive inland from Puerto Madryn is the region’s hub, Trelew; the name means “village of Lew” in Welsh, a reference to its founder, Lewis Jones. Local children have the option of studying Welsh at school here, and cultural delegations from Wales visit regularly. Every September 0r October, Trelew’s central square plays hosts to the most important of the region’s eisteddfodau, festivals of Welsh culture, music and literature. The highlight of the Trelew Eisteddfod is the award of two prestigious prizes – the Sillón del Bardo (The Bard’s Chair) for the best Welsh-language poet and the Corona del Bardo (The Bard’s Crown), which is handed over to the Spanish-language equivalent.

The most obviously Welsh place in the region – known as the Lower Chubut Valley – is the town of Gaiman. Images of red dragons are prominent here, while street names include “Michael D. Jones” and “J.C. Evans”. The town’s British-built railway station has been turned into a fascinating little museum that looks at the challenges – and triumphs – of pioneer life.

Gaiman’s key attraction, however, is its collection of traditional Welsh tearooms. These casas de té serve up the finest afternoon teas in Argentina, if not South America. Among the delights on offer are torta galesa and bara brith (rich fruit cakes), sweet and savoury scones, hot buttered toast, home-made jams and preserves, and an array of pastries and baked goods, as well as – of course –  a pot of perfectly-brewed tea.

The tearooms – many of which are run by descendants of the original settlers – are based in atmospheric, immaculately-kept cottages decorated with old family photos, Welsh-language posters, tea-towels with red dragons on them, paintings of Wales, and other knick-knacks from the old country.

While you work your way through your té gales – a feat that requires at least an hour or two given their prodigious size – it’s easy to forget that you are in Argentina at all.

Shafik Meghji is a co-author of the forthcoming Rough Guide to Argentina. He blogs at unmappedroutes.com and you can follow him at twitter.com/ShafikMeghji.

Brazil’s booming southern states – Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul – are often strangely absent on tourist itineraries of the country. The cities of Curitiba and Porto Alegre will host 2014 FIFA World Cup matches, and the region is already a huge draw for Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguayan tourists. Yet it can be a hard sell for European and North American travellers – it lacks the glamour of Rio but often sports the same prices thanks to the booming economy. After an obligatory pilgrimage to the mighty Iguazu Falls most Western travellers simply move on. So what makes those sudamericanos stick around? Here’s ten reasons I can think of immediately…

German beer – Brazilian style: The Blumenau Beer Fest

Travelling all the way to Brazil to visit a German beer festival might seem strange, but this is Deutschland done with Brazilian flair. Blumenau’s annual Oktoberfest is the biggest German festival in South America, attracting over 500,000 revellers to its vast beer tents, folk dancing, shooting matches and German singing contests. With treats like cuca de banana (Brazilian banana cake) to mop up the suds and the white-sand beaches of Floripa and Balneário Camboriú a short ride away, it’s unmissable.

Sensational beaches: Praia Mole, Florianópolis

Praia Mole is one of the most gorgeous beaches in Brazil, a strip of pristine sand beneath low-lying cliffs and dunes. It gets busy in summer, but despite its popularity commercial activity has remained blissfully low-key. The next beach south is the equally enticing Praia da Joaquina, equally popular with surfers and sun-seekers alike. Both beaches are a short drive away from the fashionable bars and restaurants of Florianópolis.

Apple strudel and ‘café colonial’: Gramado and Caleta

Seriously. The German connection once again provides the allure at the small Alpine-like resort towns of Gramado (famous for its Natal Luz Christmas lights festival) and Canela. ‘Café colonial’ down here means a vast buffet of cakes, pastries and cold cuts, usually served as a sort of afternoon tea. Try it at Bela Vista Café Colonial in Gramado or sample the schnitzel, wurst and apple strudel at Strudelhaus in Canela.

Cool Brazilian modernism: Museu Oscar Niemeyer

There’s a long list of art galleries and museums worth seeing in the south but this place, 3km to the north of Curitiba’s old town, probably tops them all. Designed by the Brazilian architect after whom it was named and resembling a giant, silver eye, the galleries themselves are as much the attraction as the Modernist art on display.

Great train journeys: The Serra Verde Express

Everyone loves a scenic train ride, and this is one of most enchanting on the continent, winding around mountainsides, slipping through tunnels and traversing one of the largest Atlantic Forest reserves in the country between Curitiba and the coast at Paranaguá.

Chilled out surfer islands: Ihla Do Mel

Famed for its golden beaches and tranquil setting, the idyllic ‘Island of Honey” in the Bay of Paranaguá is a hit with backpackers and surfers looking to enjoy the simpler things in life and the island’s waves, some of the most gnarly on the Atlantic coast.

Meat-eater heaven: Porto Alegre

As the home of Brazilian churrasco (barbecue), Porto Alegre boasts some historic (and belt-busting) culinary delights. Barranco has been a meat lovers’ paradise since 1969 – try the celebrated (and gargantuan) vazio, the classic steak cut of the south, and the all-you-can eat “salad sidecar”. Banca 40 in the Mercado Público has been justly lauded for its bomba royal ice cream dessert since 1927, while nearby Gambrinus is the city’s oldest restaurant, knocking out typical gaucho food – lots of beef –since 1889.

Brazil’s grand canyons: Canyon Itaimbézinho

The other natural showstopper in the south lies within the largely untouched wilderness of the Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra: the dizzying canyon of Itaimbézinho. Some 5.8km in length and 720m deep, its upper walls are wrapped in mist and cloudforest, while the canyon floor is a mass of subtropical vegetation.

Avatar-esque waterfalls: Parque Estadual Do Caracol

The highlight of this jungle-smothered reserve is the mesmerizing, other-worldly Cascata do Caracol, a stunning waterfall that plunges dramatically over a 131m-high cliff of basaltic rock in the middle of the forest.

Romantic ruins, heart-breaking history: Rota Missões

Dramatized in the tear-jerking movie The Mission, the Guarani War of 1756 devastated much of the south as the Spanish and Portuguese sought to exercise control over semi-independent Jesuit missions. Rio Grande do Sul is home to seven now ruined Jesuit Missions, with four in an excellent state of preservation. The best place to base yourself is the town of Santo Ângelo, where you can access the haunting mission of São Miguel Arcanjo, founded in 1687.

 Stephen Keeling was in Brazil on a research trip for the new edition of Rough Guides’ South America on a Budget.

 

 

From above, the Rupununi Savannah looks like a topography map in reverse. The green bumps are the hills, covered in dense vegetation, while the brown indentations and splodges indicate the paths of the overflowing rivers during the rainy season.

From the ground, arriving at the savannah is a shock to the system. We’d just spent two days at the riverside jungle camp in Surama, in humid semi-darkness, with little sunlight penetrating the thick canopy and the air pierced by the roar of the howler monkey and the singing of frogs. So when we emerge in the bright sunlight, with scrubland and tall grass stretching as far as the eye can see – punctuated with the tall ant fortresses, the lumbering forms of the giant anteaters and the occasional thatched roof of an Amerindian house in the distance – the contrast is spectacular.

Our first camp on our trip round the savannah is at Oasis, near the village of Annai – a pit stop for the overloaded minibuses that ply the red dirt ‘highway’ between Georgetown on the coast and Lethem on the Brazilian border as well as for the local Makushi Amerindians who cycle long distances on their sturdy Brazilian contraptions. We pass one such cyclist clutching a bow and arrow – still a favourite method of hunting around here.

The nearby village of Rupertee is known for its carvings, made of a red hardwood peculiar to these parts. However, when we arrive it becomes apparent we’re unlikely to find any, as the whole village is attending a football match between two teams of teenage girls from rival villages. They play with more gusto than finesse, running barefoot on gravel and splashing through the waterlogged parts of the pitch. It’s riveting viewing, made even more so by the potent fermented cassava drink that’s being passed around.

On the way back, we’re caught in a deluge of biblical proportions; the footpaths become rivers and what at first appears to be a deformed cat walking beside me turns out to be an absolutely enormous toad. As darkness falls, the savannah is lit only by the stars and the sparks of fireflies. Moving onwards towards the Brazilian border, we detour along the Rupununi River to Karanambu Lodge  – an isolated, enchanting place that attracts wildlife and wildlife lovers in equal measure. The stills from movement sensor cameras around the property are like a Who’s Who of Guyana’s must-see mammals: jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, giant anteaters, capybaras.

The dinner table at the lodge is usually presided over by 82-year old Diane McTurk, a local legend and larger-than-life character famous for her work with orphaned giant river otters. “It’s not just otters,” her colleague Adrienne tells us in her absence. “People here come from miles around to bring Diane orphaned or injured anteaters, tapirs, and even jabiru storks.” We’re told the story of the baby tapir raised by Diane that came back to her as an adult to be nursed after getting savaged by a jaguar. “It knew where to come for help.”

Our final stop before flying back to Georgetown from Lethem is the Makushi village of Shulinab. We wander around the village, stop by the local one-room school pursued by a gaggle of curious children, peek into the tiny health centre, complete with anti-AIDS posters, and talk to the villagers. Everyone is friendly and welcoming, unlike, say, the Amerindians from highland Peruvian villages, who often view strangers with wariness and distrust because outsiders have often brought them harm.

Several local ranch hands take us out on a horseback ride through the savannah towards the Kanuku Mountains, known to the locals as ‘mountains of life’ and tell us of the most exciting time of the year in the Rupununi – the Easter rodeo in Lethem which attracts vaqueros (cowboys) from both sides of the border for a wild weekend of calf roping, bull-riding and more. “You gotta get there early or every hammock spot gets taken,” they caution. “We’ve ended up sleeping in the back of truck a few times.” They finally leave us behind and canter towards their herd, whooping and swinging their lassoes. Practising for the rodeo, presumably.

 Anna Kaminski was in Guyana researching the forthcoming new edition of Rough Guides South America on a Budget.

 

 

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