If there is one European city that seems particularly focused on the World War I centenary then it is the Austrian capital Vienna, where a host of war-themed exhibitions will be opening over the course of the year. Such attention may come as something as a surprise when one considers that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the powers brought crashing to its knees by the conflict. Few other European nations would find their own decline and fall quite so engrossing.

Austria was at the centre of a huge multi-national empire in 1914, and the Viennese archives are full of photographs and documents recalling the wartime service and home front lives of the Habsburg Monarchy’s many subjects. Implicitly recognized by this year’s events is the feeling that Vienna still bears a burden of responsibility towards all those who fought under an Austrian flag. And it’s by no means just the war that the Viennese are commemorating.

This year’s events also draw attention to the twenty-year period of cultural efflorescence that occurred in the lead-up to the conflict, a period when writers, artists and thinkers as diverse as Gustav Klimt, Arnold Schönberg and Sigmund Freud turned Vienna into the unofficial capital of European modernism. The restless cultural energies of fin-de-siecle Vienna have long been an important part of the Austrian capital’s tourist appeal – and it’s no wonder that this year’s centenary provides yet another opportunity to bring this to the fore. Here are six ways to remember the Great War in Vienna.

Heeresgeschichtliches museum Vienna

The Car, the Pistol and the Ostrich-Feather Hat

As every schoolchild ought to know, the outbreak of World War I was provoked by the assassination of Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The car in which he was travelling, together with his uniform, hat, and one of the pistols used by his assailants, now occupy a completely renovated hall at the Austrian Military Museum. The display will be reopened to the public on June 28, exactly one hundred years after the event itself. As the heir to the military traditions of a multi-national empire, the museum provides a focus of commemoration for all the peoples of Central Europe. Czechs, Hungarians, Slovenes and Croats all served on Austria-Hungary’s Italian and Russian fronts, a point well made by the redesigned permanent exhibition currently being made ready for summer 2014.
From June 28 onwards

The Glory and the Gloom

The biggest and most wide-ranging of the World War I exhibitions, Glory and Gloom: Living With the Great War is the historical blockbuster that most Austrian coach parties will be queueing up to see. Hosted by Schallaburg Castle near Melk, west of Vienna, the exhibition will focus on personal stories of the people – both soldiers and civilians – who were marked by the consequences of the conflict. The exhibition has an international focus, and also shows how truly global the war became for the Austrians themselves: Austro-Hungarian units served in German East Africa, while Austrian sailors caught in the Far East in 1914 spent the war as POWs in Japan.
March 28 – Nov 9

Schallaburg Castle, Danube River, Austria

And Yet There was Art!

The artist Egon Schiele had a relatively easy war, guarding Russian POWs in a small-town internment camp, and drawing their portraits in his spare time. His experiences were very different to those of Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz, who served on the Italian front and produced some of the most haunting, tortured and disturbing images of Austria’s war. Both artists feature prominently in And Yet There Was Art! Austria 1914-1918 at the Leopold Museum, a revealing look at the many ways in which Austria’s visual artists responded to the conflict. Schiele’s good fortune didn’t last – he died of influenza on October 31 1918, the very day on which the Austria-Hungarian empire ceased to exist.
May 9 – Sept 15

Armageddon: Jewish Life and Death in World War I

This exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum makes pointed reference to the fact that Austria’s Jews supported the war effort just as much as any of the Empire’s many communities – as many as 300,000 Jews served in Austria-Hungary’s armed forces. The exhibition reveals just how central the Jews were to Viennese life, with Jewish journalists, businessmen and public intellectuals all playing prominent roles on the home front.
April 2 –Sept 14

Austria, Vienna, Flamoyant, wood-panelled Prunksaal or Hall of Honour, the showpiece of the Austrian National Library.

To My People: The First World War 1914-1918

Named after “An Meine Völker!”, the famous proclamation issued by Emperor Franz Josef on the outbreak of war, the Austrian National Library’s exhibition of posters, postcards, photographs, and private drawings documents the war’s visual impact on the Viennese urban scene.
March 13 to November 2

World War I in Vienna: City Life in Photography and Graphic Art

The copious archives of Vienna City Museum will be opened to reveal this rich and rather moving collection of images chronicling civilian life during the war, contrasting the routines of daily life with the distress of poverty and hunger, and brief moments of leisure.
Sept 18 – Jan 11 2015

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Most of us know that World War I started with the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. For the English-speaking world, however, the subsequent history of the conflict largely focuses on the Western Front, Gallipoli and other theatres where British, Commonwealth and American forces saw action. It is often forgotten that the war also raged across huge swathes of central and eastern Europe, involving almost all the nationalities that still live there today. Here are ten places in central and eastern Europe where memories of the Great War still loom large, especially as 2014 marks the WWI centenary. 

The Museum of Sarajevo

Occupying a corner-house right beside the spot where the heir to the Austrian throne was gunned down, the Museum of Sarajevo displays pictures of the fateful events of June 28 1914, together with dummies of Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie clad in representative (but not original) clothes. In a nod to present-day Bosnian-Herzegovinian politics, the ill-starred archducal pair are treated with sympathy here, and their assassin – the Bosnian-Serb revolutionary Gavrilo Princip – is portrayed as terrorist rather than freedom fighter.

The Military History Museum, Vienna

It’s in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military History Museum) that you can admire the Gräf & Stift automobile in which Franz Ferdinand and spouse were shot; a lovely old motor that still preserves the scratches and holes left by grenades and bullets. The Archduke’s blue uniform is also on display, while his shirt – a much more macabre relic boasting bright red blood stains – will be put on show for a few weeks following the assassination centenary on June 28 2014.

Przemysl Fort, Poland

Przemysl Fortress, Poland

Not so much a single fortress as a huge string of fortifications surrounding the southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl, Przemyśl Fortress was built by the Austrians in order to protect their domains against the neighbouring Russian Empire. It fell to the Russians following a long siege in 1915, but was recaptured by an Austrian-German offensive soon afterwards. It is now an emerging tourist attraction, with half-derelict former forts such as Salis Soglio, Borek and San Rideau providing an evocative look back at Austro-Hungarian military life.

The Historical and Maritime Museum, Pula

The Croatian city of Pula was Austria-Hungary’s largest naval base. Bottled up by Allied blockades for much of the war, the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts didn’t see much action. Pride-of-the-fleet battleship SMS Szent István didn’t sail in anger until June 1918, and was promptly sunk by a ten-man Italian torpedo boat. Pula’s Historical and Maritime Museum is a modest affair, but its evocative location in one of the city’s many Austrian sea forts is reason enough to visit.

Kobarid, Slovenia

Many of Austria-Hungary’s subject peoples were sent to defend the Empire against the Italians on the Isonzo Front, a mountainous borderland where troops had to carve defensive positions into icy peaks and inhospitable slopes. The soldiers of the Isonzo are commemorated in the Kobarid Museum in the Slovene town of Kobarid – a place immortalized under its Italian name of Caporetto in Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. One of the best war museums anywhere in Europe, the display covers the conflict with balance and empathy – the battles of the Isonzo were every bit as horrifying and wasteful as those of the Western Front.

Czech Republic, Prague, Karluv most (Charles Bridge) at sunrise

Good Soldier Švejk in Prague

One of several characters who passed through Przemyśl Fortress was Good Soldier Švejk, the fictional creation of Czech novelist Jaroslav Hašek. Czech soldiers fought on all fronts during the 1914-18 war, and Czech capital Prague is planning several commemorative exhibitions in 2014. “In the Trenches of the Great War” at the Czech Army Museum will follow the fate of Czech conscripts in the Habsburg armies; while “Our Sea” at the Technical Museum will focus on the exploits (or rather lack thereof) of the Austro-Hungarian navy.

Military Museum, Sofia

Oh What a Lovely War? Not if you were Bulgarian. The Balkan nation entered the conflict in the hope of reversing the territorial losses incurred during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, only to end up on the losing side yet again. Sofia’s Military Museum is notable for recording with great pathos Bulgaria’s many defeats.

The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn

Site of Tallinn’s spectacular new naval museum, the Seaplane Harbour is a cavernous and altogether rather beautiful concrete hangar built house a fleet of seaplanes by the Russians in World War I. A masterpiece of early twentieth century construction techniques, its multi-domed extent gives it the appearance of several cathedrals stitched together. There’s a lot of World War I-era materiel scattered around the display area, although the building itself remains the star.

The Victor, Belgrade

Monument to the Victor, Belgrade

Serbia was blamed by Austria-Hungary for orchestrating the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and went on to endure four years of war, occupation, disease and starvation. Something of a riposte to these enormous losses is the Monument to the Victor in Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park, the work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Erected in 1928, the tenth anniversary of Serbia’s liberation from Austrian and Bulgarian troops, it continues to peer out across the Danube as if on the lookout for future challenges.

War Museum, Riga

Then part of the Russian Empire, Riga was a front-line city for much of World War I. The Tsarist authorities tried to harness Latvian patriotism by forming locally-recruited units known as the Latvian Riflemen in 1915. Sent to the front lines just outside the city, they incurred heavy losses. Eventually the Riflemen turned the tables on their masters, joining the Russian Revolution in 1917 and overthrowing the regime that had called them into being. The Latvian War Museum is the best place to catch up on their story.

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Steve Vickers updates us with the latest news from the world of travel, which this week includes Indian visas, emails you can physically track and luxury doggie bags….

 Indian visa update

Last year we reported that India would be simplifying its visa application process, and now more details have emerged. As soon as October this year, tourists from 180 countries will be able to apply for a 30-day visa on arrival at nine international airports, including Delhi, Mumbai and Goa. For the time being, the visa application process for most tourists remains bafflingly complex, and involves a wait of around one week.

How far do your emails travel?

Keeping in touch with distant friends and family has never been easier. But have you ever wondered how far your emails actually travel when you hit ‘send’? This new plug-in being pitched on Fund Anything is designed to show recipients how far their email has physically travelled and provide the names of the countries the message has passed through, along with a map of the route. The purpose of the project, according to Email Miles founder Jonah Brucker-Cohen, is to expose the ‘disconnect’ we experience when sending data over huge distances. After Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, there is another potential use: drawing attention to the complex routes our personal messages take, often through multiple countries.

A luxurious travel bag – for your dog

If you love dogs as much as you love travel, why not treat your pooch to this luxurious new dog carrier designed by suitcase manufacturer Tumi, which comes with its own leather passport holder? Well, because dogs like walking, and their pet passport would fit perfectly well in your pocket. Not to mention that the £375 price tag could buy you – and Fido – a nice holiday somewhere warm.

Swedish streets get even

Sweden’s second-biggest city is putting equality on the map. According to local news reports, more newly built streets in Gothenburg will be given ‘female’ names as local authorities try to promote gender equality. Since 2006, just 20 new streets in the city have been given names relating to women, while 38 have taken their names from men. Also on the agenda are plans to introduce new street names that better reflect the cultural diversity of the city.

Doctors on call

Top-end hotels in Florida have begun using an app to help poorly guests find a doctor without leaving their room. So far, around 160 hotels in the Miami area have started using the Skydoc app, which allows doctors to communicate with patients remotely and check their vital signs. If necessary, doctors can then visit the patient’s room and administer medication, avoiding unnecessary trips to hospital or a clinic. If the pilot programme works out well in Florida, it could be rolled out to luxury hotels around the world.

London to New York the quick way

Concorde is no more, but quick trips to New York could soon be back on the cards. Spike S-512, a super-fast business jet, is currently being developed in the USA and could be up and running by 2018. With room for up to 18 passengers, the supersonic jet will be capable of flying at 1,100mph, which, in theory, would make it possible to travel from London to New York in less than four hours. Part of the designers’ plan is to completely remove windows from the cabin (windows require heavy structural supports that could slow the plane down) and instead use cameras to stream panoramic views onto the interior walls.

The Age of Aquarius

This month, the Public Aquarium of Brussels is hoping to attract new visitors by offering free entry to anyone whose star sign is Aquarius. The aim is that the ‘fish’ offered free admission between 21st February and 21st March will take time to learn more about their endangered cousins in the tanks, and help to protect threatened species for future generations.

Final call

Made up of footage originally intended for a tourism campaign, this video by Ninja Milk flits between shots every couple of seconds, giving us a whistle-stop tour of Oman.

OMAN IN TWO MINUTES / A Travel Diary from Ninja Milk – Social. Content. on Vimeo.

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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.

 

Cambridge is deservedly famous for its university, and seeing the colleges is at the top of any visitor’s list – closely followed by punting of course – but there are a host of other reasons to visit. Rebecca Hallett explores all that Cambridge has to offer beyond chapels, courts and students.

Museums & galleries

Among the highlights of Cambridge’s many free museums is the Folk Museum, containing an enormous range of objects from Cambridge and the surrounding fens. But for some hands-on fun, head to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, where you can view and sometimes even use scientific instruments from across the centuries, and for video gamers, try out the new Centre for Computing History where gaming lock-ins aren’t uncommon, and you can see exhibits of old computers and games, or take part in a variety of Raspberry Pi (a cheap, credit card-sized computer for kids) programming workshops.

Punting on the River Cam, Cambridge

Art history students in Cambridge have it pretty good; they can see several important works in person at the stunning Fitzwilliam Museum and see twentieth-century art at the unusual location of Kettle’s Yard – the fascinating home and collection of Jim Ede, where visitors must ring the doorbell to be allowed in.

Architecture

To fully take in the city’s famously beautiful architecture, you can just wander the streets (or cycle, if you really want to fit in), but if you’re not sure where to start, join a council-run tour or explore the city’s much-overlooked modern buildings on one of Cambridge Modern Architecture’s suggested walks, which introduce you to the city’s stunning variety of post-war structures. The Midsummer Common section of the river is also a great place to stroll; you can see the spires of churches and chapels peeking over the trees, and enjoy a relaxing walk along the banks while student rowers sweat it out in the water.

Great St. Mary’s Church, the official centre of the University, is both architecturally and historically fascinating. For example, under a brass plaque are the remains of Protestant reformer Martin Bucer – kind of. After his death, the Catholic Queen Mary I had his corpse unearthed and burned at the stake as a heretic in the marketplace. Then, when Elizabeth I came to power, she ordered the marketplace swept clean and all dust gathered re-interred in the church. Tudor politics sound much more dramatic than today’s…

Great St Mary's Church Cambridge

Other than Great St. Mary’s tower there are two excellent spots for taking in the city – Cambridge is mostly flat, which makes cycling very easy but getting a good view pretty hard. For some local history, grab your camera and take a walk up Castle Hill, so named for the castle that was long ago torn down after being rendered redundant by a pesky period of peace. In its place you’ll find a number of informative signs and a great view over Cambridge. For a more surprising photo-taking opportunity, head to the car park on top of Lion’s Yard shopping centre. You’ll get beautiful vistas across the city, and a rare chance to avoid the crowds.

Where to eat

While Cambridge has a lot to offer foodies, if you want the best you should book a table (well in advance) at Midsummer House, a two Michelin-starred British-French restaurant. Not only is the food excellent, the staff couldn’t be more warm and personable – a welcome change from the efficient but distant service in many other expensive restaurants. For something a bit more affordable, head to Trockel, Ulmann & Freunde, also known to students as the ‘German café’ or ‘German soup kitchen’, who offer delicious, well-priced soups and snacks right in the city centre.

Car park view, Cambridge
Picture by Jonathon Kram 

If you’d like to venture a little further afield, the Mill Road area has a number of Middle Eastern and Asian restaurants, perhaps best among them Bibimbap House, and even further afield is the gorgeous village of Grantchester where The Orchard does an excellent cream tea. It was the haunt of such luminaries as the Bloomsbury Group, and has an attached Rupert Brooke museum, but despite its succession of famous patrons (Alan Turing, Stephen Fry, Bertrand Russell et al) this tearoom remains pleasingly down-to-earth, and the village atmosphere is a refreshing a break from Cambridge’s crowds.

Educational endeavors

On top of the city’s numerous museums, history buffs should be sure to visit the beautiful American Cemetery, which commemorates US Soldiers killed in World War Two. For more wartime history, head a little way out of the city to IWM Duxford, Europe’s best-preserved Second World War Airfield.

Cambridge is well-equipped for astronomers of all kinds. Those wanting a relaxed introduction should book a place on the Varsity Hotel’s Astronomy Masterclasses. After eating in the River Bar Steakhouse & Grill, attendees can enjoy drinks as they observe the night sky, while the Chairman of the Cambridge Astronomical Association explains what they’re seeing. If the size of the telescopes doesn’t impress you, then head to the Institute of Astronomy’s observatory. Following a talk from one of the Institute’s astronomers, on clear nights you get the chance to look through a far bigger lens.

American Cemetery, CambridgePicture by Jonathon Kram: the American Cemetery

For those after a more academic lesson, CRASSH (which hosts events on hugely diverse academic topics) often holds interdisciplinary lectures. The speakers are of extremely high quality, including such varied high-profile names as Dr Rowan Williams and Alastair Campbell. Arguably this is a much better way of getting a taste of the city’s intellectual atmosphere, rather than wandering a college, hoping to see someone in a gown.

Music of an astoundingly high standard from around the world is played every night in Cambridge; from symphony orchestras to the university’s own music students and other visiting bands. Many classical concerts are held in the city’s churches, while the Corn Exchange and Junction offer large venues for jazz, rock, pop and comedy acts.

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Stand in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square and in a 360-degree turn, the turbulent past and present of Russia is encapsulated in one fell swoop: flagships of Orthodox Christianity, Tsarist autocracy, communist dictatorship and rampant consumerism confront each other before your eyes.

Red Square, is, well, red-ish, but its name actually derives from an old Russian word for “beautiful”. It might no longer be undeniably so – its sometimes bloody history has put paid to that – but it continues to be Moscow’s main draw. In summer, postcard sellers jostle with photographers, keen to capture your image in front of one of the many iconic buildings; but in winter, you step back in time a few decades as Muscovites, in their ubiquitous shapki fur hats, negotiate their way through piles of snow, while the factory chimneys behind St Basil’s Cathedral churn out copious amounts of
smoke.

It’s hard to avoid being drawn immediately to St Basil’s, its magnificent Mr Whippy domes the fitting final resting place of the eponymous holy fool. Should retail, rather than spiritual, therapy, be more your bag, try GUM, the elegant nineteenth-century shopping arcade, which now houses mainly western boutiques, way out of the pocket of the average Russian, but very decent for a spot of window-shopping or a coffee, or just to shelter from the elements outside. If you think that the presence of Versace and other beacons of capitalism would have Lenin spinning in his grave, you can check for yourself at the mausoleum opposite, where his wax-like torso still lies in state. Despite the overthrow of communism, surly guards are on hand to ensure proper respect is shown: no cameras or bags, no hands in pockets and certainly no laughing. Putin’s police officers are never far away, casting a wary eye over it all – perhaps having learned a thing or two from Lenin’s bedfellows and disciples (including Uncle Joe), who are lined up behind the mausoleum under the imposing walls of the Kremlin.

Red Square can be reached from Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Aleksandrovskiy Sad, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and Borovitskaya metros.

 

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Kiki Deere takes a stroll around George Town to explore the Penang street art scene and sample the city’s amazingly multicultural street food.

I awake early and take a stroll around the city’s quaint alleyways. At this time of the morning, a peaceful silence envelops the streets. The musical song of the 5am call to prayer still resonates along the town’s lanes. A lean Malay fellow lifts a rusty shutter, ready to commence another day’s work. Rows of fading, pastel-coloured houses line old world streets – these were former townhouses and shophouses, many with intricately-painted enclosed courtyards.

I am in George Town, the capital of Penang, a sizeable island off the west coast of Malaysia that is connected to the mainland by bridge. The colonial district was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, as a living testimony to the country’s multicultural past. Today, Penang’s multi-ethnic society is mainly formed of three communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian. These three groups have long co-existed side-by-side, and to this day each of the city’s neighbourhoods retains a powerful individual cultural and religious identity. George Town is renowned as the food capital of Malaysia, thanks to its rich heritage and diverse culinary traditions. Recently a new craze has taken the town by storm: street art, which attracts scores of Malaysians and Westerners alike who scour the city in search of the quirkiest mural.

As I venture towards Little India, a potent smell of spicy curry permeates the colourful streets, lined with garish jewellery shops and sari vendors. A hawker stall has set up shop at a street junction; a metal ladle rests inside a large pot of saffron-coloured curry, ready to scoop up breakfast for George Town’s hungry early-birds. Bollywood posters are precariously stuck to the roughly painted walls, alongside mannequins in glittering saris and beaded necklaces. A young CD vendor suddenly blasts up the volume on his obsolete sound system, letting out a wave of melodic Indian songs which echo through the streets.

Indian Food, George Town, Penang, MalaysiaPhotograph by Kiki Deere

As I stroll along the crumbling pavements, caricatures jump out at me from the lively street art, mimicking former life in the city. A wrought iron caricature depicts the origins of Penang’s famous nasi kandar dish, which I soon learn originated from Tamil Muslims who peddled the streets selling homemade curry and rice from large containers that rested on either side of a kandar, a wooden stick.

The Indians of Penang originated from different parts of the Subcontinent, although the dominant group here are the Tamils from the south. It was the quest for spices that led the Europeans to establish Penang in 1786. The ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah, leased Penang to the British East India Company, which brought in labourers from southern India to develop the colony. Early Indians also settled here as merchants, moneylenders and traders, while others worked in sugar plantations or in the civil service. With them, they brought age-old traditions and customs, as well as a tantalising food flavoured by rich spices. Little India is dotted with mamak, south Indian Muslim restaurants, where mouth-watering banana leaf curries, colourful biryanis and succulent tandoori chicken are served, along with freshly baked naanroti canai and thosai. Malaysia is home to all manner of curries, not just Indian, which is thicker and spicier than the sweet Malay flavours, while the Chinese curry is similar in texture to gravy with its watery consistency and is just as delicious as the rest.

George Town, Penang, MalaysiaPhotograph by Kiki Deere

I stroll towards the nearby streets of Chinatown, lined with pre-war shophouses, and now filled with antique traders, artisans, lantern makers and shops displaying traditional Chinese medicines and herbs. Every few metres, the overpowering smell of incense and the sight of flickering candles within brightly coloured temples invite passers-by to explore their interior. The sweet smell of hokkien mee wafts down the street: noodles drenched in a thick spicy broth served with beansprouts and water spinach.

The Chinese used Penang as a base for their commercial activities in nearby Siam (now Thailand), Myanmar (Burma), and the northern and western states of Malaya, as well as northern Sumatra. Chinese families intermarried with Malays, giving birth to Baba Nyonya communities, who still exert a large influence today. Nyonya cuisine uses traditional Chinese ingredients and wok frying methods, along with Malay spices. The result is a unique taste that combines spicy, sweet and sour flavours. Among the most popular dishes are otak-otak, fish paste marinated with spices, and ayam buah keula, chicken stew with black nuts. In Penang, Nyonya cuisine also embraces Thai elements, by incorporating tamarind and other sour ingredients.

Street art and cyclist, Penang, MalaysiaPhotograph by Kiki Deere

I soon come across a steel-rod caricature that reveals where the world famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo, a native of George Town, started his apprenticeship. Another depicts a large Chinese man, the “Cheating Husband”, on Love Lane, which was allegedly where the rich kept their mistresses – hence the street name. I get lost in a series of alleyways, where I soon discover a new art world of pastel-coloured paintings that decorate the city’s ancient walls. One of the artists behind these is Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, whose interactive urban murals, mostly of children, have become the town’s latest trend, with eager tourists queuing to take their much awaited snapshot as they pose by each design.

I saunter along the streets for hours, munching here and there on all manner of culinary delights, taking in the varicoloured sights and penetrating smells that engulf the beating heart of the city – a mélange of diverse ancient cultures that sit side by side, tainted with a streak of modern art that has been welcomingly incorporated by this medley of peoples.

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Move over Mickey Mouse: in Japan it’s a giant cuddly fur-ball called Totoro who commands national icon status. This adorable animated creature, star of My Neighbour Totoro, is among the pantheon of characters from the movies of celebrated director Miyazaki Hayao and his colleagues at Studio Ghibli – Japan’s equivalent of Disney.

Just like Walt, Miyazaki had an ambitious vision that his movies could come alive in real life. The result – Ghibli Museum, Mitaka – is an opportunity to step into a world that, true to Miyazaki’s words, “is full of interesting and beautiful things”. On a far more intimate scale than Mickey’s sprawling theme park across Tokyo Bay, this candy-coloured, stained-glass-decorated fantasy on the edge of western Tokyo’s leafy Inokashira Park provides an unparalleled experience – a chance not only to learn about the art of animation but also to glimpse the genius of an Oscar-winning director.

You don’t need to be familiar with Ghibli’s movies, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, to enjoy the museum. Every little detail has been thought of – from the rivets on the giant robot soldier from Castle in the Sky on the roof to the straws, made of real straw, served with drinks in the Straw Hat Café. Amazingly detailed dioramas and Technicolor displays evoke the many steps needed to make an animated movie, and a child-sized movie theatre screens original short animated features, exclusive to the museum.

To make this charming experience even more special for visitors, only 2400 tickets are available daily, meaning everyone can move around the compact galleries comfortably – and kids won’t feel crowded when romping around the giant cuddly cat bus, reading a book in the library or rummaging through the quirky gift shop.

The Ghibli Museum (www.ghibli-museum.jp/en) is in Mitaka, Tokyo. Book well in advance via the website.

 

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From Kinross to Kent, Britain is home to all manner of beautiful gardens, ranging from wild and sprawling estates to compact, tidy arrangements. Here’s a few of our favourites, taken from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Aberglasney Gardens

Once a grand Carmarthenshire estate, Aberglasney fell on hard times during the twentieth century and by the mid-1990s the house was totally derelict: its windows empty sockets, its masonry crumbling and its gardens choked with weeds. Just when it seemed doomed to collapse, a Restoration Trust stepped in, led by a team of experts who were determined to patch up the damage and perhaps reveal some of the glories of the past. The gardens (pictured above) were the main focus of their interest: they were known to date back well over 500 years, making them a perfect candidate for research. Their hunch has already paid off: little by little they have made some astonishing discoveries.

One of the earliest revelations was a real breakthrough. Carefully, the team excavated the stone-walled cloisters immediately west of the mansion, digging down through the centuries to discover a formal garden dating back to late Tudor or early Stuart times. Even more astonishingly, coins dating back to 1288 were found among the debris. Now that a re-creation of the early seventeenth-century layout is in place, you can wander the raised stone path that tops the cloister walls to admire its geometric lawns and think yourself back to the grandeur of the era.

On the south side of the house is another superb development: the ruined masonry of an ancient courtyard has been shrouded in glass, creating a subtropical hothouse. Named the Ninfarium after the glorious Italian gardens of Ninfa, there’s a Zen-like calm to its shady, orderly pathways.

Aberglasney Gardens, Llangathen, Carmarthenshire, www.aberglasney.org

Drummond Castle Gardens

Scotland, Perthshire, gardens of Drummond Castle

The long beech-enclosed drive that leads to Drummond Castle has a sense of drama, but gives no inkling of the exotic vision ahead. The castle itself is a bluff medieval keep surrounded by turreted domestic buildings, all heavily restored in the nineteenth century. You pass through a courtyard to access a wide stone terrace, and the garden is suddenly revealed: a symmetrical and stately Italianate vision in the shape of Scotland’s flag, a St Andrew’s Cross. The lines of the cross are punctuated by urns and Classical statues, and at their centre is a seventeenth-century obelisk sundial. It’s an artful garden in every sense: steep steps lead down to the sundial, and beyond the topiary and the neat flower beds a wide avenue cuts though dense woodland, continuing the line of the parterre’s central path but making a visual connection between the formal garden and wider, wilder estate.

The first Lord Drummond began building the castle in the late fifteenth century, and in 1508 there is evidence that the estate supplied cherries to James IV when he was on a hunting trip. The sundial created by Charles I’s master mason was put in place in 1630; in the following century the family was more preoccupied with assisting the Jacobite uprising than pruning the roses, but in calmer times in 1842 Queen Victoria planted two copper beeches here, and enjoyed walks in the garden with Albert.

It remains in feel very much a courtly garden. The paths seem tailor-made for stately strolling, giving you the space and time to admire the marble statuary, snooty peacocks and neatly clipped foliage. And when you’ve explored the parterre, don’t miss the abundant blooms in the glasshouses, and the impressive kitchen garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens, near Muthill in Crieff, Perth & Kinross, www.drummondcastlegardens.co.uk

Mottisfont Abbey

Before you even get to the roses at Mottisfont Abbey – which is, after all, the point of the visit – you encounter some sensuous temptations. First you cross the River Test, arguably the finest chalk stream in England, which runs clear and shallow through gentle meadows fringed by grassy downland. This is the place for walks (the Test Way passes by here), or quiet sitting – or trout fishing, if you can afford it.

You then walk through Mottisfont’s lovely grounds, a grassy haven bordered by chalk streams and studded with old oaks, sweet chestnuts and the improbably massive great plane. Then there’s the Abbey itself, a mellow pile with Tudor wings and Georgian frontages and a stately drawing room whose eccentric trompe l’oeil decor – all painted swags and smoking stoves sketched in grisaille – was created by the English prewar artist, Rex Whistler.

But beyond the river and the house and the grounds lies Mottisfont’s heart: its twin walled rose gardens. They are fabulous, harbouring one of the finest collections of old roses in the world. Among the six-hundred-odd varieties you’ll find names that hint at exotic beauty, such as Reine de Violette, Tuscany Superb and Ispahan, and names that suggest a more blushing Englishness, such as Eglantine and the Common Moss Rose. Climbers, noisettes and ramblers trace glorious patterns on the high brick walls, cross pergolas or spill up into apple and pear trees. The shrub roses, meanwhile, crowd noisily between the box hedges and lawns and lavender pathways, jostling among the hosts of bulbs and perennials. There is something to see, then, right through spring and summer.

Mottisfont, five miles north of Romsey, Hampshire www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Alnwick Garden

The sign on the gates to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens, Northumberland, UK

It makes sense to lock up dangerous criminals and wild animals, perhaps – but plants? Well, yes, when we’re talking about these plants. Within the 40-acre Alnwick Garden, the botanical annexe to Alwnick Castle, lies a sullen little plot of deadly flowers and bushes deemed so dangerous that they too are kept behind bars. Visitors to this cultivated collection of botanical death should be wary. Don’t sniff too hard, perhaps… Though one suspects their deadly pollen and spores could permeate even the ominous wrought-iron gates, fronted with skull and bone signs, that declare: “These plants can kill”.

Unlike the rest of Alnwick Garden, the poison garden can only be visited on a guided tour. The heavy iron gates are locked behind you. This is serious stuff. Flame-shaped beds are planted with tobacco, mandrake, hemlock – and innocent-looking rhubarb, the stalks of which make lovely crumble, but whose lush green leaves can kill. Maximum security is applied to coca (for cocaine), cannabis plants and poppies, the heads of which contain all that’s required to make opium, heroin and morphine.

Weaving through the garden, guides debunk myths, tell old wives’ tales and impart ancient wisdom. Learn here about Old Man’s Beard, rubbed by professional beggars into sores to make them weep piteously. Or the hallucinogenic properties of Deadly Nightshade. Chewing a humble laburnum leaf, you are told, will lead you to froth at the mouth and wildly convulse.

Alnwick Garden, Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland www.alnwickgarden.com

RHS Garden Wisley

The Manor House at RHS Wisley Garden, Surrey, UK. Water lillies growing in the canal pond at Wisley.

As you walk through the brick entrance arch at Wisley, you’re hit by scented air wafting through from the flourishing acres beyond. And there really are acres and acres here – 240 of them, to be exact, all lovingly, scrupulously, passionately tended. Ahead lies the serene canal and walled garden; beyond, secretive paths lead through the Wild Garden’s woodlands to the staggering new glasshouse, which rises out of an entire lake. The preternaturally heated interior heaves with tropical ferns and palms and creepers, all fighting their way towards the glass. There’s even an indoor waterfall.

But why go straight on? A left turn takes you up a breathtaking avenue of lawn, between 20ft-deep mixed borders from which English cottage garden flowers dance and nod in coloured ranks. Beyond, there’s the elegant rose garden, and beyond again what seems like an entire ecosystem of rhododendrons and magnolias on Battleston Hill. And beyond that, the Jubilee Arboretum rises back up towards the Fruit Field, which is really an entire hillside combed with 450 types of apple, plum and pear, many of them rare and rich varieties. It’s not exactly encouraged, but on an early autumn day you could even quietly taste a windfall pear or two – or buy them in the shop later.

Wisley isn’t all about loveliness, though, or even drama. Instead, it’s alive with passion and energy. The Royal Horticultural Society is dedicated to research and education, so you’ll see guided tours pausing to consider a fine clematis, enthusiasts gleaning tips from the model allotment, or maybe volunteers weeding through a host of experimental pumpkins.

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey www.rhs.org.uk/wisley

Highgrove Gardens

It’s amazing what a few words of encouragement can do. When the Prince of Wales bought Highgrove House, his family home near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, the estate didn’t even have a lawn. Some thirty years later, what was once an empty landscape is now one of the most innovative gardens in Britain. Clearly, Charles has spent a lot of time talking to these plants.

Tours start at Highgrove House itself, surrounded by scented plants such as wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine, holboellia and thyme, and meander for two miles through a series of interlinked gardens, from the immaculate Sundial Garden, fronting the house, to the Arboretum. Most eye-catching in its marriage of form and function is the Prince’s Islamic-style Carpet Garden, a medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, whose colour and appearance – which includes fountains decked in elaborate zelij tiling – were based on the patterns of Persian carpets within the house.

Arguably the most interesting sections, though, are the Wildflower Meadow and the Walled Kitchen Garden. The former was co-designed with one of the UK’s leading biodiversity experts, and – as an organically sustained initiative that also helps preserve the country’s native flora and fauna – is a living example of the philosophy that underlines much of Highgrove and the Prince’s nearby Duchy Home Farm. The meadow features more than thirty varieties of British wildflowers – ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and ragged robin among them – and is home to some of the National Collection of Beech Trees, part of a conservation programme that safeguards the diversity of the country’s plant heritage.

Highgrove House, Doughton, Tetbury, Gloucestershire www.highgrovegardens.com

Swiss bridge

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Edinburgh’s famous Botanic Garden may get the royal seal and most of the press, yet a mere 45-minute drive south stands what is arguably the world’s most exquisite arboretum. Sequestered in one of the most scenic corners of the Scottish Borders, Dawyck is a veritable masterpiece of horticultural passion and creativity, matured over three centuries into a stunning sixty acres of botanic forest.

The secret of this place lies in its range of species from climatically similar corners of the globe. One of the best times to visit is in spring, when you’re welcomed by the Himalayan feast that is the Azalea Walk in full bloom. Over the brow of the hill, 300-year-old giant redwoods tower next to a rustling brook. Incredibly, these are actually infant trees, just a tenth of the way through their lives, and mere striplings compared to their 300ft-tall Californian forebears.

Just beyond the upward curve of the burn another giant hoves into view: the rhubarb-like gunnera plant feels truly exotic, even tropical, a South American specimen with foliage as big as a golf umbrella.

Atmospheric features like the old chapel, the stone humpback bridge or Dawyck House, relics of the garden’s heritage as part of the Dawyck estate, give purpose to those panoramic shots, or you could zoom in to the striking snakeskin bark of the Manchurian striped maple, possibly an evolutionary disguise to protect saplings. Even if you forget your camera, Dawyck will imprint itself on your grey matter anyway, a humbling lesson in the glorious potential of landscape.

Dawyck Botanic Garden, Stobo, near Peebles, Borders www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/dawyck

Sissinghurst Castle

Sissinghurst Gardens Cottage, Sissinghurst, Kent, England

The famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle is equally fascinating both at a distance and close up. There are several angles from which to admire it – framed by a shady arch, for example, or backed by the weathered walls of the Priest’s House – and there’s fresh beauty in every white iris, lupin and sunny-centred daisy.

It’s one of a series of room-like areas of planting with which the poet Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, a diplomat-turned-politician, adorned the grounds of Sissinghurst. When they arrived in 1930, the site was derelict, but Vita, who had an ancestral connection with the castle, saw in it an opportunity to shake off some of the sadness she felt at being shut out of the inheritance of her childhood home, Knole, simply because she was a woman.

The couple had different approaches to gardening: Harold enjoyed the discipline of orderly spaces separated by brick walls, yew trees and box hedges, while Vita was a romantic who enjoyed creating mysteries and surprises. In 1938, they opened the garden for an entrance fee of a shilling. The romantic-looking Elizabethan Tower that dominates the estate was originally a lookout; for the Nicolsons, it was the perfect vantage from which to survey their leafy domain. Climb up to its highest windows and you can see how beautifully the gardens, orchards and vegetable plots nestle within the Wealden countryside, complementing it just as they intended.

The garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

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You’ve seen them a thousand times before you even get there. Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are perhaps the most recognizable pieces of art in the world, reproduced so much that they’ve become part of the visual furniture of our lives. Getting to this enormous work isn’t easy; indeed, it’s almost an act of penance in itself, waiting in endless queues and battling flag-following tour groups. But none of that, nor the simple entrance to the chapel, can prepare you for the magnificence of what lies beyond.

Despite the crowds, the noise and the periodic chiding of the guards, seeing these luminous paintings in the flesh for the first time is a moving experience. The ceiling frescoes get the most attention, although staring at them for long in the high, barrel-vaulted chapel isn’t great for the neck muscles. Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, they depict scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation of Light at the altar end to the Drunkenness of Noah at the other, interspersed with pagan sybils and biblical prophets, who peer out spookily from between the vivid main scenes. Look out for the hag-like Cumean sybil, and the prophet Jeremiah, a self-portrait of an exhausted-looking Michelangelo. Or just gaze in wonder at the whole decorative scheme – not bad for someone who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.

Once you’ve feasted on the ceiling, turn your attention to the altar wall, which was decorated by an elderly Michelangelo over twenty years later, depicting in graphic and vivid detail the Last Judgement. The painting took him five years, a single-handed effort that is probably the most inspired large-scale work you’re ever likely to see. Its depiction of Christ, turning angrily as he condemns the damned to hell while the blessed levitate to heaven, might strike you as familiar. But standing in front of it, even surrounded by crocodiles of people, still feels like an enormous privilege.

 

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