There are some places in the world that you may not immediately think of visiting. Among all the favourite churches, museums and galleries lurk some more disturbing locations with morbid histories, places that represent the darker side of humanity. They may not be top of your itineraries, but they’re equally – if not more – thought-provoking, and are well worth a detour. Here, with some from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some key places to remember the past.

Auschwitz, Poland

One thing that will stick in your mind is the hair. Mousy, dark clumps of it and even a child’s pigtail still wound like a piece of rope, all piled together like the relics from an ancient crypt. But there are no bones here. The hair in this room was deliberately, carefully, shaved from the heads of men, women and children, ready for transportation to factories where it would be turned into haircloth and socks. This is Auschwitz, the most notorious complex of extermination camps operated by the Nazis.

No one knows how many people died here: estimates range from 1.1 million to 1.6 million, mostly Jews. They starved to death, died of dysentery, were shot or beaten. And then from 1941, the Final Solution, death by cyanide gas (“Zyklon-B”): twenty thousand people could be gassed and cremated each day. Auschwitz is a terrible place, full of terrible, haunting memories. But everyone should go – so that no one will forget.

Auschwitz is named after the Polish town of Oświęcim, around 50km west of Kraków. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum & Memorial is free; see en.auschwitz.org.

Brest fortress, Belarus

For the Belarusians, World War II was a catastrophe. In all, during the brutal three-year Nazi occupation of the then Soviet republic, almost a quarter of the population died – a tragedy that has left a profound imprint on succeeding generations. Nowhere does the nation’s sense of grief retain a greater rawness than at the colossal war memorial, constructed with typical Soviet bombast, at Brest Fortress, close to the Polish border.

It’s a sombre half-hour trudge along a broad, empty boulevard out to the fortress complex on the edge of town, the eye drawn towards the monumental concrete slab carved with a giant Communist star that serves as the entrance. As you pass through, radio broadcasts, Soviet songs and the deafening thunder of artillery ring through the tunnel. Once inside, remains of the original fortress – much if it shelled to oblivion – are sparse. Instead it’s a massive icon of Socialist Realist art that dominates the tableau: carved into another gigantic concrete block is the head of a huge, grim-faced soldier, jutting muscular jaw set in defiance. It’s a staggeringly powerful piece of work, lent added poignancy by the eternal flame that burns beneath, and the neat tiers of memorials that lead up to it, many garlanded in beautiful wreaths.

Brest is 4hr by train from either Minsk or Warsaw (change in Terespol from the latter); the fortress is open daily 8am–midnight (free).

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

In 1471, Portuguese merchant seamen arrived on the palm-lined shore of the Gold Coast and bought a fort at Elmina. Over the next four hundred years they were followed by British, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and adventurers from the Baltic. Gold was their first desire, but the slave trade soon became the dominant activity, and more than three dozen forts were established here, largely to run the exchange of human cargo for cloth, liquor and guns. Today, thirty forts still stand, several in dramatic locations and offering atmospheric tours and accommodation.

One of the biggest is the seventeenth-century Cape Coast Castle, which dominates the lively town of the same name. Just walking through its claustrophobic dungeons, where slaves were held before being shipped across the Atlantic, moves some visitors to tears – the scale of the cruelties that took place here is near-incomprehensible

Bus services (around 4hr) run along the main coastal highway from Accra.

The Kigali genocide museum, Rwanda

In 1994, while the world looked the other way, around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists. The attempted genocide left a scar on the Rwandan nation which will be felt for generations, but the immediate wounds of that terrible three-month period have healed faster than most outsiders could have imagined. While leading genocidaires have faced UN trials, those who murdered their own neighbours under orders have undergone a process of reconciliation with survivors in local gacaca courts. The country itself has been transformed by its pragmatic government and is rapidly modernizing.

Tourism is an important part of development and it engages remarkably with recent events in Rwanda’s genocide museum, the Kigali Memorial Centre, where you’re likely to spend at least two very worthwhile but emotionally draining hours. On this hillside site, north of the city centre, eleven huge crypts have been constructed, the resting place for nearly a quarter of a million of the country’s victims. The semi-subterranean exhibition itself implicitly lays the blame for what happened on decades of colonial oppression, divide-and-rule policies, under-development and ultimately deliberate planning, while placing the slaughter in the context of humanity’s history of genocide. The memorial to the children who died is unbearably moving, focusing not on the huge numbers, but on fourteen individual lives, on little things like their favourite meals, and on how they were killed.

The Kigali Memorial Centre is open daily 10am–6pm (donations accepted) and is a partner of the UK-based Aegis Trust (aegistrust.org), which works to prevent crimes against humanity.

The Camp of Special Significance, Russia

St Petersburg’s White Nights festival is an established tourist draw, but more adventurous travellers can head north towards the Arctic Circle and the remote Solovetsky Archipelago in the Karelia region. Situated on the White Sea, in the uppermost part of the world’s biggest country, these islands seem close to the tipping-point of the world.

From the Middle Ages till the Bolsheviks seized power, monks sought out this place for solitary contemplation; when communism fell, they returned, and today the exquisite monastery on the main island, pure white with silver onion domes, is again a site of active worship. But there were darker times in the interim. The Soviet authorities saw the potential of the islands’ remote location, and in 1923 created a Camp of Special Significance, where political opponents could be subjected to the near-constant winter darkness, isolation and bitter cold. Solovetsky became, as the great dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “the mother of the gulag”.

Today, the camp is remembered in a museum inside the Kremlin on the main island. On top of Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”) you can also see the Church of the Ascension, which was used for solitary confinement – an incongruously picturesque spot a pleasant 12km walk from the monastery. But perhaps most striking is the prison dating from the late 1930s, today abandoned and neglected, where visitors can wander at will. The two-tone walls, door numbers and scrawled graffiti heave history out of the untouchable past and into vivid Technicolor.

Take the overnight train from St Petersburg to Kem, then the boat to the main island, Solovki (2hr 30min). Regional information is at www.pomorland.info.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

Everyone over 30 in Cambodia has lived through the genocidal Khmer Rouge era. The woman who runs your guesthouse in downtown Phnom Penh; the moto driver who tried to rip you off on the ride down from the Thai border; your Angkor temples tour guide; the waiter at the seaside café in Sihanoukville. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you’ll learn something of what that means.

A former school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, code-named S-21, was used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate perceived enemies of their demented Marxist-Leninist regime. During the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, some fourteen thousand Cambodians were tortured and killed here, often for the crime of being educated: for being a teacher, a monk, or a member of the elite; for wearing glasses; for being a discredited cadre.

The interior of the prison has in part been left almost as it was found. Tiled floors, classrooms crudely partitioned into tiny cells, shackles, iron bedsteads and meshed balconies. Elsewhere, graphic paintings by another survivor, Vann Nath, depict the torture methods used to extract confessions; some of these confessions are also reproduced here. Once they’d been coerced into admitting guilt, prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and murdered. Choeung Ek, 12km southwest, is now the site of another memorial. Both provide graphic evidence of these recent horrors.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (daily 7.30–11.30am & 2–5pm) is off Street 13 on the southern fringes of Phnom Penh.

Dachau, Germany

This former camp for political prisoners of WWII once served as the model for all concentration camps of the war, and later became a “school of violence” for the SS men who commanded it. Until the 1960s it was used as a refugee camp for Germans coming from Czechoslovakia, and now it contains a memorial, established in 1965 by the surviving prisoners. There are exhibitions where you can pay respects to and remember the important prisoners in the camp, a visitor’s centre, and a display takes visitors through the path of new arrivals to Dachau all those years ago.

The Dachau camp is open daily (9am-5pm) and is located a 30 minute drive from Munich.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

There is always something eerie about walking through a cemetery, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. In the colourful Jewish Quarter of Prague, this centuries-old cemetery is perhaps the most crowded in the world. The number of people buried here has not been determined but the grounds contain some 12,000 tombstones and it is assumed there are several “burial layers” placed on top of one another.

The cemetery (Mondays & Wednesdays 11am-3pm, and Fridays from 9am-1pm) is located on Fibichova Street in the Old Jewish Quarter.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

These underground tunnels are steeped in incredible but sinister history, as Viet Cong guerrilla fighters used them as supply routes, living quarters and hospitals during the American-Vietnam war. Although the tunnels have been widened and made taller for Western tourists to explore, you can still feel the claustrophobic and cramped conditions that so many Vietnamese lived in. The whole site is a stark reminder of the bloody battles that took place between the Americans and Viet Cong and there are interested exhibitions throughout.

The tunnels are open daily from 9am-5pm and good tours run from most travel agents in Ho Chi Minh (Siagon) City.

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

This ghost town in central France is a permanent museum and memorial to the families that were killed during a 1944 German massacre. The village was left bare after 642 of its inhabitants were killed, and today the houses lay in ruins and cars decompose in their parking spaces as visitors are allowed to wander through the empty streets and remember the victims’ plight.

 

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With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

As the largest city in Québec province, there’s plenty to do in Montréal. Fill up on complimentary samples at the Jean-Talon food market and then take advantage of the city’s huge variety of free cultural and outdoor activities, from festivals to art exhibits to tango. Here’s our roundup of the best free things to do in Montréal:

Head to one of the free festivals

In many cities, festivals are a special occasion; in Montréal, they’re a way of life. And, the bonus is that most of Montréal’s festivals feature free shows and performances, from stand-up comedy at Juste pour Rire to cool cats jamming on stage at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal to the blazing lights of the International Fireworks Competition.

Learn to tango

It may take two to tango, but in Montréal it also takes no money. The perennially popular Tango Libre offers free introductory classes, in various parks in the summer and in the studio in winter. Parc Jean-Drapeau also occasionally hosts free ballroom dancing lessons.

Fill up your belly and your bags at a market

Munch on stinky wedges of Québécois cheese, olives, warm bread rolls and other local samples at Jean-Talon Market and Atwater Market.

Go back to school and study the arts

Stroll through a Neoclassical stone gate to enter McGill, Montréal’s most prestigious university, which abounds with free arts and culture. The Musée Redpath showcases a top-notch anthropological collection of Egyptian mummies and coffins, dinosaur bones and marine vertebrates, as well as ancient musical instruments. Also, the campus is peppered with sculptures, most notably Raymond Mason’s The Illuminated Crowd, portraying a mass of larger-than-life people – generally faced by an equally large crowd of tourists. You can often catch free performances at McGill’s Schulich School of Music.

Partake in an art crawl

The art itself may be pricey – but to view it? Free. Numerous art museums and galleries offer free admission, including Canada’s oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, with the country’s most impressive Canadian art collection. On Wednesday nights, entry is free at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, Canada’s first museum devoted to contemporary art.

Step into Canadian and Québécois past

Delve into Canadian and Québécois history at the Musée McCord d’Histoire Canadienne (free Wed night and first Sat of month), with First Nations items like furs, ivory carvings and beadwork; the Hôtel de Ville, where General de Gaulle stood on the second-floor balcony to make his “Vive le Québec libre!” speech; and the Musée de la Banque de Montréal, the city’s oldest bank building, with an exhibit that offers a voyeuristic glimpse into counterfeit bills.

Take a hike

Walk or pedal the leafy banks of the Lachine Canal, along a well-tended path that hugs its entire length. Our favorite trip: saunter 1km west of Vieux-Montréal to Griffintown, a revitalized industrial neighborhood with antiques, art and relaxed pubs with nicely priced beers.

Go to church

As Mark Twain once noted about Montréal: “You couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a church.” He was right – and many are free. Celebrate Sunday mass at 11am at Notre-Dame Basilica, to the sounds of a choir. Also, pop in to the eye-catching Victorian St George’s Anglican Church and the Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, where you can pay your respects to the wax-encased remains of St Zoticus, a patron saint of the poor – an appropriate icon on this free tour of Montréal.

Head underground

Scurry below Montréal’s surface in the Underground City (officially called RÉSO – a homophone of “réseau”, the French word for “network”), with 33km of passages that provide access to the Métro, hotels, shopping malls, offices, apartments and restaurants, plus a good smattering of cinemas and theatres. Everything is signposted, but it’s worth picking up a map of the ever-expanding system from the tourist office. Refuel at the inexpensive food courts on the lowest floor of most of the malls (also handy for public toilets).

Watch street performers

Cirque du Soleil somersaulted from the soil of Québec so it’s no surprise that Montréal’s performers and buskers are top-class. Walk through the old town and the sloping, cobbled Place Jacques-Cartier, originally built as a market in 1804, and check out musicians, mimes, caricaturists along the way. Also, many of the city’s theatres offer free performances, including the Théâtre de Verdure Parc Lafontaine in the summer.

Explore more of Montréal with the Rough Guide to Canada.

One of Moscow’s unforgettable highlights is a visit to the father of the Russian revolution: Vladmir Lenin. Adam Bennett depicts his encounter with the dogmatic politician who was embalmed and preserved over 80 years ago.

Staring into the bulletproof glass that separates me from the legendary Russian leader, I am surprised to see he’s still looking his best. Embalmed in 1924, just after his death at 53 years old, Lenin was displayed in Red Square where a staggering 750,000 citizens paid their respects over just 14 days. Nowadays, Lenin rests in his mausoleum with his Cyrillic name set atop the entrance, echoing a turbulent Soviet and Russian past.

The temperature is -15 and it’s snowing as I join the queue for the mausoleum on a blisteringly cold January afternoon. Waiting in line to walk through airport-style metal detectors, get scanned with a handheld device and then patted down by armed guards, I learn from a disgruntled traveller that all mobile phones, cameras and bags must be turned into the Kutayfa tower cloak rooms, adjacent to the mausoleum. Once the checkpoint guards are satisfied I’m not dangerous, I join other visitors as we are ushered silently down three flights of stairs by more guards.

We reach a small dimly lit room, where the atmosphere intensifies; Lenin’s embalmed body rests in the centre.  His head on a velvet pillow and retaining his trademark facial hair and 1920s suit, it is clear that – despite his sallow skin – Lenin is flawlessly taken care of and is treated to daily moisturizer and injected preservatives. He looks like a Madame Tussauds waxwork, and the lighting and temperature is carefully controlled to ensure that his body is preserved and will continue to be seen by people in the future.

Born Vladimir IIlich Ulvanov, he became known as Lenin whilst in exile in Siberia for his extremist political views. Establishing the Bolshevik movement, Lenin quickly rose to prominence during the early 20th century spreading political propaganda and liberating Russia from the socially destructive Tsars.

Climbing the stairs, back up into the cold Moscow air, the guards give us a few moments to gaze over the gravestones and busts dedicated to Russia’s most famous figures. Surprisingly, the Kremlin’s wall necropolis is by no means a grand area, even though Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mikhail Kalinin are all buried here in a single line next to the wall – as was tradition under Lenin Bolshevik rule. There is also a plaque dedicated to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

After less than a minute we are swiftly moved on, around the perimeter of the mausoleum and allowed out through a gate into Red Square. The whole, rather bizarre experience lasted for a total of 20 minutes, which was perhaps long enough, in spite of the mind-numbing 4 hour queue.

Visiting the embalmed body of Russia’s most charismatic political leader is an experience (albeit brief) nobody could forget in a hurry. Every inch of Moscow’s infamous Red Square oozes with history as public executions, Soviet tank parades and, more recently, rock concerts from artists such as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, have all taken place there. Within 50 meters of Lenin’s mausoleum lie St Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin, both synonymous with Russian history. Paying respects to the Bolshevik father is only a small, but unforgettable, element of Moscow’s wonder. 

Most US travel itineraries skip the “middle bit” – often stereotyped as a boring, endless and pancake-flat swathe of corn that makes up the Great Plains. But while the region lacks showstoppers – no Grand Canyon, no New York – the Great Plains are crammed with surprisingly intriguing attractions and great tracts are, well, quite hilly actually. Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to the USA, picks out ten highlights.

1) Route 66, OK

Though it was long ago superseded by the interstate highway system, Route 66 remains a prime target for all US road-trippers – if they can find it. Created in the 1920s to link Chicago and Los Angeles and “more than two thousand miles all the way”, much of the original route has been overlaid by newer highways. Not in Oklahoma: here there is a 644km plus section of raw Route 66, rich in Americana, from classic diners like Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami and the iconic Round Barn in Arcadia, to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the iconic Blue Whale at Catoosa.

2) Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, NE

Soaring above the plains like a fantastical Byzantine skyscraper, the Nebraska State Capitol is a genuine Art Deco wonder. Like all US state capitols, it’s open to the public and free to tour, but here the standard Neoclassical grandeur– South Dakota, Kansas and Iowa all have incredible state capitols – is ditched for something far more ambitious. Completed in 1932, the 122m tower is topped by a golden dome, but the interior is just as awe-inspiring, with a mural-smothered main hall and rotunda as grand as any Renaissance cathedral.

 

3) Kansas City BBQ, KS

Famous all over the US, Kansas-style barbecue is less well-known overseas, despite a decent claim to being the best in the nation. Here, meats are slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak wood, and no-frills, lowbrow joints flourish on word-of-mouth popularity (85 at the last count). “Burnt ends” is a particular Kansas specialty – tasty pieces of meat cut from the charred end of a smoked beef brisket, smothered with sauce. Each BBQ joint offers subtle differences in flavours, smokes and especially secret ‘special’ sauces. Oklahoma Joe’s and Gates Bar-B-Q are local favourites, but even the most famous place – Arthur Bryant’s – rarely feels touristy.

4) Dead Presidents: Eisenhower, Hoover and Truman

Aficionados of presidential history will find some big hitters on the Great Plains: Dwight D Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander in World War II and 34th President (1953–1961) grew up in little old Abilene, Kansas; his predecessor Harry Truman (1945–1952) was a proud Missourian from Independence; and the much-maligned Herbert Hoover (31st President, 1929–1933) grew up in similarly small-town West Branch, Iowa. All three places celebrate their favourite sons with preserved childhood homes, presidential libraries and some of the best museums in the nation, covering everything from the 1929 Wall Street Crash (blamed on Hoover) to the Cold War (partly blamed on Truman).

5) Tallgrass Prairie: Flint Hills Scenic Byway, KS

Forget those flatland stereotypes; the Flint Hills of Kansas are rolling, wild hills that seem as bleak as Yorkshire moors in winter, then erupt with colourful blooms and bright green grasses in the spring. This is the prairies as they were five hundred years ago. Get oriented at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in the college town of Manhattan, a futuristic building crammed with hands-on exhibits and superb displays. From here, drive south on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (aka Hwy-177), which cuts along the hills and through gorgeous rural villages that seem a million miles from anywhere; at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, just north of Strong City, there’s a small visitor centre and hiking trails.

 

6) Price Tower, OK

Surprise: the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ever built is not in New York or Chicago, but Oklahoma – in tiny old Bartlesville, 72km north of Tulsa. Completed in 1956, this 67m-tall, incongruous copper pinnacle doesn’t disappoint, its verdigris-stained walls, triangular spaces and cubicle-like elevators retaining Lloyd’s distinctive, ornamental style. Stay the night (it’s a hotel), and the fantasy is complete; luxurious rooms decked out like a Mad Men set, with copper work, sleek Venetian blinds and stylish 50’s showers. You can also grab a drink at the Copper Bar on its top floors.

7) Indie, Red Dirt & Woody Guthrie, NE and OK

Live music is alive and well on the Great Plains, where Omaha, Nebraska sports a dynamic indie music scene featuring the likes of local bands Bright Eyes, Cursive, Neva Dinova and The Faint. Modest Stillwater, Oklahoma, is the home of Red Dirt Music, a blend of folk, country, blues and rock styles, with hometown bands the All-American Rejects, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, No Justice, the Jason Savory Band and the godfather of the genre, Bob Childers.

Tulsa, Oklahoma has its own musical legacy, a mix of rockabilly, country, rock and blues that emerged as the Tulsa Sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s (JJ Cale and The Gap Band were part of the movement). Today Tulsa is the home of the spanking new Woody Guthrie Center – crammed with videos and listening posts, fans of the Oklahoma-born folk hero should plan to spend several happy hours here.

8) Oklahoma National Stockyards and Cattlemen’s, OK

Surrounded by a vast sea of cattle pens, crammed with black angus and Hereford bulls, the Oklahoma National Stockyards auction house jerks into life every Monday and Tuesday morning, when frenetic auctions – free and open to the public – facilitate the sale of thousands of dollars worth of cattle between Stetson-wearing ranchers. You won’t understand a word the quick-fire auctioneer says, but you won’t need to. Vegetarians and animal-lovers should obviously steer clear, but everyone else should visit nearby Cattlemen’s afterwards, for some of the most juicy, buttery steak in the country.

9) Ozark National Scenic Riverways, MO

Deep inside the Ozarks, the forest-smothered hills that separate the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, this is the first national park to protect a river system; indulge in kayaking, fishing or that time-honoured tradition of tubing down the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. There’s nothing like floating down a crystal-clear river slouched inside a giant tyre on a hot summer afternoon, but the park is also home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, trails and historic sites.

10) The Cherokee and the Five Tribes, OK

Most Native Americans actually live in the ‘middle bit’, from the Great Sioux Nation of South Dakota to the 39 sovereign tribes of Oklahoma. It pays to remember there’s really no such thing as ‘Native American culture’; every tribe and nation is unique, with their own traditions, languages and customs. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, OK is especially illuminating, with a replica ancient village and display on the Trail of Tears; the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, highlights the art, history and culture of not just the Cherokee, but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes.

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There’s no better place to experience classical drama than the ancient theatre at Epidavros, just outside the pretty harbour town of Nafplio in the Greek Peloponnese. Dating back to the fourth century BC, it seats 14,000 people and is known above all for its extraordinary acoustics – as guides regularly demonstrate, you can hear a pin drop in its circular orchestra (the most complete in existence) even if you’re sitting on the highest of the theatre’s 54 tiers. It’s a venue for regular performances of the plays of Sophocles and Euripedes between June and September every year. Occasionally these are in English, but whether you understand the modern Greek in which they are usually performed or not, the setting is utterly unforgettable, carved into the hill behind and with the brooding mountains beyond.

Epidavros is open daily 8am–7pm (winter until 5pm). Entrance costs €6. Plays are performed on Fri & Sat eve June–Aug.

 

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Stephen Keeling follows in the footsteps of Mark Twain, the American literary giant who penned such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was “raised” there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.” – Mark Twain, 1867

It was starting to get dark as I arrived on the Main Street of Hannibal, with its sleepy ensemble of nineteenth-century red-brick and clapboard and parked my car. A few steps away, the great swirling muddy waters of the Mississippi rushed past the dock, speckled with tree branches that brushed the far, wooded banks on the other side. No one was around; in the twilight it was easy to imagine that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and all their barefooted, mischievous crew would come paddling into view.

No other place had as much influence on Mark Twain as Hannibal. Born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Twain moved to Hannibal when he was four and grew up along the great river. He based his seminal novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his early life here, and today the short stretch of historic properties on Main Street is crammed with restaurants, gift shops and museums dedicated to his memory. It sounds touristy, and it can be, but avoid the busy summer months and the river and the bucolic surroundings that inspired Twain are largely unchanged.

Twain lived in Hannibal for 14 years from 1839, his time here meticulously chronicled at the illuminating Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The site includes humble Huckleberry Finn House, a reconstruction of the home of Tom Blankenship, Twain’s vey real model for Huck:

He [Blankenship] was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us”.

The Boyhood Home itself on Hill Street is a simple, white clapboard house where Twain lived with his family, its rooms restored in period style. Further along Main Street is the Mark Twain Museum, where a hall of exhibits and videos re-create scenes from Twain’s books.

Mark Twain Cave

“It was an easy place to get lost in; anybody could do it – including the bats. I got lost in it myself, along with a lady, and our last candle burned down to almost nothing before we glimpsed the search party’s lights…”

About one mile south of Hannibal, the Mark Twain Cave is as much testimony to the influence of Twain’s fiction as the appeal of creepy caverns. In this cave system, which featured heavily in Tom Sawyer, Twain and his gang spent many happy hours terrifying one another. By the 1880s it had already become a major attraction for Twain fans: the smoke from their lanterns and their graffiti (as well as the signature of Jesse James, who hid here) are still much in evidence. The caves themselves are an intriguing warren of narrow passages, with bizarre limestone deposits piled up like pancakes.

Hartford, Connecticut

“To us our house was not unsentient matter – it had a heart & a soul & eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”

Twain’s life itself makes for an astonishing and increasingly tragic tale: he went bankrupt in 1893, and suffered the death of three of his children and wife before he passed away in Redding, Connecticut in 1910. Some of the happiest times of his life were spent in Hartford, Connecticut, over 1000 miles east of the river where he grew up. The old hilltop community known as Nook Farm was home to Twain and his family from 1874 to 1891, and the bizarrely ornate Mark Twain House was where this giant of American literature penned many of his classic works, including Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and The Pauper.

Tours of the house offer tantalizing insights into the life of the author, as well as drawing attention to the lavish and somewhat eccentric furnishings – black-and-orange brickwork, elaborate woodwork and the only domestic Tiffany interior open to the public. Twain’s legendary wit and ground-breaking writing style are explored throughout the museum, while the engrossing Ken Burns biographical documentary about him plays in the theatre.

Elmira, New York

“…since we have perched away up here on top of the hill near heaven I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel and am more moved to help shove the clouds around, and get the stars on deck promptly…

Twain’s funeral was held in New York in 1910, but his body was transported to Elmira, in upstate New York, hometown of his wife and where his sister-in-law maintained a summer home; Twain came here to write every summer for over twenty years beginning in 1870. His tiny writing room – a comfy octagonal shed – was moved from Quarry Farm (still a private home) to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952, where you can still see it today.

Twain’s relatively simple grave, in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, is marked by a stone monument near a shady grove, along with the resting places of his wife, his children and his only grandchild.

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Stephen Keeling is co-author of the Rough Guides to New York and New England. Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USA.

For almost twenty years at the end of the last century, Britain’s most famous spa town had no thermal baths. The opening of the new Thermae Bath Spa in 2006, at the centre of this World Heritage City, was therefore a watershed in Bath’s history. Once the haunt of the Roman elite who founded the city 2000 years ago, and later frequented by British Royalty like Elizabeth I and Charles II, Britain’s only natural thermal spa boasts a uniquely soothing atmosphere with gentle lighting and curative vapours, the surrounding grandeur testament to the importance given to these therapeutic waters.

The spa’s centrepiece is its rooftop pool, where on cold winter evenings the Twilight bathing package allows you to enjoy majestic views of Bath’s Abbey and its genteel Georgian architecture through wisps of rising steam from the pool’s 33.5°C water. The Celts thought that the goddess Sul was the force behind the spring, but we now know that the waters probably fell as rain in the nearby Mendip Hills some 10,000 years ago, before being pushed 2km upwards through bedrock and limestone to arrive at the pools enriched with minerals and hot enough to treat respiratory, muscular and skin problems.

The new spa’s remarkable design contrasts existing listed Georgian buildings and colonnades with contemporary glass curves and fountains, employing local Bath stone to impressive effect. The covered Minerva Bath provides thermal water jets for shoulder massage, while you can indulge in an astonishing variety of massages and treatments like reiki, shiatsu, body wraps and flotation in the classical Hot Bath, built in 1778 and restored with twelve treatment rooms and a striking glass ceiling. Elsewhere, four steam rooms offer eucalyptus, mint and lavender scents, and there is a giant thermal shower to reinvigorate the soul. When you’ve had your fill of relaxation, the old Roman Baths nearby are well worth a visit, too – they offer one of the world’s best-preserved insights into Roman culture, complete with authentic Latin graffiti.

Prices start at £24 for a two-hour spa session in the New Royal Bath (including access to the rooftop pool, Minerva Bath, steam rooms and restaurant). The smaller, historic Cross Bath lies opposite the main complex with its own facilities; a one-and-a-half hour sesssion here costs £14. See www.thermaebathspa.com for more details.

 

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Outside the progressive town of Taormina, Sicily, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere finds phallic fun at a penis-themed café.

My long hair brushes against an erect penis as my hand firmly grips onto a dark phallus that protrudes from the bannister. Rows of excited male members line the windowsill, while others seemingly pop out of each corner of the room. I even spot a rather large one on the balcony. As my eyes adjust from the scorching sun outside, a thinner, smaller one suddenly pops into my field of vision.

At first glance I could be in the setting of a kinky porn film, or even a female brothel. Yet, I am in neither. I am in an Italian café called Turrisi.

The menu is in the shape of a penis and, feeling rather peckish, I eagerly open it. I am immediately confronted with an image of a courgette and two tomatoes, which happily sit side by side in the shape of the male organ. This could nearly be an Italian version of The Sun’s Page 3, I think to myself.

A group of middle-aged ladies giggle at a very large penis which royally sits in the middle of their wooden table, while their husbands uncomfortably shift in their seats, not knowing where to look.

At first glance this café – where wooden penis statuettes, stone male members and all manner of phallic memorabilia dot the premises – may seem vulgar. However, there’s a lot more to this laid-back spot in Castelmola, a small village perched on a hill just above Taormina.

Massimo, the café’s third generation owner, tells me more about the establishment’s curious history. “The bar was opened in 1947 by my grandfather” he tells me. “At the time, it wasn’t exactly a bar as it is now, it was more of a post-war bazaar, a souvenir shop-cum-cafe, where customers were served almond wine, traditional to this part of Sicily. This area was historically a winery for the Greeks, where wine was sweetened to be transported.”

I sip on my alcoholic almond drink, which nowadays is mostly produced using white wine. Massimo goes on: “In the mid-19th century, Taormina, and in general this area of Sicily, was far more progressive than many other parts of the country and even Europe”.

Indeed, poets, writers, painters and actors were attracted to the area for its natural beauty: the glistening warm waters of the Mediterranean; the Greek ruins; Mount Etna gracefully sloping in the distance, at times lit up by bright rivers of lava that gently snake its sides. In the mid 19th century, Taormina and the surrounding area became a magnet for artists wanting to retreat to a calm and peaceful location which would provide inspiration for their work.

“Painters looked back back to the Hellenistic period, depicting nudes, many of which were carried out here in Castelmola” he continues. “The German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, for example, chose this area as the setting for many of his nudes of young boys. The lax liberal ways of bohemian artists and openness to sexual trends were a manner of life here, and my grandfather wanted to show this through the bar’s decor.”

The area certainly must have been a liberal corner of the peninsula. I couldn’t quite imagine my Italian grandmother sipping a coffee here in the 50’s, among a select collection of phalli pointing in all directions.

The furniture and objects displayed were all commissioned by the family and carried out exclusively by Sicilian carpenters and blacksmiths. Massimo reveals that an even larger collection remains behind closed doors. “Certain valuable objects are best not displayed. You’d be surprised to hear how many people try and steal objects here. I even had to install cameras last year”.

I soon learn that in the 1990’s, a regular client saw a group of men fleeing the bar with a rather large member – so large it was clearly not their own – and stuffing it into the car before quickly driving off. The witness took down the number plate and the police were soon called to the scene. The car was tracked down and the thief – a lawyer from Catania – soon returned the stolen object saying that he and his friends had been “taken over by the moment”. I chuckled at the thought of a Sicilian lawyer fleeing with a large penis in hand.

Indeed, the bar and the eclectic collection of phalli has gained such popularity that many have tried to recreate this atmosphere in other locations. However, removing the café from its historic context is impossible. “The café, with its decor, is rooted in a well-defined historical, social and cultural context. It was born here not by chance, but because there were certain factors which led to its creation, right here, and right then, in 1947.”

Behind me, a statue of the town’s patron Saint seems out of place, innocently standing out among a collection of erotic memorabilia. “This is Sicily, this is our history”, Massimo tells me, indicating above to an age-old wooden cart decorated with intricate arabesques which hangs from the ceiling.

A visitors’ book, a large tome, lies open on a stand. Intrigued, I flick through and read some comments. Most appear to be drawings. Customers, some more artistically skilled than others, express their delight with infantile drawings of the full package, some enriched with stringy hairs sprouting out of cartoon testicles. Clients and regulars have become such prolific artists since the first book was displayed in 1952 that Massimo now has over one hundred tomes stacked away.

Although Massimo despairs at where to place the next volume, he is grateful for his clientele’s comments and drawings. In fact, the café’s logo and menu cover were both inspired by clients’ art. Each little detail here seems to have been thought through. As I later wash my hands in the bathroom upstairs, my reflection looks back at me in a penis shaped mirror. Even the tap has been carefully chosen – the two round handles are testicles, while the water sprout is a perfectly designed phallus, which automatically spurts water in an accurate replica of bladder-emptying delight.

Massimo later presents me with a folded business card, which I slip into my pocket and forget about until a few hours later, when I reach for my hotel key. I flip it open and a small paper penis flings out towards me – it is, naturally, erect, and serves as a gentle reminder of Castelmola’s exciting history.

You can explore more of Sicily and Italy with the Rough Guide to Italy and more.

A hallmark of modern architecture, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a superb addition to Alexandria’s cityscape. A stunning work of stone and metal, the central library features a huge, tilted glass roof reminiscent of a sundial, and the walls are carved with text from over 120 languages, ancient and modern. Its location beside the Mediterranean only emphasizes its sophisticated lines of construction. Everything is created to inspire admiration and to remind the visitor of the importance of the library’s past role.

The Bibliotheca, which opened in 2003, harks back to Alexandria’s role as a prominent seat of learning in ancient times. Ptolemy II of Egypt opened the original Library of Alexandria in the third century BC, from which point it grew into the largest library in the world. While the modern incarnation does not have such high aspirations – it is still relatively small when compared with other international libraries – it is well on its way to establishing itself on the academic circuit.

But this is much more than a library. In addition to the central collection there are museums of antiquities, manuscripts and the history of science; galleries for temporary art displays; a planetarium; special sections for children; and rare books available nowhere else in the world. You can wander around the permanent collection of Egyptian film-maker, writer and artist Shadi Abdel Salam. Or take a seat in front of a cultural film relating the history of Egypt. And once you’ve done all that, it’s not a bad place to find a quiet corner and settle down with a good book or two.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is at El Shatby 21526. See www.bibalex.org for more.

 

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