By now we all know what’s on the Croatia bucket list – the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Dubrovnik’s medieval walls, and at least one of Croatia’s growing roster of music festivals. However there’s a lot more to Croatia than meets the eye, so it’s well worth planning a few detours to take in some of the country’s contemporary architecture, offbeat attractions and unforeseen cultural connections.

Heartbreak House: Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships

For a voyage into the more tumescent recesses of the human psyche, there are few better starting points than Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships ­– a travelling art installation that became a permanently grounded museum in 2010. Based on mementoes donated by the public, it’s a compelling and unique museum of wistful memory and raw emotion, with exhibits ranging from garden gnomes to prosthetic limbs. Each is accompanied by a text explaining why it was so significant to the donor – some are touching, others quite kinky; and quite a few belong to the obsessive world of a David Lynch movie.

Adriatic Modernism: stay in the Hotel Lone

Throughout the 1960s and 70s the Adriatic coast experienced a boom in contemporary architecture, and there are signs that Croatia’s modernist traditions are making a comeback. Looming out of the trees above Lone Bay, just outside the chic Istrian resort of Rovinj, the amoeba-shaped Hotel Lone was designed by Zagreb architects 3LHD, and filled with furnishings, textiles and artworks supplied by Croatia’s leading creatives. Completed in 2011, it’s a rare example of a new Adriatic hotel that functions as both luxury accommodation and complete work of art. If you can’t afford a room, peek inside the circular lobby to see Ivana Franke’s geometric installation Room for Running Ghosts, or the textile wall-hangings knocked up by Zagreb fashion designers I-GLE.

Meet the ancestors (I): Krapina Neanderthal Museum

The discovery of Neanderthal bones near Krapina in 1899 puts this small north-Croatian town firmly on the European prehistory map. However, it took until 2010 for Krapina to get the museum it deserved – an ambitious, ultra-modern, hillside-hugging structure that is little short of a museum of life, the universe and everything. Visitors ascend a spiral pathway, confronting stages in the earth’s development from big bangs onwards. And as a tour de force in evolutionary theory, the museum seems guaranteed to send creationists squealing for the exits. The most entertaining aspects of the museum are devoted to the Neanderthals themselves – a film featuring human actors in prosthetic masks re-creates a day in the life of a Neanderthal tribe, and the display culminates in a diorama featuring startlingly lifelike Neanderthal dummies.

Neanderthals, Neanderthal museum, Croatia

Meet the Ancestors (II): Varaždin Cemetery

Few European cemeteries are as restful and meditative as the city graveyard in Varaždin, a minor horticultural masterpiece that was very much the life’s work of park keeper Hermann Haller (1875-1953). A serious student of European graveyards, Haller came to the conclusion that cemeteries should be life-enhancing public parks, rather than the sombre preserve of wreath-laying mourners. He accordingly planted row upon row of conifers, carefully sculpted into stately green pillars that towered over the graves themselves – thereby providing “quiet and harmonious hiding places” for the deceased, as Haller himself explained. It’s also something of an outdoor art gallery too, with a wealth of fine funerary sculpture in amongst the greenery.

The medieval meets the modern: Novigrad Lapidarium

If there was a league table for outstanding small museums of the world then Novigrad’s Lapidarium would surely end up somewhere in the top ten. Designed by Rijeka-based architects Randić and Turato, the innovative structure consists of two black-box exhibition spaces enclosed within a glass pavilion. The exhibits feature some fabulous examples of stone carving taken from Novigrad’s medieval churches. Animated gryphons, strutting peacocks and swooning cypresses exemplify the lust for beauty in early Croatian art.

Adriatic Icons: Orson Welles

Head for the Joker shopping centre, northeast of central Split, and you’ll come face to face with a bolero-wearing bronze sculpture of Hollywood director Orson Welles. The statue was designed by Welles’s long-time companion, Croatian-born actress and sculptor Oja Kodar, who he met while shooting gloomy central European exteriors for his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial in Zagreb in 1961. Croatia became a second home to Welles, who acted in local-made films (including the partisan war epic Battle on the Neretva in 1969), had a holiday villa at Primošten, and – according to local lore – was an eager follower of Hajduk Split football team.

Twenty-first century townscapes: The Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun

This wave-powered musical instrument, which also serves as vantage point from which to observe the sunset, will soon lull you into a state of Adriatic bliss. Located on the seafront promenade in Zadar the organ consists of a broad stone stairway descending towards the sea. Wave action pushes air through a series of underwater pipes and up through niches cut into the steps, producing a selection of mellow musical notes. The organ’s architect, Nikola Bašić, also designed the Greeting to the Sun just up the seafront – a huge disk paved with light-sensitive tiles, which accumulate solar power during the daytime and radiate a seemingly random sequence of coloured lights at night. It’s absolutely hypnotic and enormously popular with tourists of all ages, who can spend hours here basking in the Greeting’s mood-enhancing glow.

Sea Organ, Zadar, Croatia

Industrial Design Classics: the Rijeka Torpedo

It was the 19th-century naval yards of Rijeka that gave birth to the world’s first torpedo, built for the Austro-Hungarian navy by pioneering Croatian engineer Ivan Blaž Lupis and his English colleague Robert Whitehead. To see a surviving example however, you have to go to Split, where a surprisingly anonymous corner of the Maritime Museum plays host to one of Croatian engineering’s greatest triumphs. Looking like something out of a Jules Verne novel, this sleek cigar-shaped relic possesses an undeniably seductive aura.

Vampire Folklore: Jure Grando

Express an interest in vampires in today’s Croatia and you’ll probably be told that you’ve come to the wrong country – and yet belief in the supernatural creatures was widespread here until a couple of centuries ago. Europe’s first documented case of vampirism took place in the Istrian village of Kringa in the 1670s, when the nocturnal bed-hopping adventures of recently-deceased Jure Grando (and the subsequent stake-through-the-heart action taken by locals) was recorded for posterity by Slovenian chronicler J.J. Valvasor. Surprisingly, little has been made of this vampire heritage so far, save for a small Jure Grando museum in the centre of Kringa; the next-door Caffe-Bar Vampir is more welcoming than it sounds.

An Adriatic Rock Garden: Dubrovnik’s Orsula Park

For an open-air concert experience with a difference, head 3km east of Dubrovnik to find Orsula Park, a dramatically sloping area of shrubs and pathways commanding a famously jaw-dropping view of the walled city and its port. The park’s amphitheatre-style bank of seating is pressed into use each summer during the Mali Glazbeni Festival (Little Music Festival), a season of concerts that attracts many of the big local names in rock, rap and world music. Live gigs under the stars don’t come much better than this.

If you find yourself in Quito, a visit to the equator is more or less obligatory – the middle of the Earth is only about a thirty-minute drive north from the Ecuadorean capital. As you get closer, the highland vegetation gives way to sandy plains punctuated by uninspiring brown hills. The “Mitad del Mundo” monument itself is even less exciting: a low-level metal-and-stone affair, it sits at the point determined by a French scientific expedition in 1736 to be latitude 0° 0’ 0”. The real treat here is to stand on the red-painted equator line, with one foot in each hemisphere. Doing so is more than just an unmissable photo opportunity: you can’t help but be struck by a sense of reverence.

It all seems a bit unreal – and it may be: about 150m north, a short walk up the highway, is a rival museum, Inti Ñan, which claims that it sits on the location of the real equator line, a point well known to mystics from Ecuador’s indigenous Quichua peoples since pre-Columbian times. There’s no monument and everything has a very home-made feel, but you do get to interact with the magnetic forces at work here. A sink is produced, filled and then emptied of water to show you that instead of swirling, water at the equator runs straight down the plug. You can also balance an egg on a nail, since the forces of gravity are weaker. The passion of the guides involves more than the position of the equator line: Inti Ñan is about honouring traditional knowledge as much as scientific accuracy.

Ultimately, a visit to the equator would be incomplete if you didn’t go to each of the museums, tipping your hat to the achievements of both early modern science and ancient heritage. Rather than transcendental cosmic awe, you’re more likely to be somewhat comforted by the kitschy understatedness of it all, as if the Earth is having the last laugh.

A bus runs from Avenida América in Quito to Mitad del Mundo. For Inti Ñan, turn left from the Mitad del Mundo, walk uphill a few hundred metres and then follow signs left again.

 

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New boutique hostels, quirky nightlife and a medley of world cuisines are making Santiago stand out among the crowd of popular Latin American capitals.

After spending a long time in the shadows of its more illustrious South American neighbours like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, Santiago is finally coming into its own. The Chilean capital’s economy continues to expand – as evidenced by the new 300m Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America – fuelling a burgeoning eating, drinking and nightlife scene. The city also has a selection of great hotels and some idiosyncratic and thought-provoking attractions.

Accommodation

New boutique hotels (and indeed “boutique hostels”) are springing up all the time in Santiago, and there are options for every budget. If you’re short on pesos, head to Happy House in the bohemian neighbourhood of Barrio Brasil, a classy hostel in an atmospheric turn-of-the-century townhouse. At the other end of the scale, despite the presence of glamorous outposts of global chains like The W and the Ritz-Carlton, the more intimate and no less luxurious Aubrey gets our vote. Located in lively Bellavista, it combines stellar service with effortlessly stylish rooms.

Gran Torre, Santiago

Eating out

Santiago’s eating out scene has really taken off in recent years and you can find a surprisingly diverse range of cuisines, including Peruvian, Mexican, Cuban, Indian, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, French and Italian, as well as – of course – Chilean.  Highlights include: Kintaro in the historic centre, where Chile’s superlative seafood is turned into exquisite sushi and sashimi; and Ciudad Vieja, also in Bellavista, which has turned sandwich-making into an art form (the home-brewed beer is a perfect accompaniment).

Sometimes, however, the classics are the best. Travelling gastronome Anthony Bourdain said the best food he ate in Chile was at the traditional El Hoyo, near the Estación Central. Hearty pork dishes are the specialty here, as is the deadly Terremoto (Earthquake), a potent blend of white wine, pisco and pineapple ice cream.

Drinking and nightlife

The bohemian neighbourhoods of Barrio Brasil and Barrio Yungay are popular night spots at the moment, though – rather more surprisingly – the historic centre is also home to some gems. It is here that you’ll find The Clinic, a quirky joint run by the satirical magazine of the same name (imagine a bar run by Private Eye and you’re on the right track).

Over in Bellavista, Santiago’s traditional nightlife district, Etniko transforms itself from a swish pan-Asian restaurant during the evening into a hip, blue neon-lit bar-club later on – the sake-based cocktails are particularly good. (Although it may look closed, you just have to ring the doorbell to enter).

Attractions

Santiago’s striking location – the city is situated on a plain at the base of the Andes – is best admired from the summit of Cerro San Cristóbal, an 806m-high hill covered with parks, botanical gardens and – perfect for the summer months – outdoor swimming pools.

Due to reopen at the end of 2013 following a major revamp, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino has one of Latin America’s finest collections of pre-Columbian art, with a collection spanning 10,000 years.

Memory and Human Rights Museum, Santiago, Chile

This September marks the 40th anniversary of the violent Pinochet coup that overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende, so a visit to the moving Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is a must. Housed in an impressive glass building, this modern museum is dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, during which over 3000 people died or “disappeared”.

Another echo of the Pinochet years, though lighter in tone, is the former home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, a prominent Allende supporter. Known as La Chascona (“The Tangled-Haired Woman”, a tribute to the thick red hair of Neruda’s wife, Matilde), the painstakingly restored house is an evocative tribute to Neruda – highlights include a library of around 9000 books and a portrait of Matilde by Diego Rivera. (Two other of Neruda’s homes have also been turned into museums, one in Valparaíso, the other in Isla Negra.)

Day and overnight trips

And if you tire of city life, the vineyards of the Casablanca Valley, world class ski runs at Portillo and Valle Nevado, and Pacific beaches of the Litoral Central are all within easy striking distance of Santiago.

Shafik Meghji is the co-author of The Rough Guide to Chile. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji.

If getting up close to the Mona Lisa was never easy, in the wake of Da Vinci Code fever it’s now almost as challenging as the puzzle at the heart of Dan Brown’s blockbuster. But come on a Wednesday or Friday evening for one of the Louvre’s late openings, and you’ll find things considerably quieter.

Make your way along the shadowy, labyrinthine corridors to the outstanding Italian collection, where the famous Grande Galerie, its blonde parquet stretching into the dark distance, displays all the great names in Italian Renaissance art: Mantegna, Botticelli, Titian, Bellini, Raphael, Veronese. And then, of course, there’s Leonardo’s Mona Lisa herself – without the daytime swarms, you may get the opportunity to truly appreciate this strange and beguiling painting.

 

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In an emotional venture to Pennsylvania, with Lincoln’s speech echoing in his ears, Rough Guides writer Stephen Keeling remembers the Battle of Gettysburg – the deadliest battle in the American civil war – 150 years on.

I can’t remember when I first heard about the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was probably at school. Even growing up in the UK we learnt a little about the US Civil War, its most decisive battle and President Lincoln, but it wasn’t until college that I studied the period in more detail. Still, it remained a fairly distant subject – a historic event of great consequence, not a real place.

But of course, Gettysburg is a real place. When I finally visited I had absolutely no idea what it would be like; my conception of Gettysburg – the battle, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – was all black and white photos, a symbol of the Civil War and little more.

Visiting a real place that you’ve studied for so long in books can be jarring. Sipping my coffee and nibbling my muffin in Hunt’s Fresh Cut Battlefield Fries and Café, it was hard to believe I was really here; where 150 years ago this was the turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North with some 51,000 casualties. Yet, people were going about their business: driving trucks, fixing the road, delivering letters.

Today, Gettysburg is just a small, fairly ordinary college town of seven thousand, but cocooned within the National Military Park; rolling fields, barns and woodland frozen in time, laced with a 24-mile auto route lined by heavy wood “pig tight, cow high” rider fences, linking all the key locations of the battle.

Cemetery With American Flags, Gettysburg National Military Park, USA

I should have visited the museum first, but I was too curious see the battlefield. Most battlefields I’d visited in the past were literally just fields, dotted with the odd pillar or two, but Gettysburg is different. The road snakes through tranquil, bucolic countryside – distant dogs barks and motors hum, and on Sundays bells chime – but is lined with sombre stone memorials to the battle. Giant obelisks and heroic statues commemorate generals, battalions and whole states. The effect is a bit like driving through a giant cemetery, which of course it is, or least sacred ground. Pretty quickly it becomes hard to absorb the sheer scale of the battle, its confusing twists and turns and its terrible losses.

The ridge where the fighting kicked off is dominated by a large, lonely equestrian statue of Union Major General John Reynolds, who died here in the first hours of the battle – a disaster for the Union. In fact, by the end of the first day, the Confederates had the upper hand; today the observation tower at Oak Ridge looks down the slopes towards Gettysburg College, but 150 years ago this is where the Union lines crumbled.

But perhaps the most poignant part of the battlefield is the location of  “Pickett’s Charge”, where 12,000 Confederates charged 7,000 entrenched Union soldiers in a brave but hopeless bid to win the battle. With over 50 percent casualties, it turned into a decisive defeat that ended Lee’s campaign. Looking across the flat, grassy fields today, it’s hard to imagine so many men died here.

At the end of the auto route you reach the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and here the scale of the carnage starts to hit home. Thousands of gravestones dot the site, small rectangles of granite and US flags amongst grander monuments – and this is just for Union casualties (most Confederate dead ended up in Southern cemeteries). It was here, at the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most powerful speeches of all time.

It’s a moving place. Small groups of tourists wander the rows, in hushed reverence; gardeners tend the plots and birds flit and sing in the trees. Coming here when bodies were still being interred, visible signs of destruction all around, Lincoln must have felt utterly devastated; he only chose to speak for two minutes, but chose his words with diamond-like purpose.

Gettysburg Cyclorama, Gettysburg National Military Park, USA

I moved on to the civil war museum at the visitor centre. With its relics of the battle and illuminating film narrated by Morgan Freeman, it helps you put the battle into some kind of order. Exhibits try to offer some perspective on the suffering, death and the vast scale of the battle, but only succeed to a point; try to imagine 8000 bodies, lying in the burning summer sun, and over 3,000 dead horses being burned in great pyres. The townsfolk became violently sick from the stench.

The closest I could really get to the battle was at the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, a cycle of murals depicting the fury of the fighting in a specially constructed circular hall, also in the new visitor centre. The depiction of “Pickett’s Charge” is especially realistic; the scattered bodies of horses and men, the confusion and the sheer hopelessness of it all, the waste. When I had studied the battle at college, the connection between the fighting, the terrible shock of Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s address had seemed almost coincidental; now it started to make more sense:

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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.

America goes all out for 4th of July celebrations. Sure, people are remembering that historic declaration on the fourth of July, 1776, but they’re also ready to enjoy a three-day weekend right in the middle of the summer. That usually means barbecues, parades, free concerts and fireworks. Whether you celebrate in a big city or a small town, you’ll get a true taste of what the Fourth means in these ten places.

Washington, D.C.

It’s as if the National Mall – the three-kilometre-long lawn at the city’s heart – was built for fireworks displays, and this one has perhaps the biggest budget in the country. During the day you can watch grand military parades (including the army’s Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps in historic regalia) and graze at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Fourth of July fireworks, National Mall, White House, Washington

New York City

The legendary fireworks over Manhattan are set off from barges on the Hudson River as the famous skyline stands in silhouette under the show. Head to West Side Highway, which will be closed off to make way for crowds of spectators in the midtown area, or the waterfront around Battery Park City for spectacular views of the action. For VIP treatment, you can hop a cruise boat to eat, drink and dance the night away. During the day, don’t miss the hot dog eating contest at Coney Island, which is pure Americana though almost always won by a Japanese contestant.

Philadelphia

For the best historic surrounds, America’s birth place can’t be beaten. Visit the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, and once you’ve done your homework, hit the food vendors at the seven-block-long Party on the Parkway. Fireworks go off over the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while the country’s largest free concert features an eclectic mix of pop artists (this year it includes John Mayer, Neo and Philly locals The Roots).

Boston

Another grand old American city with a grand old tradition: Boston anchors its celebration with a Boston Pops performance, culminating in a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with cannons, church bells and of course fireworks exploding over the Charles River.

Fourth of July Celebration, Independence Day, Boston, Massachusetts

Marblehead, Massachusetts

This scenic coastal town just north of Boston offers a truly small-town American experience with flair. The daytime Marblehead Festival of Arts, which runs the whole weekend, sets the tone for creativity, at events like a sand sculpture contest and the Horribles Parade, a New England satirical tradition that features kids and pets in decorated wagons and bikes. Fireworks light up the bay after.

Addison, Texas

Just 20km from Dallas, this community of 15,000 is better known as “Kaboom! Town”, as its massive fireworks budget rivals that of major metropolises, and over half a million people come to watch the sky explode in color every year. Because of the vast crowds it’s best to park out of town and walk to see the display.

Bristol, Rhode Island

This small seaport claims the longest-running Fourth of July celebrations in the country, with a parade running every year since 1785. The place is so dedicated to the holiday that the center stripe down its main streets is painted red, white and blue, and the buildup to the Independence Day starts three weeks earlier, on Flag Day, with a whole series of pageants, parades and concerts—so you can get in the spirit of the Fourth before the big day arrives.

Fourth of July Celebration, Independence Day, Bristol, Rhode Island

 Key Biscayne, Florida

Just across the water from Miami, the town’s parade is a huge event, and the oldest of its kind in southern Florida—it’s been going for 54 years, and participants are motivated by the $1,000 prize for the best float. The parade shows off the community pride, and the fireworks are world class. (In fact, you can even cheat and watch them from Miami Beach.)

Las Vegas

Who says you have to honor history with old traditions? The party capital of the West celebrates with just a bit more glitz than usual, with a performance and fireworks by the Las Vegas Philharmonic, while clubs host big-name DJs, drink specials and even topless pool parties. For more wholesome fun, head to nearby Boulder City for its Damboree, where you’ll find thrill rides, games and a pie-eating contest.

Madrid, New Mexico

This reclaimed ghost town, south of Santa Fe, stretches their parade along the main drag, and back again, just to make the festivities last 15 minutes. Madroids, as locals call themselves, roll up with whatever they’ve got: a fire truck, bicycles, old Cadillacs, a llama or two. This event may not be worth flying in for, but it’s typical of the celebratory spirit found in even the tiniest American towns on the Fourth of July—no matter where you land, you’ll find something special.

Zora O’Neill blogs at rovinggastronome.com and you can follow her on Twitter on @zora.

Popular with tourists for its access to the “end of the world” at Argentina’s southern tip, Ushuaia was once inhabited by mass murderers, anarchists and pirates after the Argentine government set up a penal colony in 1896.

Ushuaia draws hordes of tourists eager to visit Tierra del Fuego and experience life at the “end of the world”, as Argentina’s tourist authorities like to style it. Few visitors to this picturesque and beguiling spot realise, however, that among the city’s first settlers were some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, who had been sent to what was once known as the “Siberia of Argentina”.

In an effort to consolidate Argentina’s sovereignty over this region of Tierra del Fuego and open it up for further settlement, the Argentine government established a penal colony here in 1896. The early city’s buildings and infrastructure – including the railway that runs to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, 12km west of Ushuaia – were built by forced convict labour.

The End of the World Train Penal Colony, Ushuaia

Overlooking the icy Beagle Channel and backed by a snow-covered mountain range, the prison itself must surely have been the most beautifully situated in the world. Not that the views would have provided much comfort for the inmates, who suffered truly horrific conditions, as a tour around the prison – which closed in 1947 and is now an atmospheric museum, the Museo Marítimo y Presidio – starkly illustrates.

The prison was designed in the panopticon style – the wings radiating out like spokes from a half wheel – to allow the wardens to observe inmates without them knowing they were being watched. The wings have now been opened up to the public; two host artworks and maritime exhibits, while wing four tells the fascinating tales of some of the most notorious residents, giving an all-too-real insight into the horrors they endured.

Conditions in the prison were spartan to say the least. Each of the cramped cells had a tiny window, a wooden platform that functioned as a bed, a rudimentary chair and a narrow counter. The only personal possessions a well-behaved prisoner was allowed were a couple of books, stationary, sugar and mate (a type of herbal tea, Argentina’s national drink). Dangerous convicts were kept in check by heavy shackles and bulbous ball-and-chains.

A couple of small heaters outside in the corridor were the only source of warmth for the whole wing. Today, even if you visit during the height of summer, there is a noticeable chill in the cells – what conditions were like in the depths of winter, when temperatures in Ushuaia can plunge well below zero, hardly bears thinking about.

Old prison converted to museum, near Tierra del Fuego National Park, Ushuaia, Argentina

For those inmates deemed fit enough to work, backbreaking days were spent felling trees in the dense forests surrounding the prison, hacking at rocks in the quarry or laying railway tracks, labours brought vividly to life by a series of evocative black-and-white photos. Anyone who stepped out of line was sent to the “dungeon”, which is just a bleak as it sounds.

One of the most famous prisoners here was Simón Radowitzky, an anarchist militant jailed in 1909 for the murder of a brutal police chief, Colonel Falcón, responsible for eights deaths at a May Day protest in Buenos Aires. He spent over 20 years in the prison – aside from a brief escape in 1918 – before being exiled from Argentina in 1930. (Radowitzky’s tale is told in illuminating fashion in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.)

You can also visit the cells of other notable inmates, such as Mateo Banks, an estate owner of Irish descent who in 1922 was convicted of killing eight people – including three of his siblings – and Cayetano Santos Godino, a criminally insane child murderer nicknamed El Petiso Orejudo (The Big-Eared Short Man).

The most evocative part of the museum, however, is Wing 1, which has been left largely untouched. Stepping into it eerily transports you back a century or more: there are no exhibits, information panels, heating or – generally – any other visitors, leaving you alone with just the empty cells and the peeling paint work for company. The only sounds are the echoes of your own footsteps and – when I was there at least – the plaintive mewlings of an unseen cat. It is a sinister, unsettling place that – when you leave the prison and head back into town – makes you very appreciative of your own liberty.

Shafik Meghji is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Argentina and The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji

Five hundred years ago, grizzled Spanish conquistador Ponce de León became the first European to set eyes on (what he called) La Florida, the “Land of Flowers”, though Spanish colonization didn’t get going until 1565, with the foundation of the city of St Augustine. Today the place is part historic theme park, part memorial to America’s oft forgotten Spanish roots (it was founded some forty years before Jamestown and 55 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts). There’s still plenty of real history behind the kitsch: here Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to Florida, picks ten highlights in honour of Ponce de León’s portentous discovery.

1) The Fountain of Youth

Ponce de León was supposedly drawn to Florida by the fabled life-preserving “fountain of youth”. The legend is celebrated just north of downtown St Augustine at a mineral spring that’s touted, only half in jest, as the actual fountain. Delusions apart, this is thought to be where de León landed in 1513, and is genuinely where the first Spanish colony was established in 1565. Toast the Spanish hero with a cup of the fresh, sulphur-smelling spring water (everlasting life is free with admission), and view the exhibits on the (very real) Timucua people who lived here before the Spanish.

2) Mission of Nombre de Dios

Next door to the Fountain of Youth is the Catholic complex known as the Mission of Nombre de Dios, the location of the first official Mass in North America. The mission that was established on this spot around 1620 was the first of many in the southeast US established by Jesuits; a small, ivy-covered 1914 re-creation of the original Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is still revered by pilgrims, while a pathway leads across a nineteenth-century cemetery to the 208-foot stainless steel Great Cross raised in 1965, glittering in the sun beside the river.

3) Castillo de San Marcos

Nothing in St Augustine survived the dastardly attacks of British freebooting pirates Francis Drake in 1586 and Robert Searle in 1668; only the stone-built Castillo de San Marcos escaped further destruction wrought by Carolina governor James Moore in 1702. Given its current fine state of preservation, it’s difficult to believe that the fortress was established back in 1672. Now operated by the National Park Service, docents in Spanish uniforms carry period muskets and fire cannons from the walls, while inside, there’s a series of exhibits highlighting life in the fort, the British attacks and Native American prisoners of war held here in the 1880s.

4) Colonial Spanish Quarter

Taking up a fair-sized wedge of old St Augustine, the Colonial Spanish Quarter is an enthusiastic effort to portray life during the Spanish period, with reconstructed homes and workshops set up circa the 1740s. This is a living museum; volunteers dressed convincingly as Spanish settlers go about their daily tasks at anvils and foot-driven wood lathes, making candles and the like.

5) Spanish Military Hospital & Museum

Originally built in 1791, the Spanish Military Hospital and Museum re-creates the spartan care wounded soldiers received during Spanish era. Give thanks you weren’t one of them whilst viewing the displays of rusty surgical instruments and the “mourning room”, where the priest administered last rites to doomed patients.

6) Ximenez-Fatio House

Built around 1798 for a Spanish merchant, the Ximenez-Fatio House became a boarding house in the nineteenth century, representing one of the few socially acceptable business ventures for a woman at the time. Don’t miss the rare 1650 Caravaca Cross displayed in the house museum, discovered on the property in 2002.

7) Dow Museum of Historic Houses

This collection of nine handsome buildings has been expertly restored from every period and cultural milieu between 1790 and 1910, not just the Spanish. Particularly fascinating is the Prince Murat House (1790), briefly home to Napoleon’s nephew (for whom it was named), whose main room and upstairs bedroom is graced by ravishing French Empire furniture.

8) The Oldest House

This really is one of the oldest and most atmospheric structures in town, built in the years after the destruction of St Augustine in 1702. The ground floor is furnished in the sparse, rough style of the early 1700s, while the second floor was grafted on during the period of British rule in Florida in the 1770s, a fact evinced by the bone china crockery belonging to a former occupant, one very English-sounding Mary Peavitt.

9) Villa Zorayda Museum

The nineteenth-century inhabitants of St Augustine were fascinated by their Spanish heritage. Eccentric Bostonian architect Franklin W. Smith was especially obsessed, building the Villa Zorayda Museum in 1883 as a homage to the famed Alhambra (at a tenth of the original size). Today the gorgeous, ornate villa is home to a bizarre collection of Smith’s personal belongings and rare antiques: highlights include the “Sacred Cat Rug”, a 2400-year old carpet made from the hairs of ancient Egyptian cats. It was discovered in 1861 as wrapping for the foot of a looted mummy (also on display here).

10) Flagler College

True, the flowing spires, arches and Spanish Revival red-tiled roof of Flagler College have zero to do with colonial Spain, but it’s an astounding work of art packed with treasures nonetheless. Now a liberal arts campus, the confection was completed by Henry Flagler in 1888 as the Ponce de León Hotel. Tours take in the best bits: the mesmerizing 80-foot Rotunda, with its Tiffany sunroof, stunning oak carvings, 14-carat gold gilding and murals by George Maynard; and the incredibly opulent dining room with its precious collection of Tiffany stained glass windows and yet more dramatic murals by Maynard.

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It may be famed for its salt flats and Lake Titicaca, but the unsung hero of Bolivia is an experience like no other. Just over 5km from the city of Sucre, on the Altiplano’s eastern edge, you can walk among dinosaurs without the aid of CGI or a celebrity voiceover. Here, on a near-vertical wall in an old limestone quarry, sits the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world: five thousand footprints from scores of different species dating back almost seventy million years.

It is thought dinosaurs, chased by predators or in search of food, paused at nearby watering holes. During the rainy season the area would have flooded, creating a layer of mud and sediment that acted to preserve the footprints. Across the years the tectonic plates moved and pushed the ground upwards, creating the 100m-high limestone wall that exists today, peppered with footprints and stretching for over a kilometre.

Discovered by local cement quarry workers in 1994, the site has evolved from an informal attraction to a fully-fledged dinosaur park, replete with towering, life-size models of different dinosaurs (including the iconic tyrannosaurus), an audio-visual display and a restaurant.

But the footprints are the key to the site’s appeal. They’re viewed from a platform a safe distance away, and while you miss out on touching the markings you do get to take in the size of the prints and imagine how frightening it would have been to stand surrounded by these awesome creatures. Once your eyes have worked out what is rock face texture and what are footprints you can pick out the different shapes and sizes of footprints, follow the baby dinosaur walking alongside its parent or try and spot the trackway of the young Tyrannosaurus rex (nicknamed Johnnie Walker by the archeologists studying the site) – at more than half-a-kilometre it is the longest ever track recorded. Happy hunting.

Trucks to the Parque leave from outside the cathedral on Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, several times a day.

 

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Montréal has played a starring role in so many films that it could practically apply for its own actor’s equity card. From the leafy banks of the St Lawrence River to gritty street corners with faded strip bars, Montréal can seem like a custom-built movie set. Here AnneLise Sorensen, co-author of The Rough Guide to Canada, picks some of her favourite Montréal movies.

1) Jésus de Montréal (1989, Denys Arcand)

What might happen if “the spirit of Jesus were to walk among us in these timid and materialistic times”? That’s how critic Roger Ebert summed up this “original and uncompromising” film by Québécois director Denys Arcand. Fiction seeps into reality (and vice versa) as a group of young actors stage a modern take on the The Passion Play at St Joseph’s Oratory, with the androgynous Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) in the role of Jesus. As the movie unfolds, the actors’ real lives begin to parallel the play – but very subtly, which is the power of the film. Arcand grapples with grand themes – the corruption of power, organised religion, hypocrisy – but again, he does so subtly, in a way that lingers in the mind long after the film has ended. The movie was nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and has twice (in 1993 and 2004) been placed on the Toronto International Film Festival list of Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time.

2) Léolo (1992, Jean-Claude Lauzon)

As his family becomes increasingly unhinged, a young boy escapes into his own elaborate fantasy world. Leo Lauzon (Maxime Collin) is growing up in a grim Montréal tenement, where instead of playing with friends, he’s trying to escape death at the bony hands of his perverted grandfather, among other challenges. To cope, he spins an alternate existence, where he steps into the role of Sicilian immigrant Léolo Lozone, whose mother was impregnated by a tomato (yes, really). The film, beautifully directed by Québécois Jean-Claude Lauson, is by turns brutal and macabre, magical and yearning, resting on the exultant premise that no matter what darkness surrounds us, the mind is ours alone.

3) Montréal Main (1974, Frank Vitale)

“Brilliant yet neglected” said the reviewers of this French-Canadian film – and they’re right. Set amid the wafts of marijuana and incense on the bohemian Montréal Main, the film boldly goes where few have gone before: a grown man’s love for a pre-teen boy. But, as salacious as the film could be, director and star Frank Vitale instead pulls respectfully back, treating this taboo relationship tenderly, as he does the rest of the 1970s motley crew of junkies, misfits and perpetual wanderers. But, it’s 1970s Montréal that’s as rakishly fascinating as the shaggy-haired characters, from glimpses of the famous Schwartz’s Jewish deli to the seedy Montréal Main itself, which has been described as the Sunset Strip, pre-Disneyfied Times Square, San Francisco’s Tenderloin and London’s Soho all rolled into one.

4) The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964, Irvin Kershner)

The dream for a better life remains just that – a dream – in this poignant film based on the novel by Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore. A down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant, Ginger Coffey (Robert Shaw), moves to Montréal with his wife Vera (May Ure) and teenage daughter. The ginger-haired Coffey takes a job at a laundry and as proofreader at a newspaper. Even so, his paycheck can’t sustain the family, and Coffey’s beloved Vera leaves him. Things go from bad to worse, but in the end, while success remains just beyond reach, Vera doesn’t. She returns, proving that love may not conquer all, but it does make life sweeter.

5) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974, Ted Kotcheff)

This film may have been brushed off by Cannes when it was submitted as the official Canadian entry in 1974, but the 2013 Cannes Film Festival gave the movie its due, honoring it as a Cannes Classic. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, based on the novel by Montréal author Mordecai Richler, takes place in the 1940s in Montréal’s rue St-Urbain, often called the Jewish ghetto. Keep an eye out for local icons like Wilensky’s Light Lunch. The film follows the cocky Duddy, played by Richard Dreyfus, just before his famous role in Jaws. Born into a working-class Jewish family, Duddy seeks fame, fortune and, above all, land. Because, as his grandfather tells him, without your own land, you are nobody. Of course, the road to prosperity is often riddled with potholes. Duddy is a consummate hustler, but he discovers that achieving great success sometimes means alienating those who love him most.

6) The Red Violin (François Girard, 1999)

Love, inspiration, joy, betrayal, heartbreak, death, rebellion – a red violin plays an integral part in the lives of many as it travels across five countries, over a period of 300 years, in this lyrical film directed by Québécois director Francois Girard, and starring an international cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Flemyn and Monique Mercure. The violin is built in Italy, where its maker paints it in a red varnish mixed with the blood of his wife, who has died in childbirth. After this fateful beginning, the violin continues on its journey, through Austria, England and China, ending up at a Montréal auction house, where it’s bid upon to bring music into someone’s life anew.

7) Wait Until Dark (1967, Terence Young)

A blind heroine (Audrey Hepburn), a heroin-laced doll, severed telephone lines, and fight scenes involving smashed lightbulbs and a large kitchen knife: it’s all here in this old-timey Hollywood thriller by Terence Young. The film opens in a Montréal apartment, and location scenes throughout were filmed in Montréal and New York’s Greenwich Village.

8) J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother; Xavier Dolan, 2009)

Easily one of the most shocking titles of 2009, J’ai tué ma mère proved to be more – much more – than its sensationalist first impression. The director also turned about to be younger – much younger – than most expected. Dolan (born in 1989) is said to have written the autobiographical script when he was 16, and the film debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, winning him a string of awards – and standing ovations. The film explores the bond between mother and son – a deep bond that swerves between love and hate, which ultimately seem to emanate from the same place.

9) The Score (2001, Frank Oz)

Hollywood directors love Montréal, but often as a stand-in rather than the real thing (see number 10, below.) This De Niro thriller, however, was both shot and set entirely in Montréal. The film tells the tale of aging thief Nick Wells (De Niro) who owns a jazz club in Montréal and is poised for retirement. Then along comes Max (Marlon Brando), who persuades him to do one last heist – the Montréal Customs House – with the help of a brash insider (Edward Norton). Cue the suspense soundtrack.

10) Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator and many more

And finally, there’s Montréal’s role as a destination double. In a large variety of films, Montréal has stood in for other cities and countries, including Munich, Nevada, Las Vegas, Beirut and, of course, France. A key reason for this is the city’s age – over 400 years old – and its remarkably well-preserved European-style architecture. Several Leonardo DiCaprio flicks have filmed in the region, including The Aviator and Catch Me if You Can, where Montréal and Québec City were France and Montrichard respectively.

What are your own favourite films set in Montréal?

Discover more of Montréal and check out the Rough Guide to Canada >

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