Some sights are touristy for a good reason. They’re the ones you go to Europe to check off: a wobbly gondola on the canals of Venice, or a mandatory Eiffel Tower selfie. Europe has countless sights all worth a visit in their own right, but there’s so much more to the continent than cathedrals and beaches – and some of it’s pretty bizarre. So from plastic hammer fights in Portugal, to a night behind bars in an ex-Soviet prison, here are a few things to do in Europe you probably never considered.

1. Sleep with fishes at Sweden’s Utter Inn

In many ways, Sweden‘s Utter Inn is your archetypal Swedish house: its walls are wood-panelled and painted red, there’s a white gabled roof, and the location – propped on a little island in the middle of Lake Malaren – is classic Scandinavia. But things get slightly surreal once you look out of the window of the hotel’s solitary room. A large Baltic salmon glides past, followed by a huge shoal of smelt. These are not your average lakeside views, but then you’re not actually lakeside. The island is actually a tiny pontoon, the red house just the tip of the architectural iceberg: Utter Inn lies 3m below the surface of the lake. A night spent here is literally like living in a goldfish bowl.

2. Play for high stakes at Italy’s Il Palio

Siena’s famous bareback horse race – Il Palio – is a highly charged, death-defying dash around the boundary of the city’s majestic Piazza del Campo.  The race is held twice every summer and takes only ninety seconds. The only rule is that there are no rules: practically anything goes as riders shove each other off their mounts. The course is so treacherous, with its sharp turns and sloping, slippery surfaces that often fewer than half of the participants finish. But in any case it’s only the horse that matters – the beast that crosses the line first (even without its rider) is the winner.

speed by Giorgio Montersino (license)

3. Ponder Armageddon at the Plokštine missile base in Lithuania

It’s not often you’re invited to join a guided tour of a nuclear missile base, especially when you’re in the middle of one of northeastern Europe’s most idyllic areas of unspoilt wilderness. However, this is exactly what’s on offer at Plateliai, the rustic, timber-built village in the centre of western Lithuania’s Zemaitija National Park. It’s perversely appropriate that Soviet military planners chose this spot as the perfect place to hide a rocket base. Closed down in 1978, it’s now eerily empty of any signs that would indicate its previous purpose. Until, that is, you come to one of the silos themselves – a vast, metal-lined cylindrical pit deep enough to accommodate 22m of slender, warhead-tipped rocket. The missile itself was evacuated long ago, but peering into the abyss can still be a heart-stopping experience.

4. Get naked in France’s Cap d’Agde

Of a size and scale befitting a small town, France‘s Cap d’Agde legendary nudist resort has to be one of the world’s most unique places to stay. The resort’s sprawling campsite is generally the domain of what the French call bios: hardy souls who love their body hair as much as they hate their clothes, and are invariably the naked ones in the queue at the post office. But the bios share the Cap with a very different breed, libertines for whom being naked is a fashion statement as much as a philosophy: smooth bodies and intimate piercings are the order of the day – and sex on the beach is not necessarily a cocktail. Come evening, throngs of more adventurous debauchees congregate in the Cap’s bars, restaurants and notoriously wild swingers’ clubs for a night of uninhibited fun and frolicking.

Horizontal by Björn Lindell (license)

5. Spend a night at the cells in Latvia’s Liepa–ja prison

Being incarcerated in a foreign country is usually the stuff of holiday nightmares. Unless you want an insight into Latvian history, that is. The former naval prison in Karosta, a Russian-built port that stretches north from the seaside city of Liepāja, is now the venue for an interactive performance/tour that involves such delights as being herded at gunpoint by actors dressed as Soviet prison guards, then interrogated in Russian by KGB officers. Stay the night and things get even harder – you may find yourself mopping the floors before bedding down in one of the bare cells, only to be brutally awoken by an early morning call.

6. Lose your grip on reality in Austria

Pegging yourself as the “Museum of the Future” is, in our ever-changing world, bold. Brash, even. And that’s exactly what the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz is. Dedicated to new technology, and its influence within the realms of art, few museums on Earth have their fingers quite as firmly on the pulse. Come here for the CAVE (Cave Automatic Visual Environment). This room, measuring – cutely enough – 3m cubed, is at the cutting-edge of virtual reality; the simulation uses technology so advanced – 3D projections dance across the walls and along the floor, as you navigate through virtual solar systems and across artificial landscapes – that you feel like you’re part of the installation. 

AEC Linz by Konstantinos Dafalias (license)

7. Play with fire at Spain’s Las Fallas

Catholic Spain traditionally holds fast to old habits, synchronizing Saints’ days with ancient seasonal rites. The most famous – and noisiest – festival of all is Las Fallas: in mid-March the streets of Valencia combust in a riot of flame and firecrackers, ostensibly in celebration of St Joseph.  It’s (barely) controlled pyromania, a festival where the neighbourhood firemen are on overtime and beauty sleep is in short supply. The fallas themselves are huge satirical tableaux peopled by ninots, or allegorical figures – everyone from voluptuous harlots to Vladimir Putin – painstakingly crafted out of wood, wax, papier-mâché andcardboard. They’re exhibited during nightly street parties, before all five hundred of them literally go up in smoke at midnight every March 19.

8. Toboggan without snow in Madeira, Portugal

However you make the 560m climb up to Monte, the hillside town that hangs quietly over Madeira’s capital, Funchal, there’s only one way we recommend getting back down: toboggan. There’s no snow, of course – this is a subtropical paradise. The road becomes your black run as you hurtle towards sea level in a giant wicker basket. At first, progress is slow. Then gravity takes over, powering you to speeds of up to 48 km/hr. When you think you’re going too fast to stop (there aren’t any real brakes here), your wheezing guides will dig their rubber boots into the tarmac – giving you  the first chance to jump out, look down and admire the sparkling blue Atlantic that stretches out before you.

photo by A m o r e Caterina (license)

9. Get hitched at the Roma Bride Market in Bulgaria

While the setting – a dusty field next to a cattle market, perhaps, or a car park – couldn’t be less glamorous, the atmosphere is anything but dull. Heavily made-up girls, blinged to the nines in seductive sequined dresses and high heels, dance provocatively on car roofs, which themselves have been rigged up with speakers pumping out ear-splitting pop. Meanwhile, leather-clad boys strut and pose, eyeing up potential partners as they go. Each year, the nondescript town of Stara Zagora, some 200km southeast of the capital, Sofia, plays host to one of Europe’s more unorthodox happenings: the Bride Market, which typically attracts a couple of thousand people. Nowadays the event is more of a fair than a marketplace though – the space where the courtship process begins before anything more serious is considered.

10. Join a hammer festival in Portugal

Porto’s Festa de São João is a magnificent display of midsummer madness – one giant street party, where bands of hammer-wielding lunatics roam the town, and every available outdoor space is given over to a full night of eating, drinking and dancing to welcome in the city’s saint’s day. No one seems to know the origin of this tradition of hitting people on the head, but what was customarily a rather harmless pat with a leek has evolved into a somewhat firmer clout with a plastic hammer. Midnight sees the inevitable climax of fireworks, but the night is far from over. The emphasis shifts further west to the beach of Praia dos Ingleses, where youths challenging each other to jump over the largest flames of bonfires lit for São João.

photo by Lachlan Heasman (license)

11. Discover the Human Fish in Slovenia

Postojna‘s vast network of caves, winding 2km through cramped tunnels and otherworldly chambers, is the continent’s largest cave system, adorned with infinite stalactites, and stalagmites so massive they appear like pillars. Despite the smudged signatures etched into the craggy walls that suggest an earlier human presence in the caves – possibly as far back as the thirteenth century – this immense grotto’s most prized asset, and most famous resident, is Proteus anguinus, aka the Human Fish. The enigmatic 25cm-long, pigmentless amphibian has a peculiar snake-like appearance, with two tiny pairs of legs – hence the name – and a flat, pointed fin to propel itself through water. Almost totally blind, and with a lifespan approaching one hundred years, it can also go years without food, though it’s been known to dabble in a spot of cannibalism.

12. Attend the World Alternative Games in Wales

Bathtubbing? Wife-carrying? Combined mountain biking and beer drinking? No one does wacky quite like the Welsh, it seems, at least not like the natives of Llanwrtyd Wells. Each year, a series of bonkers events takes place that belies this small town’s sleepy appearance – indeed, with a population of just over six hundred, it can justifiably claim to be Britain’s smallest town. Conceived in 2012 as an antidote to the Olympic Games in London, it involves more than sixty madcap events. Utterly pointless, all of them, though try telling that to the legions of well-honed finger jousters, gravy wrestlers and backwards runners who descend upon the town in their hundreds (sometimes thousands) in search of fame and glory, of sorts. Perhaps the best thing about all these events is that anyone is free to participate – so what are you waiting for?


Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

 

Governed by Chinese dynasties for over a thousand years, ruled by the French for a century and occupied by American troops for over a decade, Vietnam has – remarkably – managed to uphold a vast array of cultural practices. To the rest of the world, some of these traditional customs seem pretty strange, but they’re still prevalent throughout this fascinating country. Here’s a selection of some of the oddest things you’ll see during your trip to Vietnam.

1. Pyjama fashion

There’s nothing comfier than a pair of pyjamas. And in Vietnam, it’s far from a faux pas to wear a pair during the day as you go about your work. In fact, particularly among women in rural areas, it’s basically the norm. Pyjama sets come in a range of styles, from matching floral T-shirts and shorts to full-length loose trousers with colourful button-ups. At first it might seem bizarre, but before you know it you’ll be envying how practical and relaxing they look, and maybe even getting a pair yourself.

2. Weasel-poo coffee

Vietnam is the second-largest coffee exporter in the world, but most of the traded stuff is the cheap, instant kind. Within the country, however, high-quality, rich percolated coffee is ubiquitous. The pièce de résistance is the disgusting-sounding cà phê Chồn, coffee made from weasel poo. The weasels eat berries containing coffee beans, and they have a natural inclination only to pick the best, ripest ones. The berries are digested, but the beans come out the other side whole, transformed with a new, richer flavour. Once dried and cleaned (phew), the beans are then roasted to produce some of the world’s finest coffee. It’s exquisitely rich, chocolaty and gunpowder strong. It’s also ludicrously pricey – 100g costs around US$90, but at the farms you can get a cup for just US$2.75.

3. Snakes publicly drained of their blood

Though eating snake is something of a tourist gimmick in Vietnam, it’s still a popular local delicacy, so don’t be surprised if you come across a couple of local guys in a quiet rural town slaughtering a viper in the middle of the street and draining its blood. The method of extraction appears quite brutal: the snake’s head is tied in a noose and then killed with a slash to the neck. The dangling tail is cut open and the snake’s blood drips into a bottle containing rice wine, to create “snake wine”. The still-beating heart is then cut out and consumed with glee. Not a pretty sight.

4. Cricket farms

Fried crickets are popularly guzzled down with a few beers in Vietnam, and they’re a common feature of parties, along with fried butterflies and worms. On the cricket farms in the Da Lat region, thousands of the spindly little critters are kept in egg boxes, with sugar-cane branches to keep them warm. Once fried, the crickets are actually unexpectedly flavoursome and meaty, and if you can get over the repulsiveness of what you’re consuming, they’re pretty moreish.

5. Wearing and eating silkworms

It might seem odd that the world’s most beautiful natural fibre comes from worms. However, witnessing the age-old silk extraction process from mulberry-fed grubs in the highlands of Vietnam is a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The white fluffy-looking silkworm cocoons are boiled in large vats, killing the larvae inside. Women catch the white strands of silk flying free from the cocoons and attach them to spindles on a machine that unravels the delicate fibres. These are carefully wound onto reels and finally woven on looms into sheets of lovely cloth. The boiled-up worms are then removed from their cocoons and, in typical Vietnamese style, fried and eaten. The outside is crunchy and slightly tangy, while the inside is an odd gooey texture with a mild yet slightly retch-inducing taste.

6. Communal smoking

In northern Vietnam, it’s common to see a large bamboo pipe, or điếu cày (literally “farmer’s pipe”) being passed around after a meal, which is smoked with the aim of aiding digestion. Roadside restaurants, particularly in Hanoi, often have one which customers can help themselves to. Inside the water pipe is a very potent form of tobacco which sends even the heaviest regular cigarette smoker’s head spinning, heart beating fast and hands shaking. The high amount of nicotine pumped into the bloodstream combined with an intense intake of smoke causes can cause novice smokers to vomit. You may prefer to just drink the free green tea…

7. A Buddha-themed amusement park

Who ever said thrill seeking and religion couldn’t go hand-in-hand? At Suối Tiên Theme Park just outside Ho Chi Minh City, visitors can pray before a holy Buddha statue before jumping on a Ferris wheel that looks like the multicoloured electric halo commonly seen behind statues of the Buddha’s head, or hurl themselves down a waterslide and emerge through the beard of a giant sculpted sage. Statues of creatures sacred to Vietnamese Buddhism – dragons, tortoises and phoenixes – are represented throughout the grounds, and staff in golden monkey outfits run around causing trouble. At the crocodile farm, you can even buy a real, live baby croc to rear, though you might struggle to get it on a plane home.

8. Eating porcupines

The Vietnamese are well known for eating unusual meats often controversial to foreign tastes, such as dogs, half-developed chicken eggs, crocodiles, turtles and water rats. So it should come as no surprise that porcupines, despite their unappetizing looks, are high on the list of strange-yet-popular menu items. Once their spikes are removed, they look even less appealing, with a knobbly tough-looking skin, but their meat is juicy and aromatic, the taste comparable to that of duck. Farmed porcupine is expensive, in the region of $30/kg. Dubiously cheap ones are best avoided, as they were probably killed illegally in the wild.

Explore more of Vietnam with the Rough Guide to Vietnam. Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The isolated Svaneti region of northern Georgia is as beautiful as it is remote. True to the traditions of the Caucasus, its inhabitants have always been independent-minded, and for centuries frustrated outside attempts at control with the help of the sturdy defensive towers that still punctuate its hillsides.

Yet today Svaneti is a place with a sense of peace that is a far cry from the breakaway Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan to the northeast. Locked under snow for much of the year, in summer defiant green hillsides emerge as if new-made by the thaw, and the bright white meadow flowers echo and amplify the snows on the peaks of the Greater Caucasus mountains all around.

 by Levan Gokadze on Flickr (creative commons license

The village of Ushguli, sitting at the head of the Inguri gorge, with Georgia’s highest peak, Mount Shkhara, as the backdrop, claims to be Europe’s highest inhabited spot, at 2300m above sea level.

Actually a collection of four tiny villages, Ushguli is home to just seventy families. It is reachable only by 4WD – it’s two hours from Mestia, the town where most visitors stay, which is two hours from Zugdidi, where the overnight train from Tbilisi stops. Svan drivers take bends at high speed, and the roads are lined with shrines. But the journey is one worth braving.

by Levan Gokadze on Flickr (creative commons license

Walking, biking, or horseriding out from Ushguli or Mestia gives stunning views of alpine valleys, deep gorges and distant peaks.

The walk from Mestia to the Ushba glacier is particularly memorable: starting in gentle alpine forest, you pass guards inspecting passports on the route north to Russia, and end by scrambling over a post-apocalyptic landscape of raw black rock before finally arriving at a unique picnic spot – a crack in the rock and ice that is deep enough to sit in, sited just below the final scramble to the mouth of the glacier.

by Richard on Flickr (creative commons license

Svaneti’s welcoming homestays offer unstinting hospitality, including enormous meals of home-made delicacies like khinkali (light meat dumplings in pleated dough), home-made yogurt and honey, and aubergine with walnuts.

Crammed round the family table with visitors from around the world, it is easy to feel like travellers from an earlier century thrown together in some untouched spot. For now, that is just what this small corner of the Caucasus remains.

You can get to Svaneti from Tbilisi by plane, train or minibus. For more, see gnta.ge. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

Essentially two cities in one – Buda and Pest – Hungary’s magnificent capital is now firmly established as one of Europe’s most enticing destinations. Its dramatic setting astride the Danube is reason enough to visit, but the city packs in a multitude of things to see and do.

First and foremost, no visitor to Budapest should pass up the opportunity to experience one of its many spas; elsewhere, you can admire Baroque churches, wander amongst Communist dictators, or head through the hills on a narrow gauge.

Add to the mix the city’s famous ruin bars, grand coffee houses and now a burgeoning gastronomic scene, and you’ve pretty much got everything covered. Oh, and to boot, it stages one of Europe’s biggest and best rock festivals.

What should I see?

For conventional sightseeing, take the Siklo (funicular) up to the Vár, or Castle District, where you can easily spend a day poring over fabulous Baroque architecture. Over in Pest, the revitalized Jewish quarter is jam-packed with sights, most obviously in the shape of the magnificent Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world.

A little-known gem is the Southeast Asian Gold Museum, featuring a sumptuous collection of secular and religious artwork, ninety percent of which is gold. Beyond here, in leafy City Park, lies Budapest Zoo, as renowned for its Art Nouveau enclosures as it is for its inhabitants.

For some respite from the often brutal summer heat, take to the Buda Hills, home to the Railway Circuit, comprising the 3km-long Cogwheel Railway, and the Children’s Railway, an 11km-long narrow gauge built by Communist youth brigades after World War II.

There’s more Communist-era nostalgia at the Memento Park, a remarkable assemblage of oversized statues of former Communist dictators like Stalin and Lenin. Lastly, take a ride on Tram #2, which runs the length of the Pest Embankment, affording superlative views of the Castle District opposite.

Why should I go to the spa?

Budapest lies on more than a hundred thermal springs, so it’d be remiss not to indulge in one of the city’s many fabulous spas (furdo). Take a dip in Art Nouveau splendour at the Gellért Baths, the evocative, Ottoman-era Rudas Baths, or the enormous sixteen-pool Széchenyi Baths, where the sight of old fellas playing chess on the water is a wonderfully surreal spectacle.

For an alternative bathing experience, make for one of the night-time pool parties, which variously put on music, film and laser discos.

What is there for foodies?

Budapest is hardly renowned for its culinary prowess, but this is changing, and fast. Of the city’s four Michelin-starred restaurants, Borkonyha is the most appealing, with dishes like quail breast with lavender and buttered green peas, complemented by one of the finest wine lists in the city.

Child-friendly Zeller Bistro is no less snazzy, with beef cheek and goose liver among those dishes rated highly. But for something more old-fashioned, try Café Bouchon, a charming little French outfit with gorgeous Art Deco furnishings and fine food to match. For picnic supplies, make for one of the city’s many indoor markets, the biggest and brashest of which is the Great Market Hall.

Which is the best coffee house?

Like Vienna, Budapest has long been synonymous with great coffee houses: your first stop should be Centrál Kávéház, erstwhile retreat of writers and intellectuals around the turn of the nineteenth century, and still a thoroughly grand place to sip an espresso. Though the diminutive Ruszwurm patisserie, up in the Castle District, arguably does better pastries.

Leading the charge of the new, so-called “third-wave” coffee bars is Tamp & Pull, closely followed by Espresso Embassy – both these boast award-winning baristas.

Where’s the party?

That’s easy: Pest’s seventh district. Here you’ll find the city’s heaviest concentration of ruin bars, so-named as they occupy formerly abandoned – and in many cases still ramshackle and graffiti-strewn – buildings and courtyards.

The pick of these include Instant – comprising some twenty, differently themed rooms – Kuplung (an old motorcycle repair shop – the name means “clutch”), and Rácskert, the newest member on the scene. At any of these places expect a consistently brilliant roster of happenings, from live music (jazz, folk, rock) to film screenings and literary readings.

Elsewhere, the riverside bars lining the Danube and the open-air venues on Margit-Sziget do cracking trade in the summer months.

Hungarian wine is superb, though still little appreciated. However, its growing popularity is reflected in the number of wine bars popping up all over the city. For starters, try Doblo, a buzzy, brick-vaulted bar in the Jewish quarter where you can sip wine by the glass alongside a meat and cheese platter.

Where should I stay?

If you can afford it, then the spanking brand new Aria Hotel is top dog; dazzling, musically themed rooms are complemented by a Turkish spa and a stunning glass-covered courtyard. Similarly cool, but more realistically priced, Baltazár offers artfully-designed rooms inspired by the likes of Warhol and Haring.

Home Made Hostel is a sweet and welcoming abode whose small, cleverly-conceived dorms – refreshingly, no bunks – are furnished with random cast-offs culled from homes around the city, such as rugs, trunks and typewriters.

Photo credit: Aria Hotel Budapest

Are there any great festivals?

The undisputed king of Budapest’s summer events is the Sziget Festival, a monster week-long gathering starring the very biggest names in rock, pop and world music – this year, Kasabian and Kings of Leon are among those on the bill.

Elsewhere, the Jewish Summer Festival is a rousing week of classical, jazz and klezmer, and if you’re here on August 20 (St Stephen’s Day, named in honour of Hungary’s national saint and founder), you’re unlikely to miss the fireworks spectacular on the Danube.

Explore more of Budapest with The Rough Guide to BudapestCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

For many years Chiapas and Tabasco were famous for revolutionaries, chilli sauce and little else. But these neighbouring Mexican states are increasingly appearing on tourist itineraries, drawing in travellers with their magnificent ruins, colonial cities, unique indigenous cultures and lip-tingling cuisine. Shafik Meghji heads off the beaten track.

Chiapas

Stretched along the Guatemalan border in Mexico’s far south, Chiapas is an incredibly culturally and biologically diverse region. Its landscapes feature mountains, valleys, forests, lakes, beaches, and coffee plantations, while some twenty-five percent of its population belong to indigenous groups.

In the mid-1990s Chiapas became synonymous with the Zapatistas, a left-wing guerrilla group that launched a brief uprising against the government. Today, however, the group’s struggle is largely intellectual rather than military, and won’t impact negatively on your visit to one of Mexico’s most attractive states.

via Flickr (license)

“Colonial cities and indigenous beliefs”

A glorious colonial city, San Cristóbal de las Casas is the tourist hub of Chiapas, and a tough place to drag yourself away from.

Home to a cosmopolitan community – there are sizeable expat and indigenous populations – the city is a mix of attractive townhouses, Baroque- and Moorish-inspired churches, bustling markets (where you can buy anything from silver jewellery to plates of fried ants), hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars with tables spilling out onto the streets, and a refreshingly cool climate.

San Cristóbal is also the jumping off point for day trips to the indigenous villages of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo de Zincantán. The Tzotzil Maya community here have fused their traditional beliefs with Catholicism to create a unique religion that features Christian saints, animal sacrifices, and medicine men, but no priests, masses or church marriages.

For a change of pace, head southeast of San Cristóbal towards the Guatemalan border and Parque Nacional Lagos de Montebello, a beautiful reserve with more than fifty lakes surrounded by pristine forests. More reminiscent of Scotland or Maine than Mexico, the landscape, dotted with cabins and picnic spots, is ideal for hiking, swimming and horseriding.

(brightness adjusted) via Flickr (license)

“Jungle ruins”

Chiapas also has some breathtaking archeological sites. In a dramatic setting high on a hill, surrounded by insect-rich jungle and commanding views across the Yucatán plains, the ancient Mayan city of Palenque is the most popular attraction in the state.

Flourishing between 300 and 900 BC, the site is dominated by an eight-stepped, 25m-high pyramid, the Templo de las Inscripciones, and El Palacio, an impressive complex of residential and administrative buildings. If you have a head for heights you can clamber up the latter for some panoramic vistas.

Further south, drawing far fewer tourists, the ruins of Bonampak contain the finest collection of Mayan murals in Mexico. The highlight of the site, which lies in a small natural park on the fringes of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, is the Edificio de las Pinturas. Inside are three chambers with evocative, colourful images of noblemen dressed in jaguar-skin robes and quetzal-plume headdresses, tortured prisoners pleading for mercy, and even a severed head.

by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (license)

Tabasco

Winding along the Gulf of Mexico, the smaller state of Tabasco is humid, largely flat, and criss-crossed by rivers and swamps. Bordering the Yucatán Peninsula – the most touristy part of Mexico – the state receives few travellers but has plenty of things to offer.

Tabasco sauce, however, is not one of them: although named after the state, the peppers don’t grow there and the condiment is actually a US product made from peppers harvested in Louisiana.

“Giant heads in a “beautiful city”

As Graham Greene pointed out when he travelled through Tabasco in the 1930s, Villahermosa doesn’t necessarily live up to the name “beautiful city”. But while Tabasco’s capital may not be the most aesthetically pleasing place, it has some fascinating attractions that you’re likely to have all to yourself.

The highlight is Parque La Venta, which displays relics from the Olmec site of the same name amid a jungle teeming with birds and butterflies and echoing with jaguar growls (which emanate from the adjacent wildlife park). Along with the sculptures, altars and tombs are a series of giant basalt heads for which the Olmecs – the mother culture of Mesoamerica – are famous.

Villahermosa is also the best spot to sample Tabasqueño cuisine, which is rich in tropical fruits and freshwater fish. Keep an eye out for the local super-sweet pineapples, the tasty pejelagarto fish (which is generally barbecued and served with a fiery sauce), and horchata de coco, a rice-milk drink spiked with coconut.

by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (license)

“Beyond Villahermosa”

There are some easy but worthwhile day trips from Tabasco’s capital. Some 100km southwest are the rugged Sierra Huimanguillo mountains, home to canyons, waterfalls and the petroglyphs of Malpasito.
Meanwhile 58km north of Villahermosa are the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, whose temple, acropolis and palaces are distinctively built from kiln-fired bricks.

Shafik travelled with Journey Latin America who offer a 15-day trip to Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, Villahermosa, Campeche, Mérida, Chichén Itzá and the Riviera Maya for £3,340 per person (including B&B accommodation, some meals, excursions, transfers and flights).

The sky is lightening. Squint and you can just about make out a change in the colour of it, a shift from inky-black to blue-black. As the sun rises further it changes more, until it pales enough behind the stonework that you can begin to make out a hulk on the horizon.

You breathe in and get ready to experience one of travel’s true once-in-a-lifetime moments. And then a selfie stick springs up in your eyeline, a bright screen illuminating the darkness. You are jostled from behind and suddenly you can’t see a thing. The stone pinkens in the sunrise ahead but you’re marooned the wrong side of the camera-swayers. You miss the window, those crucial moments, in which Angkor Wat is at its most beautiful.

Yes, there is very much a wrong way to do Angkor Wat. It’s Cambodia’s most visited tourist attraction with more than two million cameras-on-legs passing through every year. But do it right and you can have it to yourself. Find out how below, but remember: it’s a secret.

How to avoid the crush at the big three

Angkor is not just one temple, but a complex of hundreds spread over a vast area that was once a city home to more people than London. To most visitors though it is three temples at most: Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm.

First up is Angkor Wat, the iconic temple whose name is often confused with the name of the complex as a whole. Although you’ve seen this a thousand times on film and in pictures, nothing can prepare you for the beauty of its five perfectly aligned towers, each one like a corn on the cob.

Nothing can prepare you for the crowds at the West Gate come sunrise either and these are best avoided. Get your guide to take you to the East Gate instead and you’ll walk through the temple from its back side, scuffing along empty stone corridors in the dark and wondering where everyone else is. Watch the sun rise from here, lighting up the stones as it ascends, before heading out of the West Gate for coffee and breakfast at one of the stands nearby.

By the time you’re finished, the worst of the sunrise crowds will have gone but it will still be early enough to explore in relative peace.

Angkor Wat Sunrise North Lake via photopin (license)

The Bayon, with its pyramid covered in hundreds of half-smiling faces, is packed from sun up to sun down and seems to magnetically pull the very worst of the shuffling crowds to its giant stone terraces.

Fortunately, these crowds appreciate a good long lunch and between about twelve and two in the afternoon you may be able to clamber just about high enough among the faces to get them to yourself for a minute or two. Just don’t forget the sun cream, there’s very little shade here.

Ta Prohm, which featured in Tomb Raider, is a contrast, its shady jungle-cloaked ruins most popular during the hottest part of the day. This makes dusk the perfect time to visit, as everyone else heads en masse to Phnom Bakheng hill to see the sunset. Don’t even think about following them, wait a while and you should have no competition for the perfect photograph of this most atmospheric of the temples.

Don’t miss the undiscovered beauties

The big three will take a full day to see properly so buy the three-day ticket ($40 instead of the $20 for one day) to allow enough time to step away from the hordes and see some of the temples you won’t have heard of.

Ta Keo is within selfie stick swinging distance of Ta Phrom but it wasn’t in Tomb Raider and so it is not on most visitors’ itineraries. Even better, this entirely sandstone temple is almost impossibly steep, making the climb up its chunky steps arduous enough to put off most people. The result? A view over the temple-dotted landscape from 21 metres up, and away from everyone else.

DSC_0163 via photopin (license)

If the jungle-claimed Ta Phrom – one of the big three – most grabs your imagination, don’t miss Preah Khan, a massive complex once home to upwards of 10,000 people and today a tumbledown heap of lichen-covered stones and imposing tree roots as thick as houses. Few people wander its ruins, enclosed by a moat so placid it appears like a mirror and surrounded by jungle so quiet you feel like you’ve stumbled on something nobody ever has before.

Get the right guide

However much research you do in advance, Angkor is just too much to take in on your own, especially at around 400 square kilometres.

To really get away from the coach parties you need a private tuk tuk that can navigate the temples and a knowledgeable guide who is willing to be flexible and suggest quiet areas you won’t find in the guidebooks. This isn’t a destination where you can wing it, so book with a specialist operator who has local expertise and is up to date on the best places to get away from the ever-expanding crowds.

Helen Ochyra travelled with Experience Travel Group (0203 468 6268; www.experiencetravelgroup.com), who offer a seven-night trip to Cambodia including a private tour of Angkor Wat from £1,119 per person (including transfers, B&B accommodation in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, flights and taxes).

Albania’s capital used to regularly top lists for Europe’s worst city. Decades of Stalinist rule left Tirana grey and grim, lacking in both infrastructure and services. The collapse of communism in 1992 only worsened the situation, as chaos engulfed the city and crime started to rise.

All that has now changed. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city, and the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania. Home to a rapidly-growing population of nearly one million (Albania’s total population stands at around just three million), Tirana has a buzz you won’t find anywhere else in this beguiling nation.

Here are 10 reasons to make a beeline for the Albanian capital.

1. To enjoy Albanian hospitality

Being invited for a coffee or a rakija (a plum brandy) is a local custom and you’ll find Albanians friendly towards foreign visitors. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the twentieth century, many are curious about the influx of travellers.

2. For the local colour

As it’s a small city, you can easily cover Tirana’s central area in a day. But as well as a leisurely exploration of the handful of museums, monuments, historic buildings and parks, make some time to marvel at the city’s concrete housing estates. Yes, really. Painted in rainbow colours, they add brightness to what was once a rather monochrome cityscape.

photo credit: dsc_8858_v2 via photopin (license) / brightened

3. For the café culture

Albania might not be famed for its cuisine, but that’s no reason not to make food a focus. Look out for the excellent coffee and beer (Islam is the predominant religion but it is practised in a very tolerant way), as well as decent pastries and good gelato. Cafés are the perfect place for people-watching, too, set to a soundtrack of Albanian- and Euro-pop.

4. For a history lesson in Skanderbeg Square

Tirana’s centre is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who briefly ensured Albania was independent of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. There is a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback (imagine Alexander The Great meets Thor) in the middle of the square, and the Et’hem Bey Mosque, one of the nation’s most treasured buildings that dates back to the late eighteenth century, sits in the southeast corner. Also situated here are the nation’s major museums, including The National Historic Museum adorned with a huge socialist mural of victorious partisans.

5. To see a not-so-ancient pyramid

You’ll find Tirana’s concrete pyramid, Piramida, a short walk from Skanderbeg Square. Built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha (who tyrannically ruled Albania from 1944–85) as a museum to her father, it now sits derelict, stripped of the tiles that once covered it and splattered with graffiti. There is talk of demolishing it, but some argue that it should be kept intact as an apt monument to Stalinism’s ugly spirit.

 photo credit: dsc_8850_v2 via photopin (license)

6. To observe Albania’s elite at play

Blloku, The Block, is where Enver Hoxha lived and was once off limits to all but the Communist party’s inner circle. Now it’s the epicentre for Tirana’s beautiful people. Today you’ll find expensive hotels, designer cafés, restaurants and shops. Take in the contemporary glitz from Sky Club, a rotating bar high in the air offering 360-degree views across the city.

7. For the nightlife

Tirana’s nightlife scene moves up a notch each year and the city’s clubs, largely situated around Blloku, vary greatly in theme and atmosphere. They are best visited with a local who knows which ones to attend (and which to avoid). Be mindful, however, that Albania is still a traditional society.

photo credit: dsc_8929_v2 via photopin (license)

8. To relax in Parku i Madh (Grand Park)

This large, wooded park is where many of Tirana’s citizens head for a bit of time out, whether it’s fishing in the artificial lake, picnicking on the lawns or kicking-back in one of the many café-bars. Considering how oppressive Tirana’s traffic can get, this park allows the city’s Mediterranean ambience to shine.

9. To visit Mount Dajti National Park

If you want a break from the city centre, head to Mount Dajti National Park, popular with Tirana’s residents for fresh air and countryside walks. You can either take an Austrian-built cable car (expensive) or the city bus (cheap) and once there you’ll find hotels, guest-houses and restaurants if you feel like staying overnight.

10. For day-trips to the seaside

The historic city of Durrësi on the Adriatic Sea was, for decades, where the powerful in Tirana went to relax (both Enver Hoxha and King Zog had holiday homes here). These days it’s largely Kosovar tourists who make use of the plentiful cheap hotels and restaurants along the seafront. Things are rough and ready, but Durrësi is lively, inexpensive and easily accessible.

Explore more of Albania with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Kiki Deere, co-author of the Rough Guide to the Philippines, heads off the tourist trail to Batanes. This cluster of islands, located almost 150km off the northernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines, sees just thirty or so foreign visitors a year.

“Batanes? Batanes? Up there?” was the reaction of most Filipinos when I told them I was catching a plane north to the remotest province of the country. This was coupled with a puzzled expression, followed by a long “Oooooooh”.

Only 190km south of Taiwan, the islands of Batanes are closer to the Taiwanese coast than to the Philippine mainland. The archipelago was created following a series of volcanic activities when Mount Iraya erupted around 325 BC – today a dormant volcano that stands 1517m above sea level.

The province comprises ten islands of which only three are inhabited: Batan Island, the largest in the group; peaceful Sabtang Island; and the less accessible Itbayat. Their isolation has resulted in a unique culture and distinct traditions; the language, cuisine and climate have little in common with the rest of the country.

Image by Kiki Deere

Rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs

Our little six-seater plane rocked back and forth as we struggled to land on wind-swept Batan Island, whose capital, Basco, is named after Governor José Basco y Vargas who brought the islands under the Spanish Crown in 1782.

Below us stretched verdant rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs rising 70m above sea level. The topography of the islands varies dramatically from the mainland – with grazing cows, undulating hills and strong winds. I felt I could have easily been in Ireland, not in the tropical Philippine archipelago I had extensively travelled, with its powdery, white-sand beaches shaded by coconut trees.

“Today we will visit Marlboro County, and then on to Sabtang Island” my guide announced as soon as I’d settled into Fundación Pacita, the former home of artist Pacita Abad today a surprisingly upmarket hotel. His voice was calm and composed; he spoke in musical tones, rolling his “r” in a pleasant lilt.

Like Filipino, the Ivatan language is peppered with pidgin Spanish words. The Ivatan are the native inhabitants of these islands, and trace their roots back to Formosan (Taiwanese) immigrants as well as Spaniards who travelled here in the sixteenth century.

Image by Kiki Deere

A testament to the trusting nature of the locals

We drove up and down the island’s many hills, the engine of our little car calling out as it climbed a slope, letting out a groaning sigh of relief as we reached the top and zoomed down the other side, only to grate again as we clambered up the next.

As we came over the brow of the first hill, there before us were green pastures being grazed by horses and bulls, with Mount Iraya and the roaring Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

Locals make a living by raising goats and cows, and plant root crops that are able to cope with the islands’ harsh environment, including yam, garlic, sweet potato and onion. Fish, livestock and root vegetables form the mainstay of the islands’ cuisine. During most of the year provisions are flown in or shipped over from the mainland, but during typhoon season ships and planes are often unable to reach the islands.

We continued south along the coastal road to the Honesty Café, an unmanned coffee shop selling t-shirts, beverages and snacks where customers drop payment in designated boxes, serving as a testament to the trusting nature of the island’s inhabitants.

Image by Kiki Deere

Life has changed little over the last few centuries

A rocky thirty-minute boat ride across the treacherous waters of the Balintang Channel took us to Sabtang Island, home to steep mountains and deep canyons where life has changed little over the last few centuries.

This peaceful island is peppered with Ivatan stone villages, and the picture-perfect town of Chavayan is home to some of the best-preserved traditional homes in the Philippines. Unlike in the rest of the country where nipa huts are a common sight, the houses in Batanes are made of limestone to withstand the destructive force of typhoons that so often strike the islands.

I strolled along the town’s streets, my guide encouraging me to occasionally pop my head into the stone houses, whose wooden floors are traditionally polished with banana leaves. Their cogon-thatched roofs are sturdily built, lasting up to two or three decades. Street names are chiselled in stone plaques.

At the Sabtang Weavers’ Association, women sold small artefacts and offered me homemade biscuits that they had lovingly prepared in their humble homes. Intrigued and surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they questioned me as to my provenance, proudly showing me the small trinkets they had painstakingly made.

Image by Kiki Deere

An elderly lady with a mustard yellow cardigan wore a rain cape called vakul, traditional Ivatan headgear made from stripped leaves of voyavoy palm to protect her from the strong sun and frequent rainstorms that so often hit the islands. Her coarse hands fingered a small hand-woven souvenir that she encouraged me to buy.

When I flew back to the province of Luzon a few days later, where thick jungles and bustling beach resorts justifiably attract their fair share of tourists, the far-flung islands of Batanes, with their thirty or so foreign visitors a year, suddenly seemed like a distant dream.

Explore more of the Philippines with the Rough Guide to the PhilippinesCompare flightsbook hostels or hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.  

Tourism in Myanmar is still in its infancy, yet this fascinating nation enthralls like no other in Southeast Asia. There’s no wonder why. With its glittering stupas, placid rivers, temple-studded plains and – above all – warm, welcoming people, this is a country that it’s hard to forget in a hurry.

We’ve just published our first ever guide to Myanmar, but we’re not the only ones captivated. Film-maker Ben McNamara recently toured Myanmar with Intrepid Travel and produced this beautiful, dreamily-shot film.

Myanmar – The Golden Land shows the country through Ben’s eyes: “Warm smiles, gentle greetings & beautiful sights.” It’s our pick of the week.

Myanmar – The Golden Land. from Ben McNamara on Vimeo.

Anita Isalska explores the frozen surface of the epic Lake Baikal in Russia. 

During Siberian winters, the mercury drops as low as minus 35ºC (minus 31ºF). Brightly painted houses in central Russia’s villages groan under the weight of snow. The surface of vast Lake Baikal freezes. But as I stand its shore, I see an adventure playground rather than an icy desert.

Hovercraft are thundering over the ice, spinning in figures of eight while bystanders cheer. A fleet of ice bikes and converted bumper cars race across the surface. Meanwhile a breeze carries the sound of chattering market vendors along with the scent of smoked fish.

At Listvyanka, one of Lake Baikal’s most picturesque villages, the number of visitors dips with the temperature. But visiting Baikal between November and March reveals the lake in all its wintry magnificence, with plenty of wild ways to experience Russia’s deep freeze.

Baikal, Russia’s record-breaking lake

It’s impossible to describe Lake Baikal without superlatives. It’s the world’s deepest freshwater lake (at more than 1.6km) as well as the most ancient (a whopping 25 million years young). It’s a favourite summertime destination for Russians, who seize fishing rods and sunhats and clamour to Baikal’s shores.

Lake Baikal is also one of the most cherished stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway – the world’s longest railway line, its 9289 km of tracks connect Russian capital Moscow with Vladivostock in the far east. Many travellers take the Trans-Mongolian route to China instead; but whatever the route, a stop at Baikal is a highlight.

I have reached Baikal in a rattling marshrutka (minibus) from Irkutsk, the closest major city to the lake, during winter to see a different side to this 3.15 million hectare expanse.

Natural wonders of the “sacred sea”

On a dry day, frozen Baikal looks dark and glassy. Cracks spider across its surface. The shifting, cracking and resealing of icy layers create small crevices. Blades of ice prick upwards like dragon scales.

Where the surface is polished smooth by footfall and passing hovercraft, the ice resembles black marble. But after snowfall, pillowy snowdrifts amass on the surface. The lake looks like a cloudscape.

Russians refer to Baikal as the country’s “sacred sea”, because of both its beauty and its size. To scientists, it’s “Russia’s Galápagos”: much of the fauna here is found nowhere else on Earth.

Most famous are the bulging-eyed nerpas, Baikal seals. But there’s one endemic species you’ll smell long before you see it: the omul fish.

Omul is an economic cornerstone for this part of Russia, with crates of the succulent fish shipped across the country as a delicacy. In Listvyanka’s fish market – a social hub for this small village – omul fill the stalls. Locals and travellers amble past leather-dry omul, dangling from strings, and appraise the day’s fresh catch. But the best stuff is hot smoked: market vendors snap open tupperware boxes to reveal iridescent omul, cloaked in steam.

Venturing out onto the ice

A feast of omul and hot tea is essential in this brutal cold, especially if I want to take to the ice. Locals step out fearlessly, knowing the spring thaw is a long way off. But I tread gingerly, thinking about the yawning depths under my feet.

I’m the only one worried. Children are skidding in the snow and holding aloft diamond-shaped shards of ice, while their parents sip from thermos flasks. Before long, my nightmare of being swallowed into a gaping icy crevasse has faded and I’m negotiating the fare for a ride on a hovercraft.

Once inside, the grinning driver sets the hovercraft buzzing across the ice at speed. He turns sharply and lets the craft careen across the lake. My grip on a feeble safety handle tightens as he slams the accelerator. The icy crevasse is starting to loom in my imagination again…

After a few minutes of white-knuckle driving, the hovercraft shudders to a halt. The driver waves his passengers out, and we stand at the shore to watch the sunset. The ice glows a warm copper before darkening to navy.

The temperature plummets with the dying light; people trudge away from the ice. Music starts to trill at shoreside taverns and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet bubbly) is being poured.

It may be a bitter Siberian winter, but between the remarkable scenery and the pop of champagne corks, hibernation is unthinkable.

Need to know:

If you’re planning a Lake Baikal excursion as part of your Trans-Siberian Railway journey, plan to stop at Irkutsk for a few days. From Irkutsk bus station, catch a marshrutka to Listvyanka village (1.5 hours). Atmospheric guesthouses in Listvyanka have double rooms from around 3000RUB (50EUR) per night. One of the best is Usadba Demidova (Ulitsa Sudzilovskogo 2) with communal lounges, sauna and breakfast with a Baikal view (3,940RUB per night). Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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