When Gemma Smyth visited Berlin she decided to take a new approach to trip planning by asking Rough Guides’ Facebook fans and Twitter followers for their recommendations. With three full days at her disposal she endeavoured to visit a mixture of well known tourist sites and hidden gems, some recommended, some found along the way and most accidentally discovered when in search of a good meal.

Museum of Things

Kreuzberg is home to Berlin’s artsy types, with street art, bookshops, cafés, and a definitively eclectic and liberal feel. Hidden away down the side of an apartment building just off Oranienstrasse you’ll find The Museum of Things. The museum displays a range of everyday objects from telephones to Casio watches, “documenting modern everyday life characterized by commodity culture”. If you are interested in design or art history then this is one for you. If this doesn’t sound like your bag then take a wonder down Orainienstrasse anyway and pop into NGBK bookshop and exhibition space.

Pizza Dach

Wühlischstrasse is choc-a-bloc with shops and restaurants. Pizza Dach is small, cosy, colourful and serves a pretty hearty pizza for a very reasonable price (with two pizzas and drinks costing under €20). The music at Pizza Dach is less background and more really loud Europop, so this is the sort of restaurant you should visit for a quick bite before moving on to a bar, rather than for a romantic meal.

New Berlin Tours

We’ve mentioned New Berlin Tours before on Rough Guides but they deserve another mention. I took both the free tour and the trip to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The tour guides bring the city and its stories to life with little known facts and anecdotes, as well as talking about what it was that drew them to Berlin; Lewis was the guide for my free tour, five years or so ago he came to Berlin for a two day trip and loved it so much he never left. Obviously the tour of Sachsenhausen wasn’t exactly fun – it was a ‘work camp’ where thousands of people that the Nazis considered racially or biologically inferior were imprisoned and killed – but it served as an essential and poignant reminder of these horrific atrocities committed during the Second World War. I’d highly recommend both of these tours if you want to learn more about the history of Berlin and the era of The Third Reich.

Brandenberg Gate

As well as being architecturally impressive, the history of Brandenberg Gate tells the story of the city from Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian Army in 1806, to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. It’s definitely a tourist attraction (Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are never far away) but don’t let that stop you.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

In the centre of Berlin, right next to Brandenberg Gate, sits the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (often referred to as ‘the holocaust memorial’). Designed by Architect Peter Eisenman this memorial remembers the six million Jewish victims of the holocaust. This is not your typical memorial, you can walk through it and experience it in a way that is completely unique to you. Each time I have walked through the towering, disorientating sculptures I have felt slightly different. A trip to the Information Centre which lies directly below the memorial is well worth it; especially the Room of Dimensions which displays quotes and memoirs from Jewish people persecuted during the holocaust. A sobering experience.

Café Einstein

If you’re looking to splash out a little on a nice breakfast then look no further than Café Einstein, a classy café that is famous for its coffee and serves great food (I recommend the fruit with yoghurt and honey).

Café Nö!

Situated just off Unter Den Linden, Café Nö! is a haven away from the hustle and bustle of central Berlin, an intimate café experience with candles and a beautiful bar tucked away to the right of the entrance. I ordered a mezzé style platter for two and what I got was enough for four: Salami, homemade sausage, olives, garlic bread, bruschetta and lots more!

Vietbowl

There’s a couple of Vietbowl restaurants in Berlin but the one I went to was in the Freidrichshain area of Berlin, a tram ride away from the East Side Gallery. Vietbowl is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I’ve ever eaten at, not only do they serve fantastic food for casual diners but two starters, two mains and drinks costs less than €20. When asked for your tips on social media, Slow Travel Berlin directed us to the Museum of Things on Facebook, and @SaschaNeth introduced us to Café Einstein. We couldn’t visit all the places you suggested, but here are all your best suggestions – visit some for yourself and let us know what you think:

This week saw Hindus in India and across the world celebrating the Holi Festival of Colours. It marks the beginning of spring and celebrates the legend of Holika and Prahlad in a mass party where participants throw powder in all colours of the rainbow at each other (something said to be started by Krishna as a young boy when he threw coloured water over the gopis (milkmaids). The result is pretty messy but incredibly photogenic, so here are some of our favourite photos from India during Holi Festival 2014.

A Hindu priest throws coloured powder over worshippers at the Radha Krishna temple in Kolkata, West Bengal:

One reveller poses for a photo in Bhubaneswar, Orissa:

Dancing in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh:

Covered in metallic paint, these Indian men pose for photographs in Siliguri, West Bengal:

Indian children spray coloured water in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh:

Crowds are sprayed with water and powder at the Swaminarayan Temple at Kalupur in AhmedabadGujarat:

Yellow powder shrouds those celebrating in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh:

Breaking tradition, widows living in Vrindavan – who are usually seen as outcasts and forced to refrain from celebrating Holi – celebrate the festival at Meera Sahabhagini Sadan ashram for the first time:

This Indian man poses for a photo in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh:

Pink powder is thrown at celebrations in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh:

The state of Rajasthan – a land route for trade and culture between the Arab world and Asia – could obsess a musicologist for an entire lifetime. With the right guidance, at every five paces you can meet singing genealogists and poetic percussionists, flute-playing farmers and dancing snake priests, living alongside child stars and living legends.

In 2011, I created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off the region’s traditional Indian music. I planned a people-led pilgrimage to the RIFF festival, starting in Delhi and heading west via the musical villages, shrines and characters that feed the festival its musical delights. In the first of a two-part series, I’ll take you behind the scenes to discover how I made the connections (by accident and design) to formulate my Rajasthani music tours.

Hosting a musical pair in Delhi

Roshani and her husband live in Shimla village in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati district, just over half way from Delhi to the Pakistan border. I’d met them a few times at performances organised by the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and enjoyed Roshani’s powerful, childlike but rough-edged voice, and Mahendra’s joyful dancing. I invited them to perform at Shalom – a swanky bar with a good taste in music in the affluent Greater Kailash area of Delhi – with the understanding that I would travel home with them the following day.

The musicians were met by a taxi at the station, driven to south Delhi to change, wash and scatter biscuit crumbs all over my shared house while Shamsundar, their two-year-old son, had a lovely time wandering around the house in nothing but a string waist band. None of my housemates seemed to object and they clapped as Roshani emerged from the bathroom looking fabulous in her red and gold ghagra, choli and odhani, the pleats of which filled up most of the car as we drove to the venue.

Roshani and Mahendra (Photo: Georgie Pope)

It was a great party. The meticulously smart Delhi set bought plenty of drinks and jumped around delightedly in a very urban club, to very rural folk music. Roshani and her husband Mahendra were the stars. They enjoyed seeing their own faces printed on the marketing materials, liked all those rich people enjoying their music and they hadn’t minded, it seemed, the fact that we’d had to keep Shamsundar shut in the car outside the club because he was too young.

We slept at around 1am, and a few hours later, I awoke to the not unpleasant sensation of the minuscule Roshani walking across my back. It was a free massage and a wordless “time to get up you lazy city type; it’s way after dawn”.

After breakfast, we piled into an autorickshaw and jumped on the fabulously shiny and air-conditioned Delhi Metro. Roshani and her family had never seen anything like it, and our small group alternated between excitement and hilarity. After adventures on the escalators, balancing children and harmoniums, we were just settling onto a train, when an announcement came over the speakers:

“It is forbidden to play your music on Delhi metro. Do not play your music while on Delhi metro.”

Roshani and Mahendra, the only musicians on the train, giggled with embarrassment and shook their heads at the other passengers in reassurance.

By Brook Mitchell/4Corners

We got off at Nangloi Metro station – to the far west of Delhi – and sat in wait for our next train. People on the station became intrigued. What was a single female foreigner doing crouching next to these thin, dark village people? A group began to gather to ask questions: “Who is she? Who are you? Where are you travelling to and why?”

It wasn’t enough to say that we were friends, or even colleagues. People wanted reasons and one man, with no authority whatsoever as far as I could tell, wanted to see ID. The questioning group formed a tight, stifling ring, which thickened as more people wanted to know what the fuss was about.

Denied the gauzy protection of a head scarf afforded to all the other women on the station, Roshani included, I waved an irritable hand at the spectators, and told them in ragged Hindi to get lost. Half the crowd agreed that this was fair enough so, without moving, they proceeded to yell at the other half. People started to get angry. I heard a huge hullabaloo coming from the outskirts of the crowd and little boys started to fly off in all directions. Two rough-looking guards became visible, and they were smacking the inquisitive commuters with thick lathis (batons).

Once he’d busted his way to the site of interest, the guard took in the situation with a quick glance: “You can’t play your music here, it gets people too excited.”

“We weren’t playing, brother. We were just sitting,” Mahendra replied reasonably.

The guard had to do something to show he was in control, so he marched us to the stationmaster’s office, where we were offered tea and asked all the same questions in a marginally more official manner.

Opening melons and baring bottoms in Shimla

When we finally got on the next train, I started to ask a few questions of my own. I knew Roshani and Mahendra weren’t from a traditional musical lineage and had to sustain the family by doing some tailoring and other part-time work. Most of the hereditary musician castes – the Manganiyars, Langas, Dhadhis and Dholis – came from the western parts of Rajasthan. Roshani was from a part of the state where there were fewer professionals. What else then, did they do?

Mahendra started to explain, but there was one key word in Hindi that we both knew I was missing. Mahendra kept repeating it, gesturing fervently towards the land we were passing and then smacking his left elbow into his upturned right hand. Roshani took up the action, nodding enthusiastically. This, then, was what they did for a living. I was still a little confused.

It took us all day, after three trains, two buses and a hitch-hike, to reach their cousin’s home in Shimla (they said their house was too poor for me to stay in), so by the time we arrived it was incredibly dark. There were no street lamps and only dim gaslight at the house. As I ate my very late but tasty dinner, and drank a little of the cousin’s whisky, I gradually made out my surroundings. I was in a neatly swept mud-and-dung courtyard surrounded by rough fencing on three sides, and a house and lean-to barn on the fourth. About sixteen people of all different ages slept in twos and threes on charpoys (four-legged woven beds). I was to share my bed with Roshani – about three parts Georgie to one part Roshani.

Photo: Georgie Pope

After finally dozing off around 3am, I was woken just minutes later by large splots of rain falling on my face. Refusing to acknowledge them, I snuggled under my gradually soaking blanket until I was given a firm shake by Roshani who explained in her sweet and somewhat amused voice that we all needed to move our beds into the stinky barn next door. All sixteen of us lay in a snug row, next to the animals. It soon became unbearably hot, so the minute the rain eased off, the process was reversed and everyone sleepily but efficiently arranged themselves outside again.

Very few minutes later, I was woken by an urgent whisper.

“Georgie, Georgie!

“Hmm.”

“Georgie. Letrine”

To begin with I didn’t know what they were saying, this bright-eyed posse of women hissing at me in the middle of the night. When I caught on, I continued to pretend I hadn’t. Shirking what might have been a very singular experience of female bonding, I turned over and feigned sleep. The women hovered a moment, and then filed off to make their “letrine” before dawn could reveal the row of bare backsides along the ridge.

I spent a lovely day touring Roshani’s village and the surrounding ket, a smallholding of agricultural land. The area is incredibly flat and sandy –  if it weren’t for the heat haze you would be able to see for miles. In small woven huts dotted across the land, that I initially mistook for haystacks, I met the extended family when they stopped for shade, between hours of sweaty work harvesting the melons that make a quick lush appearance at this time of year, and then vanish, leaving the land yieldless until next year.

Roshani and Mahendra chose a huge, sweet-smelling specimen, and gave it to me as a gift. As they waited expectantly for me to taste it, I held onto it smiling, hoping I was choosing the right words to say I would enjoy it when I got home. I couldn’t, obviously, eat this thing without a large knife and probably a spoon.

Suddenly, Mahendra’s face cleared of confusion.

“She doesn’t know how to open a melon,” he said to everyone with delight written across his leathery face. Balancing the melon in his right hand, he brought his left elbow smartly down with a crack on its crown. The melon split in several places and he easily tore off a moon-shaped chunk for me to eat. This, then, was how they opened melons and this gesture was how one mimed the word “melon”. “Materathey’d been saying to me on the train, wildly slapping elbows into palms. Ma-te-ra. Got it.

Finally I was allowed to visit Roshani and Mehendra’s small concrete home. On the edge of the village, it was certainly very simple, but it looked out onto a charming garden with a pretty tree shading two charpoys (beds). Mahendra spent a nerve-wracking half hour attaching a wire to a nearby power cable with the crafty use of a bent coat hanger and a huge bendy pole. When the standalone fan whirred to life Roshani and Mehendra settled down to play me some devotional temple songs in the dappled shade.

I had arrived, I knew, at the perfect choice for the first stop on the Great Rajasthani Musical Adventure. 

Snakes, tourists, and the gypsy dancers of Jaipur

Anyone who has set foot in Rajasthan, stepping from a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour bus or heaving a backpack from train station to crawling hostel, will have encountered a member of the Kalbeliya community – the ‘gypsies’ of north-western India. These nomadic people are India’s snake catchers, singers and storytellers, purveyors of anti-venom and players of the pungi (a wind instrument) in Jaipur. You may have been dragged up to dance with the female dancers spinning and gyrating in glittery disco versions of traditional Rajasthani wear or drawn in by a withered old man entrancing a snake with his wailing gourd-pipe. These are the Kalbeliyas, also known as Saperas, and it’s their business to know when you’re in town.

In 1972, urged by animal rights activists, the Government of India issued a directive banning the practice of removing snakes from the wild. The methods used by some snake charmers to render these reptiles harmless by breaking their fangs and destroying their venomous sacs, was – and still is – considered barbaric. The stigma of untouchability among this community was further compounded with a loss of employment.

Before they were entertainers, the Kalbeliyas performed the useful task of catching the reviled reptiles – at one time one of the biggest killers in rural India. They had a vast hereditary knowledge of poisons and cures, and they were called upon to remove snakes from people’s homes without killing them. Since the 1972 ban, they had to innovate and so turned to their traditional songs and dances to entertain tourists. Some, like the world famous Gulabi Sapera, have gone on to create fabulous collaborations with international musicians such as Flamenco guitarist Titi Robin. Though it has only emerged in hotel lobbies and train stations in a highly refined and stylized format since the seventies, the dance – a spinning, shoulder-jigging, hip-gyrating celebration of sensuality – has been appropriated as a traditional dance of Rajasthan.

The relative newness of their tradition notwithstanding, Kalbeliya dance is an important part of Rajasthan’s cultural scene, and I couldn’t go any further on the Rajasthan Musical Adventure without a spin with a Sapera.

“Once again, I found myself in bed with a Rajasthani artist”

In 2008 I had worked on a collaboration between a group of artists known as the Kawa Brass Band – a mad conglomerate of wedding band trumpeters, singers and dancers (regular performers at Womad and the Theatre and Circus Fields at Glastonbury) – and a Hungarian gypsy band called Parno Graszt. The dancer with them was called Suji Sapera: the most incredibly sparkly woman I’d ever seen. Lithe and thin, she carried off the hundred-weight sequinned and tassled dress with the same ease as if it had been a leotard. The gypsy beats of Parno Graszt threw her into confusion for a fraction of a second, but she stuck on her performance smile and soon her hip was jutting in vigorous time to the music of her very distant gypsy cousins.

At the end of the show, the event organizers realized that their accommodation arrangements had not – as usual – catered for the fact that there was a female performer amongst the group. The options were to bundle Suji in four-to-a-room with all these sweaty men, or for her to share with me. And so, once again, I found myself in bed with a Rajasthani artist, but this time there was a bathroom en suite.

So in 2012, in the grounds of the gorgeously refurbished Hotel Diggi Palace (also home to the yearly international literary bonanza the Jaipur Literature Festival), to test out the second stop of my journey, I introduced some travellers to a family of dancers and musicians from a nearby dera (temporary road-side encampment). It was dark, so the hotel staff – with the ingenuity and freedom from health and safety concerns typical to good Indian hoteliers – quickly rigged up an outdoor spotlight for the show.

The travellers – matching the performers in number – sat politely on their seats as the musicians started to play. They shielded themselves from any initial embarrassment with cameras and mobile phones. The gourd pipes wailed into the night, and – without a castrated snake in sight – the group began to be drawn in by the mystical beauty of the sounds, they slowly got to their feet and were then grasped by the hands of the Kalbeliya girls, determined to make them dance.

Tourists are one of the Kalbeliya’s main sources of income, which has the potential for the worst sort of exotica-moneybags relationship and exploitation by middlemen. But tonight, I felt, was an evening of mutual respect. The Kalbeliyas had done an incredible feat by transforming themselves from a twice-maligned people into the purveyors of one of India’s proudest art forms and my guests proved themselves a worthy audience by absolutely outdoing themselves on the dance floor.

We spun and grooved until we were sweating and exhaustedly fell into our seats as the music abated. This, I thought, was the perfect Venue Number Two.

Georgie Pope has been running musical tours of India for the past three years. Before that, she worked for the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur, India, a celebration of music from the north-western desert state of Rajasthan, showcased annually in the magnificent cliff-top Mehrangarh Fort. In 2011, Georgie created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off these cultural riches. Head to her website to find out more.

Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Featured image by Luigi Vaccarella/SIME/4Corners

People tend to laugh when I tell them that sumo wrestling is my favourite spectator sport. In its Japanese homeland it’s regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, with younger folk preferring to watch mixed martial arts. Abroad, the perception can be even worse; the generic assumption holds that it’s little more than fat blokes in nappies slapping each other for a few frantic seconds, until one of them falls over. However, with its refreshingly commerce-free mix of sport and ceremony, a day at the sumo is something that I almost never pass up when lucky enough to be in Japan. Tournaments take place every two months over a 15-day period; you join me here on the penultimate day of action at the Aki Basho tournament at the Ryōgoku Gokugikan stadium.

9am: get to know the wrestlers

The sumo day starts at 9am, and continues until 6pm. I head into town from my home in Tokyo after the hectic morning rush hour, then take my time on the way to the venue – almost every café along the way has a gown-wearing wrestler or two inside (you can’t miss them), and they’re often up for a little chit-chat.

10am: take your seats

It’s time to head into the arena itself. Centred on a packed-mud dohyo, it’s always near silent at this time of day; there are seven divisions of wrestlers to get through, and for the first few hours it’s a mix of young pups on the way up, old-timers on the way down, and those who have simply never made it. You could hear a pin drop, and these chaps are somewhat heavier. However, this is one of my favourite bits; even though I’ve purchased a cheap ticket way up in the gods, for a few hours I get to sit almost ringside. From here I can hear every grunt, almost feel every slap, and smell the talc the rikishi (wrestlers) give off as they pound to and from the ring. Even at these low levels, the deal is the same – the loser is the first to step outside the ring, or touch down inside it with anything but their feet.

12pm: bulking up like the big boys

Right, I’m peckish, and need to stretch my legs. The food in the stadium isn’t up to much, so I head a few blocks down the road to Tomoegata, a restaurant specialising in chanko nabe – the hearty, delicious stew that wrestlers eat several times a day in order to bulk up. This comes with rice and a mouthwatering array of side-dishes – it’s no wonder the rikishi are so big.

2pm: things get serious

Now time for the serious business: after an elaborate ceremony during which the rikishi are introduced, it’s time for the juryo division to begin. This is the second highest level, and from here on the guys are professionals – even first-timers notice the contrast in quality, and there are more visible nuances such as salt being thrown into the ring before a fight. With fewer elementary mistakes being made, fights tend to last longer, and I’m usually keeping my eyes peeled for talented fighters on their way up.

Earlier in the tournament, a wrestler named Chiyoo caught my eye with a breathtaking tsuridashi victory – requiring tremendous strength, this rarely-used technique involves picking the other wrestler up by the belt, and plonking them down outside the ring. I’ve never seen it executed so impressively before. Usually tsuridashi is used near the edge of the ring at the beginning of a fight, before the lactic acid build-up; here Chiyoo not only employed it after a lengthy tussle, but started his lift more than halfway across the ring. His opponent, Tanzo, weighed 152kg. Fat the rikishi may be, but there’s an awful lot of muscle underneath the blubber.

4pm: watching the highest division

It’s now time for makuuchi, the highest division; as with juryo before, it’s kicked off with a charming ceremony. The rikishi enter the ring one by one, and stand in circle facing inwards; when they’re all there, they in unison lift an arm, clap, raise their colourful aprons, then raise both arms. That’s all, but it gets me every single time, and I wonder why other sports abandoned tradition in favour of profit.

Again, when the fighting begins, the increase in quality is quite apparent. Each sumo fights once per day over 15 days; those who’ve won eight or more will move up the rankings for the next tournament, and those who’ve lost eight or more will go down, possibly even to the next division. Those who keep rising will eventually find themselves in the esteemed sanyaku ranks, special levels for the top wrestlers in the land. Those in sanyaku have to fight hard to stay there: over 15 days they have to face all the other top rikishi, meaning that only the truly talented will survive at this level, and even fewer will reach yokozuna, the very highest level.

5.50pm: the winning fight

All eyes are on the penultimate clash: Hakuho, an imperious yokozuna from Mongolia, versus Kisenosato, a young Japanese ozeki (the second-highest level) with lofty aims of his own. These are the only two fighters in contention; Kisenosato needs victory to be in with a chance on the final day, while a win for the other could bring Hakuho the trophy.

There’s no mistaking who the crowd want to win; recent Mongolian domination means that no Japanese have won a tournament since 2005. The atmosphere is electric, with the two giant rikishi returning to the ring to eye-ball each other multiple times, in front of a referee dressed like a giant piece of origami. Finally, in they thunder, meeting each other with a wallop easily heard over the noise of the arena. Kisenosato senses a chance and attempts a grab; Hakuho knows just how to deal with this and pummels his opponent to the ground. A streak of blood then ripples down his face, onto his chest: pure theatre. Both fighters break the sumo’s poker-face code: his chance gone, Kisenosato admonishes himself by the side of the ring, while Hakuho delights in taking his 27th title. The crowd give this all-time great a well-deserved ovation, but we’re all thinking the same thing… please, next time, let there be a Japanese winner.

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

In the late 1920s, automobile tycoon Henry Ford transplanted a little piece of the United States to the middle of Brazil‘s Amazon jungle. Complete with whitewashed American-style houses set on impeccably manicured lawns, shaded patios, and tree-lined streets dotted with pretty churches, he called it Fordlândia and it was to become the world’s largest rubber production centre. While much of the housing and machinery is deserted, it’s still a functional town and makes a fascinating detour.

My guide José, a tall thickset man, introduces me to Waldemar Gomes Aguiar, the Mayor of Fordlândia’s assistant. Waldemar warmly greets us at his office, ushering us in. He is eager for me to learn more about the history of this unusual town. “Latex was the gold of the Amazon”, he tells me. “It was expensive at the time so Ford found the ideal place to grow rubber trees.”

“Here, along the Tapajós River, Ford acquired a large tract of land. He called it Fordlândia. Let’s remember that at that time, in the early 1930’s, WWII was looming; people knew war was coming. Large supplies of rubber were needed not just for car tires, but also for war machines.” Brazilian tappers were brought in from the region to extract sap, and were provided with housing in the newly founded city.

José leads me to a rickety old building – one of the many structures that are decaying here in Fordlândia’s abandoned city – its colourful paint long faded, leaving only traces of mellow hues. The long narrow structure formerly housed single male workers, while those with families were accommodated in larger residences. The houses were built using local wood, and the rest of the materials used to construct the city were entirely imported from the United States, including the large iron structure used to build the latex factory and riverside warehouse.

Photography copyright belongs to Kiki Deere.

While Brazilian workers lived in the town centre, American dignitaries were housed on a hillside on the outskirts, their grandiose mansions sitting side by side along a pretty mango shaded boulevard. José and I hop on his motorbike to investigate. There were only a handful of houses here at the time and most are still standing, but one of the structures lies in complete disrepair, only its cemented skeleton in place. On the right flank of the hillside, hidden behind overgrown grasses, is a large empty swimming pool that has long lain forgotten.

Brazilian workers were not permitted to enter this part of town. Today, rumours abound in Fordlândia that the Americans had other hidden motives. “Maybe a metal business, or maybe they were searching for gold”, Waldemar whispers to me during our interview. But my guide José is not convinced: “I don’t think the Americans had other motives. They just lived apart from their workers and didn’t want them to come here – that’s all.”

José accompanies me to the former rubber production plant. It now lies in ruin, its panes no more than fragments of glass precariously lodged into window spaces; shrubs push through the building’s concrete, branches are upflung in disarray. Under my feet, I hear the crackle of broken glass and tinkling metal. Inside, age-old machinery lies forgotten, the American names still very much legible: Brown & Sharpe, reads one of the panels. José’s voice echoes in the vacant surrounds: “There are some elderly people in town who worked here during Ford’s era; they’re very old but they still remember how to operate the machinery after all these years.”

An abandoned white car and a truck are parked inside the plant, cobwebs wrapping themselves around the steering wheels. Further along, bed frames sit, one on top of the other, like a messy puzzle. “These were brought over from the hospital; it was abandoned too,” José informs me, a slight hint of sorrow in his voice.

He leads me upstairs to a large attic room with scattered metal tools. Cobalt boxes and crates long sit on shelves laden with tools eaten by rust. The morning light gently penetrates the splintered windowpanes and fills the room, dancing unequally on the dusty surfaces. The factory lies neglected, yet I can picture it full of life; I imagine the hundreds of workers processing latex at full speed, ready for export to the United States.

The Americans certainly imposed order and rigorous discipline among their workforce, with strict routine, stringent timetables and number tags. By the main entrance, layers of dust have accumulated on rows of pigeonholes that neatly sit side by side. I can’t get any closer to them as this area is fenced off, but I can see the metal number tags hooked above each slot used to identify the rubber tappers. They even hired nutritionists to devise canteen menus of a balanced diet that would provide each worker with enough calories to toil in the plantations.

“The workers were provided with everything they needed: schools for their children, electricity, food, and so on. But there wasn’t much freedom”, Waldemar reveals. The suffocating environment eventually led the labourers to rebel, demanding better treatment and work conditions. But the demise of Fordlândia had long been near: the rubber trees were struck with a fungus that stumped their growth; the blight stricken plants never grew; and Ford’s project was ultimately a complete failure.

Unwilling to give up, Ford established Belterra, literally ‘pretty land’, a tract of land downstream that he deemed more suitable for the rubber trees. Here, too, Ford built rows of pretty neat houses, schools, sports centres and even South America’s best equipped hospital for the project’s thousands of administrators and workers. Schooling was compulsory and free afternoon workshops gave all the opportunity to learn new trades.

Yet, Ford’s dream here was short lived too. About ten years after the new town was established, just as the rubber plants started to grow and produce latex, scientists created synthetic rubber, leading the price of latex to collapse and Ford’s utopian dream of an Amazonian rubber powerhouse – that he would never even set foot in -­ to crumble once again.

The hub of this region is Santarém, located about mid way between Belém (at the mouth of the Amazon River) and Manaus, further upstream. There are regular flights to Santarém from Belém and Manaus. To get to Fordlândia from Santarém, there are slow boats (10-12hr) as well as fast boats (4hr30min). The best (and pretty much only) place to stay in Fordlândia is Pousada Americana, a family-run guesthouse with spic and span a/c rooms and tasty home cooked meals.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

You’ve had a satisfying day or two’s heavy sightseeing in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. You’re culturally replete – but have a nagging feeling that you’ve missed something. The locals. Just what the hell do they do in this metropolis of fifteen million souls?

To find out, head across the Golden Horn to Independence Street (İstiklal Caddesi), the nation’s liveliest thoroughfare. Lined with nineteenth-century apartment blocks and churches, and with a cute red turn-of-the-twentieth-century tramway, it was the fashionable centre of Istanbul’s European quarter before independence, and it is now where young Istanbulites (it has the youngest population of any European city) come to shop, eat, drink, take in a film, club, gig and gawk, 24/7.

By day, bare-shouldered girls in Benetton vests, miniskirts and Converse All Stars mingle with Armani-clad businessmen riding the city’s financial boom, and music stores and fashion boutiques blare out the latest club sounds onto the shopper-thronged street. At night the alleyways off the main drag come to life. Cheerful tavernas serve noisy diners (the Turks are great talkers) wonderful meze, fish and lethal raki. Later, blues, jazz and rock venues, pubs and clubs burst into life – with the streets even busier than in daylight hours. You won’t see many head-scarved women here, and the call to prayer will be drowned by thumping Western sounds. But though Islam may have lost its grip on Istanbul’s westernized youth, traditional Turkish hospitality survives even on Independence Street, and you may find yourself being offered a free beer or two. This is Istanbul’s happening European heart; no wonder it has been heralded as “Europe’s Hippest City”.

From Sultanahmet take a tram to Karaköy then the Tünel funicular railway to the bottom of Independence Street; both close at around 9pm. Return to Sultanahmet by taxi after midnight.

 

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Move over Paris Plage. Although media reports heap praise upon its strip of sun, Seine and sand, the North European city that has a better claim to be the spiritual home of the urban beach is Hamburg. Every April tens of thousands of tonnes of sand are imported as miniature seaside paradises appear in the heart of Germany’s second city. The doors open at the end of May and so begins another summer of beach bar hopping Hamburg-style.

Having spent their weekends on sandy strips beside the River Elbe since the late-1800s, Hamburg residents have long known about urban beach culture. But the reason why no other German city does the Stadtstrand (city beach) with such panache comes down to character. That Hamburg is simultaneously a sophisticated media metropolis and a rollicking port city produces a beach bar scene that ranges from glamour to grunge without sacrificing the key element – good times. Think sand, sausages and Strandkörbe (traditional wicker seats) to a soundtrack of funk and house beats. Ibiza it is not, but then nor is it trying to be.

Your flip-flops on, head to the river in port-turned-nightlife district St Pauli to begin at Strand Pauli (Hafenstr. 89). A year-round institution near the ferry port, it combines retro lampshades, castaway style and views of the ninth largest container port in the world – Hamburg in a nutshell. Next stop west on the beach bar crawl is slicker Hamburg City Beach Club (Grosse Elbstr. 279), all potted palms, day beds and aviator sunglasses, from where it’s a short walk to the former docks in Altona. Behind the beach volleyball pitch are relaxed Hamburg del Mar (Van-der-Smissen-Str. 4) and Lago Bay (same address), which aspires towards Ibiza but scores most for a small swimming pool. A tip wherever you go: sunset is popular, so arrive early, buy a drink and settle in.

Not that it’s all imported sand and urban chic. At the end of the road in Övelgönne further west still is Altona’s Strandperle (Schulberg 2). Sure it’s a glorified shack, but no one minds when it’s on a genuine river beach to make Paris Plage look like a glorified sandpit. Now, what was the German for “c’est magnifique”?

Scheduled flights link Hamburg to airports in London, Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin. Beach bars open from noon to midnight between May and September.

 

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Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

“Selfies, Instagram, Pinterest… What a bunch of losers.” That’s exactly what award-winning photographer and Exodus tour-group leader Paul Goldstein thinks of you while you’re posting those balmy beach shots onto Facebook… If you want to learn how to impress your social following though, and maybe even make money from your pictures, listen to this podcast with Paul Goldstein and then read a summary of his top tips.

Listen to the full podcast:

Paul’s top travel photography tips

Research, research research. Learn about your destination, find out what camera gear you’re going to need and read about where others go wrong.

Be Original. Paul admits it sounds cliché, but he says a flawed original photo is better than a perfect chocolate box photograph of a lion sat there in nice light. “If you’re going to do something with your camera, do it boldly.” 

Challenge yourself. If you’re ambitious and aim high, not only will the rewards be greater, but you’ll constantly be learning and getting better as you go.

Be disciplined. Don’t fall into the lazy digital mindset of “oh, it’s alright, I’ll fix it later”. Describing it as a corrosive infection across the photography world, Paul explains in our podcast how intelligent post-production is ruining the development of good photographers. You won’t learn if you don’t strive to get it right first time.

Know your camera. You don’t need to know everything, but know a few basic settings so well, you could do it with your eyes closed. This means you’re always ready to catch the right picture using the right settings.

Invest in the right things. If you’re spending money on photography, spend it on lenses – not cameras. It’s the lens that’s going to get you the pictures. It’s not just about the photographer, it’s about the equipment too.

Practice. Don’t leave your experimentation and learning until you’re out in the field, practice with your camera at home and in places you know well.

By Paul Goldstein

Don’t spend your whole trip behind the lens. “If you don’t look, you can’t see.” You might wonder how this is even possible when trying to take stunning photographs and ensure you get the right shot, but preparation is key here and it’s important to keep your head above the camera so you can see the full picture (pardon the pun).

Don’t share. While we wouldn’t usually condone selfishness here at Rough Guides HQ, in photography it’s essential to greedy about your kit. As Paul explains in our photography podcast: “If you’re a couple get a camera each. Don’t for one minute think you’ll share it. That’s just a divorce pending.”

Get the right focal length. “Ninety per cent of all photographs are taken at the long end or the very wide end because they’re interesting. The human eye is about 50mm so anything too close to that is not going to be that interesting.”

Be ethical. Don’t get too close. Be respectful and think about what you’re photographing – make sure you’re not leaving any impact on your subject.

Market your pictures. There are plenty of places where you can share your photos under different licenses, and even sell them online in a simple and no-catch way. Try Picfair for starters, and look our for the many more sites that are bound to pop up like it.

All photographs courtesy of Paul Goldstein. Paul Goldstein is an award winning photographer for leading UK adventure tour operator Exodus. He is one of the celebrity travel experts who will be speaking at Destinations, The Holiday & Travel Show at Earls Court, London from 6-9 February 2014. Advance tickets cost £11. www.destinationsshow.com

If you’re looking for a classic Southeast Asian scene, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City, will do the trick. This is an area of vivid green rice paddies, conical-hatted farmers and lumbering water buffaloes, of floating markets and villages built on stilts. Lush orchards overflow with mangoes, papayas and dragonfruit; plantations brim with bananas, coconuts and pineapples. And through it all wind the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which nourish this fruitbasket of Vietnam, the waters busy with sampans, canoes and houseboats. It is the end of the run for Asia’s mighty Mekong, whose waters rise over 4000km away in the snows of the Tibetan plateau and empty out here, into the alluvial-rich plains fringing the South China Sea.

For the fifteen million people who live in these wetlands, everything revolves around the waterways, so to glimpse something of their life you need to join them on the river. Boat tours from the market town of My Tho will take you to nearby orchard-islands, crisscrossed by narrow palm-shaded canals and famous for their juicy yellow-fleshed sapodilla fruits. At Vinh Long, home-stay programmes give you the opportunity to sample the garden produce for dinner and spend the night on stilts over the water.

Chances are your host-family catch fish as well – right under their floorboards in specially designed bamboo cages, so the daily feed is simply a matter of lifting up a plank or two. Next stop should be Can Tho, the delta’s principal city, to see the enormous floating market at Cai Rang.

Here at the confluence of seven major waterways, hundreds of sampans bump and jostle early each morning to trade everything from sugar cane to pigs – and of course mountains of fruit.

My Tho is a 90min bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. Homestays can be arranged at local tourist offices or through Sinhbalo Adventure Travel in Ho Chi Minh City (www.cyclingvietnam.net).

 

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