Monthly Archives: June 2017

Road Trip through Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.

Lviv

Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.

It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.

Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.

Carpathian Mountains

The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

Kolomyia

It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.

Yaremche

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

Bukovel

upert Parker

Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.

Verkhovyna

I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.

More Armani then Armageddon

On his intrepid trek in the Levant the acclaimed writer William Dalrymple describes his crossing from Syria to Lebanon in 1994, just four years after the end of the civil war. Struck by signs of a glitzy lifestyle already springing up beside bombed-out Beirut skyscrapers he writes, in his compelling travelogue

Things have of course moved on, and Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, has been shaking off its war-torn image and attempting to reclaim its pre-war sobriquet as Paris of the Middle East. It offers a mezze of cultural attractions, with museums, restored mosques and churches, a vibrant café and restaurant scene, some of the coolest nightclubs in the Middle East. The streets are still manic but there are stylish beach clubs to retire to – and panoramic pools atop glittering hotels.

Is it safe to visit Beirut?

Lebanon currently sees no more than a trickle of western tourists, others discouraged by political turbulence. The UK Foreign Commonwealth Office labels the no-go zones – and these I avoided. Sadly the list includes some of Lebanon’s premier sites and notably the colossal and remarkably preserved Roman temples of Baalbek.

But the areas I did see were completely relaxed and unthreatening, with an apparent easy ethnic mix. In rebuilt Downtown Beirut you could be in any smart European capital – albeit with some restored Ottoman-era facades. There are glossy shops, sophisticated restaurants and stylishly-dressed Lebanese living life to the full. Go at sunset to the achingly cool rooftop Iris Bar, overlooking the Med, to witness the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the youth of Beirut.

Unmissable landmarks in Beirut

Beirut my sightseeing starts at the Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque, a city landmark with its dazzling blue dome and lofty minarets. Although I’m covered from head to toe I’m told to don a huge black-hooded cloak – a stark contrast to the scantily-clad Lebanese ladies shopping in the designer boutiques a stone’s throw away.

I head to Christian East Beirut to see the Sursock Museum in the affluent quarter of Achrafieh. This elegant Italian/Lebanese 1912 mansion reopened in 2015 after a major overhaul and is now a cutting edge 21st-century cultural institution, devoted to modern and contemporary art.

National Museum

Directly to the south, and right on the former ‘Green Line’ separating East and West Beirut, is the National Museum, home to a superb archaeological collection, much of it heroically saved by staff from destruction during the civil war.

Special places along the coast

Lebanon is such a tiny nation you can base yourself in Beirut, and make excursions to other attractions. Jeita Grotto, 18km northeast of Beirut, is a colossal cavern of stalactities and stalagmites which would thrill even the most jaded speleologist. On the coast at Jounieh the Téléférique (cable car), dubbed the Terrorifique, climbs steeply up to the heights of Harissa. Here a striking white statue of the Virgin of Lebanon commands spectacular coastal views.

Surfing in the Philippines: riding the Cloud 9 in Siargao

Before arriving in Siargao in the southeast of the Philippines, I’d spent the previous three months travelling and surfing around Australasia and Southeast Asia taking in popular hotspots like Bali and Australia’s Gold Coast, but every now and then I heard a whisper: Cloud 9.

Siargao: one of the top 10 surf sites in the world

In everyday parlance, “on Cloud 9” means feeling elated, on top of the world, but for surfers it’s more than this. Cloud 9 is the name of the most famous wave in the Philippines, and Siargao Island is regularly rated as one of the top 10 surf sites in the world. That alone was enough to make me book the succession of flights — two days in total of travelling — which would ultimately bring me to Siargao.

There are, as yet, no direct flights to Siargao from Manila, but that’s part of what has kept Siargao and its coastlines pristine. And it means that this tropical island with its warm climate remains a paradise ringed by coral reefs and sand bars and which makes it the ideal place to dive and surf.

Dive and surf in Siargao

The sea is omnipresent, wherever you go on Siargao. When you lie in bed, you hear the waves breaking on the shore. When you walk out, it is always in view. And when you want to hop from one picture-perfect island to the next, the only way to do so is by boat.

But back to Cloud 9, the raison d’être for my trip. Its thick, hollow tubes make it ideal for surfing, especially from November to April when the waves have plenty of swell. These extra inches of water lift surfers comfortably above the reef, which otherwise lurks perilously close to the surface of the water.

I sailed out to Cloud 9 from Siargao Bleu with a handful of other surfers, our boards, and a clutch of hangers-on who would sit on the beach and watch. The boat was wooden, styled like a traditional fishing boat, but with a roaring motor onboard. We dashed across the tops of the waves, bouncing up in the air when we hit one straight on, then crashing back down with a thunk. It was scarcely past breakfast, but still a few beers were being passed hand to hand. The anticipation was building.

Turning into the bay, half a dozen surfers were already riding Cloud 9. They must have headed out at daybreak to get the waves to themselves. The boat had a shallow enough draft to pull close to the beach, so we kicked off our sandals and and paddled the last few metres. The water at most was knee-deep.

Walking along the monsoon-battered pier takes you past most of the coral and to within 200m of the peak. The air temperature was already warming up, and though the water was still cool, dropping into it hardly made us flinch. Unlike at the bitterly cold surf spots of northern Europe, here there wasn’t a wet suit in sight.

It was time to ride Cloud 9, and I faced it with slight trepidation. It’s not a ride for beginners (there are plenty of easier waves nearby), as you have to be confident and nimble on the surf board. Professional surfers compete on Cloud 9 during the annual Siargao Cup, an international surfing competition, and they make it look effortless. I can assure you: it’s not!

But there’s something about riding this wave which makes it top all others. The speed and height of Cloud 9 definitely provide an adrenalin kick, but its joy is also in the wider context. It’s in the warmth of the sun on your face or your back, the clarity of the water, and the fact that when you fix your gaze ahead, it falls on a tropical idyll.

Surfing is hungry work, and by mid afternoon I was worn out and starving. I staggered back up the beach to meet our boatman. Whilst I’d been surfing, he’d cooked up a veritable feast. Freshly grilled tuna, caught just hours before, is the sort of ingredient which culinary heaven must be made from. Accompanied by steamed rice and huge slices of pink-red watermelon, it was Philippine cuisine at its freshest and finest.

Almost too full to move, let alone get back on a surfboard, we made our way back to the boat. Unlike the morning when we were in a rush to reach Cloud 9, now there was no such hurry. The boatman sensed this, and we motored back at to Siargao Bleu at a considerably more leisurely pace.

Approaching the resort, the boatman cut the engine and the boat began to drift. The broken water settled, and looking over the side we could see probably to a depth of 15 metres and quite possibly more.

Tropical fish, stingless jellyfish, and sea snakes swum about, completely unperturbed by our presence. Encouraged, we grabbed snorkels and masks, and slid ourselves overboard. The water was so clear we could see every detail of the creatures around us, admiring their colours, form, and agility. It felt like an aquarium, only this time we were inside the tank and could reach out and touch the fish.

Tourism development is a balancing act. If you don’t create enough infrastructure, enough opportunities for things to do, then people won’t want to come. On the other hand, if you build too much, and visitors come by the thousand, you can damage the environment, spoiling the places and experiences which made it a desirable destination in the first place. Thus far, Siargao has got the balance right. Of course there are bigger, brighter, and more luxurious resorts in the Philippines. But what they gain in facilities, they lose in atmosphere and quality of experience. The purpose of a tropical island retreat is to get away from other people, to appreciate the beauty of the sea and the sand, and to feel at peace. When you swim or surf, you don’t want to be competing for space. Thankfully, in Siargao you won’t have to.

Street foods of Northern India

For many first-time travellers to India one of the greatest pleasures is discovering its amazing street food. Surprisingly, there’s infinitely more to subcontinental cuisine than the rather bland offerings of tikka masala and chicken korma.

Street food, whether sweet or savoury, fiery or mild, is eaten by all and it’s not unknown for there to be lively debate amongst friends and family about which is the best. As well as giving your stomach a treat, trying street food helps support hard-working vendors, many of whom have been plying their trade with great skill for many years. So here’s our guide to the best street food of northern India – try each one with a steaming cup of the nation’s rocket-fuel, masala chai.

1Pav Bhaji – soul food

This food for the soul originates from the western state of Maharashtra. Pav bhaji really comes into its own further north in winter however: in a place like Maharashtra, where temperatures rarely drop into single digits in December and January, winter isn’t really a thing! Toasted white rolls (the pav) are dunked into a smooth blend of mashed potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green peas, and peppers (the bhaji) – with lashings of butter having been mixed into the bhaji before serving. Hearty and – possibly – healthier than your average street-fare, pav bhaji is pukka (first-class) grub!

2Panipuri

Panipuri, also known as golgappa, is probably one of the region’s most common street foods. In fact you can find varieties of this ubiquitous treat across India, and its exact origins are hotly contested. If you already know some Hindi you may recognise the words pani and puri, meaning water and bread respectively.

Don’t be put off; this isn’t as dull as it sounds. To make it, hollow puff-pastry balls are fried and then filled with a green-coloured spiced and peppery water, potatoes and chickpeas. It may look unusual and slightly messy to eat, but it’s very refreshing on a hot day.

3Gajar ka Halwa – food gets you hooked

Grated carrots might not immediately sound like the most promising of starters for a sweet dish, but we promise one bite of this Mughal-era treat will have you hooked, even if eating mounds of it probably won’t improve your eyesight! Throw in some dates, almonds, raisins and sugar, pour in milk and gently simmer until it’s all absorbed, and you have the makings of an excellent pick-me-up if all that exploring has tired you out.

4Fried Duck

If you’re travelling to the north-eastern state of Assam, then kudos to you fellow explorer! With such a keen sense of adventure and independence, you probably don’t need much advice on what to eat. But just in case, we recommend sampling some fried duck at a road-side stall. The people of Assam are confirmed carnivores, so you’re sure to have an authentic five-star experience without the eye-watering bill at the end.

5Jalebis – food worthy of a wedding

As distinctive a feature of the streets of north India as rickshaws, stray cows and chai stalls, these golden, glistening pieces of deep-fried syrupy goodness are the stuff of dreams for those with a sweet tooth.

Jalebis were brought from the Middle East and adapted over time –with spectacular results. They are a firm favourite at weddings and festivals, although we suggest not indulging in more than one or two if you plan on doing anything else for the rest of the day.

6Kachori – food to keep you going

A Rajasthani classic, kachori are fried pastry discs which may be filled with lentils, potatoes, onions, or green peas, garnished with spices and often accompanied by a rich tamarind chutney.

Fairly light on the stomach, kachori are ideal snacks to keep you going as you take in the palaces, forts and markets of Rajasthan.

7Shakarkandi chaat – filling food

While you’re out exploring, or if you’re on a carb crawl, see if you can spot someone standing by a basket of sweet potatoes mounted on a stand, with lemons arrayed in a circle around the potatoes.

Heated by the coals burning below, a nutritious portion of diced shakarkandi (sweet potato) with lemon juice and masala will quickly quell any stomach rumbles.