Monthly Archives: February 2017
1. Oradour-sur-Glane, France
The small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, tucked in the Limousin countryside, was the site of one of WWII’s most harrowing atrocities. On June 10, 1944, 642 of its inhabitants were massacred by the Nazi Waffen-SS. People from the village were rounded up, machine-gunned and many burned alive.
Today, the town’s crumbling buildings are a brutal reminder of that fateful day. Houses and shops lie in ruins, some retaining original details – rusting lamps, sewing machines and pots and pans.
The Centre de la Mémoire commemorates the crimes that took place with testimonials, exhibits and films shedding light on Oradour’s bloody past.
2. Imber Village, UK
In 1943, with only 47 days’ notice, the villagers of Imber in Wiltshire were evicted from their homes to allow American troops to train for the liberation of Europe. They never returned.
Villagers are said to have protested their banishment, but to no avail. Imber had been acquired by the Ministry of Defence before the war in a bid to make Salisbury plain the largest training ground in the country. To this day, the land belongs to the British Army.
3. Pripyat, Ukraine
Situated in northern Ukraine, Pripyat was founded to house the families of workers of the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The town was evacuated following the devastating explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, which caused vast amounts of radioactive chemicals to be pumped into the atmosphere.
Today, vegetation forces its way into the crevices of abandoned buildings, and textbooks and toys are strewn across school floors – a chilling reminder of the inhabitants’ sudden departure.
4. Pentedattilo, Italy
Clinging to the jagged rock face of Monte Calvario, Pentedattilo dates back to 640BC when it was established as a Greek colony. It thrived under Greek and Roman rule, later declining as a result of Saracen invasions.
The 1783 earthquake caused irreparable damage, causing most of the population to move to nearby coastal town Melito Porto Salvo.
Pentedattilo was partially restored by volunteers in the 1980s. Today, it is a thriving artistic and cultural centre, and host to the yearly Pentedattilo Film Festival.
5. Skrunda-1, Latvia
The secret city of Skrunda-1 once played a vital role in protecting the Soviet Union from possible missile attacks. During the Cold War, the city guarded a key radar station that scanned the skies for nuclear warheads.
Skrunda-1 was one of the USSR’s “closed administrative territorial formations”: secret towns that supported research sites and sensitive military bases. The city housed the families of Soviet soldiers who worked on the nearby radar project.
The site remained under the control of the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but was eventually abandoned in 1998. Today, derelict Soviet-style apartment blocks littered with possessions still stand, an echo of the town’s recent past.s
6. Pyramiden, Norway
Pyramiden is located above Norway’s arctic circle, on the archipelago of Svalbard. It was founded by the Swedes in the early-twentieth century and acquired by the Soviet Union in 1927, becoming a Russian coal-mining settlement. At its peak, Pyramiden had around 1200 Russian residents.
Its decline began in the 1990s following the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the dwindling profitability of the coal-mining industry. It was completely abandoned in 1998.
Now a handful of visitors head here each year to see the town’s Soviet-era remains, which include apartment blocks and the world’s northernmost statue of Vladimir Lenin.
7. Belchite, Spain
In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Republicans and the nationalist forces of General Franco fought a bloody two-week battle in the town of Belchite. More than 3000 people lost their lives.
On Franco’s orders, a new town was constructed nearby to house its inhabitants. The war-torn crumbling village of Belchite was left as a mere monument. Today its dilapidated buildings, riddled by bullet holes and scarred by shells, only just remain standing.
1. Berlin, Germany
A divided and somewhat neglected city until 1989, Berlin has completely transformed itself. This diverse metropolis has deep historical resonances, an archipelago of urban nightlife scenes and a pop-cultural pedigree that embraces everything from Marlene Dietrich to Einstürzende Neubauten.
As well as the prestigious museums and galleries of the Kulturforum, there are plenty of smaller venues showcasing more offbeat artistic offerings. The Bauhaus Archiv Museum is the ultimate pilgrimage for design lovers. Meanwhile, the city’s fabled weekend flea markets allow you to rummage through a century’s worth of consumer culture.
2. Kanazawa, Japan
Horticulture can be just as inspirational as any other art form – and the Japanese city of Kanazawa is the perfect place to appreciate it. Here, the seventeenth-century Kenrokuen Park showcases the compositional qualities that make Japanese gardening so unique. Also known for its Samurai villas, geisha teahouses and traditional handicrafts, Kanazawa is the ideal destination for discovering the Japan of the Edo period, rather than its garish twenty-first century reincarnation.
But, if Kanazawa proves to be a bit too folksy, then fear not – you can always stop off inTokyo on the way back.
3. Tallinn, Estonia
Renowned for its medieval town centre, marzipan museums and faux-medieval restaurants, the Estonian capital may seem far too twee to cut the creative mustard. For Nordic cool with a twist, however, it is in a class of its own.
There’s a distinctive national style in the arts and crafts here – modernism and folk motifs come seamlessly together. Investigate this at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design and the KUMU art museum – the latter is a contemporary architectural statement in its own right. The Museum of Occupations, detailing the effects of both Nazi and Soviet power, provides gritty historical context.
You can also meet local creatives at the Telliskivi Centre. This building is a former engineering works that now houses a cluster of studios, design shops and nouveau-Nordic cuisine restaurants.
4. New York City, USA
Celebrated in film, TV, literature and popular song more than any other city on Earth, this list would not be complete without a mention of the Big Apple.
New York took over from Paris as the planet’s leading urban muse some time in the mid-twentieth century – and NYC shows no sign of giving up that status. As a city swelled by immigration, many of the world’s great languages, cultures and cuisines are represented here, and a huge portion of the globe’s cultural output is on show too.
The list of big-hitting institutions speaks for itself: the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim. And there’s not just one major design museum, but two: the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and design.
5. Amsterdam, Netherlands
With its neat canals overlooked by handsome merchants’ houses, Amsterdam is one of the most beautifully proportioned cities in the world. It is also a laboratory of post-industrial living, thanks to projects such as the NDSM-Werf, a former shipyard now containing workspaces, cafés and a strong community spirit. The Westergasfabriek, where red-brick factory buildings have been adapted to house an arts and entertainment zone, is also fantastic creative fodder. Meanwhile Borneo, a former dockland area, has been rebuilt as a residential district of cool, contemporary dwellings.
The city offers old-school artistic inspiration by the bucket load, too. Rembrandt’s House, the Van Gogh Museum and the modernist masterpieces of the Stedelijk are among the highlights.
6. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Gruff, gritty and overwhelming, Sao Paulo is an altogether more abrasive prospect thanRio de Janeiro, Brazil’s more popular tourist city. But, in many ways, it’s also more culturally potent.
The Sao Paolo Biennial and the MASP contemporary art museum are the flagships ofSouth America’s most diverse cultural scene, and the nightlife has a famously uninhibited, anything-goes reputation.
The sprawling city also has scores of bustling neighbourhoods suited to endless urban roving. Whichever part of the megalopolis you find yourself in, the music blasting out of bars, cars and private flats is a revelation.
7. Bandung, Indonesia
It’s smart to aim for a city yet to establish itself as a tourist hub – that way you’ll avoid too many preconceptions. One such outlier is Indonesia’s textile and fashion industry capital Bandung. It’s a raucous, chaotic, scooter-clogged metropolis that’s yet to find its way into much film or literature.
More than just a place to buy cheap denims, it’s the undoubted centre of Indonesia’s art, design and indie music scenes, and has the teeming café life to match. It can also boast some truly inspirational one-offs: the Regia inner-city forest comes complete with treetop walkway and alfresco cultural events. The perforated cube that is the Al-Irsyad Mosque is one of the most beautiful contemporary sacral buildings in Southeast Asia.
1. Sri Lanka: Kandy to Ella
Starting in colonial-style Kandy, the little train to Ella chugs through tea plantations and up hillsides to reach a remote station in the middle of Hill Country. It takes nearly seven hours to reach the final destination.
Rules around riding the train are lax in Sri Lanka, so you’ll find passengers sitting in open doorways swinging their legs in the sunshine as the train gasps its way into the hills. The last leg of the ride can be misty as the train breaks through the cloud line.
2. China: Jiayuguan to Xi’an
On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the city of Jiayuguan, in China’s far northwest, couldn’t feel more different to the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai. In the Gansu province, the city is home to the Jiayu Pass, the furthest western end of the Great Wall of China.
The 18-hour train ride to Xi’an, also known as the end of the Silk Road, offers up more of the same. Scenery is bleak and awe-inspiringly vast. This journey – longer than any other in China – will give you a sense of the country’s sheer size.
The train belts along the Gobi Desert, before hitting the Hexi Corridor, the ancient northern Silk Road trading route. It then rattles onwards to the Qilian Mountain range, where snow-capped mountains glowing orange and pink are visible in the dusk. The train itself is comfortable, with a mixture of private compartments, second-class sleepers and hard third-class benches. The dining car offers freshly made stews and stir-fries, and cheap beer can be bought on board.
3. Malaysia: Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is blessed with a cheap and efficient rail service that runs down the west coast of the Peninsular. It’s also an incredibly scenic option.
Run by a series of electric trains that service families and commuters, this route feels just like a normal local’s journey. At least, it does until the train picks up speed and zips past forested hills and verdant tropical landscapes. In heavily populated Peninsular Malaysia, it’s a pleasure to sit back and soak up the tropical vibe from an air-conditioned carriage.
4. Japan: the Gonō Line in Tōhoku
If you ever find yourself in Tōhoku – the most northerly region on Japan’s main island, Honshū – book yourself onto a trip on the Gonō Railway. The line mostly runs through Aomori prefecture, which is surrounded by Japan’s iciest seas on three sides, with snow-capped mountains to the south. Considering how far north Aomori is, snow is pretty much guaranteed for most of the year, but the ride offers some fantastic coastal scenery.
Visitors will need to book onto a special “sightseeing train” called the Resort Shirakami. This line takes you to one of the most remote areas of the country, and it’s so far removed from Tokyo’s manic Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a different country. Its enormous glass windows and comfy booth seats are the perfect place from which to spot snow-topped Mount Iwaki and the craggy coastline.
5. Vietnam: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
More than 1000 miles of railway lines run the length of Vietnam. The lines carry comfortable air-conditioned sleeper trains, making a long distance train journey a pleasure.
You can do the whole route north to south on the Reunification Express train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in three days, but the most scenic part by far is between Hué and Danang. Watch fishermen cast their nets as you pass the South China Sea, just metres away from the tracks, before curving around the coast past deserted white beaches and lush rainforest.
Breakfast in the dining car is pot noodles in broth, served with fresh lime and chilli. Enjoy it with cup of instant black coffee, drunk as the train chugs its way past buffalos grazing in rice paddies.
6. Uzbekistan: Urgench to Bukhara
High-speed trains link most of Uzbekistan’s cities: Tashkent, Andijan and Samarkand are all joined up by super-fast express Afrosiyob trains.
Bukhara to Urgench (the jump-off point for the ancient Silk Road mud city of Khiva) on the other hand, is serviced by a slow, 12-hour service – but that’s the beauty of it. The train runs through the Kyzylkum Desert, and you can spot camels lumbering alongside the tracks. Women in brightly printed dresses sell hard-boiled eggs and pickles from the platform before the train picks up speed, screeching past desert tomb stones and abandoned mosques eroded by sand.
Best for: winter thrills
The world’s largest island is covered almost entirely in ice – which makes for unbeatable winter sports conditions. Strap on the skis for some cross-country or head up higher on a helicopter to ski back down from the ice caps. It’s also possible to kayak among the icebergs and even scuba dive down to see what lies beneath their famously shallow surface. If you’d rather gather some speed, hire a snowmobile or take charge of a dog sled and head out there into the snow.
On The Go Tours tip: After a busy day of outdoor adventure, relax at Cafe Iluliaq (in Ilulissat) with a craft beer flavoured with berries and herbs sourced from the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Best for: urban adventures
Japanese culture may have been exported worldwide but nothing can compare to seeing it first hand, perhaps by eating sushi in Tokyo or seeing geishas perform a cultural ritual in Kyoto. Take in the culture by learning to cook Japanese food yourself on a cookery course and discover what it’s like to live in one of the world’s most frenetic cities at Tokyo’s Shibuja crossing – where you’ll join up to 1000 other pedestrians bobbing and weaving at one of the world’s busiest intersections.
On The Go Tours tip: When the hustle and bustle of Tokyo gets too much, head for the Todoroki Gorge, a hidden oasis of green and the capital’s last remaining natural gorge.
Best for: laidback watersports
Anyone who’s seen the film The Beach knows that Thailand is home to some of the world’s very best stretches of sand. This laidback country is also home to over 3000km of coastline, much of it made up of cliffs and caves that are just begging to be kayaked along or dived beneath. Further inland, head to Kanchanaburi, where you’ll find the infamous Bridge Over the River Kwai and the multi-tiered Erawan Falls – a fantastic swimming spot that is popular with the locals.
On The Go Tours tip: The Similan Islands are still considered one of the best dive spots in Thailand but visit in April or May for the best chances of seeing whale sharks.
Best for: surprises
Myanmar has only recently opened up to tourism and remains a truly unspoiled country with a unique culture. People here are keen to share their customs and you might find yourself waylaid by morning alms or the chance for tea with the locals. There’s great trekking here, in the Himalayan north around what is said to be southeast Asia’s highest peak, Hkakabo Razi, and at Inle Lake wonderful kayaking, out to peaceful villages and past floating gardens. This is a place to keep your eyes and your mind open.
On The Go Tours tip: Journey from Mandalay to Yangon by boat to explore otherwise-inaccessible gems, including minority villages, colonial towns and Buddhist caves.
Best for: mountain climbing
Smack bang in the centre of the Himalayas, landlocked Nepal is all about the mountains. Clamber up along the very spine of the globe, hiking the Annapurna range or to Everest Base Camp, and you’ll take in some of the most awe-inspiring scenery our planet has to offer – from snow-capped peaks to ancient oak and rhododendron forests. You could also go on an Asian safari, in Chitwan national park, home to rhinos and tigers.
On The Go Tours tip: Fancy a break from all that trekking? Spend a night or two in the picturesque village of Nagarkot where you can admire the sweeping mountain views from the comfort of your hotel bed.
Best for: desert safari
The Namib desert is ripe for adventure, its dunes the perfect slopes for sandboarding down or quad biking over, its epic rust-red landscape an unbeatable backdrop for a fiery sunset. Namibia is also home to the world’s second-largest canyon, ideal for canoeing along, and some of the best game viewing, at Etosha national park and in the lush Caprivi Strip. See how many of the big five you can tick off – that’s lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino – and look out for smaller springbok, birds and reptiles too.
On The Go Tours tip: Namibia is a superb self-drive destination – it’s safe, English is widely spoken and road conditions are good, so set your own pace with a self-drive adventure trip.
Best for: riding the rails
The Trans-Siberian Railway should be on every traveller’s bucket list, the farthest you can travel on one train, across the largest country in the world and past the point where Europe meets Asia. Climb aboard to travel from Moscow past the Urals and through Siberia, breaking the journey in Yekaterinburg, the last home of the Romanovs, and in Irkutsk, said to be ‘the Paris of Siberia’ and the jumping-off point for Lake Baikal for a banya (sauna) at the deepest lake in the world.
On The Go Tours tip: Hop off the train at Vladimir, just a two-hour ride from Moscow, for the chance to explore the charming towns that make up the historic Golden Ring.