Monthly Archives: May 2016

Where are you go on next holiday

Start with a stroll along Calea Victoriei, lurching with belle époque sensations and upscale boutiques. Bucharest’s oldest artery is arguably its most revealing. From the stately Cantacuzino Palace (today housing the George Enescu Museum) to the grandeur of the Romanian Athenaeum, bordering the scar-marked Revolution Square, it’s clear why the Romanian capital was once dubbed ‘little Paris’. Crowning wide, tree-lined boulevards, the city even boasts its very own Triumphal Arch.

But Bucharest is best enjoyed from the seat of a garden terrace, watching life go by. Contributing to a long-standing cafe culture, the Garden of Eden (facebook.com/gradinaeden107) – so appropriately called – boasts a vast urban garden seemingly veiled behind Știrbei Palace, complete with swings and hammocks. Come fall, sip your coffee inside the covered terrace whose artsy-industrial design scores extra points.

Before you set off into the maze-like streets of the Old Town, refuel with hearty Romanian fare at Caru’ cu Bere, Bucharest’s oldest beer house. Despite the tourist crowds, this stained-glass architectural landmark from 1897 is worth a stop, both for the food and occasional song-and-dance traditional performances.

With your belly full of beer and ciorbă (the customary sour soup), journey on the cobblestone streets of Lipscani, the area named after the many German merchants from Leipzig once retailing here. With quirky street names redolent of the craftsmen of yesteryear – such as Blanari (furriers), Covaci (blacksmiths) and Gabroveni (knife makers) – the pedestrian district will keep you entertained for hours.

On the left as you exit the restaurant, notice the OrthodoxStravropoleos Church, a magnificent example of Brâncovenesc style built by Greek monks in the 1700s. Head to the tranquil garden in the back for the masterfully carved arcades and a few minutes of silence. Moving on, the discreet courtyard of Strada Hanul cu Tei unravels a heap of art galleries and antique shops. Also in the vicinity is the Old Princely Court, built in the 15th century by the infamous Vlad Ţepeş, more widely known as Count Dracula.

But if you’d rather seek the modern, there’s plenty on that front to keep you busy. Envisioned as a cultural habitat where one can retreat to read and savour organic food and drinks, Carturesti Carusel library (carturesticarusel.ro) – an Instagram magnet in the Old Town – is an impressive six-level structure in a restored 19th-century house. Next door, the brought-to-new-life Gabroveni Inn (arcub.ro/arcub-gabroveni) is the capital’s newfangled cultural centre (renamed ARCUB), often hosting free exhibitions and events.

Finally, take a peek inside the oldest operating hotel in Bucharest, Manuc’s Inn (hanulluimanuc.ro). Here, the picturesque balconied courtyard acts as a perfect backdrop for fairs and folkloric acts, while also housing a restaurant, a few bars and a coffee shop.

Closing in a tireless afternoon of Old Town crawling, cool off with an Aperol Spritz at Bordello (bordellos.ro), a 3-in-1 hotspot thanks to its gastro pub, 1930s speakeasy and cabaret. Whether you start withForeplay snacks or Quickies, you can wine, dine and get your groove on, all in the same building.

Bucharest is known for its nightlife, and Lipscani is where the action is. Try club-hopping on the adjacent streets, a pastime that in Bucharest goes on well after midnight, or hop over to newcomer Energiea (energiea.ro) for some of the city’s most ingenious cocktails.

Start the day right at Origo Coffee Shop (origocoffee.ro), a speciality store offering the best brew in town, along with breakfast snacks and herbal teas (return at dusk for an introduction to Romanian wines, accompanied by an assortment of local cheeses and cold cuts). Properly energised, take advantage of one of the best English-language bookstores in Eastern Europe, at Anthony Frost on Calea Victoriei; it’s stocked with several titles on Romania.

If weather permits, hop on a 20-minute taxi ride north (around €3) for a unique morning outdoors at the National Village Museum. Here you can witness a page of Romanian rural life and a display of a few dozen peasant homes, barns, wooden churches and mills from all regions of the country. Stroll past tall-roofed houses, with beautifully crafted shingles and doorways, in a bucolic setting on the shores of Herăstrău Lake.

Ireland Ancient East

Kick off in the Irish capital with an overview of the country’s history at the 1877-established National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology. Just some of its highlights are the world’s most complete collection of medieval Celtic metalwork, and four preserved Iron Age ‘bog bodies’ with intact features such as fingernails. Other exhibitions include Medieval Ireland, and Viking Ireland, featuring finds excavated at Dublin’s Wood Quay.

Brú na Bóinne

A Unesco World Heritage-listed wonder from around 3200 BC, the vast Neolithic necropolis Brú na Bóinne, 50km north of Dublin, predates both Stonehenge (by a millennia) and the Great Pyramids of Egypt (by six centuries). In fertile farmland scattered with standing stones, the complex encompasses three main burial tombs: Newgrange, a white quartzite-encircled grass-topped passage tomb measuring 80m in diameter and 13m high, which aligns with the winter solstice; Knowth, containing extraordinary passage-grave art; and sheep-roamed Dowth.

Less than 10km west, in the 18th-century town of Slane, coaching innConyngham Arms, makes a charming overnight stop.

Day 2

Hill of Slane

The Hill of Slane is where, allegedly, St Patrick lit a paschal (Easter) fire in 433 against the ruling of the Irish high king. Patrick then described the holy trinity to him by plucking a shamrock to illustrate the paradox of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one, kindling Christianity in Ireland. Only faint remnants of subsequent religious buildings here remain, but the views are sublime.

Hill of Tara

Once the home of ancient Ireland’s druids, followed by its high kings, the Hill of Tara is 24km south of Slane. This sacred site is one of the most important in Europe, with prehistoric burial mounds and a Stone Age passage tomb, dating back 5000 years. It’s steeped in Irish folklore and history, and visiting the grounds is free.

Glendalough

Glendalough’s Irish name, Gleann dá Loch, means ‘Valley of the Two Lakes’, and the Upper and Lower lakes at this spot 100km south of Tara – along with wild Wicklow Mountains scenery and a cache of religious relics – are magical. In 498, St Kevin set up here on the site of a Bronze Age tomb and the monastery later established here lasted until the 17th century. The Glendalough Visitor Centre (visitwicklow.ie/item/glendalough-visitor-centre) is a mine of information. Next door, the comfortable Glendalough Hotel, makes a convenient base.

Enniscorthy, County Wexford © Design Pics / The Irish Image Collection / Getty Images

Day 3

Moone

Amid stone ruins 50km west of Glendalough, stop off to see the distinctive Moone High Cross. Dating from the 8th or 9th century, it’s renowned for its intricately carved biblical scenes.

Browne’s Hill Dolmen

Topped by Europe’s largest capstone, weighing over 100 tonnes, the 5000-year-old granite portal dolmen (tomb chamber) Browne’s Hill Dolmen sits about 20km south of Moone and is one of Ireland’s most intriguing prehistoric monuments.

Enniscorthy

A pivotal chapter in Irish history played out at Vinegar Hill, 53km south of Browne’s Hill, during the 1798 rebellion against British rule. Nearby, the National 1798 Rebellion Centre has evocative displays. The rebels used Norman-built Enniscorthy Castle as a prison; it’s now a museum with superb rooftop views.

Wexford town

Named Waesfjord (‘harbour of mudflats’) by the Vikings, who are thought to have landed here around 850, Wexford town is 22km south of Enniscorthy. Traces of the fort built by the Normans, who conquered it in 1169, are still visible in the grounds of the Irish National Heritage Park open-air museum.

Central Whites of Wexford has stylish rooms, restaurants and bars.

Kilkenny’s Cathedral of St Canice © George Munday / Getty Images

Day 4

Jerpoint Abbey

Medieval stone carvings are a highlight of the atmospheric Cistercian ruins of 12th-century-founded Jerpoint Abbey, some 60km northwest of Wexford in idyllic rural surrounds.

Kilkenny

Set on the swirling River Nore with a web of narrow laneways, Kilkenny is a 20km hop north of Jerpoint Abbey, and a contender for Ireland’s most spectacular city. Its ‘medieval mile’ stretches between 12th-century-established Kilkenny Castle and its monumental Cathedral of St Canice, on the site of a 6th-century abbey founded here by St Canice, Kilkenny’s patron saint. Today, it’s a creative hub, with works showcased at the National Craft Gallery.

Dunmore Cave

Glittering stalagmite- and stalactite-filled Dunmore Cave is a quick 10km zip north. History runs deep here: in 928 Vikings slaughtered 1000 people at nearby ring forts, and survivors sheltered here until the Vikings smoked them out. Excavations in 1973 uncovered their remains, along with Viking coins.

Sea and serenity in Oman

In many ways, Muscat (meaning “anchorage”) is all about the sea and fishing remains an important industry. Walk along Mutrah Corniche, from the new fish market to the souq, and it is easy to see how the capital is defined by its busy port, with naval vessels and cruise ships jostling with traditional wooden dhows, fishing boats and flocks of terns for space in the harbour. For the visitor, some of the capital’s best experiences revolve around the sea, such as bathing in the calm waters of the Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa, sampling grilledhamour at award-winning fish restaurant, The Beach, or enjoying a sea-view sundowner at one of the city’s five-star hotels.  For a gull’s eye view of the shore, head to Marina Bandar al Rowdha; boats leave at dawn, escorted by dolphins, for the snorkelling hotspots of Bandar Khayran.

Learn about Oman’s past

Built on the revenues of oil and the benefits of good governance, Oman’s history of rags to riches over the last half-century is nothing short of a miracle. The brand new National Museum in the heart of old Muscat charts the rise of Oman, under the leadership of the country’s highly respected leader, Sultan Qaboos, from a forgotten backwater to the dynamic, modern country that it is today. Pose for a selfie in front of the whimsical Sultan’s Palace or visit nearby Bayt al Zubair, a traditional villa housing a fine collection of Omani crafts, to get a feel for Muscat’s living history.  Or for a more domestic view of the capital’s recent past, spare an hour for a little-known gem, Ghalya Museum of Modern Arton Mutrah Corniche, which offers a glimpse of Muscat life before the present sultan ushered in the Omani Renaissance in 1970.

Finding a shady spot in the corridors approaching the Sultan’s Palace © Jason Jones Travel Photography / Moment / Getty

Dine out – the local way

Anyone with a taste for local flavour will enjoy Muscat’s new trend in promoting Omani cuisine. Until recently, sampling local food was restricted to traditional halwa (a gelatinous sweetmeat) and dates withqahwa (cardamom coffee), served at official functions. At best, it meant trying shuwa (roasted lamb or goat, traditionally cooked for a day in the sand) in pan-Arab restaurants like the delightful Kargeen Cafe. While you can still sit cross-legged on a dubious communal carpet at Bin Ateeq for authentic Omani fare, there is a finer dining experience now to be had at Bait al Luban. Housed in a renovated trader’s house in Mutrah, the menu at this atmospheric new restaurant includes a wide choice of national dishes, including the porridge-like harees.

Shop for gold, frankincense and myrrh

It’s no secret that Peninsula Arabs love shopping and the region is home to some of the world’s most extravagant malls. Muscat may not boast the retail excesses of neighbouring Dubai but what it lacks in brand names it makes up for in character. No visit to Muscat would be complete without getting lost in the labyrinthine Mutrah Souq where Indian traders have been plying their wares for centuries. The alleyways are perfumed with luban (frankincense), grown in the southern province of Oman, and dazzle with the gold of a bride’s dowry. Elsewhere in town, especially around Qurm, look for camel-bone boxes and chocolate-covered dates, carpets from Persia and rugs from Azerbaijan, beads of semi-precious stones and pashminas that fit through a wedding ring. Less easy to find, except in the Omani Heritage Gallery in Qurm, are local crafts such as camel-leather baskets, earthenware pots and goat-hair rugs.

Add an extra day

An excellent road network is one of the many blessings of the Omani Renaissance so with an extra day, it is easy to take a day trip from the capital to explore the legendary ‘interior’. One of the best excursions covers a loop around the Batinah Plain, beginning in the castle town of Nakhal. Visit the fort, watch brilliant-winged Indian rollers dart through the date plantations, and pause by the hot springs.  Continue along the base of the imposing Hajar Mountains to the former capital of Rustaq, crowned by another of Oman’s many forts. Return to Muscat via Sawadi, famed for a beach carpeted in pink top shells and punctuated by islands accessible on foot at low tide.

When to Go

Unless you view travel as an extreme sport, avoid the intensely hot and humid summer (May to September inclusive). Even the locals abandon Muscat at this time as temperatures soar above the bearable.

What to Wear

While you’ll see the odd pair of shorts and a strappy top in the malls and along the beach, Omanis prefer visitors to respect the local culture and cover shoulders and knees.