Monthly Archives: July 2017

Travel far And through the State of 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

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.

Chernivtsi

Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Khotyn

An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.

Kamyanets Podilsky

Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.

Kiev

I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.

Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.

Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator.

No visit to the city is complete without a walk around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the city and the venue for pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years. It’s a place of tragedy as over 100 people were killed by snipers in February 2014. As a result former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today, written in large letters on cladding covering building work, “Freedom is Our Religion”, is a slogan signifying that the struggle is still ongoing.

Chernobyl

Although there’s a small museum dedicated to the nuclear disaster in Kiev, a day trip to Chernobyl is the best way to appreciate the scale of the tragedy. It’s perfectly safe, they say, and it’s around a two hour drive from the city. You pass through a 30km checkpoint before entering a 10km exclusion zone where you’re warned not to touch anything. The reactor now has a new shiny metal shell, but the town of Pripyat, once housing 50,000 workers, is slowly being swallowed by the forest. This is a ghoulish tourist attraction but a grim reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.

Find a great and good Travel Agency

The best way to know about top travel agents is to read up what others have to say about them. Quite often, good travel portals and agents will have a review section on their site itself where their customers can comment about their services. You can read the comments section and interact with fellow and previous travelers to understand the potential of your agent. If you can’t find reviews, you can ask the travel agent to put you in touch with their ex-customers.

Ask for Package Deals

A top travel agent will have a lot of connections in the travel industry and they should be able to find you a good deal no matter where you are headed. If they were to take the normal route of  booking tickets at their face value, then why would you even approach them? Ask them if they can get you some discounts on either flights or your hotel stay. You can also ask for free upgrades and check what works best for you.

Ensure They Stay in Touch till the End of the Trip

A good travel agent will ensure that you have the best trip ever. They will stay in touch with you till you come back from the trip so that they can understand how your trip has been. You should ask about this even before you embark on the trip. This is important because you might face travels in a new city or country and that’s when you would need the help of your agent.

Best Travel Experience in my Life

I try to never lose track of how lucky I am that my work as a travel writer introduces me to extraordinary locations, experiences and people. Never has this been more in focus than during a recent hot air balloon ride over the spectacular ancient temples of Bagan. Without a doubt it stands alone as the most incredible, breathtaking travel experience of my life.

There are over 2200 temples and pagodas on the plains of Bagan, most constructed between the 11th and 13th century, the final markers of what was once a thriving kingdom. The plains of Bagan are home to the largest concentration of religious buildings in the world and, in addition to the religious and spiritual significance, the region holds special meaning for archaeologists, historians, seismologists, architects, linguists and artists.

To say that there’s truly nothing like it in the world would be an understatement. Bagan is the place where travel dreams come true.

The sunrise hot air balloon rides are popular so it’s best to book well in advance, but last minute travellers need not despair as standby tickets are often available at a slightly reduced rate 48 hours before departure.

We (Vanessa was travelling with her husband Ryan Wright) were given strict instructions to be ready for pick up at 5.10am and, true to their word, our bus arrived right on time – no small feat considering the state of some roads and the tardy habits of travellers.

It was a special ride. The Canadian built wooden bus that picked us up was brought over in World War II for the purposes of transporting troops. At the end of the war, the cost of shipping all the buses back to Canada was prohibitive and so they were left behind. Today the fleet has been lovingly restored and they must be some of the most unique buses in the world!

After picking up some additional guests, we made our way to the launch field. The pilots introduced themselves and explained the basics of ballooning. They were warm, friendly and funny and set my nerves at ease.

The pilots divided us into groups to balance out the baskets and gave us complimentary baseball hats. These were souvenirs with a practical purpose, as dust can enter the balloon while it is filling and later drop down on the passengers (we never noticed any falling dust, but we were thrilled to have the souvenirs). It was fascinating to watch the balloons being prepared. From the metres upon metres of rippling silk to the roar of the fire, it was an incredibly intricate process to observe.

A few pointers for all the other anti-adventurist folks out there: There is no graceful way to get into a hot-air balloon basket. There are little grooves for your toes as you climb up the side but essentially you just tip in. Happily, there’s no chance of tipping out! The basket went up to my chest and its walls had very sturdy grips.

There’s also no chance of the basket swaying or shaking in the sky. It’s huge, weighs nearly 500 kilograms and is divided into different compartments to distribute the weight. The basket is also very comfortable – inside each little compartment is a padded bench in case you wanted to sit down and the sides and edges are also padded.

Just before our launch pilot Graeme noticed that a passenger was not well and seemed to be suffering from a panic attack. The decision was made that the man should not fly and the situation was handled with discretion. Then, before I even realised what had happened, we were off the ground. The earth just seemed to drop away from the hot air balloon. I honestly felt nothing when the ropes were released and we started to fly into the sky. Graeme reminded us to relax and release our iron grips (but that didn’t apply to me, I was already in my element!) He then proceeded to point out some of the best sights and photo opportunities, starting with the sunrise. Once the sun was up, the temples and pagodas were even more beautiful. Ranging from magnificent large complexes to tiny, crumbling structures, Graeme was keen to point out some of his personal favourites, as well as those buildings experiencing restoration work. Who knew that bamboo scaffolding could be so beautiful?

One of our most unique experiences was flying over a small pond so we could see our reflection in the water.

Graeme is one of the few pilots who does a 360 degree spin for a full panoramic view. It was spectacular.With the end of our flight approaching, Graeme pointed out some final sites to us, including a small village and farm area. He then reminded us of landing procedures and asked us to hold additional sightseeing questions while he concentrated on the landing. I really appreciated that he was so clear and focused on safety!

Our gentle landing went off without a hitch and we were soon back on solid land. A small group of souvenir sellers were on hand to greet us, but none were pushy. Clean, wet facecloths were handed around so we could refresh and remove dust. A circle of chairs was set up for us to enjoy a light breakfast, consisting of sparkling wine (or lemonade), croissants, banana bread, and sliced fruit (banana and papaya).

Hot air balloon rides are an incredible travel experience and I cannot think of a more exhilarating location to enjoy them than in Bagan. It was the most stunning travel experience of my life.

 

What can we do When Being in Turin, Italy

With direct flights from the UK, taking around two hours, Turin is a convenient destination for a long weekend. Originally laid out by the Romans, the streets still follow the same grid pattern, and the centre is compact enough to explore on foot.

This was a Royal city, first the capital of the Kingdom of Savoy and then, briefly Italy’s first capital, before becoming an industrial powerhouse in the 20th century. These days the factories are silent and the pedestrianised centre is full of museums, galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Grand Cafes

Showing the influence of Hapsburg Empire, the city is endowed with ornate historical cafés similar to those in Vienna. Their interiors are a riot of gilded upholstery, chandeliers, wooden panels and long mirrors. Ava Gardener and James Stewart were regulars at the Café Torinoand Baratti & Milano is famous for its thick hot chocolate. Café Mulassano invented the Tramezzino in 1926, the Italian take on a crustless triangular sandwich and they still serve around 40 varieties at around 4€ each.

Ice Cream Parlours

Gelateria Pepino was founded in 1884 by an ice cream maker from Naples but the present shop dates from 1929. The grandfather of the present owner, Edoardo Cavagnino, came up with the idea of putting gelato on a stick in 1935 but it was sloppy and difficult to eat. He solved the problem by coating it with chocolate to keep it cool and the first Pinguino or Penguin went on sale in 1939. It originally sold for one Italian Lira, the price of a cinema ticket, and claims to be the world’s first choc ice. Of course it was a tremendous success and they are still making it today in five different flavours.

Markets

If you really want to get an idea of the quality of the region’s produce, then you won’t be disappointed at the Porta Palazzo Market, located in Piazza della Repubblica. With over 800 stalls, it’s one of the largest open air markets in Europe and is open Monday to Saturday. There are also three market halls dedicated to fish, meat, cheese and bread and a farmers’ market with around 100 stalls selling fresh produce.

Car Museum

Nearby is the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile with over 200 vehicles from Italy and the rest of the world on display. The museum dates from 1932 but was extensively refurbished in 2011 and is imaginatively laid out on three floors, using sound and light to enhance the experience. It’s a journey through the history of the automobile, from the earliest models to cars of the future. Don’t miss the 1892 Peugeot and a 1980 Ferrari 308. There are also sections dealing with car design and environmental issues.

Palazzo Reale

The elegant 17th century facade of the Palazzo Reale and the splendour of its numerous, richly furnished rooms, reflect luxurious life at court and centuries of history of the House of Savoy. Don’t miss the Armeria Reale, the Royal Armoury, with a long gallery of armoured knights sitting on full sized stuffed horses, including King Carlo Alberto’s favourite animal. Adjoining the Reale is the chapel where the Shroud is kept, but it was closed for repairs when I visited.